Thursday, June 16, 2011

Moose.

Let me start with the good stuff. I think Mike Moustakas was absolutely deserving of a major-league callup, and despite his superficially unimpressive numbers in Triple-A, I feel like his return engagement in Omaha could have hardly gone better.

Let’s go back to what Moustakas did last year. After missing the first couple of weeks of the season with a strained oblique muscle – perhaps a blessing, given his notorious struggles in cold weather in the early part of every season – he debuted for Northwest Arkansas with a bang, hitting two homers in his first game. In 66 games in Double-A, he hit .347/.413/.687, with 21 doubles and 25 homers. (And not that they mean anything, but he had 76 RBIs in 66 games.) His teammate Clint Robinson won the Texas League Triple Crown; Moustakas was on pace to beat Robinson in every category before he was promoted.

Moustakas continued to hit in Omaha, but his weaknesses were more exposed. He hit .293/.314/.564, with 15 homers and 16 doubles in 52 games. But he drew just eight walks, exposing Weakness #1: he’s too much of a free swinger.

After accounting for park effects, Moustakas actually hit right-handed pitching about as well in Triple-A as he did in Double-A; after clubbing right-handers for a .349/.421/.716 line at Northwest Arkansas, he hit .333/.356/.667 against them in Omaha. But after hitting .348/.426/.640 against southpaws in Double-A, Moustakas hit .222/.250/.383 against the more polished, craftier left-handers in Triple-A.

It’s a small sample size – just 81 at-bats – but the stats fit with the scouting narrative of Weakness #2: Moose is vulnerable to left-handed pitching.

Weakness #3 is no secret: Moustakas isn’t the most agile third baseman in the world. He has that squat, low-center-of-gravity body type that made a lot of scouts want to see what he could behind the plate, but doesn’t necessarily make for Gold Glove play at the hot corner. He has a cannon arm that compensates for his lack of range to some degree, but he’s still below-average overall.

So Moustakas returned to Omaha to start the year, and once again the cold weather – or something about the month of April – didn’t agree with him: he hit just .229/.304/.410. He hit four homers, but notably, just one double. With Eric Hosmer ahead of him in the lineup and hitting .439, the contrast was notable – one top prospect was clearly ready, and the other one clearly wasn’t.

But in May, Moustakas turned it on, hitting .321/.382/.560. His homers ticked up from four to five, but he smacked 11 doubles. In seven June games before he was called up, he hit .323 with three more doubles and a homer. His final line of .287/.347/.498 did not represent an improvement on his Omaha line from last season, but the trendline was very promising.

More importantly, look at his weaknesses:

He’s too much of a free swinger. Even in April, Moustakas drew nine walks, a number he matched in May. He drew 19 walks overall in 223 at-bats, after he walked eight times in 225 at-bats in Omaha last year. Not one of his 19 walks was intentional – the product of batting in front of Clint Robinson – so Moose actually had the highest walk rate of his career when he was called up.

This is meaningful. Moustakas is never going to be a 100-walk guy, not unless he hits for so much power that pitchers just refuse to throw him strikes, Sammy Sosa-style. He doesn’t need to draw 100 walks to be valuable. He simply needs to show enough discipline at the plate that pitchers know they need to challenge him. One of Moustakas’ strengths as a hitter is that he doesn’t strike out a lot for a power hitter, but his ability to make contact can make it tempting for him to swing at – and make weak outs on – pitches that other hitters can’t reach.

(The curse of easy contact is what has hamstrung the career of Josh Vitters, the player drafted immediately after Moustakas, and who the Royals were planning to pick until the morning of the draft. For four years, Josh Vitters has been described as having the prettiest swing you’ll ever see from a right-handed hitter, and he rarely strikes out – his career high is 65. But his career high in walks is 21, and he’s still trying to get out of Double-A.)

My worry with Moustakas was that if he reached the majors before his plate discipline improved, he’d be eaten alive. I hoped that another two months in Triple-A would prevent that. It appears that they have.

Moose is vulnerable to left-handed pitching. Small sample sizes and all that, but in 73 at-bats against lefties in Triple-A, Moustakas hit .260/.325/.507, a line not statistically distinguishable from his .300/.357/.493 line against right-handed pitchers. I suspect Moustakas will still struggle against left-handers more than Hosmer will, at least in the short term, but it doesn’t appear to be a crippling problem.

