Friday, April 22, 2011

Royals Today: 4/22/11.

You know, if this series were played between these two teams vying for first place in September, this would have been an epic matchup, one that would have lived in Royals lore for a long time. The Royals miss a chance to take the lead in Game 1 when Billy Butler leaves second base, not realizing he’s safe, then lose in extra innings. The bullpen almost blows a 5-0 lead after six innings in Game 2, but with the bases loaded, Carlos Santana watches three straight strikes to end the game. Luke Hochevar goes from hero to zero in impressive time, even by his standards, in Game 3.

And in Game 4, the Royals find a way to come back from a 2-0 deficit after seven innings. Ned Yost pinch-runs for Billy Butler with Jarrod Dyson in the eighth, a move that immediately pays dividends when Dyson beats the flip from Asdrubal Cabrera after Cabrera smothered Jeff Francoeur’s grounder up the middle. Butler almost certainly would have been out, and the inning would have ended without a run scored.

And in the ninth, the Royals went from despair (starting the inning down a run) to exultation (men on first-and-third with none out) and back to despair, after Alcides Escobar’s grounder was snared by Jack Hannahan and Mike Aviles was thrown out at the plate. More exultation, when Chris Getz walked to load the bases and put the tying run at third again with one out, then more despair, when Melky Cabrera fell behind 0-2. And then Melky lined one past the shortstop and sent everyone home happy.

A series like this in September would have become part of the firmament of baseball memories in Kansas City. But of course, it didn’t happen in September, because the Royals haven’t played a meaningful series in September in 26 years. What’s the most memorable game the Royals have played since the strike? Maybe this game, when Carlos Beltran saved the game in regulation by taking away a homer, then winning it with a walk-off blast. That game came on July 20th. The other most memorable game? Probably Opening Day, 2004, which also featured a Carlos Beltran walk-off homer.

My personal favorite memory is probably this game in 1994, when the Royals, in the first game of a four-game series against the White Sox that they absolutely had to win in order to stay in the race, blew chance after chance in a tie game. In the ninth, with two on and one out, Greg Gagne was doubled up on Jose Lind’s fly out. In the tenth, after Brian McRae reached third base with one out, the Sox gave free passes to Wally Joyner and Bob Hamelin – and Mike Macfarlane grounded into a double play. In the 11th, Felix Jose tried to go first-to-third on Gagne’s one-out single and was thrown out. And in the top of the 12th, the White Sox got a two-out single from Tim Raines to drive in a run.

McRae tried to bunt his way on to start the 12th and popped out, but Dave Henderson walked, and Wally Joyner singled him to third to bring up the Hammer. Hamelin drove Roberto Hernandez’s pitch to center field, and my first emotion was relief that it was deep enough to drive in the run – and then elation when the ball kept carrying for a walk-off homer. That was the Royals’ third win a row; they would their next 11 games to put them a game out of the AL Central lead. A week later, Major League Baseball closed up shop for the year.

That game was on July 25th. I don’t have a single positive memory of a Royals game played in September or even August.

One of the best reasons to be a fan of a sports team is to avail yourself of the shared experiences and shared memories of that fan base. By sharing powerful memories – good or bad – with a group of people, you can’t help but feel connected with them. I’ve never lived in Kansas City, and have no real connection to the city other than the experiences and memories of watching this team play – and yet those experiences and memories are strong enough to have inextricably bound me to the city for over a quarter-century.

But I’m a special case, and if you’re reading this, so are you. Most of the people who consider themselves “Royals fans” are not connected to this web of fandom that we’ve constructed, the web that gets together on Twitter every evening to watch the Royals and argues over whether the Royals should give up on Kila Ka’aihue. It’s not their fault that they’re not connected to the team – the Royals simply haven’t given them the kind of memories that would bind them. Even bad memories, painful memories – think Lin Elliot, though not for too long – serve as a touchstone for a fan base to come together. Cleveland Browns fans still reminisce with heartache over The Drive and The Fumble, but at least they reminisce.

What do we have to reminisce about? Chip Ambres dropping a routine fly ball? Terrence Long and Ambres letting another routine fly ball drop behind them? The Royals losing 19 games in a row? Tony Pena fleeing the team in the middle of the night? These memories aren’t painful – they’re comical. There’s no real emotion attached to them. We laugh when we think about them – but we don’t really feel anything.

So forgive us if we’re getting a little too worked up over a 12-7 start, or put too much meaning into last night’s comeback. Yes, it’s April. But April memories are better than no memories at all.

