Thursday, June 2, 2011

Royals Today: 6/2/11

Some random thoughts for your perusal:

- Twelve of the Royals’ first 55 games went extra innings, and I think it’s easy to miss how unusual that is. Two years ago, the Royals played nine extra-inning games all season. The franchise record is 22 in a season. The Tigers have gone overtime just twice all year.

What makes this so unusual is that the Royals have, by and large, avoided the massive decrease in scoring that has afflicted most of the majors this year – on both ends. The Royals are sixth in the league in runs, but next-to-last in runs allowed, so on the whole 529 runs have been scored in their 55 games, or 9.62 runs per game.

You would expect extra-inning games to become more prevalent as run-scoring decreases – the fewer runs each team is expected to score, the more likely that both teams are going to end up with the same integer at the end of regulation. (This is why soccer games end in a tie so often.) The A’s, who also have played 12 extra-inning games, have allowed the fewest runs in the AL and have scored the third-fewest. All told, just 406 runs have been scored in their 57 games (7.12 per game) – 26% fewer runs than typically seen in a Royals game. I would expect the A’s to play a lot of extra-inning games; not so the Royals.

I think it would be dangerous to try to read any meaning into this; as this XKCD comic illustrates, sometimes random things happen. The Royals do have a very deep bullpen that can keep opponents off the scoreboard for extended stretches, as they did Friday night. And the Royals have hit particularly well in the ninth inning; they have a .288/.356/.472 line and have scored 27 runs in just 44 innings (some of which ended early on a walk-off.) But I don’t think the Royals are inherently more likely to play extra-inning games than any other team, and the franchise record of 22 extra-inning games in a season is more likely safe than not.

- That said, all those extra-inning games have certainly taken a toll on the pitching staff. In 55 games, the Royals have thrown 507 innings – an average of 9.22 innings per game. That’s very unusual – most teams average less than 9 innings of pitching per game, because whatever extra innings are played are more than made up for by the fact that teams don’t pitch the bottom of the ninth on the road when they’ve lost. Last year, the Royals averaged 8.87 innings a game. The Tigers this season have averaged just 8.82 innings.

Add in a starting rotation that’s been very erratic at times, and Royals’ relievers have combined to throw 192 innings this year. Only the Reds have thrown more, with 198, and they’ve played two additional games.

In the same number of games as the Tigers, the Royals have pitched 22 more innings, almost the equivalent of one additional full-time reliever. I hate the idea of an eight-man bullpen in the abstract, and I hope the Royals send one down in favor of a fourth bench player soon. But I can understand why they’ve felt the need to have an eighth reliever over the last two weeks.

- On Friday, the Royals played a game that was simultaneously an extra-inning affair and a blowout, thanks to the five-run 14th. Homers by Melky Cabrera, Eric Hosmer, and Brayan Pena not only iced the game, but it led to my favorite stat of the year (at the time): The Royals had hit more home runs in the 14th inning this year (3) than they have in the 1st inning (2).

That stat was rendered invalid when Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer went deep in the first inning on Monday, but it’s still true that they’ve hit more homers in the 14th than in the 3rd inning (2) or 5th inning (2). No, it doesn’t mean anything. Yes, it’s still awesome.

- Alex Gordon’s stats broken down:

3/31/11 to 5/1/11: .339/.395/.545
5/3/11 to 5/19/11: .153/.219/.254
5/20/11 to 6/1/11: .320/.404/.640

We all knew that Gordon would eventually hit a slump after his hot start; the question was whether he’d navigate himself out of it. He seems to have passed this test; after looking helpless at the plate for two weeks, he’s back on a tear. In his last 12 games, he has four doubles, four homers, and – reassuring those who thought his performance had come at the expense of plate discipline – seven walks. It’s probably a coincidence that his hot stretch started just after he was moved into the leadoff spot, but still, it clearly hasn’t hurt his offense. In 14 games as a leadoff hitter, he’s scored 10 runs. And remember: the leadoff hitter gets the most at-bats. If Gordon isn’t in the leadoff spot last Friday night, he doesn’t bat in the ninth inning, he doesn’t go upper deck on Neftali Feliz, and the Royals lose.

