Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Royals Report Card, 2010: Part Four.

Finishing our grades with the relief corps:

Joakim Soria – Expections: High; Grade: A

In the 41-year history of the franchise, the Royals have three relief pitchers who stand almost even with each other, but so far in front of everyone else that it isn’t even funny.

Baseball Prospectus has a metric entitled Win Expectation Above Replacement, Lineup-Adjusted (WXRL) – a stat which looks at every game a reliever pitched in and figures out exactly how many wins he saved his team relative to a replacement-level reliever. A closer who throws a scoreless ninth to protect a three-run lead might have only been worth 0.06 wins in that game – almost any pitcher will close that out. A closer who comes in with the bases loaded and nobody out in a one-run game might be worth 0.70 wins – turning a likely loss into a win.

By this metric, here are the 10 best relief seasons in Royals history:

1. Dan Quisenberry, 1980: 8.16
2. Dan Quisenberry, 1983: 7.04
3. Jeff Montgomery, 1993: 6.86
4. Dan Quisenberry, 1984: 6.65
5. Joakim Soria, 2010: 6.53
6. Joakim Soria, 2008: 5.45
7. Dan Quisenberry, 1985: 5.33
8. Joakim Soria, 2007: 4.83
9. Dan Quisenberry, 1982: 4.83
10. Jeff Montgomery, 1991: 4.79
11. Joakim Soria, 2009: 4.76
12. Jeff Montgomery, 1989: 3.84

Baseball-Reference.com has a similar metric, Win Probability Added, or WPA. The main difference between the two stats appears to be that the BP stat compares a reliever to replacement level, while the B-R stat compares a reliever to an “average” reliever – meaning the BP stat puts more emphasis on quantity, i.e. a reliever with 120 average innings would rate higher than one with 70 above-average innings. (If I’m wrong in my interpretation, please let me know in the comments.)

By WPA, the 10 best relief seasons in Royals history:

1. Dan Quisenberry, 1980: 7.03
2. Jeff Montgomery, 1993: 5.54
3. Joakim Soria, 2010: 5.06
4. Dan Quisenberry, 1984: 4.65
5. Dan Quisenberry, 1983: 4.39
6. Joakim Soria, 2008: 4.24
7. Jeff Montgomery, 1991: 4.06
8. Joakim Soria, 2007: 3.84
9. Joakim Soria, 2009: 3.52
10. Dan Quisenberry, 1982: 3.40

There’s a lot to take from this list:

1) The best relief season in Royals history is unequivocably Dan Quisenberry’s 1980. I found this shocking, and I imagine many of you do to – in 1980, in his first year as the Royals’ closer, Quiz had a 3.09 ERA. That would be his highest ERA until 1988, when he was released. He had a lower ERA and threw more innings in 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1985.

But for these context-based stats, when the runs were allowed matters as much as how many runs were allowed. Fourteen of the 47 runs Quisenberry allowed that year came in three outings. In one of those games, the Royals were losing 3-1 when Quiz came in; in another, he was taken out with two outs in the ninth and the Royals leading 3-2, and the two runners on base scored after he departed. He pitched in high-leverage situations all season, and while he got burned a few times, his successes were far more common than his failures.

2) The supremacy of Quisenberry, Montgomery, and Soria is unquestioned. By WXRL, Quiz has 5 of the 12 best relief seasons ever, Soria 4, and Monty 3. By WPA, Quiz has 4 of the top 10, Soria 4, and Monty 2.

(The best relief season by a Royals pitcher other than The Big Three? The answer is at the bottom of the column. You’ll never guess who.)

3) While Quisenberry holds most of the top spots, no one can match Soria for consistent dominance. Soria has pitched four seasons in the majors – ALL FOUR SEASONS rank among the 10 or 11 best relief seasons in Royals history. And that’s despite not throwing even 70 innings in any single season. That’s insane.

4) Soria’s 2010 was his best season yet. This isn’t a surprise, given that he set the franchise record with 36 consecutive successful save opportunities. If he had closed out the save against the Rays on the last day of the season, his 2010 campaign would rank in the top 3 by both metrics.

What’s fascinating to me is that the Royals have had three premier closers, and yet each of the three had a very different style – and none of the three fit the traditional flame-throwing, I’ll-throw-the-ball-up-your-ass style prototype. In fact, all three of them were so lightly regarded that the Royals acquired EACH ONE for (almost) nothing.

