My apologies for the long gap between posts, though this time, I have an excuse you’ll actually appreciate: I’ve been writing a review of the 1985 World Series for 810 WHB’s All-Star Program, which I’m told will be available (free!) in various outlets around Kansas City over the next 7-10 days. So pick one up if you get the chance. It was a weird sensation to write about a Royals team in a completely positive manner.
And now back to what I hope will be shorter, and more frequent posts going forward.
- Rooting for this team right now is an incredibly frustrating experience, because they seem determined to maintain a bipolar existence, playing like minor leaguers for a stretch, then like contenders for a stretch, often within the same week. Of their last seven series, four have been sweeps – two each way. After winning four in a row to close to within four games of .500 – their best record since their 12-game losing streak – they’ve lost three in a row to the team with the worst run differential in the majors. And for whatever reason, since June 7th, the Royals are 9-1 between Monday and Thursday, and 3-10 between Friday and Sunday – with the result being that the analysis you hear from me on 810’s The Border Patrol Monday mornings is completely different from the analysis I give on The Program on mid-day Fridays.
The Royals are currently seven games under .500 at 35-42, which is appropriate, because they’ve stayed within a tight band between four and ten games under .500 every single day since their losing streak ended. The random streaks disguise the fact that this is pretty much what they are – a below-average, but not terrible, team. They’re on pace to finish 74-88, which would make them the 8th-worst team* in the majors. If they draft #8 next season, it would be only the second time in the last nine drafts that they didn’t pick in the top five. So…um…progress?
*: Though they currently have a better record than the Philadelphia Phillies, who are suddenly in full-on sell mode. This seems like a good time to link to this. Murky at best, y’all.
- One of the biggest reasons why the Royals are unable to sustain any kind of winning streak is that they insist on trotting Jonathan Sanchez out there every fifth day. Their allegiance to Sanchez long ago passed through “annoying” territory, then “exasperating”, and now is quickly moving through “destructive”. I can’t make this any more clear than to go to all caps:
JONATHAN SANCHEZ IS DONE. HE HAS NOTHING LEFT.
In 46 innings, Sanchez has walked 40 batters. He has struck out just 32. His walk rate is 55% above his career average AND his strikeout rate has been cut by a third. He’s allowed 52 hits. He’s hit five batters. He’s thrown four wild pitches. He’s made four errors, for a tidy fielding percentage of .600. He’s averaging barely 4.6 innings a start. He has a 6.80 ERA. There is literally nothing he has done well this year.
And he’s not getting better. The Royals already tried the gambit of giving him a month on the DL to rest his arm. He came back on June 13 and allowed just one run in five innings – but seven hits and two walks. Since then:
On June 18, he went six innings, and deserves a gold star for that given that the bullpen desperately needed a breather after a 15-inning game the day before. But twice he made errors trying to pick off a runner at first; the first throw was so wild the runner scored, while the second time he got to third base. That runner reached base when he was hit by a pitch, then scored on a single. With two outs and the runner on first, Sanchez hit a batter, then allowed a single to load the bases, then walked in a run. He allowed four runs, and was saved when a runner was thrown out at the plate. The Royals lost, 9-7.
On June 24, he allowed a three-run homer to Carlos Beltran in the first when he threw a 0-2 fastball right down the middle. In the second inning he allowed two more runs; both runners reached base on a walk, and the second one scored on a wild pitch with two outs. Sanchez escaped with a no-decision despite allowing 6 runs in 5.2 innings, because the offense bailed him out, but the Royals lost 11-8 because their bullpen is ultimately human.
On June 30, he gave up 10 hits and six walks in 4.1 innings. Twice he allowed a double steal because he wasn’t paying attention to the runners. On an admittedly-bizarre squib single that spun back into fair territory, he failed to cover home plate, allowing the speedy Ryan Doumit to score from second base on an infield single. The Royals lost, 7-2.
Since coming off the DL, including his successful first start, Sanchez has allowed 27 hits and 18 walks in 21 innings. Batters hit .325/.452/.506 against him in June. He’s not getting better. He’s getting worse.
I could mention here the terrible body language, the fact that he seems to have been uninterested in playing for the Royals since the day he was acquired. But honestly, it’s irrelevant. What’s relevant is when he does things like forget the runners or fail to cover a base, because those things cost runs, and runs turn into wins. And what’s relevant is that his performance is so bad that even if he had Jeff Francoeur’s personality and Bruce Chen’s sense of humor, he’d deserve to get cut.
And the Royals are circling the wagons around him. Here’s Bob Dutton’s lede from Saturday’s game: “The breaking point for the Royals with struggling left-hander Jonathan Sanchez remains, apparently, far down the road…”
I get it: the Royals know what they’re doing, they have information that we don’t, we’re just frustrated fans who don’t know what the hell we’re talking about.
