Friday, March 11, 2011

The Royals Hall Of Fame.

One of the (many) things that baseball has on all other sports is its capacity to stimulate arguments. The combination of history – the National League begins its 136th season this year –  and meticulous record-keeping provides a bottomless well of argument starters. Nowhere is this more clearly displayed than the Hall of Fame. I’m sure that somewhere in this favored land, two men are having an argument over who should be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. It’s just that I’ve never met either of them. Baseball is a little different. Hall of Fame Debate Season pops up on the calendar every December, even if you don’t know exactly what day it’s going to start, sort of like Hanukkah.

The Royals have their own Hall of Fame, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year – the original class of Steve Busby and Amos Otis was inducted in 1986. The Royals’ Hall of Fame ought to stimulate some baseball arguments of its own here in Kansas City, but for the most part it hasn’t. Unlike the National Hall of Fame, which conducts annual elections run by the Baseball Writers Association of America, and which publishes those results every year, the Royals’ Hall of Fame process has been largely opaque for the last quarter-century.

One of the reasons why baseball fans spend so much time arguing about the Hall of Fame is the expectation that those arguments won’t fall on deaf ears. Everyone knows what the score is, and anyone who is sufficiently passionate about their cause can learn who the voters are. In the old days, fans would campaign for their favorite candidates by mailing their arguments to each and every voter. In the modern age, Rich Lederer takes to the internet to stump for Bert Blyleven in 2003. This summer, Rich will probably be in the first row at Blyleven’s induction, if not on stage.

The Royals’ Hall of Fame selection process has never had that aura of inclusiveness, the sense that the fans are a part of the process, even if that part is limited to saying that so-and-so is a moron for not voting for Mark Gubicza. Voters sent in their ballots every so often, but we never knew who the voters were, and we never learned what the exact results were. If they were released publicly, I never saw them.

Every few years, the Royals would hold a press conference to announce that John Mayberry or Jeff Montgomery had been chosen to join the team’s Hall of Fame. That summer, the team would hold an induction ceremony at the ballpark. The new inductee would get his moment in the sun, a large framed portrait of himself at the ballpark, and that was it. I doubt if most Royals fans, even diehards like myself, could name all the players who had been inducted. It was simply never a topic of discussion.

Until now. Two weeks ago, the Royals sent out a press release that unveiled a radically altered balloting process. Most notably, the fans are a part of the process – literally. You can vote right now – the election closes on March 18 at noon – by clicking here. The Royals have even included a running tally of the fan vote; you can see that Kevin Appier is (deservedly) running away with it, while Al Fitzmorris and John Wathan are in a dead heat for second place.

In conjunction with giving fans an opportunity to participate, the Hall of Fame has made the entire process a lot more transparent. From the press release:

“Fans will be joined by other voters, including all living members of the Royals Hall of Fame and select members of the Royals Board of Directors, Kansas City Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, Kansas City electronic media representatives and Royals front office staff, in selecting Royals Hall of Fame inductees. The online fan ballot will account for four votes with two assigned to the highest vote getter and one each to the second and third highest vote getters. Any candidate receiving 75 percent of the vote will be elected and scheduled for induction during the 2011 season. Candidates must receive a minimum of ten percent of the ballots cast to remain eligible for inclusion on the ballot for the next RHOF voting cycle. In even-numbered years, a separate Veterans Committee vote will consider the candidacy of non-player personnel and players who received Royals Hall of Fame Voting (Regular Phase) votes, but are no longer eligible for election in that manner.”

This is pretty straightforward information, but until now I had no idea whether the threshold for election was 75%, 50%, or somewhere in between. I had no idea what minimum number of votes a candidate needed to keep his name on the ballot the next time around. I didn’t even know how often elections were held. And I suspect I’m not the only one.

I had some questions regarding the process, though, so I got on the phone and spoke with Curt Nelson, the Director of the Royals Hall of Fame. (Yes, I know – I conducted actual journalism. Don’t get used to it.) We had a long conversation and he explained the process in detail, which I will now try to explain to you here.

First off, unlike the National Hall of Fame, where anyone who has been a member of the BBWAA for 10 consecutive years gets a ballot, the number of ballots that are cast for the Royals Hall of Fame is capped at exactly 40. Of those 40, four of those ballots are set aside for the fan vote, and the other 36 ballots are given to individuals – members of the media, member of the Royals’ front office, as well as current Royals Hall of Famers. In order to be elected, a player needs to be named on three-quarters of the ballots cast, or 30 out of the 40.

If an elector submits a blank ballot, it will be counted as an official ballot; however if an elector does not submit a ballot at all, then that ballot will not be counted and the denominator will be reduced by one. However, because the number of ballots issued is divisible by four, the way the math work is that if someone forgets to submit a ballot, a player will still need to be named on 30 of the 39 remaining ballots. (If he is named on 29 ballots, 29/39 = 74.4%.) This is a feature, not a bug; there’s really no way to avoid the problem when you cap the number of ballots. In any case, if two people did not turn in ballots, then the number of votes needed for election would go down by one, to 29. If three people didn’t turn in ballots, only 28 votes would be needed.

Capping the ballots at 40 has the effect of giving the fans a fixed percentage (10%) of voting power. I think 10% is a reasonable share – enough to impact a close election, but only enough to impact a close election. The mechanism by which fans can vote is interesting – at least for this year’s election, you have to vote through your Twitter or Facebook account. The advantage here is that each fan can only vote once – in order to stuff the ballot box, you would have to create multiple Twitter or Facebook accounts, which isn’t impossible but is just inconvenient enough to dissuade most would-be ballot stuffers. There are a couple of obvious disadvantages, though. The first is that you need to have a Twitter or Facebook account to vote. The second is that if you have both a Twitter and Facebook account, you can vote twice.

