Bruce Chen – Expectations: None; Grade: A-
Chen was sort of the Wilson Betemit of the pitching staff. The difference is that while there are no obvious red flags around Betemit’s performance that suggest it was unsustainable (other than the fact that he’d never done it before), there is good reason to believe that Chen’s 2010 represents the upper limit of his ability, and he’s far more likely to fall back than to take even a small step forward.
Chen’s 4.17 ERA was his best since 2005, and a full point and a half better than last year’s mark of 5.68 ERA. But his improvement was mostly illusory. He actually struck out fewer batters (6.3 Ks vs. 6.5 Ks per nine) and walked more batters (3.7 vs. 3.6) this year than last. His home run rate dropped significantly, but his flyball rate – Chen is one of the most extreme flyball pitchers in the majors – barely budged, going from 51% to 48%. In 2009, about 12% of his flyballs turned into Big Flies; in 2010, that percentage was only 8%. And his batting average on balls in play, which was .325 in 2009 (read: unlucky), was .279 in 2010 (read: lucky).
That’s not to say Chen didn’t improve at all. If nothing else, Chen certainly was a different pitcher in 2010. For one thing, Chen – like evidently every single pitcher in the major leagues – has learned to throw a cut fastball. The emergence of the cutter over the past decade has easily been the biggest difference in the pitcher/batter dynamic to emerge since at least the split-finger fastball arrived in the 1980s; the difference is that the cutter is probably here to stay. (The splitter was blamed for a rash of pitcher injuries almost from the beginning; it was up to each pitcher to decide whether to make the Faustian bargain of trading tomorrow’s health for today’s success. The cutter, by comparison, has not been linked to an increased risk of injury to the best of my knowledge.)
Fangraphs doesn’t list Chen as throwing a cutter in 2010, but the percentage of sliders he threw increased from 10.2% in 2009 (and a career high of 12.3% in 2004) all the way to 21.2% this season. That’s almost certainly just a classification error; the cutter works as sort of a mini-slider, and my guess is that half of those “sliders” were his new pitch.
I’m sure the cutter was a useful addition to his repertoire, but there’s no evidence that it was a game-changer for him. If it was, we would see it in his peripherals – his strikeouts would have gone up, or he would have induced more groundballs. (For evidence of the kind of transformation the cutter can cause, look at Esteban Loaiza’s 2003.) We did not. Chen was the same pitcher he’s always been, just slightly better on the margins. And with a fastball that averages 86.2 mph, it’s unlikely that Chen can pitch any better than he did in 2010.
I’d still like to have him back on a one-year contract, because one year should be the operative word for any free agent contract the Royals hand out this winter, and better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. But if teams take his improvement at face value and he gets a multi-year offer, the Royals are best off cashing in their winnings and walking away.
Luke Hochevar – Expectations: Moderate; Grade: C+
Hochevar missed nearly half the season with an elbow injury – apparently suffered while taking batting practice at Fenway Park and swinging for the Green Monster – which disguised the fact that he did make considerable progress as a pitcher. It’s an open question whether “considerable progress” is simply a euphemism for “wasn’t so God-awful unlucky”.
Much as with Chen, in terms of what a pitcher has most control over, very little changed between 2009 and 2010. Hochevar’s strikeout rate dipped imperceptibly (from 6.7 to 6.6 per nine), and his walk rate crept up slightly (from 2.9 to 3.2). His groundball rate dropped from 47% all the way to 46%. His batting average on balls in play dropped slightly, from .326 to .320; he was still giving up an unusual number of hits.
But the rate at which flyballs turned into homers dropped by nearly 50%, and he stranded 65% of the runners he allowed to reach base, up from 59%. That’s how Hochevar’s ERA could drop from 6.55 to 4.81 without a change in his peripherals.
I’m not going to chalk all of that up to a change in luck, though. To some degree, we make our own fortune, and Hochevar seemed to have a knack for making his own misfortune in years past. As I wrote about earlier, after Ned Yost gave him his Sermon on the Mound, Hochevar seemed to pitch with more confidence, and completely eliminated his proclivities for the big inning – he didn’t allow more than 2 runs in any inning the rest of the season. From May 20th on, Hochevar also had a K/BB ratio of better than 3 to 1, and posted a 4.05 ERA.
Hochevar isn’t an ace. But he’s a perfectly acceptable #3 starter, perhaps stretched a little bit to be the Royals #2 starter at the moment. He just turned 27, and I suspect his best years are still ahead of him.
