Sunday, April 17, 2011

Game Not On. (Yet.)

So on Saturday, the Royals beat the Mariners 7-0, as Sean O’Sullivan outdueled Felix Hernandez with five scoreless innings, three middle relievers struck out six batters in the last four innings, the defense made several outstanding plays, Alex Gordon (who is leading the league in hits) and Billy Butler played pinball against King Felix, and the Royals remained tied for the American League lead in wins, as they enter a crucial matchup with the Cleveland Indians on Monday between the two best teams in the AL Central, and literally every word of this sentence would have seemed unthinkable three weeks ago.

The fun came to an end today, when the Royals lost 3-2 after Ned Yost made the questionable decision to send Jeff Francis back out to the mound to start the seventh inning. Justin Smoak and lefty-killer Miguel Olivo followed with singles, and both scored on Brendan Ryan’s single (the only baserunner Blake Wood allowed in 2.2 innings.) Even so, the Royals should have tied the game; a blown umpire call at first base in the eighth inning – Chris Getz was called out even though his foot beat Jamey Wright’s to the bag – cost the Royals a run. In the ninth, after Kila Ka’aihue singled, Jeff Francoeur ripped a one-hopper off Ryan’s glove at shortstop, but Ryan made a fantastic play to recover the ball and nip Francoeur at first. With two out, Betemit drove in Ka’aihue with a single, and pinch-runner Mike Aviles stole second before Brayan Pena grounded out.

The Royals lost, but they fought to their last batter, something they’ve done in 14 of their 15 games this year. The Royals are still 10-5, and what might be even more amazing is that four of their five losses could have gone the other way:

Loss #1: On Opening Day, Alex Gordon’s bid for a walk-off homer with two outs in the ninth goes just foul before he strikes out. It would be the last time Gordon would make an out all season.

Loss #2: The Royals lead the White Sox 6-3 with two outs in the ninth and no one on, before the Sox pull off an improbable four-run rally against Joakim Soria. Even so, the Royals tie the game in the bottom of the ninth, and have the winning run on second base with one out. In the tenth, the Royals have men on first and third with one out, but Chris Sale strikes out Francoeur to keep the winning run from moving up; the Sox score two in the 12th to win.

Loss #3: The Tigers score four runs off Kyle Davies in the first, and put the game away early, 5-2.

Loss #4: The Royals tie the Twins 3-3 in the top of the seventh, and have men on first and third with none out – but Gordon strikes out, Butler pops out, and Francoeur strikes out to kill the rally. The Royals don’t get another baserunner the rest of the game, and the Twins win in the tenth when Ned Yost decides to prove, beyond the shadowiest shadow of a sliver of a doubt, that Robinson Tejeda really has lost five mph off his fastball.

Loss #5: See above.

The Royals have played 15 games, and in just one of them did they not have the winning run at the plate in the ninth inning. That’s pretty damn amazing. Granted, they’ve pulled some victories out of a hat; they could be 7-8 right now. But a few fly balls to the outfield and they could be 13-3 or 14-2 as well.

But the Royals are still 10-5, and if they keep winning two out of every three games, at some point we have to take them seriously. The question is, have we reached that point yet?

You know I’m going to say no, and not only because two years ago, after a sample size that was nearly twice as large, I fell for the mirage – and wound up with rotten eggs on my face when the team went 47-86 the rest of the way. But I will say, this year doesn’t feel like 2009 at all. I didn’t go into the 2009 season with high expectations, but I at least acknowledged the possibility before the season that the team could be competitive if they caught a few breaks.

This year (this article notwithstanding) I had no expectations whatsoever. More to the point – the Royals had no expectations of winning. This team, as it was constructed over the winter, was not built to win. In that sense, this team is very much like the 2003 squad. When that team came out of the chute 9-0, there was a level of cognitive dissonance within the media, both in Kansas City and nationally. There was simply no explanation for how a team that looked so bad on paper could be playing so well, and no one knew what to make of it.

It turns out that the 9-0 start wasn’t real, but it wasn’t exactly a fraud either. Let’s try to figure out where the 2011 Royals fit on the continuum.