Bill James famously – and accurately – wrote, “There has never been a pitcher who made fewer mistakes than Dan Quisenberry.” There simply hasn’t been another player like him in major league history. He threw softer than 99% of the pitchers of his era, but had better control than 100% of them. Since 1945, 62 pitchers have thrown 1000 or more career innings with an ERA of 3.20 or less. Quisenberry’s strikeout rate of 3.27 per 9 innings is more than half a strikeout less than each of the other 61. No one has been remotely as successful as the Quiz while striking out remotely as few hitters. That’s because, in 1043 career innings, Quisenberry walked just 92 batters by accident. He surrendered only 59 homers. He hit just seven batters. He threw just four wild pitches – in his career.

The Royals signed him as a non-drafted free agent.

Jeff Montgomery threw four above-average pitches, and in his time there was almost as much speculation about whether he ought to be moved to the rotation as there is with Soria. He didn’t have Quiz’s control, but it was good enough, and he never gave into the hitter. He was fearless, throwing any pitch in any count; early in his career he began using his changeup as his out pitch with two strikes, which doesn’t sound like a big deal today (Trevor Hoffman has saved 600 games with the same philosophy) but was highly unconventional in that era. The Royals acquired him in a trade with the Reds for the immortal Van Snider.

And then there’s Soria, who’s simply a f**king magician. I’ve been watching him for 4 years, and I still have no idea how he gets so many swings and misses on his fastball, a fastball that usually sits at 91-92. More than any pitcher I’ve ever watched consistently, Soria has mastered the ability to throw to both sides of the plate – his pitches are almost always strikes or just off the plate, but almost never down the middle. There's something about his delivery that gives hitters fits, and he never, ever, EVER gets rattled.

Intellectually, I know that he’s wasted on the Royals, and if the Royals could have traded him for someone like Jesus Montero (as was rumored) they should.

Emotionally? There’s no one on Earth I’d rather see in the center of the dogpile.

Kyle Farnsworth – Expectations: Pain; Grade: A-

For all the crap we gave the Royals for signing him, it’s easy to overlook the fact that since becoming a full-time reliever in 2001, Farnsworth was guilty of mediocrity more than outright badness. Just once in the last 10 years has he had an ERA above 5, that coming back in 2002. It’s just that a pitcher with his velocity should have an ERA that lives in the 2s and 3s.

Farnsworth was one of Bob McClure’s biggest success this season; McClure got him to finally acknowledge the reality that major-league hitters can catch up to a 100-mph fastball if it’s straight enough, and got him to throw more two-seam fastballs and even some changeups. Even so, the Royals spent somewhere around $8 million for Farnsworth, and for their piles of cash they got 82 innings and a 3.40 ERA. That’s not a bad performance, but it’s hardly worth the money they spent – particularly since most of Farnsworth’s worst performances came in high-leverage situations.

Let’s hope they get more bang for their buck the next time they go hunting for free agent relievers. Better still, let’s hope they have enough faith in their farm system to forego the need for free agent relievers in the first place.

Robinson Tejeda – Expectations: Moderate; Grade: B-

Tejeda was a complete mess to start 2010; he allowed 14 hits and 13 walks in just 9.1 April innings, which comes out to an opponents’ OBP of .519. But from May on, he was basically Joakim Soria without the hype. From May 1st until he gave up five runs in one disastrous inning on September 26th, he threw 48 innings with a 1.32 ERA. He always seems to be on the verge of losing the strike zone completely, but when he’s on, he’s dominant.

(In the Soria comment, I made a reference to the fact that none of the Royals’ top closers have been of the overpowering variety. A rough metric for a pitcher’s “overpoweringness” would be his ratio of strikeouts to hits. Of all the pitchers in Royals history who have appeared in 100 games, Soria’s career ratio of K/H is the highest, at 1.54. But Tejeda is right behind him at 1.53.)

Remember when we all thought Tejeda should be in the rotation? That was barely six months ago.

Remember when Tejeda actually made 6 starts for the Royals, in which he had a 2.84 ERA and allowed just 15 hits in 32 innings? That was barely a year ago.

I bring this up because, with the tentative emergence of Gil Meche as a reliever, the Royals have plenty of relief options for next year’s squad, but are at least one starter short of a full rotation. Since joining the Royals – he was claimed off of waivers from the Rangers, remember – Tejeda has thrown 174 innings, allowed just 120 hits, and has a tidy 3.47 ERA. Is there any reason why the Royals shouldn’t give the Tejeda-to-the-rotation idea some consideration again this winter?

Last spring, the Rangers moved C.J. Wilson to the rotation. This was considered a highly risky move, given that Wilson had not started a game since his rookie season five years ago, and had only six starts in the majors. Also, Wilson had served as the team’s quasi-closer for the last three years, earning 50 saves in that span, so they were messing with one of their most important relievers.

