Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Breaking Point.


Oh, how I long for the halcyon days when Nick Swartz was my greatest concern.


When the Royals were mad at me instead of the other way around.


Look, I could count all the stars in the sky and all the fish in the sea, and I still don’t think I will have calmed down. Sorry, mom. I actually finished writing this last night at midnight, but decided to sleep on it and read through it again in the morning. I’m afraid the sleep didn’t do me any good.

Eight years ago this July, the day the Royals traded Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez, I came on Kevin Kietzman’s show and the first words out of my mouth were, “I have never been more embarrassed to be a Royals fan than I am right now.”

I wouldn’t say I feel as embarrassed at this very moment as I did that day. But in every other way, this moment is perhaps the lowest point I have ever reached as a Royals fan. I have never been more disheartened than I am right now. I have never been more disillusioned as than I am right now. I have never been more angry than I am right now.

It's almost like the Royals are openly mocking me. I might have been the one analyst in the world who was curious to see what Jeff Francoeur would look like in a Royals uniform, but on the day that Francoeur was traded – to the Mets for Ryan Church in a my-garbage-for-your-trash deal – the Royals found a way to trade for one of the few starting players in baseball who is worse than Francoeur is. According to Fangraphs, only eight players with at least 200 plate appearances have a lower Wins Above Replacement rating than Francoeur's -0.6 (yes, negative). One of those, naturally, is Yuniesky Betancourt.

Betancourt, in fact, ranks fourth-worst, ahead of only Brian Giles (whose career is, if not dead, then cryogenically frozen), the overmatched Emmanuel Burriss…and – I have to laugh – Jose Guillen.

For the privilege of acquiring one of the worst everyday players in the major leagues – and a contract that runs at least through 2011 – the Royals surrendered one of their top prospects in Danny Cortes, and an intriguing if low-upside arm in Derrick Saito.

There are some trades that look lopsided at first glance, but then you look at it from different angles, you start talking to people inside the game, and you start to think, okay, it’s a bad deal, but I can understand the team’s rationale. This is not one of those trades. This is a trade that makes you more and more dumbfounded the more you contemplate it. It’s like a defective Magic Eye poster.

Yuniesky Betancourt is a terrible baseball player. He hits for a decent average, yes. That sums up his baseball skills. He doesn’t hit for much power – he has never reached double digits in home runs. He doesn’t have much speed – he has 24 stolen bases in 44 attempts in his career. His plate discipline is positive Olivo-esque – his career high in walks is 17. And he plays terrible defense – according to Ultimate Zone Rating, he ranks dead last among all major league shortstops, an evaluation shared by essentially every advanced fielding metric.

Oh, and he’s 27 years old – the age when most players peak – only he’s actually had the worst year of his career so far, hitting just .250/.278/.330 and putting up the worst defensive numbers of his career.

Betancourt should not be starting at shortstop for any team in the major leagues. It’s questionable whether he should be a backup player in the majors. If Betancourt had been released by the Mariners (and there’s a possibility they might have done that this off-season), it would have been a tough call as to whether the Royals should have even signed him for the major league minimum.

The Royals will not be paying Betancourt the league minimum. While the Mariners have kicked in about $3 million over the remainder of his contract, Betancourt is due about $1 million the rest of this season, $3 million in 2010, $4 million in 2011, and a $2 million buyout in 2012 (unless they’d like to pick up his $6 million option). The Royals are on the hook for $7 million guaranteed to Betancourt over the next two-and-a-half seasons.

Oh, but it gets better. Cortes, who was the surprise breakout prospect acquired in the Mike MacDougal deal, entered the season ranked by Baseball America as the Royals’ #3 prospect overall. He has struggled this season, primarily with his command – he has walked 50 batters in 80 innings, with only 57 strikeouts, in a repeat performance in Double-A. On the other hand, he has allowed just three homers, and actually has a respectable 3.92 ERA. More importantly, he’s still just 22 years old – he’s four months younger than Aaron Crow. He might not have been the Royals’ #3 prospect anymore, but he still had a promising future, if not as a starter than certainly as a power reliever.

Saito was a minor steal out of the 16th round last season; the Royals signed him to a six-figure bonus because despite standing just 5’9”, he threw in the low 90s with a funky arm angle. In 52 innings for Burlington, he had 53 strikeouts against just 15 walks, and lefties were hitting .196 against him. He has LOOGY possibilities if nothing else.

So, to recap: the Royals traded for one of the worst starting players in baseball; they agree to pick up most of his incredibly over-priced contract that runs for at least two more full seasons; they surrendered a very good prospect and another decent arm for the privilege.