I’m not sure there’s an elegant solution here. The easier the Royals make it to vote, the easier they’ll make it to vote often. When in doubt, I think you have to err on the side of conservatism. It may be unfair that some people won’t be able to vote, but that’s a preferable outcome than having the voting process be hijacked by someone voting 1000 times. If someone has a better solution, I’m sure the Royals would love to hear it, and technology moves so fast that there very well may be a better solution by the next election. But for now, I can’t find fault with the voting mechanism.

I did find fault with one specific part of the press release, however: “The online fan ballot will account for four votes with two assigned to the highest vote getter and one each to the second and third highest vote getters.” This sentence, in fact, prompted my call to Nelson – if I understood it correctly, the highest vote getter in the fan vote would be awarded two votes out of the four ballots assigned to the fans. That’s less than 75%, which meant that if, say, Kevin Appier got 27 of 36 votes (exactly 75%) cast by electors, and won the fan vote, he would wind up with only 29 of 40 ballots overall, or 72.5%, and fall one vote short. The fan vote, in other words, would keep Appier from being inducted – even though he finished in first place.

Fortunately, that is not the case. “The press release was poorly worded on this point”, Nelson reassured me. The way it will work is this: whichever player finishes first in the fan vote will be awarded four votes, i.e. he will appear on all four fan “ballots”. The players who finish second and third in the fan vote will be awarded two votes, i.e. they will each appear on half of the four fan ballots.

Because a player needs three out of four votes just to keep pace with the 75% requirement, in essence, this means that whoever finishes first in the fan vote will get an extra vote to his name. The first-place finisher will therefore need to be named on only 26 of the 36 votes submitted by individual electors, instead of 27. The second- and third-place finishers, however, will need 28 of 36 votes, and everyone else will need 30 of 36 votes.

I think this is a little harsh. While the fans’ #1 selection will be helped by the process, everyone else on the ballot will be hurt. If this system had been in place in 1989, when both Dennis Leonard and Hal McRae were inducted, the fan vote would have had the perverse effect of hurting either Leonard’s or McRae’s chances of induction.

The problem with the fan vote is just a subset of the bigger problem, though, which is that the 36 individual electors are allowed to vote for a maximum of three players. I think that is a restrictive limit, and I am worried that at some point in the future, when there are multiple worthy nominees on the ballot, this limitation will keep a worthy candidate from being inducted.

By comparison, the National Hall of Fame allows electors to submit a ballot with up to 10 names. Even with that generous allowance, some electors run out of space. This January, a total of 3474 votes were cast by 581 voters, an average of 5.98 votes per ballot. Some voters are notoriously conservative with their ballots, voting for one or even no players some years, which means that other voters are ticking the maximum number. Jayson Stark wrote an article this winter about the dilemma of not having enough space on his ballot, a problem that will only worsen as Steroid Era-players become eligible and hang around the ballot, never getting enough votes to be inducted but always getting enough votes to stay eligible. (For some reason, Stark’s original article has been removed from ESPN’s website, but you can read Craig Calcaterra’s take on Stark’s article here.)

But even with an average of six players listed on each ballot, only two players (Blyleven and Roberto Alomar) reached the 75% threshold. That’s a pretty typical performance. Going back to 2000, in the last 12 elections only 20 players have been inducted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA, even though the electors have averaged between 5 and 6 votes on their ballot throughout that span. For the Royals Hall of Fame, electors can vote for a maximum of three players, which means the average will be a lot smaller – probably around two players per ballot.

Then remember that the Royals Hall of Fame will only vote on players every other year – the Veterans Committee will be voting in even-numbered years. With the current rules, I fear that we will see a number of elections in which several players get 50-70% of the vote, but because the electors can not agree on which three players are most worthy, no one clears the 75% barrier. Which means we may only see two or three players inducted in a decade.

That might be fine for some people, who believe in a small Hall and would rather err on the side of making worthy players wait for induction than allow an unworthy candidate to sneak in. One of the beauties of the National Hall of Fame process is that it allows voters to decide whether they’re a “Small Hall” or a “Large Hall” kind of person – whether they believe that only the absolute best players in baseball history should be inducted, or whether they believe that the purpose of the Hall is to celebrate the game, and the best way to celebrate the game is to memorialize as many players as possible within reason.

My basic concern with the ballot limitations the Royals have proposed is that it doesn’t allow the Small Hall/Large Hall argument to take place. No one is allowed to vote for more than three players. If you believe in a Small Hall, you have the option of voting for no one. (Although if you don’t vote for Kevin Appier, your definition of a “Small Hall” is a lot smaller than mine.) But if you believe in a Large Hall, you can make a decent case to vote for as many as nine guys on this year’s ballot – Appier, Al Cowens, Mike Macfarlane, Kevin Seitzer, Joe Randa, Bo Jackson, Darrell Porter, Al Fitzmorris, and John Wathan. Unfortunately, you can only vote for three.

So if there’s one change I would make in the voting process, it’s this: allow electors to vote for up to five players on their ballot, instead of three. I would also change the way the fan votes are apportioned slightly, from the current 4-2-2 format to a 4-3-2-1 format, giving three votes to the second-place finisher and one to the fourth-place finisher. That way, the #2 vote-getter would neither be helped nor hurt by the fan vote, an important consideration in a year where there is more than one worthy inductee.

Other aspects of the voting process:

- Any player who receives votes on 10% or more of the ballots (i.e. receives at least 4 votes) will remain on the ballot in the next election.

I think this is reasonable. This year’s ballot is massive, with 18 players listed, but that’s only because it’s the first time they’re running the election under the new rules, and a bunch of players have been grandfathered onto the ballot. I expect at least half of those 18 players to finish with less than 10% of the vote this year, and no more than two or three new players will qualify for each new ballot going forward, so I expect future ballots to contain somewhere between 8 and 12 names.

