Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Modest Proposal.

Wow, this whole “I’m taking a step back from the Royals” plan is already paying dividends!

I had a good time in Kansas City over the weekend. I had a chance to meet many of you at the ballpark on Saturday night, and had a chance to meet many of my colleagues in the local print and radio media during my stay. I wish I could say that the Royals’ performance on the field made me reconsider my perception of the team, but I can’t. And I wish I could say that all the conversations I had with people over the weekend made me reconsider my perception of the organization. But I can’t.

The highlight of my weekend – hell, it might be the highlight of my career – came on Friday night, when unbeknownst to the Royals (or me), the participant in the between-innings “Match Game” promotion was a devoted reader of this blog. After winning the promotion, our good reader was given the microphone and asked to say a few words. He said only two: “Rany Rules!” The microphone was snatched away by the announcer at that point, but judging from the audience’s reaction, the damage was already done. The revolution may not be televised, but it will be broadcast over the PA system to a sellout crowd at Kauffman Stadium. (To continue with my “V” theme, this reminds me of the moment when Juliet Parrish peels John’s skin to reveal the lizard underneath on national TV. Old-timers can relive that moment here – advance to 7:30 into the clip.)

There’s an old and oft-repeated quote that “Comedy equals Tragedy plus Time,” which I think applies beautifully to the Royals weekend. When Trey Hillman left Joakim Soria in the bullpen Friday night rather than ask him to get four outs, and Juan Cruz gave up the game-winning homer to Evan Longoria…that was tragedy. When Cruz gave up the game-tying and game-winning hits in the eighth inning the next night, that was unfortunate. When Hillman said in his post-game comments that he was willing to use Soria for four outs instead of five, that was farce.*

*: Seriously…four outs but not five? In the history of baseball, has there ever been a situation where a pitcher could get four outs but not five? Especially given that Soria’s so efficient on the mound that the difference between four outs and five outs is approximately three pitches. And if Soria was available for four outs, then WHY DIDN’T HE COME IN FOR FOUR OUTS THE NIGHT BEFORE?

And then, when the Royals blew an eighth-inning lead again on Sunday, and again Soria didn’t pitch while the triumvirate of Jamey Wright, John Bale, and Ramon Colon surrendered two hits, three walks, and committed an error…that was comedy. I mean, what’s the point of being angry? I already wrote that column. And it’s too late in the season to be despondent about it. Really, the only proper reaction is simply to laugh.

So for those of you who enjoyed the last post I wrote – which was actually posted before Sunday’s game – in the spirit it was written, thank you. For those of you who didn’t think it was that funny, I’m sorry you didn’t find it funny. And for those of you who didn’t think humor was the proper response – I’m sorry, but I can’t think of any other response except humor for the predicament the Royals find themselves in. (And for those few of you who thought the news “item” was real – I’m sorry that the Royals have become such a joke that it’s hard to separate satire from truth.)

As hard as it is to believe, I sympathize with Hillman a little bit. His comments after Saturday night’s game were rather ridiculous, both because he could have used Soria for four outs the night before and because he had used Soria for five outs earlier this season (a decision which was instrumental in the Royals winning an extra-inning thriller in Minnesota…one of the games which deluded me into thinking that this season was going to be something special, in fact.) But the sad reality about where baseball is today is that Hillman’s thinking over the weekend doesn’t make him the worst manager in baseball. His thought process is the norm among baseball teams today.

That thought process can be summed up as this:

1) Joakim Soria is my closer.

2) The job of the closer is to earn saves.

3) You can not earn a save unless you finish the game.

4) Therefore, if Soria can only get four outs, they have to be the last four outs of the game.

Once upon a time, closers weren’t called closers; they were called firemen, and the distinction is critical. “Closers” are there to “close” things – they’re there to close out the lights, which means finishing off a victory. Firemen put out fires – they’re there to get out of the stickiest of situations, no matter when those occur. No rational person would argue that the situation Soria could have faced on Sunday – tying run at third, just one out in the eighth – is less critical than the classic closer role of starting the ninth inning with a one-run lead. There’s a margin for error in the ninth; in the eighth, a single will tie the game (and did).

