Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Out With The New, In With The Old.

(At 2:07 this morning, my wife gave birth to our fourth daughter, who decided to enter the world two weeks early. Both mother and daughter are doing well, and her three big sisters are handling the commotion as well as can be expected. I will likely be missing from this site for the next few days, but this blog post was almost complete before I was rudely interrupted, so I’ve gone ahead and finished it. I hope you’ll understand if it’s even more rambling, incoherent, and error-riddled than usual.)

Well, this spring training just keeps getting better and better.

And by “better and better”, I mean “worse and worse”.

The Royals came into the spring with, essentially, only three roster decisions. Five of the seven bullpen spots were almost assured: Soria, Broxton, Holland, Coleman, and Mijares. A sixth spot was likely going to the loser of the Luis Mendoza/Felipe Paulino rotation battle. That left one open spot and a half-dozen candidates.

Three of the five rotation spots were guaranteed to Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, and Jonathan Sanchez. That left Danny Duffy, Felipe Paulino, and Luis Mendoza fighting for the last two spots.

Eight of the nine lineup slots were set: Salvador Perez (C), Eric Hosmer (1B), Alcides Escobar (SS), Mike Moustakas (3B), Alex Gordon (LF), Lorenzo Cain (CF), Jeff Francoeur (RF), and Billy Butler (DH). Brayan Pena was the backup catcher. Yuniesky Betancourt was the utility infielder. Mitch Maier was the fourth outfielder. Jarrod Dyson was the pinch-runner. The only open roster spot was that of the starting second baseman, a battle between Johnny Giavotella and Chris Getz.

Even when guys started getting hurt, there was clarity in who their replacements would be. Soria’s injury just convinced the Royals to leave Aaron Crow in the bullpen. Perez’s bum knee forced the Royals to make a trade, with Humberto Quintero taking his spot for now, and Jason Bourgeois bumping Dyson off the roster. But 22 of the 25 roster spots were spoken for. It’s a credit to the Royals that they have enough talent that they don’t have a lot of decisions to make on who to keep. The lack of open spots also limits the opportunities the Royals have to screw up those decisions.

But man, they’re trying.

Sunday morning, I saw that the Royals’ lineup that day had Yuniesky Betancourt starting at second base, and I tweeted out, “At this point I’d be stunned if Giavotella makes the Opening Day roster.” Not 15 minutes later, the Royals made it official, optioning Giavotella to Omaha.

And I admit: I lost it a little. Those of you who follow me on Twitter were entertained by the live streaming of a man blowing off some steam, and ripping the Royals for holding back their youth movement on the basis of a tiny and irrelevant spring training sample. And just when I was about done, a follower tried to play the “the professionals know more than you” card, and pretty soon I was recapping every brain-dead Royals decision of the last quarter-century. I mean, seriously, if you want to argue that the people who get paid to run a team know more than a well-educated fan, you’re better off picking just about any other franchise in American sports.

Oh, and in the middle of all that, Felipe Paulino took the mound with a rotation spot on the line and flat-out soiled himself. This did not improve my mood.

Anyway, I’ve finally had a chance to breathe, and reflect, and analyze. And I’m feeling a little better.

But just a little.

The Royals are sending mixed messages as to why, after Chris Getz failed to slug even .290 for the second straight season last year, and after he lost his job to Johnny Giavotella in August, and after Giavotella showed more pop in two months than Getz showed in two years, and after Giavotella came into spring training as the favorite for the starting job, they reversed course this spring.

Is it because of defense? “(Giavotella) needs to continue to focus on his defense,” manager Ned Yost said. “Johnny is a much better defender today than he was at this time last year, but we had two better defensive options in Betancourt and Getz.”

Let’s ignore the fact that Ned used the words “better defensive options” and “Betancourt” in the same sentence. I can almost buy this argument. The knock on Giavotella has always been that he is a below-average defender at second base. Getz isn’t as good as the Royals think he is, but he’s probably average, maybe even slightly above, at second base.

And I’ll grant the Royals this: on days when Getz is at second base, and Quintero is behind the plate, this might be the best defensive squad the Royals have thrown out there in a long, long time. Ignoring the pitcher, the worst defensive player in the Royals’ lineup is probably Moustakas, and he’s only a little below average. Assuming Eric Hosmer’s poor defensive numbers can be corrected with positioning, Moustakas would be the only below-average defender on the field.

In particular, having Quintero (and Perez when he returns) behind the plate, Escobar and Getz at the keystone, and Cain in centerfield makes for very good defense up the middle. Gordon and Francoeur only have average range, but their arms are both significant weapons in the field.

If you believe the numbers that evaluate Asdrubal Cabrera to be a below-average shortstop, instead of the highlight reels that argue the opposite, then as they’re constituted now, the Royals might have the best defense in the AL Central. That is worth something. (Although with the Indians going with Jack Hannahan at third base over Lonnie Chisenhall, that claim is now debatable.)

So okay, Giavotella is going back to Omaha purely to work on his defense, and the Royals will platoon Betancourt and Getz until they’re satisfied with his glove. This is a message they’re sending to Johnny, not an indication they’re satisfied with Getz.

“Like I told Johnny, it wasn’t anything that he did,” Yost said. “It was just that Getz came into camp a totally different player, one that I didn’t expect to see and, quite frankly, I thought Yuni would be serviceable at second base, but I didn’t think he’d be nearly as good at second base as he’s been. So we had to players that showed up that were better options defensively for us.”

Oh, God.

