Saturday, March 10, 2012

It Happens Every (Tenth) Spring.

Yesterday, a young left-hander hoping to break camp with the Royals for the first time made his first spring training appearance. The southpaw, who was drafted out of high school in the third round five years ago, faced six batters, and struck out five of them. He was so dominating on the mound that KC Star beat writer Bob Dutton – who never does this – positively gushed about him afterwards.

I am, of course, referring to Danny Duffy. But replace “yesterday” with “ten years ago”, and every word of that paragraph would be equally true for Jeremy Affeldt, in March of 2002.

When I pointed this out on Twitter yesterday, some of you thought I was poking fun at Duffy’s performance, or poking fun at Dutton, by pointing out what he said about Duffy he once said about Affeldt. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Some of you remember this, but for those who don’t: Jeremy Affeldt entered spring training that year as a virtual unknown. He had finally reached Double-A in 2001, his fifth pro season, and while he was reasonably successful (3.90 ERA, 128 Ks and 46 walks in 145 innings), he wasn’t considered a top prospect or anywhere close to it. In Baseball America’s 2002 Prospect Handbook, Affeldt was ranked as the #13 prospect in the Royals’ system – and it wasn’t a good farm system. Here are the 12 guys who ranked ahead of him:

Angel Berroa, Jimmy Gobble, Colt Griffin, Mike MacDougal, Roscoe Crosby, Miguel Asencio, Ken Harvey, Kyle Snyder, Mike Tonis, Brad Voyles, Runelvys Hernandez, and Ryan Bukvich.

As I was saying: the farm system wasn’t good. It actually kind of sucked.

According to the Handbook, Affeldt was “a poor man’s version of Jimmy Gobble,” and “despite his solid arsenal, Affeldt doesn’t consistently throw quality strikes and gets hit more than he should.”

He was not, in other words, expected to make much of a buzz in camp.

And then he took the mound for the first time, against the Pirates in Bradenton – this was the Royals’ last spring training in Florida – and showed stuff that no one had seen from him before. A fastball in the mid-90s. A curveball that dropped like a hot potato. By the time he finished his two-inning stint, scouts and sportswriters alike were at a loss to explain it. “Koufaxian,” was one description I heard, from someone who had actually seen Koufax pitch.

Joe Posnanski was in attendance along with Dutton that afternoon, and wrote a column – which, thanks to McClatchy Newspapers’ Neanderthal approach to the internet, has long been scrubbed from the web – that put Affeldt on the map as not just a prospect, but as a potential star.

And here’s the thing – he came close to fulfilling that potential. Affeldt made the Royals’ roster on Opening Day, despite never having pitched above Double-A before. He began the season in long relief; in seven appearances in April, he threw 17 innings, with a 2.60 ERA and 18 strikeouts. He then moved to the rotation, where he was erratic for seven starts, before developing a blister problem which sidelined him for nearly two full months. He returned in August and pitched out of the pen the rest of the year. He finished his rookie season with a 4.64 ERA – which in 2002, with the fences still in at Kauffman Stadium, was better than league-average.

In 2003, he nearly won the job of Opening Day starter – manager Tony Pena literally flipped a coin, and Runelvys Hernandez won the toss. Once again, blisters wreaked havoc on his pitching – he went on the DL in late April for two weeks, skipped over a start in June, and was pulled out of several games early. But through July 23rd, he had thrown 95 innings with a 4.34 ERA, and the Royals were in first place. At that point, the blister problem became such a drag that the Royals decided to move him to the bullpen, figuring shorter stints would keep the blisters from acting up. In 31 innings the rest of the way, Affeldt had a 2.64 ERA, struck out 33 and walked only nine.

The results on the mound were solid, but the stuff he showed was incredible. His fastball regularly sat at 94-95 as a starter, and in the bullpen he regularly touched 98. (At least that’s what the TV radar guns showed – the official data we have today suggests he was throwing more 92-93.) His curveball broke as hard as any curveball I’ve seen from a Royals’ pitcher in at least 20 years. The only Royals’ pitcher who exceeded Affeldt’s pure stuff this century was probably Zack Greinke. He was a joy to watch; his starts were the closest thing to must-see Royals TV in years.