Moustakas isn’t the most agile third baseman in the world. At least from a scouting perspective, there’s no change here; Moustakas is a below-average, but playable, third baseman. There are legitimate long-term concerns with Moustakas, that if he gains any more weight in his lower half as he moves into his mid-to-late 20s, that he’ll have to move off the position. I wouldn’t be offering him any seven-year deals, let’s put it that way. Since his agent is Scott Boras, we’re probably not in any danger of that happening.

From a statistical perspective, though…traditional defensive stats are worthless at best, and misleading at worst. Minor league fielding stats are even worse. The only reason to look at fielding percentage would to make sure the number doesn’t start with an “8”. Moustakas’ career fielding percentage at third is .936; this year’s it .942. Those are low numbers for a major leaguer, but minor league fielding percentages generally improve in the majors owing to better field conditions.

But what strikes me as interesting about Moustakas’ fielding numbers is his range factor, which is simply the number of plays he makes per game. Compared to fielding percentage, range factor is 100 years more advanced; unfortunately, that’s the difference between the 1870s and the 1970s. But it’s something. And after never making more than 2.80 plays per game at third base, Moustakas’ range factor this season is 3.20.

For a third baseman to make 3.2 plays per game is astounding. Ryan Zimmerman and Scott Rolen, to take two Gold Glove third basemen of recent vintage, never made 3.2 plays per game, at either the major or minor league level. I don’t know that it means anything; maybe more balls were simply hit in the general direction of third base. You’d expect that if the Omaha pitching staff didn’t strike out a lot of guys – but they’ve averaged 7.3 Ks per 9 innings. You’d expect that if Omaha started a ton of left-handed pitchers – they’re a little above-average in that regard, as 25 of 66 starts have been made by lefties (mostly Duffy and Montgomery), but nothing exceptional.

Or maybe it’s a stone-cold fluke. Range factor, like RBIs, is subject to a lot of biases. A range factor of 3.20 is like having 65 RBIs in 55 games. You can have all those RBIs without being a great hitter, but you probably can’t have that many RBIs without being at least a good hitter. Moustakas probably can’t have a range factor that high without being at least a decent third baseman.

So anyway, even though the value of his performance in Omaha this year was no better than last year, I think Moustakas is significantly more ready for the majors now than he was at the start of the year. If there were any doubts about his plate discipline, they were dispelled when he drew a walk in each of his first four games. Moustakas is the first player in Royals history to draw a walk in the first four games of his career. Yeah, I didn’t see it coming either. But I’m glad it came.

Having said all that…I still don’t understand why he was called up when he was. As with Hosmer, it’s easy to let the excitement of having another piece of the puzzle on the roster overshadow the very real concerns with the timing.

First off, there’s a chance – a slim chance, but a chance – that Moustakas will still qualify as a Super Two. I take it on faith that the Royals would not have brought him up on June 9 unless they were absolutely, completely certain that he would not get the service time he needs. (It’s important to remember that the season started early this year, on March 31, which would move all the usual deadlines back a few days.) But what was the downside if they had waited another week and brought him up at the start of interleague play, which was apparently the plan? Was it really that important to get Mike Aviles off the roster? If they didn’t want to play Aviles at all, they could have just let him sit on the bench for a week. Mitch Maier could have given him pointers.

That is, I am hoping, a moot concern. What isn’t a concern is this: overnight, the Royals turned Wilson Betemit from an everyday third baseman into a bench player. And on this team, “bench player” means “cheerleader.” I really don’t know what the Royals think of Betemit. On the one hand, he’s an ex-Brave, and Dayton Moore signed him as a minor league free agent when he had washed out of the Yankees and White Sox organizations. On the other hand, all Betemit has done since he was promoted last year is hit, and evidently that has not been enough to impress the team’s brass.

Last season he hit .297/.378/.511 for the Royals, one of the great half-seasons in franchise history. The Royals’ response, from what I have heard, was to give Betemit a $1 million, take-it-or-leave-it offer; they were prepared to release him rather than go through arbitration if he wanted more. Perhaps surprisingly, he took it.

