Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Baseball Show With Rany And Joe.

Many years ago, before I started this blog, before “Rob and Rany”, before even Baseball Prospectus, my best resource for baseball analysis on a day-to-day basis was the regular phone call I shared with my friend, Joe Sheehan. It was so long ago that Joe wasn’t even making fun of the Royals yet.

Joe and I became introduced to each other in the winter of 1992-93, when he answered a request I had made on the bulletin board – the World Wide Web was still a few years away, and was the premier baseball resource on the internet – looking for potential owners for a Strat-o-matic league that I had founded in college. He joined the league, soon made some snarky remarks about the loaded team I had built by taking advantage of some sub-par competition in the league’s inaugural draft, and I fired back. Pretty soon we were emailing back and forth on a regular basis. He invited me to come play in a Strat-o-matic tournament, and ignoring everything my parents had taught me about strangers and the most basic principles of common sense, I agreed. I hopped aboard an Amtrak train at Baltimore’s Penn Station headed to Atlantic City. I was 17 at the time.

Fortunately, it turned out that Joe was not a 55-year-old child molester masquerading as a college senior. We had a fun weekend, I met a bunch of other hard-core baseball fans and Strat players, and even managed to finish .500 in my first tournament. I headed back to college at Johns Hopkins, Joe headed back to USC, and we started talking on the phone on a regular basis. Sometimes we talked about college, sometimes we talked about girls, but usually we talked about baseball. Joe was older than me, and had not spent the better part of seven years living in Saudi Arabia almost completely cut off from baseball, so the educational process generally flowed in one direction. Joe was also a journalism major and a razor-sharp writer, and from our regular emails I learned as much about writing from him as I learned about baseball.

Joe and I would go on to co-found Baseball Prospectus together the winter after I graduated from college. He’s gone on to great professional success as a sportswriter, writing the daily baseball column at BP for many years, and now writing for both Sports Illustrated as well as his own subscription-based newsletter (which you really should subscribe to here.) Meanwhile, I’ve gone on to write a free blog about the most-ridiculed team in the major leagues.

Somewhere along the way, though, we stopped talking on the phone as much. I got married, had three kids, finished medical school and residency and opened my own practice. We might talk on the phone four or five times a year instead of four or five times a week. But when we did talk, the conversations were as animated and argumentative and filled with a mutual love of baseball as ever. During one of our talks last summer, as I headed to a Royals-White Sox tilt at U.S. Cellular, one of us said to the other, “You know what? We should just tape our phone calls and turn them into a podcast.”

On Thursday night, after figuring out the nuances of recording a call on Skype, we did just that. You can listen to the first episode of “The Baseball Show with Rany and Joe” by clicking here. With the help of our producer Brady Gardiner, we’ve submitted the podcast to iTunes; I’ll let you know once we’ve been approved. The plan is to tape a show once a week, generally on a Monday or Tuesday, and hopefully we’ll get the jitters and general awkwardness of the first show out with regular practice.

This isn’t a Royals-centric show by any means, though I’m sure they’ll get more attention than they would on any other general baseball podcast. It’s exhilarating and frankly rather frightening for me to be talking about the major leagues again, as it’s been over three years since I wrote about the other 29 teams on a regular basis. (And before anyone asks, this podcast shouldn’t affect my “Rany on the Radio” show one way or the other. I might be back on the air with 810 WHB this April, I might not, but either way it won’t be the fault of this podcast.)

Anyway, I hope you’ll tune into our podcast, and I hope you’ll enjoy it. Either way, it’s good to be talking to Joe regularly again.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Royals Today: 2/20/2011.

It’s a bullet point Sunday. This should clear the decks of my off-season thoughts, and we’ll move into spring training mode shortly.

- When I discussed the Soria-to-the-Yankees rumors in my last article, I was negligent in not bringing up perhaps the best piece of evidence that the Yankees were willing to give up a ton of talent for Soria: that they – and by “they” I mean the Steinbrenner brothers more than Brian Cashman – subsequently gave Rafael Soriano a 3-year, $35 million contract.

Actually, they gave Soriano more than a $35 million contract – they gave him a $35 million contract with the option to opt out after each year. They’re paying a middle reliever almost $12 million a year, in a contract that offers tremendous downside and no upside. In the best-case scenario for the Yankees, where Soriano is one of the best relievers in baseball in 2011, he’ll walk away.