That winter, he finally had corrective surgery to remove a portion of the fingernail which was responsible for his blister problems. The surgery was successful; Affeldt hasn’t had a blister problem since. But the surgery must have excised a portion of his ability along with the nail, because he wasn’t the same pitcher afterwards.

The Royals didn’t help; they kept moving him from the rotation to the bullpen and back, unable or unwilling to commit to him in one role. In 2004, he made eight starts and relieved 30 times; he threw 76 innings with a 4.95 ERA overall. In 2005, he was used strictly in relief and was pretty awful, with a 5.26 ERA and 29 walks in 50 innings. In 2006 he hit rock bottom – in 70 innings, he walked 42 batters and struck out 28. Dayton Moore was hired in July, and by the end of the month he had traded Affeldt (and Denny Bautista) to Colorado for Ryan Shealy.

After a half-season of struggles with the Rockies, Affeldt figured things out. Left to work strictly in relief, over the last five seasons he has a 3.04 ERA, including a 2.74 mark since joining the Giants three years ago. Ten years after he opened eyes one fine March afternoon, Affeldt is still pitching in the majors, has made over $20 million, and has amassed 7.6 bWAR in his career. That might not sound like much, but that’s more than those 12 guys ranked ahead of him in the Royals system – combined.

So I’d venture to say that in the case of Jeremy Affeldt, one brief spring training performance was deeply meaningful. Before that day, he was a marginal prospect in a marginal system. After that day, he went on to have a career that has stretched over a decade, has been a valued reliever on two pennant winners and one world championship team, and still left some with the nagging sensation that he could have been even better.

Danny Duffy is no Jeremy Affeldt; in terms of pedigree, he’s a lot better. He’s a former Top 100 Prospect, he’s already earned his way to the major leagues, and despite struggling last year, no one’s thinking about turning him into a reliever yet. And while Affeldt was overmatching a bunch of Pirate hitters, Duffy embarrassed the Reds, including strikeouts of Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Scott Rolen.

I asked Bob Dutton – who was one of the few people (if not the only one) to see both performances in person, to compare the two. He kindly obliged. Affeldt's two innings in Bradenton were always my measuring stick until today. I guess Affeldt still gets the nod as someone coming out of nowhere…but Duffy was better. Not a lot better, but he was better. He made big-time hitters look awful. His new cutter simply tied up Votto for a third strike.”

So there you go. Duffy was the better prospect before Breakout Day, and Duffy was the better pitcher on Breakout Day. I know it’s just two innings. And Duffy might take the mound next week, struggle to touch 90 on the gun, and all of this will get forgotten.

But one special day in spring training propelled a lesser pitcher to a long career in the major leagues. Who knows what one special day will do for Duffy? It might mean nothing. But it might mean everything.

“He simply overmatched these guys,” Dutton concluded. “Season-changer stuff if this isn't a complete anomaly.”

I think Dutton meant that it could change the arc of Duffy’s season. But it just might change the arc of the Royals’ season too.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Royals Report Card 2011: Part Seven.

(I hope to give you an extended review of my spring training experience later, but for now, let me just say that it was a wonderful time. Too wonderful, honestly – I intended it to be a working vacation, but it turned out to be less “working” and more “vacation”, which is why I need to start this post by apologizing for not writing about my trip yet. I also unexpectedly got the opportunity to make my national TV debut on the MLB Network, on last Friday’s episode of “Clubhouse Confidential”, which you can watch here. I say “unexpectedly” quite literally, as the suit you’ll see me wearing was graciously loaned to me by our own Joel Goldberg.

While I didn’t get a lot of writing done, I did have some great conversations with some great baseball people, both inside and outside the game, both with the Royals and with other clubs. Hopefully it will inform my writing going forward. I’m also hopeful that I will be able to bring you some of those conversations in the near future.)

And now, the second half of last year’s starting rotation, including anyone who made even a single start for the team:

Luke Hochevar: C+

I’m through with trying to predict what Luke Hochevar is going to do. For years I’ve been defending him with faint praise, arguing that his peripherals are much better than his ERA would suggest, and he’s just been the victim of bad luck*, and anyway he’s still better than Andrew Miller, who everyone thought should have been the #1 pick in the draft that year over Tim Lincecum and Evan Longoria and everyone else.

