Friday, March 12, 2010

Royals and Southpaws: A History.

(Okay, so this piece was meant to look at the various quality left-handed pitching prospects the Royals have in their system. But first I wanted to give a little background about the Royals’ inability to develop left-handed pitching over the years, and…well…you know me. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I had written over 3000 words and still hadn’t gotten around to the present day. So consider this a prologue – a really, really long and depressing prologue – to my uplifting next post.)

If the Royals have their deepest minor league system in over a decade, it’s a testament to the amount of left-handed pitching they’ve uncovered. It’s not an exaggeration in the slightest to say that right now the Royals have the most left-handed pitching in their farm system in the history of the franchise. While that’s a testament to the scouting department, it’s also an indictment of the team’s past. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the Royals have as many elite left-handed pitchers in their system today as they’ve developed in the last 41 years combined. Seriously.

The Royals have a long-standing tradition of developing All-Star right-handed pitchers, a tradition that began with Steve Busby and Dennis Leonard* in the 70s, continued in the 80s with Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza and David Cone, then with Kevin Appier in the early 90s, and then after an embarrassingly long gap, has once again resurfaced with Zack Greinke.

*: Leonard never actually made an All-Star team, but he twice received votes for the Cy Young Award, which is even better.

But when it comes to southpaws, the organization has been astonishingly unproductive. In the entire history of the franchise, the Royals have had just four left-handed pitchers make even 120 starts with the team, the equivalent of about four full seasons in the rotation: Paul Splittorff, Larry Gura, Charlie Leibrandt, and Bud Black.

Splittorff had a decent strikeout rate his first few years in the majors, but after 1973 he became a pure junkballer, never again striking out even one batter per two innings in his career. In 1978 he won 19 games, despite striking out just 76 batters in 262 innings. He holds the franchise record with 167 166 wins – famously one more than Sandy Koufax – but never made an All-Star team.

Gura was even more of a soft-tosser; he had washed out of the Cubs and Yankees organizations before the Royals acquired him in 1976 for Fran Healy, their backup catcher. The same year that Splittorff won 19 games, Gura went 16-4 for the Royals, with just 81 whiffs in 222 innings. During his time in Kansas City, Gura struck out just 633 batters in 1701 innings. That type of extreme pitch-to-contact pitcher simply doesn’t exist anymore. In the decade that just ended, 73 pitchers threw at least 1200 innings. The lowest strikeout rate of those 73 guys belonged to Paul Byrd, with 4.67 Ks per 9 innings. Gura’s career rate was 3.52; Splittorff’s was 3.72. They were both very successful pitchers, but don’t try this at home, kids.

Leibrandt was, by those standards, a power pitcher. By any other standard, he relied on smoke and mirrors: his career K rate was 4.37 Ks per nine. His stock had fallen so low when the Royals acquired him from the Reds that all they had to give up to get him was Bob Tufts, who would never appear in another major league game after the trade. Leibrandt went 76-61 with the Royals, was a key part of the 1985 Championship team, and when the Royals thought he was washed up and traded him to Atlanta after the 1989 season, he rebounded to be the fourth starter on another two World Series teams in 1991 and 1992.

And finally there’s Bud Black, another finesse lefty with a low profile when the Royals got him as a PTBNL from the Mariners in a trade for the immortal Manny Castillo before the 1982 season. Black’s strikeout rate with the Royals was the best of the bunch: a towering 4.68 Ks per nine innings. He gave the Royals the better part of four seasons as a slightly above-average starter, two more seasons as a swingman, and after he was traded away for Pat Tabler in 1988, he hung around long enough to pitch for the 1995 Indians team that went 100-44.

These four guys all have something in common: none of them was remotely a power pitcher. The Royals acquired three of them in trades for virtually nothing. The fourth, Splittorff, was drafted by the Royals in their inaugural draft of 1968 – in the 25th round.

The best power lefty the Royals ever developed is almost certainly Danny Jackson, who they got with the very first pick of the 1982 draft – the weird January supplemental draft, which was long ago disbanded and whose eligibility rules were so arcane that I honestly don’t know why some players were eligible and some weren’t. Jackson threw hard – not mid-90s hard, but hard enough – and had a wipeout slider, and struck out a respectable 5.43 batters per nine innings with the Royals. He was an above-average starter for three straight years from 1985 to 1987, and is the forgotten star of the championship run – twice he pitched in a Game 5 with the Royals staring down the barrel of a 3-games-to-1 deficit, and twice he threw a complete game, allowing just one run, to get the Royals back into the series.

