Monday, February 15, 2010

Now Starting For The Royals, Number 40...

As most of you know, Dick Kaegel had another scoop last week, and this time it was intentional:

Didn’t like Kyle Farnsworth as a relief pitcher? Hang on, he might be a starting pitcher for the Royals this year.

“Kyle Farnsworth is competing for a job in the rotation,” pitching coach Bob McClure revealed Wednesday.

That’s right, the big right-hander will at least get a chance to show what he can do as a starter in Spring Training.

“We’re going to lengthen him out and see how it goes,” McClure said. “Because what he showed me last year was the ability to back off a little bit and not pitch with his hair on fire. And, to be a starter, you have to be able to just kind of go pitch-by-pitch.”

I don’t want to oversell the impact of this proclamation – saying that Farnsworth is competing for a job in the rotation could mean anything from “he’s all but won a job” to “there’s no way in hell that he’s going to start for us, but we have to at least pretend that there’s a chance he’ll earn the money we’re paying him.” This could all be forgotten by mid-March, so it’s not worth getting too worked up about this either way.

Still, it’s worth talking about, because it certainly is…different. I will admit to thinking many different things – only some of them printable – when Kyle Farnsworth took the mound last year. At no point did one of those thoughts consist of, “you know, I think Farnsworth’s problem is that he’s miscast as a reliever.”

Having said that, I don’t want to dismiss this idea out of hand. Dave Cameron, who generally knows his baseball, has endorsed the move, going so far as to say “The Royals take a lot of crap from us, but I’ll applaud them for recognizing an opportunity here.” And an AL front office type I talked about this with actually thought it was a worthwhile gamble for the Royals. (He was too polite to indicate whether that was because Farnsworth had upside as a starter, or simply because the Royals have nothing to lose.)

So at the very least, it’s not fair to reflexively label this idea as another episode in that recurring reality show “Royals Gone Wild”. The fact that the Farnsworth-to-the-rotation idea seems to have come from left field does not automatically mean that it’s a ridiculous one.

Let me see if I can sum up all the reasons to make this move:

1) Farnsworth is a power pitcher, and clearly has enough velocity that even if he loses the usual 2-3 mph on his fastball when he has to pace himself, he should still have plenty of raw stuff to succeed in the rotation.

2) Bob McClure has a pretty good track record as a pitching coach.

3) Even if Farnsworth isn’t as effective in the rotation as he is in the bullpen, he might still be more valuable because he’ll throw a lot more innings.

4) After last year’s debacle, no one has any confidence that Farnsworth can pitch effectively out of the bullpen anyway, particularly not in key situations.

5) Farnsworth is a free agent at the end of the year, so while there is a risk that he’ll hurt his arm trying to make this move, the Royals aren’t on the hook for his contract past 2010.

The first thing you’ll notice about this list of reasons is that #3 and #4 directly contradict each other. The reason why starters generally don’t pitch as well as relievers is that relieving is a lot easier than starting – it’s much easier to throw all-out with your two best pitches for one or two innings, than to pace yourself and work in three or four pitches over a seven-inning stint. Studies have shown that the typical starting pitcher, when moved to the bullpen, will see his ERA drop by as much as 25%.

Which means the converse is true – the typical reliever, moving to the rotation, will see his ERA rise by close to 30%. The number of pitchers moved to the bullpen because they couldn’t cut it in the rotation is legion. The number of pitchers moved to the rotation because they sucked in the bullpen? That’s a much rarer entity, and for good reason. Making a reliever a starter because he sucks in relief is like moving a third baseman to shortstop because he couldn’t handle playing the hot corner.

That’s not to say this can’t work. Farnsworth does throw plenty hard: according to Fangraphs, the average velocity on his fastball last season was 96.0 mph, and over the last eight years his fastball has averaged 94.6. A reliever who throws 96 translates into a starter who throws 92-93, and that’s just fine. It’s absolutely true, as the Kaegel article suggests, that Farnsworth started throwing a cut fastball last season – he threw it 28% of the time, in fact. A pitcher who throws two kinds of fastballs and a slider has enough pitches to succeed in the rotation. And while Farnsworth doesn’t throw a curveball, my AL front office source mentioned that a few years back he saw Farnsworth throw a “surprisingly quality*” changeup on the sidelines, although Farnsworth rarely broke it out in a ballgame.