But that’s where the game of baseball is today. The problem with Hillman isn’t that he’s not with the conventional wisdom in this regard – it’s that he’s not willing to go against the conventional wisdom, even though his bullpen is such a unique challenge (one of the top closers in baseball fronted by arguably the worst middle-relief pack in the game) that it begs for unconventional thinking. He’s afraid to think outside-the-box, and the Royals need a manager who thinks outside the box. So instead, we have a manager who used every reliever (as well as starter Bruce Chen) out of his bullpen except Soria and Robinson Tejeda over the weekend, then finally used Soria to pitch an inning with the Royals down by eight runs last night.

As some brilliant commenters pointed out:

1) Last season, the Royals were shutout (okay, no-hit) by Jon Lester, which started a 12-game losing streak. This year, the Royals were shutout by Lester, which started an 8-game (and counting) losing streak.

2) Five of those eight losses have been by three runs or less. Both of Soria’s appearances in the last eight games have been in games decided by six runs or more.

Hillman’s intellectual atherosclerosis may not be treatable, but the woes of the bullpen are. Remember, Hillman didn’t use Soria all that differently last year; only seven times out of 63 appearances did Soria pitch more than an inning (although six of those seven were six-out appearances). The complaints last season were far fewer, though, because he had Ramon Ramirez to pitch the eighth inning. This year, he’s had Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth. Farnsworth’s problems could (and were) predicted, but Cruz’s struggles were not so easily predictable. (And as Sam Mellinger finds out, they’re still mystifying.)

So allow me to make a modest proposal. The bullpen needs to be fixed, but the last thing the Royals ought to do is to trade some of their marketable guys (like DeJesus and Teahen) for some immediate relief help. The correlation between expense and performance is almost non-existent, something Dayton Moore has proven the last two seasons. His no-name set-up men last year, Ramirez and Leo Nunez, were far more effective than the two guys he signed for a combined $7 million a year to do the job this season.

First off, the Royals need to bite the bullet and get rid of some of their relievers. Frankly, none of their jobs should be safe; after Soria, Ron Mahay has the lowest ERA in the bullpen at 4.26. But Roman Colon should be an easy target; he has a 5.03 ERA, has allowed 31 baserunners in under 20 innings, and frankly his minor league track record makes you wonder what it was that Moore saw in him in the first place. (Other than the tomahawk on some of the uniforms he wore.) Tejeda, who has a great arm but also has walked more than a batter an inning, should also be fair game; if the Royals still think they can polish him, then they should take a long hard look at Jamey Wright, who isn’t terrible but also hasn’t really done the one thing the Royals brought him to do: the supposed groundball specialist has allowed 7 homers in 47 innings this year.

In return, they should find a spot on their roster for two guys. One is Carlos Rosa, who the Royals converted to relief this year because of concerns that he would not hold up physically as a starter (concerns about his elbow led the Marlins to nix the deal that would have traded him for Mike Jacobs, forcing the Royals to trade Nunez instead.) Rosa, perhaps still shaking off the rust from last season’s injury, struggled terribly at the start of the season; he had a 7.03 ERA in his first 32 innings, allowing 36 hits and 20 walks in that span. But over his last eight outings the light bulb has gone on; he has allowed just 4 hits and 4 walks in 14 innings, along with 14 strikeouts. If the scouting reports jibe with the sudden improvement in performance, then I think it’s time to throw Rosa into the pool and see if he can swim.

