Thursday, April 29, 2010

Royals Today: 4/29/2010

The wait is over: Rany on the Radio returns this evening at 6 PM. We’ve tried to make an effort to give the show a consistent time slot this year – last year we’d be on Thursday unless the Royals were playing, in which case it would be Wednesday, unless it was a day game on Thursday…it got to be like a third-rate network sitcom that bounced around to accommodate the rest of the schedule. This year, the hope is that you can find us every Thursday at 6 PM on 810 WHB. (This is why we didn’t start last week – evidently some non-baseball sports league was holding a draft or something. Stupid NFL.)

Some quick thoughts before the show tonight:

- It appears that all the talk about Luke Hochevar’s improved fastball was an illusion after all. As Greg Hall recounts here, even the pitching staff thinks the radar gun at the K is hot, and as Jeff Zimmerman analyzes the data here, they’re right – the gun is about 2 mph faster than at other parks. I don’t know how the Pitch F/X data could be this off, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Royals, it’s that they can make the impossible seem commonplace.

- Greg Schaum is reporting that the Royals are putting John Parrish on the DL and calling up Victor Marte. Let me be the first to say: Marte is not the answer. If he goes back down in a couple of days when Chris Getz returns, this is no big deal. But if the Royals send down Alex Gordon instead…well, they are the Royals. They have a reputation to live up to.

- Speaking of Gordon…I’ve defended Trey Hillman to an extent for his handling of the bullpen. But that doesn’t mean his overall body of work is anything to be proud of. Case in point: last night, with the Royals down a run in the 8th, after Alberto Callaspo singled with two outs, Hillman pinch-ran for him with Gordon.

Meanwhile, Willie Bloomquist was still in the lineup at second base, and was due to bat in the 9th.

This is amazing on several levels:

1) Hillman decided that it was more important to upgrade from Callaspo to Gordon on the basepaths than to upgrade from Bloomquist to Gordon with the bat.

2) Bloomquist was in the starting lineup, I suppose, because the Mariners started a lefty on the mound. It so happens that the Mariners’ closer, David Aardsma, is right-handed.

3) Jason Kendall was at the plate when Gordon pinch-ran. If the point of bringing Gordon in to run was so that he might be able to score on a double in the gap, wouldn’t it make sense only if the batter could actually hit a double? We’re talking about the player with the lowest slugging average in the majors last year. Kendall has 3 extra-base hits so far this season, and had just 23 all of last year.

4) Rick Ankiel is supposedly available to pinch-hit, but he stayed on the bench in the 9th, while Bloomquist naturally made an out. So either Ankiel really isn’t available and the Royals are pulling our leg (never!), or Hillman really thought Bloomquist was his best option in the 9th.

- I know that Yuni is hitting .325, and we’ve been subject to the requisite articles that he’s become a better, more disciplined hitter. Pardon me if I wait a little longer before acknowledging defeat. His new-found discipline has translated into exactly one walk all season. Last night, he worked the count to 3-1 with two outs in the ninth, prompting Frank White (himself a fair swinger) to recommend that Yuni take a pitch and try to work a walk. He fouled off the 3-1 pitch, then swung on a 3-2 pitch that was high and a foot outside to end the game.

According to Fangraphs, Betancourt has swung at 56% of the pitches he’s seen this season – by far the most in his career. He’s swung at 46% of pitches outside the strike zone – last year he swung at just 31%, and his career high is 34%. All the evidence suggests that he’s LESS disciplined at the plate this season.

This lack of discipline has been most galling when it comes to situational hitting. Seven times this season Betancourt has batted with a man on third base and less than two out, i.e. a situation where you just want to put the ball in play. He has one hit in those seven at-bats, but the problem is that in his other six at-bats he didn’t bring the runner home even once. This cost the Royals the game on Saturday night, when he struck out with the game-winning run on 3rd base in the 10th (he saw four pitches, all of them out of the strike zone, and swung at three of them). It might have cost the Royals the game on Tuesday, when he grounded out weakly with Mitch Maier on third base and one out after Maier had tripled in the game’s first run. Maier didn’t score; the Royals lost 3-2. The major league average for bringing home a runner on third with less than two out is in the 55-60% range. For Yuni so far this year, it’s 14%.

