Friday, January 6, 2012

Royals Report Card 2011: Part Four.

We continue to wait and hope for the price tag on either Edwin Jackson or Roy Oswalt to drop, Dutch auction-style, until Dayton Moore puts up his hand. In the meantime, let’s move on to the DHs (i.e. Billy Butler) and the first half of the outfield corps:

Billy Butler: C+

In 2011, Butler did pretty much what he did in 2010 and 2009, and for many, doing the same was a disappointment. He played every day and hit a ton of doubles. He hit for a good average, he drew a fair amount of walks, and didn’t strike out a lot. But he only hit 19 home runs, and unless and until he hits 25 homers and drives in 100 runs – neither of which he’s ever done – Butler’s lack of power will be the first thing that comes to mind for a large portion of the Royals’ fan base.

Let’s look at these one by one:

He played every day. Butler played in 159 games in 2011. He played in 158 games in 2010, and 159 games in 2009. Butler is the first player in Royals history to play in 154 or more games in three consecutive seasons. In fact, the only other Royal to play in 158 games in any three different seasons is Kevin Seitzer, who did so in 1987, 1989, and 1990. Butler may look like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, but on the field he’s the closest thing the Royals have to Iron Man.

He hit a ton of doubles. Butler hit 44 doubles last year; he hit 45 doubles in 2010 and 51 doubles in 2009. That’s three consecutive seasons with at least 44 doubles. No other Royal has hit 44 doubles in any three different seasons. You’d be forgiven for thinking that 44 doubles in a season is no big deal, given that Butler was joined by the entire Royals starting outfield in that department in 2011. But it is, and it goes a long way towards compensating for his lack of light-tower power.

He hit for a good average. Butler only hit .291 last year, down from .318 and .301 the two previous seasons. That looks like a fluke, or at least it’s entirely BABIP-driven – his batting average on balls in play was .316, down from .341 and .332. The difference between hitting .290 and .310 isn’t a huge deal, in all honesty, but for however much it matters, Butler’s “true” talent level is probably slightly north of .300, and he can be expected to rebound slightly in that regard.

He drew a fair amount of walks, and didn’t strike out a lot. Butler drew 66 walks, down from a career-high 69 in 2010, and struck out 95 times, up from 78 the year before. He was given an intentional pass a career-high 15 times, five of them by April 17th, before Eric Hosmer was promoted. Butler probably was a tad more aggressive at the plate than in previous years, but not enough to be concerned. He managed a .360+ OBP for the third straight year.

Short of going the Eddie Yost route and embarking on a mission to walk 100 times a year, Butler’s about as valuable as a DH can be without hitting more than 15-20 homers a season. That is to say, he’s a nice piece to the lineup, and he’s worth the $8 million he’ll be paid annually for the next three years. But he’s not a star.

As it’s been said the last three years, what will determine whether Butler can make the leap to stardom is whether he can hit more balls over the fence – and what will determine whether he can hit more balls over the fence is whether he can hit more balls in the air, period. He made modest improvements in that regard last year. Prior to 2011, Butler hit groundballs 47-48% of the time, and flyballs about 34% of the time. Last year his groundball rate dropped to 45.6%, and his flyball rate inched upwards to 35.8%, per Fangraphs. Most notably, after grounding into a franchise-record 32 double plays in 2010, he hit into only 16 last year, his lowest total in a full season.

Butler turns 26 in April. While 27 is the most common age for a position player to have the best season of his career, 26 might be the most common age for an already-established major league hitter to take a leap forward from his previous performance.

I have no idea whether Butler will make that leap, or take a small step, or inch forward at a snail’s pace. What I do know is that if he doesn’t improve one bit, he’s still an incredibly useful player and an integral part of what the Royals will try to accomplish over the next three years. But if he could figure out a way to turn a dozen of those balls off the wall into balls in the bleachers, well, that wouldn’t suck.

