Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Release The Hounds.

Among the many things that have made the Royals’ long and almost uninterrupted stretch of futility even more exasperating is that it has occurred under the watch of so many different people. Since 1995, when the Royals began their stretch of 13 losing seasons in 14 years (soon to be 14 in 15), the Royals have operated under three different general managers; five different full-time managers; and more hitting and (especially) pitching coaches than I can count. Heck, they’ve even had two owners in that stretch, if you count the leaderless Kauffman Trust as an “owner”.

The losing might be more understandable if it happened on the watch of a single, woefully incompetent front office, like the Detroit Lions under Matt Millen. It’s more mystifying, and harder to accept, when the losing transcends administrations. The stench of the Royals is so overpowering that it immediately infects whoever is so unfortunate to get hired to work at the Truman Sports Complex.

But what if I told you that there is, in fact, one person who has been with the Royals for the last 15 years? What if I told you that he occupied a position of considerable importance; that by all appearances he was as bad at his job as anyone in the organization; and that, despite this, he enjoys unparalleled job security? Wouldn’t that trouble you a little?

It certainly troubles me. It especially troubles me that, even though this person is having probably their worst year ever in 2009, no one – not the team, not the media, not even the fans – seems to be pointing fingers in his direction.

So let me be the one to crash the party here and say what needs to be said: Nick Swartz needs to be fired. Immediately.

I have long hesitated to wade into a discussion about the team’s medical staff, because as a physician myself I’m paranoid that someone might use my credentials inappropriately in this discussion. So let me be clear: in advocating for Swartz’s dismissal, I am not speaking as some sort of expert witness. I do not have access to any of the players’ medical records, and am not basing my opinion on some sort of medical expertise. I am arguing as a fan, and using the evidence that is available to all fans – the results on the field.

Swartz has been the Head Athletic Trainer for the Royals since 1991, replacing a legend in Mickey Cobb. Despite the fact that he has been the team’s trainer for nearly two decades, Swartz is in no danger of becoming a legend himself. Far from it: his reputation around baseball is not stellar. Over at Baseball Prospectus, our injury guru Will Carroll created the Dick Martin Award in 2003 to honor the best training staff in the majors each season. In the six seasons that he’s been handing out the award, the Royals have been conspicuous in their absence from even consideration for the award.

If there was an award for worst training staff in the majors, the Royals would be the runaway leaders at this point in the season. Let’s document some of the medical decisions that have been made:

1) While warming up in the bullpen as Zack Greinke finished off a shutout in Texas on April 18th, Joakim Soria felt a twinge in his shoulder. The Royals decided to keep things quiet, even though Soria did not pitch in a game where he was obviously needed on April 19th. Soria would wobble through a save situation on April 22nd, after which Trey Hillman finally came clean and admitted that Soria was hurting. The Royals shut him down for a few days but did not put him on the DL, and he was back in action on May 2nd – and pitched again the very next day. When he took the mound again on May 7th, Soria suffered through his worst outing of the season – and then finally went on the DL, and did not return until June 3rd.

2) Mike Aviles, after hitting .325 as a rookie last year, hits just .194 with one homer in his first 32 games this season, before finally coming clean on May 14th and admitting that his forearm was bothering him. Instead of putting him on the DL, the Royals give him a few days off, then put him back in the lineup on May 20th. Aviles goes 1-for-12 over the next four days, then finally goes on the DL, and his injury turned out to be serious enough that he eventually was evaluated by Tommy John surgery guru Dr. Lewis Yocum. While he hasn’t undergone surgery – yet – his return is still unclear.

And, of course, the coup de grace:

3) Coco Crisp got off to a great start for the Royals, and as late as May 20th was hitting .245/.360/.429. On May 21st Crisp sat out with a sore shoulder, which was the first sign that he had any kind of an injury. The Royals downplayed the seriousness of it. “His shoulder is tender. Occasionally it’s going to get that way,” Hillman said.