I cheerfully admit that I’m not an insider, and that I don’t know the details regarding his struggles. But that’s sort of the point. The Royals are so close to the situation that they can’t see the forest for the trees. I’m sure they have a bunch of explanations for why Sanchez sucks so much, and with those explanations come solutions – if we just fix his mechanics here, if he just gets the umpire’s calls there, if every scalding line drive just happens to find a glove…he’s gonna be fine.
But if they would just take a step back, they would realize two things: 1) Few pitchers have ever been as wild as Jonathan Sanchez has been, and 2) Those few pitchers who have, never got it back. Never.
In the last 20 years, just six pitchers have walked at least 7 batters per 9 innings, while making at least 10 starts.
Jesus Sanchez walked 60 batters in 76 innings in 1999, as a 24-year-old sophomore for the Marlins. Sanchez really shouldn’t count; 11 of his 60 walks were intentional, and while he made 10 starts, he also made 49 relief appearances. In any case, Sanchez “rebounded” in 2000 to make 32 starts with a 5.34 ERA, but his career quickly fizzled out; he had a below-league-average ERA every year of his career.
Aaron Myette was, like Sanchez, a 24-year-old pitcher in 2002 when he walked 41 batters in 48 innings. He also allowed 64 hits, including 11 homers, and had a 10.06 ERA. He would throw a grand total of 7 more innings in his career, in which he gave up 11 runs. He finished with 154 innings – and a 8.16 career ERA. That’s the highest ERA by a pitcher with 120+ innings in major league history.
Nick Neugebauer was a flame-throwing right-hander the Brewers selected in the 2nd round in 1999, sort of the primordial version of Jeremy Jeffress. He threw as hard as anyone in the minors, and in 2001 struck out 175 batters in 149 minor league innings. Baseball America ranked him the #17 prospect in baseball before the 2002 season. That year, he made 12 starts for the Brewers, and walked 44 batters in 55 innings. He then blew out his shoulder something fierce, and aside from a single appearance in A-ball two years later, his career was over at the age of 21.
Unlike Sanchez, none of those three guys ever had success in the majors before their command disappeared. But Dontrelle Willis was a sensation – Rookie of the Year in 2003, second in the Cy Young balloting in 2005. But he started to go bad in 2007, with a 5.17 ERA for the Marlins, before the Tigers acquired him along with Miguel Cabrera for six prospects.
Willis then lost the strike zone completely. He walked 35 batters in 24 innings for Detroit in 2008, then 28 batters in 34 innings in 2009. By 2010 the Tigers had tired of him, let him go mid-season and Arizona gave him a shot, so for the season he made 13 starts, during which he walked 56 batters in 66 innings. The Reds gave him a chance in 2011 and he had his best season in four years, “best” being a relative term, since he had a 5.00 ERA and walked 37 batters in 76 innings. His career is somewhere between limbo, jeopardy, and the River Styx at the moment.
Speaking of sensations, Steve Avery was the #1 prospect on Baseball America’s first-ever Top 100 Prospects list back in 1990. He made the Braves’ rotation that year; in 1991, he went 18-8 with a 3.38 ERA and was beyond fantastic in the NLCS to pitch the Braves to the World Series. Too many pitches too soon took a toll, and his career started to go downhill in 1994, when he was 24. By 1999, he was pitching for the Reds and pretty much washed up – in 96 innings, he walked 78 batters and struck out 51. He spent all of 2000 in the minors and then took a couple of years off. The good news is he made it back to the majors briefly in 2003. The bad news is that he made it back as a reliever for the worst team of my lifetime, the 2003 Detroit Tigers. Steve Avery was done after that.
And finally…you may remember when I analyzed this trade back in November, I made the point that the range in what Sanchez could be was enormous. If you spliced the data a certain way, there were two people in baseball history that compared to Sanchez. One was Randy Johnson.
The other was Oliver Perez, who is an eerily good comp for Sanchez, because like Sanchez, even at his best he was uncomfortably wild. In 2004, Perez had a 2.98 ERA in 196 innings, struck out 239 batters…and walked 81. In 2005 and 2006, he was so wild that he had an ERA north of 6 over that span, but found himself a little after joining the Mets in 2007 and 2008. After the 2008 season they signed him to a 3-year, $36 million contract, even though he had led the NL in walks in 2008.
In 2009, Perez made 14 starts, threw 66 innings, walked 58 batters, and had a 6.82 ERA.
In 2010, Perez made 7 starts and 10 relief appearances, threw 46 innings, walked 42 batters, and had a 6.80 ERA.
(As a reminder, Sanchez has made 10 starts, thrown 46 innings, walked 40 batters, and has a 6.80 ERA. Spooky.)
Perez is back in the majors, having resurfaced with the Mariners as a reliever, and has pitched reasonably well in five outings. But when his command went, nothing could save him as a starter, and no amount of hoping could change that.
