Thursday, July 16, 2009

Who's Up For Some Royals Baseball Saturday Night?

Enough drama. Who’s up for some baseball?

Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of my producer Blake Uhlenhake, and one particularly understanding employee in the Royals’ ticket office, we have managed to come up with a reasonably simple way to insure that a large group of people who have never met before can all be assured of sitting in the same section of the stadium on Saturday.

(This was a lot easier six years ago, when Rob Neyer and I just told anyone who wanted to watch a game with us to show up outside one of the gates an hour before gametime. With the renovations at the stadium, the risk of a sellout or near-sellout is considerably greater, and I don’t want to risk having 100 people show up at the stadium only to find they can’t all sit in the same section.)

So here’s the plan: if you want to attend a game with me THIS SATURDAY, July 18th, against Tampa Bay, do the following:

1) Call THIS PHONE NUMBER: (816) 504-4168. This is the direct line to Sarah Trowbridge, our contact in the Royals’ ticket office.

2) Tell Sarah that you are part of the group purchasing tickets in SECTION 246.

3) Purchase as many tickets as you need. The group pricing for this section is $23, and as we are buying as a group, I believe all additional surcharges are waived.

4) Pick up your tickets before game time at Will Call, located at the stadium between gates C and D.

That’s it.

Sarah will be answering the phone today until 5 PM CDT, and from 9 AM to 5 PM on Friday. After 5 PM tomorrow she will be unable to process tickets for this section, so if you don’t buy your tickets by tomorrow, you may 1) not be able to sit in our section and/or 2) be forced to pay surcharges. That doesn’t mean you can’t still join us – if you make a last-minute decision to come out to the game on Saturday, by all means, come to the ballpark and try to buy a ticket in Section 246, or as close to Section 246 as possible.

There are approximately 100 seats available in Section 246; if we somehow manage to sell over 100 seats, additional people can be seated next door in Sections 245 or 247.

If you get Sarah’s voicemail, leave a message and she will call you back. If you want to contact her by email, you can do so at But it’s probably easiest to just call her directly.

I’ve already purchased my ticket, and am looking forward to meeting all of you there. Gametime on Saturday is 6:10 pm, but I’m hoping to get to the park a little early. So if you want to meet up with me before the game, plan to meet up outside Gate D between 4:45 and 5, and plan to enter the stadium right at 5 o’clock. If you can’t make it there by 5, no worries – just find your seat and you should find the rest of us there.

LATE UPDATE: I have just been informed that Zack Greinke is the scheduled starting pitcher on Saturday night. (I picked this date months ago for this very reason – I had a feeling that if Greinke went to the All-Star Game, he’d be starting the second game after the break.) So if you needed another reason to come to the game Saturday night…you just got it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

More (and Moore) on Betancourt.

If there’s one silver lining to the Betancourt trade, it’s the reaction from the local media. I have to think that Dayton Moore was taken aback by just how uniformly angry the response has been – heck, I was – which may have prompted his appearance on The Border Patrol Monday morning to defend the trade.

It’s been said many times before, but a sidebar to the mess that Kansas City baseball has been for the last 20 years is the fact that there probably isn’t a media environment in any major league city that would have been as accommodating and respectful of a front office that embraced sabermetric analysis as there is in Kansas City. I mean, look at Boston. Everyone in New England trusts in the stat guys now – but it’s hard to distrust them after they broke an 86-year streak and won two World Series in four years. (Not that Dan Shaughnessy doesn’t try.)

But do you recall the mocking and the outrage that descended on the Red Sox front office when they tried the bullpen by committee back in 2003? “Bill James” became an epithet for most of that summer. It’s a testament to the quality of the front office – from owner John Henry on down – that they stuck with their analytical approach despite tremendous media pressure to dumb it down.

That media pressure never would have happened in Kansas City. And it certainly wouldn’t happen now. For a quarter century the Royals have obstinately refused to acknowledge the efforts, if not the existence, of statistical analysis – and for a quarter century the team has inexorably slid down from the peak of a world championship to the lowly depths of one of the most embarrassing franchises in American sports. You don’t have to be Pavlov to deduce that the first half of that sentence may have contributed to the second.