*: In 2009, Hochevar walked 46 batters in 143 innings, struck out 106, and his groundball rate was 47%. His xFIP that year was a very respectable 4.28. Somehow he wound up with a 6.55 ERA.

Hochevar now has nearly four years of service time in the majors, he’s 28 years old, and it might be time to accept that this is who he is: a below-average starting pitcher. His career 5.29 ERA is the second-highest of any pitcher (min: 500 IP) who was active in 2011, and you can guess who #1 was. His 4.68 ERA last season was his career-best, but 1) his ERA simply tracked the league-wide decline in offense, as his ERA+ of 87 was the same his mark in 2010, and 2) if your career-best ERA is 4.68, you have issues.

But again…his ERA shouldn’t be this high. Hochevar’s xFIP was 4.05 last year. In 2010, when he had a 4.81 ERA, his xFIP was 4.09. His career xFIP (4.27) is more than a point lower than his career ERA.

A disparity that large over the course of a single season can be chalked up to bad luck. Over the course of a career of nearly 600 innings…luck starts to take back seat to other explanations. In Hochevar’s case, there’s a much more compelling one: he’s a different, and much worse, pitcher from the stretch than he is from the windup.

For his career, with the bases empty, opponents have hit .249/.308/.415.
With men on base, his career line is .310/.371/.475.

At least, that’s the charitable explanation. The alternative is that he wilts under pressure, to a degree virtually unseen in a player at the major-league level.

With runners in scoring position, batters hit .314/.388/.497.
With the bases loaded (just 38 career PA) they hit .406/.421/.688.

I prefer the first explanation to the second, because most of the opposing hitters’ improvement occurs the minute someone reaches first base. Also, while many pitchers have shown a difference in performance from the stretch, it’s the rare pitcher indeed who simply collapses under pressure.

Hochevar began 2011 as maddening as ever. After getting knocked out in the fourth inning on July 9th, he had a 5.46 ERA, and had struck out just 60 batters (against 38 walks) in 119 innings. But he came back after the All-Star Break and allowed one run in seven innings on July 15th, and in the second half of the season, a span of 12 starts, Hochevar had a 3.52 ERA. His strikeout rate jumped from 4.6 to 7.7 per 9 innings; in 79 innings he struck out 68 batters, while walking just 21 unintentionally.

Hochevar has been so frustrating in his career precisely because he has been capable, in brief spurts, of being a dominating pitcher, like the time he threw a 3-hit shutout or when he tossed a complete game in 80 pitches. But he’s never been as effective for as long as he was after the All-Star Break last season. The official explanation is that he finally began pitching inside to left-handed hitters, using his slider more effectively. The less-than-official explanation is that, in the words of one baseball guy, “his testicles descended.”

Hochevar has long had a reputation for lacking toughness on the mound. I’m not a fan of questioning a player’s character based on his performance, but when baseball people question a pitcher’s “toughness”, they’re basically saying that the pitcher is either afraid or unwilling to pitch inside. Whether it was due to shedding his fear or simply a change in his approach, I don’t know, but in the second half of 2011, Hochevar effectively used the inside of the plate for the first time.

The other reason for optimism is that Hochevar went a long way towards eliminating his troubles from the stretch in 2011:

With bases empty: .246/.297/.435
With men on base: .261/.337/.420
With runners in scoring position: .274/.364/.405

When you account for the fact that opponents’ OBP in the latter two scenarios was inflated a little by four intentional walks, Hochevar actually pitched a bit better from the stretch than from the windup.

His ERA was still higher than you’d expect, primarily because he gave up more homers than expected. Despite mild groundball tendencies (a 49% groundball rate; league average is around 43-44%), and despite calling Kauffman Stadium home, Hochevar gave up 23 homers in 198 innings. However, his gopher problem was isolated to the first portion of the season. Hochevar gave up 13 homers in his first 10 starts, then just 10 homers in 132 innings the rest of the way.

Again, I’m not going to make any predictions about Hochevar’s future. If you want to believe that he’s finally licked his problems from the stretch, that he can sustain his second-half performance for all of 2012, you have data on your side. If you want to believe that his ERA is destined to trail his peripherals, and that he’ll never be even a league-average pitcher, you have even more data on your side.

