Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Royals Report Card 2011: Part Six.

You go to war with the rotation you have, not the rotation you want. So enough pining for what we don’t have – here’s a report card for everyone who started a game for the Royals last season:

Nate Adcock: B

Adcock, I think, is a reminder of how difficult it is to strike gold in the Rule 5 draft. By any reasonable expectation, his season had to be considered a success. For one thing, he actually stayed on the Royals’ active roster for the entire year, which is in itself a rarity – of the 19 players selected in the 2010 Rule 5 draft, just six of them made it through the season with their new teams unscathed.

Adcock finished with mediocre but acceptable numbers for a bottom-of-the-bullpen guy – a 4.62 ERA in 60 innings, with 36 strikeouts and 23 unintentional walks. He made three starts during the season, and while he was blasted in one of them – he gave up 7 runs in 2.2 innings on a day when the ball was flying in Arlington – he pitched very well in the other two: five shutout innings against the Cardinals on May 21st, and two runs allowed in 5.1 innings in Detroit on August 31st.

The problem is that, despite sticking on the roster all season, he pitched in just 21 games in relief. He went 13 games without pitching from April 8th to April 22nd. He pitched in just three games in all of June, and just twice in September. After throwing three innings on June 16th, he didn’t pitch again until July 1st, when he threw two innings in a 9-0 loss – and then didn’t pitch again until July 22nd, when he closed out a 10-4 victory.

The Royals gave all sorts of reasons for why they had to employ seven and sometimes eight relievers all season, but really the reason boils down to this: they were carrying a pitcher they had so little faith in that they allowed him to take the mound one time in five weeks. That will play havoc with your roster.

But in the end, they made it through the season with Adcock…so now what? Adcock wasn’t a top prospect before they snagged him – he didn’t rank among the Royals’ top 30 prospects last year per Baseball America, nor did he with the Pirates in 2010. He had an acceptable rookie season, but didn’t do anything that made you think he’s ready for a more prominent role. I mean, is he one of the Royals’ eight best bullpen options for 2012? Is he one of their five best options for the rotation? No and no.

Which means the best outcome for him is that the Royals send him to Omaha and put him in the rotation, and see if he can become something – which is great, except that the CBA prohibits teams from cutting a player’s salary by more than 20% from one year to the next, even if they’re in the minor leagues. Adcock made the major league minimum of $414,000 last year – so the Royals will owe him about $330,000 to pitch in the minors this season. That’s not an insignificant amount of money for someone who lights up neither radar guns nor the eyes of prospect gurus.

But while Adcock doesn’t throw hard – his fastball averaged 90.4 mph last season per Fangraphs – he was drafted with a reputation for having a lot of sink on his heater, and that certainly bore out. Adcock’s groundball rate as a rookie was 55.6%, which was the highest of any Royals pitcher with at least 20 innings. Adcock turns 24 this month; there’s not a lot of projection left with him, but he’s at least young enough to refine his pitches.

Adcock might wind up a lot like Kanekoa Texeira, who stuck on the Royals’ roster for much of 2010 and then quietly faded away after struggling in Omaha early in 2011. But that groundball rate tells me that it’s worth keeping an eye on him. Adcock may not have the pedigree of his teammates, but the Royals clearly saw something in him when they drafted him. If they allow him to make up for missed development time in Triple-A this season, they might still get something out of their investment.

In the meantime, perhaps it’s a blessing that the Royals didn’t try to snag another pitcher in December’s Rule 5 draft. They’ve got a hill to climb if they want to contend in 2012, and playing with a 24-man roster wouldn’t help.

Bruce Chen: B+

A year after surprising everyone by going 12-7 with a 4.17 ERA for the Royals, Chen came back on a one-year deal and went 12-8 with a 3.77 ERA. Chen became only the second Royals pitcher since 1999 to win 12 games in back-to-back years – Zack Greinke did it in 2008 and 2009.

Which is why Chen is now back on a two-year deal.

Chen’s ability to continue to pitch well depends on whether he has the rare, almost mythical ability to consistently beat the odds on balls in play. To reiterate: balls in play turn into hits roughly 30% of the time, and that rate is almost completely independent of the pitcher on the mound. Against Roy Halladay, batters have hit .295 on balls in play in his career; against Oliver Perez, they hit .292. The difference between Halladay and Perez is entirely the result of walks, strikeouts, and home runs – not balls in play.

Last season, on balls in play against Bruce Chen, batters hit just .280. In 2010, they hit .279. Those numbers look like he was the beneficiary of good luck – until you notice that for his career, in a career spanning nearly 1200 innings, batters have hit .282 on balls in play. If that’s a fluke, it’s a particularly persistent one.