And I think that this fact is part of the reason why we – me specifically and the Kansas City media generally – responded as viscerally and vehemently as we did against the Betancourt trade. It’s not just the nuts and bolts of the trade that set us off – it’s what the trade represents.

I do think that there’s something to the idea, as Joe Posnanski put it, that “one of the more frustrating things about being a fan is when you root for a team that so clearly has a different philosophy about sports than you have about sports.” Since the time I picked up Bill James’ final Abstract when I was 13, my philosophy about baseball has been to use statistical analysis as one of the ingredients – not the only ingredient, but one of the most important ones – to build a winning franchise. But my frustration runs deeper than that. Let’s face it: we’d all rather that our favorite teams win with a style we don’t favor than to lose with a style we do. There are a lot of things the New England Patriots do that make their fans uncomfortable…but I’m sure none of them care so long as the team does well. That same style has been imported to Arrowhead Stadium, and as disgusted as I am by the Chiefs’ astonishing arrogance and secrecy*, the cold reality is that if they go to the AFC Championship Game in the next two or three years, I won’t care less what goes on behind the wall.

*: You know how some NFL coaches will talk about preparing their team as if they’re literally going to war? The Chiefs have gone one better: they’re acting like the NFL is MORE important than war. Seriously – our military was more forthcoming with the press during the Iraq war than the Chiefs are today.

So it’s more than just that the Royals aren’t doing things the way I’d do them. For one thing, they’re doing things their way and it’s not working. The Royals have had four different GM’s over the last four years, but just one offensive philosophy: swing away. For over 25 years – really, since Whitey Herzog was fired in 1979 and Darryl Porter joined him in St. Louis a year later – the Royals have deprioritized plate discipline. It took a few years for the results to kick in, but since then they’ve been kicking the team on a consistent basis – usually in the ass.

But it’s not just that the Royals continue to use a different baseball philosophy despite the lack of results; that was the case under Allard Baird as well. The difference is that the current administration gives off a sense of smugness about their approach. It’s not just that they think their method is superior – it’s that they’re so certain that they know what they’re doing that they can’t even be bothered to acknowledge that other approaches exist.

The culmination of this attitude was, as has been widely reported, Moore’s frank acknowledgment during his interview that “The defensive statistics – I still really don’t understand how some of those statistics are evaluated, I really don’t. When you watch baseball games every single day, it’s very apparent who can play defensively and who can’t.”

Look, I really don’t enjoy picking on Dayton Moore. I’m still trying to figure out how everything went so wrong this season – barely two months ago I was groveling at the foot of Dean Taylor on our radio show, and now I’m at the top of the Royals’ most-wanted list. In the middle of Moore’s interview he took an unprovoked shot at some – okay, one – of his critics. “And I know that because of our injuries, some of our medical team has taken some hits on that – and very unfairly…we’ve improved out medical team in waves of waves…and I feel bad that some of them have taken some heat because of that.”

Those words need no translation, particularly since I was slated to come on the show half an hour later: “Rany Jazayerli is a schmuck.”

I used to be one of this administration’s biggest cheerleaders, and I feel like I’ve accidentally become the leader of the resistance movement. You’d think I surreptitiously saw Moore swallow a live rat whole, then on my way out of Kauffman Stadium got into a fight with J.J. Picollo and ripped off his protective skin, exposing the green scales underneath. Maybe I should go by “Mike Donovan” from now on. (Kudos to the seven of you who get the TV reference. For those who don’t: rest assured I’m not saying the front office is made up of a bunch of lizards or snakes. I’m saying they’re a bunch of aliens.)

But really, this quote is just incredible in its hubris. If Moore had said he didn’t agree with the statistics, well, that’s fair – defensive statistics are still not fully mature, although they’ve certainly reached the adolescent stage.

But he didn’t say he didn’t agree with them – he said he didn’t understand them. And then he threw in the usual boilerplate about how you can only evaluate players if you watch baseball games every single day (because, you know, only people who work in the Royals front office watch games every single day.) That’s the team’s attitude in a nutshell: we know how to build a winning baseball team, and we’re so certain in our knowledge that we can’t be bothered to look at opposing points of view, even if only to refute them.

