The similarities between this season and last continue to impress. Like last year, the Royals lost on Opening Day when their bullpen blew a late-inning lead, which caused a fanbase that long expected the worst (including yours truly) to overreact to one game. Then, like last year, the Royals got two more dominant starting pitching performances in their next two games.
The difference is that last year, the Royals got good work from their non-Farnsworth relievers in Games Two and Three, and won both games. (It’s easy to forget this, but through May 17th of last year, Juan Cruz had a 1.45 ERA and had allowed just 7 hits in 19 innings.) The bullpen implosion would come later.
There’s no need for patience this year. You’ve probably seen this graphic, but to reiterate:
Starters: 19.2 innings, 2 ER, 0.92 ERA
Relievers: 9.1 innings, 14 ER, 13.50 ERA
But I don’t want to ignore the contribution that the starting pitchers have made. That the bullpen has blown saves in all three games so far is testament to their decrepitude, but it’s also a testament to a rotation that has allowed the Royals to hold a lead after six innings in each game*, despite an offense that has only scored 10 runs in 3 games.
*: Back in 1999, the year the Royals had The Worst Bullpen of All Time, the team had a 73-68 record after six innings. As Joe Posnanski put it in a column the following spring, “the Royals would have been if they were playing slow-pitch softball.” But they weren’t, and they finished 64-97. This year, the Royals are 3-0 after six innings…and 1-2 overall. That 1999 team’s record seems impossible to break, and this year’s Royals at least have Soria. But as Buddy Bell said…
Zack Greinke, in fact, has had the worst performance by a starter so far. Yesterday Brian Bannister did what he always does when he’s healthy – do more with less than any Royals pitcher since at least Paul Byrd, and before him probably Dan Quisenberry. Bannister didn’t show us anything we didn’t already know so much as he reminded us that he’s still one of the most underrated pitchers around.
But what Luke Hochevar did on Wednesday night…that was something different. I’m not referring to the results, which were spectacular – 7.2 shutout innings, and 16 groundball outs vs. just 4 in the air. As outstanding as he pitched, he pitched that well or better three times last year – that’s what makes him, and his 6.55 ERA last season, so maddening. Plus, the weather was miserable – cold and rainy – which may have had something to do with the results.
What was different was his stuff. Or more specifically, his velocity. I knew something was up when the radar gun had his fastball consistently at 96 mph in the first inning. As I tweeted at the time, it was probably just a FOX gun hiccup – I haven’t taken the FOX gun seriously since the time it recorded Carlos Silva (Carlos Silva!) at 98. But Nate Bukaty, who tracks the game in the FOX truck when he’s not co-hosting his morning radio show on 810 WHB, tweeted back his assurances that the gun was accurate. And none of the other pitchers in the game were getting the same kind of tailwind – Max Scherzer, the opposing starter, was consistently 92-94 as you’d expect him to be.
There was only way to settle this – with Pitch F/X data, which isn’t perfect but is pretty damn close to it. I wasn’t the only one who had noticed Hochevar’s velocity – yesterday, Dave Allen of Fangraphs wrote this column analyzing the data. His conclusion: Hochevar is definitely throwing faster than he was last season; his fastball is as much as 2.5 mph faster than in 2009.
I’m skeptical that his fastball has jumped quite that much; while the velocities of other pitchers were more or less unchanged, Joakim Soria hit 92 and even 93 a couple of times, and his fastball is so consistent you could set a metronome to it – 90 on a slow day, 91 on a fast day. We’ll definitely want to see more data. But there’s no question that he was throwing harder than he ever had in the majors. Bob McClure worked on his delivery this spring, and Hochevar threw harder before he was drafted than after he signed, so this isn’t completely out of the blue. But it is a very, very welcome development. Before the season I said on Bukaty’s show that I felt this would be Hochevar’s breakout season. And I think Hochevar is the single most pivotal player on the roster this season. He won’t always be this good, but he can’t possibly be as bad as he was last year. If he’s closer to the former than the latter, the Royals just found themselves another quality starter.
That’s the good news. The bad news is…everything else.
- Well, okay, Soria’s performance wasn’t exactly bad news. Yes, he blew the save and cost Hochevar a victory with one strike to go. But there’s no way you can watch that at-bat and come to the conclusion that Soria was at fault. The only conclusion you can come to is that Miguel Cabrera is a very bad, bad mofo. That was a rather ridiculous piece of hitting – both fouling off everything Soria had to throw at him, and flicking an outside fastball off the right-field fair pole. Cabrera is a remarkably talented hitter who apparently has sobered up after possibly costing the Tigers a playoff spot with his drunken antics last season. If early results mean anything, he could be positively scary this season.
(While I’m on the subject of the Tigers – is Joel Zumaya’s shoulder made out of adamantium? The guy has had enough shoulder injuries to destroy most pitchers’ careers – and here he is, in his first outing after another shoulder injury, pumping 102 mph. I don’t get it.)
- More brilliant baserunning by the Royals in Game 2, when Jason Kendall made the third out of the inning trying to go from first-to-third on Getz’ RBI single. And then, on Rick Ankiel’s walk-off double, Willie Bloomquist – who had just pinch-run for Billy Butler – rounded third base hard, then held up at the last moment at Dave Owen’s orders, but Ankiel was already halfway between second and third. The Royals were saved when Scott Sizemore booted the relay throw, and the game ended. But if Sizemore had handled it cleanly, either the Royals would have had two men at third base, or Bloomquist was a dead duck at the plate. It was a terrible piece of coaching in a crucial situation that should have cost the Royals dearly.
