Friday, April 9, 2010

Royals Today: 4/9/2010

The similarities between this season and last continue to impress. Like last year, the Royals lost on Opening Day when their bullpen blew a late-inning lead, which caused a fanbase that long expected the worst (including yours truly) to overreact to one game. Then, like last year, the Royals got two more dominant starting pitching performances in their next two games.

The difference is that last year, the Royals got good work from their non-Farnsworth relievers in Games Two and Three, and won both games. (It’s easy to forget this, but through May 17th of last year, Juan Cruz had a 1.45 ERA and had allowed just 7 hits in 19 innings.) The bullpen implosion would come later.

There’s no need for patience this year. You’ve probably seen this graphic, but to reiterate:

Starters: 19.2 innings, 2 ER, 0.92 ERA

Relievers: 9.1 innings, 14 ER, 13.50 ERA


But I don’t want to ignore the contribution that the starting pitchers have made. That the bullpen has blown saves in all three games so far is testament to their decrepitude, but it’s also a testament to a rotation that has allowed the Royals to hold a lead after six innings in each game*, despite an offense that has only scored 10 runs in 3 games.

*: Back in 1999, the year the Royals had The Worst Bullpen of All Time, the team had a 73-68 record after six innings. As Joe Posnanski put it in a column the following spring, “the Royals would have been if they were playing slow-pitch softball.” But they weren’t, and they finished 64-97. This year, the Royals are 3-0 after six innings…and 1-2 overall. That 1999 team’s record seems impossible to break, and this year’s Royals at least have Soria. But as Buddy Bell said…

Zack Greinke, in fact, has had the worst performance by a starter so far. Yesterday Brian Bannister did what he always does when he’s healthy – do more with less than any Royals pitcher since at least Paul Byrd, and before him probably Dan Quisenberry. Bannister didn’t show us anything we didn’t already know so much as he reminded us that he’s still one of the most underrated pitchers around.

But what Luke Hochevar did on Wednesday night…that was something different. I’m not referring to the results, which were spectacular – 7.2 shutout innings, and 16 groundball outs vs. just 4 in the air. As outstanding as he pitched, he pitched that well or better three times last year – that’s what makes him, and his 6.55 ERA last season, so maddening. Plus, the weather was miserable – cold and rainy – which may have had something to do with the results.

What was different was his stuff. Or more specifically, his velocity. I knew something was up when the radar gun had his fastball consistently at 96 mph in the first inning. As I tweeted at the time, it was probably just a FOX gun hiccup – I haven’t taken the FOX gun seriously since the time it recorded Carlos Silva (Carlos Silva!) at 98. But Nate Bukaty, who tracks the game in the FOX truck when he’s not co-hosting his morning radio show on 810 WHB, tweeted back his assurances that the gun was accurate. And none of the other pitchers in the game were getting the same kind of tailwind – Max Scherzer, the opposing starter, was consistently 92-94 as you’d expect him to be.

There was only way to settle this – with Pitch F/X data, which isn’t perfect but is pretty damn close to it. I wasn’t the only one who had noticed Hochevar’s velocity – yesterday, Dave Allen of Fangraphs wrote this column analyzing the data. His conclusion: Hochevar is definitely throwing faster than he was last season; his fastball is as much as 2.5 mph faster than in 2009.

I’m skeptical that his fastball has jumped quite that much; while the velocities of other pitchers were more or less unchanged, Joakim Soria hit 92 and even 93 a couple of times, and his fastball is so consistent you could set a metronome to it – 90 on a slow day, 91 on a fast day. We’ll definitely want to see more data. But there’s no question that he was throwing harder than he ever had in the majors. Bob McClure worked on his delivery this spring, and Hochevar threw harder before he was drafted than after he signed, so this isn’t completely out of the blue. But it is a very, very welcome development. Before the season I said on Bukaty’s show that I felt this would be Hochevar’s breakout season. And I think Hochevar is the single most pivotal player on the roster this season. He won’t always be this good, but he can’t possibly be as bad as he was last year. If he’s closer to the former than the latter, the Royals just found themselves another quality starter.