At the current time, Nelson informed me that the Hall has not decided whether to limit the number of times a player can be on a ballot before his name comes off. (The National Hall of Fame kicks a player off the ballot after 15 years.) No decision needs to be made on this question for some time, of course, but I would favor limiting a player’s eligibility to five elections, meaning over a 10-year span.

- “To be eligible for the first time, players must have been active with the Royals for at least three (3) seasons and accumulated a minimum of 1,500 plate appearances or 150 innings pitched. Candidates shall have ceased to be an active on-field member of the Royals (or for any other Major League organization) in the role for which they are being considered for at least three (3) calendar years preceding the election.”

Waiting until a player (or manager) has been retired for three years before they are eligible is perfectly sensible. But I think the playing time requirements are a little skewed. A position player needs 1500 plate appearances, the equivalent of nearly three seasons of everyday play, to be eligible. A pitcher needs 150 innings, though, which is silly. Yeah, if you’re a reliever you might need close to three seasons to notch 150 innings, but let’s be honest: if you’re a reliever, you ought to need a lot more than three seasons before you should be considered for this kind of honor.

And if you’re a starting pitcher, you can get there in just one season, which is how Brian Anderson is on the ballot. Anderson technically pitched three seasons for the Royals – but he made just seven starts in 2003, when he was acquired down the stretch, and made just six starts in 2005 before the hitters made it clear he was done. In less than a season-and-a-half with the Royals, though, Anderson threw 246 innings. He’s on the ballot, and Scott Service (175 IP) is on the ballot, and Kris Wilson (235 IP) is on the ballot. But both Rey Sanchez and Greg Gagne, both of whom were the starting shortstop for the Royals for three seasons, narrowly miss the cutoff for eligibility.

In Royals history, 46 players have batted at least 1500 times. Ninety-four players, including Scott Elarton, have thrown 150 innings or more. It strikes me as silly that twice as many pitchers as hitters should be eligible for consideration. The solution, I think, is pretty simple: increase the innings requirement from 150 to 300. (Forty-nine Royals have thrown 300+ innings.) I could be persuaded to lower the innings requirement to 250 innings, with the argument that Joakim Soria has thrown 255 innings in his career, and I think we’d all agree that he’s a Royals Hall of Famer at this point. But any threshold that allows Scott Service and Kris Wilson to appear on the ballot is too low.

Also, Nelson told me that while the plan is for managers to be placed on the regular ballot as well, none were placed on the ballot this year. A threshold for managers has also not been determined yet. Using the standard set by position players, where almost three seasons of full-time play is sufficient for making the ballot, I would propose that any manager in Royals history who has managed 450 or more games be placed on the ballot.

That might not seem like a high threshold, but only five managers in Royals history have lasted that long – and two of them are already in the Royals’ Hall. Trey Hillman fell short, as did Buddy Bell. In any case, if the Royals mean to let the fans vote on managers as well, there’s no point in delaying the process any further. If we have the option to vote for Scott Service and Kris Wilson, we ought to have the option to vote for Tony Muser – the winningest Royals manager who’s not in the Hall of Fame! – as well.

- Nelson told me that while the Royals intend to announce the vote totals for the players who win induction into the Hall of Fame, they have not decided yet whether to release the complete vote total or not.

I would suggest that they release the entire vote, on the premise that the more transparent the process is, the more faith fans will have in the process, and the more interest the fans will have in the Hall of Fame as a whole. The one argument I can see against full disclosure is that you wouldn’t want to embarrass a player who got completely shut out of the voting. What I would propose, then, is that all of the players who got less than 10% of the vote would be grouped together, so that no one will know whether Darrell May got three votes or none. There’s no point in hiding it – we’ll know that these players got less than 10% of the vote when they don’t show up on the ballot in two years.

I think it’s absolutely crucial that the players who do qualify for the next ballot have their vote totals published, precisely so fans can track how their favorite players are trending from election to election, can work to politick for players who are on the cusp, etc.

- Nelson stressed that the Royals are still evaluating the system that’s been set up, and the system is not set in stone yet. In particular, the details regarding the Veterans Committee are still being worked out, as the first election won’t be until next year.

What we do know is that the VC will consider all non-field personnel – GM’s, coaches, trainers, George Toma, you name it – as well as players who are no longer on the regular ballot. In that sense, it is very similar to the National Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee – it serves the dual purpose of honoring off-field contributors as well as serving as a second chance for players. I’m leery of the second part of its mandate – the National Hall of Fame would have been better served if they didn’t allow players in through the back door – but it’s hard to criticize the Royals for following the exact blueprint that the National Hall of Fame uses.

The composition of the VC has not been determined yet – it’s likely to be a mix of front office types and the media, and perhaps some ex-players as well. There is a thought towards having individual electors nominate a candidate and present their case to the rest of the electorate, sort of the way the Football Hall of Fame does it, but that’s not set in stone either.

In conclusion, I think the change that’s been made to open up the Royals Hall of Fame selection process is a fantastic one. I’ve probably written well over a million words about the Royals over the last 15 years, and yet I think I’ve written more words about the Royals Hall of Fame in this post than in the past 15 years combined. The ultimate purpose of the Royals Hall of Fame is to remind Royals fans of the history of their franchise, and sparking a debate about which players deserve to be honored serves that purpose. Consider that debate sparked.

But to reiterate, in case anyone associated with the team might be reading this, allow me to make a few simple suggestions that I think will significantly improve the process:

1) Allow electors to submit up to five names on each ballot, instead of just three.

2) Allow the four ballots devoted to the fan vote to list 10 players instead of eight. Instead of awarding four votes to the fans’ #1 vote-getter and two votes each to the #2 and #3 vote-getters, award four votes to the #1 vote-getter, three votes to the #2 vote-getter, two votes to the #3 vote-getter, and one vote to the #4 vote-getter.

3) Increase the innings requirement for ballot eligibility from 150 innings to 300 innings OR 100 games finished (the Joakim Soria clause).