This attitude – of being proudly incurious – sums up what’s wrong with the Royals. It’s not that they can’t learn – they don’t want to learn. It’s not a matter of intelligence – as the poster Devil Fingers at has pointed out, Moore has a master’s degree, while Billy Beane never went to college. It’s a matter of having a commitment to learning new things. The Royals appear to be afraid of having their horizons broadened. No one’s saying they have to agree with the defensive statistics that unanimously identify Betancourt as a terrible defensive player. But dammit, don’t they have an obligation to at least understand them?

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of baseball fans on the internet who understand not just the general premise of Ultimate Zone Rating, or John Dewan’s plus/minus, or David Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range, or Dan Fox’s Simple Fielding Runs, or a half-dozen other advanced fielding metrics – they also understand the nuances that distinguish between each of them. And they do it for no greater incentive than their own desire to better understand the game of baseball. Meanwhile, there are only 30 GM positions in the world – is it really too much to expect all 30 of the guys who hold that position to learn this stuff as part of their job?

The dichotomy between scouts and stats is a false one, because scouting reports and statistical analysis are simply two sides of the same coin. That coin is information. It’s a GM’s job to have the best, most complete information available when making decisions. Not all information is equally valuable – but there’s no way to sift out the nuggets of useful stuff from the chaff of data if you don’t have the data in the first place. Instead of looking at defensive statistics as information – as one piece of the puzzle – the Royals have made a prior decision that nothing of value could possibly be contained therein.

The most brilliant people can make the most terrible decisions – and this is true in all walks of life, from business to politics – when they’re afraid to challenge their preconceived notions, and ignore anything that might sway them from what they want to do. We know for a fact that Moore has pined after Betancourt for years, and it appears to me that, having long ago decided that Betancourt was a player he wanted, he found a way to make the information at hand today justify that decision.

When Moore was hired, his lack of a statistical background didn’t bother me at all. I figured that, he was obviously a brilliant guy (and he is), and would be smart enough to learn the statistical side as part of his job. It’s a lot easier to understand the numbers (or hire someone who does) than it is to learn how to scout, and I’d rather start with a GM who has proven he knows how to scout ballplayers and trust that he’d learn the other stuff. The guy I frequently compared Moore to was Dave Dombrowski, who I’ve long had the greatest respect for even though he’s a scout first and foremost.

The difference is that Dombrowski, as confident as he is in his own abilities (and believe me, he’s a confident guy), has never been too arrogant – or too intimidated – to factor in statistics when the need arises. A great example of this would be this off-season, when the Tigers decided to revamp the defense on their aging roster. The lynchpin of this renovation was to bring in a new everyday shortstop in the form of Adam Everett.

Now, Everett is a terrible hitter; always has been, always will be. He’s hitting .262/.318/.354, which are his best numbers in five years. But Everett has arguably the best defensive statistics of any shortstop this decade – which is to say, since advanced fielding metrics came into existence. He’s long been a cause celebre among stats guys, sort of the anti-Derek Jeter. (John Dewan and Bill James did a fascinating comparison between the two in the first edition of the Fielding Bible.)

Even though he’s lost a step this season, he has still been a huge upgrade for the Tigers in the field. The Tigers’ defensive efficiency has improved significantly since last year – and after giving up the third-most runs in the AL last year, they currently have given up the third-fewest runs in the league this year.

Essentially, Everett’s performance this year is what the Royals expect from Betancourt. The difference is that Adam Everett was signed to a one-year, $1 million contract. (And he didn’t cost anything in the way of prospects.)

As one friend put it to me, “this is worse than the Neifi Perez trade, because this time the GM didn’t have a gun to his head.” It’s hard to argue with that. Ownership gave Allard Baird 36 hours to trade Dye; it was Baird’s fault that he traded for Perez – the Royals would have been better off just releasing Dye – but there were extenuating circumstances. (The story just keeps getting worse. While ownership’s complicity in the Dye trade has long been well-known, I was informed me on the radio on Monday that a few months prior to the Neifi trade, Baird had agreed to trade Dye to the Blue Jays for Vernon Wells. Ownership nixed it.)