That’s the good news. The bad news is…everything else.

- Well, okay, Soria’s performance wasn’t exactly bad news. Yes, he blew the save and cost Hochevar a victory with one strike to go. But there’s no way you can watch that at-bat and come to the conclusion that Soria was at fault. The only conclusion you can come to is that Miguel Cabrera is a very bad, bad mofo. That was a rather ridiculous piece of hitting – both fouling off everything Soria had to throw at him, and flicking an outside fastball off the right-field fair pole. Cabrera is a remarkably talented hitter who apparently has sobered up after possibly costing the Tigers a playoff spot with his drunken antics last season. If early results mean anything, he could be positively scary this season.

(While I’m on the subject of the Tigers – is Joel Zumaya’s shoulder made out of adamantium? The guy has had enough shoulder injuries to destroy most pitchers’ careers – and here he is, in his first outing after another shoulder injury, pumping 102 mph. I don’t get it.)

- More brilliant baserunning by the Royals in Game 2, when Jason Kendall made the third out of the inning trying to go from first-to-third on Getz’ RBI single. And then, on Rick Ankiel’s walk-off double, Willie Bloomquist – who had just pinch-run for Billy Butler – rounded third base hard, then held up at the last moment at Dave Owen’s orders, but Ankiel was already halfway between second and third. The Royals were saved when Scott Sizemore booted the relay throw, and the game ended. But if Sizemore had handled it cleanly, either the Royals would have had two men at third base, or Bloomquist was a dead duck at the plate. It was a terrible piece of coaching in a crucial situation that should have cost the Royals dearly.

It’s still the first week of the season, but it’s not too early to say this given his history: it’s time to tear down the Windmill. Dave Owen is costing the Royals runs with his decisions at third base, and eventually those runs will turn into wins.

- I’ve been impressed with Jose Guillen’s bat speed; he seems to be turning on fastballs as well as he did in 2008. Of course, in 2008 he was still a below-average hitter because he swung at everything, and I don’t see any reason to think that will change this year.

Case in point: in Game 2, after Cabrera had tied the game in the top of the 9th, Ankiel led off the bottom of the inning with a single. Lefty specialist Phil Coke stayed in to face Guillen, fell behind 3-1, and then threw a fastball low and away which would have put two men on with none out. Instead, Guillen didn’t just swing at the fastball, he tried to pull it, resulting in an easy 6-4-3 double play to kill the rally.

- I don’t care what anyone else says: no one can protect a four-run deficit in the ninth inning better than Kyle Farnsworth. No one.

Tie games in the 11th inning, on the other hand…in the span of five pitches, Farnsworth had managed to give up three singles and give the Tigers the lead. To his credit, he stopped the rally there, sandwiching two popouts around a savvy pickoff of Cabrera trying to commit to a double-steal too soon. He came away with the win, further debasing the uselessness of pitcher wins as a stat, but he still has no business pitching in a key situation.

- That is, unless the alternative is Luis Mendoza. You have to love the thought process here: yesterday afternoon, with the Royals clinging to a 2-1 lead in the top of the 8th inning and with Soria likely unavailable, Dusty Hughes walked Johnny Damon to lead off the 8th. (The Royals must lead the league in opposing rallies started by leadoff walks. Unfortunately, they have yet to learn the use of this weapon in their own arsenal.)

Four of the next five hitters bat right-handed, prompting a switch. It is at this point that Trey Hillman makes the genius move, not to bring in Juan Cruz, or Robinson Tejeda, or Roman Colon or even Farnsworth, but instead to bring in Mendoza.

Luis Mendoza was making his Royals debut. Mendoza, in 80 career innings, had a 7.73 ERA. Last season, he pitched only one inning for the Rangers, and gave up four runs. He spent the rest of the season toiling in Triple-A, where he managed a sparkling 4.53 ERA. His career ERA in the minors is 4.58. He’s like Roman Colon’s little brother: he’s shown no aptitude at retiring hitters in the majors or even in the minors, yet the Royals not only were thrilled to get him, they immediately used him in a one-run game, in the eighth inning, with a man on base, and with Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Freaking Cabrera due up next.