4) Publish the complete vote total for all players who were named on at least 10% of the ballots.

5) Limit players to appearing on a maximum of five ballots; if they are not elected after their fifth ballot, they are removed from the regular voting process, at which point they may be considered by the Veterans Committee.

6) In the next election, allow all managers who managed 450 or more games in a Royals uniform to be eligible for the ballot.

In my next column, I’ll break down the ballot, and let you know which players I would vote for. I’ve been waiting half a lifetime for the chance to vote on who goes into the Royals Hall of Fame. After all these years, even if only as a fan, it will be fun to finally do so.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Meaning of the Minors, Part 4.

And finally, we arrive at the team from the last 20 years that most perfectly embodies what it is that the Royals are trying to do. That team is the 2002 Minnesota Twins.

Here is how the key members of that team were acquired:

C: A.J. Pierzynski, drafted by Twins (1994, 3rd round)
1B: Doug Mientkiewicz, drafted by Twins (1995, 5th round)
2B: Luis Rivas, signed by Twins (amateur free agent, 1995)
3B: Corey Koskie, drafted by Twins (1994, 26th round)
LF: Jacque Jones, drafted by Twins (1998, 2nd round)
CF: Torii Hunter, drafted by Twins (1993, 1st round)
RF: Bobby Kielty, signed by Twins (non-drafted college free agent, 1999)

Hell, even their utility infielder (Denny Hocking) and backup catcher (Matt LeCroy) were lifelong Twins.

At DH, the Twins had David Ortiz, who was acquired in a trade from the Mariners for Dave Hollins – in 1996, when Ortiz was still in the Midwest League. Fourth outfielder Dustan Mohr (who actually played more than Kielty) was originally signed by Cleveland, but released while he was still in Double-A before signing with Minnesota.

Of the 12 Twins who batted the most in 2002, 11 of them had never played for another team in the major leagues. We’ll get to the 12th in a moment.

Rick Reed, the surprising ace of the staff, had been acquired the previous summer in a one-for-one trade for lifelong Twin Matt Lawton. Kyle Lohse, the #2 starter, was a prospect in A-ball when the Twins acquired him from the Cubs for Rick Aguilera in 1999. Brad Radke had been drafted by the Twins in the 8th round in 1991. The closer (Eddie Guardado) and his two best set-up men (J.C. Romero and LaTroy Hawkins) were all drafted and developed by Minnesota.

The Twins had a couple of key acquisitions from outside the organization. Johan Santana had been a Rule 5 pick (sound familiar?) in 1999, and had a breakout season as a swingman for Minnesota in 2002. And in 1998, the Twins had traded Chuck Knoblauch, their best player, for four prospects (sound familiar?). Two of them were Eric Milton, the Twins’ #3 starter in 2002, and Christian Guzman, their starting shortstop.

Until now, I don’t think I’ve truly appreciated the blueprint that the Twins have laid out for the Royals, and only now do I understand why Dayton Moore repeatedly brings up the Twins – even more than his own Atlanta Braves – as a model for what the Royals are trying to do. In this interview with John Sickels from last week, Moore specifically brings up the Twins, and only the Twins, in his answer to the second question.

With good reason. The 2002 Minnesota Twins won their division – and began a streak of six division titles in nine years – with the most homegrown team I’ve ever seen from a contender. Of the 22 key players on their roster (the 12 hitters with more than 150 plate appearances, and the 10 pitchers with more than 67 innings), 13 of them had signed with the Twins as amateurs. Another seven had been acquired while still in the minor leagues. Just two of their players – Rick Reed and rookie middle reliever Tony Fiore – had ever suited up for another major league team. Not one player on their roster had been signed as a major-league free agent.

Now that’s a youth movement that worked. If Dayton Moore wants a pithy answer for what he means by “The Process”, his answer should be five words: “Do what the Twins did.”

Even if the Royals do what the Twins did, it might require Royals fans to be more patient than we’d like. Of the 13 Twins who were signed as amateurs by the team, seven of them signed by 1995, and 11 of them (all but Jacque Jones and Bobby Kielty) had signed by 1997. In the interview with John Sickels I linked to above, Moore said, “When Terry Ryan took over the Twins in 1994, it took them six or seven years to get to the point where they were consistently competitive.” As it happens, it took an average of six or seven years from the time these players entered the organization until they won the division.

When Moore took over right after the draft in 2006, Luke Hochevar, Blake Wood, Derrick Robinson, Everett Teaford, and Jarrod Dyson had just been drafted. The only members of the current 40-man roster who were in the organization prior to Moore taking over are Henry Barrera, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Mike Aviles, and the longest-tenured member of the Royals, Kila Ka’aihue (surprise!) [Correction: Mitch Maier also predated Moore's arrival.]

Moore’s first draft was 2007, when the Royals took Moustakas and Duffy with two of their first three picks, and got Greg Holland, David Lough, and Clint Robinson in later rounds. In 2008, the Royals drafted Hosmer, Mike Montgomery, Giavotella, Tim Melville, and John Lamb, among others. So if you put the starting point for the Royals’ youth movement as between 2007 and 2008, and tack on six or seven years, you wind up with 2014. If it feels like the Royals keep pushing the finish line just over the horizon, it’s because they have. Mission 2012 is now pretty clearly Mission 2013; if these numbers are accurate, 2013 might still be just a warm-up act for the real thing. At some point, foreplay loses its appeal.

The Twins came together as a contender quickly; as late as 2000, their eighth consecutive losing season, the Twins were still 69-93, even though many of the players that would be a part of their division winner two years later were already in place. Cristian Guzman and Corey Koskie were starting at shortstop and third base. Jacque Jones and Torii Hunter already patrolled two-thirds of the outfield. David Ortiz was the DH. Brad Radke and Eric Milton were in the rotation. Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins were in the bullpen. Johan Santana was carried as a Rule 5 guy all year despite a 6.49 ERA.