I promised last time that I would try not to make my criticisms personal, so I’m not going to say that Dayton Moore is a moron, a pinhead, or an intellectual cripple. I have no doubt that Dayton Moore is a very smart man. So what I will say instead is that yesterday, a very smart man made one of the dumbest moves in the history of the Kansas City Royals. And that’s saying something.

The Royals will defend this move by saying that they had a huge hole to fill at shortstop. To which I would reply, yes, you had a huge hole at shortstop, and guess what? You still have a huge hole at shortstop.

Seventeen years ago the Royals protected David Howard in the expansion draft over Jeff Conine because, in their words, without him they wouldn’t have a shortstop. Well, Howard would go on to prove that even with him they didn’t have a shortstop.

Eight years ago, when the Royals traded for Neifi Perez, they argued that with Rey Sanchez about to leave for free agency – Sanchez had already refused the Royals’ offer of a long-term deal, which turned out to be a really dumb idea on his part – they risked being left without a shortstop. Well, the Royals spent the next season-and-a-half playing Neifi Perez, but they still didn’t have a shortstop.

And today, the Royals traded prospects in order to acquire a major-league shortstop. Well, yes, technically Betancourt is a major-league shortstop – he is stationed on that part of the field where the shortstop usually stands, and he does play in the major leagues. But in terms of whether he ought to be a major-league shortstop, he’s no more a major-league shortstop than any of a dozen guys subsisting on clubhouse cold cuts and Taco Bell in Triple-A.

You would think that the Royals, of all teams, would know enough to stay away from Betancourt, because it wasn’t that long ago that they gave a long-term contract to his doppelganger and suffered the consequences. That’s right: Yuniesky Betancourt is the Cuban Angel Berroa.

Betancourt is 27 years old, the same age that Berroa was in 2005, when it was already clear that his long-term contract was a huge mistake. Compare Betancourt’s career numbers to Berroa’s career numbers through 2005. Betancourt had a slightly higher career average (.279 to .272). But Berroa had more power – he had reached double digits in homers twice, while Betancourt’s career high is nine, and Berroa had the higher career slugging average (.399 to .393). Berroa also had the higher OBP (.317 to .302), because – as hard as it is to believe – he was by far the more patient of the two. Berroa drew 29 walks his rookie season, and even in 2005 he drew 18 walks – Betancourt, playing in over 150 games each year from 2006 to 2008, never drew more than 17 walks. Berroa had speed early in his career, stealing 21 bases as a rooke, while Betancourt has never had more than 11 steals in a season.

(You don’t think that it’s fair to compare Betancourt to Berroa? Fine, let’s try another comparison. Betancourt’s career numbers: .279/.302/.393. Neifi Perez’s career numbers through age 27: .279/.311/.405. We can do this all day, people.)

Betancourt and Berroa share another similarity, in that they both came into the league with very strong defensive reputations, but after their rookie seasons they started to put on weight and lost lateral mobility, and their defensive numbers went south along with the scouting reports.

I’m not prepared to argue definitively as to whether Betancourt today is a better player than Angel Berroa was in 2005. I don’t have to – all that matters is that I’m actually debating whether Betancourt is a better player than Angel Berroa was. If the Royals could have found a team willing to take Berroa’s contract – which, like Betancourt’s, ran for two more seasons – they would have jumped at it, prospects be damned. But four years later, Dayton Moore is so eager to reprise the Angel Berroa era that he gave up real talent to do so.

The biggest difference between Betancourt and Berroa, frankly, is that while Berroa (to his credit) maintained a positive disposition to the end, Betancourt was benched just a month ago for lack of hustle. Look at these quotes:

Betancourt, who has had meetings with his manager and coaches all season, insists he's doing nothing different now than ever.

“I’ve been doing the same routine for years,” Betancourt said. “I can’t control the lineup. I’m doing whatever I’ve done in the past.”

That, of course, may well be the issue. Betancourt has never been a hard worker, and the past four days have not served him well.

and my favorite:

Monday, when 12 position players showed up for early batting practice, Betancourt was not among them.

“I was asleep on the plane when they announced that,” Betancourt said.

The guy can’t hit, he can’t field, his performance has been going backwards for the past two years – and it turns out that he can’t be bothered to get better. Just remember that in case anyone brings up the fact that Dan Cortes was arrested for drunken disorderliness in Arkansas last week.

(Maybe part of the rationale for this trade is that the Royals are trying to send a message to their minor league players: don’t embarrass the organization. That’s the front office’s job.)

