Thursday, August 26, 2010

Royals Today: 8/26/2010.

When fans of most teams think of the most memorable moments in their franchise’s history over the last 10 or 15 years, they’re likely to think of game-winning hits in the playoffs, or a clutch homer in a pennant race in late September. Royals fans are a little different.

9:38 am. HoltzyKC Lineup for Motown matinee: Blanco 8, Aviles 6, Bloomie 5, Billy DH, Kila 3, Pena 2, Mitch 9, Miller 7, Getz 4. O'Sully pitching.

We can’t reminisce over game-winning hits in the playoffs, because we haven’t been to the playoffs. We don’t have clutch homers in a pennant race in late September, because our team has been mathematically eliminated by late September for 24 – about to be 25 – straight years.

9:52 am. royalsauthority Any lineup with Bloomquist hitting 3rd is the worst lineup EVAR. #Royals

We have to take our memorable moments where we can find them, even if they occur in a meaningless August game pitting a pair of sub-.500 teams against each other. Like, say, yesterday.

10:02 am. Tom_Gage Miguel Cabrera: 10 more home runs (31) than entire #Royals lineup today

One of Ned Yost’s idiosyncrasies is that, whereas most managers look at a day off in the schedule as a built-in opportunity to get his players some rest without taking them out of the lineup, Yost actually likes to use a scheduled day off as an opportunity to sit some of his regulars the day before, giving them two days off in a row – but at the cost of fielding some of the weakest lineups you’ve ever seen. Like, say, yesterday.

10:03 am. Royals_Report Willie Bloomquist really is batting third today for the #Royals against the Tigers. It's the first time ever in his career as a starter.

In the 20-plus years since I started following the Royals closely, the weirdest lineup decision I had ever seen were these two games, on May 10 and May 16, 1992, when the Royals started Bob Melvin in the cleanup spot. The same Melvin who would finish with a career slugging average of .337, and had a .317 slugging average and a total of seven homers from 1989 to 1991. Melvin started the 1992 season 9-for-23, and the Royals faced left-handed starters in both games, and…yeah, there’s really no explanation for it. Melvin did have a huge platoon split in his career - .284/.325/.410 against LHP, .196/.225/.283 against RHP. It was still a comically bad decision. The Royals lost both games.

10:05 am. mellinger Galarraga's best chance at a perfect game in six weeks.

But batting Melvin cleanup was genius compared to batting Willie “Boom-Boom” Bloomquist third…against a right-handed pitcher, no less. Against left-handers, Bloomquist has an almost respectable career line of .273/.335/.366. Against right-handers, he’s hit .256/.302/.314. Ladies and gentlemen, your #3 hitter!

10:49 am. royalsauthority Can't believe I want Yuni in the lineup. RT @brokenbatsingle: @royalsauthority maybe Yuni and gordon stayed up late playing scrabble.

As it turned out, not only had Bloomquist never batted third in the majors, he had never batted third in the minors. Naturally, his teammates seized on the opportunity.

Teammates chimed in as the minutes ticked down in the clubhouse before heading to the field for batting practice.

“He’s my pick to click,” Jason Kendall said.

Alex Gordon added, “You’re going to go big fly all day.”

When asked whether he was playing a hunch, Yost replied, “You have a better idea?” Well, given that he had a couple of guys hitting under .180 (Kila Ka’aihue and Brayan Pena) batting fifth and sixth, and Jai Miller making the second start of his major league career batting eighth…yeah, I still had a lot of better ideas. But let’s be frank – this was one ridiculously bad lineup, no matter where Bloomquist was batting.

11:11 am. Royals_Report Manager Ned Yost on Willie Bloomquist batting third for #Royals against Detroit: "I guarantee you he’ll get a couple of hits. You watch."

11:22 am. devil_fingers Let's be honest: Batting Bloomquist #3 isn't nearly as stupid as hitting Kendall #2, which the #Royals have done 67 times this season.