So yeah, he’s hitting .325, but his approach hasn’t changed at all; if anything, it’s gotten worse. Batting average is a notoriously variable statistic, and even a bad hitter can hit .325 for a month. Just look at Betancourt himself:

July 2006: .374

May 2007: .327

August 2007: .317

April 2008: .301

August 2008: .305

September 2008: .343

Hell, Betancourt batted .303 last April, and by June the Mariners were desperate to get rid of him. Because even when Betancourt hits .300, his complete lack of walks and modest power makes him only marginally useful. And when he hits .214, like he did last May, he’s a lineup killer.

If Betancourt is hitting .325 at the All-Star Break, call me. Until then, call me a skeptic.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Tale Of Two Bullpens.

How bad was it? The Royals’ bullpen broke more records than the White Sox on Disco Demolition Night. Ray Bradbury’s agent was calling them to pose for the cover of “Fahrenheit 451”. In “Close & Late” situations, over 728 at-bats, Royals’ opponents hit a ridiculous .328/.404/.520, turning every hitter into Gary Sheffield. Never before had a team blown more saves than they had recorded; the Royals saved just 29 of 59 games. The Royals were the first team in AL history to record a Rolaids Relief score below zero. According to Tom Ruane, the Royals’ 11-32 record in one-run games was the worst by any team in over 60 years. The four worst winning percentages in one-run games this century:

Year Team W L Pct.

1935 Boston (NL) 7 31 .184

1937 St. Louis (AL) 10 31 .244

1999 Kansas City 11 32 .256

1916 Philadelphia (AL) 11 32 .256

The 1937 St. Louis Browns finished 46-108 - and they were the best of the other three teams on this list. The 1935 Braves finished 38-115, the second-worst record this century. The worst? Those 1916 Athletics (36-117). Three teams with overall winning percentages in the .200s, and last year’s Royals. Wow.

As historic as their futility in close games was, it was the Royals’ collapse at the end of games that is so damning on the bullpen. The Royals, owners of the third-worst record in baseball, were better than .500 through 6 innings. Consider this chart, where “expected wins” assumes the Royals won all the games they were leading, and half the games they were tied:

Inning 6 7 8 Final

Ahead 73 70 66 64

Tied 20 15 14 0

Behind 68 76 81 97

Expected Wins 83 77.5 73 64

Through 6 innings, the Royals were 73-68 with 20 ties, yet by game’s end were 64-97. They slipped 19 games in the standings after the 6th inning. Nineteen games. Inning-by-inning data is not available prior to 1980, but with Keith Woolner’s help, we found that over the last 20 years, the 1985 Pirates had held the record with an 18-game drop. After 7 innings, the Royals 13.5-game drop broke the record of 12, previously held by the 1997 Cubs.

You get the point. This isn’t your standard “we would have won 10 more games with a good bullpen” sob story. This was the Real McCoy. The 1999 Royals were the worst late-inning team of at least the last 20 years, and the worst close-game team of the last 60.

- Baseball Prospectus 2000

I wrote those words over a decade ago, and I never thought I would see a worse bullpen in my lifetime. I probably won’t – the season is still young, after all. But the 2010 Royals are giving the 1999 Royals a run for the money – and that’s with a shutdown closer in Joakim Soria.

Let’s compare the two head-to-head:

The 1999 Royals were 29 of 59 in save opportunities – as mentioned above, the first team in history to have more blown saves than actual saves. The 2010 Royals are 6 of 13 in save opportunities.

The 1999 bullpen had a composite 5.77 ERA. The 2010 bullpen has a 6.61 ERA. (And remember, 1999 was the peak of the juiced era – the league ERA was 4.86. The ERA of the American League this year – keep in mind that offense usually is down in April – is just 4.11.)

