I’ll get back to my minor league review soon, but it’s been weeks since I discussed the happenings in the majors, so I felt I owed you all some updates.
- Thank God. Maybe Zack isn’t hurt after all.
I really had no reason to think he was, other than the fact that after pitching at an All-Star (if perhaps not Greinkesque) level for two months, only to be betrayed by his offense, defense, and bullpen, Greinke had only himself to blame in his last four starts. He gave up 19 runs in 20.1 innings, which is just as well, given that the Royals didn’t score a single run while he was in the game in any of those four starts.
But after the worst sustained streak of pitching from Greinke in two years (he gave up 21 runs in 24 innings over four starts in late May and early June, 2008), we had reason to be concerned. Maybe he was pressing, figuring he had to be perfect on every pitch given the lack of support from his teammates. Maybe it was just bad luck. Maybe it was a mechanical issue. Or maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t the same Zack Greinke anymore.
It appears that the correct answer was (c). As detailed here, Bob McClure had him raise his arms a little higher before he went into his motion before his start on Sunday. The result was 12 strikeouts and no walks, and a complete game in just 105 pitches. He did give up two homers to Joey Votto, but the first was a wall-scraper in a notoriously homer-friendly park, and the second came when he was just pounding the zone with strikes trying to close out a five-run lead in the ninth. Craig Brown has a good breakdown of his start here; I’ll just add that it was, in many ways, his best start of the season.
That isn’t to say he’s back to his 2009 form or anything. According to Fangraphs, the average velocity on his fastball this season (92.7) is a full 1.0 mph slower than last year, and the lowest since he returned from his sabbatical in 2006. Now, I don’t know if that is significant or not. Pitchers sometimes lose a little velocity for no reason, and sometimes it returns as mysteriously as it disappeared. It’s possible Greinke’s velocity is lower because he’s pacing himself more, much as he did when he first came to the majors. It’s certainly worth monitoring, but if he keeps striking out 12 batters a start, I won’t be all that preoccupied with how hard he’s throwing.
- It’s a moment that may one day occupy an exalted place in Royals’ lore, the day Luke Hochevar made his first start under new manager Ned Yost, who left him in there to work his way out of a jam in the seventh-inning, even as Hochevar coughed up 4 runs and the ballgame.
Afterwards, Yost made it clear that he left Hochevar in there, even if it meant losing a ballgame, because it was time Hochevar learned how to fight his way out of a jam:
“I told him, `Look, in those types of situations,’” Yost said, “`I’m going to let you pitch yourself out of trouble. You need to learn how. When you get yourself into those situations when you’re rolling, you need to learn how to get yourself out of those situations.’”
The message: Long-term gain is worth the short-term pain.
“That’s part of the plan coming in,” Yost said. “You manage two ways every night. You manage for the small picture. You do everything you can to win tonight, but you also manage for the big picture.
“We’re trying to change things around here. We’re trying to find ways to take ourselves to the next level…I’m pretty darn sure that Hoch is going to be a key part of that when we do get there.”
Well, since then Hochevar has made five starts, and in 35 innings has struck out 31 batters against just 6 walks. He’s given up more homers – five homers in five starts, as opposed to just one homer in his first eight starts. But the improvement in his control has made him more effective regardless. If the gist of Yost’s message was that Hochevar had to stop being a nibbler and start attacking hitters, the point got through.
And in the process, while Hochevar has been nicked up for runs here and there, he may have finally turned the corner when it comes to surrendering the big inning that has been his downfall for so long. Consider this: since giving up four runs in the seventh inning against the White Sox that night, Hochevar has not allowed 3 runs in any single inning since. He has now thrown 35 consecutive innings without allowing a three-spot. That’s the longest stretch of his career, surpassing a streak of 33.1 innings set as a rookie in early 2008.
Hochevar hasn’t gotten over the hump yet. But I suspect he’s standing at the top of it right now. The best is yet to come.
- The handling of Jason Kendall is just one more example of how, no matter how many of the little details the Royals are starting to get right, they still have a habit of making ridiculous decisions at the macro level due to an almost impossible dearth of common sense.