It’s still the first week of the season, but it’s not too early to say this given his history: it’s time to tear down the Windmill. Dave Owen is costing the Royals runs with his decisions at third base, and eventually those runs will turn into wins.
- I’ve been impressed with Jose Guillen’s bat speed; he seems to be turning on fastballs as well as he did in 2008. Of course, in 2008 he was still a below-average hitter because he swung at everything, and I don’t see any reason to think that will change this year.
Case in point: in Game 2, after Cabrera had tied the game in the top of the 9th, Ankiel led off the bottom of the inning with a single. Lefty specialist Phil Coke stayed in to face Guillen, fell behind 3-1, and then threw a fastball low and away which would have put two men on with none out. Instead, Guillen didn’t just swing at the fastball, he tried to pull it, resulting in an easy 6-4-3 double play to kill the rally.
- I don’t care what anyone else says: no one can protect a four-run deficit in the ninth inning better than Kyle Farnsworth. No one.
Tie games in the 11th inning, on the other hand…in the span of five pitches, Farnsworth had managed to give up three singles and give the Tigers the lead. To his credit, he stopped the rally there, sandwiching two popouts around a savvy pickoff of Cabrera trying to commit to a double-steal too soon. He came away with the win, further debasing the uselessness of pitcher wins as a stat, but he still has no business pitching in a key situation.
- That is, unless the alternative is Luis Mendoza. You have to love the thought process here: yesterday afternoon, with the Royals clinging to a 2-1 lead in the top of the 8th inning and with Soria likely unavailable, Dusty Hughes walked Johnny Damon to lead off the 8th. (The Royals must lead the league in opposing rallies started by leadoff walks. Unfortunately, they have yet to learn the use of this weapon in their own arsenal.)
Four of the next five hitters bat right-handed, prompting a switch. It is at this point that Trey Hillman makes the genius move, not to bring in Juan Cruz, or Robinson Tejeda, or Roman Colon or even Farnsworth, but instead to bring in Mendoza.
Luis Mendoza was making his Royals debut. Mendoza, in 80 career innings, had a 7.73 ERA. Last season, he pitched only one inning for the Rangers, and gave up four runs. He spent the rest of the season toiling in Triple-A, where he managed a sparkling 4.53 ERA. His career ERA in the minors is 4.58. He’s like Roman Colon’s little brother: he’s shown no aptitude at retiring hitters in the majors or even in the minors, yet the Royals not only were thrilled to get him, they immediately used him in a one-run game, in the eighth inning, with a man on base, and with Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Freaking Cabrera due up next.
- Miguel Cabrera then hits a groundball to shortstop, where Yuniesky Betancourt immediately boots it. This was an obvious, clear, no-doubt-about-it error, and was scored as such at first, before the official scorer inexplicably decided to change it to a base hit. (There are conflicting reports as to the model of shotgun that Dayton Moore had wedged between the scorer’s shoulder blades at the time.) This set up Cabrera to hit another opposite-field homer, this time on an 0-2 count.
This wouldn’t end the Luis Mendoza show; Mendoza would give up a pair of doubles and a walk in the ninth, and then Colon would use his new magical slider to give up a single, a walk, and hit a batter before finally getting the last out in the ninth. Mendoza is currently tied for the league lead with 5 earned runs allowed this year. His career ERA is now 8.13.
- Betancourt’s error-turned-hit merely underscores that the Royals are incomplete denial about how bad his defense is. Twice on Opening Day, he had to lunge to pick up groundballs that weren’t more than ten feet to his left. He managed to get to both of them, but his lack of range was shocking – all the more so because we were told that his lateral movement had improved this spring.
His defense is a joke at this point. The Royals can call him Ozzie Smith for all I care; he is not a major-league caliber shortstop.
- Oh, and in regards to his plate discipline after his Opening Day home run? Yesterday, the Royals mounted a rally in the bottom of the eighth, scoring a run and putting the tying run on third base with one out for Betancourt. He immediately swung at the first pitch and hit a routine grounder to the shortstop, forcing the runner to stay at third. The Royals helped hide his failure by giving up three more runs in the 9th, but the fact remains that his offensive game remains as unrefined – and seemingly uninterested in improving – as his defense.
Fortunately, his replacement is on the roster. In three games so far, Mike Aviles has one base-running appearance and zero at-bats. But he’s doing better than Mitch Maier, who hasn’t played at all.
I don’t mean to sound too down. The Royals are 1-2, and their bullpen is a shambles as expected. But tonight they send Kyle Davies to the mound, who is certainly erratic but compares favorably with almost any #5 starter in baseball. The day after Gil Meche and his rapidly-improving shoulder debuts, and then the rotation turns back to Greinke. (Correction: Greinke goes tomorrow, and Meche on Sunday. Always good to get the reigning Cy Young winner the opportunity to pitch as often as possible.)
Every day the Royals send a starter to the mound who has the ability to turn over a lead to the bullpen. Now they just need a bullpen capable of holding onto it.