*: Total aside here, but am I the only one who’s amused by the KC Star’s writing guidelines, which require that the word [high-] be added onto a quote whenever someone says the word “quality”? Like this: “Bob McClure raved about Greinke’s repertoire. ‘Zack throws a [high-]quality fastball, a [high-]quality slider, a [high-]quality curveball, and a [high-]quality changeup. What more could you ask for?’” If I ever give an interview to the Star, I’m going to have to work in the word “quality” about a dozen times just to see what happens.

So the stuff is probably there for Farnsworth to succeed in the rotation. The problem is that the stuff is definitely there for him to succeed in the bullpen, yet his stuff rarely translates to results. In 11 major league seasons, Farnsworth has had an ERA under 4.00 just three times.

The biggest reason for Farnsworth’s lack of consistent success has been the fact that his fastball, while very fast, is also very straight, which leads to a ton of flyballs, some of which inevitably travel 400+ feet. For his career, Farnsworth has given up more than one home run every seven innings. This is not a trait you want in any pitcher, but particularly not a pitcher that you’re asking to face Jim Thome with the go-ahead runs on base in the eighth inning on Opening Day. Just hypothetically.

Now, if Farnsworth were really throwing a new cut fastball last season, one that has less velocity but more sink, you’d expect him to coax more groundballs. That, in fact, is exactly what happened. In the three seasons prior to joining the Royals, Farnsworth’s groundball rates were 34%, 30%, and 35%. Last year, his groundball rate jumped to 46%. Granted, it was a small sample size of just 37 innings, but it fits with the narrative that he quietly became a different pitcher last season. (Amazingly, he only gave up three homers all year – of course, two of them directly cost the Royals the game, and both during the first two weeks of the season.)

So there is, at least, some reason for optimism that Farnsworth can handle the change, at least in terms of his physical stuff. I confess to being worried about how Farnsworth can handle the change mentally, but that’s not fair to him. I mean, how well do we really know these guys? Farnsworth wears glasses, throws incredibly hard, and often has no idea where the ball is going – he certainly seems like a Rick Vaughn clone, a guy who’s not calm enough or not smart enough to pace himself over six or seven innings. He would seem oddly out of place on the mound in the first inning, like Keith Law in a churrascaria. But as fans we really don’t know whether he’s a completely different person behind the clich├ęs. In the video attached to Kaegel’s article, Farnsworth describes how he loves to hunt and fish…but also admits that he loves to cook. So who knows?

I do think that Cameron goes overboard when he writes, “in a lot of ways, Farnsworth is reminiscent of Ryan Dempster, another power reliever with command problems who flourished with a move to the rotation.” Sure, Dempster has pitched beautifully for the Cubs since returning to the rotation – but Dempster had only been a full-time reliever for about three seasons before he made the move. He had 162 major-league starts to his credit before he became a full-time reliever, and while the results weren’t always pretty, sometimes they were – notably in 2000, when as a 23-year-old Dempster had a 3.66 ERA and struck out 209 batters in 226 innings.

Farnsworth, on the other hand, has just 26 major league starts on his resume, in his first two seasons in the majors a decade ago. He had a 5.81 ERA in those starts, and in 144 innings allowed 32 homers and struck out just 86 batters. Dempster might be a similar type of pitcher, but he’s simply not of the same quality. You might as well compare Farnsworth to John Smoltz – hey, Smoltz moved from the bullpen to the rotation successfully as well!

No, if you’re going to compare Farnsworth to a successful reliever-turned-starter, you need to compare him to his teammate, the guy who probably convinced the Royals that this crazy idea might be worth trying: Robinson Tejeda. Unfortunately, it’s precisely because of Tejeda that this idea makes no sense.

Let’s review Tejeda’s story, both for our benefit and for the benefit of the Royals, who have evidently forgotten it. Tejeda broke in with the Phillies in 2005, and after a brief stint in the bullpen, entered the starting rotation, where he stayed through two seasons with the Rangers. Between 2005 and 2007 Tejeda made 46 starts and just 13 relief appearances, and pitched lousy. He had a 4.91 career ERA, and a terrible strikeout-to-walk ratio of just 181 to 143. After four relief appearances with the Rangers in 2008, he was released and picked up by the Royals, for whom he has pitched brilliantly: in 113 innings, he has allowed just 65(!) hits and 7 homers, and while he’s walked 69 batters, he’s also struck out 128.

