Apologies for my long absence. I wrote a very long NLDS playoff preview for Grantland, and unlike this blog, they actually pay some of my bills. Also, I’ve written my first for Baseball Prospectus in about three years, which – not to be immodest – may be the most important article I’ve ever written. Look for that next week. And now, on with the countdown.
For the first time since 2003, if not since 1994, I didn’t want the Royals’ season to end. The Royals went 15-10 in September, and the Lineup of the Future was absolutely raking in the present: the Royals as a team hit .306 and slugged .472 in September. The last time the Royals had a batting or slugging average that high in a calendar month was July, 1999, when they hit .315 and slugged .503 in the heart of the high-offense era. (The Royals still went 11-16 that month, because while they scored 167 runs in 26 games, they allowed 197.)
Other than that month, the last time the Royals had a higher monthly batting average was nearly 30 years ago – May, 1982, when they hit .311. (In July, 1980, the Royals batted .332. Good luck breaking that record, boys. George Brett hit .494 that month and didn’t even lead the team in hits – Willie Wilson batted .441.)
Based on my expectations for 2011 – and my expectations were significantly higher than the national consensus – this season has to be considered a success. I predicted the Royals to go 69-93; the conventional wisdom among mainstream sportswriters was that the Royals would be lucky to avoid losing 100 games.
My rationale for projecting a 69-93 record was that I figured the Royals would, in fact, be on close to a 100-loss pace for the first half of the season – but that as the team’s best prospects found their way to Kauffman Stadium during the season, the roster quality would improve to the point where the Royals would be close to a .500 team by mid-season.
I point this out only because this logic was actually borne true to an unusual degree. The Royals won 71 games, and their season was indeed a tale of two halves. Despite starting the season 10-4, the Royals had fallen to 37-54 mark by the All-Star Break – on pace for a 66-win season. But after the Break, the Royals were 34-37. This understates their improvement, because the Royals played the bulk of their home games in the first half: they played 51 home games and 40 road games during the season’s first half, but after the Break, the Royals only played 30 of 71 games at home.
And in reality, the Royals had a much better season than their 71-91 record would suggest. The Royals were actually outscored by only 32 runs all season – based on their runs scored and runs allowed, they should have won 77 or 78 games. Despite finishing in fourth place in the AL Central, the Royals actually had the second-best run differential in the division.
By comparison, the 2003 Royals were outscored by 31 runs. If Ned Yost doesn’t leave Vinny Mazzaro out there like a tuna sandwich in the sun, the Royals would have had their best run differential since 1994. That’s an indictment of the organization, obviously, but it also tells you that this year’s Royals were almost a .500 team on paper. They only won 71 games in part because of bad luck, and in part because Joakim Soria had some uncharacteristic struggles. (The Royals lost four games this year that they were leading after eight innings. They had lost three such games over the last three years combined.)
Put these two facts together – the Royals played better in the second half, and they played better than their record suggests – and you come up with a single sentence that sums up why I absolutely think the Royals can contend next season:
Playing 40 of their 71 games on the road, the Royals outscored their opponents after the All-Star Break, 328-313.
Mind you, it’s easy to splice data to make your team look better – just find their best stretch of the season and extrapolate from there. But in this case, I think it’s legitimate to look at the team’s performance in the second half, because the team went through so much turnover from Opening Day until August. Let’s draw the line on August 10th, when Salvador Perez’s promotion closed the lineup; from that point on, the Royals were 22-24, and outscored their opponents by 18 runs, 225 to 207. Using the Pythagorean Theorem to predict the Royals’ record from their runs scored and runs allowed, we come up with a .542 winning percentage from August 10th on. Over a full season, that’s the equivalent of an 88-74 record.
So yes, I believe this team can contend in 2012. But they need a starting pitcher. Actually, two. Possibly even three. And what they do to address this need between now and next April is the single biggest determinant of whether the Royals will, in fact, contend next season.