Pythagorean Theorem: One of the fundamental axioms of baseball analysis – it was discovered and named by Bill James in the early 1980s – is that there is a very strong correlation between a team’s win-loss record and its runs/runs allowed ratio. Specifically, the ratio between a team’s wins and its losses is approximately the square of the ratio between its runs scored and runs allowed (hence the term “Pythagorean.”)

We can apply that theorem to the Royals to see whether their 10-5 record is the product of good fortune or a true reflection of how they’ve played. The Royals have a .667 winning percentage. Based on their run totals – they’ve scored 82 runs and allowed 63 – their winning percentage should be only .629.

That’s not an indictment of the team. Put it this way – the Royals are currently on a 108-win pace. Based on their run totals, they should “only” be on pace to win 102 games.

I’d take that.

Closely allied with how a team performs compared to its Pythagorean expectation is how well the team plays in one-run games. A team that wins a lot of one-run games is going to win more games than you’d expect from their run totals. With their loss today, the Royals are 4-2 in one-run games – and they’re 6-3 in games decided by more than one run. They’re 2-2 in extra-inning games. They’ve only played two blowouts (games decided by 5+ runs), and won both of them. While the Royals may be playing five miles over their heads, there’s simply no evidence of that based on the scores of their games.

Second-Order Wins: A team’s Pythagorean record is what Baseball Prospectus calls “First-Order Wins”, meaning a team’s record once the first layer of luck is stripped out. Second-Order Wins strips out another layer of luck, looking at how a team scores their runs. If a team is scoring a lot of runs because they’re hitting really well with runners in scoring position, that’s unlikely to continue, and their offense is likely to slow down. If a pitching staff is stranding a lot of baserunners, eventually the debt will come due.

When you mine the data this deep, the Royals do come out looking fairly lucky. The Royals are 10-5, but they actually have fewer hits than their opponents (152 to 148), and have been out-homered, 16-11. They do have more doubles (33-29), more steals (19-8), and shocking, their biggest advantage is in walks (57-41).

Overall, the Royals are hitting .275/.341/.408. Their opponents are hitting .272/.323/.421. The Royals have a slight offensive advantage thanks to their higher OBP (!), and we also have to give them a significant edge on the basepaths. But even so, those numbers are the mark of an 8-7 team, not a 10-5 one.

Strength of Schedule: Baseball Prospectus also has “Third-Order Wins”, which adjust a team’s record based on the strength of the teams they have faced so far. Of course, if it’s too early in the season to know how good the Royals are, it’s too early in the season to know how good their opponents are.

But if there’s one thing we know, it’s that the Mariners are a pretty awful baseball team, a team that without Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda might be historically bad. Their offense already was historically bad last year – the Mariners scored the fewest runs of any AL team in a full season since the invention of the DH. This year’s offense might not be any better; they scored nine runs in four games against the Royals, and three of those came in the ninth inning on Friday night in the kind of weather conditions last seen in the third installment of Pirates of the Caribbean.

This series aside, the Royals went 7-3 against the three teams widely considered to be the three contenders in the AL Central, and the Angels, a team that at least one pundit (read: me) picked to win the AL West, and a team that is 9-2 since they left Kansas City. Frankly, the best case you can make on behalf of the Royals is that the Tigers, White Sox, and (especially) the Twins don’t look nearly as formidable as they did three weeks ago. Of course, the best case against the Royals is that the Indians have the best record in baseball at 11-4, which should serve as a reminder that it’s way too early to be taking records seriously.

Sustainability of Performance: This, ultimately, is all that matters. Can the Royals, on an individual level, continue to play this well? Let’s look at the players who are most responsible for this start:

Alex Gordon: He’s hitting .365/.394/.540 so far, and no, he’s not going to hit .365 all season. But if his breakout is for real, he might slug .540. And if he starts to draw more walks, he might maintain a .394 OBP. I have no doubt that I’m jumping to conclusions with Gordon’s hot start – I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for four years, and I’m not going to let it slip out of my hands now.

I think Gordon is going to cool down. But I think we have to upgrade, perhaps significantly, our expectations of what Gordon will hit this season. (And, perhaps more importantly, what he will hit in 2012 and 2013 as well.)