I suppose this day was inevitable, ever since we learned that early in his tenure, Moore offered the Mariners Billy Butler for Betancourt straight up. Mariners GM Bill Bavasi, bless his heart, turned the trade down. Today Moore defended the trade with this quote:

“Two years ago,” Moore said, “it looked like (Betancourt) was going to be a star. He was regarded as one of the up-and-coming great shortstops in the game. He just hasn’t reached that potential yet.”

No offense, Dayton, but outside of Seattle and Kansas City, exactly who regarded him as one of the up-and-coming great shortstops in the game? He had a .308 OBP and walked 15 times all season. And did it ever occur to you that the reason “he just hasn’t reached that potential yet” is precisely because he doesn’t know the strike zone from The Twilight Zone?

(Mind you, Dayton sounds like a genius compared to Trey Hillman: “This is an upgrade for us,” Royals manager Trey Hillman said of Betancourt. “I like it because it gives us a good shortstop with decent offensive stats.”)

Unfortunately for the Royals, last year Bavasi was fired – and remember, this was the same genius who, before the axe fell, cited the departure of Jose Guillen as one of his biggest regrets – and the Mariners hired the talented Jack Zduriencik as their new GM. Zduriencik had been the scouting director for the Milwaukee Brewers, but unlike certain scout-oriented GMs he quickly proved that he was not intimidated by statistical analysis. He created a Department of Statistical Research and hired his former assistant Tony Blengino to run it. The Mariners also hired the brilliant Tom Tango as a consultant.

This winter, the Mariners and Royals were both looking for first basemen. The Mariners decided to gamble on a player who, despite a .485 career slugging average and being a perennial stathead favorite, had never batted even 450 times in a season and had gone over 300 plate appearances just twice. They signed Russ Branyan to a $1.4 million contract, and Branyan currently is hitting .284/.383/.575 and ranks second in the league with 21 homers despite playing in one of the AL’s best pitchers’ parks. The Royals, despite having one of the best first base prospects in baseball in Kila Ka’aihue, instead sacrificed a quality reliever in Leo Nunez for the opportunity to pay Mike Jacobs over $3 million. Jacobs had a career .498 slugging average, but his plate discipline was terrible and he was coming off his best season at age 27 – a strong statistical sign that he was likely to fall back. You may recall that the stats community hated the trade. He’s hitting .218/.294/.401.

And now, even though Betancourt’s stock has dropped so steeply over the last two years that he’s now eligible for TARP funds, the Mariners were able to get out from most of that contract and grab some nice arms to boot – because the Royals were willing to serve as their victim.

But hey, at least the players are happy. Because if there’s one set of people who really know how to build a winning team, it’s the players. “For two minor-league pitchers?” said outfielder José Guillen, who spent 2007 with the Mariners. “Are you serious? How weird is that? I’m totally surprised. That’s all I can tell you. I’m shocked. That kid is pretty darn good.” Of course Guillen’s going to love this trade. Dan Cortes could turn into the second coming of Roger Clemens in 2012, and Guillen’s not going to care – he won’t be a Royal in 2012, so why should he care if the team mortgages their future for a few meaningless wins today?

(You want to know who's probably not happy? Kevin Seitzer. Once again the Royals have given him an impossible reclamation project. It's like that old Life commercial. "Give it to Kevin. He'll fix anything!" I set the over/under on when Seitzer gets scapegoated at about four months.)

This is the difference between an organization that understands that there is value in listening to both sides of the stats-vs-scouts debate, and one that doesn’t. No one would ever accuse Zduriencik of not knowing the value of good scouting – he drafted Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Matt LaPorta, and Mat Gamel while with the Brewers – but he has complemented his ability to evaluate what a player may be worth in the future with input from people who can properly evaluate was a player is worth today.

Dayton Moore, on the other hand, doesn’t give a damn about all that. He and his manager talk about the importance of plate discipline – remember Hillman’s quote that “OBP is a no-brainer”? – even while every significant player acquired since Moore was hired, from Jose Guillen to Jacobs to Alberto Callaspo to Miguel Olivo to Coco Crisp to Betancourt, has had plate discipline that ranged from below-average to poor to dear-God-I-can’t-believe-he-swung-at-that.

In the abstract, this trade doesn’t cripple the franchise. Betancourt will be no better, but no worse, than the dreck the Royals have been putting at shortstop for the last 10 years. (Remember, as good as Mike Aviles was last year, Tony Pena was so bad that the overall numbers at SS were still below average.) Losing Cortes hurts, and Saito may turn into a useful reliever, but the Royals can recover from this.

