Thursday, May 6, 2010

Royals Today: 5/6/2010

As usual, I picked a bad week to disappear. Well, not disappear exactly – I’ve taken advantage of having the Royals in Chicago to spend a lot of time watching them at the ballpark and talking to people connected to the team. I just haven’t taken the time to write. So let’s catch up with the events of the last week:

Zack Greinke pitches brilliantly again, loses again.

I’m not sure what more I can add to this. As Posnanski pointed out a while back, going back to August 16th, 2008, Zack Greinke had made 46 starts with a 2.11 ERA – and the Royals were 22-24 in those starts.

Now, his ERA in that span is 2.08, and the Royals are 22-25.

Sometimes I wonder if the Royals were put on this earth with the express purpose of teaching the world the core principles of sabermetrics. Want to understand the importance of the base on balls? Consider that the Royals are 11-17, and have been outscored 148-113, even though they’ve outhit their opponents this season. The Royals have 270 hits; their opponents have 264. The Royals have been outhomered by a modest margin, 29-25, but the big difference is this: the Royals – as usual – rank dead last in the AL in walks drawn, with 75. And the Royals – as usual – rank dead last in the AL in walks allowed, with 123.

In 28 games, the Royals have allowed 48 walks more than they’ve drawn, a difference of nearly two walks a game. If OBP is life, the Royals are walking zombies, much as they’ve been for the last quarter century.

If you want to know why it seems like so much of the Kansas City media – and increasingly, the Kansas City fan base – is so stat-savvy even though the team itself is stuck in the 1970s, it’s precisely because we’ve seen what happens to a team that ignores 30 years of analytical progress. Royals fans understand the value of a walk, because they’ve seen first-hand the consequences of a dismissive approach to plate discipline.

And now, they understand the worthlessness of win-loss records for pitchers, because they’ve seen how even the most brilliant pitcher the majors has seen in a decade can go winless into May when the other 24 men on the roster stab him in the back.

Run support? The Royals have scored 16 runs in his six starts.

Bullpen support? In the five games that Greinke has turned the game over to the bullpen, his relievers have pitched a total of 13.1 innings – AND ALLOWED 20 RUNS. Greinke’s relievers have allowed more runs in 13.1 innings than his offense has scored in six entire games. In other words, if Greinke had not allowed a single run all season, the Royals still would have been outscored, 20-16, in his six starts.

On Sunday, Greinke was able to eliminate the bullpen from the equation – knowing that Joakim Soria was probably unavailable after pitching in three straight games, he pitched efficiently as well as brilliantly, throwing just 87 pitches in eight innings. Joe Maddon may have been exaggerating when he said that Greinke could have gone 15 innings, but I have no doubt that if the Royals had managed to score one run, Greinke would have pitched the ninth, and probably the tenth as well – becoming the first Royals’ starter to go into extra innings since Kevin Appier went 10 innings in 1992.

But the Royals, of course, didn’t score a run. And Greinke lost a 1-0 complete game for the second time since the beginning of the 2009 season. In that same span, every other starting pitcher in baseball has combined to lose a 1-0 complete game (not counting rain-shortened starts) twice.

As Joe Sheehan tweeted after the game, the Royals don’t deserve Zack Greinke. I wrote that exact phrase in a column with Rob back in 2005, and it remains equally true today.

These two articles are still parodies, I think. At the rate we’re going, one day they may not be.

Royals take advantage of their bullpen depth to trade Carlos Rosa.

It’s too easy, really, to make jokes about the fact that on Sunday the Royals, who at the time of the trade had the second-worst bullpen ERA in all of baseball, traded away Carlos Rosa, probably their most major league-ready relief prospect.

It’s too easy to see that the Royals traded Rosa for a 20-year-old shortstop with a career line in the minors of .256/.304/.338, and say that once again the Royals have made a move that defies common sense.

In this case, though, it really is too easy. The reality is a lot more complicated.

Two years ago today, Rosa was arguably the best pitching prospect in the organization, which says as much about the state of the farm system then as it says about Rosa. He was a starting pitcher with a terrific fastball – excellent velocity, excellent late life. The fastball was good enough to dominate Double-A hitters – in eight starts, he had a 1.20 ERA and allowed just 37 baserunners in 45 innings – despite a lack of a quality off-speed pitch.

