Saturday, July 21, 2012

Royals Today: 7/21/12

- Our long national – or at least local – nightmare is over. Jonathan Sanchez has been released back into the wild, and it only took the Royals giving him two additional starts after he had proven to anyone with even a modicum of common sense that he was done, damaged beyond repair and devoid of hope. In those two starts, he threw a total of seven innings and allowed 11 runs; the Royals lost both games.

I want to be fair here; it’s easy for me to say after his June 30th start, as I did here, that Sanchez needed to be released. It’s much harder for Dayton Moore to go to ownership and ask for permission to release Sanchez, eight months after he traded for him, and with Melky Cabrera leading the NL in hits. (His job wasn’t made any easier when Cabrera won All-Star Game MVP honors at Kauffman Stadium.) The Royals eventually came to the right conclusion; compared to the Denial Tour that was Jose Lima’s 2005 season, this time they were downright sensible.

But I just want to make the point that there are times when the Royals – or any front office – make decisions which are not just inexplicable, but indefensible. And just because I or another analyst isn’t privy to inside knowledge doesn’t mean that we aren’t completely justified in ripping that organization a new orifice for making that decision. After 15 years of doing what I do, I’ve recently sensed some pushback from some parts of the analytic community, a sentiment that front offices have access to far greater amounts of information than outsiders like us can possibly have, and therefore they have reasons for making decisions that we can not possibly fathom.

I don’t doubt the validity of that. But just because an organization makes more informed decisions doesn’t mean they make better decisions. Knowing little more than Sanchez’s stat line and the track record of similar pitchers in the past, I knew that Sanchez was toast weeks ago. It’s not like I had an axe to grind with Sanchez – I was generally positive about the decision to trade for him. The Royals undoubtedly had access to the same database that I did, and chose to let him torch a few more games before pulling the plug.

Did they know things about Sanchez that I didn’t? Undoubtedly. Did they also have to deal with complexities that may have clouded their judgment? I think so. I didn’t have to worry about how my owner would react to me admitting to him that this trade was FUBAR. I didn’t have to sit Sanchez down in my office and tell him that we were letting him go. I didn’t have to deal with teammates who might have felt Sanchez was getting a raw deal. (Although my guess is that they didn’t. I mean, they were forced to watch every one of his starts.)

Sure, as an outsider we don’t know all of the variables. But sometimes not knowing all the variables makes for a clearer, cleaner, more sober analysis. Sometimes data is useful, and sometimes it’s just noise. I didn’t need to hear all the office chatter to know that Sanchez should have been cut a while ago. The Royals, for whatever reason, needed a few more data points to convince themselves.

In the end, it might have cost the Royals a win, or it might not have; they scored six runs in Sanchez’s last two starts. Sticking with Sanchez a little too long isn’t close to the worst thing that the Royals have done recently. But it’s a good reminder that there’s value in an outside perspective. If there wasn’t, Warren Buffett wouldn’t be worth billions, Nate Silver wouldn’t be read by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and I would have stopped writing about baseball years ago.

Just since Sanchez was released, Bruce Bochy has gone on record as saying that Hector Sanchez is a better hitter than Brandon Belt – and pinch-hit for Belt with someone named Justin Christian – and the New York Knicks refused to match the Houston Rockets’ offer sheet on Jeremy Lin, a decision so jaw-dropping that it transcends the NBA. Sports organizations worth hundreds of millions of dollars are capable of making decisions of profound stupidity. This shouldn’t be news to anyone; corporations worth billions of dollars do the same thing. (New Coke? Netflix’s plan to create Qwikster? Every investment firm that thought real estate prices would go up forever?)

The Royals’ decision to stick with Sanchez is, relative to the examples in the last paragraph, harmless. But the next time someone tells you to trust the experts – whether those experts run your favorite baseball team, the company you work at, or the country you live in – politely tell them to shove it. No one has a monopoly on the truth. Not even people who have a monopoly on proprietary information.

- Sanchez leaves us with some amazing stats. You may have heard that Sanchez had the third-worst ERA in Royals history (min: 40 IP), behind only Chad Durbin’s 8.21 ERA in 2000 and Blake Stein’s 7.91 ERA in 2002.