I was asked on the radio a few weeks ago as to who, at the end of the season, would wind up as the Royals’ most valuable player. My answer was Alex Gordon, and with a nod to Hosmer, I’ll stand by that. Gordon’s overall line of .285/.351/.489 may not look like much in this Year of the Pitcher, but he is clearly the best left fielder in the American League:

Highest Cumulative OPS by AL Left Fielders

1. KC, 845 (.286/.361/.485)
2. NYY, 732 (.246/.321/.412)
3. OAK, 724 (.232/.321/.403)
4. TB, 682 (.227/.293/.389)
5. BAL, .675 (.224/.291/.383)

Granted, that list says more about the state of left fielders in the AL than it does about Gordon. I mean, my God, the Rays’ left fielders have combined to hit .227/.293/.389, and that’s the fourth-best line in the American League? What the hell? This is purely an AL phenomenon, incidentally. The Royals rank fourth in the majors behind the Cardinals, Brewers, and Marlins. The Yankees, who are second in the AL, are TWELFTH in the majors. Ten of the 16 teams in the NL have had better production from their left fielders than every AL team except the Royals.

I have no idea why the left fielders of the American League are suddenly and collectively hitting like 1980s-era backup catchers. But the Royals have been unilaterally and conspicuously spared this fate. Gordon still strikes out too much, and his power tool still outstrips his home run production. But he leads the league in doubles, he gets on base, he’s a very good baserunner, and he’s taken to left field remarkably well. He’s shown excellent range, has yet to make an error in left, and has a third baseman’s arm that has racked up five baserunner kills (outfield assists) already.

They don’t have to make a decision today, but if Gordon maintains his performance through the end of the season, the Royals ought to make a long-term deal for Gordon one of their highest off-season priorities. He’s under contract for two more years after 2011, so he’s in the same contractual spot that Zack Greinke was in when he signed his four-year deal. I think an appropriate deal for Gordon would be in the same range, perhaps for three years with an option for a fourth, or a four-year deal with an option for a fifth. A four-year deal would lock up Gordon from the age of 28 to 31, with an option at age 32, insuring that the Royals get his prime years without being on the hook for his decline phase. The money wouldn’t be oppressive – maybe $20 million for 3 years or $30 million for 4 years.

As much as Soria’s mysterious decline has taken the Royals a step backwards from contention in the near term, Gordon’s breakout has taken them a leap forward. Two months of data is not enough to make a decision on, obviously. But if his final line is anywhere close to where it is now, the Royals would be well-served to lock him up. And I think they will. It’s been a gigantic struggle for Gordon to get to this point, but all’s well that ends well. Let’s just hope it ends well.

- On the other hand, here are the splits for the Royals’ other corner outfielder:

Jeff Francoeur, 3/31/11 – 5/4/11: .316/.357/.623, 8 HR in 29 games
Jeff Francoeur, 5/5/11 – 6/1/11: .232/.286/.305, 1 HR in 24 games

There’s a reason why, a few weeks ago, I speculated that while Gordon’s breakout was for real, Frenchy was – once again – just a tease. Francoeur hit like peak-era Jermaine Dye for about five weeks, and like nadir-era Jeff Francoeur since.

That’s not to say the Royals should write him off. His overall season line is still .278/.325/.478, which is a pretty awesome line in this day and age. While Francoeur, unlike Gordon, isn’t under contract beyond this season (mutual options don’t count), the Royals still shouldn’t be in any rush to make big decisions with Francoeur. Let him play every day for the next six weeks. If he bounces back and his overall line is even better in mid-July than it is now, well, then they have to at least consider a long-term deal. There would obviously be a lot of risk involved – more than there would be with Gordon, I think – and the Royals would also need to decide what to do with Wil Myers, who is still expected to warrant the right field job by the end of 2012. But having too much talent on hand is never a bad problem.