This season, Betemit is hitting .289/.348/.411 – not great numbers, but still well above-average in today’s world. (He was hitting .314/.379/.449 on May 30 before going into a 3-for-24 slide.) Two days ago, Buster Olney wrote, The Royals' Wilson Betemit is drawing a lot of interest from rival evaluators, because of his positional flexibility, because of his production and because he's damn cheap -- his salary this season is $1 million.”

If rival evaluators are coming to see Betemit play, they’re going to be disappointed. In the first five games since Moustakas was called up, Betemit didn’t get off the bench. The Royals gave him a spot start today, undoubtedly cognizant of the fact that he’s not going to increase his trade value growing splinters in his butt.

Betemit isn’t Jose Guillen here – this isn’t like the Royals refusing to take a look at Kila Ka’aihue so Guillen could pump his trade value enough to fetch…Kevin Pucetas, who was taken off the 40-man roster to make room for Moose. Betemit is a free agent at the end of the year, but he’s an above-average hitter at a key position, he’s a switch-hitter, he’s dirt cheap, and even if he’s not the best defender in the world, that has value. Plus, he might fetch a draft pick at the end of the season – although the odds of that go down with every game he sits out.

Maybe the Royals have been feverishly trying to trade Betemit since December with no luck, and just got tired of waiting. But it feels like the Royals are so committed to their youth movement that anyone who’s not a part of it is treated like an afterthought. Moustakas is ready – promote him! We’ll figure out what to do with Betemit afterwards!

The Royals feel like Betemit is not a part of their future on the field, and that’s fine; while he’s a talented and versatile player, the positions he can play are already spoken for in Kansas City. But Betemit does have a part in the Royals future, in the guise of whatever young talent he can bring back in a trade. Every day he sits on the bench is a wasted day for him, and a missed opportunity for the Royals.

That’s the strategic loss of promoting Moustakas last week. The tactical loss is this: Wilson Betemit is now the Royals’ backup shortstop. He is also the Royals’ backup second baseman. In the last three seasons, Betemit has played 57 innings at shortstop. He has played 16 innings at second base.

Admittedly, he has spent more time at both positions while in the minors. But the reality is that there’s no way Ned Yost is going to feel comfortable playing Betemit at either position, and short of an injury or a 17-1 game, I can’t imagine a situation in which Yost removes either Alcides Escobar or Chris Getz from a game.

Which means the Royals are now locked at not one, but two positions. The Royals have two players in their lineup who absolutely will not come out of a game – and who just happen to be the two weakest hitters in their lineup. The Royals only have three bench players as it is – generally Maier, Betemit, and whichever catcher isn’t starting. When you have only three bench players, and the two weakest hitters in your lineup are sacrosanct, you’re basically sending a message to the opposing team, a message that says, “Bring in any pitcher you want against my ballclub. I won’t retaliate.”

(And yes, I’m well aware that Escobar is 16 for his last 29, raising his batting average 40 points in the process. That doesn’t invalidate my criticism of Ned Yost for refusing to pinch-hit for him. My point was not that Escobar wasn’t capable of improvement – on the contrary, I have repeatedly praised Yost’s track record in developing young hitters. But the Royals can have their cake and eat it too – Escobar’s development as a hitter isn’t going to be hurt if they pinch-hit for him every now and then. No matter how well Escobar is hitting, against a tough right-handed closer with the game on the line, I’d rather have Mitch Maier at the plate. Yost hasn’t made that switch once this season, and with Wilson Freaking Betemit as the backup shortstop, you’re sure as hell not going to see it now.)

With interleague play about to start up, it would seem that the Royals would have to – please?! – send down their 13th pitcher to bring up another hitter, as otherwise they’re going to have four players (counting Butler) they can pinch-hit with, meaning they could easily run out of pinch-hitters in an extra-inning game and be forced to hit with Jeff Francis or something. Jarrod Dyson’s speed and defense would make him a useful player in that role. But unless the Royals recall Mike Aviles after one week (which I’m not sure is even allowed by the rules) or do something crazy like call up Irving Falu, the same problem will remain: Chris Getz and Alcides Escobar will play. Every inning. Of every game.

Is that the sign of a team that takes winning seriously?