The Royals have already taken a big step forward in this regard. I’m speaking of the decision not to bring Bob McClure back as the team’s pitching coach for a seventh season. This is another example of the Royals quietly making the right moves when it comes to off-the-field personnel. I thought McClure was an excellent pitching coach at first – I raved about him here – and with reason: he turned Gil Meche from an underachiever into a legitimate #2 starter overnight. He presided over Soria’s immediate success as a Rule 5 pick, and was there when Brian Bannister had a shockingly good rookie season, and helped nurture Zack Greinke back a career in limbo into an excellent middle reliever, then to a solid starting pitcher, and then into a Cy Young winner.
But in the second half of his tenure, the failures outweighed the successes. Kyle Davies has the highest ERA in major league history of any pitcher with 120+ starts. Luke Hochevar had the best half-season of his career, with a 3.52 ERA in 12 starts after the Break, but 1) it’s still not clear if the improvement was real and 2) even if it was, it should have happened a long time ago. Apparently, the main reason for Hochevar’s improvement was that he – wait for it – started pitching inside more. It only took until his fifth major league season to figure that out? And remember when Hochevar was tipping his pitches and everyone knew but the Royals?
Sean O’Sullivan and Vinny Mazzaro came in with low expectations and failed to even reach those. Danny Duffy has excellent stuff, and as a rookie had a 5.64 ERA. Tim Collins couldn’t throw strikes. There were certainly some successes in there – Greg Holland was a revelation that no one saw coming, and Felipe Paulino was a revelation that a few did see coming. But the end result was that the Royals finished 12th in the league in runs allowed, the third straight year they finished in the AL’s bottom three.
And I haven’t even brought up his complicity in destroying Gil Meche’s arm. Trey Hillman got most of the blame, but when the manager is hell-bent on destroying one of his pitchers, it’s the job of the pitching coach to talk him out of it. There was more than enough blame to go around on that one.
Last season, I argued here that it was about time the Royals replace him, but I thought they could justify another season. They brought him back, and the results were again disappointing; the Royals ranked dead last in the league in walks allowed. And…they canned him. Maybe it was the obvious move, but the mark of a losing organization – which is to say, the mark of the Royals for so long – is one that refuses to use common sense as a weapon. Dayton Moore finally opened his holster, because after six seasons – the longest tenure by any Royals’ pitching coach since at least the 1980s, if not ever – McClure was let go.
Ned Yost has made it clear that the Royals intend to go outside the organization for his replacement, which I think is a fine idea. There’s certainly a risk the Royals bring in someone who screws things up even worse. But having seen what a true difference-maker (Kevin Seitzer) can do on the hitting side of things, I am optimistic that the right pitching coach could be almost as important to the 2012 Royals as a new starting pitcher.
Speaking of which, here’s how next year’s rotation should shape up:
Luke Hochevar is, four seasons into his major-league career, an enigma. Even in 2011, when he had the best ERA (4.68) of his career, after adjusting for the league-wide decline in offense, his ERA+ of 87 was exactly the same as in 2010. And 87 ain’t that good. But after the All-Star Break, he had that 3.52 ERA and opponents batted .222/.283/.364 against him. His slider, in particular, became a real out-pitch for him in the second half. I’m not expecting miracles from him, but I am expecting that he’ll pitch well enough in 2012 to keep his job. Anything more than that is gravy.
If you don’t know how I feel about Felipe Paulino, you must be new here. After joining the Royals as a waiver claim on May 25th, Paulino fashioned a 4.11 ERA, corresponding to an ERA+ of 100, meaning Paulino was exactly a league-average pitcher. More importantly, his peripherals were very good – he struck out 119 batters in 125 innings, and allowed just 10 homers. (Of the 185 pitchers in Royals history who have thrown 120 innings in a season, Paulino’s strikeout rate of 8.59 per 9 innings ranks fifth all-time.) Paulino’s control still needs some work – he walked 48 batters, or 3.5 per 9 innings – but he cut his walk rate by about 10% after joining the Royals, and if he can cut it another 10%, there’s every reason to think he can be an above-average starter for the next three years.
