Monday, December 14, 2009

Kendall, Dayton, and Common Sense.

It looks like I owe all of you an apology.

In my last column, I argued that “I’m okay with” the Royals downgrading from John Buck to Jason Kendall. My argument was predicated on the notion that the Royals wanted Kendall for financial reasons more than performance reasons – that signing Kendall would save money, money that could be spent on signing young talent like Noel Arguelles.

Once again, my naïveté has shown through. Once again, I have given Dayton Moore and the Royals entirely too much credit by assuming they have mastered simple mathematics.

If Kendall had signed a 1-year, $2 million contract, I would have, if not praised the move, at least been indifferent towards it. Kendall is a barely replacement-level catcher and has been for years, but he’s a reasonable one-year stopgap as the Royals continue to evaluate Brayan Pena and look for more permanent options behind the plate.

The Royals gave Kendall a two-year deal, and after being led to believe that the contract was for $2 million a year, we learned that Kendall was actually guaranteed $3 million a year (with incentives!), essentially the same contract Ivan Rodriguez received from the Washington Nationals a few days before.

This is just so wrong, on so many levels, that I don’t know how to sum up my thoughts. I can’t keep writing five-thousand-word screeds every time Moore makes the Royals the laughingstock of baseball, and besides, I’m at the point where I’m repeating myself every time I write about a player acquisition. It’s hard not to repeat myself when the Royals keep repeating themselves.

Still, as a general rule of thumb, any time the Royals make a move that inspires friends to send emails of condolences and #royalsfail to become a trending topic on Twitter, I have to write something.

“The bottom line for me in my career is I want to win.” – Jason Kendall.

Let’s start with the basics. Jason Kendall hit .241/.331/.305 this season. This was not an aberration. He hit .246/.327/.324 last year, .242/.301/.309 the year before that. You have to go back to 2006 to find something remotely approaching a decent season, when Kendall hit .295/.367/.342 for the A’s.

Look at those numbers again. Kendall has not been able to slug .330 for three straight years. Joey Gathright has slugged .330 more recently than Kendall. Kendall has not slugged .350 since 2004, his final year with the Pirates.

The last player to qualify for the batting title while slugging under .330 for three straight seasons is Walt Weiss, who did so between 1993 and 1995. During those three seasons, Weiss’ OBP was .370. Kendall’s OBP the last three years is .320.

Granted, Kendall was an OBP fiend in his younger days. In his nine years with the Pirates he had a .387 OBP, and even now he’s good for a walk every 10 at-bats or so, plus he sweetens his OBP each year with 10 or 15 hit-by-pitches. (He’s just 40 HBPs away from the all-time record.) Kendall drew more walks (46) last season than Miguel Olivo drew (40) in the last three seasons combined.

I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of walks and plate discipline, and with good reason, given that the Royals have been the most impatient team in baseball by a wide margin over the past quarter-century. But as important as walks are, they are not the most important offensive skill, not even close. Power is. And Kendall is as powerless as any everyday player in the majors. As Joe Posnanski tweeted, Olivo hit more homers last year (23) than Kendall has hit in the last EIGHT seasons (20).

Also keep in mind that Kendall’s walk rate is larded with walks of the intentional-unintentional variety. Last year he started 94 games in the 8th spot in the lineup, batting directly ahead of the pitcher, and undoubtedly some of his walks came in situations where the opposing pitcher was willing to nibble and take his chances with his counterpart at the plate if Kendall didn’t bite. In the American League, pitchers are going to go right after him. (I don’t want to overstate this effect. Kendall’s unintentional walk rate when batting eighth the last three seasons is 7.8 BB/100 AB – the same as his overall rate.)

Look, Kendall was a great player once upon a time. Ten years ago he was one of the best catchers, and one of my favorite players, in all of baseball. As a catcher with ideal leadoff skills – a .400 OBP and good speed – he was one of the game’s most unique players. But that player is long, long gone. Kendall doesn’t have a fork sticking out of him – he has an entire cutlery set.

Yuniesky Betancourt had the lowest OBP (.274) of any qualifying major leaguer last season. Jason Kendall had the lowest SLG (.305) of any qualifying major leaguer. The Royals are planning to use both players in everyday roles in 2010. And they’re paying each of them millions for the privilege.

On top of everything else, as the quote above proves, Kendall is clearly delusional.

“He’s still going very strong. He caught 134 games last year.” – Dayton Moore.