Kyle Davies – Expectations: Low to Moderate; Grade: C-
After riding the Kyle Davies Experience for the better part of three seasons, the Royals and their fans adjusted their expectations accordingly, and he still found a way to fail to live up to them.
Give Davies some credit. He made 32 starts and threw 184 innings, both accomplishments in themselves as well as career highs. He cut his walk rate by nearly a full walk per nine innings (from 4.8 to 3.9) while maintaining his strikeout rate (it dropped from 6.3 to 6.2). Control has been Davies’ biggest weakness, and his progress in that area should not be discounted.
But ultimately he wound up with a 5.34 ERA, seven points higher than his ERA in 2009, even as the league ERA in the Year of the Pitcher dropped 31 points. You can make excuses for Davies – his BABIP jumped from .288 to .317, again suggesting he was the victim of bad luck (and/or bad defense). But after making excuses for Davies for the last three years, I completely understand anyone who’s fresh out of them.
Davies will be a free agent next winter, so with the Royals in the market for inexpensive innings munchers to tide the rotation over for a year until the Left-Handed Cavalry* arrive, it’s important to remember that that’s essentially what the Royals have in Davies. There is value in a starter who can take the ball every fifth day and keep you in the game most of the time. There’s a lot more value when he’s your #5 starter than when he’s your #3 starter, but at least for 2011, that’s the hand we’ve been dealt.
*: We need a good nickname for all the good lefties coming – something better than “The Fantastic Four” or “The Fab Four” to describe Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Danny Duffy, and Chris Dwyer. Since the root meaning of “Sinister” is left-handed, how about The Sinister Six to describe those four, plus Tim Collins, plus…um…Everett Teaford? He’s not in the same class as the other guys, but he’s also likely to get to the majors first. If Noel Arguelles pitches like the guy in the catalog next spring, we can upgrade the group to The Sinister Seven.
I can’t help but think – even after all the years of disappointment – that there’s more to Davies than this. He has four quality pitches; none of them are great, but they’re all serviceable, including a fastball that runs 91-92 most nights. He wouldn’t be the first pitcher with a large repertoire of average-plus stuff who frustrates his team to no end in his mid-20s, before beginning to fulfill his potential in his late 20s.
Look at this comparison of Davies and Pitcher X, over a three-year span from ages 24 to 26:
Davies: 75 GS, 420 IP, 4.98 ERA, 4.1 BB/9, 6.1 K/9, 1.0 HR/9, 9.6 H/9.
X: 81 GS, 457 IP, 4.86 ERA, 3.6 BB/9, 6.1 K/9, 1.4 HR/9, 9.4 H/9.
There are some subtle differences here – Davies gave up fewer homers, but had worse control. But both pitchers, while lauded for having good stuff, were considered underachievers because the results never matched the talent.
Pitcher X is Gil Meche. At age 27 – his last year before free agency – he started to figure things out, lowering his ERA to 4.48 and setting career highs with 156 Ks and 7.5 Ks per nine innings. And then Meche signed with the Royals and was an excellent and durable starting pitcher for the next 2½ seasons until…well, you know.
While I don’t think Davies is setting himself up perfectly for a $55 million payday next winter, I do think he could follow a similar trendline – he could have the best season of his career in 2011, then leave for greener pastures and finally turn into the pitcher that both the Braves and Royals thought he was going to be all along.
Given how much credit Bob McClure (deservedly) received for fixing what ailed Meche essentially overnight, his failure to do the same with Davies after nearly four years has to be held against him. He has one more chance to get it right. I don’t expect miracles in 2011, but I do expect improvement.
Zack Greinke – Expectations: Insanely High; Grade: D+
Maybe it wasn’t fair to expect Greinke to pitch like he did in 2009, or even come anywhere close. Maybe, in retrospect, it looks kind of ridiculous that most forecasting systems spit out a projection for Greinke in 2010 that predicted an ERA in the low 3s, and almost to a man, Royals fans scoffed at those projections as absurdly pessimistic.
On the other hand, was it really too much to expect that Greinke would remain, at the very least, a Cy Young contender in 2010? He didn’t just win the Cy Young Award in 2009 – he had one of the most dominant seasons by any pitcher, in either league, in recent memory. Only two pitchers since 1997 – Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens – have posted a lower seasonal ERA. In the American League, only Martinez and Clemens have bested Greinke’s ERA going all the way back to 1982.
So yeah, I do think it’s fair that we expected Greinke to pitch, not just well, but very well. He wasn’t simply great in 2009; he was transcendent. In 2010, he was ordinary.
