The All-Star Break is a good time to reflect, so here are some reflections on the Royals over the season’s first half.
- I’ll admit to thinking that the sky was caving in when Zack Greinke was scratched from his Sunday start, after we had already learned that he had felt something weird in his shoulder after he had made an awkward throw on a fielding play in his previous start.
But he made his start as promised last night, and while the results were ugly early, he retired nine of the last ten batters he faced, three by strikeout. I was unable to watch the game, but the reaction I got from Royals fans on Twitter was that he was just missing his spots early in the game. My hope is that he was just tentative early on, and once he realized that he wasn’t feeling any pain on his throws, he felt more confident as the game progressed.
Greinke insisted after his start that his shoulder felt fine, but we’ll have to see if he has any flare-ups of his shoulder pain over the next start or two. But if he doesn’t, then we have to credit the Royals for learning their lesson, and doing the cautionary and sensible thing last Sunday. Ideally, such a lesson wouldn’t have cost them the services of their second-best starter, and the last half of a $55 million contract. But at least they learned their lesson well.
- It’s a compliment to Billy Butler, I suppose, that he’s hitting .321 (just a point outside of the league’s top 10), he’s hit 26 doubles (fifth in the league), he’s missed just one game all year…and his season still has the faint whiff of a disappointment.
Maybe we expect too much from Butler. I mean, he’s hitting .321/.388/.480; his 868 OPS is higher than last year, and that’s even though offense is significantly down in the AL as a whole – his OPS+ has jumped from 124 to 135. His defensive numbers, if you trust those things, are much better as well. He wasn’t a deserving All-Star, not when you compare him to the other first baseman in the American League. But he’s a heck of a player.
Quietly, he has cut his strikeout rate by 27% from last year – he’s on pace to strike out 74 times this year after 104 strikeouts last year – while walking at a slightly higher rate. That’s not a small thing, and speaks highly to his ability to continue to hit .320 or better in the future.
But there is one downside to making so much contact, and that’s where the whiff of a disappointment is coming from. More contact means more double play opportunities, and Butler leads the major leagues with 21 GIDPs. Pablo Sandoval, who’s pretty similar as a hitter to Butler, is the only other player with more than 16 GIDPs.
Butler, in fact, had grounded in 21 double plays just 76 games into the season. By comparison, in 1991, John Olerud led the AL with 21 GIDPs for the entire season. We have GIDP data going back to at least the mid-1950s, and only two players in history have grounded into that many double plays in his team’s first 76 games. Jim Rice, of course, did it in both 1984 (23) and 1985 (26). Rice would finish those two seasons with 36 and 35 GIDPs – which are still the two highest GIDP totals in history. The other was a guy named Sid Gordon, who as a rookie third baseman for the New York Giants had 22 GIDPs in his team’s first 76 games in 1943.
Gordon would play in 58 more games the rest of the season and would only have 4 more GIDPs, which speaks to an important point – GIDPs are the result of luck and circumstance as well as “talent”, and it’s unrealistic to expect Butler to continue to ground into double plays at this rate. In fact, Butler hasn’t hit into one in his last 13 games.
Still, this is the player Butler has always been – he’s right-handed, he’s slow, and he hits the ball on the ground a lot. He ranked sixth in the league with 23 GIDPs in 2008, and only played 124 games. Last year, he ranked ninth with 20 GIDPs. Even when he was winning a batting title in Double-A at the age of 20, he hit into 25 double plays in just 119 games. (Alex Gordon was batting in front of him all season, so he certainly batted with a man on first base a lot.) While it’s unlikely that Butler will continue on his current pace, which would have him breaking Rice’s all-time record*, he’ll probably end up with around 32 GIDPs, which would tie him for third on the single-season list.
*: After all these years of waiting for some Royal to break Steve Balboni’s sad record of 36 homers in a season, how awesome would it be if someone broke Jim Rice’s GIDP record first? If the Royals can’t have a player hit 37 homers, at least they can have one that hits into 37 double plays.
Butler may be doomed to always hurt his teams by grounding to a couple dozen double plays a season, like Rice, or like Gordon, who would lead the NL in GIDPs three times in his career. But there is another path he can follow, a path best represented by Carl Yastrzemski.
I don’t want to overstate the similarities between Butler and Yaz, who after all was a left-handed hitter and was considerably more athletic than Billy. But as young hitters, they are eerily alike. Both were rookies at the age of 21. At the age of 22 and 23, Yaz hit a combined 33 homers, Butler 22. At the age of 23, Yaz hit .321 and led the league with 40 doubles. At the age of 23, Butler hit .301 and finished second in the league with 51 doubles.
At the age of 22, Yaz led the league with 27 GIDPs; Butler might well have led the league two years ago if he hadn’t spent a month in Triple-A. And at the age of 24, both players hit into their 21st GIDP of the season in their 75th game.
Yaz would finish the season with 30 GIDPs, which at the time was the second-highest total on record, behind Bobby Doerr’s 31 in 1949. (What is it with Red Sox and high GIDP totals?)
But Yaz would never hit into 30 double plays again. He would never hit into even 20 double plays again. The following year he had 16 GIDPs, then 17, and then, in his Triple Crown year of 1967, he hit into just 5. After hitting 15 homers at age 24, he hit 20 and 16 the following two years (but led the league in doubles both years), and then broke out with 44 homers.
So without doing extensive research into Yastrzemski’s groundball/flyball tendencies, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that as he got older, as he matured as a hitter, Yaz learned to elevate the ball more. It remains to be seen if Butler can do the same, but he’s an immensely talented hitter, and as Yaz showed, it has been done before.
- After losing again last night, the Royals are back to .500 under Ned Yost, at 27-27. That’s still an impressive accomplishment, to take a team that was 12-23 when he was hired and have them play .500 ball for nearly two months.