Early on, the lineup performed exactly as well as you’d expect, mustering just two hits – one a double by Bloomquist in the first – and two walks in the first six innings. Sean O’Sullivan righted the ship after giving up 3 runs in the second, but the Royals were still down 3-0 heading into the seventh.

1:35 pm. Royals_Report Bloomy watch: Flies out to right in sixth. Now 1-3. Needs one more hit to meet Yost's pre-game guarantee. Royals trail Tigers 3-0 in sixth.

Ka’aihue homered leading off the seventh. Pena and Mitch Maier followed with singles, but Phil Coke came on to end the threat with the Tigers still leading 3-1.

2:24 pm. Royals_Report Bloomy watch: Likely to finish 1-4 in first game as No. 3 hitter. Just struck out in eighth inning. Royals trail Tigers 3-1.

Bloomquist’s strikeout in the eighth left Mike Aviles on first base with one out. Ryan Perry then got Butler to fly out, but rather than face Ka’aihue – who had homered off of him the night before – Perry was pulled in favor of Jose Valverde, who hadn’t blown a save since the first week of the season (against the Royals, mind you.)

Instead, Valverde offered up a data point for why Yost has decided to reserve his closer for the ninth inning only. Going for the four-out save, Valverde couldn’t even get the first one. Ka’aihue doubled in Aviles, and Pena followed with another double to tie the game. Maybe Bloomquist would bat again after all.

2:50 pm. jazayerli That said, if Willie fulfills Yost's 2-hit prophecy with a game-winner, I'll never criticize him again. By "again", I mean "for a few days."

The frightening combination of Dusty Hughes and Jesse Chavez got out of the eighth inning unscathed, helped by a nice play by Ka’aihue that saved a run. Philip Humber came in to pitch the ninth and retired the side in order.

3:04 pm. Royals_Report Bloomy watch: He does get another AB but grounds out to first in the 10th. Now 1-5. Royals and Tigers tied 3-3.

You don’t have to believe me, but watching Bloomquist’s at-bat in the 10th, I was fully expecting – and even hoping for – a home run. In a world where Yuniesky Betancourt can be a useful player, why can’t Ned Yost be a prophet and Willie Bloomquist be a hero? Instead, the game continued, and Humber continued to stymie the Tigers in the 10th and 11th. (I would be performing a minor surgery when Bloomquist batted in the 12th, and was unable to watch live.)

3:22 pm. mellinger I like Ned Yost for the #Royals. Wonder if batting Bloomy 3rd and guaranteeing two hits will become his take-a-shower-with-clothes-on...

3:26 pm. devil_fingers Yost not PHing Gordon for Bloomy made sense: Ned said Bloomquist would get a "couple" hits, so he's still got at least one more left in him.

Bloomquist batted again in the 12th, with one out and nobody on. He ran the count full against Alfredo Figaro.

3:44 pm. Royals_Report Bloomy watch: Yes, a sixth AB as game reaches the 12th in Detroit. Gets second hit as Yost promised...homer on full-count pitch.

3:45 pm. mellinger In your face, @Mellinger!!! #bloomy

3:45 pm. devil_fingers Wow. Boom, Yosted.

3:45 pm. nate_bukaty Ned Yost: prophetic!

3:49 pm. nate_bukaty Or will it be his Broadway Joe moment?! ;-) RT @mellinger: Wonder if guaranteeing two hits will be his take-a-shower-with-clothes-on...

3:49 pm. robneyer Meanwhile, Willie Bloomquist just became the Royals' No. 3 hitter for the rest of the season.

3:51 pm. mellinger Can Yost do this with all the #royals? Can he make Butler fast by batting him leadoff? Or Davies good by just guaranteeing it in pregame?

3:52 pm. jazayerli And by "ever again", I mean "ever again". Holy moly.

Joakim Soria retired the Tigers in order in the bottom of the 12th – his 29th converted save opportunity in a row.

3:56 pm. mellinger If Yost is willing, I have a friend who could really use a guarantee that he finds a woman.