But in 2000, the AL ERA as a whole was 4.91; in 2002 it was 4.46. This year, it’s 4.06. And remember, in the late 90s and early 2Ks, the fences at Kauffman Stadium were 10 feet closer than they are now, making the stadium a much better hitters’ park than it is now. Sanchez’s ERA+ is 53, which means that after adjusting for the context of the league and the ballpark, his ERA is nearly double that of the AL as a whole. That’s easily the worst in Royals history. (Second-worst? Sean O’Sullivan, whose 7.25 ERA last year was good for an ERA+ of 57.)

And even without adjusting for league, Sanchez’s WHIP of 2.044 is the worst in Royals history. In 53.1 innings, he allowed 65 hits and 44 walks. Batters hit .302/.425/.512 against him.

- Sanchez’s disastrous start on Monday night forced the Royals to use Everett Teaford in relief for five innings. This led to a mad scramble to find a starter for Tuesday’s game, which led to Ryan Verdugo making his major league debut. I have nothing against Verdugo; I think he might have a future in the majors. But if he does, it will probably be in middle relief. In 88 innings in Omaha, he had allowed 14 homers, and walked 44 batters with just 72 strikeouts. His ERA was a solid 3.58, which hid the fact that he wasn’t pitching all that well.

He then went out and gave up six runs in 1.2 innings, which is to say that he had a worse major league debut than Eduardo Villacis. He still pitched better than Sanchez had the night before, though.

- To the Royals’ credit, they immediately sent Verdugo back down to Omaha, and called up Will Smith, who pitched yesterday on normal rest. The rotation now appears to be, in some order, Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, Luis Mendoza, Will Smith, and Everett Teaford.

I approve. That’s a terrible rotation on paper, and probably in reality as well. But those are also the five best starting pitchers the Royals have at the moment, at least until they feel that Jake Odorizzi is ready. None of those pitchers project to be even a #3 starter at any point in the future. But you can make a case for all five of them being solid #4/#5 starter types going forward. At the very least, they all have a chance to keep you in a ballgame.

Smith, in particularly, has made enough progress this season to warrant a long look. His seasonal line in Omaha isn’t great – a 3.61 ERA in 90 innings, and 104 hits allowed. But his high BABIP obscures a fine strikeout-to-walk ratio: 74 Ks, 22 BBs. Moreover, in his last eight minor league starts, Smith had a 2.73 ERA, and in 53 innings had 44 Ks against just 10 walks. He’s left-handed, and he just turned 23. Again, I don’t see a lot of upside here – but I do see a pitcher who might survive in the back end of the Royals’ rotation for a few years. Of course, we said the same thing about Sean O’Sullivan. There’s only one way to find out, and I’d rather see him and Teaford get a chance to sink or swim over the next few months then mess around with retreads like Vinny Mazzaro.

Smith’s line in his return to KC was 6.1 8 4 4 2 5, and I heard some suggest that the performance of Verdugo and Smith makes it understandable that the Royals stuck with Sanchez as long as they did. I couldn’t disagree more. Verdugo was not picked for the quality of his pitching, but for his availability. (Ned Yost himself, when asked: “No. 1, he was available to pitch. No. 2, he’s got pretty good numbers at Triple-A.” The order of those numbers is not an accident.) And while Smith didn’t have a great first start, it’s miles better than what we’d expect from Sanchez. Consider:

- Smith threw 6.1 innings. Sanchez hasn’t gotten an out in the seventh inning of a game since May 28th, 2011 – 21 starts ago.

- Smith walked two batters and struck out five. Sanchez hasn’t had more than twice as many strikeouts as walks in a single start since the same game, 14 months ago.

The wild card here is Odorizzi, who you could easily make a case for being one of the five best starting pitching options in the organization right now. Even if he isn’t, there’s a strong case to be made that allowing him to take his lumps in the majors over the next 2-3 months will make him that much more prepared to pitch well out of the chute next year. My feeling is that he should be in the Royals’ rotation by early August. I’m fine with him being the sixth man for the moment, if only because it’s highly unlikely the rotation as it’s presently constituted will hold up for more than two or three weeks anyway. It’s even less likely that it will hold up with all five starters pitching well enough to keep their jobs. I expect an opportunity for Odorizzi to present itself soon enough.