If there’s a silver lining to the contract, it’s that the Yankees so vastly overpaid for Soriano that even if he has a great year he might not opt out, because even a top-tier closer is going to struggle to get more than $12 million a year on the open market. The Yankees have craftily diminished the value of the opt-out clause for Soriano by throwing so much money at him that he won’t want to leave. This means that the Yankees will be paying almost $27 million in 2011 to a pair of relievers who – in a best-case scenario – will pitch about 150 innings combined. And their fourth starter is Sergio Mitre.

So yeah, I can see the argument that if the Yankees were willing to give Soriano $35 million for 3 years – with options on the player’s side – they might be willing to pay through the nose for a superior player on a $27 million contract for 4 years – with all the options in their favor.

- Speaking of overpaid relievers…you might have noticed that the Tampa Bay Rays signed Kyle Farnsworth.

Short of Billy Beane giving a multi-year contract to Jeff Francoeur, it’s hard to think of a transaction that could cause more cognitive dissonance among the sabermetric community. Kyle Farnsworth is overrated. Tampa Bay might have the smartest front office in baseball (at least that’s what Jonah Keri says.) Smart teams don’t sign overrated players. But the Rays signed Farnsworth. We are caught in an infinite logic loop, one that threatens to tear the very fabric of the universe apart.

There is only one way out of this paradox, which is to accept that Farnsworth isn’t nearly as overrated as everyone thinks. I’m not sure I’m prepared to do that. Farnsworth had one of the most anti-clutch seasons in the history of baseball in 2009. Batting average isn’t the most useful stat in the world, but consider this. When the game was within two runs either way, opponents were 52-for-103 against Farnsworth in 2009 – they hit .505. When the game margin was 3 or 4 runs, they hit .364. When the margin was 5 runs or more, they hit .203.

Yeah, it was probably a fluke. But I’m still not prepared to forgive him.

The Rays don’t have anything to forgive, and what they see is a pitcher who had an xFIP of 3.37 in 2009, and 3.63 in 2010. They also see a pitcher who – thanks to Bob McClure – finally started mixing in more off-speed pitches last season, throwing more changeups as well as a new cut fastball. That looks awfully appealing for a team that has lost half their bullpen to free agency.

Don’t cry for them – the Rays have 12 of the first 88 picks in the June draft, which is the greatest number of extra picks by any team in the history of the draft. (The Rays will have drafted TEN TIMES before the Royals make their second selection.) Oh, and this is considered to be the strongest draft pool in years.

I’m still skeptical that Farnsworth has truly turned a corner. But it’s worth remembering that if he has, and if the Rays are once again taking advantage of The Extra 2%, it’s only because of the work that Bob McClure and the Royals did with him.

- The Royals signed Zach Miner to a minor-league contract, which may mean nothing in the end – Miner is coming off Tommy John surgery and isn’t expected back until June at the earliest. But my reaction to the transaction says something about the Royals.

Miner, at his best, is a pitch-to-contact right-hander who lets his defense work for him. (He has a solid 4.24 career ERA despite striking out just 5.5 batters per 9 innings.) The Royals have sifted through the bargain bin to find pitchers like him in the past, with usually awful results – not just because the pitchers themselves have marginal talent, but because these are exactly the kind of pitchers who most need a strong defense behind them. Among their many flaws, the Royals of recent vintage have suffered from a defense that is almost comically bad.

So it says something that my reaction to the Miner signing was not along the lines of “here we go again”. For that, I can thank Alcides Escobar’s arrival – and Yuniesky Betancourt’s departure. It remains to be seen whether Escobar can live up to his Gold Glove potential from a year ago, but I am comfortable in saying that he is an above-average defensive shortstop. The man he is replacing is perhaps the worst defensive everyday shortstop in the majors.

At second base, the Royals will start the year with Chris Getz at second base; Getz might not hit, but from what we’ve seen of him he’s at least an average defender, and perhaps slightly better. Say what you want about Jeff Francoeur, but he’s almost always been an above-average defender in right field. Alex Gordon can be expected to improve in left field now that he’s had a full year to adjust to the position, and he wasn’t bad last year. Every center field option other than Melky Cabrera (who, sadly, is favored to win the job) plays at least average defense. I think Mike Aviles will do a fine job at third base, where his lack of speed won’t hurt him as much as in the middle infield, and where his arm should be fully recovered in his second year after Tommy John surgery. Kila Ka’aihue figures to get a fair amount of the reps at first base, and he figures to be a modest improvement on Billy Butler.

