Thursday, April 5, 2012

Royals Report Card 2011: Part Eight.

Alright, we’re into the lightning round. Let’s do this fast.

Louis Coleman: B+

The Royals drafted Coleman in the fifth round of the 2009 draft, and he was seen as a signability pick – he was a college senior, so he had less leverage to sign. But he was an excellent college pitcher, the ace of the LSU staff and the guy who recorded the final out of the College World Series that year.

Because he didn’t throw that hard and threw from a three-quarters delivery, teams didn’t see him ever succeeding as a starting pitcher in the pros. But the Royals quite sensibly thought that he had the ability to be a situational right-handed reliever at the very least, and when it’s the fifth round, it makes perfect sense to draft a guy who may have a limited ceiling but also is a safe bet to have a major-league role in some capacity.

And that’s exactly what the Royals got. He made it to the majors in less than two seasons, after a minor league career that included a 2.16 ERA in 121 innings, just 76 hits and 31 walks*, and 141 strikeouts.

*: From now on, just assume that “walks” means “unintentional walks” in my writing. I’m tired of writing out the qualifier, but I think it’s silly to lump the two together.

Coleman was the first callup of last season, after he had whiffed 16 of the 30 batters he faced in Triple-A, and had a very good year: 2.87 ERA in 60 innings, 44 hits, 20 walks, 64 Ks. His fastball is a little straight, leading to nine home runs, and he not surprisingly had a big platoon split: right-handed hitters hit .180/.260/.360, while LHB hit .257/.371/.432. (Although that OBP against LHP is larded with six intentional walks in just 74 at-bats.) But let’s be honest: he would have been the best pitcher in the Royals bullpen in most years between 1996 and 2006.

And now, he’s back in Omaha, because the Royals felt he wasn’t one of their four best right-handed relievers. You could quibble with the decision to keep Everett Teaford ahead of him, but the Royals do need at least one reliever who can go 2 or 3 innings at a time, and Coleman isn’t that guy. This is a deep bullpen.

The gambit to take Coleman in the middle rounds of the draft worked so well that the following year, the Royals did the same thing, using their fourth round pick on a senior college left-hander out of Florida. Kevin Chapman may well turn out to be an even more useful bullpen piece than Coleman, but he’ll be doing so in Houston.

Tim Collins: C

The biggest compliment I can give Collins is that while he started last season as a bit of a freak show – hey, everyone, come see the “5-foot-7” pitcher! He looks like the batboy! – by the end of the year, what I was hearing about Collins were complaints from fans that he walked too many guys, and even some doubts about whether he was all that he was hyped to be. In other words, he was being treated like every other pitcher, height be damned. That’s a victory in itself.

No question, Collins’ control needs refinement. He walked 46 batters in 67 innings, or 6.2 per 9 innings. The only pitcher in the majors last year (min: 50 IP) with a higher walk rate was Aroldis Chapman.

But when I watched Collins pitch last year, I didn’t get the vibe that he couldn’t throw strikes, the way Mitch Williams, to name another 21-year-old left-handed rookie who walked a ton of batters, did. I got the vibe that Collins simply chose to work the edges of the strike zone, and was willing to walk a batter rather than give him something good to hit. It seemed to me like he wasn’t walking a lot of guys on four or five pitches, but that he was getting to 3-and-2 on everyone, and then daring them to take a pitch.

Of course, perception doesn’t always fit reality. But the data is suggestive.

While Collins had the second-highest rate of walks per nine innings, he had the tenth-lowest percentage of pitches that were strikes, at 59%. Kyle Drabek, at 55%, was the wildest pitcher in the majors by this metric, but other guys who threw fewer strikes than Collins included Francisco Liriano and Trevor Cahill.

Of the 295 batters Collins faced, 60 of them – over 20% - reached a full count. Of those 60 batters, nine struck out – but 26 walked, more than half the walks Collins surrendered.

I don’t have the data mining skills to know how those numbers compared to a typical pitcher. But I can compare him to Chapman, who faced 207 batters, and only 33 reached a full count. (17 walked, 8 struck out.) I looked at two other wild hurlers, Henry Rodriguez and Carlos Marmol. Rodriguez reached a full count on 60 of 295 batters; Marmol did so on 58 of 327 batters.

Not counting intentional walks, Chapman walked a batter on four pitches 9 times. Marmol did as well. Rodriguez did so 12 times. Collins only did so 7 times.

The sample size is small, and the differences may well be meaningless. But I’m glad to see that the data is at least suggestive that my theory makes sense. If Collins’ high walk rate was partly a matter of choice, it would seem to be an easier problem to fix than if it was a matter of him simply not being able to find the plate.