- And, of course, pretty much everything I wrote above went out the door Friday morning, when the Royals somehow traded Jonathan Sanchez to Colorado in exchange for Jeremy Guthrie.

On initial reflection, this is an absolutely incredible deal, not because it changes the fortunes of the Royals franchise dramatically, but simply because another team was willing to employ Jonathan Sanchez. The Rockies have had an incredibly strange year. I’m not sure they’re the worst-run team in the majors at the moment, but they certainly seem to be the most impetuous team, doing things like going to a four-man rotation on the fly, giving 49-year-old Jamie Moyer a shot in their rotation, and of course, continuing to employ Jim Tracy despite a managerial rap sheet a mile long. Take a pitcher who has averaged over two baserunners an inning, and put him in Coors Field? That’s insane, but for the Rockies of late, that’s par for the course.

Guthrie has hardly been better this year; he might have been worse. Like Sanchez, he was the wrong end of an off-season trade which seemed balanced at the time, but turned into one of the worst trades of the past year – in exchange for Guthrie, the Orioles got Jason Hammel, who has a 3.54 ERA in 18 starts pitching in the AL East, and Matt Lindstrom, who was hurt for six weeks but has a 2.53 ERA in 22 innings for Baltimore. Guthrie, meanwhile, has a 6.35 ERA for the Rockies in 91 innings, and leads the NL with 21 homers allowed.

But here’s the thing: he’s pitching in Coors Field. And after years of behaving like just an ordinary hitters’ park, as opposed to one of the most extreme hitters parks of all time, it’s like they turned the humidor off in Denver this year. From 2005 to 2008, Coors Field increased offense by 5-10% (i.e. the park factors were between 105 and 110). But over the last four years the park factors have steadily increased, and this year it’s back to around 120. That’s not quite as high as it was in its heyday – in 1996 and 2000, Coors Field had a park factor of 129, and that was on top of a historically high level of offense. But it’s clear that Coors Field is back to making mediocre hitters look great, and mediocre pitchers look terrible.

In 42 innings at home this year, Guthrie has a 9.50 ERA – he allowed 67 hits, including 14 home runs. In 49 innings on the road, he has a 3.67 ERA, and has allowed 7 home runs.

I wouldn’t read too much into that ERA – he hasn’t pitched quite that well on the road, with 27 strikeouts and 17 walks. But he’s clearly been better. He’s clearly no Jonathan Sanchez.

There’s definitely some upside here. Guthrie’s a former first-round pick who flopped with Cleveland – but the Orioles picked him up on waivers before the 2007 season, and was one of the great waiver-wire finds of recent times, basically the healthy version of Felipe Paulino. From 2007 through 2011, Guthrie averaged 31 starts and 197 innings a season, with a 4.12 ERA, pitching nearly half his games against the four giants of the AL East. Last winter, I had him on my list of possible acquisition targets for the Royals, albeit at the bottom of my preferences, given his age (33) and the fact that he was under contract for just 2012.

But I didn’t expect him to fall apart like he has, and unlike Sanchez, there is an extenuating circumstance here that at least gives you a little hope he can turn things around. Coors Field – when it’s playing like Coors Field – can turn even star pitchers into mincemeat. Darryl Kile had finished 5th in the Cy Young vote in 1997, having thrown 256 innings for the Houston Astros with a 2.57 ERA. He signed a free-agent contract with the Rockies, and was beyond awful. In 1998, he had a 5.20 ERA and led the NL with 17 losses; in 1999, he was much worse, finishing with a 6.61 ERA and leading the league in earned runs allowed. At the time, his collapse was so profound that it didn’t look like it was simply a Coors Field effect – in 1999, he walked 109 batters and struck out 116, which is untenable.

But the Cardinals correctly surmised that if they could just get him away from that ballpark – and work with Dave Duncan, I’m sure – he would be fine. They traded four nobodies for Kile after the 1999 season; in 2000, he threw 232 innings with a 3.91 ERA, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio improved to 192-to-58 – MORE THAN TRIPLE his ratio the year before. He was even better in 2001, and was pitching well in 2002 when he tragically died of a heart attack.

Jeremy Guthrie is no Darryl Kile. But it’s not unreasonable to think there’s a chance that he can be Jeremy Guthrie again, and Jeremy Guthrie was a solid starting pitcher. Jonathan Sanchez is not.