The 1999 bullpen allowed opposing hitters to bat .303/.385/.479. Against the 2010 bullpen, opposing hitters are batting .306/.408/.502.

The 1999 bullpen allowed 124 runs in the 7th inning (0.77 runs per game), and 111 runs in the 8th inning (0.69 runs per game). The 2010 bullpen, through 20 games, has allowed 23 runs in the 7th (1.15 runs per game) and 14 runs in the 8th (0.70 runs per game). That’s right – the team is allowing OVER ONE RUN AN INNING in the seventh.

The 1999 Royals were just 53-20 (.726) in games they were leading after 6 innings, and 55-15 (.786) in games they were leading after 7. The 2010 Royals are 5-6 (.455) in games they lead after 6, but 7-2 (.778) in games they lead after 8.

As shown in the chart above, the 1999 Royals were 73-68 with 20 ties after 6 innings – their “expected record” was 83-78, but they finished 64-97. In other words, they lost 19 games between the end of 6 innings and the end of the game. They lost 10.5 games after 7 innings, and 9 games after 8 innings.

After 6 innings, the 2010 Royals are 11-6 with 3 ties. (Read that again.) Their expected record is 12.5 – 7.5, which would put them in second place, just 2 games behind the Twins. Instead they are 8-12. Just 20 games into the season, the Royals have already lost 4.5 games after 6 innings. After 7 innings, they are 9-10 with one tie; they’ve lost 1.5 games after 7. They are 7-11 with 2 ties after 8 innings; thanks to Soria, their record hasn’t dropped at all after the 8th inning.

By almost every metric, the 2010 Royals have performed worse to this point than their 1999 counterparts. This is astonishing, given that the Royals have one of the best closers in baseball at their disposal. Partly thanks to Soria, and partly thanks to the Royals coming back after Kyle Farnsworth had given up the go-ahead run in extra innings against Detroit, the Royals’ record in one-run games is actually 4-4. Which, if anything, makes the performance of the bullpen even worse. The 1999 Royals suffered from bad luck as much as a bad bullpen; the bullpen found a way to give up just enough runs to lose, and the offense shut down in the late innings. By contrast, the 2010 Royals have actually come back in the late innings twice – once against the Tigers in the 11th, and once on Rick Ankiel’s bloop single in the 8th to beat the Red Sox. Without a more productive offense, the situation could be even more dire.

The closer for the 1999 Royals was Jeff Montgomery, who was on his last legs – he would retire after the season. Monty had just 12 saves and a whopping 6.84 ERA. Take out his performance, and the team’s middle relievers had a 5.64 ERA. Take out Soria’s performance this season (just 2 runs allowed in 9 innings), and the middle relievers this season have allowed 44 earned runs in 53.2 innings – a 7.38 ERA.

Yogi was right. It’s déjà vu all over again.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bullpen Redux.

First off, I want to address the main criticism I’ve heard about my last article. As reader Dan wrote in the comment section:

“I’m really surprised that Rany missed Craig’s point, which many have already pointed out. The best use of the best reliever in your bullpen is not necessarily as a closer. Bring him in anytime in the last three innings when the scoring threat is greatest (men are on base, middle of the order, etc). Let him get out of that jam, and whether he gets three outs or stay[s] in for six, he got you out of the jam and you still have the lead. Worry about keeping a lead in the ninth when there is actually a lead in the ninth to worry about.”

I’ve seen a lot of comments like these, saying that it’s okay for Soria to come in to pitch the 7th inning in a key situation, because he doesn’t necessarily have to finish the game – once the crisis has passed, someone else can pitch the ninth.

I get this point, I really do. And I agree with it to some extent – in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have “closers”, we’d have “stoppers”, who are brought in to stop an opponent’s rally cold.