Crisp was back in the lineup the next day, and played in five consecutive games, but was just 2-for-16 in that span. On May 26th Crisp was pulled from the game after four innings after he had difficulty swinging the bat from the left side. At that point we learned that Crisp’s shoulder problem was not a new one. “Although Crisp has been bothered by a sore shoulder periodically since Spring Training, he’d played in 44 of the Royals’ 46 games.” Hillman also let us know that the soreness worsened in late April. “It got a little worse three weeks to a month into the season,” Hillman said. “There was some soreness, but not as much as there has been recently.” Through April 25th, Crisp was hitting .262/.384/.525. From that point until May 26th, he hit just .216/.329/.324.

Crisp was kept out of the lineup for the next four days, and then went on the bereavement list for three more when his great-grandmother passed away. He returned on June 4th and went straight back into the lineup. He was 0-for-7 over the next two days, then once again was rested for three days – two games along with an off-day. He returned to the lineup on June 9th, then sat on the 10th because the Royals didn’t feel he was 100% batting left-handed. Even at this point, the Royals were downplaying his injury:

“I think there's still some discomfort in there [batting] left-handed so I thought it’d be a good opportunity to move Willie [Bloomquist] around and get T.J. [Tony Pena Jr.] back in the middle of the diamond and see how we roll there,” Hillman said…

Hillman said that holding out Crisp did not indicate more problems with the shoulder.

“No setbacks,” he said.

Crisp was back in the lineup the next day. The day after that, June 12th, Crisp was pinch-hit for by Mitch Maier in the bottom of the seventh. He did not play the following day. On the 14th, he was finally put on the DL.

“We've tried it three [days], we’ve tried it four, we've tried it six and it wasn’t enough rest to let the irritation and the inflammation settle down in that right shoulder,” Hillman said. “Through compensating for it and trying to fight through it, we’ve got to give it the rest that it needs.”

On June 19th, Crisp headed to see Dr. James Andrews after the team feared that what they thought was a strained rotator cuff was in fact a torn labrum. “I don’t know what it is yet,” general manager Dayton Moore cautioned. “We’re going to get a second opinion, but he’s been battling this for about five weeks now. He tried to play through it before we made the decision to put him on the disabled list.

Yesterday, Andrews confirmed the worst; Crisp underwent surgery today and is out for the year. He may not even be ready for the start of next season - it is quite possible that his time in a Royals uniform is over.

I don’t know about you, but to me, the handling of Coco Crisp’s shoulder injury is by itself a fireable offense. Crisp was playing – terribly, mind you – with a bum shoulder FOR FIVE WEEKS, and even after his shoulder pain became severe enough that he could no longer play, the Royals kept shuffling him in and out of the lineup for three weeks, putting him back out there as soon as the pain became tolerable again.

But the pain didn’t go away. It only got worse, and presumably his shoulder only got worse. The question that no one can answer is whether, five weeks ago, Crisp already had a torn labrum, or whether the injury occurred while trying to play through the inflammation. We can’t answer it, but we sure as hell can speculate. As far as I’m concerned, the Royals’ ham-fisted approach to Coco Crisp’s shoulder turned an injury which might have healed with a few weeks of rest into a season-ender.

The ham-fisted approach to Soria’s shoulder turned a quick 15-day DL stint into a six-week drama. We don’t know the nature of Aviles’ prognosis yet, but the fact that the Royals commandeered him into playing again even after he came clean with the injury certainly could not have helped.

This is a trend, people. When the Royals downplay the extent of an injury, then give the player a few days off before sticking him back out there, and only later realize the injury was worse than expected THREE TIMES in the span of less than three months, this is not bad luck. This is incompetence, plain and simple. And while Hillman and Moore are the ones quoted above, they’re making those decisions based on the medical information they’ve been given. And the point man for all that information is Nick Swartz.

Oh, and I didn’t even mention the decision to let Gil Meche pitch through his back injury. Meche has been amazingly durable since joining the Royals; he tied for the league lead with 34 starts in both 2007 and 2008, and leads the league outright this year with 15 so far. But the fact is that on April 28th, Meche gave up five runs before coming out of the game in the fourth inning with back stiffness. Despite this, Meche did not miss a start, and over his next five starts he threw just 24.1 innings and allowed 19 runs. Meche, at least, didn’t seem to aggravate his back problems by continuing to pitch every fifth day, but neither was he helping his team out.