The Question Mark
Danny Duffy was the first of the Royals’ top starting pitching prospects to arrive, and he showed glimpses of greatness. He also showed that he wasn’t ready yet; he walked 51 batters in 105 innings, surrendered 15 homers, and had a 5.64 ERA. He’s only 22, and in the long-term I’m optimistic he’ll be one of the better lefties in the league. But going into 2012, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that he might need to earn his job in spring training. If he shows improved command and pitches well, great. If not, there’s nothing wrong with sending him back to Omaha to start the season.
The In-House Options
Luis Mendoza led the Pacific Coast League with a 2.18 ERA, and the next-best mark in the league was 3.40. That’s a hell of an accomplishment, but that sentence is pretty much the entire argument for Mendoza. His 2.18 ERA was deceptive in several ways. For one, nearly a third (17 of 52) of the runs he allowed this season were unearned, and all the evidence shows that pitchers are nearly as responsible for “unearned” runs as they are “earned” runs. His RA was 3.24, which isn’t nearly as impressive.
More importantly, though, his league-leading performance came with a heaping dose of good luck. In 144 innings for the Storm Chasers, Mendoza struck out just 81 batters – 5.1 per 9 innings, which would be a terrible rate even at the major-league level – and walked 54. His success was the result of allowing a .268 average on balls in play, which is the result of a heaping dose of good luck, and the fact that he somehow allowed just five home runs all season. If Mendoza were an extreme groundball pitcher that might be sustainable, but he’s not.
Mendoza’s success has gotten attention in part because it has come after he radically overhauled his delivery in spring training. But unless his new delivery involves manually inserting a horseshoe up his ass on every pitch, I don’t see how it’s helping. This season, Mendoza walked 3.1 batters (unintentionally) per 9 innings, and struck out 5.1 per 9. Between 2009 and 2010 combined, in 243 minor league innings, Mendoza walked 3.0 batters per 9 and struck out 5.1 per 9. He was the exact same pitcher this year – just with an insane amount of BABIP and HR/FB luck.
Of course, he then came up in September and pitched brilliantly in two starts, winning both and allowing three runs in 15 innings. Even so, he walked five and struck out seven. I know the Royals are chasing the ghost of Philip Humber, who was with the Royals in 2010, was let go after the season – a decision no one questioned at the time – and after landing with the White Sox had one of the most surprising breakouts of the season. (In 163 innings, he had a 3.75 ERA; batters hit .243/.294/.357 against him.)
But Humber was much more impressive in Omaha last season than Mendoza was this year; he struck out four times as many batters as he walked, whereas Mendoza’s K/BB ratio this year was just 1.5. And more importantly, the reason for his success in Chicago was that pitching coach Don Cooper, the guru of the cut fastball, taught Humber a version of the pitch that worked wonders for him. Humber’s success tells us little about what to expect from Mendoza going forward. I think it’s fine for the Royals to keep Mendoza on the 40-man roster, and give him a shot at the rotation in spring training along with everyone else. I’m not rooting for him to fail. But I’m not expecting him to succeed either.
The more interesting in-house option, to me, is Everett Teaford. Teaford is the forgotten pitcher in the organization, largely because he was a non-prospect until the middle of 2010, when a change to his delivery had immediate effects – his fastball went from 87 to 92, and his strikeout rate jumped from 5.6 per 9 innings in 2009 to 10.2 per 9 innings in 2010.
Teaford is also overlooked because he bounced back and forth between Omaha and Kansas City all season. But his performance in both cities was quietly very good. In Omaha, he allowed just 23 hits and 11 walks in 35 innings while striking out 33; for the Royals, he allowed 36 hits and 14 walks in 44 innings while striking out 28.