But you can’t blame the Glasses for this one. This one is all on Moore.

To respond to some of the criticisms in the comments section from my last post:

1) A few people have felt that my criticism of this deal is hypocritical given that I was advocating that the Royals trade for Jeff Francoeur, who has many of the same weaknesses that Betancourt does.

Sorry, but I don’t see it. I advocated that the Royals take a flyer on Francoeur, because his trade value had dwindled to the point that he could be acquired for almost nothing. (The Mets got him for Ryan Church, who wasn’t hitting all that well and had worn out his welcome in New York for off-the-field reasons – and the Mets are still being killed for giving up too much of the deal.)

I liked the idea of grabbing Francoeur because I thought he could be acquired without giving up a top prospect – if the Royals had traded Cortes for Francoeur, I would have argued that they gave up too much. But even so, I would have been a lot less upset than I am with this trade.

- Francoeur is 25. Betancourt is 27.

- Francoeur has a history of above-average performances at the major-league level. He had an OPS+ of 126 as a 21-year-old rookie, and an OPS+ of 103 just two years ago. Betancourt’s career-high in OPS+ is 93.

- Francoeur walked 42 times in 2007, and 39 times last year. Betancourt has never walked 18 times in a season.

- While Francoeur’s recent defensive numbers aren’t so hot, just two years ago he was 17 runs above-average in right field according to UZR; he’s +35 for his career. By contrast, the defensive numbers have always hated Betancourt. He topped out at 1.1 runs above average as a rookie, and his numbers have declined literally every year since: +1.1, +0.7, -1.1, -12.6, and -8.2 (in half a season this year). His career performance is -20.

- And most importantly by far, Francoeur is only under contract for the rest of this season. He’s making $3.375 million this year, meaning that if the Royals had traded for him, they would only be on the hook for about $1.6 million or so. If they liked what they saw, they could keep him for another season at the same price or less (it’s highly unlikely that he would have earned a raise in arbitration) – but if after an 80-game audition they didn’t like what they saw, they could cut him without repercussions. Betancourt, on the other hand, is guaranteed $7 million by the Royals even if they cut him tomorrow.

I can’t stress this enough: the problem with trading for Betancourt isn’t that the Royals got Betancourt – it’s that they got Betancourt’s contract. Dayton Moore claimed in the radio interview that if Betancourt had been a free agent, and the Royals had signed him to a 2-year, $5 million contract, they would have been applauded for it.

First off, he’s not counting the $2 million buyout of his $6 million option for 2012. The $2 million is a sunk cost, so really this is a $7 million contract with a $4 million option. Secondly: are you freaking kidding me? There isn’t a team in baseball – outside of Kansas City – that would have made that offer.

Forget Moore’s ignorance of statistics for a moment – an equally big problem here seems to be Moore’s ignorance of Betancourt’s reputation. The Mariners were DESPERATE to unload him. While the front office is a little too dignified to be publicly high-fiving themselves, everyone else in Seattle is. It’s not just the fans that are throwing parades – the sportswriters who cover the Mariners have been openly stupefied by how the Mariners were not only able to unload Betancourt, but how they could do so while 1) picking up just a quarter of his contract and 2) getting prospects in return. NO ONE in Seattle thought this was possible, for good reason.

Before Moore pats himself on the back for getting Betancourt signed to such a small contract, he might want to ask himself why, if Betancourt’s contract was so favorable to the Royals, no other team had any interest in acquiring him. And why the Mariners were so willing to oblige him.

2) A lot of commenters have defended this trade using the argument that even if Betancourt isn’t a great player, he is such an upgrade over Tony Pena that there’s no question the trade makes the Royals better, and you can’t fault Moore for a move that improves the team in the here and now.