The other guy is Chris Hayes. I’ve had a lot of fun promoting Hayes as a prospect here and here and here and here, but I worry that some people – certainly some people in the organization – really do think that the idea of Disco as a prospect is a lot of fun, as opposed to something serious. At the start of the year, my goal was not to get Hayes immediately promoted to the majors – as well as he pitched last year, I understand that any pitcher whose fastball rarely touches 80 is going to have to prove himself in the high minors a little longer than the average prospect. My goal was simply to raise awareness that the Royals had a submarine prospect in their system, who ought to be taken seriously as a prospect despite his lack of velocity.

Well, that was March. It’s July now, and in the interim Hayes returned to Northwest Arkansas and pitched better than he did last season, with a 0.98 ERA in 37 innings. The Royals grudgingly promoted him to Omaha in mid-June, and he has continued to pitch well. His ERA in Omaha is 3.20, but he really hasn’t pitched much worse than he did in Double-A; he has continued to show tremendous control, strike out a little under one batter every other inning, and keep the ball on the ground (he’s allowed just one homer at each level). It’s just that a few more groundballs have gotten through. His BABIP in Double-A was .260, and in Triple-A it has been .315 – since a typical BABIP is around .300, Hayes was a little lucky in Double-A, and a little unlucky so far in Triple-A.

That’s splitting hairs, though, because there’s nothing to be ashamed about having a 3.20 ERA. For the season, Hayes has a 1.89 ERA, has allowed just 8 walks (two intentional!) in 62 innings, and has allowed just the two homers. If this isn’t the Dan Quisenberry starter kit, I don’t know what it is.

At the start of the year, even the most optimistic Hayes fan (i.e. me) thought it was unlikely he would earn a promotion to the majors before September, but this season has been a perfect storm of factors that have earned him a look. Hayes has continued to pitch well, of course, but beyond that you have a bullpen meltdown of a scale that I don’t think anyone predicted. During this eight game losing streak, here are the combined numbers for all Royals relievers (not counting the two innings Soria threw):

24.1 IP, 29 H, 26 R, 25 ER, 26 BB, 22 K, 4 HR

That’s just sick. Maybe Hayes wouldn’t improve on that hit total, but if all he does is throw strikes and keep the ball down, he’ll represent an enormous improvement on that performance.

It was thirty years ago this month that a much better Royals team – better in every facet of the game – nonetheless gave an opportunity to a submarining right-hander who threw in the upper 70s. Quisenberry was as poorly-regarded then as Hayes is now, despite strong numbers in the minors. In 1977 Quiz threw 74 innings in Double-A, allowed just 61 hits and 11 walks, with a 1.34 ERA; like Hayes, he was forced to repeat Double-A, and in 1978 pitched almost as well, with a 2.39 ERA in 62 innings. He got to Triple-A in 1979, and like Hayes didn’t quite match the success he had in Double-A – he had a 3.60 ERA in 35 innings when he was called up to make his major league debut on July 8th. He would never return to the minor leagues.

That 1979 team had bullpen issues much like this one does; aside from Quisenberry, five guys made more than 10 relief appearances for the Royals that season, and only one (Al Hrabosky) had an ERA under 4.50. The troubles with the pitching staff are what kept that team, despite scoring a then franchise-record 851 runs, out of the playoffs (the only time the Royals missed the playoffs from 1976 to 1981.) No doubt, Quisenberry got his shot at least partly out of desperation.

But here’s the thing: he got his shot. Whitey Herzog was a baseball man through and through, but he cared about winning more than he cared about conventional wisdom: he would have given a shot to a pitcher who threw with his feet if it would have helped him win. Quiz got his shot, and pitched well enough that year that even after Herzog was fired after the season, Quisenberry entered the next season as the team’s closer, and held the job for the next six seasons.

Maybe Hayes won’t pitch as well as Quisenberry, though from where I sit I see no reason why he can’t. But you know what? He doesn’t have to. Quisenberry had a career 2.76 ERA, including a 2.55 mark with the Royals. If Hayes can put up a 3.76 ERA, he’ll be an asset to this team. If he puts up a 5.76 ERA, he’ll still be better than Robinson Tejeda.

