Saturday, July 17, 2010

Royals Today: All-Star Break Edition.

The All-Star Break is a good time to reflect, so here are some reflections on the Royals over the season’s first half.

- I’ll admit to thinking that the sky was caving in when Zack Greinke was scratched from his Sunday start, after we had already learned that he had felt something weird in his shoulder after he had made an awkward throw on a fielding play in his previous start.

But he made his start as promised last night, and while the results were ugly early, he retired nine of the last ten batters he faced, three by strikeout. I was unable to watch the game, but the reaction I got from Royals fans on Twitter was that he was just missing his spots early in the game. My hope is that he was just tentative early on, and once he realized that he wasn’t feeling any pain on his throws, he felt more confident as the game progressed.

Greinke insisted after his start that his shoulder felt fine, but we’ll have to see if he has any flare-ups of his shoulder pain over the next start or two. But if he doesn’t, then we have to credit the Royals for learning their lesson, and doing the cautionary and sensible thing last Sunday. Ideally, such a lesson wouldn’t have cost them the services of their second-best starter, and the last half of a $55 million contract. But at least they learned their lesson well.

- It’s a compliment to Billy Butler, I suppose, that he’s hitting .321 (just a point outside of the league’s top 10), he’s hit 26 doubles (fifth in the league), he’s missed just one game all year…and his season still has the faint whiff of a disappointment.

Maybe we expect too much from Butler. I mean, he’s hitting .321/.388/.480; his 868 OPS is higher than last year, and that’s even though offense is significantly down in the AL as a whole – his OPS+ has jumped from 124 to 135. His defensive numbers, if you trust those things, are much better as well. He wasn’t a deserving All-Star, not when you compare him to the other first baseman in the American League. But he’s a heck of a player.

Quietly, he has cut his strikeout rate by 27% from last year – he’s on pace to strike out 74 times this year after 104 strikeouts last year – while walking at a slightly higher rate. That’s not a small thing, and speaks highly to his ability to continue to hit .320 or better in the future.

But there is one downside to making so much contact, and that’s where the whiff of a disappointment is coming from. More contact means more double play opportunities, and Butler leads the major leagues with 21 GIDPs. Pablo Sandoval, who’s pretty similar as a hitter to Butler, is the only other player with more than 16 GIDPs.

Butler, in fact, had grounded in 21 double plays just 76 games into the season. By comparison, in 1991, John Olerud led the AL with 21 GIDPs for the entire season. We have GIDP data going back to at least the mid-1950s, and only two players in history have grounded into that many double plays in his team’s first 76 games. Jim Rice, of course, did it in both 1984 (23) and 1985 (26). Rice would finish those two seasons with 36 and 35 GIDPs – which are still the two highest GIDP totals in history. The other was a guy named Sid Gordon, who as a rookie third baseman for the New York Giants had 22 GIDPs in his team’s first 76 games in 1943.

Gordon would play in 58 more games the rest of the season and would only have 4 more GIDPs, which speaks to an important point – GIDPs are the result of luck and circumstance as well as “talent”, and it’s unrealistic to expect Butler to continue to ground into double plays at this rate. In fact, Butler hasn’t hit into one in his last 13 games.

Still, this is the player Butler has always been – he’s right-handed, he’s slow, and he hits the ball on the ground a lot. He ranked sixth in the league with 23 GIDPs in 2008, and only played 124 games. Last year, he ranked ninth with 20 GIDPs. Even when he was winning a batting title in Double-A at the age of 20, he hit into 25 double plays in just 119 games. (Alex Gordon was batting in front of him all season, so he certainly batted with a man on first base a lot.) While it’s unlikely that Butler will continue on his current pace, which would have him breaking Rice’s all-time record*, he’ll probably end up with around 32 GIDPs, which would tie him for third on the single-season list.

*: After all these years of waiting for some Royal to break Steve Balboni’s sad record of 36 homers in a season, how awesome would it be if someone broke Jim Rice’s GIDP record first? If the Royals can’t have a player hit 37 homers, at least they can have one that hits into 37 double plays.