I apologize for that rambling and incredibly self-indulgent intro. Now, on with some analysis.

- I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Kila Ka’aihue’s ninth-inning double may have saved his career with the Royals. For one thing, it might be a temporary reprieve. But it certainly pulled him a step away from the abyss.

Ka’aihue went 0-for-4 on Monday, when a base hit at any point might have kept the game from going into extra innings. In the bottom of the sixth, with men on first and second and none out, he tried to put down a bunt – unsuccessfully – and eventually popped out. Francoeur followed with a sharp groundball that turned into a 4-6-3 double play; if Ka’aihue gets the bunt down, a run probably scores, and the Royals probably win. He was 0-for-3 on Tuesday, then capped his day with another bunt – this one was successful – in the eighth inning. Afterwards, Ned Yost went so far as to blame the decision to bunt on a miscommunication caused by the batboy; methinks he doth protest too much. This game brought Kila’s numbers down to a .151/.270/.245 line.

He went 2-for-3 with a walk on Wednesday, but last night he struck out and grounded out to the second baseman twice, the last one into a double play. When he batted in the ninth, boos were audible on TV from the sparse crowd. The natives have grown restless.

And then Chris Perez threw a fastball down Main Street, and Ka’aihue laced a double to the left-center field gap. And the Royals went on to win. It’s just one hit, but we’re starting to reach the point with Ka’aihue where every hit becomes notable.

For everyone who sees that Eric Hosmer is hitting .393 in Omaha and wants a change to be made: hold your horses. It took Ka’aihue three years to get a job; I think he deserves more than three weeks before he loses it. If you pick Hosmer over Ka’aihue now, you’re giving up on Kila forever, and there’s no way to come back from that – his tenure with the Royals is over. If you pick Ka’aihue over Hosmer now, Hosmer just bides his time in Omaha; his chance is coming.

If the scouts were right and Ka’aihue was struggling because he couldn’t catch up to major-league fastballs, I might be more inclined to worry. But his struggles are notable precisely because fastballs are the one pitch he hasn’t struggled against. His problem has been with the slow stuff, which makes me think he’s pressing. He’s drawing his share of walks, but also striking out an inordinate amount of the time – 19 whiffs in 60 at-bats, from a guy who never struck out 100 times in a minor-league season.

Winning is a double-edged sword. If the Royals were 7-12, no one would care that the Royals were sticking with a first baseman who is hitting .181. But they are, and if they continue to win, at some point they’ll have to decide if they ought to prioritize winning today over the development of one of their best young hitters for the future. But that point hasn’t been reached. Hopefully last night’s double bought Ka’aihue some time. He deserves it.

- With full awareness that my campaign to give Royals players nicknames has failed miserably over the years – the only nickname that stuck has now been disavowed by its owner – can we all agree that Alex Gordon should now be known as The Dominator?

If Gordon had come out this season and fallen on his face again, the nickname would have worked as a sarcastic insult to the player who dared to say “I’m going to dominate next year” after four progressively more disappointing seasons. Instead, he’s backed up his rare bravado with an even rarer display of all-around skill. He leads the league in hits, and he’s on pace to hit 85 doubles. His defense in left field has been excellent; while he’s taken bad routes to balls hit into the corner a few times, he’s also made some outstanding diving plays. He also has five outfield assists in just 18 games. (By way of comparison, Johnny Damon had five outfield assists in all of 1996, and again in all of 1997.) Last night, Gordon moved to first base in the ninth inning, and immediately made a diving play to snare a grounder headed to right field.

He’s not a superstar, and three weeks doesn’t change that. But neither is he Alex Gordon, Epic Disappointment anymore. Let’s just enjoy the ride.

- Billy Butler is hitting .353/.476/.500. Just as impressively, he hasn’t grounded into a single double play in 19 games. Last year, he grounded into 32 of them.

- Jeff Francoeur is hitting .329/.363/.534 and leads the league in RBIs, but before you get too excited, consider this:

vs. LHP: 10-for-21 with 3 homers (.476/.478/.952)
vs. RHP: 14-for-52 with 0 homers (.269/.316/.365)

Frenchy is playing well, but it’s almost entirely on the shoulders of his performance against southpaws. Francoeur has always hit LHP pretty well, and deserves a role as a platoon outfielder in the majors on that basis alone. And his performance against right-handed pitchers isn’t bad by his standards; that .316 OBP is actually better than his career OBP (.311) against all pitchers. But I’m not about to proclaim him a new man yet. Let’s just enjoy the ride, and be prepared to jump off at any moment.