It was a meaningless win in a meaningless game that brought the Royals to within 19 games of .500. The only impact that Bloomquist’s homer might have is that it might knock the Royals back a slot or two in next year’s draft.

But you know something? It might have been the highlight of the season. What can I say – we’re Royals fans. We’ve got low standards.

3:58 pm. jfishsports Yost's post-game should be him just walking in, taking the microphone, throwing it down, and walking out with two middle fingers raised.


The irony of Yost’s prophecy and Bloomquist’s homer is that it takes the spotlight away from the real story of the ballgame. The Royals did, in fact, win this game because of Ned Yost’s strengths as a manager, but it had nothing to do with the Spork.

Going into his final at-bat on Tuesday night, Kila Ka’aihue was hitting .152 for the season (10-for-66), and was just 1-for-his-last-19. He wasn’t striking out a ton – he had whiffed just 10 times, which is to say that despite hitting .152, he was only on pace to strike out about 90 times over a full season. This is Ka’aihue’s hidden talent, and the reason why it’s not fair to compare him to the Calvin Pickerings of the world: for a power hitter who draws a ton of walks, he very rarely strikes out.

The problem is that he wasn’t drawing a lot of walks either, having taken a free pass just four times so far.

“I just had to go back to what I need to be doing. I was trying to do some things I was not capable of doing. I was looking out of my zone and trying to hit more pitches. Stuff like that. Just not playing my game.”

Despite his struggles, Yost showed no signs of giving up on him. Quite the contrary; he kept moving Ka’aihue up in the lineup. After batting fifth against the Yankees on August 13 and 14, Ka’aihue moved into the cleanup spot in his next three starts, and then moved into the #3 hole last Saturday. It was because he was batting in the #3 hole that Ka’aihue got one last chance to bat on Tuesday, with the Royals down 9-0 in the ninth, with two outs and no one on.

And the Hawaiian kid with the slider bat-speed connected on a 95-mph fastball (granted, it was right down the middle) for his first homer of the season.

“Going into that at-bat,” manager Ned Yost said, “I was thinking about giving him a day off (today) to let him regroup a little bit. Now, that might be something that will get him going. He just needs a couple of hits to relax a little bit.”

Yost dropped Ka’aihue down to fifth in the lineup yesterday, because hey, when you have the opportunity to bat the Spork third, you have to take it. But Ka’aihue was in the lineup, and he delivered – multiple times. He led off the top of the second with a walk, and while he was stranded, it was a good sign that he was finally letting the game come to him.

After Armando Galarraga shut the Royals down for six straight innings, Ka’aihue went down and got a slider – not a hanging slider, but a decent pitch that was down and in – and pulled it into the right field seats. In the eighth, facing the Tigers’ closer while representing the tying run with two outs, Ka’aihue doubled, then scored the tying run on Pena’s double. In the tenth inning, he batted with Alex Gordon on first base; after Gordon took second base on a wild pitch, the Tigers elected to intentionally walk Ka’aihue on a 2-0 count. That’s quite a turnaround given that, just last week, the Indians twice intentionally walked Billy Butler in order to face Ka’aihue.

Kila Ka’aihue has been the premier power-and-plate-discipline hitter in the entire organization for the last three years, and he finally delivered on that promise for just one game. He had two extra-base hits and two walks in Wednesday’s game. That might not sound that impressive, but it’s just the sixth time in the last six years that a Royals player has done that.

I’m not going to argue that one home run is going to change the course of Kila’s season. After all, twice this year Alex Gordon has hit game-winning homers, and we’re still waiting for him to sustain any kind of a breakout.

But I will argue that by keeping him in the lineup, by publicly supporting him despite his struggles, Ned Yost has given Ka’aihue the opportunity to change the course of his season. As I wrote in May, while young hitters in Milwaukee like Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun hit right out of the gate, Yost also stayed firm with hitters who didn’t, like Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart. Yost’s blend of patience and optimism with young players is his single best trait as a manager.