Again, in the grand scheme of things, these are annoyances, not catastrophes. Not wringing the most value out of Wilson Betemit because Mike Moustakas was ready to be called up is a wasted opportunity. Mike Moustakas not being ready to be called up in the first place would be cause for alarm. Losing a few extra games this season because you placed the entire lineup in a straitjacket is frustrating. Losing a few extra games each of the next few seasons because your young players weren’t as good as you thought they were would be heartwrenching.

The narrative is the same as always. Dayton Moore & Co. are doing a bang-up job of developing young talent, and everything else is just details. But details do matter. Maybe one day they’ll get them right.

39 comments:

Timothy said...

Just a point you missed.
Betemit pre-Moose had a good chance of being a Type B free agent when the season ended.
Betemit post-Moose will not be.
That fact alone has likely done more to hurt Betemit's trade value this month than any skid could.

Eric said...

Concerning the inter-league play: It happens that the Royals have three games at St. Louis this weekend, then they play 6 games at home, which they can treat like regular AL games, before heading to Colorado and San Diego for the last 6 NL games.. So, if they think they can go the first 3 games without an extra hitter, they might try it this week. Then, after the home stand, if they think they need to make a change, bring up somebody for the last 6 inter-league games.

Nathan said...

Rany, I love reading your blog, but I'm listening to your Rany on the Radio podcast right now, and I'm pretty horrified. RBIs? Really? Whoever you were talking to for the first 20 minutes needs to take a step back and realize that he's talking to a crowd of people who think the RBI stat is one of the least useful and interesting stats in baseball, on par, perhaps, with pitcher wins.

Wow. Alright, anyway, time to listen to Bubba talk.

mister hernandez said...

"But it feels like the Royals are so committed to their youth movement that anyone who's not a part of it is treated like an afterthought."

Were that the case, why haven't we seen Cain, Lough, Montgomery and Giavotella, too? I think the more likely reason Moore promoted Moustakas sooner rather than later is that Royals fans were growing even more restless with "The Process." I don't think it's coincidental that Moustakas' call-up came on the heels of the Royals' recent home-stand, which included a four-game sweep by the Twins.

Nathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kcghost said...

I am a big believer in evidence as opposed to conversation and the evidence is pretty clear that GMDM & Company have no clue as to how to construct a major league roster.

And it sure looks like to me, with the exception of Hosmer, all the guys who were looking like stud prospects last year are really struggling this year.

Ryan said...

Rany, I'm so jealous of your rare ability to work the word "sacrosanct" into any article. Nice work

Brett said...

I like the idea of bringing up an extra hitter for interleague. I'd love it if it were Clint Robinson. Unfortunately, that would probably look something like 1 plate appearance per game AT BEST. And with only 9 interleague road games coming up, that's not much PT. But I think he deserves a promotion, just to taste the majors.

By the way, did we just lose 6 of 7 to the two worst teams in the AL? Yikes. And now we're only a game up on the Twins, who generally look like they can't play out of a paper bag.

Brian said...

I wouldn't even say Wilson Betemit is a sub-par defender. Rany, you say that range factor is the greatest indicator of defensive ability. Well, Betemit is ranked 14th this season of all 3B with at least 10 starts. That is the upper third of the league if you void out some of the spot starts and abnormal defense from a handful of players (After all, Pujols has a range factor of 3.86 in 4 starts...case in point). I think he has defensive value along with his potential offensive production, especially for teams like the Rockies (Ty Wiggington) or Brewers (Casey McGehee). Good article, though

RA said...

Good to see range factor being used by a saber writer.

When it comes to Betemit, I think Rany is dramatically overestimating his trade value as he did with DeJesus and Callespo.

Betemit is still seen by MLB exactly the way the Royals view him, as a borderline major league player. He may well be more than that but that is not going to change the perception. He will not bring much more than a bag of rocks in a trade. After all, any team could have had him in the offseason.

wizscape said...

Betemit had one year of production. I would imagine everyone was expecting him to regress this year. There are teams out there who have injuries and/or players who haven't played up to expectations. I would think the Royals will get a few real offers if they don't just bury him on the bench for the rest of the trading period.

Kenneth said...

draft recap ?