Obviously, the move was an unqualified success. Wilson threw 204 innings this season, struck out 170, and finished 10th in the league with a 3.35 ERA. The Rangers won their first pennant ever.

Aside from the fact that Wilson is a lefty and Tejeda is a righty, there are a lot of similarities between the two. Tejeda actually has considerably more experience starting than Wilson did; He was a starter for his first three seasons in the majors, and while he was awful in 2007, he was actually pretty good in 2005 and 2006. He already made the move once, in September of 2009, and was excellent.

Prior to the move, Wilson was a reliever with shaky control (4.1 BB per 9) but did a good job of keeping the ball in the park (0.9 HR per 9, despite pitching in Arlington.) Since joining the Royals, Tejeda’s control has similarly waxed and waned (4.9 BB per 9), but he has been very difficult to drive, allowing just 0.6 HR per 9. Wilson did a fantastic job of keeping the ball in the park as a starter this season, allowing just 10 homers in 204 innings, which made up for his league-leading 93 walks. Particularly given the large outfield at Kauffman Stadium, I think Tejeda should be similarly able to avoid homers in the rotation, allowing him to weather his occasional control lapses.

Wilson was 29 this season. Tejeda turns 29 next spring.

The more I think about it, the more I think the Royals should commit to Tejeda in the rotation. The downside is minimal; he’s already proven he can pitch effectively in middle relief, and can go back to that role if need be. He’s a hefty guy who should be more than durable enough to handle a starter’s role. The Royals desperately need one more starting pitcher to start 2011, but don’t want to commit to a free agent for the long-term given the number of minor league pitchers who may warrant a promotion by season’s end.

The decision by the Royals to try Robinson Tejeda in the rotation for 2011 might not be the most bold and exciting thing they can do this winter, but it’s probably the most bold, exciting, and inexpensive move they can make. It sure beats the pants out of signing another thirtysomething free agent for two years and too much money.

Kanekoa Texeira – Expectations: Low; Grade: B-

We weren’t expecting much – the Texeira acquisition was one of the quietest transactions of the season – and we didn’t get much. But we got something: a groundball pitcher who throws strikes. He ruined his final numbers by trying to pitch hurt at the end, and gave up 10 runs in nine innings in his last five appearances, but before that Texeira had thrown 34 innings for the Royals, and had walked just 10 batters and surrendered a single homer.

He’s a nice insurance policy as the low man on the bullpen totem, but he’s likely to be passed by better, harder-throwing prospects soon. Which makes the decision to keep him dicey, because even if he goes back to the minors, the CBA stipulates that a player on the 40-man roster can’t have his salary cut by more than 20% from year to year – even if he’s in the minor leagues. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong.) So Texeira, who made the major-league minimum of $400,000 in 2010, would make no less than $320,000 in 2011 even if he spends the whole year in Omaha.

This is the hidden cost of the Rule 5 draft, and I suspect it’s one of the reasons why teams play it more conservatively than you or I would. If you draft a guy, you have to have the confidence that he’s not only worth keeping on your roster all year, but that you won’t be paying him mid-six figures the following year to continue his development in the minor leagues.

Dusty Hughes – Expectations: Low; Grade: C

Probably the easiest grade on the entire roster. Everything about Dusty Hughes deserves a C grade, starting with the fact that he somehow spent the entire season on the roster without really making an impression on anyone.

He pitched in 57 games for the Royals, but judging from the way they used him, you’d think the only reason he was on the roster was because the Royals were too embarrassed to go without a lefty somewhere in their bullpen, and, well, Hughes was just standing there, so…

He wasn’t used in high-leverage situations at all; just eight times in those 57 games did he pitch in a situation where his “Leverage Index” was 2 or more, and just twice after the All-Star Break. He was kinda used as a lefty specialist, but not really – he faced right-handed batters 54% of the time. He was kinda effective against left-handed hitters, but not really – they batted .260/.351/.323 against him.

Hughes wasn’t bad, not really – he gave up a ton of baserunners (88 in just 56 innings), but minimized the damage by allowing just three homers. But he wasn’t good either. He wasn’t really anything. He was just there.

More power to him that he earned a full year’s worth of a major-league salary, and got a big contribution to his pension. But unless he takes a significant step forward – the easiest path being that he starts throwing more strikes – his job security is almost non-existent. I don’t know what Dusty Hughes really does for the Royals. I sure know what Tim Collins does.

Blake Wood – Expectations: Low to Moderate; Grade: C-

For much of the season, the biggest mystery about Blake Wood was how a pitcher whose fastball averaged 95.4 mph and moved like it ran into a tornado five feet from the plate could miss bats so rarely. In his first 20 innings in the majors, Wood struck out just six batters. But from that point on Wood’s strikeout numbers started to catch up to his stuff, as he whiffed 25 batters in his final 30 innings.