The concern with him is the home run ball – he allowed five in Omaha and eight in Kansas City. But whereas Mendoza’s home run rate was unsustainably low, Teaford’s was unsustainably high. In Omaha this season, Mendoza and Teaford had virtually identical groundball rates – yet Teaford gave up as many home runs in 35 innings as Mendoza did in 144. At the major league level, according to Fangraphs, Teaford’s had a 44.6% groundball rate, which is around league average. His problem was that 19.5% of the flyballs he allowed cleared the fence; the league average is about half that. I don’t think his home run problem is a chronic one, which is why I’m more optimistic about his future than Mendoza’s.
If nothing else, Teaford can be a serviceable lefty in the pen. He maintained his velocity spike this year – his average fastball in the majors was 91.7 mph, which is above-average for a southpaw. I think Teaford should be given an opportunity to win a rotation spot in spring training, and if he doesn’t, I think he would make the perfect swingman, the guy who can come out of the bullpen to make a spot start during the season and give you five solid innings on short notice.
The Free Agent-To-Be
After waiting for the bubble to burst for two straight seasons, it might be time to take Bruce Chen seriously. Since re-joining the Royals in 2010, Chen has thrown 295 innings with a 3.96 ERA.
On the other hand, maybe it’s a fluke. Chen’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .279 in 2010, and .280 this season. The major league average is usually around .300. It’s possible Chen has just been lucky two years in a row.
But on further reflection…maybe this is just who Chen is. Chen’s career BABIP is .282, over a career spanning 13 seasons and 1165 innings, and he pitched many of those innings in years when offense (and BABIPs) were higher than they were this year. While pitchers have little control over BABIP, Chen is unusual in that he is an extreme flyball pitcher. Flyballs – at least the ones that don’t clear the fence – are more likely to be turned into outs than groundballs. Chen’s BABIP is low, but it might actually be sustainable.
The fluky part of Chen’s performance isn’t the number of hits allowed, it’s the number of home runs. Over the last two years, he’s allowed 35 homers in 295 innings, which isn’t good but is tolerable. Prior to 2010, he had allowed 166 homers in 869 innings, nearly one every five innings, a rate that no pitcher can survive.
Part of Chen’s improvement can be chalked up to Kauffman Stadium; he’s allowed about 30% fewer home runs per inning at home than on the road the last two years. But his history in this regard still has to give you pause.
Overall, I don’t know what to think. Chen is succeeding even as his fastball continues to lose velocity; he averaged 86.0 mph on his fastball the last two years, down from 87-88 a few years ago. It’s possible that he’s simply the new Jamie Moyer, and he can continue to baffle hitters with off-speed stuff for another decade. (Of note, Fangraphs has him throwing twice as many sliders the last two years as he did before, and the velocity of his slider has gone up even as his fastball velocity has gone down. This leads me to believe that a lot of these “sliders” are actually cut fastballs. Could that be a reason for his success?)
Should the Royals re-sign him? I guess it depends. Chen will be a Type B free agent this winter, so if he signs elsewhere the Royals get a supplemental first-round draft pick, which you have to put on the scale when you’re weighing the decision. If he’s willing to sign for one year, or for two years at a bargain salary (say, no more than $5 million guaranteed for both years combined), I’d bring him back and hope he can continue to work his magic. Otherwise, I’d wish him well.
Sean O’Sullivan and Vinny Mazzaro. Moving on…
Look, if Mike Montgomery had the season that everyone expected him to, we might not be having this conversation. Montgomery, not Duffy, was supposed to be the first starter called up from Omaha, and was supposed to be in Kansas City no later than August. Instead, he didn’t even merit a September call-up.
Long-term, I don’t think Montgomery’s prospect status has been damaged irreparably. His problems remind me of Aaron Crow’s problems in 2010 – he simply didn’t throw enough strikes, which made it difficult for him to put batters away with his off-speed stuff. Montgomery walked 69 batters in 151 innings, and until he gets his walk rate down he won’t be ready for the majors. He showed progress in this regard as the season progressed; he walked just 20 batters in 60 innings after the All-Star Break.
