The Royals might be making progress, but it’s not evident from watching them on the field. With a win on Sunday the Royals are now 55-75, putting them on pace to win 68 or 69 games, after winning 65 last season. It’s actually worse than that, though. The Royals have been outscored by 154 runs this season. Six major league teams have a worse record than the Royals, but only two – the Orioles and Pirates – have a worse run differential. The Royals were outscored by 156 runs all of last season. At the major league level, at least, whatever steps the Royals have taken forward have been small ones – and they all pale to the giant regression to the mean taken by Zack Greinke.
- That the Royals have a better record (55-75) than their run differential would suggest (50-80) is one part luck, and one part Joakim Soria. Despite – or perhaps because – the Royals are playing so poorly, Soria is quietly having one of the best seasons by a Royals’ closer ever. In terms of saves – which, to be fair, is a pretty weak stat to evaluate closers by – his season might wind up as being the best ever.
The Royals’ record for saves was set by Dan Quisenberry in 1983, with 45, which at the time was the all-time major-league record. Ten years later Jeff Montgomery tied Quiz’s mark. With 30 games to go, Soria is at 36 saves, which puts him on pace for 44 for the season. (The Royals, by selfishly scoring two runs in the ninth inning yesterday afternoon, deprived him of a save that might turn out to be vital in his pursuit of the record.)
The Royals have obliged him by playing an awful lot of close games of late. Under Trey Hillman, it seemed like it was a lot of feast-or-famine for Soria; the Royals would have four save situations in a row, and then Soria would go a week without pitching before Hillman threw him into a 10-3 game just to get some work. But the Royals have provided him with a steady diet of save situations over the last six weeks. Prior to yesterday, every game Soria had entered since July 16th was either a save situation, a tie game, or a game the Royals were losing by just one run. In that span, Soria never had to pitch three days in a row, and never went more than four days without pitching.
The Royals have the most one-run decisions in all of baseball, and thanks to Soria they’ve done well in that regard. They’re 24-25 in one-run games, and 31-50 otherwise. They still have a perfect record (41-0) in game that they lead going into the ninth inning. In 2006, the last season before Soria arrived on the scene, the Royals lost seven games that they led with three outs to go.
Baseball Prospectus has a stat known as WXRL, for “Win Expectation Above Replacement, Lineup-Adjusted”. Ridiculous name aside, what the stat does is evaluate the odds that a given team will win the game when a reliever comes in, and the odds that the team will win when the reliever comes out, and then gives the pitcher the credit for the difference. For a closer, in other words, it rewards a pitcher for closing out “difficult” saves – with men on base or a one-run lead – a lot more than “easy” saves like starting the ninth with a three-run lead.
The Royals have asked Soria to close out a lot of tight wins this year – 19 times he has entered a game protecting a one-run lead. In addition, he has entered a tie game nearly as often (6) as he’s been asked to close out a three-run lead (8). He has of course been phenomenally successful at whatever job he’s been asked to do; he’s currently working on a franchise-record streak of 29 successful save opportunities in a row.
Add it all up, and Soria’s WXRL is 5.78, which is to say he’s been worth nearly 6 wins over a replacement-level pitcher in his role. That not only leads all of baseball – Heath Bell is about half-a-win behind – it’s already the fifth-best season in Royals history, behind Monty’s 1993 (6.86) and Quisenberry in 1980 (8.16), 1983 (7.04), and 1984 (6.65).
Quisenberry’s 1980 is probably out of reach, but if he finishes strong, Soria has a good shot at the second-best season by a Royals reliever ever. When you consider that he’ll only throw in the range of 70 innings, while Quisenberry threw over 128 innings in all three of those seasons, that’s a remarkable accomplishment.
(By the way, this is Soria’s fourth season in the majors, and every season ranks among the 12 best relief seasons in Royals history. That includes his rookie season, when he only served as the closer for about half the year. Montgomery has three seasons in the top 12, and Quisenberry has the other five. The demarcation between the top three relievers in Royals history and everyone else is as clear as anything I’ve ever seen in baseball.)
The Royals have 99 problems, but a closer ain’t one.
- On the other hand, the guy he usually throws to might be. You have to give it up for Jason Kendall – his ability to command playing time despite the inability to hit the ball more than 300 feet is not just impressive, it’s historic.