I hate, hate, hate this line of reasoning, if for no other reason than the core of the argument is that the ROYALS HAVE TONY PENA ON THEIR ROSTER. Tony Pena isn’t just the worst quasi-regular player in the major leagues today – he’s perhaps the worst quasi-regular hitter in the majors in at least a generation. Since the start of last season, over the course of 276 at-bats, Pena is hitting .156/.178/.192. Read that again: .156/.178/.192. His OPS+ is exactly 0.

Since the time my dad bought me my first Baseball Encyclopedia when I was 6 years old, I have been fascinated with Ray Oyler, the shortstop for the 1968 Tigers, who hit a remarkable .135/.213/.186 that season in 215 at-bats. Oyler’s 1968 is generally considered to be the worst season by a hitter in the expansion era – he was so bad that after the Tigers clinched the pennant, manager Mayo Smith decided to bench Oyler in favor of fourth outfielder Mickey Stanley, who had never played shortstop before in the majors. Stanley took over as the starting shortstop the last week of the season, and was the starting shortstop in every game of the World Series – which the Tigers won in seven. Stanley would never start another game at shortstop in his career.

Amazingly, Oyler had a higher OPS in 1968 (399) than Pena has over the last two seasons (370). And that’s not even accounting for league environment – 1968 was the year of the pitcher, when the AL as a whole hit .230/.297/.339.

Tony Pena Jr. has supplanted Ray Oyler as the worst hitter to garner significant playing time in the last 50 years. If the best argument you can make for Betancourt is that he’s better than Pena…well, you’ve just proved my point.

The irony is that this was the same argument that was used when the Royals acquired Pena in the first place. Remember how desperate we were for a shortstop at the end of spring training in 2007? It was clear that Angel Berroa was not about to come out of his seasons-long tailspin, and the Royals needed a better alternative. The Royals stretched the meaning of “better alternative” to the breaking point, trading a decent prospect in Eric Cordier to Atlanta in exchange for Pena, who was out of options and was not a lock for the Braves’ roster.

A lot of Royals fans were just thrilled that the team had upgraded from a no-hit, no-field shortstop to a no-hit, good-field shortstop. The rest of us thought it was rather ridiculous that the Royals felt they had to give up a prospect in order to acquire a player who was about to be released – and who was no better than half-a-dozen other no-hit, good-field shortstops in Triple-A.

Here we are two years later, and the same shortstop that so many fans were thrilled to acquire has become such a piƱata that many of the same fans are thrilled that the Royals overpaid for Yuniesky Betancourt – who, again, was in danger of being released at some point, and who is no better than a lot of league-minimum alternatives. The circle of life is complete.

Haven’t we learned from the Mike Jacobs debacle? When I ripped the Royals for trading Leo Nunez for Jacobs, one of the comments I received was, “Mike Jacobs gives us the lefty power bat that we lacked. He’s certainly an upgrade over last year’s starting 1B Ross Gload.” There were many others that delivered the same message: Jacobs > Gload, therefore Jacobs was worth acquiring. Really, guys? Was it really worth acquiring the guy hitting .222/.296/.412 as a DH, at the cost of a good reliever and millions of dollars? Or would it have been worth looking at the many, many other players out there who were better than Ross Gload, and trying to see if one of them was a better fit for the Royals than Jacobs?

Yuniesky Betancourt is better than Tony Pena. If that’s a reason to acquire Betancourt, then it’s also a reason to acquire half the starting shortstops in Triple-A. Hell, it’s a reason to acquire Angel Berroa, who the Mets just claimed on waivers. Does anyone doubt that Berroa can hit better than .156/.178/.192? Would you have been happy if the Royals acquired him?

The way to judge any acquisition is not simply to compare the acquired player to the guy he’s replacing. The way to judge the acquisition is to compare him to all the potential acquisitions out there. Whether it’s patching up the defense with another marginal hitter with a great glove, like Chin-Lung Hu, or trying to reclaim another player that has fallen out of his team’s good graces, like Julio Lugo, or taking a truly creative and ballsy gamble (Mike Moustakas for Alcides Escobar?) – the Royals had a lot of options to consider. All of them were better than sticking with Tony Pena – including just sticking with Willie Bloomquist for the rest of the season, then trying Mike Aviles again next year. (What happens when Aviles is ready to play next April? I’ll tell you what happens – the Royals will bury him, even though he has been a better player than Betancourt. They won’t bench the guy making seven figures for the guy making six figures.)