There’s reason to think it isn’t. Chen is one of the most extreme flyball pitchers in the major leagues. Last season, just 35% of balls in play against Chen were on the ground, right at his career average, while 45% were in the air. Flyballs – the ones that don’t clear the fence – are more likely to be turned into outs than grounders. While his flyball tendencies make Chen prone to the home run, they also make a .280 BABIP seem sustainable.

What will determine whether Chen can keep it up is not whether he can keep his BABIP down; it’s whether he can keep his homers down. He gave up 18 homers in 155 innings last year, 17 in 140 innings in 2010, and while those aren’t good ratios, they’re much better than his career norms. Prior to 2010, Chen had allowed 166 career homers in 869 innings, nearly one every five innings. Kauffman Stadium is the perfect fit for him, but not even the K suppresses home runs that much.

So did Chen, at the age of 33, finally figure out how to avoid surrendering meatballs in 2010? He wouldn’t be the first crafty, soft-tossing lefty to put it together in his early 30s, but believing that he figured it out requires a small act of faith. I’ll be honest: I’m skeptical, and I’m worried that the Royals will regret this contract before the end of its first quarter. Of the five guys who are supposed to open the season in the Royals’ rotation, Chen is the one most likely to lose his job for cause by June.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not rooting for him. Chen is one of the most fascinating players in the game. How many former top prospects – Chen was Baseball America’s #4 prospect in 1999 – finally find success over a decade later, when their fastball hits 87 on a good day? How many Chinese-Panamanians learn English so well and embrace their adopted country so tightly that the “Bruce Chen Joke of the Day” will be a new feature at Kauffman Stadium all season long? How many Chinese-Panamanians play major league baseball, period?

On paper, Bruce Chen looks like one of the Royals players most likely to give us grief in 2012. And yet he’s also one of the easiest players to root for. It’s another subtle reason why the Royals seem headed in the right direction – even their mistakes are loveable. Chen could certainly earn his contract, his clubhouse presence is key for a team building with youth, and I'm happy he's here. At least in February.

Kyle Davies: F

Last season was a mixed bag for Davies. On the one hand, he had his worst season as a member of the Royals, posting a 6.75 ERA; he lost eight straight starts and finished with a 1-9 record in 13 starts; he went on the DL twice with shoulder problems; it was revealed that Davies had the worst ERA in the history of baseball of any pitcher with 120 or more career starts; he was arrested for disorderly intoxication while on the DL in August and was released the next day – the Royals insist it was just a coincidence.

On the other hand, he was paid $3.2 million. We should all have such terrible years.

I’ve been saying for years that Davies should be tried in the bullpen, and after his release, the Blue Jays picked him up and tried him in relief in Triple-A Las Vegas. He pitched well in six appearances, but then he always pitched well in the minors – his career ERA in Triple-A is 2.65. We probably haven’t heard the last of Davies, but we’ve probably heard the last of him in a Royals uniform. Which is just as well.

Danny Duffy: B+ (minors), C- (majors)

While the other three lefties in the Royals’ vaunted quartet were struggling (Mike Montgomery and Chris Dwyer) or blowing out their elbows (John Lamb), Duffy took a big step forward early last season, moving up to Triple-A and striking out over a batter an inning before getting called up after just seven starts. In 82 career innings in the high minors, Duffy now has 89 strikeouts and just 19 walks. Duffy, remember, briefly walked away from the game just a year before. If you had told me on May 18th, 2010, while Duffy was still retired, that he’d be in the Royals’ major-league rotation one year later, I would have asked you to pass the pipe.

But all Duffy managed to accomplish during his time in the majors was to remind us how difficult it is for even highly regarded prospects to adjust to the majors. The stuff was there; Duffy averaged 93.3 mph on his fastball, which is terrific for a left-hander, and struck out 87 batters in 105 innings. But he left both his command and his control in Omaha. His lack of control manifested in his 51 walks; his lack of command is evident in the 15 homers he surrendered.

In 20 starts with the Royals, Duffy finished with a 5.64 ERA. I think we’ve become numb to ERAs in the upper 5s as Royals fans, both because of how bad our pitching has been and because, when the fences were brought in 10 feet between 1996 and 2003, Kauffman Stadium was one of the best-hitting parks in the majors during one of the best-hitting eras in history.

So perhaps you don’t appreciate how bad a 5.64 ERA is. It’s really, really bad. It was bad ten years ago; in 2011, when the league ERA was 4.08, it was awful. Duffy’s ERA+, which adjusts his ERA for the context of his league and ballpark, was 73. That’s the same ERA+ Runelvys Hernandez had in 2006 – when Hernandez had a 6.48 ERA. In Royals history, in fact, only five pitchers have had a lower ERA+ than Duffy did in a season of at least 100 innings.