- The Royals uncharacteristic embrace of the base on balls continues – they rank third in the league in walks drawn. Last night showed the kind of impact patience can have, as four walks in the final two innings were instrumental in scoring all three runs.

I should give a shout-out here to Chris Getz, who is hitting just .242 and has just two extra-base hits all season, but has drawn 10 walks for a solid .347 OBP. Last night, he walked to lead off the eighth and scored the first run, and in the ninth, after the Royals had the tying run gunned down at the plate, Getz drew a second walk to load the bases and set up Melky’s heroics. Neither walk made headlines in the game recap, but the Royals wouldn’t have won without them.

- I’ve had little reason to mention Mitch Maier’s name this season, so let’s give him a nod here. After getting all of five plate appearances in the first 18 games of the season, Maier comes off the bench to pinch-hit for Matt Treanor in the ninth, and immediately rifles a line drive to center. Yost hasn’t pinch-hit much, but that situation screamed for one – Treanor is hitting .132, and Chris Perez’s slider makes him much more effective against right-handed hitters. Yost has made some strange tactical moves of late, but he pushed all the right buttons last night.

- Wednesday’s start was perhaps the quintessential Luke Hochevar performance. He started with five perfect innings, continuing a stretch of 31 consecutive batters retired. Then Michael Brantley singled to lead off the sixth, starting a stretch where 8 of 11 batters would reach base, and Hochevar would balk twice.

There’s a reason why Hochevar, despite a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost exactly 2-to-1, has a career 5.56 ERA. Take a look at these career numbers:

No one on base: .246/.305/.405
Man on base: .316/.385/.504

With someone base, Hochevar allows opposing hitters to bat 70 points higher, with an OBP 80 points higher, and a slugging average 100 points higher. There’s a reason I’m breaking out the bold – that’s an unbelievable difference. Those are career numbers, in a sample size of over 400 innings, so you can’t dismiss them as a fluke.

And it only feeds the perception that Hochevar’s struggles in the major leagues are not physical. I continue to think better times are ahead for him, and I continue to think Ned Yost is handling him well. But it’s clear that there’s plenty more work to be done.

- Speaking of bad pitchers, Craig Brown’s takedown of Kyle Davies has (deservedly) gotten a lot of publicity the last few days. It’s an impressive piece of work; I think we all vaguely sensed that Davies was a terrible pitcher, but I certainly had no idea that his ERA was historically bad.

I have a few small critiques of Brown’s study. Mainly, I don’t see the point in limiting his study to pitchers who have started in 90% of their appearances. By definition, any pitcher this bad is eventually going to be tried in the bullpen out of desperation; Davies simply hasn’t reached that point of desperation yet.

If you look at all the pitchers in major-league history with 700+ innings pitched, Davies does not have the worst career ERA. He does, however, have the 6th-worst ERA, one slot behind Todd Van Poppel and one slot ahead of Pat Mahomes. That kind of historic suckitude does not require embellishment.

(And Davies’ career ERA of 5.54 is two points lower than Hochevar’s.)

With that being said, I still don’t see a better option for the rotation at this point in time. Vinny Mazzaro was hardly more impressive in his second start in Omaha than in his first. Mike Montgomery and Danny Duffy are close, but rushing them to the majors now smacks of desperation.

As unpalatable as it sounds for a team that’s 12-7 and ostensibly in contention, I think the Royals have little choice other than to continue to start Davies every fifth game. A month from now, they ought to have options for the rotation, maybe several options. But for now, their best option is to sit tight.


Jacob G. said...

I think fans calling for Montgomery or Duffy to come up should let us get through May before making those decisions. This 12-7 start is nice, but let's remember that the Royals were 19-11 in mid-May two years ago and still lost more than 95 games. I don't think they'll end up at that level, certainly, but it's too early to rush a key prospect to the majors.

Anonymous said...

Nice analysis, Rany.

I think patience with Kila is key, but I wonder how much longer he will be allowed. Especially with Hosmer pushing things. I think he will get until about May 15, and I hope he picks it up by then.

To sway that Yost has made some questionable tactical decisions is being too kind. He has made a lot of monumentally horrible tactical decisions.

The largest part of being a manager is in managing and leading the team and in this he excels. He is an obvious leader.

He pushed all of the right buttons last night for sure. I cursed the Dyson move. Why put Dyson in with runners in front of him I would say. You are taking away his talents and not putting him in a position to succeed. But that was proved wrong right away. Still the wrong move, but it worked.