You probably noticed that Kendall has not hit a home run this season. You might have noticed that he has also not hit a triple this season. And you’ve certainly noticed that despite those two shortcomings, he continues to catch nearly 90% of the games. (Two weeks ago Ned Yost committed to playing Brayan Pena about a third of the time the rest of the season. Only on the Royals is limiting Jason Kendall to playing two-thirds of the time considered progress.)
But you might not have put all that information together, and realized that in 487 plate appearances, Jason Kendall has yet to hit a triple or a home run. And you probably didn’t realize that since World War II, only two players have batted 450 times in a season without a triple or home run.
One of those players is the remarkable Frank Taveras, who in 1980 batted 598 times and topped out with a double. Taveras was your classic jitterbug who hit the ball on the ground and ran like hell. He led the NL in steals in 1977 with 70, but his career high in OBP was .321, and he of course had no power. The Pirates, for whom he toiled for many years, traded him to the Mets early in the 1979 season, and perhaps not coincidentally the Pirates won the World Series that year.
The other player is Ron Hunt, who hit nary a triple or homer in 1972…or 1973…or 1974. He was a full-time player all three years and amassed over 1500 plate appearances in that time.
Hunt is, for my money, one of the most fascinating baseball players of all time. For one thing, over that three-year stretch he was actually a pretty decent player despite his comical lack of power. Take 1973, for instance: he hit .309, walked 52 times against just 19 strikeouts, led the league with 24 hit-by-pitches and had a .418 OBP. He played second base, which added to his value, even if he didn’t play it all that well. He had a 112 OPS+ and even got some MVP votes. He was sort of like Luis Castillo, in that he was a below-average defensive second baseman whose entire game revolved around OBP, except with less speed.
The really remarkable thing about Hunt is that he seemed to have made a conscious decision halfway through his career to get on base in any way possible – specifically, by going out of his way to get hit by pitches. He averaged 10 HBPs a year for the first five years of his career – and then, from 1968 until 1974, he led the NL in HBPs seven straight years. In 1971, he was nailed FIFTY times – the all-time major-league record. He came close to making a mockery of the rules – I’m fairly surprised that MLB didn’t alter the rules somehow to discourage this kind of overt gamesmanship. Awarding first base to a batter that’s hit by the ball is meant to discourage pitchers from hitting batters; it’s not meant to encourage a pesky middle infielder who can’t hit the ball over an outfielder’s head to lean into a pitch twice a week.
I get the impression Hunt wasn’t a particularly popular player with his peers, and it shows in the stat record – in early September, 1974, he was abruptly waived by the Expos. The Cardinals claimed him, but he never played for St. Louis, and he was released the following March, still 34 years old.
Anyway, the reason for the digression is this: Hunt finished his career with 243 HBPs, ranking sixth all-time. The player directly above him on that list? Jason Kendall, with 254. It all comes back around.
(Kendall isn’t even contributing in this regard – he only has 6 HBPs all season, which would be the lowest number in his career, and the odds that he breaks Hughie Jennings all-time record of 287 are looking increasingly remote.)
- I’m just going to throw this list out there:
Highest Single-Season OPS by a Royal (min: 200 PA)
1) George Brett, 1980, 1.118
2) George Brett, 1985, 1.022
3) Wilson Betemit, 2010, 1.001
4) Danny Tartabull, 1991, .990
5) Bob Hamelin, 1994, .987
Yes, I’m cheating a little bit. I set the minimum at 200 plate appearances, and Betemit just had his 200th plate appearance of the season yesterday.
If you look at the list of the top 30 OPS’s in Royals history, you’ll find that the list is basically the same whether the minimum is 200 plate appearances or 400 plate appearances. Aside from Betemit, the only players on the list who had fewer than 400 plate appearances were Hamelin (374 PA, but in a strike-shortened season) and Carlos Beltran in 2004, when he was traded in mid-season. There’s a good reason for this – it’s hard to sustain an OPS north of 900 for even 200 plate appearances, unless you’re actually a pretty damn good hitter.
If we look at the best seasons by a Royal hitter with between, say, 150 and 400 plate appearances, here’s what we get:
1) Wilson Betemit, 2010, 1.001
2) Bob Hamelin, 1994, .987
3) Carlos Beltran, 2004, .901
4) Tony Solaita, 1975, .884
5) Esteban German, 2006, .880
When you factor in the special circumstances that put Hamelin and Beltran on this list, then barring a collapse over the last month of the season, Betemit is going to finish with the greatest partial season in the history of the Royals.