- Miguel Cabrera then hits a groundball to shortstop, where Yuniesky Betancourt immediately boots it. This was an obvious, clear, no-doubt-about-it error, and was scored as such at first, before the official scorer inexplicably decided to change it to a base hit. (There are conflicting reports as to the model of shotgun that Dayton Moore had wedged between the scorer’s shoulder blades at the time.) This set up Cabrera to hit another opposite-field homer, this time on an 0-2 count.

This wouldn’t end the Luis Mendoza show; Mendoza would give up a pair of doubles and a walk in the ninth, and then Colon would use his new magical slider to give up a single, a walk, and hit a batter before finally getting the last out in the ninth. Mendoza is currently tied for the league lead with 5 earned runs allowed this year. His career ERA is now 8.13.

- Betancourt’s error-turned-hit merely underscores that the Royals are incomplete denial about how bad his defense is. Twice on Opening Day, he had to lunge to pick up groundballs that weren’t more than ten feet to his left. He managed to get to both of them, but his lack of range was shocking – all the more so because we were told that his lateral movement had improved this spring.

His defense is a joke at this point. The Royals can call him Ozzie Smith for all I care; he is not a major-league caliber shortstop.

- Oh, and in regards to his plate discipline after his Opening Day home run? Yesterday, the Royals mounted a rally in the bottom of the eighth, scoring a run and putting the tying run on third base with one out for Betancourt. He immediately swung at the first pitch and hit a routine grounder to the shortstop, forcing the runner to stay at third. The Royals helped hide his failure by giving up three more runs in the 9th, but the fact remains that his offensive game remains as unrefined – and seemingly uninterested in improving – as his defense.

Fortunately, his replacement is on the roster. In three games so far, Mike Aviles has one base-running appearance and zero at-bats. But he’s doing better than Mitch Maier, who hasn’t played at all.

I don’t mean to sound too down. The Royals are 1-2, and their bullpen is a shambles as expected. But tonight they send Kyle Davies to the mound, who is certainly erratic but compares favorably with almost any #5 starter in baseball. The day after Gil Meche and his rapidly-improving shoulder debuts, and then the rotation turns back to Greinke. (Correction: Greinke goes tomorrow, and Meche on Sunday. Always good to get the reigning Cy Young winner the opportunity to pitch as often as possible.)

Every day the Royals send a starter to the mound who has the ability to turn over a lead to the bullpen. Now they just need a bullpen capable of holding onto it.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Royals Today: Opening Day Edition.

So, what to write about Opening Day that hasn’t been written before – like, say, last year? What did we see from the Royals yesterday (with one big exception) that we didn’t see a hundred times last season? Yes, it’s just one game, and yes, maybe fans take Opening Day a little too seriously. But there’s a reason why so many Royals fans are putting so much meaning into one game. We’ve seen this movie before, way too many times. I think most of us have accepted that the Royals will suck again this season – but is it too much to ask that they suck creatively? Can’t they suck in a different way than they did last year? Evidently not.

- All those new veteran players brought in to impart a winning attitude to the team, all that time spent on fundamentals again this spring, and the Royals can’t get through the top of the first inning of the season without making a play that belongs on the team’s end-of-season blooper reel.

I don’t know who’s at fault for letting Carlos Guillen’s infield pop-up drop, and I don’t care. All I know is that six men looked up into the sky and swirling wind, and not one of them took charge to make the play. Greinke is exempt from criticism, both because he’s Zack Greinke and because pitchers never have responsibility on infield pop-ups. But the reality is that when he’s on the mound, he’s easily the best defensive player on the infield. At some point, he ought to just say f**k it, and make every play he can himself.

- It’s somehow appropriate that the first run Greinke gives up this season should be an unearned run. He gave up nine unearned runs each of the last two seasons, even though his pitching style should lead to very few unearned runs (as I documented here two years ago). Yesterday was a perfect example of this: with two men on, Greinke induces a pop-up, a ball in play which should almost never lead to an error – unless you’re asking the Royals to catch it.