More likely, though, Francoeur’s numbers will continue to creep slowly downward, but his April performance ought to keep his overall line high enough to warrant some suitors on the trade market. Not massive interest, but enough to get a legitimate prospect or two.

I’ve mentioned before that Wilson Betemit is likely to earn Type B free agent status at the end of the year. Thanks to the Elias Sports Bureau’s outdated formula (seriously – it was devised in the 1980s and hasn’t been updated since), Francoeur probably will too. The rating system values playing time, and Francoeur was pretty much a full-time player in 2010, and is certainly one this year. The system values counting numbers like homers and RBIs, and acts like OBP doesn’t exist. So if nothing else, Francoeur has value as a draft pick generator.

(Update: I heard from Tim Dierkes, the proprietor of the indispensable MLB Trade Rumors website, who informs me that the Elias rating formula does, in fact, include OBP as one of the categories. My apologies for the error. However, not only are average, HR, and RBI categories, but the fifth category is...plate appearances. I still think Francoeur is likely to merit Type B status at the end of the year.)

All this presumes that Dayton Moore isn’t so infatuated with Francoeur that he’s going to offer Frenchy a long-term deal no matter how he plays the rest of the season. That’s certainly possible, but if nothing else, Myers’ presence should reduce the temptation to sign Francoeur just for the sake of having a right fielder. I don’t know what the Royals are going to do with Francoeur, and frankly, I don’t know what they should do yet. We’ll have some clarity in six weeks; right now, there’s nothing wrong with staying the course.

- You want to know what parity looks like? The Royals are 25-30, and they’ve now fallen a half-game behind the surging White Sox to sit fourth in the AL Central, but a comfortable 7.5 games ahead of the Twins. What you might not realize, though, is that while the Royals have a better record than the Twins, the Twins are the only team in the AL with a worse record than the Royals. The Royals are 13th of 14 teams despite being just 5 games under .500.

Just three teams in the AL (the Indians, Yankees, and Twins) are more than 5 games away from .500 in either direction. The Twins, who are 20 games under .500, are farther away from .500 than the other four teams with a losing record combined.

Which is to say – nothing has been decided yet. The Royals’ playoff hopes, slim as they are, are as dependent on the Indians going forward as on their own performance. If the Indians continue to win 60% of their games, we can close up shop now. But if their hot start was a mirage, well, the Tigers are 29-26, the Sox are 27-31, and the Twins are done.

I’ve been reluctant to buy into the Indians’ hot start all year, and they lost five of six games – by the combined score of 44-12 – before winning their last two. They’re still the favorite in the division; if they play just .500 the rest of the season they’ll win 87 or 88 games, and that seems to be about the Royals’ upside even if everything goes just right. But if they’ve got a little 2003 Royals in them…well, the Royals are still a long shot to make the playoffs. But a long shot is still a shot.

- I’ve given Dayton Moore a lot of crap for how he’s wasted the team’s discretionary free agent dollars over the years, so I feel compelled to point out the following list:

Jeff Francoeur: $2.5 million, .278/.325/.478, 1.4 WAR
Melky Cabrera: $1.25 million, .269/.306/.441, 0.5 WAR
Bruce Chen: $2 million, 3.59 ERA in 43 innings, 0.7 WAR
Jeff Francis: $2 million, 4.46 ERA in 75 innings, 1.0 WAR
Matt Treanor: $850,000, .212/.350/.303, 0.7 WAR

Treanor wasn’t signed as a free agent, but his contract was basically purchased from the Rangers in the dying days of spring training, so close enough.

Those are the only five guys the Royals signed as free agents this winter. All five have performed well for the Royals. (Cabrera’s WAR is that low only because Baseball-Reference hates his defense, rating him 10 runs below average already. He’s bad, but probably not that bad.) The five players are making $8.6 million combined, and none of them have a guaranteed contract for next year.