If he could listen and learn the tactical moves, he could become a tremendous manager. I don't hold out hope that he will though. That will ultimately lead to his demise because the failed tactical moves will lead to his loss of credibility with the team, but for now he has this team at 12-7. Who would have thunk?

Unknown said...

Should I be concerned by Gordon's .429 BABIP? He is hitting more line drives and less fly balls this year but that number still seems to point to a pretty large regression coming soon.

And couldn't one explanation of Hochevar's struggles with men on base versus the bases empty simply be that he is considerably worse pitching out of the stretch than out of the windup? I know we all like to play amateur psychologist from time to time but I wouldn't completely dismiss this being potentially a physical problem and instead chalk it all up to Luke being a headcase. Just my take...

Glen said...

You didn't mention SOS' two starts this week: beating King Felix and then getting 6 k's in 6 IP vs. the Indians. If O'Sully somehow continues this level of performance, and if Luke gets his yips straightened out, the Royals inexplicably could have a viable rotation that delivers 3-4 QS a week. If that happens, this team could probably give you a September to remember.

Nathan W said...

One thing about Brown's article that didn't hold up was he said, "Just plucking a random pitcher out of Triple-A would likely yield better results than what Davies has been providing," but then went on the state that Davies has a 0.5 WAR since becoming a Royal, which essentially means that he has been better than a "random pitcher out of Triple-A."

I realize this is a small difference, but it does show that despite his struggles, he is the best option we have until Montgomery and Co. are ready for the Majors.

JJSKCK said...

Thanks for mentioning Opening Day 2004. The Royals were a sexy pick to win the division after a surprising (fluky) 2003. The Beltran walk-off was preceded by a game-tying bomb to dead center by MENDY FREAKING LOPEZ, who played his last major league game just 6 weeks later.

Daniel said...

Francoeur's BABIP does a bit of a Bret Saberhagen thing from year-to-year -- even years it's been way below league average, and in odd years it's been way above 3 of 4 times (the one year it wasn't way above has an interesting twist).

And yes, in 2011 it's way above again.

In 2005 his crazy-high BABIP led to overall impressive offensive numbers in 1/2 a season. In 2007 it led to him being slightly below average offensively for a corner OF, but that was solely because of a dip in his isoP...this was over a full season he maintained that high BABIP.

In 2009 he only hit slightly above league average on BABIP overall, but during his time with the Mets it got crazy-high again, and whaddya know, he did well offensively with the Mets in about 1/2 a season.

And, it's crazy-high again in 2011, but this time with just a touch of better plate displine and less strikeouts. Too early to say anything more, but it's interesting to follow.

ChrisM70 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
coverman said...

I'd love to see some thoughts on Clint Robinson. The guy is batting.373/.467/.706 in Omaha after winning the AA triple crown last year. You would hate to trade someone so productive, but with Butler and Hosmer ahead of him what other options does the team have?

Unknown said...

I think it's interesting that you are so negative about the Royals' aggressive running game (based largely on your overreliance on statistical measures of its worth) but yet you see fit to go on at length about Hochevar's struggles with runners on base. Would he have the same problem were softball rules to apply?

KHAZAD said...

I thought this past start by Hochevar was a microcosm of his career. Great link about Davies, I had no idea he was that historically bad, but these numbers are skewed by his Atlanta years and the first awful year as a Royal. The starting pitching has helped temper my excitement. If you ranked the top 100 starting pitchers prior to the season, would there be a Royal on it?

Patience with Kila is fine for now, but he is already being pushed a little by people on the team currently. I don't think the Royals plan to bring up Hosmer before Moose, but this spring is an audition for everyone. Moose, Hosmer, Robinson are coming at the corners and DH. Giavotella, Bianchi, Colon will press in the infield. Myers, Lough, Cain, Robinson in the outfield. The starting pitching is well documented and is coming as well. This is the last spring of complacency in this organization and that is a good thing. It is about time.

@ Bryan- You are correct about the largest part of being a manager. Take any manager with a great rep and micro analyze his in game moves sometime-as if it was your team. I guarantee you that no matter how good you thought he was, he will make you crazy. They all make goofy moves, or fail to make moves you think should be obvious. As long as Yost gets this team to buy in, and has respect in the clubhouse, he is doing his job.

Jayboid said...

MLB players are like Real Estate

Hard to imagine just a short time ago we were sending utility infielders to play centerfield.