The only downside here is that the Royals took on a larger salary – Guthrie is making about $2.6 million more than Sanchez this year, and no money changed hands in the deal, so this will cost the Royals about $1.2 million the rest of the way. Presumably, this is why the Rockies agreed to the deal. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were thinking of designating Guthrie for assignment; this way even if they cut Sanchez tomorrow, they’ll save some money. But it’s not a prohibitive amount of money, and the chance that Guthrie rebounds over the next two months is worth a little payroll.

So I do like the trade, though not for the obvious reason. I don’t really care if Guthrie helps the Royals win an extra game or two this season, and he’s a free agent at the end of the year, so he really doesn’t help the franchise directly. But there are two ancillary benefits here:

1) There’s a non-zero chance that Guthrie pitches well enough over his first 5-6 starts with the Royals that a contender expresses an interest in him for the last 6-8 weeks of the season. Remember, with two wild cards per league, the number of potential contenders increases, but because the value of a wild card is cut in half, teams in the wild-card race are unlikely to make a huge sacrifice in blood and prospects for a true impact player. They’re more likely to dabble on the fringes, trading a modest prospect for someone who might help them in the race, but who is unlikely to cause them a great deal of regret if they fall short.

Also remember that while July 31st is the non-waiver trading deadline, teams can still trade after that if the player clears waivers. Guthrie, making $8.2 million this year, will almost certainly clear waivers – and if he doesn’t, the Royals can simply let him go, saddling his new team with his full contract and saving more money than they spent to acquire him. Realistically, Guthrie will be out there if some team suddenly realizes they’re three games out of a wild-card spot on August 15th. He might fetch the Royals an arm, or save them some money, or both. This isn’t a particularly likely scenario, but it’s far from impossible.

2) Trading for Guthrie should – hopefully – dampen the Royals’ enthusiasm for trading for an elite starting pitcher who they would only control through 2013. I’m speaking specifically of Matt Garza, but there are other names (e.g. Paul Maholm, Wandy Rodriguez) that also fit the bill.

The word on the street is that the Royals have suddenly awoken to the fact that as constituted today, their rotation next year will be just as awful as it was this year, and that they need to make some drastic changes or waste 2013 the way they’ve wasted 2012. It’s great that they’ve finally realized that, but trading for Garza is not the solution. Garza is going to be very expensive, precisely because he can impact two pennant races, not one. If you’re the Tigers or the Reds or another team that’s in the race this year, you’ll crack open the piggy bank for Garza, because he’ll help you make the playoffs this year, and then you’ll get a full season out of him next year. But for the Royals, the first part of that equation is out. If the Royals outbid other teams for Garza, it means they value his contribution in 2013 alone more than other teams value his contributions in 2013 and 2012. Which is nuts.

If the Royals want to make an impact trade for a starting pitcher now, they’re better off targeting guys who are at least two or three years away from free agency. They’d still be wasting the first half-season of that guy’s career in a Royals uniform, but at least they’d be getting a higher percentage of his value in seasons where they might actually contend. Buster Olney wrote about this in a recent column, and speculated on names like Jon Lester and Jeremy Hellickson. Those guys would be crazy expensive too, but at least they’d have the chance to impact multiple pennant races for the Royals.

When you think about Dayton Moore’s track record, one thing that really stands out is that when he strikes early, he tends to strike out. Think about the moves he has made within days of the World Series ending: trading Cabrera for Sanchez, trading David DeJesus for Vinny Mazzaro and Justin Marks, trading Leo Nunez for Mike Jacobs. When Moore tries to jump the market instead of waiting to see what the market will bear, he has almost always misjudged things badly.

I’m worried that he would do the same here for a guy like Garza. So if acquiring Guthrie scratches that itch for the time being, and lessens the sense of desperation in the rotation until the winter, that alone makes his acquisition worthwhile.