But in practice, I think that years from now we will look at the Betancourt trade the way we look at the Neifi Perez trade. Just as the trade for Perez signaled the death knell for the Allard Baird era – even though it would take years for the Royals to finally put the era out of its misery and make a change at the top – I think that the trade for Betancourt signals the point at which Dayton Moore’s tenure as GM becomes untenable. It will probably be at least a few years before the Glass family sends Moore packing, but I no longer have any expectation that the Royals will ever win anything under the current administration.

If you’ve been a long-time reader of this blog, you’ve probably heard me talk about “signature significance” a lot, the notion that sometimes things can happen in a small sample size that are so extraordinary that you learn a lot about the quality of a player from that small sample. The example I use a lot is the pitcher with the 15-strikeout game; it’s just one game, and the pitcher might not even win the game, but the performance is so extraordinary that it’s almost impossible that a mediocre pitcher could duplicate it.

The Betancourt trade reaches the level of signature significance in my eyes, but in reverse. It’s just one trade, and if Cortes doesn’t pan out it’s possible that the only thing this trade will cost the Royals is some money and some opportunity. But this trade is so utterly indefensible, and the thought process that led to this trade is so utterly diseased, that I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this one trade is prima facie evidence that Dayton Moore can not be a successful GM.

In today’s game, you simply can’t be successful as a general manager if you ignore half the information that’s available to you. A GM that fired all of his scouts and relied on an army of MIT grads to evaluate his players would be mocked – and rightfully so – as someone leading his team down the fast track to hell. I see no reason why a GM that ignores every shred of statistical evidence when making baseball decisions shouldn’t be treated in a similar fashion.

And make no mistake: this trade closes the argument that the Royals have even a superficial understanding of statistics. The Royals don’t understand the first rule of offensive statistics: that the most important offensive skill is the ability to reach base. They don’t pay any attention to defensive statistics, even though the sabermetric community has made huge strides in the evaluation of defense over the last 5-10 years: the Royals still persist in the delusion that Betancourt is a fine defensive player, even though the numbers (and a growing segment of scouts) agree that he is a liability in the field.

The Royals don’t understand statistics as they apply to the economics of baseball – if they did, they would have understood that Betancourt’s contract was so onerous that he actually had negative value to the Mariners – Seattle should have been the one kicking in prospects in order for the Royals to take the contract, much as Dayton Moore once got the Dodgers to do when he took on Odalis Perez’s contract. They don’t understand the concept of replacement level: they made this trade in part out of desperation for a shortstop, not understanding that Betancourt’s performance is so bad that they could call up a team at random, offer to send them a PTBNL for that team’s starting shortstop in Triple-A, and do nearly as well. They don’t understand how a player’s age impacts his performance, because they think that Betancourt still has room to improve, even though he’s 27 years old and at the age where most players have peaked.

And finally, the Royals have no appreciation for their place in the success cycle. What bothers me the most about the trade is this: why now? The Mariners were sick to death of Betancourt, and his value was only going to go down as he crawled deeper into their doghouse. Why did a team that’s 11 games under .500 and 9.5 games out of first place feel compelled to sacrifice future talent for a stopgap?

I wasn’t a Willie Bloomquist fan by any stretch of the imagination before the season began, but he’s won me over. He’s not a terrific defensive shortstop, but he’s not terrible, and he’s hitting .285/.335/.393. I don’t understand why you couldn’t finish out the season with him at shortstop, all the while exploring low-level trade options for a underappreciated gloveman in Triple-A. I guess it’s okay to be a terrible hitter and a decent fielder, like Tony Pena was in 2007, but if you’re a decent hitter and a below-average but acceptable fielder, like Bloomquist is, that necessitates a panic move.

In short, the Royals don’t seem to understand all the different ways that statistics can be used to enhance the information that they are getting from a scout’s perspective. And worse than that, they don’t seem to care. They seem to be more concerned about quashing leaks and keeping a tight rein on information flowing out of the organization than they are concerned about the flow of information into the organization. They seem to be perfectly satisfied that their 20th-century model for building a franchise doesn’t need a 21st-century upgrade.