But in 1987 he had the misfortune of getting the worst run support in the league – the Royals scored just 3.46 runs a game for him, and in 17 of his 34 starts they scored two runs or less. Despite a 4.02 ERA – a well-above average mark in the original Year of the Homer – Jackson went 9-18. The idea that a pitcher’s won-loss record is as dependent on his run support as his own pitching is so deeply ingrained in even casual fans today that it’s easy to forget that, a generation ago, this was considered radical thinking. It was certainly consider radical thinking by the Royals, who were as hidebound by tradition then as they are today.

So thinking Jackson a failure, they traded him to Cincinnati that winter for Kurt Stillwell. The following year, Jackson’s ERA dropped to 2.73, the Reds averaged 4.75 runs a game for him, and he went 23-8. He was a shoo-in for the Cy Young in late August before Orel Hershiser decided he didn’t feel like giving up any more runs the rest of the season.

In the quarter-century since Jackson came through the system, the only left-handed starter to star for the Royals has been Jose Rosado. As a draft find, Rosado represents a victory for stats over scouts – he was the MVP of the Junior College World Series, yet lasted until the 12th round of the 1994 draft because he didn’t throw all that hard. He was in the majors within two years, and as a rookie posted a 3.21 ERA in 107 innings and finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year award balloting even though he didn’t debut until June.

If Rosado had come along five years later, I’m convinced he’d still be pitching today. Unfortunately for him, he arrived in an era when pitch counts were still largely ignored around baseball, and definitely ignored by Bob Boone and Tony Muser. In 1997, Rosado had a fantastic 3.39 ERA at the All-Star Break, and made the All-Star team as a 22-year-old in his first full season. He had also thrown 115+ pitches five times, which relative to its time wasn’t a criminal workload, but for a young pitcher of slight build (Rosado was listed at 6’ even and 175 pounds), it was too much. After the Break, Rosado was awful, allowing 99 walks and 36 hits in just 79 innings, with a 6.75 ERA.

He started the next season in the bullpen, and while he worked his way back into the rotation, he was hit-or-miss all year. But in 1999, he was back. At the Break he had a 3.01 ERA in 114 innings, with good peripherals (106 hits, 38 walks, 72 Ks). He made the All-Star team for the second time. (Rosado has more All-Star appearances (2) than all other Royals’ left-handed starters (1, by Gura) combined.)

But he also had the following pitch counts over a 12-start stretch from May 25th to July 28th:

117, 119, 70, 107, 122, 124, 83, 123, 125, 122, 120, 132.

Rosado was still just 24 at the time. Muser had confused experience with age, and rode Rosado like he was a much older starter. Earlier that year, Kerry Wood’s elbow had snapped in spring training after his sensational rookie season. That summer, Rick Ankiel’s agent (the ubiquitous Scott Boras) got into a little snit with the Cardinals over limiting the phenom’s pitch count. In Detroit, the Tigers publicly announced they were keeping rookie Jeff Weaver on a pitch limit, and stuck to it – Weaver’s season high was 110 pitches. On the interwebs, a snotty outfit called Baseball Prospectus had unveiled a new stat called Pitcher Abuse Points. But the pitch count train hadn’t rolled into Kansas City yet, and Rosado paid the price.

Rosado’s ERA after the break was 4.89, but more to the point, early the following season he complained of a dead arm. The Royals skipped his turn in the rotation once, but waited on getting an MRI. He was sent back to the mound on April 30th, and gutted his way through 5.2 innings and picked up the win. His arm pain was worse afterwards. The Royals finally got the MRI. The verdict: his shoulder was shredded. He would never throw another pitch as a professional. Rosado’s career was over at 25.

Rosado threw 693 innings through his age 24 season. Only two Royals pitchers have thrown more: Saberhagen and Gubicza. All three had their careers cut short by arm surgery. Rosado was not the first young Royals pitcher to have his career ruined by throwing too many pitches at too young an age. Thankfully, he might have been the last.

(Or at least the next-to-last. Two years later, Muser rode a 23-year-old Chad Durbin hard, and Durbin tore his UCL the following year. It’s questionable whether Durbin would have become a quality starter regardless, but he has reinvented himself as a key middle reliever for the Phillies the last two years.)