That’s a pretty good collection of free agent talent, particularly since the Royals were shopping in the bargain bin this off-season. One of the greatest criticisms of Dayton Moore has been his inability to use the free agent market wisely. It’s a deserved criticism, and one off-season doesn’t change that. But at least, for the first time we have a data point that says he can make intelligent free-agent decisions. Five free agents, and not a Horacio Ramirez or Willie Bloomquist – let alone a Jose Guillen or Jason Kendall – among them.

Last year, Moore finally figured out that the only value veteran players had to the Royals were as trade chips, even if they only brought back marginal talent. Scott Podsednik, Jose Guillen, Rick Ankiel, and Kyle Farnsworth were moved for six players, five of whom were organizational talent, and one of whom was Tim Collins. Collins, alone, justified the trades. (Collins is also more valuable than the four players the Royals got for Alberto Callaspo and David DeJesus combined, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Moore had the right strategy, but his implementation was hamstrung by the fact that none of his veteran players were all that useful. This year, with Betemit, Francoeur, Cabrera (who isn’t a free agent until after next season), Francis, and Chen, the Royals have the opportunity to get some real talent this July. And if Moore does as fine a job signing veterans to fill in holes for next year’s team as he did for this year’s team, we might not be talking about cashing them in at the deadline – we might be talking about how they fit on a playoff roster.

- If you’re a Royals fan, you don’t need statistics to evaluate Alcides Escobar’s defense. Frankly, if you’re a Royals fan, you won’t trust any statistic that doesn’t evaluate Escobar’s defense as Gold Glove-worthy. He has been that good, and that consistent.

Still, it’s good to know that Baseball Info Solutions, who have (in my opinion) the most accurate defensive metric, rate Escobar’s defense as 9 runs above average – in just a third of a season. Fangraphs has Escobar at “only” 5.4 runs above average. Extrapolate those numbers to a full season, and Escobar would save somewhere between 16-27 runs over an average shortstop. Those numbers are absolutely Gold Glove caliber. It’s always nice when the scouts and stats agree.

Unfortunately, he’s still a below-average shortstop overall, simply because his offense has been so execrable. He’s hitting .212/.249/.249. Read that again: .212/.249/.249. He has the lowest OPS of any qualifying shortstop in baseball. He has the lowest OPS and OPS+ of any qualifying shortstop in Royals history – and remember, shortstop has been a gaping hole for this franchise for most of its history.

None of that is to say that he shouldn’t be starting for the Royals today. Even if he is the worst-hitting shortstop in Royals history, he might be the best-fielding shortstop in Royals history – he’s certainly the best fielder I’ve ever seen. And at the age of 24, with his minor-league track record, it’s more likely that he’ll learn how to hit than that he’ll unlearn how to field.

I don’t understand why Ned Yost thinks his development will be hurt by pinch-hitting for him when the Royals are losing in the late innings. (You don’t let a pitcher who’s struggling to succeed in the major leagues pitch in crucial situations, so why wouldn’t you do the same for a hitter?) But I understand why Yost is so reluctant to lose his glove at shortstop. He’s a joy to watch.

- Finally, I’ll end with the sad but expected news that John Lamb is scheduled for Tommy John surgery tomorrow. Obviously, this is a big blow for a guy who some scouts considered to be the best pitching prospect in the system before the season.

But in all honesty, not only am I not that disturbed by this development, I’m almost relieved by it.

I’m not disturbed, because arm injuries are an unavoidable cost of doing business with pitching prospects. The Royals had five starting pitchers on Baseball America’s Top 100 list: Montgomery, Lamb, Duffy, Dwyer, and Odorizzi. Before the season, I fully expected that one of those five would suffer a significant arm injury in 2011. It’s simple math; pitchers get hurt, and expecting five out of five pitchers in their early 20s to stay healthy was unrealistic.