Keith Jersey said...

kcghost,
what is your evidence that DM doesn't know how to construct a major league roster? The bullpen this year is a real strength. Alex Gordon is doing well in left. They traded for a CF in Cain who needed more seasoning at AAA, but will likely be up later this year. RF they had no prospects ready so Francoeur can hold the spot for awhile. Moose and Hoz at the corners, a SS who is all world defensively and is still learning to hit. So your beef is with the 2b, C and starting pitchers right? How many teams have a big bat at catcher? Exactly 1 high profile free agent pitcher, Gil Meche, has been willing to come to the royals. They are trying to develop from within and catch lightning with low risk veterans like Chen and Francis. What more can they do? OBP is up this year, they have a handful of guys who could wind up with 20+ HR is they stay in KC all summer (compared to none last year). I can go on and on.

I hear this complaint all the time and its tiresome. The Royals entire system was barren when DM took over. Think of all the moves you wanted him to make over the years, would any of them have led to the Royals making the playoffs? He is doing exactly what he needed to.

I would have liked a college pitcher this year in the 1st round but the 4 worth picking went 1-4 for the first time in history if I have read correctly.

Antonio. said...

Keith..? None of that has anything to do with roster construction.

Roster construction is about 13 pitchers, middle infielders starting in the outfield, left fielders at first, COF in center, catchers at third, no back ups for MI...

Adrian said...

I think the Royals brought Moose up when they did so he could make his Major League debut in his home town, in front of friends and family.

I do not think Betemit's trade value is seriously affected. For one, scouts can still scout before the game. They see his work in the cage. They can check his body language, monitor work habits, and ask around about him—as they also check out Melky and Frenchy, et al. Also, it's not like they're wondering if he's going to become a .340 hitter or turn into an above average defender if he got more work. In all likelihood, any team trading for him would use him like the Royals are now—for spot starts. National league teams might think to use him as a pinch hitter.

How many more wins are the Royals going to squeeze out if they started to pinch hit aggressively for Escobar (or Getz) in the late innings of tied or losing games with runners in scoring position? My hypothesis is this: Not many.

It seems like you’re nitpicking.

Antonio. said...

Developing + winning trumps development plus losing

steak said...

Chris Getz has the same OBP as Jeff Francour (.311).

This says a lot... about both players.

Keith Jersey said...

Antonio,
Except for 13 pitchers (which I agree with as a short term solution to overworking the 6 rookie relievers), all the rest of your points are managerial decisions, not general managerial decisions. Besides, what middle infielder is starting in the of? What cathcer is playing 3b? What left fielder is playing 1st? What are you talking about?

Willie said...

Draft Recap, please :-)

Antonio. said...

Those were just examples. And they're not managerial decisions. Moore makes the decision who is on the roster and who isn't. Hillman/Ned had to play Bloomquist in the OF because their bench was short. LaRue played 3rd due to being short on the bench and unexpected injuries. Overworking rookie relievers? They have options for a reason. Send them down. Tell the bonehead you hired not to run Collins out there every inning...tell him that relievers can go more than one inning per outing...these are managerial moves. But the defensive/offensive moves? They're from having the incorrect personnel on the bench and that's all on the GM. And this isn't the first time we've seen 13 pitchers, so you can't blame it on having so many rookies in the pen. Moore is very bad at roster construction.

Keith Jersey said...

Well they aren't very good examples and that is my point. People just spout off about his skills in roster construction but there isn't much actual evidence. The team has stunk for years. DM's entire job has been to get some talent on the major league team. Now for the first time in a decade that appears to be the case and you are agitated that he is carrying 13 pitchers for a month? Its a little ridiculous is all. Why don't we criticize him for things that matter, not how many times Larue was forced into emergency duty as a 3b

Antonio. said...

They are great examples, superstar. Alcides slides into third tomorrow and breaks his leg in the third inning. Who is playing short? It has nothing to do with where the team is or where the team was.

C-2
1-1
2-1
3-1
S-1
L-1
C-1
R-1
CO-1
CFB-1
MI-1
CI-1
UTIL-1

He's terrible at roster construction. And what does rebuilding the farm system have to do with it? No one in this conversation is ranking neither his ability to build a farm system NOR his ability as a GM overall. They're pointing out one of his flaws and it's a BIG flaw.

Nathan said...

