Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Royals Today: 4/12/11.

The first week-and-a-half of the season has been a little surprising, on a professional and a personal level. The professional surprise is that the Royals have continued to play well, thanks to some surprising offensive performances, less-putrid-than-expected performances from the rotation, and some terrific work by the rookies in the bullpen.

The personal surprise is that unlike in 2003, when the Royals started 9-0 and 16-3, or even just two years ago, when the Royals started 18-11, I find myself remarkably even-keeled about the Royals’ start. Blasé, even. It’s not that I don’t care if the Royals do well or not; in fact, I think it’s the exact opposite. What made 2003 so much fun at the start was that it was completely inexplicable. Even eight years later, I still have no idea how that team played so well. Runelvys Hernandez was your Opening Day starter. Angel Berroa was the Rookie of the Year. Aaron Guiel was an above-average right fielder. Darrell May was a very good starting pitcher all year. Jose Lima was effective.

Going into that season, there was not only no reason to think the Royals would be any good – they had just lost 100 games for the first time the year before – but there was no reason to think their fortunes were going to change any time soon. According to Baseball America, the top prospect in the system going into the 2003 season was Zack Greinke…but Berroa was #2. Jimmy Gobble was #3; Ken Harvey was #4. Mike MacDougal, Alexis Gomez, Colt Griffin, Kyle Snyder, Andres Blanco, and Jeremy Hill rounded out the Top 10.

Needless to say, when the Royals started the season with a nine-game winning streak, I couldn’t help but get caught up in it. Why wouldn’t I? As a Royals fan, what did I have to lose? And what else did I have to get excited about?

The 2009 start seemed a little more real – ahem – because the Royals were coming off a 75-87 season that included an 18-8 September. Also, there seemed to be more substance to the team’s performance; Zack Greinke was the best pitcher in baseball, Gil Meche and Kyle Davies and Brian Bannister were pitching well, and even Jose Guillen was hitting well enough to make his contract tolerable. Luke Hochevar was even dominating down in Omaha, and figured to get called up soon. It was all a mirage – well, everything but Greinke pitching at a Cy Young caliber. But it was hard to hold back, precisely because it looked like Dayton Moore had been building with 2009 in mind. (Why else would he have signed Willie Bloomquist and Kyle Farnsworth?) If the Royals’ front office expected to win, and the Royals were winning, who was I to argue?

But this year, it’s so much easier to take a wait-and-see approach to this team. Having the best farm system in baseball affords us that luxury. The expectation that the Royals are building to something truly meaningful starting in 2012 takes some of the pressure off being a fan in 2011. As Joe Sheehan succinctly put it in his Newsletter before the season, “All things considered, this is going to be the worst Royals team for the rest of the decade.” At this point, we’re playing with house money. If the Royals continue to play well and stay in contention, it’s gravy – but either way, I’m still optimistic about the future.

- That doesn’t mean I can’t have concerns about certain individual performances. Robinson Tejeda is showing reduced velocity this year, and while it hasn’t shown up on the scoreboard, it has certainly manifested itself in the box score – Tejeda has struck out just one of the 22 batters he’s faced this season, after striking out just over a quarter of batters faced (184 of 728) since joining the Royals in 2008. Tejeda has compensated by throwing more off-speed stuff – in particular, he’s using his change-up a lot more – but there’s only so much adjusting you can do when your fastball, according to Fangraphs, goes from 94 to 89.

I’m nearly as concerned about Joakim Soria. Unlike Tejeda, there have been no official proclamations about Soria’s velocity. Per Fangraphs, Soria’s fastball has dropped a tick; he’s averaged 89.6 mph this season after averaging between 90.9 and 91.9 each of the last four years. However, this fine article by Mike Fast at Baseball Prospectus last week points out that fastballs are typically 1 to 1.5 mph slower in April than they are in mid-summer, likely due to the cooler temperatures at the start of the year. (And according to the article, Soria was actually throwing harder in Spring Training than he was last September.)

But while Soria’s velocity loss may not be meaningful, it’s been accompanied by a degradation in performance. I’m not talking about his 6.75 ERA in all of seven innings, which is pretty meaningless. I’m talking about the fact that, like Tejeda, Soria is not missing any bats this season. He’s struck out only two of the 28 batters he’s faced, and batters have swung and missed at just 4% of his pitches this season, compared to his career average of 11%. Some stats, like ERA, take a long time to normalize, and seven innings of data mean nothing. But for stats like strikeout rate and swinging strike percentage, the data normalizes much quicker, and small samples are more meaningful. I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with Soria; he did strike out Miguel Cabrera on a nasty hook on Sunday. But I am saying that I’ll be watching him closely going forward.