That said, there are arm injuries, and there are arm injuries. This is the former. This isn’t a shoulder problem, which could be a career-ender. Tommy John surgery is significant, it will keep Lamb out for a year, and it certainly affects the Royals’ rotation plans for 2012. But I can’t stress this enough: when it comes to Tommy John surgery, a prospect delayed is (usually) NOT a prospect denied. Roughly 90% of pitchers come back from TJ surgery with the same stuff they had before, and some throw even harder, although those are usually the pitchers that were pitching hurt before their surgery.

And that’s the reason I’m relieved by it – because Lamb’s velocity had been down all season. The Royals were blaming it on a strained lat muscle, and maybe that was the cause, but maybe the cause was that a tendon in his elbow that was hanging by a thread. Lamb, remember, was in a car accident his senior year of high school that resulted in a broken elbow and kept him off the mound – which is how the Royals stole him in the fifth round to begin with. I don’t know that the accident predisposed him to this injury, but if I had had to guess which top Royals’ pitching prospect would have his elbow operated on this season, I would have guessed Lamb.

And if I had to answer which Royals’ pitching prospect I preferred to have required Tommy John surgery, I would have answered Lamb. I don’t mean to be mean or callous – I wouldn’t wish injury on anyone. But of the five pitchers, Lamb is the youngest – he doesn’t turn 21 until July. I subscribe to the strain of thought that says that pitchers are particularly susceptible to arm injuries – the fabled “injury nexus” from the age of 18 until 22 or so. Lamb’s surgery and rehab will keep him off the mound until roughly his 22nd birthday, which will allow the other components of his arm to rest and hopefully minimize his risk of more serious arm problems when he returns. Lamb also doesn’t need to go on the 40-man roster until after the 2012 season, so the Royals don’t need to waste a precious roster spot on a bum arm.

Lamb is also lauded for his makeup and is the son of a scout, so I imagine he will devote himself fully to his rehab, making the likelihood of a full recovery that much greater.

It’s unfortunate that we’ll have to wait to see one of our finest prospects. But I’m confident that he’ll still be worth the wait. And in the meantime, we have a lot of other toys to play with.

17 comments:

Keith Jersey said...

Rany,
This is the 3rd time this year you have chastised the Royals for DFA'ing a player that nobody picked up. Lucas May, Gregor Blanco, and now Tejeda. Its possible Dayton Moore made the move with Tejeda precisely because he was confident nobody would risk 1 million+ on a guy with an injury concern.

Antonio. said...

Why did the Royals even have Lamb pitching? I saw him in Springfield against the Cards and he got it done ...but he was pitching 5-7 MPH below his norm and it was insanely cold and they were hitting him pretty hard (at defenders). It just doesn't make sense to me.

Nathan said...

Antonio, I think it depends on what they knew at the time.

Sure, given the injury, it would've been better to just have surgery at the beginning of the season instead of having Lamb pitch until he couldn't. Hindsight. But you also can't start benching every pitching prospect who struggles or even loses velocity. That happens in the minors quite a bit, and doesn't always indicate an arm problem.

We don't know what the Royals knew about Lamb's arm or when they knew it (or even when the ligament damage occurred), so how can we know they should have pulled him off the mound?

Robert said...

I'm also a little bit perplexed by Yost's refusing to hit for Escobar in all but the most dire situations. On the flip-side, I've not ever really thought this team would play for anything this year, so I can't get too worked up about it. If Escobar learns to hit just a little bit, he'll be a nice player for the Royals. His defense is good enough that he can afford himself some time to figure it out at the plate.

kcghost said...

GMDM inspires no confidence in his major league level moves. Every good move is more than offset by a
screw-the-pooch move.

It's tough about Lamb. He looked like the Royals answer to John Lester. I am more worried about the mediocre performances of our other highly touted prospects: Moose, Myers, Monty, Colon, Dwyer, etc.

Seems like the imported Odorizzi is the only guy sparkling this year.

skeptic said...

Seitzer was on WHB a while ago, and from his comments it appears Escobar isn't interested in buying in to Seitzer's methods.

I don't understand why the Royals don't force him to take a strike or two in order to get him deeper into counts.