It’s not like 2009 is such an outlier either – it seems like every year some Royals player has an injury that lingers beyond any reasonable timeframe, or an injury that we’re told for weeks is minor turns out to be season-ending.

The first time I heard concerns voiced about Nick Swartz was back in 2004, so that season I decided to monitor the team’s injury status carefully. Sure enough, Benito Santiago was hit by a pitch on June 18th and broke a bone in his hand; the original report was that he would be out 6-8 weeks. Now understand, broken bones are about the most predictable injury there is. The bone needs a certain amount of time to heal, and generally that’s all it takes – the timeframe is pretty stable. On August 3rd, Swartz was quoted as saying that Santiago should start swinging a bat by the end of the week. Instead, Santiago was done for the year. A 6-8 week injury took well over 3 months to heal.

(I must pause here to give a shout-out to Rotowire, whose excellent and completely archived list of daily player updates made much of this column possible.)

That’s a clear-cut case; there are a lot more injuries that have circumstantial evidence attached to them. Mike Sweeney signed a five-year contract after the 2002 season and then missed at least 40 games in each of them, but I think what bothered Royals fans the most was that when he was injured, he always seemed to be a week away from returning. Then that week would pass and he was still another week away; a two-week DL stint would turn into two months. By the end Sweeney earned the reputation of being a malingerer, but I wonder how much of that blame can be placed at the feet of the training staff.

Jeremy Affeldt’s blister problems came and went for the better part of two seasons – coming at a time when Affeldt looked like he could become a frontline starter if he could stay healthy – to the point where I started emailing Bob Dutton in frustration with medical advice that I hoped he would forward onto the team. (I know I said I wouldn’t bring my medical background into this, but this particular problem was right up a dermatologist’s alley.) It got to the point where I committed a terrible breach of journalistic ethics by approaching Affeldt in the Royals clubhouse in Chicago in late 2003 and introducing myself as a doctor who was writing about blister injuries in pitchers. My plan was to gently suggest the proper approach to his problem – something called a partial nail avulsion – but fortunately, by this point the Royals had finally figured out the solution on their own and Affeldt told me he was scheduled to have the surgery after the season. (To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t had a blister since.)

But by far, the most egregious lapse in medical judgment by the Royals during Swartz’ time with the team, worse even than their mistakes with Crisp, is how they destroyed Jose Rosado’s arm. I can’t blame Swartz for what happened to Rosado in 1999, when he threw 120+ pitches seven times in the span of eight starts. But the following season, Rosado struggled in his first four starts and was noticeably laboring. He finally complained of a tired arm, and the Royals skipped his turn in the rotation one time. But they elected not to get an MRI, and on April 30th Rosado returned to the mound one more time. He gutted through 5.2 innings and even got the win, but afterwards his arm wasn’t tired; it was dead. Only then did the Royals get the MRI, and all you need to know about the results was that Rosado never pitched in the majors again. Rosado is probably the best left-handed starter the Royals have developed in the last 25 years – and his career was over at age 25.

You might be asking yourselves why I’m bringing up an injury that occurred nearly a decade ago. What does an injury that occurred in 2000 have to do with the Royals in 2009?

Nothing, if you’re Dayton Moore, or Trey Hillman, or Bob McClure, or anyone else that wasn’t a part of the organization nine years ago. The thread that connects Jose Rosado’s shoulder to Coco Crisp’s is a thin one…and it’s got Nick Swartz’s name all over it.

I’m not na├»ve enough to think that all of the Royals’ injury woes are the fault of Swartz, or that after firing him the team’s DL will magically empty. I’m sure that you can find some reason to absolve Swartz for every individual incident I’ve mentioned above. Maybe he gave good advice and it was ignored by the team. Maybe a player wouldn’t come clean with an injury. Maybe he did everything right and some unforeseen and unforeseeable circumstance destroyed his best-laid plans as a trainer.

If a batter goes 1-for-10, it doesn’t mean he’s a bad hitter. If he goes 10-for-100, it’s time to find a replacement. Swartz is like the batter who goes 50-for-500. The sample size is just too large. There are too many injuries that take longer than expected to heal. There are too many rehab snafus that deprive the Royals of their starting centerfielder, or destroy the career of a 25-year-old southpaw. There’s simply no way to wave off his track record as a stretch of bad luck, or to blame it on someone else. There isn’t anyone else.