I’ve heard some comments from Royals fans that it’s unfair to be disappointed with Greinke given that he pitched almost exactly as well as he did in 2008 – and indeed he did, as his xFIP in both seasons is identical (3.76). But I think that misses the point. Yes, the 2010 Greinke and 2008 Greinke are bosom buddies, and the 2009 Greinke was an outlier. But that’s just it – we didn’t think that Greinke was having a career season in 2009. Oh sure, we thought he might never have a season quite that good again – but it seemed like he took a very real step forward, a level that no pitcher had reached since Pedro Martinez a decade before. Martinez reached that level of transcendence in 1997, and stayed there more or less through 2003 – he won 5 ERA titles in a seven-year span. Greinke touched the heavens, then came hurtling back to earth.
The most concerning part of Grienke’s season, to me, was his lack of strikeouts. His K rates from 2007 to 2009 read 7.82, 8.14, and 9.50 – the highest K/9 rate in the history of the franchise. Last year he broke the franchise record with a 15-strikeout game, and recorded five double-digit strikeout games.
In 2010, the bite was gone. His strikeout rate dropped to 7.40 per 9 innings, and just once all season did he strike out 10 or more batters. In part, he traded some of those strikeouts for groundballs – his groundball percentage jumped from 40 to 46%. But it wasn’t a fair trade.
The elephant in the room is the one with the tattoo stamped “CONCENTRATION” on its hide. No one knows for sure how much of Greinke’s struggles in 2010 were less the fault of his than of the team around him – and his general disinterest in playing for that team. And no one knows for sure whether it speaks well of Greinke if that’s the case. On the one hand, if it’s just a lack of concentration on his part, then presumably he can get back to his 2009 performance level whenever he feels like it. On the other, you’d rather not build your franchise around a pitcher who is only great when he feels like it.
I think we’ll see a refreshed Greinke in 2011, because he knows that either the team will play well, or he’ll be traded in July to a team that is playing well. Much like Martinez had a bit of an off-year in 1998 after his breakthrough 1997, and then ran roughshod over baseball for the next five years, it’s possible that 2010 will be Greinke’s worst season in a long time. If 2011 turns out to be as disappointing as 2010, well, in that case by the time 2011 ends he’ll almost certainly be some other team’s problem.
(The question of whether the Royals should trade him, and for how much, needs its own column, which I hopefully will get to before the winter meetings.)
Sean O’Sullivan – Expectations: Low to Moderate; Grade: D+
O’Sullivan is a big, beefy guy, and he’s young, and he throws reasonably hard. But he just…doesn’t…miss…bats. He now has a career rate of 4.8 strikeouts per 9 innings, and that’s just not survivable – certainly not when you’re also a flyball pitcher. And certainly not when you can’t compensate with pinpoint control. O’Sullivan isn’t wild by any stretch – he average about one walk every three innings – but he would need to cut that walk rate in half to survive without a change in his other peripherals.
I concede that Dayton Moore traded Alberto Callaspo at the right time – Callaspo’s power evaporated after the deal, he’s stopped hitting .300, and I doubt he would bring much of anything in a trade today. But I was skeptical that O’Sullivan was worth much of anything at the time, and I remain skeptical today. Maybe he’ll prove me wrong; he’s almost certain to be in the rotation to start 2011, and he’ll still be just 23. Or maybe Will Smith will win the deal for the Royals. But right now, that trade looks like a whole lot of nothing.
Brian Bannister – Expectations: Low to Moderate; Grade: D-
You know how much it hurts me to write this, but it would hurt me more to lie about it. Brian Bannister did not resemble a major league pitcher in any way, shape, or form in 2010. Of the 134 pitchers who threw 110 or more innings in the majors last year, Bannister’s 6.34 ERA ranked dead last – 40 points worse than his closest competitor, Scott Kazmir.
The only reason Bannister doesn’t get an F is that he was pitching hurt all season. It didn’t really register with me when I spoke to Bannister at the trading deadline, partly because of all the chaos going on around me, and partly because of the casual way in which he said it. But in retrospect, when Bannister told me that he wasn’t able to throw his cutter at all because it hurt his shoulder, well, that should have set off all kinds of alarms.
Remember, prior to the 2009 season, Bannister realized that his entire approach to pitching – which after a delightfully fluky rookie season, had a led to a 5.76 ERA in 2008 – had to be revamped. He basically invented a cut fastball over the winter, and he didn’t just add it to his repertoire – he made it his primary pitch. In 2009, according to Fangraphs, Bannister threw his cutter 52.3% of the time. His “normal” fastball, which he threw 59.6% of the time in 2008, was thrown just 16.8% of the time in 2009.