I’ve heard the argument that the Royals might want to trade for an impact pitcher now because if they don’t, those guys will be traded elsewhere anyway, and they won’t be on the market when the Royals go shopping this winter. That may be true, but at the same time, pitchers who may not be on the market today will be available in the off-season. This time last year, I didn’t think that Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez would be available from the A’s, or that the Padres might be willing to part with their best starting pitcher in Mat Latos. But in the off-season, teams are willing to move integral parts of their rosters because they have the time to rearrange their rosters before playing another game. And if the Royals are going to make a blockbuster deal, it’s that kind of pitcher – a pitcher with three or four years of club control – that they should be targeting, not an 18-month rental like Garza.

Besides which, if they really want to add a starting pitcher, they can always sign one in free agency. Reports suggest they might be willing to do that. I’d rather spend money than prospects.

- Speaking of trading young assets for established starting pitchers, the Royals got another one of those on Wednesday, when they “won” the new competitive balance lottery and got an extra draft pick.

I say “won” because while they got the first pick, almost every eligible team got a draft pick of some sort. Fourteen teams were part of the lottery, and 12 picks were awarded – every team but the Cardinals and Rays got one.

The picks came in two varieties – six of the picks will come between the first and second rounds (Round A), and six of them will come between the second and third rounds (Round B). The Royals got the highest of the 12 picks, which slots at #32 right now (it will probably wind up around #40 overall once compensation picks are awarded this winter). But the important thing is simply being one of the six teams who got a Round A pick (essentially the same as a supplemental first-round pick) instead of a Round B pick (which we might call a supplemental second-round pick). Keep in mind that in Dayton Moore’s entire tenure in Kansas City, the Royals have had just one supplemental first-round pick under the old rules. They used that pick (#36 overall) to select Mike Montgomery. So clearly the pick has some value. (Jeff Zimmerman takes a closer look at the value of the draft pick here.)

This is another reason – certainly not the primary reason – why I felt that all the commotion about how the new CBA was going to hurt teams like the Royals, small-market teams who spent aggressively in the draft, was overblown. The Royals were certainly hurt this year, because they had just one of the first 64 picks, and their draft pool was below-average. But they’re almost certainly going to be a team that qualifies for the competitive balance lottery every single year going forward, which means they’re going to get an extra pick 80-90% of the time. And with that pick comes draft pool money – the 40th pick this year was allotted $1.291 million, which would be added to the Royals’ pool money next summer.

The other interesting thing to note is that for the first time in history, these competitive balance picks – and only these picks – are tradeable. The Royals can trade this pick (and the money allotted to it) to another team. If the Royals are serious about adding an established starting pitcher, this pick could come in handy; it’s not going to get the deal done by itself, or even headline the deal, but as a third or fourth asset in the trade, the Royals might prefer to move the pick instead of another prospect already in the system.

What’s frustrating is that – for no apparent reason whatsoever – these picks can only be traded during the season – either between now and the end of the regular season, or between Opening Day next year and the day of the draft itself. Which is pointless, and means that if the Royals wait until the off-season to make a trade – which they probably should – they won’t be able to use the pick as bait.

- Finally, I can’t end without saying something about Jason Kendall.

Jason Kendall sucks. The End.

Oh, if it were only that easy. Kendall is 38 years old, and hasn’t played this year rehabbing a shoulder injury. When he was 37, he missed the entire season rehabbing a shoulder injury. When he was 36, he hit .256/.318/.297 for the Royals. He hasn’t hit a home run since he was 35. He hasn’t been a remotely good hitter since he was 32. He hasn’t been a great player – and for many years, in his youth, he was a genuinely great player – since he was 30.

And now he’s back. In Double-A, but still: Jason Kendall is back.

Some pundits have argued that Royals fans are making way too much of this, that Kendall is just like any other thirtysomething catcher who doesn’t want to leave the game and still has something to offer, at least in terms of developing young pitchers in the minor leagues. The Royals had Vance Wilson filling the same role a few years ago.

To which I would say: if the Royals had signed anyone, literally anyone, other than Jason Kendall, they might have a point. But they didn’t. They signed Jason Kendall.

For reasons that remain mysterious to me, Kendall holds a svengali-like attraction on the Royals, much the way Yuniesky Betancourt does, or Roman Colon has. It doesn’t make any sense for the Royals to give Kendall a day of service time in the majors this year – but if the Royals were at all rational about Jason Kendall, they wouldn’t have signed him to a two-year, $6 million deal back in 2009. Remember, they cut Miguel Olivo AND John Buck in the span of about 48 hours, all so that they could go with Kendall as their starting catcher – for more guaranteed money than they would have had to give Olivo and Buck COMBINED.