On September 4th last year the Royals moved him back into the rotation, and he continued to be unhittable, allowing just 15 hits in 32 innings. He was still wild (20 walks) but was still overpowering (32 Ks), and most importantly, was still effective (2.84 ERA).

And it appears the Royals have completely forgotten about him. Much like Alberto Callaspo has mysteriously become an afterthought in the Royals lineup, to the point where Kaegel’s projected Opening Day lineup excludes him, Tejeda has become the forgotten man in the Royals rotation.

In the same article that we learn of Farnsworth’s move to the rotation, we learn that “Farnsworth isn't the only pitcher who might emerge from the Royals' bullpen. Robinson Tejeda, another imposing right-hander, will also get a shot at the rotation after making six starts last season.” Really? He’ll get a shot? The guy who’s been lights out since joining the Royals, who was the team’s second-best starter down the stretch last year, will get the same shot to join the rotation as the guy who sucked last year and hasn’t started in the majors in a decade?

In this AP article, we learn from Trey Hillman that “I’m not counting Robby out.” Well, that’s awfully generous of you, to not count out the guy who saved you from 100 losses last September.

I’m not saying that Tejeda’s success in the rotation last September was for real. We’re all too familiar with great September performances from a young starter that didn’t carry over to the next season (see also Davies, Kyle). But don’t you think he at least deserves the chance to prove it was a mirage? Or at least a better chance than the guy who’s being moved to the rotation in part to keep him as far away from eighth-inning tie games as possible?

And really, there can only be room for one of them at most, because the rotation remains the team’s greatest strength – the CHONE projection system has ranked the Royals’ rotation as the sixth-best in baseball – and arguably doesn’t have room for either of them. The same five guys the Royals relied on most of last season – Greinke, Gil Meche, Brian Bannister, Luke Hochevar, and Davies – all return this season, and you can make a case that they’re still the five best options for the rotation.

Greinke and Meche are of course locks. Bannister, I think, has to be as well – he doesn’t have the repertoire you associate with a reliever, and his 4.73 ERA was far better than Davies and Hochevar. For the second time in three years he wore out down the stretch – he gave up 34 runs in 31 innings in his last six starts before getting shut down on September 2nd. You might argue that he’s incapable of lasting a full season in the rotation, but the flipside to that is that in his first 20 starts he had a 3.59 ERA and excellent peripherals, and if the Royals can figure out a way to maintain his stamina all year long, he’s an excellent #3 starter.

That leaves Hochevar and Davies. Hochevar is an enigma wrapped in a riddle shoved inside a mystery which is locked inside a puzzle, then the whole thing is deep-fried in a conundrum. I don’t think you can give up on a guy who in separate starts threw an 80-pitch complete game, struck out 13 batters and walked nobody, and threw a three-hit shutout – even if he did have a 6.55 ERA. Davies, on the other hand, has exasperated pretty much everyone with his inconsistency for going on five years now. He’s walked nearly a batter every other inning throughout his career, and I don’t think his problem is control so much as the fact that he feels he has to nibble to compensate for the fact that he doesn’t quite have elite-caliber stuff.

So I could see moving Davies to the bullpen in the hopes that his velocity picks up a notch, he feels emboldened to challenge hitters more, and voila! You have an excellent middle reliever who can throw 90-100 innings without a problem.

That opens up a job for one starter. And between the guy who did it last year and the guy who’s never done it, I know which guy I’d rather see in that role.

Like the Ankiel signing, in isolation I like the idea of trying Farnsworth in the rotation. The Royals have nothing to lose, and potentially something to gain. But also like the Ankiel signing, I keep thinking that the Royals are just waiting for major league baseball to announce a rule change mandating 30-man rosters and 7-man rotations any day now, and they’re going to be in for a rude shock come the end of March. Just as the Royals’ machinations with their offense will make a lot of sense if there’s a big trade brewing, so too does the idea to move Farnsworth to the rotation make a lot of sense if, say, Bannister is about to pack his bags. But we’ve received no indication that that’s going to happen.

Pitchers and catchers report this week, and all of these permutations will be sorted out soon enough. I’m just worried that the Royals are as in the dark as to the final outcome as we are.