I wrote last time that so long as this administration kept pumping money and resources into player development, they’d eventually turn things around no matter what decisions they make at the major league level. I stand corrected. Dan Cortes was a tremendous scouting find, a seventh-round pick the year before that the Royals got the White Sox to throw into the MacDougal trade, and almost immediately after the trade he added 5 mph to his fastball. Saito’s development from late-round pick to fringe prospect was the result of a nice combination of scouting, a willingness to overlook his height, and the willingness to shell out a six-figure bonus to a 16th-rounder. But if this is how the Royals plan to utilize their scouting acumen – by cashing those players in for someone who actually has negative value – then they might as well go back to the days of drafting college seniors in the fifth round and offering them $1000, take it or leave it.

Dayton Moore is a fine judge of prospects. But – this is critical – someone needs to tell him that Yuniesky Betancourt IS NOT A PROSPECT ANYMORE. He’s not a 21-year-old kid that can be judged solely on his tools. He’s a 27-year-old with a long track record in the major leagues. At his age, that track record is at least as important as his skill set when it comes to projecting his future. You can’t judge established major leaguers the way you do prospects, and every time Moore has acquired an established major league hitter on the basis of his tools, he has been burned. Every. Single. Time.

And frankly, I’m not sure if I can take it any more. I’ve been a die-hard fan for 20 years now, and I’m not closer to seeing my allegiance rewarded today than I was 20 years ago. I’ll continue to blog and host my radio show through the end of the season, and – because I bought my plane tickets and non-refundable hotel reservations on Thursday – I’m still planning to be at the ballpark next weekend. (Exact details to follow, but if you’re interested in watching a ballgame with me, plan to be at Kauffman Stadium at 5 o’clock sharp next Saturday, July 18th. We’ll all buy tickets together. B.Y.O.P.B. (Bring Your Own Paper Bag.))

But next weekend may well be a farewell tour of the stadium for me, because at this point I can’t commit to anything after October. I’ve spent my entire adolescent and adult life rooting for and writing about this team, and it’s been two decades of unrequited love. I’ve got too much to be thankful for in my life to let it be spoiled by the imperious decisions of a front office that looks down upon the very idea of the statistical analysis that I’ve advocated for so many years, and that has contributed to the success of so many other teams.

To the Royals: sorry if I came off as unfairly critical yet again. Look at the bright side – pretty soon you may have one less critical fan to worry about. You may have one less fan to worry about, period.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Moving On.

Before we move on from last week’s drama – and believe me, I want to move on – I think it’s only fair to conduct a final post-mortem. I spent much of the weekend replaying what happened and trying to figure out if and how I could have handled things better. I wrote last week that “The defining hallmark of good organizations is that they are more critical of themselves than any outsider would be.” Well, that doesn’t just apply to organizations. I neither wanted nor anticipated that the situation would mushroom to the size that it did, and if I didn’t engage in some self-reflecton to see how this could have been avoided, I’d be a hypocrite. I don’t want to be a hypocrite.

I think Sam Mellinger’s take on the situation was spot-on, and that includes his criticisms of me: “Rany can write whatever he wants on his blog. But he changed his situation when he took on the radio show, and if he wants to be taken seriously and especially if he wants the Royals to help him with his show, he needs to at least make a phone call when calling for someone’s job.”

If you define a “blogger” as someone who delivers opinionated commentary over the internet from an informed but access-free perspective, then I’ve been a blogger since the founding of Baseball Prospectus over 13 years ago, which is to say for longer since the word “blogger” has existed. The part about “access-free” is critical, because that really is they lynchpin of the whole blogger/journalist dichotomy. Joe Posnanski has one of the most well-read blogs on the internet, but he’s not a blogger: he’s a journalist with a blog.

For all the criticisms that the mainstream media heap upon the blogosphere, most of them are just variations on a single theme: that bloggers neither have nor need access to the subjects they are covering, and because they don’t have access, they also don’t have accountability. It’s a simple fact of human nature that it’s a lot harder to criticize someone when you have to see them face-to-face on a regular basis.

What some members of the mainstream media – and certainly some sports franchises – fail to understand is that the lack of accountability is precisely what makes some bloggers so popular. Baseball Prospectus would never have existed if we had felt compelled to tone down our criticisms because we saw the targets of our criticism on a daily basis. When we started in 1996, the majority of major league teams were making demonstrably dumb decisions on a regular basis, and we called it like we saw it. Maybe we could have shown people like Chuck LaMar and Dave Littlefield more respect, but to do so would have been to disrespect our readers, who came to us to read the unvarnished truth instead of having smoke blown up their ass.