And it worked. Dramatically. His groundball percentage jumped from 37.5% in 2008 to 49.5% in 2009. His home run rate dropped by almost a third. In his first 20 starts, through August 2nd, Bannister had a 3.59 ERA, and in 123 innings had allowed just 39 walks and 11 homers.
And then his shoulder began to ache.
The Royals lost his next six starts, in which he surrendered 34 runs in 31 innings, before he was shut down for the season in early September. Evidently the rest didn’t do him a lot of good. I don’t know whether the cut fastball was the cause of his shoulder pain, or if throwing the pitch simply aggravated the pain, but either way, his new toy pitch, the one that was going to make him an above-average starter, was taken away from him after he got to play with it for only a few months.
Since his arm started to hurt, in his last 30 games, Bannister has a 6.92 ERA, and has allowed 27 homers in 159 innings. He’s had to go back to being the flyball pitcher with marginal stuff he used to be, and that simply won’t work anymore.
He’s almost certain to be released this winter, and you can’t blame the Royals for doing so. At this point, Bannister’s future is almost entirely dependent on whether his shoulder heals up. He strikes me as the perfect kind of pickup for the Padres, a team that plays in a pitcher’s park, in a division with a lot of pitcher’s parks, in an inferior league. Bannister is a good hitter, which makes an NL destination an added bonus. If he gets healthy, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if he winds up a key starter for yet another surprise contending team in San Diego next year.
If he doesn’t get healthy, well, I don’t expect him to stick around the majors much longer – at least as a pitcher. As a coach, or (please, Brian!) as a broadcaster, he’ll hopefully be around forever.
Gil Meche – Expectations: Minimal; Grade: TBD
I really don’t know how to come up with a grade for Meche, both because I’m not sure how to define the expectations for him coming into the season, and because I’m still not sure whether his conversion from broken-down starter into quality reliever is for real or not.
In spring training, the Royals’ expectations for him – at least publicly – were that he’d be back to his 2007-08 form as if 2009 never happened. That was ridiculous on its face, and I said so at the time. That he then went out and posted a 6.66 ERA in nine starts, walking more batters than he struck out, sandwiched between two more DL stints…well, only someone who had been drinking the Royals’ Kool-Aid ought to have been surprised. (Sadly, this included the Royals themselves.)
At that point, it appeared a foregone conclusion that the last two-and-a-half years – fully half of Meche’s contract – were dead money. That conclusion was only strengthened when a trip to the doctor revealed enough damage to sideline Meche for over a season when he went under the knife. When Meche then had a sudden change of heart and decided he could make it as a reliever without any surgery at all, well, forgive me, but I was a cynic. On Twitter, I estimated the chance of this working at approximately 0.0001%.
Either Meche hit the Powerball, or I grossly underestimated his chances, because he not only made it back in September, he was…good. He pitched 13 innings, and while you can’t tell hardly anything about a pitcher in 13 innings, it’s notable that he struck out 11 batters and walked just four. That’s a positive sign for a pitcher who, since throwing his 132-pitch shutout last June 16th, had walked 61 batters and struck out just 58. Meche wasn’t allowed to pitch on back-to-back days, although twice he threw two innings in an appearance (although he gave up a run each time).
Fangraphs actually lists the average velocity on Meche’s fastball (92.6) as his highest since 2003. There are some caveats there – the Kauffman Stadium radar gun ran hot all season, and pitchers typically gain velocity in relief. But there’s no reason to think that this conversion can’t work. I’m not comparing the two in the slightest, but Dennis Eckersley was considered a broken-down starter in 1987.
The expectations have obviously dropped from the days when he was a 210-inning pitcher, but I think it’s reasonable to hope for 70-80 innings of very solid middle relief from Meche in 2011, perhaps even work as the 8th inning guy. If that’s the case, then the Royals might get fair value from Meche’s contract in spite of themselves. The value of 2.5 years of a #2 starter, along with a season-plus of quality middle relief, isn’t worth $55 million – but it’s closer than you think.
Bryan Bullington – Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris, and Bullington will always have August 15th, 2010 against the Yankees, an eight-inning, two-hit-shutout performance closed out by Joakim Soria in a 1-0 win. In his other 35 innings with the Royals, Bullington allowed 29 runs. What makes baseball such a beautiful game is that, on any given day, a pitcher like Bryan Bullington can pitch a masterpiece. Unfortunately for Bullington, that means that his masterpiece can’t change the fact that he’s still Bryan Bullington. For his sake, I hope he gets more chances. For the Royals’ sake, I hope they’re with another team.