There is an expectation, I think, that as bad as the Royals might be in 2011, the minute the cavalry arrives the Royals can expect to play close to .500. I’ve said so myself. But the Twins’ example suggests that come 2012, even if Hosmer and Moustakas and Colon and Escobar and Cain are all in the lineup, even if Montgomery and Lamb and Duffy are all in the rotation, the Royals might still strain to reach 70 wins. But the Twins’ example also suggests that even if the Royals do suffer another 90-loss season in 2012, with all their hyped young talent in place, it does not preclude the Royals from going over .500 in 2013 and winning the division in 2014.

And if the example of the Twins requires patience, it also suggests that our patience will be greatly rewarded. You have to be heartened by the fact that the 2002 Twins were just the start of something great. The Twins won the division in 2003 and 2004, and again in 2006. In 2007 they slipped to 79-83, their worst record of the decade, but in 2008 they went 88-74 and tied the White Sox for the division before losing a tiebreaker game in Chicago. In 2009 they made up for it by winning a tiebreaker game at home against the Tigers. In 2010 they won the division going away.

What is most striking about the 2002 Twins, though, is that the team built a sustainable contender entirely from within without having prospects that were nearly as heralded as the Royals’ prospects are. Frankly, they were barely heralded at all. Pierzynski and Mientkiewicz never made BA’s Top 100 Prospects list, and not only because the guys at Baseball America didn’t know how to spell their last names. Corey Koskie was never a Top 100 Prospect, and not only because he was Canadian. Jacque Jones was never a Top 100 Prospect, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why – he was a second-round pick out of USC, and hit well in both of his minor-league seasons. Neither Dustan Mohr nor Bobby Kielty did either.

Cristian Guzman made the list once, in 1999, and he was #68. David Ortiz made the Top 100 list – once, and he was #84. Torii Hunter made it – once, and he was #79. Luis Rivas, amazingly, made the Top 100 list five times – more than everyone else in their lineup combined – but was never a Top 50 guy, topping out at #55 in 1998. The highest ranking achieved by any of the Twins’ hitters was actually Matt LeCroy, who reached #44 in 2000.

The only pitchers who sniffed the Top 100 list were Eric Milton, who ranked #25 after the Twins acquired him as the centerpiece of the Chuck Knoblauch trade, and LaTroy Hawkins, who was a three-time Top 100 guy (topping out at #30) in the mid-90s, years before he would find success as a middle reliever.

I am, frankly, astounded by this. The Twins built a perennial contender almost entirely from within, without a single prospect in Baseball America’s Top 20. The Royals have FIVE GUYS in this year’s Top 20. Only two members of the 2002 Twins had ever ranked in the Top 40, and one of those was a middle reliever. I mean, Aaron Freaking Crow was in the Top 40 last year.

This is, of course, amazingly good news if you’re a Royals fan. The Twins won 94 games in 2002 with a bunch of players who would have struggled to make the Royals’ Top 10 list if they were prospects today. Almost all of their prospects had flaws of some sort.

Mientkiewicz wasn’t a Top 100 Prospect because he lacked the power typical of a first baseman. Koskie was never a Top 100 Prospect because he was always very old for his league – he didn’t reach Double-A until he was almost 24, and didn’t start in the majors until he was almost 26. A.J. Pierzynski was never a Top 100 Prospect because he was an asshole. (I kid. Sort of.) David Ortiz had no defensive value; Jacque Jones didn’t walk; Torii Hunter didn’t hit. Johan Santana didn’t have his changeup yet. Kyle Lohse and Brad Radke, like seemingly every other right-handed pitcher the Twins have debuted since, were command-and-control guys without top-shelf stuff.

If anything, the 2002 Twins were just an appetizer to the main course of prospects that were coming through their system. Consider that by 2006, the Twins won the division with a team that had changed so dramatically that only one position player from the 2002 squad was still with the team, Torii Hunter. Among the pitchers, Santana had become an ace and Radke was still going strong. Kyle Lohse threw 64 innings with a 7.07 ERA in 2006. Juan Rincon, who threw 29 innings for the 2002 Twins, was a key reliever in 2006. And that’s it – the rest of the roster had been rolled over in just four years.

If you’re looking for top prospects, the 2006 Twins had them. Joe Mauer was BA’s #1 prospect in baseball – twice. Justin Morneau ranked #21, #14, and #16 in consecutive years. Michael Cuddyer was a Top 100 prospect five straight years, including a pair of Top-20 rankings. Jason Kubel was ranked #17 in 2005. Francisco Liriano ranked #6 prior to the 2006 season. Hell, even Boof Bonser had ranked #29 once upon a time.

A look at where Baseball America ranked the Twins in their annual organizational rankings is instructive. From 1995 to 2001, the Twins ranked 16th, 16th, 17th, 22nd, 10th, 10th, and 15th. This was a dead-average farm system for seven straight years – the same seven years that the Twins were quietly putting together a first-place team.  But in 2002, the Twins’ ratings bumped up suddenly; they were ranked 6th, 4th, 5th, 4th, and 6th from 2002 to 2006.

The 2002 Twins were, to be blunt, an anomaly. They weren’t supposed to be that good. That the team played so well is partly a function of the fact that some of their prospects were significantly underrated. Torii Hunter was a tools goof who never hit in the minors, until one day he did. Corey Koskie put up good numbers in the minors but was too old to be an impact player in the majors, until one day he was. Jacque Jones…I don’t know why Jones didn’t get more love. Partly, the Twins played so well because they were lucky – the Twins only outscored their opponents by 56 runs in 2002, and “should” have won around 86 games instead of 94.