Melky Cabrera: A-

The Royals don’t have a long history of players who had great one-and-done seasons in a Royals uniform. There is Jay Bell, of course, who came over in that weird deal with the Pirates after the 1996 season, when the Royals traded Joe Randa and three pitchers named Jeff (Granger, Martin, and Wallace) for Bell and another Jeff, King. Bell was only under contract for one season, but what a season it was: he hit .291/.368/.461 with 21 homers and 71 walks as a shortstop.

Per Baseball-Reference, Bell was worth 5.3 Wins Above Replacement in 1997, easily the best season ever by a Royals shortstop, and the best season by any Royals hitter from 1986 to 2000. The Diamondbacks then signed him as a free agent in their inaugural season; the Royals got two draft picks, which they then wasted on Matt Burch and Chris George.

That very same year, the Royals employed Chili Davis as their DH. Davis had also been acquired in a savvy deal, as Herk Robinson dealt Mark Gubicza – who made all of two starts for the Angels before it became clear to everyone that he was finished – and marginal pitching prospect Mike Bovee* to Anaheim for Davis. Davis was 37, under contract for just one year, and hadn’t played the field in years. But he could hit. He batted .279/.386/.509 with 30 homers and 85 walks. Per Baseball-Reference, he was worth a respectable 2.3 WAR. (This was the peak of the high-offense era, and this was when the Royals had moved the fences in at Kauffman Stadium, making it one of the better hitters’ parks in the game.)

*: Long-time readers may have heard me say this before, but without Mike Bovee, I might never have started writing about baseball. But that’s a story for another day.

There aren’t a whole lot of others. The Royals have had 121 seasons from a position player with at least 2.3 WAR. Aside from Bell and Davis, the only other season that ranks in the Top 121 from a player who spent just that one season with the Royals is by Richie Scheinblum, in 1972. Scheinblum was purchased from the Texas Rangers after the 1971 season, then hit .300/.383/.418 for the Royals. If those numbers don’t impress you, they should; the AL hit .239/.306/.343 as a whole, which is why that winter the AL owners voted for the creation of the designated hitter.

And now…Melky Cabrera. Like Scheinblum, and unlike Bell and Davis, the Royals acquired Cabrera when he was essentially an unwanted commodity; the Royals inked him to a one-year, $1.25 million contract, and even that modest commitment had some fans up in arms. He then went out and hit .305/.339/.470. He became the first Royal with 200 base hits since 2000, and he also had 309 total bases, the most by any Royal since 2002.

Those numbers aren’t quite as good as they look, because Cabrera had plenty of opportunities to get them. The combination of playing every day, hitting at the top of the lineup, and rarely walking meant that Cabrera finished with 658 at-bats, the third-most in Royals history. Still, they were excellent numbers; it was easily the best season of his career. He also stole 20 bases, after never stealing more than 13 in a season. It’s amazing what you can do when you’re not fat.

The fly in the ointment was Melky’s defense, although its impact is debatable. Baseball-Reference rated his defense as 19 runs below average in 2011, which is terrible, and limited his overall value to 2.9 WAR (still a good season). But Fangraphs’ UZR system rated his defense at 7 runs below average, and Baseball Info Solutions’ +/- system rated him at just 3 runs below average. Gun to my head and I had to choose just one rating, I like BIS the most, but it’s always best to look at a range of data.

Cabrera’s season was so out of character for him that it’s possible, even though he’s still just 27, that the Royals enjoyed the best season he’ll ever have. Even if he does have a better year, it’s almost certain that no team will ever get more bang for their buck than the Royals got for $1.25 million.

Scheinblum was one-and-done with the Royals because, after the 1972 season, the Royals packaged him with Roger Nelson (who had just set the franchise record with a 2.08 ERA) to the Reds for Wayne Simpson…and Hal McRae. (There’s a reason why Cedric Tallis needs to be inducted into the Royals’ Hall of Fame this winter.) There’s no way that Jonathan Sanchez, who will be a free agent in a year, can live up to that deal. But turning $1.25 million into one excellent season from a centerfielder into a left-handed starter that struck out 200 batters two years ago may wind up being one of the great transaction series in Dayton Moore’s career.