Jeff Francoeur: He’s hitting .328/.349/.517 so far, and no, he’s not going to hit .328 all season. He’s not going to slug .517 all season. Frankly, even projecting a .349 OBP for him seems overly optimistic, and a .349 OBP is nothing to brag about to begin with.

I’ll be honest: I have no idea what to expect from Francoeur. As the Kansas City Star reported a few days ago, there is some data to suggest Francoeur is succeeding with a different, more patient approach at the plate. But those of you who have followed the Jeff Francoeur Saga over the years know that this isn’t the first time, or even the fifth time, he’s convinced people that he’s about to turn a corner. It’s not a fulfilling answer, but saying “we just don’t know” is the only honest answer to give.

Billy Butler: He won’t hit .352/.470/.537, but he’s going to hit, and he might well have his best season yet.

Wilson Betemit: He won’t hit .371/.452/.571, but he can hit, and if he does he’s not going to remain a part-time player. His impact has been limited by batting only 41 times in 15 games so far, so even if he cools down he could continue to maintain his value.

Those four hitters – who fortuitously all bat in the middle of the lineup – are the only four hitters who are playing above expectations. Melky Cabrera has been nothing special at .279/.286/.397; Chris Getz, after a hot start, is hitting .269/.333/.288. Alcides Escobar might not continue to make one Gold Glove-caliber play at shortstop per game, but at the same time he can probably improve on his .233/.270/.267 line so far this year. Brayan Pena and Matt Treanor are hitting a combined .200/.297/.327. Mike Aviles has recovered from a tough start, but he’s still hitting .200/.250/.450. And Ka’aihue, most troublingly, is hitting .174/.304/.283.

I have no doubt that Gordon, Francoeur, Butler, and Betemit will cool off. But at the same time, they can expect better production from shortstop, second base, and DH. If either Getz or Ka’aihue don’t pick it up, they’ll see their playing time eaten away by Betemit, with Aviles picking up the slack. They’re not going to continue to score 5.5 runs a game. But they may have a less bumpy descent than you’d think.

On the pitching side of things…

Aaron Crow, Jeremy Jeffress, and Tim Collins have combined for 23.1 innings, and have allowed just 15 hits, walked 11, and struck out 29. They’ve allowed just three runs. That level of performance is, obviously, unsustainable.

But at the same time, none of the three are doing this with smoke and mirrors. They all have power stuff, and they’re all striking guys out in bunches. There’s no position where a rookie is more likely to find immediate success than in the bullpen, so you can’t use their inexperience against them. The walks have to concern you, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that, if they stay healthy, all three pitchers will continue to find success all season.

Kanekoa Texeira and Nate Adcock have combined to throw 8.2 innings, they’ve allowed 14 hits and two walks, and have not a single strikeout – but they’ve allowed just one run. Some serious regression is due here – but at the same time, both pitchers are largely garbage-time guys whose performances are unlikely to decide a ballgame one way or the other.

And that leaves Joakim Soria and Robinson Tejeda, who have allowed nine runs in 13 innings, allowed 18 hits and six walks, and struck out just four. Tejeda is now on the DL, having been replaced by Blake Wood, who is supposed to be throwing harder and better than he did as a rookie a year ago. Soria is a concern given his lack of strikeouts as well as his performance. I reached a personal DEFCON low with Soria after he nearly blew another big ninth-inning lead on Friday, but that was before I was aware of just how bad the conditions were at the time. I can see how it might be hard to throw strikes while trying to pitch through an icy monsoon.

If Soria is healthy – and we’ll have a better answer for that question after his next few outings – I think the bullpen will continue to be a strength of this team. I expected it to be one before the season, and I certainly have seen no reason to change my mind.

As for the rotation…

Jeff Francis has a 3.00 ERA, and in 27 innings has walked 3 batters. If he can keep throwing that many strikes, he’ll be effective, but 1) he won’t be this effective, not in the American League, not with his velocity; and 2) he won’t keep walking a batter per nine innings.