Mind you, there are other, more fundamental reasons to think his walk rate will improve this year. He was just 21 last year, and a rookie, and young pitchers tend to improve their command more than any other skill as they reach their mid-20s. While he was wild in the minors, it wasn’t nearly to this degree – he walked 94 batters in 223 innings, or 3.79 per nine.

It’s possible Collins takes the Mitch Williams path and never learns to harness his command. But I’m optimistic he goes more the Scott Radinsky route. Radinsky was a 22-year-old left-handed fireballer who walked 35 batters in 52 innings as a rookie. The following year he walked just 21 batters in 71 innings, and was one of the best left-handed relievers in the majors. Despite a shoulder injury that cost him the 1994 season, Radinsky still had an ERA under 3 five times in an eight-year span before his career petered out.

Aaron Crow: B+

I mean, sure, Crow was coming off a season in which he managed a 5.73 ERA in 163 innings split between A-ball and Double-A, so yeah, I’d have to say he exceeded expectations. He made the All-Star Team as a rookie; when he was selected he had a 1.36 ERA in 40 innings, having allowed just 26 hits and 15 walks with 39 strikeouts.

In his very next outing, he allowed 3 runs in 1.2 innings and blew a 4-2 lead in the eighth inning on July 4th. From that point until the end of the season, Crow threw just 22 innings, allowed 29 hits and 14 walks, with a 5.24 ERA. He missed several weeks with a sore shoulder.

Still, it was a successful year overall, and if the goal was to give Crow a year to acclimate himself to the majors by pitching in the bullpen, allowing him to gain confidence in getting hitters out by airing out his fastball and concentrating solely on his fastball and slider, with the intention to then move him to the rotation – you know, the way teams used to break in promising young arms – it would have been a great stepping-stone year.

But that’s not how it works anymore, unfortunately. Teams have placed such an emphasis on their bullpen – even as we know that it’s much easier to find quality relievers than quality starters – that they’re afraid to mess with success. They can’t risk losing 70 good innings, even if it might one day lead to getting 200 good innings. The Royals officially moved Crow back into the pen after Joakim Soria’s injury, but the odds were always slim that he was going to be in the rotation this year. And the Royals have already made noises about how Crow, having thrown only 62 innings last year, would have to be gently moved back to a starting role by stretching out his arm.

I’ve tried to be polite about this in the past, but it hasn’t worked, so pardon me for being more explicit: THE VERDUCCI EFFECT IS BULLSHIT. There is NO NO NO evidence that a pitcher who exceeds his previous year’s innings total by 30, or 40, or even 200, is more likely to get hurt than a pitcher who doesn’t. Yes, if you take a list of young pitchers who exceeded their innings total, some of them will get hurt the following year, and some will see their performance erode. But young pitchers get hurt. And young pitchers who exceeded their innings total probably did so because they were pitching better than they have before. When those pitchers decline the following year, that’s not the Verducci Effect: that’s regression to the mean. Every serious statistical study that has looked at this concept has come to the same conclusion: there is no magic threshold of innings increase that a young pitcher should not cross.

Aaron Crow threw 163 innings in 2010. That’s actually an incredibly high total for a minor-league pitcher in today’s era. I don’t have the time to check, but I’d wager that’s the most innings thrown by a Royals’ farmhand in the last five years. But you’re trying to tell me that because he threw only 62 innings last year, now Crow is suddenly incapable of throwing more than 100 or 130 innings this year? Please.

The injury concern I have with young pitchers is more general: they shouldn’t throw too many pitches in any given start. Thankfully, the baseball industry has completely overhauled their approach to pitch counts in the last 20 years, to the point where that hardly is a concern at all.

The evidence that we do have, dating back to Craig Wright’s book The Diamond Appraised, is that the concern with pitchers is primarily before the age of 25. You can’t find a 20-year-old pitcher who threw 250 innings in the live-ball era that didn’t live to regret it. You’ll only find a few 22-year-old pitchers who did the same. But once a pitcher turns 25, you can ramp up the pitches and the innings a little.

Aaron Crow turned 25 this winter. I think he can handle the workload. When Nolan Ryan turned 25 years old, he threw 284 innings, and he did just fine, in large part because he threw relatively few innings before he turned 25. The year before, he threw just 152 innings. That’s a 132-inning bump in one year. Verducci Effect, my ass.

Sorry, Tom. You’re a great writer. But you’re not an analyst, and you really need to stop promoting this debunked concept.

Anyway, the sad thing about the Royals and Crow is that they’re hardly out of step with the industry on this one. Look at how the Yankees screwed up Joba Chamberlain, or how the Reds are doing their best to screw up Aroldis Chapman. Or look at the Astros, who have taken Brett Myers – who has averaged 220 innings with an above-average ERA the last two years! – and made him their closer. That’s right, because there’s nothing the worst team in baseball needs more than a closer.