Lorenzo Cain: B

Pity the Painkiller. In 2010, he reaches the major leagues with the Milwaukee Brewers at the age of 24, and proceeds to hit .306 over the next two months. Then the Brewers decide they’re going to go for it in 2011, and trade for Zack Greinke…and he’s part of the trade to Kansas City.

But wait, there’s more! Nine days before the trade, the Royals had signed Melky Cabrera, and guaranteed him their everyday centerfield job. We love you, Lorenzo, but even though you had a great year in the minors, and you hit over .300 in the majors, and you’re about to turn 25…we’re going to have to send you back to Omaha to start the season. But don’t worry – if Melky hits like he has in the past, you’ll be up to take his job by May!

Given the circumstances, it would have been understandable if Cain became somewhat disillusioned and had a subpar year. But I was told at the time of the trade that Cain had a great disposition, and if he was disappointed by his situation, he hid it well. He hit .312/.380/.497 in Omaha while waiting for an opening that – understandably – never came. After never hitting more than 11 homers in a season before, he cranked out 16. And now, an everyday job in the majors appears to be his.

If there’s one concern I have with Cain, it’s that after showing impressive plate discipline in 2010 – he walked 45 times in 84 games and had a .402 OBP in the minors – he fell off in that department last year. He drew fewer walks (40) despite playing 128 games in Omaha. However, he also set a career high with 15 hit-by-pitches. That may be a cheap way to get on base, but it still counts on the scoreboard, and Cain’s OBP in Omaha was still .380.

He turns 26 in April, so it’s now or never for Cain. Cain is as experienced as any serious prospect the Royals have had in recent memory; he’s played 156 games in Triple-A, and 144 in Double-A, along with his successful stint with the Brewers in 2010. (By serious prospect, I mean guys that the Royals genuinely liked, as opposed to someone like Kila Ka’aihue or Mike Aviles, who only got an opportunity to play grudgingly.)

For Cain, this means that there should be no adjustment process to the major leagues, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he comes out of the gate as one of the Royals’ hottest hitters in April. For the Royals, it means the days of rushing guys to the major leagues are long over. Cain won’t match his performance in Omaha from last season, or Cabrera’s performance with the Royals. But he ought to hit .275/.330/.410 or thereabouts, with improved defense and speed. He’s not someone you’d want to make a long-term commitment to, both because of his ability and his age. But he’s a perfectly respectable short-term solution in centerfield, and if all goes according to plan, the bridge to the Bubba Starling Era in Kansas City.

Jarrod Dyson: C+

“Once [Dave] Roberts got to Boston, he mostly sat. And sat. The manager kept an eye on him but didn’t call his name very often. It was as if Roberts had changed from a ballplayer into some kind of glass-front box with the words break in case of need for stolen base stenciled on the front. But Epstein’s orthodoxy, reinforced by special adviser Bill James, the creator of the whole analytical business that had debunked stolen bases in the first place, held that if you built the right kind of team, Roberts’s skill set would be largely extraneous. Except—and this was the key part of it, the flexible part of it that most people didn’t get—except when it was necessary.

And so here Roberts was, glass broken, standing on first base with Bill Mueller at the plate, the only potential run of the year that mattered anymore. It was a desperate moment, but nonetheless a moment that had been planned for. That was the difference between this time around and 1949, 1978, 2003, and all the other disappointments of the last century. God was in the details, and so were playoff victories. And the Red Sox were finally looking after the details.”

- From the prologue to Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning

Coming into the 2011 season, I don’t think the Royals knew exactly what they had in Jarrod Dyson. I don’t think any of us knew. That’s not surprising, given that Dyson came into professional baseball with precious little experience – there’s a reason he was a 50th-round draft pick – and then, owing to frequent nagging injuries, played in only 305 minor-league games in his first five seasons.