So go ahead and revel in the Bloomquist Prophecy, and sing Ned Yost’s praises. Or go ahead and mock Yost for being foolish enough to bat Willie Freaking Bloomquist third, results be damned.

As far as I’m concerned, though, Yost can bat Bloomquist third – and Jason Kendall second – in every game the rest of the season if he wants, so long as Ka’aihue adjusts to the major leagues and proves himself to be an everyday player by the end of the season. Yost seems committed to giving him that chance. That, not Bloomquist’s home run, is the real story of yesterday’s game.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


This is an article I was sort of hoping I wouldn’t have to write, and I’m still not sure needs to be written now.

But in light of Yuniesky Betancourt’s recent hot streak, which coincides with the birth of his first child*, I think the time is right.

*: It seems like half the players on the club have had children this season. And it seems like they’ve all played exceedingly well afterwards**.

**: Maybe Manny Ramirez was on to something when he was caught using fertility drugs as a performance enhancer.

Over an 11-game stretch from August 3rd to 18th, Betancourt was 16-for-38 (.421) with five homers. Even after an 0-for-4 performance on Thursday, as I write this he’s hitting .267/.287/.422 for the season. His .422 slugging average would be a career best, and his 12 homers are already a career high. His OPS+ of 91 is a hair’s breadth behind his career-best of 93, set in 2007, when he hit .289/.308/.418 for the Mariners.

There’s no denying that Yuni is having a better season that most people, yours truly included, expected. But I will say that the recent fawning over him is a bit much.

Nothing grates me more than the line, which I’ve seen repeated in a bunch of different media outlets, that Betancourt is leading the Royals in home runs. I hate to be a stick in the mud, people, but HE’S NOT LEADING THE TEAM IN HOME RUNS. Jose Guillen is. Just because Guillen was designated for assignment doesn’t mean his homers don’t count. (And the fact that Guillen was DFA’ed, despite leading the team in homers, should tell you not to put too much stock in that accomplishment.)

Still, if you want to give credit to Betancourt for ranking second on the team in homers, as a shortstop, go right ahead. Just don’t forget to point out that along with his 12 homers, he also has exactly 12 walks. He might lead all current Royals in homers, but he also ranks dead last on the Royals in walks (among player with more than 150 PA). Betancourt has drawn a walk in just 2.8% of his plate appearances; the only Royals with a lower walk rate are either 1) pitchers or 2) Jai Miller, who has batted once.

So please, people, keep things in perspective. Betancourt has shown some pop, yes. That doesn’t make up for the fact that of the 145 players who have batted 400 or more times this year, he ranks dead last in walks drawn. Every other player has walked at least 18 times.

Never forget: power is nice, but OBP is life. Betancourt’s .287 OBP ranks third from the bottom among those same 145 players. That’s not an inconvenience, or a blemish on an otherwise sterling stat line. That is the single most important offensive statistic in the game, and Betancourt’s performance in that category is beyond awful.

So if we can agree that Betancourt, while a surprisingly good hitter this season, is nowhere near the best hitter on the ballclub, I’ll agree that he’s been a much better player than I expected him to be.

No analysis of Betancourt is complete without an evaluation, or perhaps a humiliation, of his defense. His glovework, or lack thereof, was the single biggest reason analysts like me panned the trade for him. His defense also represents a flashpoint in the minor skirmish that still takes place at times between statheads and scouts. (Or at least Royals scouts.) At the time the trade was made, the Royals were comfortable saying that Betancourt was at least an average defensive shortstop. Meanwhile, every 21st-century defensive stat evaluated Betancourt’s defense as among the worst, if not the worst, of any everyday shortstop in the majors.

Specifically, the defensive metric of choice at Fangraphs (Ultimate Zone Rating, or UZR), which graded Betancourt’s defense as exactly average in 2005 and 2006, ranked him 4 runs below average in 2007, 11 runs below average in 2008, and an amazing 17 runs below average in 2009. The defensive metric favored by Baseball Info Solutions gave him similar scores: dead average in 2005 and 2006, then -7, -13, and -19 over the next three years.