- I gave some love to Alex Gordon last time out, and he’s continuing to hit – he actually leads the league in hits with 15. The numbers corroborate the theory that he’s adjusted his approach to favor solid contact over a swing-for-the-fences approach; he’s hitting singles but only has one home run. That tradeoff is more than worth it if he keeps hitting like he has, but more importantly, it’s a lot easier for a line-drive hitter to add power to his game than for a pure power hitter to start hitting for average. Gordon’s not suddenly going to turn into Ichiro Suzuki; he has the kind of power you can’t teach, and if he keeps making solid contact, he’ll hit 20 homers just by accident.

- I think it’s kind of ridiculous to bury Mike Aviles on the basis of six games, no matter how poorly he played – both at the plate and in the field – in those six games. Aviles’ career line is .293/.323/.420, and he hit .304/.335/.413 last season coming off Tommy John surgery. He hit six homers last September; it’s absurd to think that he’s suddenly forgotten how to hit on the basis of one bad week.

That said, I can’t say that I’m upset to Aviles on the bench if it means more playing time for Wilson Betemit. I may be Betemit’s biggest fan, but if I am, it’s not because of what I think Betemit can be, it’s simply because of what I think Betemit is right now. He went 4-for-4 with a walk on Sunday, and is hitting .381/.500/.571 in six games. Since joining the Royals last year, he has a line of .303/.387/.515, in 90 games – not an insubstantial sample size. And he plays third base. He’s not a good third baseman; he’s not even a mediocre one. But my God, how bad do you have to play third base to not have value when you can hit as well as Betemit does? Ryan Braun bad? Butch Hobson-adjusting-the-bone-chips-in-his-elbow-after-every-throw bad?

The solution here would be to get Betemit and Aviles in the lineup…except that the Royals want to see what they have in Chris Getz once and for all. And given that 1) Getz is the youngest of the three players; 2) he is the best defender and the best baserunner of the three; and 3) he’s hitting .345 in the early going and has drawn five walks already, well, it’s hard to fault them.

The Royals have found themselves in an unfamiliar situation – they have three deserving players to fill two positions. They have – wait for it – depth. They have options. If Getz reverts back to his 2010 form, they can replace him painlessly. If Aviles has suddenly lost it, or if Betemit goes back to making error a day, they don’t have to put up with it. This isn’t a bad thing, so long as the Royals give each of them sufficient playing time to properly evaluate them.

I don’t expect Aviles’ benching to be any kind of permanent; I think we’re going to see Aviles and Betemit alternate at third base, with Aviles occasionally spelling Getz at second. I think Betemit will get the occasional start at 1B or DH, replacing Ka’aihue against a tough left-hander. (Update: With LHP Brian Duensing pitching for Minnesota, tonight’s lineup does in fact have Betemit in the lineup for Ka’aihue…but Betemit’s at third, and Aviles is the DH. I guess Yost is even more dissatisfied with Aviles’ defense than I thought.) As the season progresses and the Royals play 15 days in a row, Getz or Aviles may give Escobar a day off at shortstop. And in the end, I think that by the end of May all three guys will be playing at least half the time. With any luck, by the time Mike Moustakas is deemed ready, the Royals will have used their time to figure out who he’ll be replacing. If Betemit continues to hit, they might even be able to fetch something of substance for him in trade.

- While Gordon is hitting .357/.400/.548, and Betemit is hitting .381/.500/.471, neither one of them is leading the team in any of the triple-slash categories. That’s because Billy Butler, with a .394/.512/.667 line, leads the team in all three.

I confess to taking Butler for granted a bit myself. We all know he’s a preternaturally talented hitter, but because he’s limited to first base and because he hasn’t shown elite power yet, it’s been easy to focus on the things he can’t do (like stay out of the double play) instead of the one thing he can, which is to strike a baseball with extreme malice.

Over the last two seasons, Butler has hit .309/.375/.480 and averaged 48 doubles and 18 homers a season. If that’s all he is, that’s a hell of a player, a poor man’s Edgar Martinez. But it’s not unreasonable to hope he could be something more. He is still just 24, after all. (Okay, he turns 25 on Monday. But still.)