The best thing for Dyson would have been a full year in Triple-A, but Ned Yost could not resist the temptation to keep Dyson around for the first six weeks of the season as a pinch-runner and occasional defensive replacement. Dyson eventually got everyday playing time in Omaha, but only played in 83 games for the Storm Chasers.

In the end, we did learn some things about Dyson. We learned that he’s not a complete cipher at the plate; he hit .279 in Omaha, his highest batting average at any minor league stop that lasted for more than three weeks, and after hitting two home runs in his first five seasons combined, he hit three in 2011 alone. We learned that unlike a lot of speed goofs, he’ll take a walk every now and then. In 129 career games at Triple-A, Dyson has a line of .276/.345/.354, which is respectable.

We learned that these incremental improvements aside, Dyson’s bat is unlikely to keep him in a major league lineup on an everyday basis. My hopes that he might be the new Gary Pettis, modest though they might be, seem unlikely to be realized. If he has a career in the major leagues, it’s almost certainly as a bench player.

But we learned – if we didn’t know already – that he has the potential to be a game-changer off the bench.

Dyson had already demonstrated not just elite speed, but the ability to use that speed in a baseball context. Joey Gathright, for all his speed, was never all that good at stealing bases. But prior to 2011, Dyson had 131 steals in 163 attempts in the minor leagues, an excellent 80% success rate. For a guy who was still learning how to play the game, that was impressive.

In 2011, he took it up a notch. In those 83 games for Omaha, Dyson stole 38 bases – in 40 attempts. Combine that with his performance in Omaha in late 2010, and in 129 games he is 51-for-56 at that level, a 91.1% success rate.

He hasn’t been that good in the major leagues – his success rate drops all the way to 90.9%. In 2010, he stole 9 bases in 10 attempts during his September callup; his one caught stealing was actually a pickoff by the pitcher when he took off for third base too early. In 2011, Dyson stole 11 more bases before he was finally thrown out for the first time by a catcher* in the final game of the season.

*: Well, other than Salvador Perez in spring training.

“When I was with the Dodgers,” Roberts reflects, “Maury Wills once told me that there will come a point in my career when everyone in the ballpark will know that I have to steal a base, and I will steal that base. When I got out there, I knew that was what Maury Wills was talking about.”

Dyson reached base safely 16 times with the Royals last season. He pinch-ran another 12 times. He stole 11 bases. When Dyson reached base, there was about a 40% chance that he’d steal another – and remember, in some of those instances the base in front of him was occupied, or the score wasn’t close. When Dyson reached base, everyone in the ballpark knew that he was going to try to steal, and he usually did anyway.

That’s quite a useful skill.

On top of that, Dyson continued to put up frankly ridiculous defensive statistics on those rare occasions when he got to play the field. Dyson has played just 228 innings in the field in the major leagues, the equivalent of about 25 full games. The defensive metrics out there (Fangraphs, Total Zone, BIS’ +/-) rate him as somewhere between 5 and 8 runs better than your average centerfielder in that span. Over the course of a full season, that would come out to somewhere between 30 and 50 runs above average. That’s insane.

Between his speed and his defense, Dyson has two elite skills that would make him a fantastic bench player. The irony is that with Lorenzo Cain subbing for Melky Cabrera, the need for a defensive upgrade in the late innings has gone down significantly. Even so, if the Royals are serious about contending in 2012 and beyond, having a bench player that can win them a game with his legs is an asset worth holding on to. Dyson’s already 27; it’s time to stop worrying about what Dyson could become in future with the chance to play every day, and it’s time to focus on how he can help the ballclub right now.

And if the Royals should find themselves, at some point in the future, in an elimination playoff game, down a run to Mariano Rivera, and Billy Butler leads off with a walk…well, it would be awfully nice to have Jarrod Dyson behind that glass.

“Rivera got set in the stretch, looked once more at Roberts, then committed to home plate with a barely perceptible transfer of weight to his right foot, his left foot now rising off the mound.

But Roberts was already gone, digging toward second, erasing the past with every step.”