- I’m not going to rag on Willie Bloomquist too much for taking the error, because that really was a team effort, and he did make a fine play later in the game that might have saved Greinke a run.

Besides, it’s not Bloomquist’s fault that he was the Opening Day third baseman. Yes, it took a perfect storm of injuries for that to happen, with Alex Gordon’s broken thumb and Alberto Callaspo’s tweaked oblique. (Tweaked Oblique sounds like a good name for a band, if anyone’s looking for ideas…) But it still doesn’t explain why Bloomquist started over Mike Aviles.

Actually, I do know why – because Trey Hillman doesn’t feel that Aviles is ready to play third base yet. This is perfectly reasonable – as quickly as he returned from his injury, and as well as he played this spring, we can’t forget that Aviles had Tommy John surgery less than 10 months ago, his arm strength still isn’t 100%, and it may still be a few weeks before Aviles can be safely trusted to play full-out.

I just have one question to ask, if I may: if Aviles isn’t yet ready to start at third base, WHY THE HELL IS HE ON THE ROSTER?

Aviles was a revelation in 2008, not just offensively but defensively, as he played an above-average shortstop while hitting .325 as a rookie. Last year was a lost season, obviously, and after not playing in a game in 10 months, Aviles has a lot to prove. But he certainly has the ability to upgrade the Royals considerably at shortstop, where the Royals have a starter who – as you may know – leaves a lot to be desired in both facets of his game.

So the obvious solution here is to send Aviles to Omaha on a rehab assignment, which allows him to get reps at the plate every day, and allows him to progress defensively from second base to third base to shortstop as his arm strength returns. A month or six weeks from now, Aviles ought to be ready to step in at any position the Royals might need him. In particular, should Yuniesky Betancourt struggle as he did after the trade last season, the Royals will have a viable option to replace him.

Instead, the Royals were so impressed with Aviles’ performance that they brought him north with the team…only to stash him on the bench, where he won’t get the chance to continue his hot hitting, where he won’t be able to work on his arm strength in game situations, and where he’s evidently so fragile that the Royals don’t feel confident that they can use him at all.

Yesterday, the Spork went 0-for-3 with 2 strikeouts in his first three times up. In the bottom of the eighth, Bloomquist was due up again with two outs, nobody on, and the 100 mph-throwing Ryan Perry on the mound. Seems like a good chance to get Aviles up in a low-pressure situation, then let him take the field for the last inning. Instead, Bloomquist batted, and struck out again.

If you’re not going to use Aviles off the bench in a tailor-made situation, then why have him on the bench to begin with? Two months from now, if not sooner, Aviles might be the best shortstop the Royals have. If the Royals were actively trying to prevent Aviles from regaining his previous form, they couldn’t have made a better decision than the one they have.

- Speaking of Betancourt, props to him for one of the most impressive plate appearances I’ve ever seen from him. Granted, that’s damning with faint praise. Still, I should point out that as stunning as it was to see him drive a Justin Verlander fastball 380-plus feet to left-center field, the most impressive part of the at-bat was that his home run came on a full-count. In particular, the pitch immediately before the homer was a 2-2 fastball about three inches off the outside corner, and Betancourt spit on it.

It was one at-bat. And if the 2-2 pitch had been a slider, Betancourt probably would have swung no matter where it was placed. But I have to give credit where credit’s due, and I plan to watch Yuni’s pitch selection a little more closely in the coming weeks.

- I should apologize for suggesting that the Royals lost this game the same way they lost last season.

On Opening Day last season, the Royals’ starter departed the game with a lead, and in their first inning of work, the bullpen gave up three runs and lost the game. On Opening Day this season, the Royals’ starter departed the game with a lead, and in their first inning of work, the bullpen gave up six runs and lost the game. Also, they lost the game in the 8th inning last season, the 7th inning this year. Big difference.

- There’s not much to say about the bullpen’s seventh-inning meltdown. Roman Colon, Robinson Tejeda, and Juan Cruz faced 10 batters in the inning. Three struck out, one walked, and the other six all got hits. There was some degree of bad luck – the Tigers were 6-for-6 on balls-in-play – but if luck is the residue of design, then bad luck is the residue of a lack of design.