The biggest difference between the Trey Hillman Royals and the Ned Yost Royals appears to be the performance of the bullpen, whose struggles under Hillman, as you might recall, was the subject of at least one article here.
Except I’m not sure that the improvement in the bullpen can be traced to the managerial switch. For one thing, the bullpen’s improvement started not when Hillman was fired on May 13th, but on May 1st, when the relievers combined for five scoreless innings in an 11-inning win against Tampa Bay.
In April, the bullpen combined to give up 87 hits and 51 walks in 73 innings, leading to a 6.16 ERA and 7 bullpen losses. And that includes Joakim Soria, who allowed just 3 runs and 10 baserunners in 11 innings.
But from May 1st until the day Hillman was fired, the bullpen had a 3.22 ERA in 36 innings, and the only blown save and loss in that span can be pinned on Soria, who allowed back-to-back homers to the Rangers in that wild 12-11 game in Arlington.
Since Yost took over, the bullpen has continued to pitch very well, despite some recent hiccups – since May 14th, the bullpen has thrown 160 innings, allowed 148 hits and 54 walks, struck out 111 men, and allowed a 3.26 ERA (and just one unearned run.) A bullpen that was on a record pace of futility a month into the season now has a 4.04 ERA for the year, just a fraction off the AL bullpen average of 3.98.
But is this really the manager’s doing? Compare the bullpen of today with the bullpen of Opening Day:
Same: Soria, Robinson Tejeda, Kyle Farnsworth, Dusty Hughes
Shipped out: Luis Mendoza, Juan Cruz, Roman Colon, John Parrish
Brought in: Blake Wood, Kanekoa Texeira, Victor Marte
Of the four holdovers, Soria is Soria, but the other three saw dramatic turnarounds after April. Dusty Hughes got off to a rough start, allowing six runs in his first six appearances, but started to turn the corner on April 20th, throwing 5.2 scoreless innings the rest of the month.
Farnsworth was pretty bad in April – 13 hits, 4 walks in 10 innings with a 4.82 ERA – but was Marianish relative to Tejeda, who in 9 innings allowed 14 hits and 13 walks. Batters hit .368/.519/.533 against Tejeda in April. Since May 1st, Farnsworth has allowed just 20 hits and 6 walks in 29 innings, with a 1.55 ERA; Tejeda has been even better, allowing 20 hits and 9 walks in 32 innings, and he has an 0.84 ERA since the beginning of May.
But again, all three pitchers started turning their seasons around before Hillman was fired. (The rumor with Tejeda is that he started pitching lights-out after the Royals essentially forbade him from shaking off Jason Kendall ever again. Farnsworth’s improvement has been linked to him throwing a two-seam fastball, although that wouldn’t explain his April struggles.)
If you’re looking for a specific impetus that might have triggered the improvement in the bullpen, your best isn’t when the Royals let Trey Hillman go, but when the Royals let Juan Cruz go. Cruz, in addition to pitching terribly – which it turns out was the result of an undiagnosed shoulder injury he had probably been pitching with since last year – was an enormous PITA by all accounts. Particularly in the closed-in world of the bullpen, where six or seven guys spend the entire game together in a walled-off area away from the rest of the team, having to hang out with a guy that was a Grade-A prick can’t have been good for the bullpen’s psychology.
This is one of those unquantifiable issues that can’t be adequately evaluated by analysts like me, but with the Braves’ recent trade of Yunel Escobar to the Blue Jays, the issue of team chemistry has come up again. Consider the rejuvenation of guys like Farnsworth and Tejeda after Cruz was released a data point in favor of chemistry.
But the bigger improvement in the bullpen was that the Royals got rid of Cruz, and Luis Mendoza, and the inexplicable Roman Colon, and replaced them with pitchers who actually deserve to be in the majors. It took a while; the Royals had to cycle through Josh Rupe and Bryan Bullington and Brad Thompson before they decided Blake Wood was ready, and before they very shrewdly claimed Texeira off waivers from the Mariners*.
*: Adding to the argument that the Mariners, as an organization, were very overrated going into the season, is the fact that the Mariners waived Texeira – much to the consternation of their fans – about 48 hours before Ken Griffey finally read the writing on the wall and retired. Since the Royals picked him up, Texeira has a 2.00 ERA, thanks to a good sinker and good control. Thanks, Ken!
Here’s the combined numbers of Cruz, Mendoza, Colon, Rupe, Thompson, and Bullington this year:
44 IP, 70 H, 25 BB, 29 K, 10 HR, and an 8.24 ERA.
And here are the combined numbers of Wood, Texeira, and Victor Marte:
66 IP, 62 H, 24 BB, 31 K, 9 HR, and a 3.97 ERA.
The new guys aren’t perfect by any means. I remain mystified as to how a pitcher with Blake Wood’s fastball has struck out just 8 batters in 25 innings. And I’ve been saying since last year that Marte’s combination of poor control and flyball tendencies were a bad mix, and reality has set in as he’s allowed 8 runs in his last four outings. Still, the low end of the bullpen totem pole has combined for a 3.97 ERA. That’s why the bullpen has gone from an enormous weakness to, arguably, an asset.
On April 27th, at the bullpen’s low point, I wrote “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.”
I still stand by those words, with the caveat that I didn’t appreciate at the time what kind of influence Cruz had on the bullpen, or that Kyle Farnsworth was redeemable. But the difference between the bullpen of today and the bullpen of April has less to do with the manager and more to do with the personnel. That’s not to defend Hillman, but it is to lay the blame on Dayton Moore. And by the same token, the credit for the bullpen’s improvement belongs less to Yost than it does to Moore for finally giving up on his pet projects and giving opportunities to rookies who deserved it.