I don’t know which Hochevar we’re going to get. For $3.5 million in 2012, and with club control through 2014, it’s a worthwhile gamble to see if he can be a league-average innings muncher at the very least.

The one thing I do know is this: Luke Hochevar is still the odds-on favorite to be the Royals’ Opening Day starter. And you wonder why I wanted Edwin Jackson so bad.

Vinny Mazzaro: F

I don’t have many rules in life, but one of them is this: any time you give up 14 runs in a single relief outing, I’m giving you a failing grade. Just to recap – last year, the Royals’ bullpen ranked 8th in the AL with a 3.75 ERA. Take out Mazzaro’s relief outing on May 16th, and the bullpen’s ERA improves to 3.52 – which would have ranked 3rd in the league, a few thousandths of a point out of 2nd.

It’s not clear what the Royals saw in Mazzaro that made them willing to accept him as the centerpiece of the deal for David DeJesus. He’s not a groundball pitcher; he’s not a strikeout pitcher; he’s not a control pitcher. He had a fluky 4.27 ERA in 2010, due to good fortune, a favorable ballpark, and the flukishness of having 12 of the 70 runs attributed to him as being “unearned”. His RA – “run average”, counting both earned and unearned runs – was 5.15. The Royals should have known better than to think he was an upgrade on what they had. He wasn’t.

Maybe Justin Marks, the second pitcher in the deal, will work out in some fashion. Mazzaro probably won’t. He still has an option, so he’ll probably work in the back end of Omaha’s rotation this season, waiting for an opportunity that, as a Royals fan, I am forced to hope he never gets.

Luis Mendoza: A (minors), incomplete (majors)

Your guess is as good as mine. Mendoza was signed out of Mexico in 2000, when he was 17 years old. Six times in his career he has pitched at least 130 innings in a minor-league season. In none of those seasons has he struck out even 100 batters.

If you can’t miss bats at the minor league level, you’re probably not going to miss the sweet spot of the bat at the major league level. In 2008 Mendoza finally got an extended trial in the majors, with the Rangers, and got obliterated – in 63 innings, he gave up 97 hits and 74 runs. He allowed four runs in a single inning with the Rangers in 2009. This was enough to pique the interest of the Royals, and on April 2nd, 2010 – on the eve of Opening Day – the Royals inexplicably bought him from the Rangers and put him on their roster. Four innings and ten earned runs later, Mendoza’s career line in the major leagues included 122 hits in 84 innings and an 8.43 ERA, he was dispatched to Omaha, and once again we were left wondering if the Royals had any clue what the hell they were doing.

Mendoza spent the rest of 2010 being modestly successful in Omaha, despite striking out 59 batters in 132 innings. He returned to Omaha last season, and…something happened. If you believe the Royals, what happened was that Doug Henry completely revamped Mendoza’s delivery, got him to stand taller and pitch on a more downward plane, and as a result, Mendoza – who hadn’t had an ERA lower than 3.93 in the minors since 2004 – led the Pacific Coast League with a 2.18 ERA.

If you believe the numbers, what happened was that Mendoza just got really, really lucky. In 144 innings, he only struck out 81 batters. He walked 50 batters unintentionally – his strikeout-to-walk ratio was actually lower than in 2010. But he only gave up 5 homers in 144 innings. That’s a fantastic ratio, and if his new delivery came equipped with a killer sinking fastball, I’d be excited. But his groundball percentage wasn’t any better in 2011 than in previous years. I understand the temptation to confuse correlation with causation: the Royals overhauled his delivery, his ERA was cut in half, therefore A caused B. But the evidence strongly backs the notion that it was actually C that caused B – “C” being “outrageously good luck on contact.”

Complicating things is that the Royals gave Mendoza a two-start audition with the big club in September, and he won both starts, allowing a single earned run in each. He only struck out 7 batters in 15 innings, and walked 5, but if you’re inclined to believe in Mendoza – as the Royals clearly are – you’ll take those two starts as evidence that he’s figured it out. Particularly when you let Philip Humber go the previous season and then watched him supply a division rival with 163 innings and a 3.75 ERA in 2011. (Never mind that even prior to last year, Humber’s strikeout rate in the majors was higher than Mendoza’s rate in the minors.)