At least the Rangers, after using Neftali Feliz as their closer for the past two years, are finally willing to gamble that he can render more value throwing 180-200 innings than throwing 60-70. The Rangers, of course, take their cues from Nolan Ryan.

I have no idea if Crow can succeed as a starter; some scouts whose opinions I respect very much don’t think he can. But don’t you have to find out? Especially when you already have a phenomenally deep bullpen, and a rotation that most consider among the worst in baseball? Maybe the Royals are taking the Feliz route with Crow, and have every intention of moving him back to the rotation soon. But if the Royals aren’t willing to do so now, you have to wonder if they ever will.

Kelvin Herrera: A

A year ago, Herrera was full of promise, and completely devoid of health. He was talented enough that he reached a full-season minor league at the age of 18, making three appearances for the Burlington Bees in 2008 (and pitching well.) He then pitched in a total of nine games in 2009 and 2010 combined. He slipped onto the back end of Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook, ranking 30th in the Royals’ system this time last year.

An oft-injured starting pitcher can make for an often-healthy reliever, and that’s what we saw from Herrera last year. He jumped three levels in one season, from high-A to Double-A to Triple-A to the majors. In 68 minor league innings, he allowed 42 hits, walked 13, and struck out 70. Those of you who saw him pitch on TV a couple of days ago saw why – in addition to throwing a high-90s fastball, Herrera throws a changeup that’s almost unfair.

A lot of prospect experts – I’m thinking of Kevin Goldstein here, although it holds true for almost all of them – hate using comps for prospects. Every player is unique, and comparing a prospect to a major-leaguer is inaccurate and usually overly optimistic. I get their concerns, but personally, I love comps, because it makes my life easier. It’s hard to keep track of literally thousands of different ballplayers from the majors down to rookie ball. Maybe it’s not entirely accurate to say that Eric Hosmer resembles Will Clark – but it’s accurate enough, and it conveys a skill set much more succinctly than to say “Hosmer is a left-handed hitting, slick-fielding first baseman with the ability to challenge for a batting title, hit 30+ home runs, and even steal a few bases.”

Anyway, for the past six months or so I’ve been using one particular comp for Herrera: Rafael (not Yuniesky) Betancourt.

They’re obviously not identical – Betancourt actually started his career as a middle infielder, didn’t convert to pitching until he was 22, blew out his arm and missed most of three seasons, and didn’t reach the majors until he was 28. But the similarities are real:

- Both throw upper-90s heat
- Both throw excellent changeups
- Both have outstanding control
- Neither throws a good breaking ball

Betancourt’s control is beyond outstanding, actually. In 560 career innings, he has 99 walks (unintentional, again). When Herrera hit the very first batter he faced in the major leagues, he equaled Betancourt’s career total – Betancourt has hit one batter in his nine-year career. From 2005 to 2009, he threw two wild pitches – total.

Betancourt has never been entrusted to be a closer – at least until this year, when the Rockies finally acknowledged the fine work he’s done over the last decade. (He throws so many strikes that he’s susceptible to the homer, having allowed 59 in 560 innings, which might have held him back.) But he has a 3.18 career ERA, including a 3.00 ERA since joining the Rockies in 2009. With the exception of one awful season (2008), he’s alternated between being good and being very good from year to year. I argued at the time that his 2007 season was the best season by a middle reliever ever.

The arc of Betancourt’s career, as a pitcher who hasn’t quite been good enough to be an elite closer, but certainly good enough to be an elite set-up man, seems like a reasonable expectation for Herrera. That will play.

Greg Holland: A+

The best grade for 2011 goes to the guy who didn’t even make the Royals’ Top 30 Prospects list, a guy I ranked behind Blake Wood before the season began, a guy who started the year in Triple-A, then came up in mid-May and had, inning for inning, one of the most dominant relief seasons in the franchise’s history. His 11.10 Ks per 9 innings ranked second in team history (min: 50 IP), behind Soria’s 2009. His 5.55 hits per 9 innings ranked third, behind Soria’s 2008 and Robinson Tejeda’s 2009. (I love how two different Soria seasons rank ahead of him.) Holland’s WHIP of 0.933 ranks fourth, behind Soria’s 2008, Roger Nelson’s 1972, and Dan Quisenberry’s 1983.

Not only did Holland have a 1.80 ERA, he allowed only 2 of 33 inherited baserunners to score, which lowered his teammates’ ERA by a considerable amount. While acknowledging that relievers are fickle and he could turn into a pumpkin as quickly as he busted out of one, he’s pretty clearly the best reliever on the roster at this moment.

Which is why I’m pleased that Ned Yost just announced Jonathan Broxton will be the closer.