Bruce Chen had a 4.17 ERA last season. I love Bruce Chen, but nothing in his peripheral results or in his repertoire made you think that’s sustainable. This year, his ERA is 2.61. You do the math.

Luke Hochevar has a 4.21 ERA, and I do think that’s sustainable. He has four walks and 16 strikeouts on the year; his bugaboo has been the six homers he’s surrendered in 26 innings, and that’s a little fluky.

Kyle Davies, on the other hand, has allowed 14 runs in 14 innings. He’s not that bad, and if he is, the Royals will soon replace him with someone who isn’t that bad.

The bottom line here is that neither Francis nor Chen can keep this up, and now that the Royals need a fifth starter every fifth game, they’re not going to get five shutout innings from that slot either. The rotation’s ERA as a whole is 3.97, and that’s not sustainable. I’d be happy with a 50-point jump; it might be a lot higher. Let me put it this way: right now, who starts Game 1 of the playoffs for the Royals?

Future Roster Changes: The answer to that question, in all seriousness, is probably Mike Montgomery. If you could see the future and told me that the Royals will make the playoffs this October, and I had to wager on who started Game 1 of the ALDS, I’d pick Monty. (And after he struck out 7 of the 16 batters he faced in Triple-A on Saturday, Danny Duffy might be my pick for Game 2.)

That’s what you have to hope for if you’re a Royals fan. The offense will regress, although I’ve seen enough to posit that it’s a better offense than we thought it would be. The bullpen, which has a 3.28 collective ERA right now, will regress, but will probably still be one of the better units in the American League. But the rotation is going to regress a lot – unless and until reinforcements arrive. However, if the Royals can just find a way to channel 2003 until mid-season, and dodge the laws of probability long enough to remain in contention at the All-Star Break, then unlike in 2003, they will have the opportunity to fix the team’s biggest weakness from within when the second half kicks off.

We might not even have to wait that long. Everyone obsesses about the Super-Two Deadline, but the more important deadline has already passed. Every one of the Royals’ vaunted prospects who are in the minors today are now guaranteed to be under club control through 2017. If Montgomery were called up tomorrow, the Royals would get almost seven full seasons out of him. He might get arbitration a year early, and in a best/worst case scenario that could cost the Royals more than $10 million. (That’s what it cost the Giants when Tim Lincecum qualified for arbitration prior to the 2010 season – after he had just won back-to-back Cy Young Awards.)

But if the Royals maintain their hot start, and the front office decides to go for it, and they deem Montgomery or Moustakas or any of a half-dozen other guys are ready…they shouldn’t hold back. If the future is now, then The Future Is Now.

The Verdict: Eight years ago, in response to the Royals’ 9-0 and 16-3 start, I researched the impact that a hot start had on a team’s final projected record. You can read the results here. Even when the Royals were 16-3, their projected finish was 85-77, a disappointing finish given their record but a reasonable one for a team that had just lost 100 games the year before.

Prior to this season, the simple formula I introduced in the article above would have projected the Royals to go 72-90 this season. Based on their 10-5 start, we can now update our projection for the Royals this year all the way to 79-83. The 10-5 start has been worth about seven wins – four of those are already in the bank (because the team should have won only six of their first 15 games, instead of 10), and three of those are a reflection of the fact that the team might actually be better than we thought.

If you projected the Royals to win 69 games before the season, as I did, then you would project them to go 76-86 now. That’s not good…but on the other hand, it would be the team’s best record since 2003.

So it’s definitely not on. Not yet. But it’s not completely off either. Stay tuned.

(Also, stay tuned to 810 WHB this Thursday at 6. Still finalizing the details, but I should be on the air one way or the other.)

24 comments:

longmatt85 said...

Hopefully what you're finalizing with WHB is the right to speak on your own show. It was very frustrating for your many "followers" to tune in every week last season only to hear Jason Anderson ramble on non stop in an attempt to impress you with his baseball "knowledge". He's now gone but no doubt they have many replacements waiting in the wings to hear themselves talk. Danny Clinksdale would be a good host, ask for him.....or just go it alone. I look forward to listening

steak said...

Uh, way cool stuff.