It’s also worth noting that on the road – and road games in the PCL involve a lot of high-altitude ballparks in places like Colorado Springs and Albuquerque and Reno – Montgomery had a 7.34 ERA. At home in Omaha, he had a 4.06 ERA. I think that Montgomery is still on the short list of players you’d consider for the #1 prospect ranking in the Royals’ system (granted, that’s a reflection of the depletion of the system). And I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility that he blows everyone away in March and wins the #5 starter’s role. But realistically, he needs a return engagment to Omaha.
Behind Montgomery, the options are few. Chris Dwyer finished the season on a roll – in his last nine starts in Northwest Arkansas, he had a 3.54 ERA and only walked 19 batters in 56 innings. But his season was such a disaster up to that point that he still finished with a 5.60 ERA. If Jake Odorizzi adds even a tick to his fastball over the winter – and the organization thinks he can – he could move very quickly through the high minors and be in Kansas City by July. But expecting a pitcher who had a 4.72 ERA in Double-A to break camp with the team the following season is unrealistic.
If you want a real under-the-radar sleeper out of the organization, here’s one: Kelvin Herrera. Herrera was the team’s breakout pitching prospect this season – as a reliever. He zipped through three levels, and in 68 innings had a 1.60 ERA, with 42 hits, 15 walks, and 70 strikeouts, earning a September call-up. The thing with Herrera is that he wasn’t moved to the bullpen because he wasn’t effective as a starter, but because he wasn’t healthy as a starter – assorted elbow woes limited him to just nine games in 2009 and 2010 combined. Moving him back to the rotation would be a risk, but the Royals don’t need him in the bullpen, and he has the talent to be an impact pitcher in the rotation.
Speaking of which…
I know a lot of fans would like to see what Greg Holland could do in the rotation, simply because 1) he was so awesome this year and 2) the Royals can replace him in the bullpen fairly easily. And he does have a four-pitch mix, although he throws his curveball and splitter only about 5% of the time each. I’m curious to see what he could do myself. But realistically, we’re talking about a pitcher who has never started a game in the majors or in the minors. I’d like to see the Royals at least experiment with the idea in spring training, but I’m not holding my breath.
The more likely candidate, of course, is Aaron Crow, who was starting – and failing – in the minors last season. Crow is mostly a fastball/slider guy, but did throw his curveball 6.5% of the time this season. (He apparently has a changeup, which he threw twice all year.) The Royals are planning to try him in the rotation next spring, and I think it’s a worthwhile gamble. But I’ll admit to not being optimistic about the idea.
For one, Crow was miserable as a starter in the minors in 2010, which is why he was moved to the bullpen this spring in the first place. And then there is the general scouting impression that his mechanics, which are not ideal, would not hold up to throwing 100 pitches at a time, causing him to lose the strike zone and fall behind all the time. This was his problem last season – he was 2-0 and 3-1 all the time, and you can’t use your wipeout slider when the batter doesn’t have to defend the strike zone.
And then, of course, there’s the trifling matter that after his All-Star selection this season, Crow kind of fell apart. He only threw 19 innings after the Break, and allowed 25 hits and 11 walks amidst concerns that his shoulder was acting up. Maybe his shoulder problems were the result of his new role, and being asked to pitch three or four times a week – in which case going back to the rotation may even help keep him healthy. But there are enough red flags here that the odds of a successful return to the rotation have to be less than 50/50.
I think the Royals should give Crow the opportunity to start, and if he’s successful, party everyone! But I think the Royals have to work this off-season with the assumption that none of the pitchers listed above – not Crow or Mendoza or Teaford or anyone else – can be relied on to be a part of their Opening Day rotation. That means they need to look outside the organization for help.
In my next column, I’ll look at the free agent pool, and see if there are any names out there that fit what the Royals need. Be forewarned: the pickings are slim.