But the whole point of my article was that the way teams use their bullpens has evolved so drastically over the last 30 years that it’s a foolish utopian dream to argue that Trey Hillman should immediately jump back into the Dan Quisenberry model. Before we turn Joakim Soria into Quisenberry, I argued, let’s first turn him into Jeff Montgomery. Once the Royals see that Soria can handle that kind of role without the world ending, then we can talk about extending things further.

But to idea that the Royals should bring Soria in to pitch in the 7th and then come out of the game, letting someone else to pitch the 9th (and earn the save), is even more of a pipe dream than having him go 7 or 8 outs for the save. It’s simply never been done before. Never mind that the fans and media will absolutely revolt the first time Robinson Tejeda or Josh Rupe blows the 2-run lead in the 9th that Soria hands off to him. (This to me is actually a minor concern, because – for reasons I may get into in a future post – the media and fan base in Kansas City is probably more willing to accept sabermetric and other “unconventional” baseball ideas than anywhere else in America.)

Here’s a rough description of the four ways a team can use its closer, from the least efficient to the most efficient:

1) The Eckersley model: 9th-inning save situations only.

2) The Montgomery model: pitch the 9th, and sometimes the 8th, usually save situations but also in tie games.

3) The Quisenberry model: come in whenever the game is on the line, from the 6th inning on, and stay in to close out the game.

4) The Utopian model: come in to put out fires at any point in the game, then exit the game and let a lesser reliever pitch once the fire is out.

Currently, pretty much every team in baseball follows the first method; a few teams (including the Royals) will dabble with the second method. In my last article I argued for the Royals to whole-heartedly adopt Method #2, and worry about Method #3 later. The response has been “what about Method #4?” To which I can only say, “let’s get the Royals to embrace Method #2 first.” Sure, I’d love to see the Royals adopt Method #4 – but I’d also love to see them embrace the 4-man rotation, and carry just 10 pitchers, and build a platoon at a couple of positions, and clone George Brett. But step by step, guys.

Otto Von Bismarck once said, “Politics is the art of the possible.” I am trying to be political here, because I want to see the Royals (and every other team) use their best reliever more efficiently, and I’d rather push for a small change that’s possible than a large change that isn’t. I’m not saying that the people pushing for the Royals to use Soria in the Utopian model are wrong. They’re not. I’m not even saying that they’re wasting their time, because they’re not. As I’ve learned from reading Nate Silver, if nothing else, suggesting the Utopian model may help move the Overton Window, which may make a less extreme but still radical idea like using Soria for 6 outs become more palatable.

So by all means, let’s keep reminding the Royals that there’s a better way to use Soria. But let’s also temper our expectations. It took 30 years for teams to make a complete mess of the way they use their closers. It’s going to take time – and a lot of intermediate steps – to reverse the damage.

- Last night, Hillman brought Soria in to pitch the 9th in a tie game. This isn’t that notable – once the game goes into the 9th inning tied, it becomes impossible for the home team to have a save situation, so you have no choice but to use your closer in a tie game. Still, there are a lot of managers who would have waited at least until extra innings before bringing in their closer. Then, after Soria worked a rather efficient 9th inning with just 12 pitches, Hillman let him throw the 10th as well. If Yuniesky Betancourt had ever bothered to learn that you don’t actually have to swing at every pitch, Hillman might have been rewarded for his willingness to defy conventional wisdom with a victory. (In the bottom of the 10th, with the winning run on third and one out, Betancourt saw four pitches. None of them were in the strike zone, yet he swung at three of them, and struck out.)

The bullpen remains a cluster**** of the highest order, but 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.

- Speaking of Dayton Moore and his mess, Moore turned the impressive trick of dumping Luis Mendoza without actually improving the bullpen. Mendoza was replaced with Bruce Chen, and while Chen pitched poorly for the Royals last season, his career ERA (4.71) is barely half that of Mendoza (8.43). Moreover, in three starts for Omaha he had allowed just 13 hits in 21 innings, with 20 strikeouts against just 5 walks. Chen is one of those Quadruple-A guys who always dominates in Triple-A but struggles in the majors, so I’m not expecting much from him, but he’s better than Mendoza.