And partly, it’s because while the Twins’ farm system didn’t churn out any elite, can’t-miss prospects during that time frame, the farm system churned out so much talent that the Twins didn’t have any real holes on their roster either. Of the eight most-used hitters, no one had an OPS+ higher than Hunter’s 124 – but no one was lower than Guzman’s 79, and only Guzman and Rivas were under 100 (i.e. below-average hitters). While Santana was brilliant as a swingman, the Twins’ four main starters (Reed, Lohse, Radke, and Milton) were all average or slightly-above. The bullpen was outstanding – the five main relievers all had ERAs of 3.27 or lower.

And we can’t discount the impact of a managerial change before the season. Tom Kelly had been at the helm of the Twins since late in the 1986 season, and had kept his job through all eight consecutive losing seasons. As the years and losing took their toll, the perception was that Kelly became more rigid in his ways, and less accepting of the folly of youth. My memory of what happened is a little, but if I recall correctly, in 2000 things came to such a head that the Twins demoted a cadre of their young major leaguers en masse back to Triple-A.

Doug Mientkiewicz went back to Triple-A in 2000, no surprise as he hit just .229/.324/.330 as a rookie in 1999 – but was left in Salt Lake City all year even as he hit .334/.406/.524. Chad Allen, who played 137 games and hit .277/.330/.395 as a rookie in 1999, didn’t make the squad out of spring training in 2000. Torii Hunter, also a rookie in 1999, was farmed back to SLC at the end of May, after his numbers had dropped to .207/.243/.300. Something clicked, and in 55 games in Triple-A Hunter hit .368 with 18 homers; after returning to Minnesota at the end of July, he hit .332/.371/.485 the rest of the season, and turned into Torii Hunter the next season. Most notably, Todd Walker was optioned to Triple-A in the summer of 2000 after two promising seasons as the Twins’ starting second baseman, then was dumped on the Rockies in a trade.

In retrospect, the Twins were right: Walker’s bat never did make up for his glove, and Hunter might never have learned how to hit without a return performance in Triple-A. But at the time, as I recall, the atmosphere in Minnesota bordered on toxic. Following the 2001 season, Kelly retired, and was replaced with Ron Gardenhire, whose optimism and humor were in stark contrast to his predecessor. Gardenhire enters his 10th season as the Twins’ manager this spring. Kelly-Gardenhire doesn’t quite rival Alston-Lasorda, but you’d be hard pressed to find another manager duo that helmed one team for a quarter-century.

But to bring this back to the Royals: if you want to argue that having the best farm system in baseball is no guarantee of success, I won’t disagree. If you want to argue that it will be difficult for the Royals to win unless Dayton Moore starts spending his free-agent dollars more effectively, I’m on your side.

But if you think that the Royals can’t build a contender simply by staying the course that they’re on, well, that’s where I disagree. Yes, it would be nice if Moore would sign actual valuable players with his discretionary dollars. But even if he doesn’t – or even if he doesn’t sign any players in free agency at all – the Royals can still win in 2013 or 2014. I know this, because it’s been done before. And it was done by a team that, while it had impressive depth in minor-league talent, had nowhere near the kind of star-level prospects the Royals do.

I look at the Royals having the lowest payroll in the majors this year, and I see a golden opportunity for them to flex some financial muscle over the next few years. But many fans, scarred by the early years of the David Glass Era, are unwilling to believe that any money will be spent. I disagree – the Jose Guillen and Gil Meche contracts are proof enough for me – but even if you believe that Glass is still a skinflint, he can’t be any worse than Carl Pohlad was for the Twins at the turn of the century.

In 1999, the Twins had the second-lowest payroll in baseball. In 2000, they had the lowest payroll. In 2001, they also had the lowest payroll. Not that Pohlad needed any encouragement, but he actually had his own perverse incentives to keep payroll down. The Twins were openly talked about as a candidate for contraction unless they got a new stadium - and by keeping payroll down, Pohlad could argue that the team’s low payroll was the only way to keep him from losing millions on the team. Yet despite all that, the Twins won the division in 2002. With the fourth-lowest payroll in the major leagues.

If your minor league system produces enough talent, not even the cheapest owner in baseball, the man who was rumored to be the inspiration for C. Montgomery Burns, can keep you from winning.

Does that mean The Process will work? I can’t answer that. I just know that it can work. I know this because it’s worked before, for a team that had less talent and fewer resources than the Royals do now. There are going to be speed bumps and detours along the way, and I guarantee you that at some point, something will happen that will test our faith in the youth movement.

But there’s every reason to believe that the process – lower case “p” – that has brought six division titles in nine years to Minnesota is about two years away from delivering similar results to Kansas City. It won’t happen this year, and it may not happen next year. And maybe it won’t deliver six division titles in nine years. But better times are just around the corner. That’s a process I can believe in.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Meaning of the Minors, Part 3.

To answer the question of whether the Royals can build a contender through player development alone, I thought it would be helpful to look at recent teams who were able to assemble a contender fairly quickly after a prolonged stretch of losing. I used the following criteria:

1) A team which had at least five consecutive losing seasons, followed by
2) A playoff appearance in the first or second year after the stretch of losing seasons.

I was surprised by how many teams I found. In the last 20 years (1991-2010), 11 teams met those criteria, including one team last year (the Reds). Last year’s Rangers almost qualified as well – they reached the World Series after losing seasons from 2005-2008, and again from 2000-2003 – their winning season in 2004 kept them from making the list even though it was their only winning season in a nine-year stretch.

(Ned Yost’s 2008 Brewers also came very close – only an 81-81 record in 2006 kept them from 14 consecutive losing seasons from 1993-2006.)