Butler may be doomed to always hurt his teams by grounding to a couple dozen double plays a season, like Rice, or like Gordon, who would lead the NL in GIDPs three times in his career. But there is another path he can follow, a path best represented by Carl Yastrzemski.

I don’t want to overstate the similarities between Butler and Yaz, who after all was a left-handed hitter and was considerably more athletic than Billy. But as young hitters, they are eerily alike. Both were rookies at the age of 21. At the age of 22 and 23, Yaz hit a combined 33 homers, Butler 22. At the age of 23, Yaz hit .321 and led the league with 40 doubles. At the age of 23, Butler hit .301 and finished second in the league with 51 doubles.

At the age of 22, Yaz led the league with 27 GIDPs; Butler might well have led the league two years ago if he hadn’t spent a month in Triple-A. And at the age of 24, both players hit into their 21st GIDP of the season in their 75th game.

Yaz would finish the season with 30 GIDPs, which at the time was the second-highest total on record, behind Bobby Doerr’s 31 in 1949. (What is it with Red Sox and high GIDP totals?)

But Yaz would never hit into 30 double plays again. He would never hit into even 20 double plays again. The following year he had 16 GIDPs, then 17, and then, in his Triple Crown year of 1967, he hit into just 5. After hitting 15 homers at age 24, he hit 20 and 16 the following two years (but led the league in doubles both years), and then broke out with 44 homers.

So without doing extensive research into Yastrzemski’s groundball/flyball tendencies, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that as he got older, as he matured as a hitter, Yaz learned to elevate the ball more. It remains to be seen if Butler can do the same, but he’s an immensely talented hitter, and as Yaz showed, it has been done before.

- After losing again last night, the Royals are back to .500 under Ned Yost, at 27-27. That’s still an impressive accomplishment, to take a team that was 12-23 when he was hired and have them play .500 ball for nearly two months.

The biggest difference between the Trey Hillman Royals and the Ned Yost Royals appears to be the performance of the bullpen, whose struggles under Hillman, as you might recall, was the subject of at least one article here.

Except I’m not sure that the improvement in the bullpen can be traced to the managerial switch. For one thing, the bullpen’s improvement started not when Hillman was fired on May 13th, but on May 1st, when the relievers combined for five scoreless innings in an 11-inning win against Tampa Bay.

In April, the bullpen combined to give up 87 hits and 51 walks in 73 innings, leading to a 6.16 ERA and 7 bullpen losses. And that includes Joakim Soria, who allowed just 3 runs and 10 baserunners in 11 innings.

But from May 1st until the day Hillman was fired, the bullpen had a 3.22 ERA in 36 innings, and the only blown save and loss in that span can be pinned on Soria, who allowed back-to-back homers to the Rangers in that wild 12-11 game in Arlington.

Since Yost took over, the bullpen has continued to pitch very well, despite some recent hiccups – since May 14th, the bullpen has thrown 160 innings, allowed 148 hits and 54 walks, struck out 111 men, and allowed a 3.26 ERA (and just one unearned run.) A bullpen that was on a record pace of futility a month into the season now has a 4.04 ERA for the year, just a fraction off the AL bullpen average of 3.98.

But is this really the manager’s doing? Compare the bullpen of today with the bullpen of Opening Day:

Same: Soria, Robinson Tejeda, Kyle Farnsworth, Dusty Hughes

Shipped out: Luis Mendoza, Juan Cruz, Roman Colon, John Parrish

Brought in: Blake Wood, Kanekoa Texeira, Victor Marte

Of the four holdovers, Soria is Soria, but the other three saw dramatic turnarounds after April. Dusty Hughes got off to a rough start, allowing six runs in his first six appearances, but started to turn the corner on April 20th, throwing 5.2 scoreless innings the rest of the month.

Farnsworth was pretty bad in April – 13 hits, 4 walks in 10 innings with a 4.82 ERA – but was Marianish relative to Tejeda, who in 9 innings allowed 14 hits and 13 walks. Batters hit .368/.519/.533 against Tejeda in April. Since May 1st, Farnsworth has allowed just 20 hits and 6 walks in 29 innings, with a 1.55 ERA; Tejeda has been even better, allowing 20 hits and 9 walks in 32 innings, and he has an 0.84 ERA since the beginning of May.