Antonio, I would suggest that if that's all roster construction is, roster construction isn't all that important. If Escobar gets hurt, Betemit plays short for six innings, no problem. Aviles would be called up the next day. Worst-case scenario--and this seems rather unlikely--you lose one game. Is there anything about the current roster construction that substantially hampers the team's chance to win?

Nathan said...

Also, let us take two things as given: (i) Dayton Moore is an intelligent man, and (ii) he's been around baseball for a long time. Now, it's been said that "GMDM & Company have no clue as to how to construct a major league roster." Examples of having "no clue" include going without a reserve MI and carrying 13 pitchers, among others. But which seems more likely: that Moore has no clue, or that he has the same clues we have, but has rejected them for reasons of his own?

All this criticism presumes that there is no good reason to carry 13 pitchers, or to go without certain backup bench players, etc.. But do we really know that? A GM's job is to be smarter than the conventional (or even sabermetric) wisdom. All 29 other teams already know everything that is public knowledge. To win you need an edge. A GM who always did things that make sense to smart fans would fail for lack of one.

That's why all the criticism of GMDM's roster management seems overwrought to me. First, even if the critics are right, it might add up to a win or two over a whole season. Second, the critics may not be right. When our GM does something contrary to common sense, we should try to figure out why it might still be a good idea, instead of suggesting that he has no clue. He obviously has a clue, and he might have more than we do.

Lance said...

Pitching, pitching, pitching. Starting pitching. The two best potential starting pitchers are working as set-up man and closer. Crow and Soria have a chance to be legitimate #2 and #3 starters. I still think Hoch can be a #5. If Duffy (or even Teaford)can somehow be a #4 that only leaves a #1. Re-sign Greinke after next year and things are set in the rotation.

Eric Huffman said...

Draft recap, Rany!

KCDennis said...

It is risky not to have a true backup middle infielder on the roster--Betemit could stand in the spot, but I can't believe he'd be real effective at either. My theory is that they're shopping Betemit while Aviles works on his stroke at Omaha, and he gets called up to back up 2B, SS, and 3B when Betemit is moved.

Antonio. said...

Handcuffing your manager is the edge we all should hope to have in life.

John said...

I'm guessing the Royals haven't had a number of serious offers for Betemit, else he'd be gone. Maybe they're keeping him up to make sure that Moose isn't overmatched in the first few weeks. In theory, I think that a good move would be to trade Betemit for whatever he's worth, go ahead and bring up Giavotella, and then you have Chris Getz as a backup IF. Getz hasn't played any SS in the majors, but played both SS/2B in the minors, so I'm sure it's something he could handle, especially since Escobar's not likely to be sitting, ever.

John said...

And it's really hard to watch Getz and Escobar coming up in the 9th, although Billy Butler will likely hit for the pitcher.

Adrian said...

I'll bet you Mike Aviles is closer to Wilson Betemit as a "SS" than he is to Alcides Escobar. I'll bet the same holds true for Getz.

gsmith601 said...

Still looking for a draft review?

Michael said...

To be fair, though, Adrian, just about every other SS in the majors is closer to Wilson Betemit than Alcides Escobar. He's that good (in my opinion).

Adrian said...

By the way, for his career, Willie Bloomquist has played more games in the OF than he has at 2B and SS combined.

Cheech and Silly Mike said...
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pjbronco said...

Give me a reason to be encouraged about Duffy. The dude can't be averaging 4 innings per outing and is almost always over 90 pitches in those few innings. Doesn't seem to get people out, even on the occasions when he doesn't just get smoked. I think the young guys coming up will hit. Should we believe that the upcoming young pitchers will pitch? Ugh.

Michael said...

PJ, young pitchers always take more time to acclimate to the majors than young hitters. Especially true for starting pitchers. Very few starting pitchers come up and pitch even average right off the bat.

Kenneth said...

Not that it's a comparison but Max Scherzer was traded from Arizona because he didn't do well out of the gate. I think he's doing okay in Detroit. Tommy Hanson had struggles coming up for Atlanta. A lot of pitchers struggle is all I'm saying. If I remember right Jered & Jeff Weaver were pitching at the same time and Jeff was the better pitcher for the Angles. Patience.

pjbronco said...

Can't confirm this, but heard a rumor that Connie Mack was hired to manage the A's. Pretty sure that makes him the second oldest active manager in the majors at the moment.