It’s too early to know whether the Reds will sustain their winning. But of the other 10 teams, seven of them made another playoff appearance within two years. That itself is fairly impressive; after a prolonged period of losing, you would suspect that some of these playoff appearances would be flukes, but for the most part they were not. Let’s dispense with the three teams that did not go on to repeat glory:

The 1993 Philadelphia Phillies. Speaking of stone-cold flukes…the Phillies had six consecutive losing seasons from 1987 to 1992, and seven straight losing seasons from 1994 to 2000, but somehow won 97 games and the NL pennant in 1993. That Philly team was hardly a youth movement; six of the eight regulars in the lineup were 30 or older, and the offensive philosophy was pure Moneyball, ten years before the book was written. The Phillies had three guys – Darren Daulton, John Kruk, and Lenny Dykstra – draw at least 110 walks. Only one other team in major league history (the 1949 Philadelphia A’s) can make that claim.

The 2003 Florida Marlins. The Marlins celebrated their second World Championship in 2003 – and also celebrated their second winning season ever. (The 1997 team would be on this list, except that the franchise didn’t play its first game until 1993, so it only had four losing seasons in the tank at that point.) It’s hard to know what lessons to take from this team, which doesn’t allow winning to become a distraction from its main priority of profit-taking. The Marlins did have a lot of homegrown players, such as Luis Castillo, Alex Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and spectacular rookie performances from Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. Mike Lowell and Brad Penny had also been acquired as minor leaguers in shrewd deals. Despite trading Derrek Lee right after the season, the Marlins managed to stay above .500 the next two seasons, and have been around .500 ever since.

The 2006 Detroit Tigers. I’m not going to break down this team again, because I have already done so – in excruciating detail – here and here. Suffice it to say that while there was some homegrown talent here – primarily Brandon Inge and Curtis Granderson on offense, Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, and Joel Zumaya on defense – the 2006 Tigers are an exhibit in what a GM can accomplish with shrewd trades and free agent signings in just three years. Five years later, it’s still hard to impress upon people just how impressive a job Dave Dombrowski did with that franchise. If you want to criticize Dayton Moore’s job with the Royals, the easiest way is to compare him to Dombrowski’s job with the Tigers at a comparable point in his tenure.

But precisely because Dombrowski’s magic act involved a heap of veteran talent, it has proven harder for him to sustain the Tigers’ success. The Tigers have remained competitive, and of course lost the AL Central crown in a one-game playoff to the Twins in 2009. Regardless, the 2006 Tigers are not a good comparison for what the Royals are trying to do.

That leaves seven other teams. In increasing order of relevance, they are:

The 2005 San Diego Padres. I’m tempted to disqualify them, because their appearance on this list is solely the result of being a part of the weakest division in major league history, the 2005 NL West. The Padres won the division with 82 games, the lowest winning percentage ever for a first-place team. They actually won more games (87) the year before, after losing seasons from 1999-2003.

On top of that, this wasn’t a young team at all; five of their eight regulars were 33 or older. In any case, the Padres won the division again in 2006, were competitive in 2007, and then the bottom fell out in 2008.

The 2000 Oakland Athletics. I wouldn’t say that what the A’s did is irrelevant to the Royals, but the perception of the A’s is so colored by Moneyball that it’s hard to tease out reality. The first of four consecutive playoff teams was exceedingly young in places; the A’s had Eric Chavez (22 years old) at third base, Ben Grieve (24) in left field, Terrence Long (24) in center field, Ramon Hernandez (24) behind the plate, and Miguel Tejada (26) at shortstop. Long had been acquired from the Mets in a trade deadline deal the year before; the other guys were all signed by the A’s. And on the mound, of course, sophomore Tim Hudson (24) was joined by rookies Mark Mulder (22) and Barry Zito (22).

So half of the A’s roster was the product of a youth movement that the Royals can only hope to emulate. But the other half was pure Moneyball. Jason Giambi was homegrown, but he was 29 and pure take-and-rake. Matt Stairs patrolled right field. Randy Velarde was the second baseman. The DH was supposed to be John Jaha, but after he failed spectacularly (in 97 at-bats, Jaha batted .175, but still managed a .398 OBP), the A’s turned to some combination of (Royals castoff) Jeremy Giambi and Olmedo Saenz. The rotation contained stalwarts Gil Heredia and Kevin Appier, and insomuch as Moneyball was supposed to be outsmarting your opponents, I will always submit that any team with Kevin Appier is outsmarting its opponents.

The bullpen was the perfect manifestation of baseball arbitrage, taking advantage of undervalued assets. The year before the A’s had traded Billy Taylor, who had been their closer for years but was pitching on fumes, for a once-heralded arm coming back from major surgery, Jason Isringhausen. Izzy was put into the closer’s role immediately and excelled; his set-up men in 2000 included soft-tosser Jeff Tam and 43-year-old changeup artist Doug Jones.

The A’s would win go on to three more playoff appearances in a row, and while their Moneyball ways played a part, having Tejada, Chavez, and The Big Three starters played a substantially bigger one.

The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. One of the arguments I’ve heard as to why it’s unrealistic for the Royals to build a contender solely through their farm system is that for as much as the Tampa Bay Rays owe their success to their farm system, they would not have won the AL East twice in the last three years without acquiring talent in other ways.

Sure, their farm system was responsible for Longoria and Upton and Crawford, but the rest of the 2008 offense came from outside: they pilfered Dioner Navarro from the Dodgers, grabbed Ben Zobrist in a small deal with the Astros, and got Jason Bartlett in that huge Delmon Young trade with the Twins. They signed Carlos Pena off of the scrap heap and brought in Akinori Iwamura from Japan. The Navarro deal also brought them Edwin Jackson, and they also got Matt Garza in the Young trade, complementing their home-grown staff of Scott Kazmir, Andy Sonnanstine, and James Shields.

They won in part by radically upgrading their defense; Iwamura was moved from third to second to accommodate Longoria, Upton moved from second base (where he was awful) to center field (where he was excellent), and Bartlett was a plus defender acquired for a defensive liability in Young. And the Rays’ entire 2008 bullpen – Troy Percival, J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, and Trever Miller – came from outside the organization, at least until David Price came up at year’s end and took over as the closer.