It’s not quite as bad as it looks, though, because while Duffy gave a ton of earned runs, he didn’t give up a single unearned run all season. The distinction between earned and unearned runs is very ambiguous, and the case has been eloquently stated that we should abandon the distinctions entirely – pitchers have nearly as much control over “unearned” runs as they do over “earned” runs. Given a normal percentage of unearned runs, and Duffy’s ERA would have been about 30 points lower – bad, but not historically so.

I’m rambling…the point is that Duffy, despite having the tools to succeed in the majors, gave up a toxic mix of walks and home runs as a rookie. He still has the tools to turn it around, but it’s far from a fait accompli. A look at some comparables gives you an idea of the wide range of outcomes possible.

In the divisional era, 11 other pitchers have made 15+ starts in a season at the age of 22, with a strikeout rate of at least 7 per 9 innings, but with an ERA above 5 anyway. Basically, this is a list of pitchers who were good enough to be in a major-league rotation at the age of 22, but were ineffective despite a good strikeout rate.

The 11 included pitchers of almost every flavor. There were future stars in Greg Swindell, Javier Vazquez, and John Danks, along with Bobby Witt, one of the great teases of my lifetime. There was a future set-up man in Eric Plunk. There was a steady, reliable innings-eater in Randy Wolf. There were the inevitable pitchers whose careers were ruined by injuries, including Rocky Coppinger, Jesse Foppert, and Adam Loewen. And there were the guys who washed out quickly, and probably shouldn’t be in the discussion at all: Rick VandenHurk and Sean Gallagher.

Based on that cohort, there’s about a 50/50 chance that Duffy will make something of himself. The comps don’t really give an indication as to which way he will go, but they do suggest we’ll know soon. The pitchers that wound up as successes all improved significantly, and in some cases dramatically, at age 23. The failures didn’t; in most cases they didn’t even last the year in the rotation. The range of variation on Duffy’s 2012 season is enormous. On this team, that just makes him one among many.

Jeff Francis: C+

Ten years from now, I suspect that when you ask Royals fans to come up with a list of pitchers who made 30 or more starts with the team, Jeff Francis’ name will be about the last one anyone will remember. His tenure with the team was eminently forgettable, not because he was awful, but precisely because he wasn’t. He was just there, every fifth day, tossing six innings and giving up three or four runs.

He wasn’t the pitcher the Royals hoped to get – after a 4.77 ERA in six seasons in Coors Field, they probably weren’t expecting his ERA to be higher pitching half his games in Kauffman Stadium. On the other hand, they also could not have expected that he’d make 31 starts, given that he had missed nearly two full seasons with a rotator cuff injury and had just returned the year before.

(It’s worth pointing out that while Francis signed for $2 million, he almost certainly made a lot more than that. His contract called for $2 million in “performance bonuses”, but remember that MLB’s rules prohibit bonuses for stats other than those pertaining to playing time, i.e. games played, innings pitched, etc. Francis tossed 31 starts and threw 183 innings, which means he had to have come close to maxing out his bonus money. He still wasn’t a terrible signing, but at close to $4 million he wasn’t exactly a bargain either.)

His superficial stats indicate a 6-16 record and a 4.82 ERA, which both look terrible, but they easily could have been a lot better. The Royals averaged just 3.86 runs in his starts. Every year some pitcher draws the short straw in run support, and 2011 was Francis’ year. (In the Royals’ other 131 games, they averaged 4.70 runs a game.) Francis was also slightly unlucky on balls in play, as opposing batters hit .319 in those situations, higher than the team average of .303.

Francis was as dependent on balls in play as anyone last year, because he was a strike-throwing machine. He walked only 39 batters in his 31 starts, five of them intentional. Only one other qualifying Royals starter since the 1994-95 strike walked fewer batters per nine innings than Francis: Paul Byrd, who walked just 38 batters in 228 innings in 2002, and went 17-11 with a 3.90 ERA. Francis didn’t strike anyone out either – just 91 in 183 innings, just under one every other inning – but with a better defense and/or better luck, he might have had a much better season.

Francis signed a minor-league deal with the Reds, and they’re a terrific fit for him. He’s even more suited for NL competition than the typical pitcher, and the Reds have a very underrated defense – Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce are fantastic defenders, Scott Rolen can still pick it, Brandon Phillips is very good, and Zack Cozart has a good reputation as well. His shoulder history will always make him a poor bet to get through a season unscathed, but if Francis makes their rotation out of spring training, a nice little comeback season wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

Back with the second half of starting pitchers soon.