Add it all together, and the defense looks to be better – maybe not dramatically better, but slightly better across the board, and significantly better at shortstop. It might take a slight hit in June if Mike Moustakas takes over at third and Aviles moves back to second; on the other hand, by June I suspect the Melky Cabrera experiment in center field will be over.

Suddenly, taking a flyer on Zach Miner doesn’t seem like such a pointless waste of resources. And pitchers with better stuff than Miner, but with a similar propensity to play democratic baseball – like Luke Hochevar – are well-situated to take a step forward.

- Speaking of defensive upgrades, the Royals have made the long-expected decision to move Wil Myers from catcher to right field.

I can certainly see the viewpoint that looks at this move as a wasted opportunity. The Royals had the chance to have one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball; Wil Myers has the kind of bat that might approach a .300/.400/.500 line in a few years. The only catchers who can regularly do that are Joe Mauer and Brian McCann. Victor Martinez could, once upon a time, and Carlos Santana and Buster Posey probably will in the near future. Even if Myers wasn’t the most agile backstop in the world, his stick figured to make up for it. Martinez is a well below-average catcher defensively, and that didn’t stop him from making eight figures this off-season.

A bad defensive catcher may cost his team a few runs by allowing too many errant pitches to get past him, and by not providing enough of a deterrent to baserunners with larceny in their heart. But the evidence that a bad defensive catcher will hurt his pitching staff with his game-calling skills is scant. The statistical evidence suggests that conventional wisdom vastly overstates the effect of a bad defensive catcher.

Having said all that, I agree with the decision to move Myers to right field. My concern with leaving Myers behind the plate wasn’t his defense; it was his offense. The rigors of squatting behind the plate 140 times a game, 140 games a year, are not beneficial towards a prospect’s maximum development as a hitter. Myers, who hit a combined .315/.429/.506 last season, as a 19-year-old in a pair of tough hitters’ parks, is the most precocious hitter in the system. Eliminating the chores of catching from Myers’ job description removes the biggest roadblock on his path to becoming an All-Star hitter.

The cost-benefit analysis would be different if Myers were an excellent defensive catcher, or even if he were just average. But Myers still needed a lot of work back there; while he had a strong arm (he threw out 32% of attempted base stealers last year), his mobility was a question mark – he allowed 20 passed balls despite catching in just 75 games. The majority – not all, but a majority – of scouts felt that ultimately he would have to move off the position. Getting the transition over with now takes away the upside that Myers ultimately settles in at catcher and still hits at an elite level, but also removes the much larger downside of wasting Myers’ energy on a fruitless task for the next year or two that also retards his bat’s development.

I’ve made this comparison before, but Myers’ skill set and size is reminiscent of a young Jayson Werth. Werth was a first-round pick of the Orioles in 1997, and after hitting .260/.359/.382 as a 19-year-old catcher in A-ball in 1998, he was a Baseball America Top 100 Prospect the following spring. He would make the list four times in five years (1999, 2000, 2002, and 2003).

The problem was that he wasn’t a great catcher, and he really didn’t have the body type for the position. The ideal catcher frame is not too tall, and with a low center of gravity. Werth is listed at 6’5”, 215 pounds. (Myers is not as tall but just as stringy – 6’3”, 190 pounds.) He wasn’t getting better as a catcher, and his offense wasn’t developing; as a 21-year-old in 2000, he hit just .228/.361/.355 in Double-A. After that season, the Orioles gave up on him, trading him to Toronto for John Bale. (Yes, that John Bale.)

The Blue Jays let him catch full-time in 2001, and then…well, allow me to quote myself, writing Werth’s entry as the #38 prospect in the minors in Baseball Prospectus 2003:

Never underestimate the importance of common sense. Werth was a first round draft pick as a high school catcher, and despite flashes of greatness he failed to make an impression on anyone – to the point where the Orioles traded him to Toronto for John Bale. Until that is, someone in the Blue Jays organization looked at Werth’s lanky, 6’5”, 210-pound physique and thought, ‘gee, he really doesn’t look like a catcher.’ He didn’t look like a catcher because he wasn’t one – he was a speedy center fielder trapped behind the plate for reasons not easily divined.”