Aside from Rosado, only two other left-handers in the last quarter-century have made even 60 starts for the Royals: Darrell May and Chris Haney. May was signed out of Japan after the 2001 season, and sandwiched one well-timed good season in 2003 between poor seasons in 2002 and 2004 before he was shipped away for Terrence Long. Haney was acquired from Montreal for Sean Berry, and had a career 5.24 ERA for the Royals (meanwhile, Berry had some terrific seasons in Montreal and Houston.)

Aside from Rosado, the Royals may not have developed a single decent left-handed starter in 25 years, but it’s not for lack of trying. Most notably, in 1993 the Royals used the 5th overall pick in the draft on Jeff Granger, a college left-hander out of Texas A&M who was supposed to be ready for the majors almost immediately. Granger did, in fact, make it to the majors by September – but only because his contract stipulated a promotion. (I believe that Granger and Bo Jackson are the only two Royals to play in the majors the same year they were drafted.) Granger wound up pitching all of 32 innings in his career, with a 9.09 ERA. His main contribution to the Royals came as a throw-in to the trade that brought Jay Bell and Jeff King to Kansas City.

Seven years later the Royals used the 4th overall pick on Mike Stodolka, a high school left-hander from California. Stodolka would eventually reach Triple-A – as a first baseman. As a pitcher he struggled to a 4.93 ERA in the minors over five seasons before he was moved to first base, where he was considered a 2nd/3rd round talent out of high school. He was an on-base machine, with a .287/.394/.444 line in three seasons, but rather than chase the dream of becoming the next Ross Gload, he elected to retire after the 2008 season. (In fairness to Stodolka, the 2000 draft is widely considered to be the weakest draft of the last 20 years. While Adrian Gonzalez went #1, the two picks in between were Adam Johnson and Lou Montanez.)

The Royals also spent late or supplemental 1st round picks on Chris George, Jimmy Gobble, Matt Campbell, and J.P. Howell this decade. Campbell struggled in the minors and then tore his rotator cuff, but the other three all reached the majors to much fanfare. Howell did finally achieve a measure of success, but it took a trade to Tampa Bay and a move to the bullpen to find it.

George and Gobble had eerily similar career paths; both drafted out of high school in the supplemental first round a year apart; both had great seasons for Wilmington as 19-year-olds; both ranked as Top-50 Prospects by Baseball America the following season; both entered the Royals rotation at the age of 21; and both were ultimately done in by a complete lack of an out pitch, and were out of a major league rotation for good by the time they were 24. Gobble got the chance to remake himself as a lefty reliever and failed even at that; George disappeared from the majors completely, and was last seen pitching in Mexico. (Both Gobble and George are non-roster invitees to spring training.)

And that leaves Jeremy Affeldt, a third-round pick in 1997, a projectable high school arm who slowly advanced up the chain without doing anything to distinguish himself, and then showed up to spring training camp in 2002 with a 94-mph fastball and a curveball that dropped out of the sky like Icarus. After his first spring training outing, which consisted of five strikeouts and a popup, multiple writers gushed – knowing full well how ridiculous they would sound – that he looked Koufaxesque. And in their defense, at times he did. The problem was, at times he didn’t, and those were the times when he’d get beaten to a pulp. Affeldt made the team out of spring training, pitched reasonably well as a swingman, and then the following season was the team’s #2 starter when the 2003 Royals came out of the game gate like a house on fire. He struggled to a 4.82 ERA as a starter despite two great pitches; he moved to the bullpen in the second half and, his fastball touching 96-97, was terrific: in 42 innings he allowed just 28 hits and 12 walks.

This being the Royals, nothing was as easy as it looked. Affeldt spent the better part of two seasons fighting a blister problem that eventually required nail surgery, and while the surgery fixed the problem, it also seemed to affect his pitching. He sucked as a reliever in 2005, and in 2006 the Royals finally pawned him off on the Rockies in the Denny Bautista trade. At the time of the trade Affeldt had walked 42 batters and struck out just 28.

Naturally, almost from the minute he was traded Affeldt settled down as one of the better left-handed set-up men in baseball; last year, pitching for the Giants, he had a 1.73 ERA and coaxed a ridiculous 18 ground-ball double plays in just 62 innings. In retrospect, if the Royals had just made him into a reliever from the beginning, they would have gotten better value out of him. But when he was on his game in 2003, he had the best stuff of any left-handed starter the Royals have ever had, and I don’t blame the team one bit for dreaming on what could be.