An organization that trades actual prospects for Yuniesky Betancourt is an organization that cares far more about how a player looks than how he performs. In some ways, the Royals are the worst organization for a guy like Disco to pitch for. But the shadow of Quisenberry still carries weight in Kansas City, if not with the organization than at least with their fans.

But I don’t want the Royals to give Hayes a shot because of the memory of a pitcher who threw his last pitch over two decades ago – I want them to give him a shot because he can help the ballclub. The Royals need a guy who can, if nothing else, stop walking the tying run to lead off the 8th inning – that’s Hayes. They need a guy who can throw two or three innings at a time – that’s Hayes. They need a guy who they can rely on to pitch four or five times a week if need be – that’s Hayes. And not to be crass about it, but they need a guy that they don’t perceive to be so valuable that they can only use him in predetermined situations. Emphatically, that’s Hayes.

This is probably the first column that I’ve written in a month that doesn’t come with a huge dose of anger or bitterness. I’m trying to play this one straight, because I am dead serious when I write this. Chris Hayes is not a freak show anymore. He’s a pitcher who can help the Royals right now. It’s time to bring Disco to Kansas City.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Breaking News About Soria.

(Evidently, the Royals have made it difficult to distinguish between satire and reality. So to set the record straight: the following is fiction. Some of the quotes are real, but the story is not.)

KANSAS CITY (RotR) – In a stunning and unconventional move, the Royals announced today that closer Joakim Soria had been sent home and would not pitch the remainder of the season.

“He’s too rested to pitch,” manager Trey Hillman announced prior to Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays. “If he’s too rested to pitch today, then obviously we can’t pitch him today. And if he doesn’t pitch today, then he’ll be even more rested tomorrow, so he can’t pitch then either. After sitting down and doing the math, we realized that if you extend this line of reasoning into the future, that Soria will be too rested to pitch for every game the rest of the season. So we felt it was best to send Soria home and have him rest up for next year.”

Hillman indicated that the problem with Soria began on Friday night, when he was available to get three outs, but too rested to get four outs. Then on Saturday, Soria was available to get four outs, but too rested to get five outs. Hillman defended the apparent contradiction, saying, “I’m not going to bang my head against the wall defending things I do or do not do in trying to educate the masses about things that, quite frankly, I can’t educate. There’s just too much.”

By today, with Soria’s rest having extended to seven full days, the Royals acknowledged that even using him for one inning would be dangerous. “I’m not going to push our closer,” Hillman explained. “I have to save that for Gil Meche.”

When asked to clarify, Hillman said, “I’m not going to sell my soul to the devil for a guy who has already had two major arm injuries (in his career). Now, a guy who missed two entire seasons with a shoulder injury, and who has had back problems all year – that’s okay. It’s a scientific fact that high pitch counts are the best treatment for back problems – I got that straight from my medical staff. But you can’t ask a guy who had Tommy John surgery five years ago to get five outs in a game.”

“Well,” Hillman continued, “unless the game is in Minnesota and he hasn’t pitched in ten days and he was just complaining of a sore shoulder a few days before. But this time, Soria said his arm feels great. Obviously, we can’t take any chances with that.”

“I’m as frustrated as any fan that we have,” Hillman added. “We’re all frustrated. The bottom line is somebody has to get the job done in crunch time so our closer doesn’t have to go out there and get five or six outs. Or, really, go out there at all.”

Soria has returned to his native Mexico, where he will rest his arm in anticipation for spring training. “Don’t worry,” general manager Dayton Moore reassured. “We’re going to work day and night over the next seven months on a way out of this paradox, so that we can find a way for Soria to pitch for us next year. I’ve got two sabermetricians on staff working on this right now.”

Hillman ended on a positive note. “I think we’ll hardly miss not having Soria around to pitch the ninth,” he said. “The way our bullpen has been pitching, it’s not like there are going to be any ninth-inning leads to protect anyway.”