If Wood can keep missing bats, and keep getting those bats to beat the ball on the ground when they don’t miss (he had a 51% groundball rate this year, which is excellent), he should be effective. I can’t say I trust him to do that yet. But he’s certainly a cut above the Luis Mendozas and Roman Colons of the world.

Jesse Chavez – Expectations: Low; Grade: D

Getting Gregor Blanco in the Tim Collins trade, I get. Getting Jesse Chavez, though, seems like more of a favor unto the Braves, taking a guy they didn’t want off their hands, then anything else. He throws very hard, but unlike Wood his fastball doesn’t sink at all – his groundball rate was only 35% - which leads to a bleacher souvenir every four or five innings. This is a bad thing.

I can’t completely write Chavez off, because in September the Royals completely changed his delivery to more of a sidearm motion, with the idea of giving him more sink. He didn’t pitch long enough with his new motion to say one way or the other. But he certainly can’t be any worse than he was before, not if he wants to pitch in the big leagues.

Victor Marte – Expectations: None; Grade: F

Sure, he had a 9.76 ERA in 29 innings, the second-highest in Royals history for any pitcher with 25+ innings. (Scott Elarton, of course, set the record with his 10.46 ERA in 2007.) And sure, opponents batted a cool .319/.404/.597 against him, which is almost a dead ringer for Albert Pujols’ line of .312/.414/.596. But hey, Marte went 3-0. That has to count for something.

In the history of major league baseball, going back to when a “veteran” referred to someone who had fought in the Civil War, no pitcher had ever won 3 or more games, while going undefeated, with an ERA above 8. Until now.

And the name of the man who won games despite a never-before-seen level of ineffectiveness? Of course. Victor.

I love baseball.

Incomplete Grades:

Anthony Lerew – Actually not a reliever, as he started in all six of his appearances with the Royals. Somehow I missed him when I was writing my previous column. Given his track record, I’m sure there was some memory repression going on there.

Philip Humber – Like Bryan Bullington, Humber is a former first-round pick who got a last chance from the Royals. Humber pitched considerably better than Bullington – 16 Ks, 5 unintentional walks, and 1 homer in 22 innings – although he had the benefit of working out of the bullpen most of the time. I don’t think he’s a worth a 40-man roster spot, but he’s certainly worth an NRI in spring training to see if his career can be salvaged.

Brad Thompson – Proved that throwing strikes isn’t enough. After the Royals cut him, he signed with Houston (of course!) and gave up 41 hits in 23 innings – in Triple-A.

Greg Holland – He’ll always be a permanent footnote in the history of the Royals – the first Dayton Moore draft pick to reach the majors – but has done little to give hope that he might be worthy of more than a footnote. He throws very hard (his fastball averaged 95.7 mph) but very straight. He struck out 23 batters in 19 innings – more than a quarter of the 87 batters he faced – and still had a 6.75 ERA.

Josh Rupe – Hey, remember that week when Rupe was the Royals’ set-up man? And remember the week that Rupe got called up? And remember how they were the same week? And remember how much that sucked?

Juan Cruz – The greatest case of addition by subtraction on the 2010 Royals. I was told when he was released that his psychological influence on the bullpen was more pernicious than his pitching. I can’t prove or disprove that statement, but the facts state that the bullpen, which was on a historically bad pace in April, was no worse than mediocre from the moment he was given the boot.

John Parrish – If anyone thinks that success in baseball is all about heart and desire, consider the case of Parrish, who after missing all of 2009 with a shoulder injury, worked himself back into shape, shocked everyone by making the team out of spring training, threw six decent innings – and then got hurt again and missed the rest of the year. It’s hard to succeed when your heart’s not into it – but it’s harder still when it’s your arm that betrays you.

Luis Mendoza – The Royals just re-signed him to a minor-league contract. And you all thought that Dayton Moore was incapable of pity.

Roman Colon – Perhaps the definitive symbol of futility during the Dayton Moore era. At least until Jeff Francoeur signs.

(Oh, and the best relief season by someone other than Quisenberry, Montgomery, or Soria is probably Ron Mahay’s 2008, when he threw 65 innings with a 3.48 ERA – his season ranks 14th by WXRL and 11th by WPA. What makes this even more remarkable is that as soon as the trading deadline passed without him being traded, Mahay went into the tank – I think he was pitching on a bum knee or something. He allowed 14 runs in 8 innings in August and September.)

I’ll finish up with grades on the coaching staff and front office soon. I imagine those grades will stir up more controversy than the ones so far.