There’s been a lot of talk this season that Betancourt’s defense looks better, at least to the naked eye. I would share in that assessment; at least 2 or 3 times this year I’ve seen him make plays on balls headed up the middle that he wouldn’t have reached last year. Of course, in each case they were grounders that a good defensive shortstop would have gobbled up like candycorn before throwing onto first for a routine play, but in Betancourt’s case, he was only able to reach them by lunging for them, snaring them into his glove in a full dive, then getting to his feet before nipping the runner at first.

In other words, he’s looked better. He hasn’t looked good. And the numbers back that up. UZR ranks Betancourt’s defense as 7 runs below average so far; BIS is even less charitable, ranking his defense 14 runs below average already. A third defensive metric, Total Zone, ranks Betancourt’s defense as dead average this year after being 12 runs below average last year.

Defensive metrics are imperfect, and so it is best to take a look at multiple different measures to get the most accurate picture. Averaging these three different metrics together, and we can estimate that Betancourt was 16 runs below average last year, and 7 runs below average so far this year. Again: he’s better. He’s still not good.

Nonetheless, he can make a pretty play in the hole, as he did in the ninth inning to preserve victories on back-to-back nights earlier this week. His supporters will point to plays like those as proof that the numbers can’t be right. To which I say: we’ve been down this road before.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…a shortstop with a solid defensive reputation, but brutal defensive numbers…a shortstop who makes the highlight reels with dazzling plays in the hole but who is an absolute sieve on balls hit to his left. Sound familiar? It should, since I just described Derek Jeter.

I think the battle over Betancourt’s defense is the war over Jeter’s defense writ small. Betancourt moves well to his right, has a strong arm, and can make the flashy play from the hole. But he simply has no range to his left. He’s a little more mobile this year, but it’s still a problem, and there’s no reason to expect it to get better.

Admitting you have a problem is Step One, and it would be nice if the Royals acknowledge that Betancourt has an issue. Prior to the 2009 season, the Yankees and Derek Jeter publicly acknowledged that his Gold Glove reputation aside, he could stand to work on his lateral movement, and he focused his off-season exercises with that specific flaw in mind. As a result, Jeter – at the age of 35 – had arguably the best defensive numbers of his career.

That’s a textbook case of a team using statistics as a tool – not as the end-all and be-all, but as a tool – to make their team better. I don’t expect the Royals to acknowledge that Betancourt’s defense is still subpar. But it’s not too much to ask that they acknowledge that his defense could be improved. He’s clearly made some strides this year, but he just as clearly has a ways to go.

Alright, enough dancing around the main point of this article. I’m not prepared to concede that we were wrong about Betancourt. He’s put up some nice power numbers, but we’re still talking about a bad defensive shortstop with a .287 OBP. The Royals are on the hook for $3 million of his $4 million salary next year, plus a $2 million buyout of his 2012 option. That is to say, the Royals will pay him $5 million in 2011. As well as he’s played this year, if Betancourt was put on the trade market after the season, does anyone really think there would be any interest in him? Unless the Royals kicked in some money, I’d say no. Which is to say that even now, even with the Mariners paying some of his salary, Betancourt’s contract has no value.

And I still won’t concede that we were wrong about Betancourt, because everything I know about the situation at the time was that the Royals didn’t have to pay the price that they did. The Mariners were desperate to get rid of him. The Royals could have had the Mariners pick up more money, or do the deal without including Dan Cortes. (Cortes, by the way, was finally moved to the bullpen by Seattle a few weeks ago – a move that was long predicted – and has been dominant in that role: in 13 innings out of the bullpen in Double-A, he allowed just one run and struck out 20, and since being promoted to Triple-A he’s allowed one run in four innings.)

But if I’m not prepared to concede that we were wrong, I am prepared to concede that Dayton Moore was right. Moore was frank about the reason he made the trade at the time: that he didn’t see Betancourt as an All-Star player, but that he was better than anything the Royals had on hand, and the money the Royals would have to pay him was perfectly reasonable for an everyday player.