But again, all three pitchers started turning their seasons around before Hillman was fired. (The rumor with Tejeda is that he started pitching lights-out after the Royals essentially forbade him from shaking off Jason Kendall ever again. Farnsworth’s improvement has been linked to him throwing a two-seam fastball, although that wouldn’t explain his April struggles.)

If you’re looking for a specific impetus that might have triggered the improvement in the bullpen, your best isn’t when the Royals let Trey Hillman go, but when the Royals let Juan Cruz go. Cruz, in addition to pitching terribly – which it turns out was the result of an undiagnosed shoulder injury he had probably been pitching with since last year – was an enormous PITA by all accounts. Particularly in the closed-in world of the bullpen, where six or seven guys spend the entire game together in a walled-off area away from the rest of the team, having to hang out with a guy that was a Grade-A prick can’t have been good for the bullpen’s psychology.

This is one of those unquantifiable issues that can’t be adequately evaluated by analysts like me, but with the Braves’ recent trade of Yunel Escobar to the Blue Jays, the issue of team chemistry has come up again. Consider the rejuvenation of guys like Farnsworth and Tejeda after Cruz was released a data point in favor of chemistry.

But the bigger improvement in the bullpen was that the Royals got rid of Cruz, and Luis Mendoza, and the inexplicable Roman Colon, and replaced them with pitchers who actually deserve to be in the majors. It took a while; the Royals had to cycle through Josh Rupe and Bryan Bullington and Brad Thompson before they decided Blake Wood was ready, and before they very shrewdly claimed Texeira off waivers from the Mariners*.

*: Adding to the argument that the Mariners, as an organization, were very overrated going into the season, is the fact that the Mariners waived Texeira – much to the consternation of their fans – about 48 hours before Ken Griffey finally read the writing on the wall and retired. Since the Royals picked him up, Texeira has a 2.00 ERA, thanks to a good sinker and good control. Thanks, Ken!

Here’s the combined numbers of Cruz, Mendoza, Colon, Rupe, Thompson, and Bullington this year:

44 IP, 70 H, 25 BB, 29 K, 10 HR, and an 8.24 ERA.

And here are the combined numbers of Wood, Texeira, and Victor Marte:

66 IP, 62 H, 24 BB, 31 K, 9 HR, and a 3.97 ERA.

The new guys aren’t perfect by any means. I remain mystified as to how a pitcher with Blake Wood’s fastball has struck out just 8 batters in 25 innings. And I’ve been saying since last year that Marte’s combination of poor control and flyball tendencies were a bad mix, and reality has set in as he’s allowed 8 runs in his last four outings. Still, the low end of the bullpen totem pole has combined for a 3.97 ERA. That’s why the bullpen has gone from an enormous weakness to, arguably, an asset.

On April 27th, at the bullpen’s low point, I wrote “I stand by my position that Hillman is mostly an innocent bystander in all this. It’s hard for any manager to look smart when he has exactly one reliable reliever. Hillman deserves better than to be scapegoated because his GM has made such a mess of things.”

I still stand by those words, with the caveat that I didn’t appreciate at the time what kind of influence Cruz had on the bullpen, or that Kyle Farnsworth was redeemable. But the difference between the bullpen of today and the bullpen of April has less to do with the manager and more to do with the personnel. That’s not to defend Hillman, but it is to lay the blame on Dayton Moore. And by the same token, the credit for the bullpen’s improvement belongs less to Yost than it does to Moore for finally giving up on his pet projects and giving opportunities to rookies who deserved it.


Anonymous said...

Hopefully, Moore will be willing to look at 2 more rookies in the pen soon - Blaine Hardy and Louis Coleman.

Time to look at them rather than more Victor Marte. I'd also consider trying Texeira as a starter - he is already used in long relief as it is, and running Davies out there another 14 times seems pointless to me. Try Davies in the pen. Why not?