While the closer is an important role, so is the role of the guy who comes in with the game tied, or who comes in with men on base and the game on the line. If Holland had been named the closer, he wouldn’t have seen 33 inherited runners – he might not have seen five all year. Let Broxton take the glory role, particularly since he’ll be a free agent at year’s end. If Holland were named the closer, all those saves would just increase his salary come arbitration time in two years. Furthermore, if Soria does come back, it will make for a lot less drama if the guy who kept his closer’s spot warm was on his way out the door anyway.

Jeremy Jeffress: D

The stuff is still there. Jeffress still throws 100, and his curveball still buckles hitters’ knees and flutters scouts’ hearts. Pitching in the Arizona Fall League All-Star Game, Jeffress came in and struck out the side – including two players named Bryce Harper and Derek Norris.

He was only pitching in the AFL because he couldn’t throw enough strikes to stay in the majors after breaking with the team on Opening Day. After walking 11 in 15 innings, he went to the minors and walked 40 more in 56 innings, with just 44 strikeouts – necessitating a demotion all the way to Double-A. (He also got arrested – though the charges were later dropped – on a domestic assault charge this winter. Idiot.)

The stuff is still there, and I certainly wouldn’t dismiss the chance that the light bulb goes on at some point and he becomes an elite reliever overnight. But for now, I’d treat Jeffress as a lottery ticket. Maybe you cash in at some point, but for now you just stuff him in your wallet and check back later.

Joakim Soria: D+

I’ve already said everything I need to say about Soria. If he never throws another pitch for the Royals, I’d still put him in the team’s Hall of Fame whenever he becomes eligible. By bWAR, Soria’s first four seasons were all better than Holland’s 2011, and all rank among the 15 best relief seasons in team history.

Robinson Tejeda: F

Listed more as a cautionary tale than anything else. Tejeda was claimed off of waivers from the Rangers in 2008, and for the next two-and-a-half seasons was a very valuable reliever – valuable enough to start seven times, and do well in that role. In 174 innings, he allowed just 120 hits. He walked 92, but struck out 184, and allowed only 12 home runs and a 3.47 ERA. He was great.

In 2011, he started the season with no velocity on his fastball, was disabled after 7.1 ineffective innings, and when his velocity didn’t come all the way back, he was placed on waivers. No team was willing to pick up his modest $1.55 million salary, so he toiled the rest of the year in Omaha, finished with a 3.80 ERA and decent peripherals there, and signed a minor-league deal with the Indians this winter.

With relievers, it’s easy come, easy go. The Royals may have a great bullpen today, but it could fall apart in a hurry. And with as many arms as they have, they’d be fools not to trade one or more of them while their stock is still high.

Blake Wood: B

He wasn’t exactly good last season, but Wood was certainly adequate, and that was more than I expected from him. He was drafted as a starter in the third round in 2006, the transitional draft when Dayton Moore had been hired when no one was in control, the draft that gave us Luke Hochevar as a #1 pick and the execrable Jason Taylor in the second round. Wood looked like a blown pick himself, as a starter who simply didn’t have the command to get guys out. But he started 2010 in the bullpen, his velocity ticked up, and he showed at least a glimmer of hope.

Then last season, in 70 innings, he allowed 66 hits, walked 25, and struck out 62, with a 3.75 ERA. If that’s your eighth-inning guy, you have problems. But at this point, even if he were healthy he would be the last guy in the Royals’ bullpen at best. I don’t think he’s got more upside than what he showed last year – his fastball is too straight to fool batters more often than he did. And I don’t see where he fits on this team even after his elbow heals up.

But he’s 26 years old, he’s not arbitration-eligible until next year, and he’s five years from free agency. There are probably a few teams out there that would be happy to have a guy like Wood on their roster. Holding on to him is kind of pointless, and I’d be happy to see him traded away for some magic beans that may or may not sprout in a few years. If not Wood, then someone.

The Royals have a wealth of relief talent, but it’s not going to do you any good in Triple-A, and it’s likely to evaporate soon enough, so best to extract as much value out of it now as possible. Moore has shown an admirable ability to build bullpens on the cheap in Kansas City – his one big failure was the year he actually decided to throw money at the problem. If you’ve got that ability, you ought to be aggressive in cashing those guys in at their peak, knowing you have the resources to replace them soon enough.


Anonymous said...

who is the tom you are talking to? Great article and I can't wait to see a 7 8 9 of Herrera Holland Broxton(mostly the first two). We'll see what he brings us come July.

Michael Tate said...

Tom verducci, I believe

Michael Tate said...

Tom verducci, I believe

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KHAZAD said...

I get your idea about Broxton over Holland in theory, but in practice I think there is a major roadblock.

You base your idea on the assumption that Holland will be used as a stopper, and while that happened some last year, I don't think it will be repeated. Now that Holland is "established", he will be pigeonholed by Yost into an 8th inning setup role, basically the same type of situations as Broxton, only an inning earlier. Someone else will be called on when the stuff hits the fan.

It may not make sense, but that is the way managers do it now.