The thinking was that if Rosa could just develop his off-speed stuff, he could be a #2 starter. But here we are, two years later, and Rosa is no closer to coming up with a second pitch today than he was then. He tried to develop a changeup, he tried to develop a slider, but both pitches are still below-average. And in the interim, he’s dealt with some arm woes that have sapped his fastball.

He only made 11 starts in Triple-A in 2008 because of arm trouble, and after the season the Royals decided to move him to the bullpen, as much to keep him healthy as to hide the fact that he was still a one-pitch pitcher. That winter, you may remember, the Royals were set to trade him to the Marlins for Mike Jacobs, but the Marlins were sufficiently concerned about the status of Rosa’s elbow that they backed out of the deal – forcing the Royals to substitute Leo Nunez instead. (Nunez has allowed just 3 hits and one run in 11.1 innings for Florida this year. Put him back on the Royals this year, and the team is probably at .500 instead of 11-17.)

Rosa was healthy enough to pitch in 2009, but in retrospect it’s clear that he had lost a little off his fastball, and for a guy who only had that one above-average pitch, he couldn’t afford to lose even a little. He got off to a terrible start in Omaha’s bullpen last year, and while he pitched much better the second half, he still had a 4.56 ERA for the season. In particular, his control was way off – after walking just 19 batters in 96 innings in 2008, he walked 32 batters in 71 innings last year. This year, at the time of the trade, he had walked 7 more batters in just 12 innings.

Since switching to full-time relief last season, Rosa had pitched 83 innings. He had struck out 90 batters, but he had also allowed 82 hits (including 8 homers) and 39 walks. Translated to the majors, those aren’t the numbers of a future major league closer, or even a quality set-up man. Those are the numbers of a garbage-time reliever. Factor in the scouting report on him, and I can see why the Royals were willing to get rid of him. I mean, we just had a reliever on the roster with a good-not-great fastball and no quality secondary offerings. His name was Roman Colon, and he was just sold to a Korean team. For Rosa, at least, the Royals got a prospect in return.

Navarro isn’t a great prospect by any means, but I’ve seen too many people focus on his statistics – as listed above – without mentioning his most important statistic: he’s just 20 years old. He’s 20 years old, and already in high-A ball. He’s a shortstop, and by most accounts a good one. The Royals are coming off a Lost Decade of shortstops, having featured such luminaries as Rey Sanchez, Neifi Perez, Angel Berroa, Tony Pena Jr, and now Yuniesky Betancourt. With Jeff Bianchi out for the year, shortstop glaringly remains the one position where the Royals had no quality prospects in the minors.

So I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to take a flier on a kid barely out of his teens who can switch-hit, who has at least some understanding of the strike zone (he had walked 8 times in 19 games before the trade), and at the very least isn’t a liability with the glove.

It’s a cliché to say that if the Royals make a decision about a player, the exact opposite opinion is likely to be true. But in this case, I really do trust their judgment. The fact that the Royals didn’t call up Rosa, despite a desperate need for a reliever who could keep his ERA under 6, is very telling.

And keep in mind that the Royals traded him to the Diamondbacks, the one team in baseball with a worse bullpen ERA than the Royals at the time. And then keep in mind that Allard Baird’s old assistant, Muzzy Jackson, works for the Diamondbacks and was likely the impetus for their interest in Rosa.

And then keep in mind that Muzzy’s interest in another Royals farmhand was the impetus for the last trade between these two teams, when the Royals traded Billy Buckner to Arizona – in exchange for Alberto Callaspo.

I don’t expect this trade to work out nearly as well, but I do think it’s a good trade for Kansas City. The Royals’ bullpen woes notwithstanding, you’ll rarely get burned trading away relievers, and credit to Dayton Moore for not letting the team’s current situation obscure that fact.

The Alex Gordon Era comes to an end. Sort of.

I hate it.

I hate it that the Royals, after giving Alex Gordon just 31 at-bats to prove himself this season, decided that they had seen enough. I hate it that the Royals let the return of Chris Getz – Chris Getz! – take a job away from a player who, for all his faults, remains one of the few players on the roster capable of hitting 25 homers, or mustering an OBP north of .350.