As Will McDonald has chronicled repeatedly throughout the season, Kendall has now caught 92.4% of the team’s innings this season, with Brayan Pena getting the other 7.6%. No other catcher in baseball has caught even 85% of his team’s innings this season. Kendall has started 61 of the team’s 64 games behind the plate – he’s on pace for 154 starts. No catcher has caught in 154 games – let alone started that many – since Carlton Fisk in 1978. Fisk started 150 games and relieved 4 times.
In the entire retrosheet era – from 1954 until today – only one player has ever started 154 games at catcher in one season: Randy Hundley, who in 1968 started 156 times. And given that the regular season was only 154 games long prior to 1954, Hundley is probably the only one.
Hundley, incidentally, hit .168/.228/.211 in his last 34 games, and finished with a line of .226/.280/.311. Even in the Year of the Pitcher, that was awful. The year before, he hit .267/.322/.403; the year after, he hit .255/.334/.391. I’m sure it was just a coincidence.
I see no reason to think that the Royals might change their approach. I’ve become quite the fan of Ned Yost, but let’s remember that two years ago, when Kendall started 149 games for the Brewers (most starts by any catcher since 1982) – Yost was his manager. Kendall hit .202/.295/.298 in September that year. (Granted, he hit rather lousy the whole season.)
This year, it doesn’t look like Kendall is waiting until September to let the effects of catching every. single. day. wear him down. Eight days ago he was hitting an impressive .299/.360/.361, and for all the complaints I had about signing him this winter, if he ends the season with a .360 OBP, I’ll happily eat my words about him. But in his last six games, Kendall has gone 1-for-25, dropping his seasonal numbers to .269/.328/.324, which is about what we could expect from him prior to the season.
If any other player, at any other position, were in a 1-for-25 slump, we’d expect them to have gotten a day off at some point, to clear their head if nothing else. Kendall has started every game since May 31st.
But at least his veteran influence is helping the pitching staff. After all, without him the Royals might not have the…uh…second-worst ERA in the American League? The Royals publicly stated that Kendall was brought in largely to help nurture the enigmatic arms of Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies. Hochevar, as discussed, has been better, but 1) he hasn’t been that much better, not yet; 2) he could have been expected to improve regardless of who was catching him; 3) the improvement we have seen from Hochevar seems to be temporally associated with the arrival of Yost, not Kendall. As for Davies, he has a 5.48 ERA and seems to be the same slightly-above-replacement-level starter he’s always been.
So, to recap: Jason Kendall is on pace to start more games behind the plate than any catcher in 40 years. His surprising bat is starting to go dead. His veteran influence and leadership have not translated into better pitching performances. He’s thrown out only 24% of opposing basestealers; the league average is 28%. He turns 36 in two weeks. He’s under contract for another season.
I stand by my original position: signing Kendall was a mistake. The sad thing is, it didn’t have to be. If the Royals would just show a modicum of restraint in the way they’re using Kendall, he might actually be an asset.
That’s the funny thing about common sense. It’s distinctly less common than you’d think.
- Speaking of stopgaps under contract for another season, Yuniesky Betancourt is…Yuniesky Betancourt is…it’s hard for me to write these words…playing better than I expected.
Admittedly, he could hardly have played worse. But as I write this, Yuni is batting .281/.310/.424. Those numbers are a dead ringer for his performances several years ago; in 2006, he hit .289/.310/.403, and in 2007, he hit .289/.308/.418. This is who he is at his best: a shortstop who can hit .280, and has more power than the Rey Sanchezes of the world, but whose abhorrence of the walk prevents him from being even a league-average hitter.
Having said that, I must concede that while his numbers this year are virtually identical to his numbers from 3 and 4 years ago, the value of those numbers is not, because the overall offensive numbers for the AL have dropped significantly this year. In 2006, the AL batting line as a whole was .275/.339/.437. This year, the average AL hitter has a line of .261/.332/.410. Those numbers figure to go up a little now that we’re into the warm part of the season, but that’s a very real drop, and it means that Betancourt’s numbers are better than they look.