(Tony Solaita had an awfully interesting tenure with the Royals. As a rookie in 1974, he hit .268/.361/.406, then hit .260/.369/.515 in 1975. In 1976 he started slow, batting .235/.286/.294 in just 68 plate appearances…and was promptly waived. Solaita, who was from American Samoa, serves as a reminder that the Royals’ reluctance to put faith in take-and-rake hitters from the Pacific islands is not new.)
Betemit, who was signed to a minor-league contract over the winter, is pretty clearly the greatest free talent acquisition by Dayton Moore since Joakim Soria. Moore has actually quietly had a terrific season in terms of picking up contributors out of the pool of unwanted free agents. Along with Betemit, he re-signed Bruce Chen to another minor-league deal. Chen leads the team in wins with nine; more meaningfully, with a 4.76 ERA in 102 innings, he’s been the second-best starter on the team this year.
Kanekoa Texeira, who was claimed off waivers from Seattle, had a 4.64 ERA out of the bullpen before he went on the DL; despite his lack of a strikeout pitch, his extreme groundball tendencies make him a nice guy to bring in with men on base in the middle innings. And hey, Bryan Bullington did pitch the game of his life against the Yankees.
While the pickups of Betemit and Chen have made a big impact this year, it’s not like they are rookies who are under contract for the next six years. Chen is a free agent after the season; while he’s re-established himself as a major leaguer, I don’t expect teams to be beating down the door to sign him. I could see the Royals offering him a one-year, $1-1.5 million contract to return as a stopgap next season, and I could see Chen accepting the offer.
Betemit, if I understand his service time correctly, would be a free agent after next season. This makes for a very difficult decision for the Royals. If you think Betemit’s season is a fluke, then you’ll either him trade him this winter or bring him back next year to babysit third base until Mike Moustakas is ready, but with the plan to trade Betemit to a contender if he’s still hitting well.
But what if it’s not a fluke? What’s so striking about Betemit’s numbers is that they don’t look like a fluke. Yes, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .405, which is unsustainably high. Betemit is hitting .331 overall, and there’s no way that can last. If his BABIP drops into the .330 range, which is realistic, then his “true” batting average is closer to .280.
But even if he hits .280, he can be a heck of a hitter. While batting average is subject to a lot of fluctuation, power and plate discipline are not. Betemit has 27 walks in just 172 at-bats – that’s not a fluke. He has 13 doubles and 10 homers – that’s not a fluke.
(By the way, with 10 homers, Betemit is just three behind Yuniesky Betancourt for the active team lead. Last week I was on with Soren Petro, and he asked me who I thought would finish with the team lead in homers. Billy Butler was the obvious choice, but I thought Betemit was a heck of a sleeper pick. Well, I’m changing my tune – Betemit isn’t a sleeper anymore. I honestly think he’s the favorite to hold the team’s homer title at season’s end.)
So even if you knock 50 points off his batting average, his numbers this season would be .281/.370/.531. Now, I doubt he’s even that good. He spent a month in Omaha and hit just .265/.358/.407 earlier this year; last year, he hit .241/.294/.441 in Triple-A Charlotte. But at the same time, Betemit was once one of the best prospects in all of baseball, and from 2005 to 2007, when he was 23-25 years old, he hit .265/.337/.455 in nearly a thousand plate appearances in the major leagues. He’s only 28; maybe he’s just figuring things out. It bears mentioning that, according to Fangraphs, Betemit is hitting fly balls at the highest rate of his career.
If he is, then he has to factor into the team’s future. Even if Moustakas takes over at third base sometime next year, Betemit has the bat to play somewhere else. We’re talking about a guy who played shortstop in the majors as recently as two years ago, so he should have the athletic ability to play any corner position. First base and DH are filled, but the Royals are still weak in outfield prospects. Betemit could play third base the first half of next season, then move to right field if and when David DeJesus gets traded.
So the Royals have a decision to make. If they think his numbers are for real, then they may have a chance to sign him to a long-term deal this winter at a huge discount relative to what he would get the following year on the free market if he continues to hit. Is it crazy to suggest that the Royals should offer Wilson Betemit a 3-year, $12 million contract this winter? Maybe. But it’s not any more crazy than suggesting in April that Wilson Betemit would be the best hitter on the Royals this season.