Unfortunately, Moore also released Juan Cruz and replaced him with Brad Thompson. This is mystifying. I understand that Cruz has been an unbridled failure with the Royals, and it’s impressive that Moore was willing to accept the sunk cost of his contract (and that David Glass let him). But at least Cruz has a history of success, something Thompson really doesn’t. Cruz went on the DL late last year, and based on the results I suspect he was pitching hurt for most of the season. After striking out 33% of the batters he faced in 2007-2008, he struck out just 17% of opposing batters last year.

This year, he was ridiculously ineffective with men on base (he allowed all 6 runners he inherited to score), but he also struck out 7 of the 28 batters he faced. There was at least a glimmer of hope there. I don’t see how, in just 5.1 innings of work, he showed the Royals enough to release him – particularly when they’re keeping Kyle Farnsworth, who’s been almost exactly as ineffective. (Farnsworth has thrown 5.2 innings. Both pitchers have allowed 9 hits. Cruz walked four; Farnsworth has walked only two, but also hit two batters, and he’s given up a homer. And Farnsworth has only three strikeouts.)

In his place, the Royals have brought up Thompson, who had a 4.84 ERA for the Cardinals last year, and is an extreme finesse pitcher who struck out just 34 batters in 80 innings. Given how bad the team’s defense still is – as put on vivid display each of the last few nights – I’m not sure a pitcher who’s primary skill is pitching to contact is going to be any better than Cruz.

The Royals have a wealth of relief options in the minors, from the just-waiting-for-his-turn Carlos Rosa to the nearly-ready Blake Wood to the always-forgotten Chris Hayes to some intriguing Double-A options like Blaine Hardy and Federico Castaneda. None of these guys are sure things; they’re all still better than recycling yet another failed major league pitcher.

- Just to make it clear how much the bullpen has hurt the Royals, consider this: if games ended after six innings, the Royals would be 8-6 with 3 ties. Instead, they’re 6-11. Get this: the Royals have a losing record when leading after six innings. In the eight games they’ve led after six, they’re 3-5.

The 7th inning is the culprit. Thanks to Soria, the Royals have won all 5 games they’ve had a lead going into the 9th. And they’ve only lost 1 game where they had a lead entering the 8th. But between the beginning and the end of the 7th, the Royals go from 8-6 with 3 ties to 6-10 with 1 tie.

- What is most amazing to me about the pitching staff this season is that, despite a middle relief corps that is historically inept, no one has even suggested that one possible solution might be to let the starting pitchers work a little deeper into the game.

The Royals have played 17 games so far, and not once has their starter thrown even 110 pitches. Only six times has the starter thrown 100 pitches. Neither Kyle Davies nor Brian Bannister has thrown 100 pitches yet.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing, necessarily – the usage of starting pitchers today is much more sane than it was 10 or 15 years ago. I’m just saying that if you had told me back in 1998, when I first invented Pitcher Abuse Points because Jim Leyland was letting Jesus Sanchez throw 146 pitches and Livan Hernandez throw 153 pitches and Tony Muser was grinding Jose Rosado’s arm into dust, that a scant 12 years later a team would rather lose game after game in the 7th inning than let its starting pitchers (none of whom are younger than 26, mind you) throw even 110 pitches…well, let’s just say I would have been surprised.

The starting pitchers have averaged 5.82 innings per start this year; even if you take Gil Meche out of the equation, it’s 6.17 innings per start. The Royals’ starter has completed the 7th inning just twice all season. The Royals could easily let their starters get another out or two – allowing them to complete the 7th more regularly – without letting them exceed 115 or 120 pitches. For pitchers with mature arms (i.e. older than 25), I don’t really get concerned with their pitch counts until they approach 120.

It’s clear the Royals don’t have a reliever capable of protecting leads in the 7th. Maybe the solution is to see if their starters are capable of protecting leads in the 7th.