I’ve said this before, but that decision still ranks as the moment I’ve felt the most hopeless as a Royals fan in the Dayton Moore era. This was before the farm system became a fully-operational Death Star, and after follies like Jose Guillen and Yuni and destroying Gil Meche’s arm. At that moment, it appeared the Royals had absolutely no idea how to put together a winning team, and didn’t seem terribly interested in learning how to do so.

Come to think of it, that’s not much different from where they are now. The Royals are 39-53 as I write this, a half-game from having the worst record in the American League. And they’re futzing around with 38-year-old Jason Kendall. And if you think Kendall’s going to be happy just tutoring Mike Montgomery on the finer points of pitching and giving a catching tutorial to Manny Pina, you’re out of your mind. He’s already made statements that he has every intention of getting back to Kauffman Stadium this summer.

And the sad part is, I think the Royals have every intention of giving him that opportunity. The Royals may have information that we don’t have. But they still appear to lack the same trait that’s been missing for most of the last 20 years: common sense.


12 comments:

John said...

If they think Jason Kendall is a good guy to have in the organization for some reason, fine. Let him play the rest of the season out. You can even bring him back up on the first of September when the rosters expand and let him have one last hurrah. But then, for crying out loud, make the guy a coach or manager somewhere in the system, and let him teach full-time. As a player, he's toast.

Rob said...

Sobering finale to your column...that is all.

teddybear said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bigmike said...

Just want to commend you on all the work you put into these blogs long time reader i love all your work. Maybe one day in my life time I can cheer for a winner in kc

Chris Esch said...

Rany, I agree with your points on commentary not being ill informed because you don't have "all" the information. We have enough to make pretty informed opinions. One of the things that has bothered me about the GMDM regime is that after 6 years we still don't really have an identity (well, a positive one anyways). If I were to say this generic comment, "The Royals just signed a guy; he is a true Royal" you wouldn't have any idea what I meant. Your assumptions might be it was a hitter wth bad OBP or a pitcher that can't throw strikes, but you wouldn't have a solid idea of what it means to be a "Royal". They don't have to (and shouldn't) TELL us the plan, but it should be obvious by now based on the available data/information.

Jayboid said...

Thanks Rany, I have searched and searched for why they could trade Sanchez after they cut him. The rule makes no sense to me, but you explained it.

As a long long time of sports radio listener I believe, one of new top 3 most told lies is professional staff or athletes stating they don't listen. Maybe top two behind, honey this never happened to me before. Ned-e- Yo I believe listens too much at times except when it comes to second base.

BTW thanks for bringing up John Buck. He is not having a... well KC John "Sparky Anderson Give Me 25 Guys on their option year and will win a pennant" Buck year.

I honestly think guys like Buck and there are many who make this kind of money know they are not putting in the same effort on off years.

On the other hand if we had Oliva or Buck we wouldn't have had to panic and trade for a two month catcher. Plus all the clubhouse drama as well. Geez we all want our team to be a team, how can we ask this when they keep changing lockers everyday.

Kansas City said...

I don't understand the positive attitude about the Guthrie trade. The last thing the Royals need is to waste money and, more importantly, starts on a 33 year old pitcher who will not be on the team next year. The speculation about a possible trade for a prospect who helps is almost certainly fantasy.

pjbronco said...

So sorry about your family's loss. Praying that something will stop this madness.

Lance said...

Your tweet about the run differential and w-W_L records of the Orioles and Royals was interesting. Here's on example of why Ned Yost should go. On the Sunday after the all-star game Ned starts the Royals best pitcher of late, Mendoza, against fricking Chris Sale. 2-1 loss. The next night Ned sends out Sanchez against the Mariners. Loss. Why wouldn't you swap the order of the rotation for those two games? Take the loss against Sale, dump Sanchez the next morning and then that night go for a win? I know, I know...that's way too unconventional.

Kenneth said...

will there be a kevin goldstein sighting disagreeing ?

Dan Coomer said...

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Fast Eddie said...

I checked WAR to see how Jeff Francoeur stacked up against other position players...he ranks dead last, easily.