I hated the trade as much for what Betancourt represented – a giant middle finger to those of who believe that statistics matter – as who he was. But if you take the personal feelings out of the equation, the fact is that Moore was, generally speaking, right. Betancourt has been unquestionably better than the alternatives the Royals had on hand. This is an indictment of Moore’s work, that three years after he was hired the Royals were still forced into hoping that Tony Pena Jr. would hit, or that no one would notice that they were actually starting Willie Bloomquist at shortstop on a regular basis.

If the Royals had not traded for Betancourt, they would once again be petitioning the federal government to declare the area between second and third base a disaster zone. Jeff Bianchi, the one prospect in the system who might have been big-league ready, tore his elbow in spring training. Mike Aviles came back faster than expected from Tommy John surgery of his own, but he hasn’t shown nearly the fielding chops he did as a rookie. The Royals likely would have gone out of the system to find a stopgap anyway, and they would have been hard-pressed to find a player that would have matched Betancourt’s 1.3 Wins Above Replacement this season.

(Quick aside: how much of the credit we’re giving Betancourt should be reflected onto Kevin Seitzer? When you consider the talent the Royals had in the lineup at the beginning of the season, it’s a miracle that the team has even hit as well as it has. Jose Guillen, given up for dead, had an above average OPS+ before he was let go. Scott Podsednik, who had hit .270 just once in the last four years, hit .310 before he was traded. David DeJesus had the best numbers of his career before he got hurt. Wilson Betemit is having one of the great half-seasons in Royals history. And Betancourt has been more than tolerable at the plate. If only he can get Kila to hit…)

I don’t think the Betancourt trade is going to go down in the books as a win for the Royals in a strict accounting sense. The Royals gave up a potential quality reliever for the right to slightly overpay a below-average shortstop. But in a strategic sense, the trade is looking more and more like a small victory. In 2010, at least, Betancourt has done everything the Royals expected him to do. Good for him, and good for them.

As you know, I’ve taken a much softer stance towards Moore this year, for a variety of reasons, primarily the farm system, but also out of recognition that almost every GM makes dumb decisions occasionally, and that it’s not fair to judge Moore in a vacuum. On that note, as hard as it is for me to believe that he’s won this round, as a Royals fan I’m happy that what looked like Moore’s signature move of incompetence instead has me looking like the fool. I’m happy to play the fool this time around, if it means having a GM who might not be the fool I thought he was.

Then again, I was right about Mike Jacobs. And Kyle Farnsworth. And overworking Gil Meche. And Jose Guillen. And Horacio Ramirez. And Jason Kendall. And…

Addendum: As I put this post to bed, the Royals have just completed an epic double-header with the White Sox, a double-header which didn’t start until 6:10 PM, featured a pair of extra-inning games, and was briefly delayed due to a power failure. And it was one of the best days of Yuniesky Betancourt’s career. In the opener, he cost the Royals early with a defensive misplay, but made up for it and then some in the 7th inning, hitting a game-tying, two-out grand slam. It was his third grand slam of the season, which not only tied for the major-league lead but also tied the all-time Royals’ single season record held by Danny Tartabull. He came up again with the game still tied in the ninth, with two out and nobody on, and doubled. He did not score then, but in the 11th, he batted again with two outs, this time with the winning run on third, and delivered the walk-off single.

And then, in the nightcap, he batted in the ninth with the Royals down a run, and Mitch Maier on third base – and once again lined a single up the middle to tie the game. The Royals gave up the go-ahead run in the tenth, and lost because they couldn’t find a way to get Yuni to the plate one more time.

The most surprising thing about his performance, though, was this: in the second game, at nearly 1 in the morning, with Betancourt representing the Royals’ final hope in the ninth – I was able to root for him unabashedly, with no mixed feelings at all. I’ve put my reservations behind me, and learned to embrace Yuni, warts and all. He’s not my kind of player. But he’s still my player. And he’s a better player than I ever thought he’d be.