Trading for Yuniesky Betancourt didn’t have to be such a disaster. I see the Royals’ line of thinking here: Betancourt is a phenomenally talented player who might benefit from a change of scenery, and his price has never been lower. The fundamental mistake the Royals made was that they didn’t appreciate just how low Betancourt’s stock had fallen. If they had traded Saito alone – and made the Mariners pick up $6 million instead of just $3 million – this would have been a perfectly reasonable trade. And judging from the condolences I received after the team from front office types – no, not anyone who used to work at Baseball Prospectus – they still would have had the best offer on the table.

Instead, the Royals gave up Cortes and Saito, and are on the hook for $7 million. This is like buying Citigroup stock at $10 a share, and then when critics have the audacity to point out that the stock is only worth $3 a share today, defending yourself by saying that the stock was worth $50 just two years ago. Yeah, the Royals bought low. But they didn’t buy low enough.

3) Finally, I should address the criticisms that I’m bailing on the team as a fan, criticisms succinctly summed up by one commenter who called me “a pissy little bitch.” Fair enough. But I defy anyone to show me where I have ever expressed such a sentiment before. I didn’t bail on the team when they trade for Neifi, but this time it feels different.

Part of the difference isn’t with the Royals, it’s with me. When they traded for Neifi, I was 26 years old. Now I’m 34 years old and have three young children. It used to be that when the Royals would blow late-inning leads night after night, or make an incomprehensible trade that set the franchise back for years, I’d be in a funk for days, but that was my problem. Now there are innocent bystanders involved. I wasn’t pleasant company for my family to be around on Friday or Saturday, and that wasn’t fair to them. Frankly, I haven’t been great company for most of the last two months.

I gave a lot of thought to this over the weekend, about whether I could ever free myself of being a Royals fan. My old friend Jonah Keri has tried to tempt me, arguing that “It is so liberating not to have a favorite team. Your life will improve immeasurably.” But Jonah’s situation is different – he was a Montreal Expos fan. He didn’t abandon his team, his team abandoned him. Because of that, he never has to worry that one day his team might win without him. The reality is that however remote the odds are that the Royals might win, the notion that they might one day head to the playoffs without me is just too painful to consider.

So no, I can’t imagine rooting for any other team; if that makes me a flip-flopper, so be it. But I realized something else while I was out of town for the weekend – that I didn’t care how the Royals played in Boston, and more than that, the fact that I didn’t care was, as Jonah put it, liberating. Instead of sneaking peeks at my iPhone every few minutes, I could enjoy being with my family and friends all day, and then just check the box score at the end of the night. “The Royals scored nine runs and lost? Miguel Olivo was forced out at home plate by an outfielder? How funny!”

So that’s where I am now. For years, I’ve defended Rob Neyer from people who claim he’s no longer a Royals fan. You don’t have to be optimistic about your team to be a fan. You don’t have to live and die with every game to be a fan. If and when the Royals are in a legitimate pennant race in August, I have no doubt that Rob will be glued to his set. And I will be too. But like Rob, I think I’ll be a lot happier if I don’t show a greater commitment to the Royals than they show to me.

I can’t believe I’m about to paraphrase a line from Fever Pitch, but in all the years I’ve loved the Royals, they’ve never loved me back. And right now, they completely hate me – literally and figuratively. So maybe it’s time I stand up for myself and say, love can’t be a one-way street. We’ll still be friends, we’ll still keep in touch, I’ll call every now and again. But I can’t keep putting myself out there every night and keep getting rejected.

That “About Me” section has listed me as “pathetic Royals fan all the time” for the last two years. Maybe it’s time I stop being a pathetic Royals fan, and just be a Royals fan. When they’re good, I’ll care about them. When they’re not, I won’t. We’ll both be happier this way.

(If you want to tell me in person that I’ve become a fair-weather fan and a bandwagon jumper, make sure to come out to the park this Saturday at 5 PM. I hope to have a formal announcement up sometime tomorrow.)