If Kendall’s playing time had diminished with his skills, his performance record wouldn’t look all that unusual – formerly great catcher worn down in his early 30s and reduced to backup status. Really, the most interesting thing about Kendall may be the fact that even as he’s been reduced to the worst-hitting regular in baseball, he hasn’t lost a bit of playing time. On the contrary – he’s caught at least 132 games for 10 straight seasons. Last year, he ranked 5th in the majors in games caught. In 2008, he caught 149 games, and started every one. No catcher has started more games in a season since Gary Carter started behind the plate 151 times in 1982.

You can't spell durability without ability, but apparently you can have durability without ability. Kendall is an exceedingly durable catcher – but his performance is so bad that his durability is more a liability than an asset. And not only does his performance discount his durability, but his durability is probably hindering his performance. In 2007, Kendall hit .183/.279/.233 from September 1st on. In 2008, he hit .202/.295/.298; last year, he hit .214/.298/.321.

Catching 130+ games is hard enough on a young catcher – witness Russell Martin’s second-half fades the last few years – but it seems like madness to expect, or even want, a catcher in his mid-30s to play so often. Particularly when he’s not exactly Mike Piazza with the stick.

If there’s one reason to think Kendall could bounce back and hit roughly as well as he did earlier in his career, it would be based on the idea that if Kendall’s workload were cut back to 100-110 games caught, he might be fresher and hit better. Unfortunately, the Royals seem as eager to run Kendall into the ground as his last two teams were. God forbid the Royals should give Brayan Pena an extended chance to show if he can be more than just a backup catcher in the majors.

“There were other offers, but one thing about Dayton and the Royals is they called me the first day I became a free agent. That’s something that kind of speaks for itself.” – Jason Kendall.

Everything I wrote above I could have written a few days ago, when I was ambivalent about signing Kendall. What’s changed are the economics, which are driving me up a wall.

Jason Kendall is going to make $6 million over the next two years. In baseball terms, this isn’t a lot of money. That’s the same amount of money the Royals paid Yasuhiko Yabuta the last two seasons, and as bad as that contract was, it merited hardly a footnote in the disaster that was the 2009 season.

But in terms of what it says about the Royals front office, it speaks volumes. Jason Kendall is the very definition of a replacement-level talent. According to Baseball Prospectus, he was worth 0.5 wins more than the mythical emergency Triple-A player in 2009. For an everyday player, that’s atrocious, and a sign that he really shouldn’t be an everyday player anymore.

That didn’t stop the Royals from contacting Kendall as soon as they were allowed to, pursuing him throughout the winter meetings, and upping their offer from $2 million to $3 million a year once Ivan Rodriguez had signed with the Nationals. (Because you should always allow your contract offers to be influenced by peer pressure. Especially peers who don’t know what they’re doing either.)

Let’s consider the options the Royals had at the catching position in 2010:

1) Pick up Miguel Olivo’s $3.3 million option for 2010. Yes, Olivo might have declined his end of it, but at least you can try.

2) Go to arbitration with John Buck, at an estimated cost of $3.5 million for 2010.

3) Release Buck, then try to re-sign him for less than he would have earned in arbitration.

4) Trade for a stopgap-solution catcher, whether it be someone with upside like Dioner Navarro or a failed prospect like J.R. Towles or a catch-and-throw type like Jeff Mathis.

5) Sign a low-end free-agent catcher (Mike Redmond? Ramon Castro?) to a one-year deal for peanuts.

6) Guarantee $6 million to Jason Kendall.

The Royals, with their usual deadly accuracy, honed in on the worst option of the six.

Over the last three years, here’s the breakdown of Olivo, Buck, and Kendall:

Olivo: .246/.276/.444

Buck: .228/.305/.414

Kendall: .243/.320/.313

Kendall defenders will point out that he has the highest OBP of the trio, and OBP is the most important offensive stat. These are both technically true. But there is a big difference between “most important” and “only”. OBP is more important than slugging average on a point-for-point basis. The general consensus is that one point of OBP is worth about 1.8 points of SLG. On that basis, even though Olivo has a higher OPS than Buck (720 to 719), Buck’s 29-point edge in OBP is worth more than Olivo’s 30-point edge in SLG.

But is Kendall’s 15-point edge in OBP enough to make up for Buck’s 101-point edge in SLG? Not even close. I’ve been preaching the gospel of OBP to the Royals for 20 years, and even I don’t think that Kendall’s going to put as many runs on the scoreboard as Buck.

Defense? Yeah, Buck only threw out 16% of attempted basestealers last season. Kendall threw out 20%. He was much better in 2008, nailing 43% of wannabe thieves, but in 2007 Kendall was down at 15%.

Think Kendall does a better job at preventing wild pitches and blocking the plate? Our own Matt Klaassen compiled the definitive rankings on overall catcher defense for 2009. Using his methods, Olivo was the second-worst catcher (out of 114) in all of baseball last season. Buck was ninth-worst.