Daniel said...

I'm in lots of agreement. The thing about this team now is that Ned Yost is in a position where he might be able to earn the team a win directly by making a move at the right time -- as in, replacing Getz with Aviles and leaving Betemit at 3rd despite the defense. I am, of course, assuming Getz has fallen back to Earth and won't get back up.

Other than that, the roster generally fills itself out, and the statistical settling in of those who are currently over/underperforming will determine the rest.

But it's interesting, and I am so, so happy about that.

Nathan said...

Just FYI, in a moment of hopefulness, I predicted a finish of 76 wins. I wouldn't mind being wrong, in a good way.

jjhochunk said...

I think the overall lack of HR power is a big clue that regression is coming in the offense, although the number of doubles is encouraging - singles last year, doubles this year, hopefully homers in the future from the Big 3 in the minors.

The lack of Ks from the rotation is nothing new in KC, but I can't help but be impressed by Francis. His trade value goes up with every quality start. If the Royals didn't have so many power lefty starters on the way, I would be in favor of trying to keep him, but the NL probably should be home for him in the long run.

Steve N said...

Rany's writing is the only reason I follow the Royals. Thanks

Jacob said...

Even if this start is an illusion, which it might be, and even if we win 65 games, I will be happy if Gordon has turned a corner.

If Gordon turns out to be a legit player, the Royals are in a much better position. Plus it will help people realize that some prospects take awhile to figure things out. That should help the club because some of our prospects are going to struggle initially.

Daniel said...

@jjhochunk - the main reason for regression of the offense is that the Royals just don't have a league-leading offense for a few reasons. But I don't necessarily think they're going to all of a sudden be among the worst in the AL, either...remember, the Royals hit .274 as a team last year, and they're currently hitting .275 -- but so far this season they've basically added a percentage point to their OBP and SLG, so the batting average won't be so empty.

They're not going to score 885 runs, which is their current pace. But I think it's safe to say they can score much more than the 676 they scored in 2010...adding 100+ runs in 2011 would still be a huge turnaround.

KHAZAD said...

I am not buying any 2011 vintage kool-aid yet, but this sure is fun! I was at the saturday game and when you throw SOS against King Felix and win 7-0, there is magic in the air.

Part of the reason it is fun is because it is the beginning. There are no bad sections to look back on.

The Royals had a 10-3 spurt last year and you could pick out a 54 game stretch where they had a winning record. It did not change the ending.

I am impressed by the walks thus far. Having a team with as little history of walks, then adding 2 free agents with almost none, this walk rate is the most unexpected thing for me this season. If it is sustainable and not a blip it improves our chances immensely of continuing the winning. They have also improved the bullpen and defense, two "stealthy" ways to add wins.

I made a friendly wager with another fan, taking 68 wins or under, he took 70 or over. (69 is a push) I hope that if I lose, I lose BIG.

Rick Johnson said...

I discovered an interesting thing about James's Pythagorean Theorem about ten years ago. Every 10-run difference in runs scored/allowed, amounts to a 1-win change from average.

The Roayls, for example, at 82/63 respectively, with 15 games played, would project to have 9.5 wins (.633 winning percentage).

E.g.: Average = 7.5 wins, 7.5 losses.

Run differential = 19 runs (round up to 20).

Add two wins for every ten runs:

9.5 wins, 5.5 losses.

And this seems to work quite well, perhaps because the approximate average number of total runs scored per game is 10. It allows you to predict a record in your head simply from the box scored and records in the papaer. No calculator needed.

Brett said...

Can we PLEASE start the Clint Robinson for Kila chants??? Why does everyone hate Clint Robinson?

Does anyone realize that he and Moose were drafted in the same draft (2007)? Yes, he was a college guy (25th round) and Moose was out of HS (2nd overall), but so what?

Robinson is KILLING it in AAA and oh, by the way, was the Texas League triple crown winner last year. Butler do that? How 'bout Gordon? Moose? Hosmer? How 'bout NO.

Yes, the position is Hosmer's when he's ready. (Who is also killing it, but with less power and may be delayed due to service time) Even if Clint is just keeping Hosmer's seat warm, he can do a better job than Kila can.