Anonymous said...

Texeira has only started six times in his entire pro career, all last year for the Yankees' Double-A affiliate. (The Yankees must have unloaded him to avoid confusion with Mark Teixeira.) Maybe at some point you try him as a starter, but not until he's established himself in the major leagues.

Anonymous said...

I know you've written some of your thoughts on Jason Kendall, but I'm curious if you're still lukewarm on him. Your comment in the last post about Tejada not shaking off his signs jogged something in my head. I'm watching the game last night and through 3 plate appearances he had 2 walks and a sac fly. While his numbers aren't great, he seems to have a lot of productive plate appearances (moving runners over, etc.). Behind the plate, he's blocking a lot of pitches. In short, when the Royals signed him I rolled my eyes. When Buck made the All-Star team and Olivo was a snub, I groaned. But, I'm wondering if he's not the asset the Royals thought he'd be. What say you?

Anonymous said...

The Butler GIDP thing doesn't worry me in the slightest. Slow, right-handed hitters who put the ball in play a lot, hit it hard (hence no slow ground balls that can't be turned into two), and rarely miss any playing time are going to rack up big GIDP totals. That's the way things have always been and it's the way they always will be.

Plus, GIDP totals are a wildly flawed statistic for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that they are directly linked to the number of double play situations a batter faces, which is tied directly to the number of times his teammates get on base in front of him, how often the runner is in motion, the overall speed of those runners, ability to break up the turn at second base, etc. None of that has anything to do with the hitter, even though they get all the blame. Meanwhile, other kinds of double plays don't get counted at all. A line drive right at an infielder when the runner in moving with the pitch? That's arguably more of the hitter's fault than a routine GIDP, yet it doesn't count. A stike 'em out, throw 'em out DP, where the hitter fails to make contact and protect the runner is just about the worst thing a hitter can do, but that's not counted either. And all of this is true without yet mentioning the obvious fact that GIDP totals are actually POSITIVELY correlated to the number of runs a team scores, for the obvious reason that both are linked to the number of runners put on base. More runners equals more runs. Another outcome of that is more GIDPs. In general, that's a trade most teams would happily make.

Jason Dixon said...

Butler is doing just fine, imo. A lot of players would have regressed after the year he had last year. The fact he's a bit better this year is impressive.

I never understand the fans (or in the Royals case, many times, the Royals) who want to harp on a player for having one percieved weakness (and I don't think that's what Rany is doing here, at all), get focused on THAT (Kaaihue's 'bat speed', anyone?), and forget all of the really good things the player does, and generally take those qualities for granted.

There are also more runners on base this year, and as we know, most of those have come by way of the single (cause they sure ain't WALKING to first). Last year the Royals hit singles 67% of the time; this year it's 73%. I think few more 2b's, 3b's, and SB's would also cut down on the DP opportunities Butler faces.

Edgar Martinez who Butler also draws comparisons to (who, btw, didn't have a season like Butler's until he was 28) also hit into a lot of DP's. I'd take either in the middle of a line-up.

Nick said...

I caught a Royals/A's game last year in Oakland and had great seats literally right behind the dugout. I friend of mine from KC came out that week and we were chatting it up with a few guys (Jamey Wright and Ron Mahay specifically) before the game. However, I remember Juan Cruz being a complete jerk to us - and he got the guy working at the Coliseum to ask us to stop talking to the other guys in the bullpen (before the game too)! Definitely glad that he's gone!

Chris said...

Anon @ 9:25 makes a great point about more base runners leading to more possibilities for GIDP. And we all know that when a team has a double play combination that leads the league in turning double plays that really is a very, very bad thing because it means the opposite team has many runners on base. Butler is doing just fine and will only get better with time.

Anonymous said...

Butler sucks. He is a stat machine who rarely influences the outcome of a game. Trade him. 1B are a dime a dozen- hell we got THREE in waiting with Kila, Hosmer, and Robinson.

Phaedrus said...