Kendall was tenth-worst. He was exactly 0.3 runs – not wins, runs – better than Buck.

Think Kendall is better at calling a game? We’ve been through this before. As Keith Woolner – you know, the guy the Indians hired to be their Manager of Baseball Research and Analysis – proved 10 years ago, “if there is a true game-calling ability, it lies below the threshold of detection.” There’s no evidence that any catcher – let alone Jason Kendall – has the ability to get a better performance from his pitchers than another.

Kendall is 35 years old. Olivo is 31. Buck is 29.

The only reason to prefer Kendall would have been for financial reasons. By signing Kendall for $3 million a year, the Royals either didn’t understand the finances involved, or honestly thought Kendall was the best player of the three.

Now, there’s a line of reasoning I’ve heard expressed – by Sam Mellinger on Twitter, but I heard this from other people at the Winter Meetings – that teams can’t non-tender a player and then expect to re-sign him for less money. Once you release a player, the conventional wisdom states, you’ve made it clear what you think of that player, and he’s likely to sign elsewhere even if the money is the same, in order to get a fresh start. Historically, players that were non-tendered almost never re-signed with their old team.

My reply when I heard this at the Winter Meetings is this: the conventional wisdom also states that Type A free agents don’t accept arbitration – except that Rafael Soriano did, forcing the Braves to trade him to Tampa Bay. The economics of baseball are changing and changing rapidly, and to expect that the rules that applied five years ago will apply today is naïve. Players understand the economics of the game as well the owners do – if the Royals told Buck that “we can’t afford you at $3.5 million, but we can afford you at $2.5 million”, he would understand it’s business, not personal, and evaluate the merits of the offer in that light.

My reply today is much more succinct. Just read this.

What bothers me most is that the Royals didn’t even try to re-sign Buck for less. They kept him on their active roster right up until the deadline to tender contracts, even though they knew they were going to release him. I am utterly baffled why, knowing they were unwilling to pay his arbitration, they didn’t release him before or during the winter meetings. If they had, they would have 1) found out what Buck’s market value was, and if – as I suspected – it was less than the $3.5 million figure, they could have reconsidered signing him; 2) by putting Buck in the talent pool, they would have increased the supply of catchers, possibly lowering the price of all the other catchers on the market.

Instead, the Royals signed Kendall, then released Buck.

Remember Dioner Navarro, who the Rays were rumored to consider non-tendering because he would cost too much in arbitration? Navarro made $2.1 million last year, and this article implies that he was expected to get $2.5 to $3 million in arbitration this year. Before the deadline, using the non-tender threat as leverage, the Rays re-signed Navarro for $2.15 million – less than he would have gotten in arbitration, but more than he might have gotten as a free agent. There is no evidence that the Royals even tried this gambit.

When I started writing this piece, I intended to say that Buck wasn’t going to last long on the market, because a catcher who just slugged .484 is a valuable commodity. As you know, before I could even post this column the Blue Jays swooped in and signed Buck – less than 24 hours after he was released. Buck signed for one year, and $2 millon. (Late add: Toronto just inked Ramon Castro to a one-year deal for $1 million. The Blue Jays just put together a job-sharing arrangement much like the Royals had last year - Castro is sort of like Olivo without the hype - for the same money that the Royals will be paying Kendall alone. Remember, Royals catchers hit 31 homers last season. Next year...not so many.)

Would Buck have signed with Toronto if the Royals offered $2 million? Probably, if he wanted a fresh start with a team that doesn’t lose 95 games every year. Would he have signed with Toronto if the Royals offered $2.5 million? Unless there’s some serious bad blood between him and the team, I doubt it. Money talks; wins just sort of whisper.

So in the end, the Royals guaranteed a 35-year-old catcher who can’t hit three times more money than their 29-year-old incumbent, who is demonstrably a better player, signed for just days later.

It’s the second year on this contract that kills me. I love how the Royals have backloaded it – Kendall gets paid $2.25 million in 2010, $3.75 million in 2011 – in order to fit their budget for next season. It’s reminiscent of the blue-collar worker taking out a payday loan at 140% interest to tide him through until his next paycheck. Sure, Kendall fits into the Royals’ payroll for now. But next year, when $20 million comes off the budget in the form of Guillen, Farnsworth, Cruz, and Bloomquist – well, Moore’s already blown 20% of that flexibility on a replacement-level catcher.

Next year’s free agent market looks much stronger than this year’s, and some teams are already getting ready. Between Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis, and Nate Robertson, the Tigers have about $55 million in payroll relief they can look to use next off-season. The Tigers are still looking to further pare down payroll – they traded Curtis Granderson for financial reasons, without significantly hurting their team’s long-term future. The Tigers are like the neighbor that uses its tax rebate to pay down credit-card debt. The Royals are like the neighbor that spends their rebate check in one afternoon of watching QVC.