BRING HIM UP! I just want to see if he can even come close to showing off his skills over the past 13 months in the majors. He can't be worse than Kila at this point. As far as I'm concerned, Kila's done.

Antonio. said...

As far as your no on Moose, his promotion gave Cliff Robinson his Triple Crown. If he didn't get promoted, it would have been his.

Michael said...

Thank you Antonio, that was almost too easy to dispute. As for bringing Clint up, he's only had 1 month in AAA. Lets let him show his stuff a little longer than that. It's not like he's been held back for 3 years for no good reason (like Kila was).

Nathan said...

Kila also destroyed the minors. So, any difference between them has to be a function of projection and scouting. I personally think they both have big-league futures, but neither is likely to become the dominant MLB player that their minor league stats suggest. I hope they have wonderful careers, but my point is that anything you can say about Robinson would also apply to Kila, and it will take more than a couple of dozen games for me to declare Kila done.

MoCrash said...

The concept of second- and third-order wins is sabermetric bunk; it introduces subjective elements into a quantitive analysis.

Overall, though, I agree with most of your assessments on the Royals' individual prospects. However, don't be surprised if Alcides Escobar's defense continues to amaze; defense, like speed, is a sustainable skill, and Escobar is the best defensive SS the Royals have had since Fred Patek (and may be better). If he hits .250, he's an all-star.

Antonio. said...

I can't imagine a plethora of fans voting in a .250 hitter with no power and limited OBP skills. Escobar is an All-Star the next time Ozzie Guillen is the defending AL Champion's manager.

Brett said...

On Kila vs. Robinson:

Granted, Moose probably would have led one of the three categories had he not been promoted.

In regards to Nathan:
"but my point is that anything you can say about Robinson would also apply to Kila"

Unfortunately, that's not true. What we can say about Robinson at this point is that we don't know how good he might be at the major league level.

We can say that in 290 ML plate appearances, Kila has a .211/.308/.371 line. Really? A 1.6 SO/BB ratio? OPS+ at 87. I'm just not impressed.

Antonio. said...

I'm not saying it to take away from what Robinson accomplished, but it's not really fair to say that Moose never did it.

In 129 games, Robinson was .335-29-98
In 66 games, Moustakas was .342-21-76

Moose would have annihilated him.

Nathan said...

He hasn't been impressive in the major leagues, but 290 PAs isn't enough to reach a judgement. If excellent minor league numbers can translate to the majors, than Kila is probably going to be fine. If they cannot, then maybe we should listen to all the scouts saying Robinson is a quad-A player.

Realistically, the answer to whether or not minor league stats play in the big leagues is "sometimes." And it's too soon to say when or if Ka'aihue will have his time to shine.

tom said...

@MoCrash

What are you talking about, man? If 2nd and 3rd order wins are "sabermetric bunk," what do you call the rest of sabermetrics? Rany detailed out that they're based off of more precise ways of evaluating performance, which is what about half of advanced stats do: they draw more complex conclusions based on objective evidence.

Perhaps 3rd order wins will never be able to account for *everything* that goes into creating value for a team, but neither will any stat ever measure exactly what a player contributes. Neither one, however, is pulling figures out of its cornhole.

Adrian said...

With Hosmer established at 1B, isn't it going to make a lot of sense to trade Billy Butler? Butler's a nice hitter, certainly. But I don't see him as a cornerstone guy--particularly if his value at 1B is "astronaut."

Michael said...

Butler will be the full time DH when Hosmer gets here, and I assume would occasionally (like, once every two weeks) give Hoz a day off or let him DH a game here and there to keep him fresh.

skeptic said...

It appears that Hochever must have difficulty pitching out of the stretch. He seems to have an inordinate amount of big innings surrounded by perfect innings.

Nathan said...

I've read somewhere that Hosmer may be able to play right field, as well. If so, then Ka'aihue/Robinson/mashing-free-agent-1B-to-be-named, Butler, and Hosmer could all be in the same lineup. I think it's way too early to think about trading Butler. We don't even know for sure that Hosmer is going to be a better hitter.