But here's the thing: back in 2007, in his major league debut, Mendoza put up very similar numbers – in 16 innings, he allowed 4 runs, despite just 7 strikeouts against 4 walks. Finesse pitchers, by their nature, are subject to the vagaries of balls in play – in a small sample, they can be very successful if the balls fall their way. That’s what happened to Mendoza in 2007. In 2008, the Rangers felt the full wrath of regression to the mean. I would prefer that didn’t happen to the Royals in 2012.

Unfortunately, with Mendoza out of options and the Royals hell-bent on seeing what they have, he’s next in line if someone gets hurt or if Felipe Paulino and/or Danny Duffy struggle. Maybe he really has figured something out, but I’d sure as hell rather see him win the job as the team’s long man out of the bullpen, and prove that he can get guys out in two- or three-inning stints in games that are already out of hand. Because I suspect all he’ll prove is that 2011 was a fluke, and I’d rather that he supply his proof without costing the Royals two or three wins in the process.

Sean O’Sullivan: C- (minors), F (majors)

Dayton Moore has had a pretty good run the last two years, but his record isn’t spotless. Three months before he traded DeJesus for Mazzaro and Marks, he dumped Alberto Callaspo – who was a fantastic offensive force in 2009 and showed surprising defensive chops in his first try at third base in 2010, and who was still cheap and club-controlled for years – into Sean O’Sullivan and Will Smith.

Like Mazzaro, O’Sullivan’s youth made him appear promising on the surface – he was just 22 at the time of the trade. But pitchers aren’t like hitters; some pitchers peak in their 30s, while others max out their abilities in their early 20s. O’Sullivan, with his beefy body and lack of projection, was more the latter than the former. The bigger concern was that O’Sullivan had never had good strikeout rates at any level. Yes, he was always one of the youngest players in his league, and debuted in the majors when he was 21 – but to paraphrase Casey Stengel, some 21-year-olds are destined to get better, and some 21-year-olds are only destined to get older.

In 58 innings for the Royals last year, O’Sullivan struck out 19 batters, and walked 26. There is no way to spin that as anything other than horrifying. He was much better in Omaha – in 75 innings, he struck out 55 and walked just 16. It’s possible he will one day find modest success as a middle reliever who compensates for his hittability with excellent control (c.f. Minnesota Twins). But if he does, it won’t be in Kansas City. O’Sullivan is out of options, and barring unforeseen circumstances will be in another organization a month from now.

The saving grace of the Callaspo deal is that unlike the DeJesus trade, where Marks was clearly the second player in the deal, the second pitcher the Royals got for Callaspo – Will Smith – was a legitimate prospect, arguably more integral to the trade than O’Sullivan was. Smith is sort of a left-handed version of O’Sullivan, in that he’s young, has good command for a pitcher his size, but lacks an out pitch. But he is left-handed; sometimes those guys surprise. If the Callaspo deal isn’t destined to go down as a complete dud, it will be up to Smith to rescue the trade.

Felipe Paulino: A-

If you’re not familiar with my opinion on Paulino, you must be new here.

Paulino was claimed off waivers on May 26th, and from the day he joined the Royals until the end of the season, he led the pitching staff in strikeouts. In 125 innings, he had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 119 to 48, and allowed only 10 homers. His 4.11 ERA was second among Royals’ starters behind only Bruce Chen. He continued to blaze one of the fastest heaters in the majors, averaging 95.1 mph on his fastball. If Paulino simply pitches as well this year as he did last year for the Royals, he’s a league-average starting pitcher. Those guys are worth eight figures on the open market, making Paulino, who will earn $1.9 million this season, a steal.

The Royals were able to claim Paulino on waivers in the first place because of his persistently bad luck. In 223 career innings, his BABIP was a ridiculous .356. Despite a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 2-to-1, he had a 5.93 career ERA. (Pitching in Houston, and then Colorado, didn’t help.) So what makes Paulino intriguing is that after the Royals picked him up, he still pitched in bad luck – his BABIP with the Royals was .331, which is better but still about 30 points higher than normal. It’s just that his peripherals were so strong that he managed a league-average performance even with one hand tied behind his back.