Blogs have evolved to serve as a set of checks and balances for traditional journalism, and while I find some of them needlessly vulgar and trashy, I make no apologies for the fact that blogs serve an invaluable purpose in the sports landscape. And not only can blogs and mainstream media coexist, they have to coexist – they can’t exist in today’s world without the other side. It would be almost impossible to blog about the Royals without the work of people like Mellinger and Bob Dutton, who go into the clubhouse on a daily basis and let us know what the Royals are doing and thinking. Flip the coin over, and without the passion and awareness of the local teams that bloggers cultivate, the Kansas City Star would have a lot fewer readers. The Star also benefits when bloggers occasionally break the taboo against speaking about uncomfortable topics – like, say, the team’s rash of injuries – that then opens the door for the newspaper to discuss the subject without risking open confrontation.

Bringing this back to the situation at hand, after 13 years of being a blogger – an unjournalist – I’ve put one foot through the doorway. And now I have to decide how far I want to take this transition from outsider to quasi-insider. I’d rather stop writing than surrender my objectivity, but at the same time, in all the years I’ve spent writing about the Royals, I’ve tried to aim my words in the direction of the team as much as to my readers. I’m not just writing to attract an audience – I’m writing to effect change in the organization. The ultimate goal of this blog is for the Royals to win.

So having spent all these years building a bridge to the Royals, it makes no sense to burn that bridge as soon as it’s been finished. I don’t want to tilt at windmills. If that means behaving a little more like a journalist and a little less like a blogger, than so be it.

Re-reading my original piece that set all of this in motion, I have no regrets about my argument and about the facts that I used to defend it. And I’d hate for this controversy to overshadow what provoked it: the Royals’ medical system is light-years behind the industry standard. That’s just a simple fact. If you don’t believe me, read this. The vanguard of major-league teams are trying to use statistics to further their understanding of injury risk – the Royals are still not convinced they should use statistics at all.

But I do think I could have made it a little less personal. While I still strongly feel that Nick Swartz is a part of the problem, the tone of my attacks presupposed a degree of certainty that I don’t have. More to the point, I could have written the exact same column, replaced “Nick Swartz” with “the medical and training staff”, and gotten the same point across.

I’d like to think that I do a good job of criticizing the Royals without crossing the line of making things personal. I’m not sure that I crossed that line this time, but I probably came closer than I should have. So going forward, I’ll try to keep this incident in mind the next time I decide to bring the hammer down. (Which won’t be long, I’m sure.) It’s not going to have an impact on 95% of my columns, honestly. But the other 5% of the time, when I’m so mad about something that I have trouble seeing straight, maybe I’ll wait until the morning before posting and sleep on it first.

Every crisis is also an opportunity, and I’ve tried to use this crisis as an opportunity to see how to handle things better in the future. I hope the Royals are doing the same thing. I think they handled things a lot worse than I did, but that’s not an excuse for me to not try to learn something from this. I mean, "better than the Royals" hasn't been a compliment since the early 1990s.

And with that, let’s move on. If I gaze any deeper into my navel I’m going to start seeing my intestines.


So how did we get into this mess? Even with their modest three-game winning streak, the Royals have won 18 of their last 54 games – they’ve won exactly one-third of their games over one-third of the season. As I write this, the best pitcher in baseball is losing to someone named Luke French, 3-0. Billy Butler has doubled three times – and has neither scored nor driven in a run, because the 1, 2, 4, and 5 hitters have yet to reach base.

If you break down all the transactions that Dayton Moore has made since taking over in Kansas City, you find some very interesting trends. I think the most compelling is this: Moore has done a very good job – maybe even an outstanding job – of acquiring players based on a perception of their future value. He has done an absolutely horrendous job of acquiring players based on a perception of their present value.

By that, I mean that when Moore has acquired a player who has yet to establish himself in the major leagues, or a player who is established but who the Royals feel is capable of making a leap forward, he has done well. When Moore has acquired an established major league player based on what that player has already done, he has done terribly.

Just look at a list of the significant acquisitions on the current roster:

Acquired based on future value:

Gil Meche

Joakim Soria

Brian Bannister

Alberto Callaspo

Acquired based on present value:

Jose Guillen

Tony Pena

Miguel Olivo

Mike Jacobs

Kyle Farnsworth

Horacio Ramirez*

Willie Bloomquist

Juan Cruz

*: Okay, I’m cheating. But he was such a terrible signing I get to count him anyway.

Let’s break this down.

Soria was an obscure Mexican pitcher when he was plucked out of the Rule 5 draft. Bannister had made all of eight major league appearances and his minor league track record suggested he was a #4 or 5 starter at best; most observers thought the Royals were nuts for trading Ambiorix Burgos and his 100-mph fastball for him. Callaspo had a great minor-league track record – a career .317 minor league average – but had hit just .220 in two trials with the Diamondbacks, and was trailed by whispers about his character after a domestic violence incident with his wife – Moore bought low by getting him for Bill Buckner, who now has a 6.50 career ERA.