Perez, Avery, and Willis were all left-handers; all of them had above-average fastballs when they were young. All of them lost velocity on their fastball at the same time their command failed them, which is probably not a coincidence. Another pitcher comes to mind here: Scott Kazmir, who was never quite this wild, but in 2010 mysteriously lost his magic fastball shortly after the Angels acquired him from Tampa Bay. His strikeout rate plummeted that year, his walk rate was a career high, and he had a 5.94 ERA. Despite being just 26 years old, his career was effectively over. In 2011 he made a single start, allowed five runs in 1.2 innings, and hasn’t pitched since.
So, I’m sure you’re asking, what do we know about Sanchez’s fastball? I’m glad you asked.
In 2009, the average velocity on his fastball was 91.6 mph.
In 2010, it was 90.5 mph.
In 2011, it was 89.7 mph.
In 2012, it is 89.1 mph.
Hmmm…a left-hander with career-long command issues, who has lost his fastball and can’t throw strikes? Yeah, let’s keep throwing him out there every fifth day.
I know the Royals don’t give a damn about my opinions, but I’m still entitled to them. And my opinion is that JONATHAN SANCHEZ IS DONE. The evidence couldn’t be more clear. Look guys, I’m sorry that you gave up Melky Cabrera to get him. I’m sorry that Cabrera is making you look like the laughingstock of baseball, hitting .352/.394/.514, leading the NL in hits, and being elected to start the All-Star Game – back in Kansas City. I understand you want to get something out of the trade.
But accept the facts: Jonathan Sanchez is a sunk cost, and letting him continue to take the mound is throwing bad starts after good. I was supportive of the trade at the time, and so were many others in the KC media. I’m owning up to my mistake: I was wrong. And if you would admit to your mistake, or better still if you would have admitted to it two weeks ago when it was clear that this train wasn’t coming back to the station, we could put this behind us and move on. No team has a perfect track record when it comes to trades; if you make trades, you’re going to make some stinkers. So be it.
I’m not a fraction as upset about the trade as I am about your stubborn unwillingness to admit you screwed up. It’s over. Melky Cabrera is awesome. He’s also going to be a free agent at the end of the year. Just pretend you traded Cabrera for Ryan Verdugo, and move on.
The sad part of this? This isn’t even close to the worst case of the Royals sticking with a starting pitcher beyond all reason. You may remember 2005, when the Royals signed Jose Lima to a one-year, $2.5 million contract after they let him get away to Los Angeles following the miracle 2003 season. Lima then rewarded them with a 7.33 ERA heading into the All-Star Break – he had allowed 121 hits, including 20 homers, in 93 innings. And they just kept pitching him. Lima stayed in the rotation all season, making 32 starts. He was better in the second half – his ERA after the Break was all the way down to 6.57. For the season, Lima had a 6.99 ERA, the worst by a qualifying starter in a non-strike-shortened season since 1936.
And here’s the kicker: Jose Lima had incentives in his contract based on starts made. By sticking with him all season, he earned over $1 million in bonuses. If I ever get Allard Baird attached to a lie detector for ten minutes, the first question I’m asking him is…well, the first question is “Tell me about every single instance of the Glass family meddling in baseball affairs.” But the second question will be “WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING WITH JOSE LIMA, YOU IMBECILE?!”
We’re not at that stage with Jonathan Sanchez yet. But we’re on that track. And this is a track that should never, ever be used.
- I meant to cover a lot of things today, but of course Sanchez got me all worked up into a lather. So let me just finish with Billy Butler, the first Royals’ hitter to make the All-Star Team in seven years.
I’m not sure that Butler is the most deserving player on the Royals’ roster. Mike Moustakas has probably been the Royals’ best player overall, given his offensive and defensive contributions. Alcides Escobar has been an absolute joy, and I’ve done him a disservice by not talking about him (or his contract, which suddenly looks like a bargain) at all this year. And Baseball-Reference somehow has Alex Gordon as the team’s best player, although that’s because they’ve scored his defense this year somewhere in Andruw-Jones-in-his-prime territory. He’s good; he’s not that good.
But if the Royals were to only have one representative – and with the game in town, it’s a shame they only have one – I’m glad it’s Butler. For too long, people have focused on what he can’t do – play defense, or hit at a Pujolsian level – instead of what he can. Since the beginning of the 2009 season, he’s hitting .303/.369/.480. He’s averaging 45 doubles and 21 homers a season. And after years of people complaining that he just doesn’t hit enough home runs, he’s finally tapping into it this year – he has a career-high .512 slugging average, and 16 homers in just 77 games. He’s on pace for 34, and while he’s more likely to regress to the mean than he is to pick up that pace, there’s at least the possibility he could make the epic Chase For 37 a reason to tune into Royals games in September. So good for Billy.
Unfortunately, that may be the only reason to tune into Royals games in September. At least that’s what I think now. Talk to me Friday morning, and I may sing a different tune.