Paulino has a career BABIP of .347, in nearly 350 career innings, and it’s a fair question to ask if he’s one of those rare pitchers who, for whatever reason, doesn’t have a BABIP that normalizes to the league average. Bruce Chen, after all, has a BABIP well below average for his career. But in Chen’s case, there’s a specific reason – he’s an extreme flyball pitcher, and flyballs (that stay in the park) are less likely to turn into hits than groundballs.

But in Paulino’s case, there’s no obvious reason why his BABIP should be so high. His career groundball rate is 44.0%, right around league average. His career line-drive rate is 17.8%, also right around league average.

And here’s the thing: Paulino’s BABIP isn’t simply high – it’s historic. Since 1950, which is about as far back as we have play-by-play data that allows us to calculate batting average on balls in play, just under 2000 different pitchers have thrown at least 250 career innings in the major leagues.


Maybe Paulino, for reasons we can’t fathom, is more susceptible to giving up hits on balls in play than the average pitcher. Maybe his fastball straightens out, maybe his delivery lacks deception, I dunno. But I refuse to believe that he is THIS susceptible to giving up hits. A .347 BABIP is simply unsustainable. Not only does he have the highest BABIP of anyone with 250+ innings, but if we raise the bar to 500 career innings – which Paulino may reach this season – the highest career BABIP is Glendon Rusch’s .331. Zach Duke is at .329; no other pitcher with 1000 career innings is above .320.

Paulino showed last year that he can be successful even with a BABIP of .331. There’s excellent reason to believe his “true” level is lower than that, simply because no pitcher has a true level that high. If his BABIP normalizes this year, Paulino could take a major step forward as a pitcher. He doesn’t need to change anything on the mound. He simply needs to be himself, and trust that Lady Luck will stop kicking him in the ass.

Everett Teaford: B+ (minors and majors)

It’s a credit to the Royals, I think, that they have several viable pitching options that 1) may not make the Opening Day roster and 2) aren’t getting any attention for the fact that they may not make the Opening Day roster. Teaford is probably the best example of this.

A quick recap: Teaford was a nothing prospect, a loyal organization soldier with a great attitude and no shot at becoming a viable major-leaguer, until the middle of 2010, when his pitching coach in Double-A tweaked his delivery, his fastball gained 5 mph, and his strikeout rate jumped through the roof.

The biggest news for him in 2011, then, was simply that he seemed to maintain the gains in velocity that he made in 2010. Pitch f/x judged his average fastball at 91.7 mph last year, plenty good enough for a left-hander with good command and secondary pitches.

He spent so much time on the I-29 shuttle between Omaha and KC that his overall performance gets overlooked. He threw 35 innings in Omaha with a 3.34 ERA, and 44 innings for the Royals with a 3.27 ERA. While I don’t normally recommend mixing major and minor league stats together, combining his line makes it easier to see the shape of his performance:

79 IP, 59 H, 25 BB, 61 K, 13 HR, 3.30 ERA.

Teaford was sort of the mirror opposite of Paulino last year – he owed a great deal of his success to luck on balls in play. His BABIP was just .228 for the Royals, and .205 for the Storm Chasers. That’s not going to continue, obviously.

But while Teaford was extremely fortunate on balls in play, he was quite unfortunate when it came to balls going out of play. He gave up a homer every six innings last year, including eight homers in 44 innings for the Royals, which would make you think he’s a flyball pitcher. But at least in his brief time in Kansas City, he was not. His groundball rate (44.6%) was average, but just under 20% of the fly balls he surrendered turned into homers. The typical rate is around 10%. I expect him to give up a lot more hits this year – but I also expect him to give up fewer home runs.

It’s not a wash – I don’t expect him to pitch as well as he did last year – but then, he doesn’t need to match his 3.27 ERA from last year in order to have value. If he simply matches his xFIP last year of 3.95, he’ll be a valuable pitcher in some role. Whether that comes in the bullpen, in the rotation, or in the minors is more dependent on the performance of the other pitchers on the roster than on Teaford himself.

To start the season, Teaford’s best bet is to make the team as a second lefty out of the pen, although to even win that job he’ll either have to beat out Tim Collins or wait for Jose Mijares to implode. But pitching staffs have a way of creating opportunities for pitchers on the bubble. I think we’ll see more of Teaford this year than we did last year, and I think he’ll take advantage of the opportunities that arise.