Meche, unlike the three guys above, was an established major league pitcher when the Royals outbid everyone with a 5-year, $55-million contract. But as with Soria, Bannister, and Callaspo, Meche was targeted because of what the Royals thought he could become, not who he was.

At the time, he was a chronic underachiever with a 4.65 career ERA, who drove the Mariners and their fans crazy because the results never matched his stuff. The Royals’ front office thought that they knew how to fix him, and had the balls to gamble $55 million that they could. That gamble has paid off better than almost anyone outside the organization expected: Meche has a 3.88 ERA in a Royals uniform, and has never missed a start. The acquisition of Soria may have been Moore’s best move, but in terms of gambling on a player to do something he’s never done before and have that gamble pay off, nothing comes close to the Meche signing.

All four players have exceeded expectations since joining the Royals. All four have exceeded expectations largely because the Royals correctly predicted that they would become better players than they were at the moment they were acquired. There’s a word for that: scouting.

Now look at the other list. Moore gave Jose Guillen a 3-year, $36 million contract not because he thought Guillen was going to get better, but because of what Guillen had already done: in his three previous healthy seasons before signing, Guillen had hit between .283 and .294, with between 23 and 27 homers each year. He signed Miguel Olivo because Olivo had hit 16 homers each of the last two years, and had a strong arm behind the plate. He traded for Mike Jacobs because Jacobs had hit 32 homers the year before and the Royals needed some power. He signed Kyle Farnsworth because the Professor threw 100 miles an hour. He signed Willie Bloomquist because of his versatility, intangibles, and ability to perform magic spells. He signed Horacio Ramirez because Ramirez, at some point in this millennium, had briefly been an effective starting pitcher. He signed Juan Cruz because Cruz was the best reliever left on the market.

I’ll dispense with Cruz because there was near-unanimous agreement that it was a savvy move at the time, given the cost and Cruz’s pedigree. Cruz’s overall numbers are down – particularly his strikeouts – but it’s not yet clear whether he’s lost his stuff or just going through a prolonged slump. And Bloomquist has been everything the Royals advertised he’d be: capable of playing everywhere on the field, fast, heady, and a better hitter than we expected.

But look at the other guys. The Royals committed $36 million to Guillen in the hopes that he would continue to hit the way he had hit the last few years – ignoring the fact that 1) he was at an age where players of his ilk tend to drop off a cliff, and 2) owing to his shoddy plate discipline, he wasn’t nearly as good a hitter as they thought he was in the first place. Olivo did hit 16 homers in both 2006 and 2007 – unfortunately, he didn’t draw 16 walks in either 2006 or 2007. The Royals can’t claim to be disappointed in how Olivo has played because he has played exactly as well – if not better – than he did before he was acquired. Olivo’s line with the Marlins was .249/.275/.422, and with Kansas City it is .252/.276/.466.

Olivo is responsible for two of the most amazing stats of the year. As one brilliant commenter on Royals Review pointed out, Olivo has reached base on a wild pitch following a strikeout three times – and has also walked three times. Olivo has reached base on a strikeout as often as he has reached base on a walk. Just as impressively, for the season Olivo has 71 strikeouts to go along with those 3 walks. No one in the history of baseball has ever struck out that many times with so few walks. The previous record holder, Rob Picciolo (with 63 Ks and 2 BBs in 1980) is probably the most infamous hacker in major league history.

The Royals wanted Jacobs because he hit 32 homers last season – not only did they neglect the fact that he had never hit more than 20 homers before, they didn’t understand that even with those 32 homers, Jacobs was not that good. He only hit .247; he only walked 36 times; he played horrible defense at the game’s easiest position. There was a reason the Marlins were so eager to trade him, and a reason that no other team was particularly eager to acquire him. The Royals also talked up the fact that Jacobs would hit for more power away from the Marlins’ spacious stadium, while ignoring the fact that Kauffman Stadium is one of the toughest home run parks in baseball.

They signed Farnsworth because Moore had a notion that the bullpen was like a jigsaw puzzle: it was simply missing a piece to complete it, and that piece was a pitcher with a big fastball. Somehow Farnsworth’s career 4.47 ERA got overlooked in the process.