Yuni, in fact, is challenging my statement that he’s “even a league-average hitter”. His OPS+ at the moment is 98, which is to say he’s a rounding error away from average. And that’s average for all hitters – it’s considerably above-average for a shortstop. (The line for all AL shortstops is .260/.316/.366.) Betancourt’s OPS+ is essentially the same as Alberto Callaspo and Mike Aviles, who both sport 99s at the moment.
Betancourt’s defense still rates as bad, and while I Am Not A Scout™, I’d be hard-pressed to argue with the statistics based on what I’ve seen. Betancourt has never had much of a problem ranging to the hole, but he has an almost comical lack of range to his left side. Basically, if there’s a ball hit up the middle, the only way it’s turning into an out is if 1) the Royals have the shift on, or 2) the second baseman can get to it. Yuni won’t.
Last year, Betancourt’s defense rated as 20 runs below average for the season, which is abysmal. This season, he’s on pace to be about 10 runs below average. Those numbers correspond, I think, to the general perception of his defense: better than last year, but still bad.
If he can maintain this pace, Betancourt’s going to make the Royals look awfully smart, and make a lot of analysts – myself included – look awfully dumb. A shortstop who hits around the overall league average, even with subpar defense, has value. To a team that was trotting Tony Pena Jr. out there this time last season, it has a lot more value. Given that Daniel Cortes, the main prospect the Royals surrendered to get him, has a 6.54 ERA in Double-A at the moment…you get the idea.
I remain unconvinced that Betancourt can continue to play this well. After the trade last season, in a larger sample size than we’ve seen this year, he hit .240/.269/.370. In 131 career games with the Royals, his line is .259/.288/.395. If that’s the real Yuni, then he remains a true liability for a team that can play Aviles at shortstop and wants to give Chris Getz the opportunity to prove himself every day.
But the possibility that Dayton Moore and the Royals will eventually be proven right about a trade that was savaged by everyone outside the organization – scouts, analysts, sportswriters, fans – has to be acknowledged. I’ve always tried to let the evidence guide my opinions, no matter where the evidence leads. If that means using my face to crack an egg, and washing that egg down with a black gamy bird, so be it.
At this point, the jury is still out. And I still hold out every hope that Christian Colon makes Betancourt expendable at the end of next season. I suspect the Royals feel the same way.
- Finally, to end on an inarguably happy note: David DeJesus is on pace for his finest season. In 17 games since the birth of his son, he’s hitting .429/.493/.619, bringing his seasonal line to .314/.392/.479. His numbers are eerily similar to Billy Butler’s, except of course he’s a fine-fielding corner outfielder as opposed to a below-average first baseman.
Bob Dutton has an article today which explores the Royals’ options when it comes to DeJesus, who can be kept for another season if they so choose. I plan to write about this more later, but of all the players the Royals might conceivably trade in the next 2 months – and there are a ton of them – DeJesus might be the only one whose absence would significantly hurt the team in 2011. If he is to be traded, it needs to be for quite a haul, particularly since whatever team trades for him would almost certainly get one draft pick (and possibly two) when he leaves for free agency.
I just wanted to bring DeJesus’ numbers to your attention because I think he’s one of the most underrated players in the history of the franchise. He’s spent the equivalent of about 6 full seasons on the team’s roster, and he’s beginning to enter the all-time Royals leaderboard in several categories.
He’s played in 847 games, 13th all-time, but just 50 games behind John Mayberry in 9th place.
He has 933 hits (9th).
He has 182 doubles (8th).
He has 45 triples (7th).
He has 489 runs (10th).
He has 383 RBIs (12th).
Heck, even his 61 career homers ranks 17th on the Royals’ list. And with 70 HBPs, he’s just 8 behind Mike Macfarlane’s team record.
So I’ll just throw this out there, and feel free to discuss in the comments. If DeJesus were traded tomorrow, I’d vote him to be included in the Royals’ Hall of Fame when he’s eligible. And I’m optimistic that one day he will find himself enshrined there.