Rany, I listened to your radio show the other night. I don't know who your co-host is, but that guy needs to quit talking so much. The show shouldn't be called "Rany on the Radio", it should be called "Rany's Annoying Co-Host on the Radio". It takes him 5 minutes to make a single point. If I were to repeat this paragraph 3 more times then readers may get an idea of what the co-host is like.

I did enjoy the (brief) moments when you were able to sneak in a word though.

Anonymous said...

Finally a baseball article.

KCDennis said...

I think Bannister is a good guy, a stand-up guy, a thinking man's pitcher who gets the maximum out of his physical ability, but--having said that, I have also come to the sad conclusion that he is simply not a major league quality starting pitcher. He has to be too fine with mediocre stuff, and if he misses his spot by an inch or two he gets ripped. If anyone shows any interest in him, I think he should be one of the top guys on the trading block.

Nathan said...

Butler's going to be fine. His GIDP results from 1) the particular variety of really good hitter he is, and 2) DeJesus' .400ish OBP right in front of him the linup. Neither of these are things you exactly want to change.

Butler, more than anyone else on the roster, seems primed to spend ten or fifteen years in the middle of the order for a contender. Thank God we've got him.

Chance said...

If Butler ends up hitting 5th or lower for this team in two years, with legitimate power hitters in front of him, I will be happier than Hell. But if he remains our 4th place hitter for the better part of his career, we are in serious trouble.

Anonymous said...

pretty positive article for a team 14 games under .500...this team and franchise are eternal losers. bad owner, bad GM, bad players sums it up.

Anonymous said...

Then go root for the Yankees and get lost.

Jim M said...

just heard that Disco Hayes was released. I hope that he can be picked up somewhere (perhaps Rany on the Royals can feature him as a guest blogger).

bummer. but I am sure that "Disco will Survive!!"

Fast Eddie said...

I see that the Angels have made an offer for Alberto Callaspo. A young pitcher, Sean O'Sullivan, and a "fringe prospect". Dayton Moore reportedly turned it down.

Michael said...

Yeah, I looked at O'Sullivan's numbers. He's never going to be a good pitcher. At best, he's Brian Bullington.

Anonymous said...

Fuck you Raghead.

Jackie Ballgame said...

Wanted to comment on a conversation Rany had with Jason Alexander on Rany-on-the-Radio yesterday (listening to podcast now):

There was an attempt to reconcile the fact that Dayton seems to be proving himself to be a good developer (evaluator?) of young talent, with the fact that he seems to be a horrifying evaluator of Major League talent--the farm system is off the charts this year (impressive!), yet he released John Buck and chose to sign Kendall for 6 million guaranteed (not impressive!).

The explanation for this is that while Moore may be adept at developing HIS players--that is, he places faith in young players that he himself acquired--he seems down on the young talent that was acquired by Baird before he got here.

This seems logical on the surface, but how does it explain why he is down on his own young players that he himself acquired. I.e., Brayan Pena (the player that actually sort of started this conversation) is a Dayton guy. Dayton was likely involved in acquiring him when he was with the Braves, and he scooped him up from the Braves for the Royals. Yet Pena does not seem to have earned any faith (unless Moore is not involved at all in questions of playing time?). How about Jeff Keppinger, another Moore acquisition that garnered zero faith from Moore and went on to rake for the Reds while playing passable SS until he was injured. If I remember correctly, Moore RELEASED Keppinger. How about Moore's offseason diatribe about Callaspo's ineptness at 2B (Callaspo's a Dayton guy). These all weigh against the anti-Baird player argument. My theory: Moore values character over talent. He believes World Series are won by guys with skads of intangible fiber. He doesn't know who possesses such fiber until he gets a chance to see them around the clubhouse every day. My advice to Brayan Pena, Kila Ka'aihue, Alex Gordon, and anyone else whose talent gives him a reasonable expecation of being in the Royals everyday lineup: start slapping your teammates on the ass. Start preaching like a crazed visonary. Channel your inner Kevin Costner. Wear contacts that emit the proverbial gleam from your eye. You won't ever have to justify your spot in the lineup with "performance" ever again.

Anonymous said...

George Costanza is Rany's co-host???