I hate the fact that once again, the Royals have managed to take a situation that seemed impossible to screw up, and screwed it up. Alex Gordon is probably the most can’t-miss prospect in the history of the organization. The #2 overall pick in the draft. College Player of the Year. Then Minor League Player of the Year, and #1 prospect in all of baseball according to multiple publications. A standing ovation in his first major league at-bat on Opening Day.

Three years later, he’s no longer a major leaguer. And he’s no longer a third baseman.

So yeah, I hate what’s become of Alex Gordon, and I hate what the Royals did to him last Sunday.

I hate it. But I agree with it.

I agree with it because ultimately, I don’t think the Royals made this move because they were dissatisfied with Gordon’s bat. I think they could no longer tolerate his glove. And I think they are right.

That batting average is a vastly overrated statistic is one of the central maxims of sabermetrics. But batting average looks like Win Shares compared to fielding average, which is such a useless stat that even the mainstream media rarely mentions it anymore.

But even fielding average is useful at the extremes. And with four errors in just 10 games at third base, Gordon’s defense was certainly extreme. His fielding average is .765. Seven-six-five. Anything under .950 is terrible; anything under .900 is historically bad. Fielding .765 is like batting .110 – just like there’s no combination of power and walks that can make a .110 average look good, there’s no amount of range that can make up for booting or throwing away a quarter of your fielding opportunities.

Not that Gordon’s range was any good either. In 84 innings at third base, he made just 13 plays, for a range factor of 1.39 plays per 9 innings. That’s exactly half the major league average of 2.78 plays per 9 innings for a third baseman.

Prefer more advanced statistics? puts Gordon at 4 runs below average – 4 runs in just 10 games. has him at -4.2 runs. That translates to close to 70 runs below average over a full season.

The only saving grace here is sample size – maybe it was just a bad 10 games. A really, really bad 10 games. If Gordon had a history or a reputation for being a quality third baseman, that would be a legitimate excuse. He has neither. Gordon, at his best, was an average third baseman, and he hasn’t been at his best for much of his career. I’m not sure that this is the right time to pull the plug, but I’m not sure that it isn’t either.

Particularly since the domino effect of moving Gordon away from third base is that the Royals can move Callaspo away from second base. Far, far away. We might not be certain that Gordon will never play a quality third base – but we can be damn well certain that Callaspo will never be even an adequate second baseman. He was bad last year; he was downright intolerable this season. He missed line drives six inches over his head; he couldn’t run down balls in the hole that were ten feet to his left; his double play pivot was neither quick nor graceful.

I’m not nearly as convinced as the Royals are that Chris Getz is an excellent defensive second baseman. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. Even if he’s just adequate, replacing Gordon with Getz upgrades the defense at two positions. Callaspo’s skills translate much better at third base than at second. He has agility and reasonable first-step quickness, which plays well at third – he’s just ungodly slow. On the basepaths, he runs like a catcher, and Craig Biggio aside, there’s a reason you never see catchers move to second base.

My main concern with demoting Gordon to Omaha was that the Royals would move him to first base, which would be unbelievably dumb, given that they have Kila Ka’aihue ready and Eric Hosmer not far behind. But they moved him to left field instead. I suggested that the Royals move him to a corner outfield spot as early as two years ago, and while it’s far from an ideal position given the offensive demands, it’s more ideal than the alternatives.

My other concern was that the demotion was punitive, rather than corrective, in nature – that the Royals were simply fed up with Gordon, and that he likely had played his last game in a Royals uniform. But multiple sources close to the team assure me that the team really is sincere about giving Gordon another chance – maybe just one more chance – as an everyday player, once he’s mastered the nuances of the outfield. There’s a good chance that neither Scott Podsednik nor Rick Ankiel will be back next season, Guillen is as good as gone, and even David DeJesus may not return, either because of a trade or because the Royals elect not to pick up his option.

So the opportunity will be there for Gordon to play regularly in the outfield; he just better be sure to take advantage of the opportunity this time, because there may not be another one. I hate that it’s come to this, that Alex Gordon, superstar third baseman of the future, is now Alex Gordon, hopefully-adequate left fielder of the present. But as I’m fond of saying, what’s past is prologue. Gordon isn’t the player that we thought he would be. But if we accept him for the player that he is, we might be pleasantly surprised by his worth.

More to come, but I have a radio show to get ready for, so I’ll try to pick back up as soon as possible.