Roman Colon is really the Yuniesky Betancourt of the pitching staff – the Royals promoted him last season, and continue to use him in tight spots, even though he’s never done anything remotely positive at the major league level. But he unveiled a new slider this spring that everyone has raved about, and a new pitch is sometimes all it takes for a pitcher to take a dramatic step forward.

The slider I saw yesterday was hardly new; it was a wide sweeping thing that any hitter could recognize about 30 feet from the plate. (Colon said so as much afterwards: “The slider didn’t work today.”) He lit the fire.

Tejeda, who was terrific last season, is nonetheless the kind of guy I’d feel much more comfortable with to start an inning – he needs some space to clean up his own messes, and coming in with two men on base eliminated that margin for error. He threw the worst pitch in the entire sequence, a 1-2 fastball to Miguel Cabrera that was right down the middle, and hit back up the middle for an RBI single.

Juan Cruz almost looked decent, at least after he iced the game by giving up a two-run double to Brandon Inge – he struck out three of the next four hitters. I still hold out hope that he’ll regain his pre-2009 form. I would just rather he prove that in non-clutch situations first.

Colon, Tejeda, Cruz…if I had just described a game from last July, would any of you know the difference? If you had told me that Greinke pitched a brilliant game despite defensive lapses behind him, but then Colon and Cruz came in and blew the game before Soria could get in, I’d say you were describing this game here that I attended last season. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

If insanity is trying the same thing over and over again, expecting the same result, what level of schizophrenia have the Royals descended to?

- I don’t care what anyone else says: no one can protect a four-run deficit in the ninth inning better than Kyle Farnsworth. No one.

- And finally, what would a Royals’ game be without a dose of insane baserunning?

In the fifth inning, recall, Chris Getz got the Royals rolling with a two-out single off Verlander. He stole second, David DeJesus hit a grounder up the middle that Adam Everett could only keep on the infield, and then Scott Podsednik worked a walk. This set up the perfect situation: Billy Butler at the plate, with the bases loaded in a tie game. Butler has owned Verlander in his career, and while I don’t put much stock in hitter-pitcher matchups (all the statistical evidence says that what a batter has done against a specific pitcher is almost meaningless), the fact is that Butler can catch up to a fastball like few others in the game, even one as fast as Verlander’s. Butler poked a single to right field, plating two baserunners.

Two innings later, after the Tigers had put up their six-spot to take an 8-4 lead, the Royals’ offense once again stirred. Jason Kendall beat out an infield single. Getz singled to left as Kendall pulled up at second. And with one out, Podsednik blooped a single into short center field, giving Billy Butler another chance to bat with the bases loaded, representing the tying run, likely against Ryan Perry, another cooks-with-gas right-hander who provides all the energy Butler needs to go deep if he runs into one…


Yep, that’s the Royals’ catcher churning around third base, with one out, the Royals’ best hitter about to come to the plate, down four runs in the seventh inning. That’s the Royals’ catcher being thrown out at the plate, with the Royals’ best hitter about to come to the plate, down four runs in the seventh inning.

Yes, it was a terrific throw, and a bang-bang play. But so what? When you’re down four runs in the seventh inning, and you’re about to bring up the tying run at the plate in the form of your #3 hitter, the only excuse to have a runner thrown out trying to score is if he slips and falls down halfway to home, then gets back up only to step on a landmine. Otherwise, it’s a fireable offense.

Dave Owen, the Royals’ third-base coach, was not fired over the winter.

In his defense, though, Kendall’s not going to have the speed he once had before that severe ankle injury in 1999.

- Momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher. After the hissy fit we all threw on Opening Day last year, the Royals won their next two games against the White Sox, and suddenly they were 2-1 with three dominant starting pitcher performances under their belt, and they were well on their way to 18-11. So let’s not get too riled up this time around.

I do feel compelled to point out that last year, tomorrow’s starting pitcher was Zack Greinke. This year, tomorrow’s starting pitcher is…Luke Hochevar.

Hope still springs eternal. But spring better show up quick.