Besides, the burden of proof shouldn’t be on me to prove that Swartz deserves to go; it should be on Swartz and the Royals to prove he should stay. Swartz has been the trainer for the Royals FOR NINETEEN SEASONS, the last 15 of which represent one of the worst 15-year stretches by a baseball team in major league history. EVERY SINGLE person involved with baseball operations has been replaced in that span – why should Swartz be the exception? This isn’t a court of law, it’s a sports team – when you’ve been involved with a team that’s this bad for so long, frankly, you’re guilty until proven innocent.

I doubt that Moore is going to do anything rash in mid-season; it’s not his style, as we saw with Mike Barnett last season. And my brain says that the best time to make a move is in the off-season, when the Royals can overhaul their training staff with full deliberation and due diligence. But after what’s happened to Crisp, my heart wants to see blood.

The trendy rumor du jour for the Royals is that they’ve been decimated by injuries. News flash, guys: if what’s holding you back are all the injuries, then maybe the solution is to axe the guy who’s responsible for preventing them. Nick Swartz has been that guy for far too long. It’s time to sharpen the knife.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Worst. Five Game Stretch. Ever.

It just keeps getting darker.

Maybe Disgruntled Reds Fan Caller was right. After bashing Cincinnati in three straight, and after Gil Meche threw a brilliant shutout (along with 132 pitches in sultry conditions) against Arizona on Tuesday night, the Royals looked like they were once again using NL competition as a springboard that would rebound their record towards .500.

Then they lost, 12-5, on Wednesday. Then again, 12-5, on Thursday. Then 10-5 on Friday; 7-1 on Saturday; and 12-5 yet again today.

The standard nomenclature in baseball deems a “blowout” to be a game decided by five runs or more. By that standard, the Royals have been blown out in five consecutive games.

These being the Royals, of course, you’d expect that this has happened to them before in the recent past. You would be wrong. The Royals had never lost five consecutive games by five or more runs. Hell, the Kansas City Athletics never did so.

The Royals are just the ninth team in the Retrosheet era – since 1954 – to lose five consecutive blowouts. With many thanks, as always, to the great Bil Burke at Baseball Prospectus, here’s the Hall of Shame:

Year Tm Dates Scores

1956 WAS 6/12-17 3-9, 4-13, 2-7, 0-7, 2-20

1957 WAS 5/02-06 1-6, 6-11, 2-8, 2-7, 2-8

1981 CHN 5/13-19* 3-8, 1-6, 0-5, 1-6, 1-6, 0-5

1983 STL 6/24-28 2-8, 3-10, 0-5, 1-6, 1-10

1994 FLA 6/18-24 3-11, 1-6, 2-7, 3-9, 0-9

1996 DET 5/16-21 3-8, 6-11, 4-16, 3-14, 1-7

2000 DET 4/18-24* 0-7, 0-10, 2-7, 6-14, 4-9, 4-10

2002 FLA 7/13–17 2-9, 3-10, 3-8, 5-10, 0-10

2009 KC 6/17–21 5-12, 5-12, 5-10, 1-7, 5-12

*: 6-game streak

Amazingly, three of these teams – the 1983 Cardinals, the 2000 Tigers, and 2002 Marlins – all finished the year a respectable 79-83. Then again, the 1996 Tigers lost 109 games, and the 1981 Cubs went 38-65 in the strike-shortened year (they started the year 5-27.) The Senators were 59-95 and 55-99 in 1956-57. I think it’s a nice touch that two teams on this list (the 1956 Senators and 1996 Tigers) played an extra-inning game during their streak. Think about it.

And just one other team – the 1983 Cardinals – managed to lose five consecutive blowouts while playing all five games at home. The Royals won’t get the chance to make it six straight at home, but they do have a chance to tie the overall record with six straight blowout losses on Tuesday in Houston.

Way to go, boys. In six weeks, you’ve gone from leading the division by three games to plumbing depths of incompetence that none of your famous forebears ever managed to reach. If this is progress, I’m the King of England.