Bryan said...

It is all well and good to not buy in to a certain philosophy, until you are hitting below your weight. At that point you should at least listen.

He is pretty young. I think he has the potential to come around, and his glove makes it worth it to wait.

It is a really special glove, and arm. What a powerful arm.

He should be taught to bunt and to work deep into counts.

But for the life of me I don't understand the philosophy of not pinch hitting for him. It has got to crush his psyche to fail at all of the big moments. To me that is even worse than to lose some confidence because you are pinch hit for. At some point he has got to be hoping that he is let off of the hook.

His glove is valuable to want to leave it in the game, but when there is a chance the game will not continue because he doesn't get a hit, it is just plain crazy to not pinch hit in that situation.

demonpenz said...

I am the guy at all the parties that "HATES THE BUNT!" thanks Rany!

Rany said...

Keith Jersey:

That's a fair criticism. I know this will shock all of you, but I may have a tendency to overrate Royals players slightly, and sometimes this leads to me assuming a player will be claimed off waivers when he isn't.

In Tejeda's case, I think that the reason he went unclaimed has more to do with the money he's owed than anything else - no one wants to pay him the $1 million or so he's due the rest of the season without knowing he's healthy. If the Royals figured that would be the case, kudos to them, but it doesn't change the fact that they missed on an opportunity to trade him this winter.

Also, FYI, I've made an edit to the article above on the free agent compensation rules.

Antonio. said...

Li9ke I said, I saw him in Springfield, his MPH were waay down, it was insanely cold and he had lat tightness over a good period of time. I didn't notice the same when I saw him in Kansas City. He shouldn't have been pitching in the cold, with velocity issues and tightness. He's too valuable.

Antonio. said...

Robert...so because expectations were low, we can't hold Ned Yost to any standards?

Keith Jersey said...

Its true they could have traded Tejeda for some value this past offseason, but I don't mind them hanging on to him. He was the top setup guy for a couple of years and I think even the most optimistic Royals fans have to be a little surprised at how well so many of the young bullpen arms have faired so far (crow, holland).
The idea of keeping a few veterans around to transition to all the youth was appealing to me. Thats also why I think guys like Gordon and Butler are so important to the future. When all the talent arrives, they will be the veteran leadership at that point.

Timothy said...

Here's what I really don't understand about Yost's refusal to pinch hit for Escobar.
Lets say that it works and Escobar starts to hit. A pretty good line for him would be .280/.330/.370 I don't think anyone would criticize him for that.

But even if he was hitting that well, I'D STILL PINCH HIT FOR HIM IN THE NINTH INNING.
Thats what makes this so ridiculous. Its one thing to leave a guy like Hoch in to get roughed up to learn how to deal with that situation since if he's ever going to perform as well as he can, he'll need to get out of those jams.
But even if Escobar becomes as good as he likely can with the bat, I still wouldn't want him at the plate in a clutch situation.

Chris said...

Rany,

There has been discussions on other boards regarding the length of your posts. I know even you have referenced it some but as far I am concerned keep doing what you are doing. Most times you are only able to get one post up a week (real job, real family, etc) so it has to capture what has happened during that time. I don't understand why people complain because if you posted more frequently about single items the amount time would STILL be the same, just broken up more. If a post takes 20 minutes to read but is broken up into 5 individual posts that take 4 minutes to read, its still, shockingly, 20 minutes!

Just my two cents, Chris

Antonio. said...

Don't force your stats on us, Chris!


Keep 'em long and coming, Rany!

Lance said...

Last night (Saturday) is a perfect example of why Ned Yost drives me crazy. The Royals trail 6-2 in the bottom of the 8th. They have two on and two out with Alcides due up (and Gordon on deck). How about giving Betemit an at bat? Geez. So frustrating.

Chris said...

Antonio, maybe you misunderstood my comment. I enjoy Rany's long posts, its the other people who complain about it.

I agree, hit it long and keep it straight, Rany!!