Werth moved to the outfield in early 2002 and never caught again. But after two cups of coffee with Toronto, the Blue Jays traded him to the Dodgers on the eve of the 2004 season for Jason Frasor. Werth had a fine rookie season in 2004, was disappointing in 2005, and then was hurt and missed all of 2006. The Dodgers let him go that winter, he signed with Philadelphia, and he has been one of baseball’s best right fielders ever since.

In retrospect, had Werth been moved to the outfield prior to the 1999 season, he probably wouldn’t have been traded for a middle reliever twice before he established himself in the majors. By moving Myers to the outfield now, the Royals are depriving themselves of the slight possibility that Myers could be this generation’s Mike Piazza, a poor defensive catcher who is nonetheless a perennial All-Star because of his bat. But they also eliminate the much more likely scenario where the Royals waste years trying to determine whether Myers can both catch and hit, and another team reaps the benefits years down the line. It’s a fair tradeoff. Sometimes it’s better not to be too greedy.

The other major reason why moving Myers is the right move for the organization is that they already have Myers’ replacement as the organization’s catcher of the future in Salvador Perez. But more on him next time.

- I thought that a comfy spot as an NRI with an NL West club was the perfect landing spot for Brian Bannister, but he threw us all a curveball by heading to Japan. As you’d expect from Banny, it was a really smart move.

He’s guaranteed a lot more money than he would have made stateside in 2011, and he gets to pitch against somewhat inferior competition in a league where probably 70% of the pitchers have a fastball that tops out in the upper 80s and rely on breaking stuff and slop and guile to get batters out. And knowing Banny, he probably sees his move to Japan as a terrific experience he might not get to enjoy in the future. I mean, he’ll live in Tokyo for a year, pitch for the famous Yomiuri Giants, maybe learn some Japanese. (And maybe, while he’s there, impart a bit of sabermetrics to the Land Of The Rising Sun And A Million Sacrifice Bunts.)

If his shoulder feels better and he finds his cutter again, he can always return stateside in a year or two. The trans-Pacific crossing has become easier over the years going both ways; an American pitcher no longer has to worry that a move to Japan probably spells the end of his major league career. (The Royals have done as much as anyone to dispel that notion, what with Darrell May and John Bale.) The greatest testament to the idea that you can come home again is Colby Lewis, who took a two-year sabbatical in Japan, got his shoulder healthy and started throwing strikes, and returned to the majors last year with 201 innings and a 3.72 ERA.

Lewis had a lot of nibbles from American teams last winter after his success in Japan, but decided to return to Texas, where he had spent the bulk of his career before leaving. I have no reason to think Bannister left Kansas City on bad terms with the Royals; if he makes it big in Japan, maybe we’ll see him again in a year or two.


A few housekeeping notes to conclude:

So as a new season is upon us, I fear that I may be running out of column ideas. Or at least, I’m running out of original column ideas. The storyline for the 2011 Royals is the same as the one for 2010: it’s all about the minor leaguers, at least until August or so when a good number of those minor leaguers start getting their wings.

I have no problem with devoting the bulk of my writing towards the prospects in the system, but I suspect that might become boring for many of you. So if you have any column ideas that you’d like me to explore, feel free to leave them in the comment section. I can’t guarantee that I will pursue them all – you can bet that I will pursue very few of them – but I promise I’ll read them all, and if anything catches my fancy I’ll let you know.

Also, I’ve got an idea of doing a regular chat session of sorts, where I answer questions from readers. My website isn’t exactly set up for that sort of thing, so here’s what we’ll do: I have set up a separate email address, Feel free to submit questions about the Royals to that address, I’ll check it periodically, and when I’ve got a good number of questions that I can answer, I’ll post the answers here. I won’t answer every question, and submitting the same question 17 times does not improve the odds that it will get answered.

Finally, speaking of the website, I’ve used pretty much the same template since I started it three years ago. I’d love to have a more functional website, that could do audio and video and God knows what else, but I don’t have the time to develop a more functional site. If anyone out there is capable of creating a more functional website, and has the credentials to back it up, drop me a line at the email address above. Thanks.