The Rays would win the division again two years later, with almost the same group of players. Price had ascended to the role of ace, and Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis gave the Rays a rotation that, aside from Garza, was completely homegrown.

The 1991 Atlanta Braves. I’ve written about the ’91 Braves almost as much as I have written about the 2006 Tigers, so let me keep this brief. The key point to understand about the Braves is that while they were building the elite farm system in all of baseball in the early 1990s, most of that talent had not arrived in Atlanta by 1991, making their pennant-winning team that much more impressive. Yes, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery were drafted by the team, John Smoltz acquired when he was a Double-A pitcher going nowhere, and Ron Gant and David Justice were key hitters in their lineup.

But what propelled that team from last to first was one of the greatest defensive makeovers of all time, at least until the 2008 Rays came along. The Braves signed Terry Pendleton to a four-year contract that belongs on the Top 10 list of “worst-looking free-agent deals that worked out beyond everyone’s wildest imaginations.” Rafael Belliard, perhaps the worst hitter in major-league history to last 17 seasons in the majors, played shortstop. Sid Bream played first base. Otis Nixon was brought in to run everything down in left field. And as a result, the Braves went from dead last in the NL in runs allowed in 1990, to third-fewest in 1991.

Greg Maddux would sign in 1993, Javy Lopez came up in 1994, Chipper Jones in 1995, Andruw Jones in 1996, and the Braves were on their way. But at least at the beginning, the Braves were not an entirely home-grown team.

The 2007 Colorado Rockies. The Rockies were not only on a stretch of six straight losing campaigns before 2007, the franchise had never won more than 83 games in a season. And with two weeks left in the season, it didn’t look like they’d win more than 83 games in 2007 either, before they won 21 of their next 22 games, the last seven in the NLDS and NLCS, in one of the greatest closing kicks of all time. (They then got a swift reminder as to which league was superior at the time, getting swept by the Red Sox in the World Series.)

Dan O’Dowd had learned his lesson from the debacles of the Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle signings, and the Rockies were largely homegrown. In contrast to the Royals, however, the Rockies’ prospects had matured over a wide timeframe. Troy Tulowitzki was a rookie in 2007, but Garrett Atkins and Matt Holliday were both 27, Brad Hawpe was 28, and Todd Helton was 33. On the mound, Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook were a pair of home-grown aces, and the Rockies got a big second-half lift from rookies Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales. Closer Brian Fuentes had been acquired as a pre-rookie in a 2001 trade of Jeff Cirillo, but Manny Corpas was the only other homegrown reliever in the pen.

The Rockies fell below .500 again in 2008, but won 92 games and the NL Wild Card again in 2009, and are now a perennial pre-season contender in the division.

The 1995 Cleveland Indians. Speaking as a baseball fan, what John Hart and his front office did in Cleveland ranks as my favorite rebuilding process ever. From 1982 to 1993, the Indians had 11 losing seasons in 12 years. In 1994, they were over .500 and nipping on the White Sox’ heels when the strike came – giving us just a taste of how good they were about to be. In 1995, they won 100 games. In a strike-shortened season. Their 100-44 record was the highest winning percentage by any major league team since the 1954 Indians went 111-43. They would go on to win five more AL Central titles over the next six years.

At DH, the Indians had brought in 39-year-old Eddie Murray, who had his last great season, and behind the plate they had brought in 38-year-old Tony Pena to caddy for Sandy Alomar, who wasn’t an Indians farmhand but had won the Rookie of the Year award in 1990 after the Indians acquired him and two other players for Joe Carter. One of those other two players was Carlos Baerga, the starting second baseman.

At first base, the Indians had Paul Sorrento, who they had traded Curt Leskanic and Oscar Munoz to acquire prior to the 1992 season. At the time Sorrento had less than 200 major-league at-bats. In center field, there was Kenny Lofton, who the Indians acquired as a pre-rookie at the 1991 winter meetings for catcher Eddie Taubensee (who had been a Rule 5 pick the year before!), in one of the most lopsided trades of the decade.

The other three guys in the lineup were all drafted by the organization: Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Albert Belle. If you’re looking for an absolute best-case scenario for Messrs. Moustakas, Hosmer, and Myers, well, you found it. Eight of the nine regulars in the Indians’ lineup were either drafted by the team or acquired before they had batted more than 200 times in the majors.

I don’t have the time or the expertise to do it myself, but if you were to come up with some sort of formula to rank the greatest lineups of all time – based not only on what the hitters did that year, but on what they did over their careers – I’d be surprised if the 1995 Indians weren’t near the top of the list. They had two clear Hall of Famers in Thome and Ramirez, two guys who played at a Hall of Fame peak for a period of time in Lofton and Belle, and even Baerga looked like a future Hall of Famer at the end of that season, with a .305/.345/.454 line and 971 career hits, as a second baseman who was just 26 when the season ended.

The pitching staff, though, was mostly acquired. Only two starters – Charles Nagy and Chad Ogea – were homegrown, as was key set-up man Julian Tavarez. Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser were savvy free-agent signings, and Jose Mesa was a failed Orioles starter turned elite – for a time – closer. John Hart did a masterful job of supplementing a historic wave of offensive talent from the minors with veterans who filled in the holes with average performances. But the team was not a pure youth movement.

So to review: six of the nine franchises that built a playoff team after years of losing proved to have staying power. More notably, five of the six teams that were built mostly with young talent would go on to make multiple playoff appearances, with the only exception being the 2003 Marlins, a team that isn’t representative for a variety of reasons.

That brings us to the final franchise, the only team in the last 20 years that can claim to have built, almost entirely from within, a contender out of a perennial loser. That team is…worthy of its own column. Check back here tomorrow for more on that team, and the lessons that Royals fans might be able to take from them.