In the small sample of at-bats I’ve seen from him this year, it seemed to me that he was elevating the ball more. He’s hit two homers already. One was a 3-1 fastball from a lefty (Chris Sale) who touches 100 mph, and supplied all the power. But the other was off a right-hander, a 2-1 fastball that was on the outside corner and a little up, and Butler simply powered the ball a little to the right of dead center field. It was an impressive swing.

So I checked the numbers to see whether Butler was in fact hitting the ball in the air more, and…uh, yeah. His groundball/flyball ratio has hovered between 1.37 and 1.43 in his four seasons in the majors; his ratio this year is 0.83. His groundball%, which has always been between 47 and 49%, is at 33%. And he has yet to hit into a double play.

It’s nine games, and a sample size of just 30 balls put in play. But those are dramatically different numbers than what we’ve seen from Butler in the past. Keep a close eye on how many balls Butler hits on the ground over the next few weeks. If he’s learned to avoid topping the ball while still making hard contact, well, let’s just say that five-year contract would look even nicer than it did when he signed it.

- Luke Hochevar has made three starts so far, and the early returns are looking good. He’s walked just two batters and struck out 12 in 19 innings. On the other hand, he’s given up six homers already.

Hochevar’s groundball/flyball ratio, which has slowly ticked down throughout his career, has dropped further, to 1.17, with a 42% groundball rate. That’s roughly league average. His home run rate is nowhere close to league average, though – one-quarter of the flyballs hit off of Hochevar have gone over the fence, compared to a league average of something like 11%.

Hochevar has been maddening throughout his career in part because his luck is so bad at times that it seems like he’s less unlucky than simply cursed. Two years ago, he threw 143 innings, had a fine strikeout to walk ratio of 106 to 46, and got groundballs 47% of the time – and somehow wound up with a 6.55 ERA. His xFIP – one of the best ways to measure what a pitcher’s ERA “should” be, assuming normal luck – was 4.28.

Maybe Hochevar is one of those weird pitchers for whom the numbers don’t always even out. But for now, I can only assume that he won’t continue to give up two homers a start. If you just look at Hochevar’s xFIP for his entire career, the peaks and valleys even out and you see a pretty steady improvement – from 5.20 in his cup of coffee in 2007, to 4.64, to 4.28, to 4.09 last year. This year, he’s at 3.94.

Which is to say, there’s no reason why he can’t be an above-average starter in the major leagues. No reason except that the laws of probability seem to conspire against him.

- Finally, this wouldn’t be a Royals recap without some discussion of the minor leaguers. The minor leagues just got underway last Thursday, and it’s way too early to make even premature conclusions. The only thing that really matters at this point is whether everyone is healthy or not.

On that note, the Royals got some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that Brett Eibner, a highly-regarded college outfielder who was drafted in the second round last year (and got $1.2 million to sign), and who homered in his first pro game, injured his thumb diving for a ball in his second game. Apparently there’s ligament damage; I don’t know what’s the expected recovery time for this injury, but I’d be shocked if he’s back inside of several weeks, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s out for a couple of months. For a guy who’s already 22, who has a ton of tools but also needs some reps – he was a two-way player in college who many teams wanted as a pitcher – this is a tough break.

The good news is that, despite loads of evidence to the contrary, we can now state with some certainty that Noel Arguelles does, in fact, exist. The Cuban bonus baby finally took a mound last night in Wilmington, about 16 months after he signed a 5-year, $6.9 million deal with the Royals. He pitched well, throwing four shutout innings, allowing just two hits and no walks. However, he struck out just one batter. J.J. Cooper of Baseball America was in attendance and reported that Arguelles was throwing in the 88-90 range, mixing in a slow curve for strikes.

That may be the best we can ask for at this point. Arguelles was touted as a southpaw who could throw 94 when he signed, which made him the Target to Aroldis Chapman’s Neiman Marcus. But after missing a full season to shoulder woes and finally going under the knife, it’s not surprising that he’s lost 5 mph on his fastball. Even at that velocity, as a lefty with command of secondary stuff, he’s a definite prospect. But you don’t give seven million dollars to amateur pitchers who throw 89. He’s back on the prospect map, but we have to hope that his fastball velocity rises with the temperature. If it does, well, they say you can never have too much left-handed pitching, but the Royals might put that maxim to the test more than any other team in recent memory.