And finally there is Tony Pena, who unlike the other guys on the second list was not an established major leaguer. I would still venture that he belongs here, because when Moore sent the Braves a prospect to acquire Pena, he wasn’t doing so because he felt that Pena was about to have a breakout season. He did so because he thought that what Pena was at that moment – a career .252/.285/.332 hitter in the minor leagues – was playable at shortstop. Pena was better than expected as a rookie, and has hit like a pitcher ever since – but his overall line with the Royals, .228/.248/.299, is almost identical to his minor league translations. Pena is who we thought he was – and who the Royals thought he was, or at least what they should have thought he was. The problem is that the player he was – the player they should have expected – was such an execrable hitter that no amount of defense could redeem him.

In all of these cases, the Royals acquired a player not based on their expectation of his future potential, but based on their understanding of his current value. And just as the former can be defined as “scouting”, the latter can be defined as “statistical analysis.”

This is the Braves Way that we were all promised when Moore was hired. Moore has done a solid job of scouting, both in terms of picking up young talent but also in terms of picking the right talent to trade away. (The best example of the latter is the fact that he traded Burgos, Andy Sisco, and Mike MacDougal all shortly after he was hired – all three threw extremely hard, and all three have since proven that all the velocity in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to pitch.)

But under Moore, the Royals have shown a willful disregard for any kind of serious statistical analysis. Oh, they’ve paid lip service to it at times, publicly talking about the importance of plate discipline from time to time. But the Royals seem to regard plate discipline as something that can be taught – they hired Kevin Seitzer largely for that reason – as opposed to something which is intrinsic to the player. This is ironic, since the Braves Way is to obsess over tools, innate abilities which can not be acquired, and yet they don’t seem to regard plate discipline as a tool despite overwhelming evidence that it functions the same way.

The Braves Way still might work. The bottom line about building a franchise is that if you do a good job of signing and developing young talent, you’ll succeed; if you don’t, you won’t. Everything else is just details. The Royals have devoted more resources to their minor league system over the last 3 years than they had at any point in my lifetime, and if that continues eventually that focus should bear fruit.

The Royals spent a major league-record $11 million in the draft last year; this year, they’ve already spent $2 million on a pair of international free agents (Korean catcher Jin-Ho Shin and Panamanian third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert), who are the two most expensive international amateur talents the team has ever signed. Post-game host Greg Schaum has tweeted that the Royals have an agreement with third-round pick Wil Myers which is being delayed only for the sake of Bud Selig’s delicate ears. If that’s the case, then for the second straight year (after fourth-rounder Tim Melville last year) the Royals will have signed a borderline first-round talent later in the draft because they were willing to spend money where others weren’t.

All that is well and good. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the Braves Way, which (along with the services of three Hall of Fame pitchers) helped Atlanta to 14 division titles. But someone needs to tell Dayton Moore, Dean Taylor, J.J. Picollo, and all the other guys that came over from Atlanta: it’s not 1995 anymore, fellas. The bar has been raised – major league organizations are much, much better run today than they were 15 years ago, and the greatest source of that improvement is in the way that teams use statistical analysis to augment the rest of their operations.

But while the rest of baseball is moving forward, the Braves Way seems bent on proving that you can still win with scouts alone. It’s not a coincidence that the Braves themselves have fallen on hard times the last few years, or that the purest distillation of the Braves Way in a single player, Jeff Francoeur, has turned into, well, Jeff Francoeur.

The greatest mistakes of Dayton Moore’s tenure have been, almost without exception, when he ignored statistical analysis. He ignored the analysis that said that Jose Guillen was an overrated hitter and was at an age where he would likely become an albatross quickly. He ignored OBP entirely when he signed Olivo and traded for Jacobs. He ignored every offensive statistic ever devised when he acquired Tony Pena. He ignored every pitching statistic other than strikeouts when he gave Farnsworth nine million dollars. He ignored the fact that analysts like myself hated every one of these moves.

This disregard for statistics goes beyond the numbers that get created on the field and extends to things like contract analysis – the Royals had trouble understanding that it would have been a bad idea to trade anything for Mike Jacobs, because for the money he was going to be awarded in arbitration, he actually had negative value. That’s how you wind up spending more money on payroll than you ever have before without improving the team one whit.

Despite what Moneyball may have you believe, stats aren’t everything. But despite what Scout’s Honor might have you believe, scouts aren’t everything either. Until the Royals acknowledge that both approaches are necessary in order to build a winning team, they’re going to continue to finish near the bottom of the league in walks, they’re going to continue to spend millions on mediocre veterans, and they’re going to continue to disappoint.