Had to think about that for a second, yes, yes indeed we did.

like Real Estate?? My bride of decades is an astute fan. Yet, when she gets down on a player, it's "on the couch" forever.

Gordon has been on the couch for years. No amount of explaining could make her see what a wonderful bit of luck this resurgence is. Except the real estate analogy. Kila Ka’aihue and Aviles can be used too.

Players have value just as property. Property sucks, low value even if your going to sell. Property hot, more money, or better trades the real cash for fans are the players.

Sometimes, even if you plan to sell a house a remodel changes your minds, and what you've been looking for already has a uniform with Royals on it.

IF Gordon even comes close to playing a year like this he will be the best outfielder in Royals history

If not, his value has certainly gone up.

28 years and counting said...

Is Kyle Davies the new Yuniesky or the opposite? Kyle Davies is a perfect example of how using Baseball Reference’s WAR or Fangraphs’ WAR can make a HUGE difference and depending on your point view can be suited to make your argument. And by using Kyle’s Fangraphs WAR, which is heavily reliant upon fielder independent stats, it points out a little flaw in this argument; you can’t write article after article detailing how BAD (historically so) the defense has been (the Yuni years) and then ignore Davies’ FIP numbers. Davies is actually a perfect test case to see how accurate the assumptions of FIP are, and/or a good test to see if the Royals defense is really as improved as it seems to be. I’m curious to see how his numbers are at the end of the year, but needless to say I wouldn’t want him on my fantasy team.

Michael said...

The person you would expect to receive the biggest boost from an improved defense is Hochevar. If he can somehow stop allowing every flyball hit against him from leaving the park, his numbers would be a lot better!

chrisc said...


Given your comments on sticking with Ka'aihue, I am curious of your thoughts on Clint Robinson. My guess is that Hosmer has the job by Aug/Sep, so the next few months allow the Royals to assess either Ka'aihue or Robinson. With the way Ka'aihue has performed this season combined with the trouble last season, I'm ready to give Robinson a shot until Hosmer is ready later this year.

K.C.Tigerfan said...

There was nothing physical with either of his two autrocious balks. That is 100% mental, my friends.

Tampa Mike said...

I really don't get the fascination with Kila. He hasn't shown anything at the major league level to warrant such devotion. He had one good year in the minors and has been spotty outside that. He has had a couple of bursts in the majors, but thats it. He got a long look last year, didn't do anything. He is getting solid playing time now and is hitting somewhere around .170. Kid can't cut it, plain and simple. I don't think it's time to move Hosmer up yet, but why not let Butler get some reps or let Betemit play 1st. There are plenty of players that have earned the playing time over Kila.

Michael said...

To be fair, Kila had 2 GREAT years in the minors over the last 3 years. It's quite obvious he's pressing, trying to do too much, etc. I'm not the biggest Kila fan by any means, but think he deserves at least until the end of May/early June before he's given up on for good. He waited 2+ years for his chance, lets not give up on him just yet.

pjbronco said... diehard as I am about the Royals (since 1972), and as much as I appreciate your takes on my team, my concern now is for your loved ones. Praying that they are well and that this insanity in Syria will end soon and in a way that gives the Syrian people freedom and happiness. Keep your chin up.

Adrian said...

Here are the things making me happy as a Royals' fan at the moment: Alex Gordon's stats and the fact the the four youngest Storm Chasers are Hosmer, Montgomery, Duffy, and Moustakas.

Keith Jersey said...

I am hating Alex Gordon at 1st base. Here is a guy who desperately needs a few months to gain confidence and really prove himself. He was off to a great start at the plate and in the field and now they are messing with him? Two starts at 1b and no hits. Coincidence? This is a terrible move. Let him establish himself at a position. These games are very minor in the big picture.

pjbronco said...

1. Gordon is the left fielder. Put him in left field and leave him in left field. Why risk screwing up his head?

2. Declare an end to the Kyle Davies experiment. If you trade him, cut him, whatever, and he becomes a good pitcher elsewhere, oh well. Dude is brutal.

Jamie said...

Rany, just thought I should point out that it's not just Royals fans who read this blog. I grew up in Canada and one of my first significant sporting memories is the Royals beating my beloved Blue Jays in the 1985 ALCS. I read this blog because of the quality of your writing and your analysis, as I'm sure many others do as well. So much mainstream media coverage of leagues and teams is so superficial that I enjoy someone who really digs into a team, even if it's a team I don't really care about.

Chris said...

Hosmer to KC!!!