I’ve learned that if I’m going to continue this blog going forward, I’m going to have to detach myself emotionally from the Royals. I have to think like an analyst first and a fan second. As fan, I hate this move, but as an analyst…well, I still hate this move. Kevin Goldstein hates this move. Keith Law hates this move. Joe Posnanski ha…okay, dislikes this move, because Poz doesn’t hate. Any baseball analyst worth his salt hates this move, because we hate it when teams make dumb moves. This is a dumb move. More than that, it is a move that defies logic.

I write this with as little emotion as possible: Dayton Moore, you’re in over your head. You’d make a fine Scouting Director; your ability to acquire minor league talent is admirable. Whether it’s signing Arguelles or drafting Edgar Osuna in the Rule 5 draft, you continue to do well on that front. (Osuna is a worthwhile gamble – he’s just 22 years old, and as long as the Royals don’t slot him as a LOOGY – his best pitches are a changeup and a curveball, so not surprisingly he actually gets RHB out better than LHB – he’ll be useful in relief, with the upside to start one day.)

But you simply aren’t hacking it as a GM, and you won’t until you stop needlessly provoking the most powerful force in all of sports: Common Sense. (I capitalize it out of respect for its power.) You insist on battling Common Sense every few months, and each time you get plastered like Glass Joe taking on Manny Pacquiao. It doesn’t matter how good you are at player development, or at building the framework of a farm system – if you continue to take shots at Common Sense, it will destroy you. It isn’t something to trifle with.

Common Sense is so powerful that, with little more than it on his side, a Chicago dermatologist with no access to the inside workings of your front office has taken you on half-a-dozen times, and hasn’t been wrong yet. I (and everyone else) was right about Kyle Farnsworth. I (and everyone else) was right about Mike Jacobs. I (and everyone else) was right about Yuniesky Betancourt. (Okay, it’s still early. We can revisit that one later if you want.) I was right about Horacio Ramirez. I was right about Jose Guillen, although I can’t link to anything because you signed him before I started this blog.

Yes, you were right about Gil Meche, at least at first – evidently it emboldened you to take on Common Sense on a regular basis ever since. But I (and everyone else) was right about the insanity of letting Gil Meche throw 121 pitches coming off a tired arm.

I think that’s what so disappointing about this move. It’s not the money. It’s not the fact that nearly four years after Moore took over this team, the Royals have a projected starting lineup for next season which includes Jason Kendall, Yuniesky Betancourt, Mitch Maier, and Jose Guillen, and we’re still told to trust The Process. It’s not the fact that we’re supposed to cut the Royals slack for signing Kendall because after all these years, the Royals still haven’t developed a catcher in their farm system, and we’re also not supposed to notice that the Royals passed on two of the greatest collegiate catchers of all time in Matt Wieters and Buster Posey, either of whom would be starting for the Royals on Opening Day.

It’s the fact that after getting his head handed to him by Common Sense last winter, after every head-scratching move turned out as bad, if not worse, than Moore’s fiercest critics predicted they would – Moore is determined to pick another fight. I’m sure the Royals have all their internal reasons for preferring Kendall over Buck, and I’m sure they’re all valid reasons. They’re just not that important, not nearly as important as Buck’s 100-plus point edge in slugging average.

The Royals always have valid reasons for the ridiculous moves they make – they’re just not important reasons. Yes, Farnsworth was a strikeout pitcher and throws really, really hard – but those facts couldn’t overcome his history of 4-plus ERAs. Yes, Mike Jacobs has light-tower power when he hits the ball just right – but that fact couldn’t overcome his .299 OBP. Yes, Yuniesky Betancourt looks great in a uniform – but that fact couldn’t overcome the fact that he sucks.

And yes, Jason Kendall might be a gamer and gritty and hard-nosed and never begs out of the lineup and gives 110%. But those facts won’t overcome the fact that he’s cooked.

If Moore wants to challenge Common Sense one more time, well, it’s not my job on the line. And maybe after Kendall hits so poorly in 2010 that the Royals have to eat the $3.75 million he’s due in 2011, and after Buck has the best season of his career in 2010 (call it a hunch), Moore will learn his lesson.

Or maybe next winter he’ll just replace Kendall with Jason Varitek. Now there’s a guy who knows how to win.


Barring any more major moves from the Royals this month – we can all hope – this is likely my last post of the year. Please allow me to wish all of you a safe, happy, and altogether wonderful holiday season.