So after 41 seasons, not only have the Royals received pathetically little production from left-handed pitchers, most of their best ones had to be imported from other organizations. With the caveat that I might have missed someone along the way, I tried to put together a list of the 10 best left-handed starters signed and developed by the organization. As you’ll see, I tried, but I did not succeed.

1) Paul Splittorff. I’m still not sure how he did it, but there’s no questioning that he did it. Over 2500 innings, 167 wins, and a solid 101 ERA+ over 15 seasons.

2) Danny Jackson. 112 career wins, an ERA+ of exactly 100, two All-Star game appearances, and a second-place finish in the Cy Young balloting gets him this spot.

3) Jose Rosado. His career lasted less than four full seasons, and he went only 37-45 in his career, but his 4.27 ERA came at the height of the juiced ball/bat/batter era, good for a 114 ERA+.

4) Atlee Hammaker. The Royals’ first-round pick in 1979, Hammaker was foolishly traded to the Giants as one of four players in the Vida Blue trade. Hammaker quickly became the pitcher the Royals hoped Blue would be. As a rookie in 1982, he went 12-8 with a 4.11 ERA, and in 1983, Hammaker led the NL with a remarkable 2.25 ERA. He blew out his arm the next year, and while he came back to pitch in the Giants’ rotation for three more seasons, he was never again dominant, or even above-average. Final numbers: 59-67 record, 97 ERA+ in 1079 innings.

5) Greg Hibbard. The Royals’ 16th-round pick in 1986, Hibbard was foolishly traded to the White Sox as one of four players in the Floyd Bannister trade. Hibbard was a pure finesse pitcher, sort of like Jeff Ballard without the panache, but fooled enough hitters to win in double digits in four straight years from 1990 to 1993. He then signed a three-year contract with the Mariners, and won exactly one game for them before he blew out his arm. Final numbers: 57-50 with a 98 ERA+ in 990 innings.

6) Bob McClure. The Royals’ pitching coach was selected in the 3rd round in 1973 – in something called the June Secondary draft, and I won’t even pretend to know what that was. After just 19 innings with the Royals, he was traded to Milwaukee in the traded that brought Darrell Porter to Kansas City. While he spent the bulk of his career in the bullpen, McClure was made into a starter by the Brewers in 1982. In 73 career starts he went 27-23 with a 4.41 ERA, which in the early 1980s was not particularly impressive, and after 3 seasons he returned to relief work.

7) Glendon Rusch. Drafted in the 17th-round in 1993, Rusch quickly climbed the system, as his tremendous control mitigated his propensity for the home run. After two disastrous years in the rotation in 1997 and 1998 (he went 12-24 with a 5.68 ERA), the Royals traded him to the Mets for something called “Dan Murray”. Rusch has alternated between being borderline useful (he went 11-11 with a 4.01 ERA in 2000) and a complete disaster (he went 1-12 with a 6.43 ERA in 2003) for a variety of different teams since. Remarkably, he’s still in baseball – he pitched for the Rockies last year, allowing 35 hits in just 19 innings.

That’s a theme for Rusch, who has generally been ineffective despite pretty strikeout-to-walk ratios throughout his career. He seems to be on a crusade to single-handedly disprove DIPS theory. For his career, Rusch has allowed a .331 average on balls in play. Not only is this the highest mark of any pitcher with 1000+ innings in the last 50 years, it’s ELEVEN POINTS higher than the second pitcher on the list, Paul Quantrill. The difference between Rusch and Quantrill (.320) is the same as the difference between Quantrill and Dave Weathers (.309) – who ranks 25th on the list.

For his career, Rusch epitomizes the replacement-level starter, with a 67-99 record, and an 88 ERA+. But he’s stuck around for nearly 1500 innings, and that’s more than enough to make this list.

8) Jeremy Affeldt. No, really. Jeremy Affeldt, who made all of 42 starts for the Royals, whose career ERA with the team was 4.77, is the 7th-best lefty starter they’ve ever developed. Would you prefer Jimmy Gobble (43 starts, 5.23 ERA)? Chris George (44 starts, 6.48 ERA)?

It’s a biologic fact that left-handed pitchers are harder to find than right-handers. But the Royals have still done an inexcusably poor job of finding and developing them for their entire existence. That, though, may finally be about to change. I’ll explain why in my next post.