Let’s ignore the fact that Ned used the words “good” and “second base” and “Yuni” in the same sentence. Getz came into camp a totally different player? The Royals have remarked since camp opened that Getz has a new swing, one that allows him to drive the ball for more power. Kevin Seitzer is the Bat Whisperer, so maybe it’s true. Let’s see what Getz has done in Arizona with his new-found swing:

He’s 8-for-31 with seven singles and a double. His slash line is .258/.314/.290.

Mercy me. Someone get to reinforcing the outfield walls pronto.

In the warm, thin air of Arizona, where the ball travels so well that Alcides Escobar hit five homers and slugged .636 last spring, Getz’s retooled swing has his slugging average all the way up to… .290.

“I told Getzy this morning,” Yost said, “that when he showed up to camp, I saw no way for him to make our club. But he came as a totally different offensive player – to his credit.”


If I’m parsing these quotes accurately, Getz had no chance to make the club at the beginning of spring training, but thanks to a re-tooled swing that has helped Getz slug .300 – well, not .300, but close! – he’s convinced the Royals to change their minds.

The first rule of Spring Training is not Don’t Talk About Spring Training, but it’s close: Don’t Talk About Spring Training Stats. What happens in Arizona and Florida in March, on rocky fields against wildly varied competition, against pitchers who are working on their own weaknesses instead of trying to exploit yours, is worse than meaningless – it’s downright deceptive.

Do you remember who led the majors in homers last spring training? Jake Fox. He made the Orioles’ roster based on his performance – then hit .188/.250/.396 in 52 plate appearances before he was optioned back to Triple-A on June 1st.

But I guess the Royals are ahead of the game here, because they didn’t give Getz the second base job based on his spring training stats. How could they – his stats suck! They gave him the job based on a new swing that hasn’t even shown results in spring training. Now no one can claim that they were deceived by his spring training performance. Savvy!

Sure, I might be overreacting. This could certainly work out. Maybe the talk about Getz’s new swing is just a smokescreen to cover the fact that this is really all about Giavotella’s defense. Maybe Johnny will be back as soon as May if he shows legitimate improvement with the glove, or if Getz is still slugging in the .200s by then. Maybe the long-term impact of this move is minimal, and I’m getting worked up over nothing.

But that’s a lot of maybe’s, and a lot of if’s. All I know with certainty is that the Royals are convinced that, in the here and now, Chris Getz is a better option at second base than Johnny Giavotella. I think that’s troubling.

It would be one thing if Giavotella were one of the scrapheap leftovers from the previous administration. Then it would be understandable (though still not excusable) that they’d rather go with the Proven Veteran, the way they decided they’d rather trade a reliever for an expensive Mike Jacobs then give Kila Ka’aihue the chance to prove whether they were wrong about him. But Giavotella is a Dayton Moore guy through and through. The Royals used an early second-round pick on him in 2008, even though he was seen by most teams as a third-round talent. He was drafted as an offensive-minded second baseman with a questionable glove, but someone who would be a pest at the plate, hit for a good average, find a way to get on base, and hit a bunch of doubles.

And here’s the thing: Giavotella is exactly the guy the Royals thought they were getting. That’s a tribute to their scouting acumen – they pegged him perfectly. He has turned into exactly the sort of player they hoped he would be.

And, having done so, he’s out of a job. Because of Chris Getz.

So what bothers me here more than the implications on the field is the thought process behind it.  I don’t think they’ll bury Giavotella. I think they legitimately do like him, and want him to be the starting second baseman at some point this year. But the Royals’ lack of faith in their own Process is disturbing. Giavotella has his flaws. But if you don’t think he’s a better second baseman than Chris Getz, either you’re making a mistake now, or you made a mistake when you drafted him.

And then there’s Felipe Paulino, who like Giavotella entered camp as the incumbent, and also entered camp with considerable reason to think that he would be better in 2012 than he was in 2011. In Gio’s case, it’s because of his age and the fact that his hip is now healthy; in Paulino’s case, it’s because of his stuff and the fact that his BABIP is historically high.

Like Giavotella, he hasn’t done anything to warrant losing his job, not because he’s played well in spring training, but because it’s very hard to do ANYTHING in spring training that should cost you your job.

But with Luis Mendoza pitching brilliantly all month long, and after Danny Duffy flashed the best stuff of anyone in his first outing, Paulino’s job was at least in mild jeopardy. After throwing two shutout innings in his first “official” spring training performance, he lost the strike zone in his second outing, allowing four runs in his first inning of work before pitching two more scoreless innings. On March 20th he went four solid innings, allowing one run, striking out four and walking no one.

And then on Sunday, against a Brewers’ lineup that had maybe two players who will start the season in the majors, he was completely awful. He couldn’t get out of the third inning, and allowed six hits, three walks, and five runs in 2.2 innings.

The next day, Mendoza started against the Giants and threw five shutout innings. That lowered his spring ERA to 0.54; in 16.2 innings he has allowed 11 hits, walked three batters, and struck out 16.

I’ll also point out that he leads the Royals with four wins this month, which is of course completely and utterly meaningless, but then so is pretty much ever other stat from spring training. That’s why they call it spring training and not “spring performing” or “spring for-realsies”.

If spring training stats mattered, the Royals would be worried about Bruce Chen’s numbers, which – even after allowing three runs in six innings today – are far worse than Paulino’s: 34 hits and 24 runs allowed in 18 innings. Instead, Ned Yost announced today that Chen will be the Opening Day starter. Which is fine. I would have gone with Hochevar myself, but aside from the fact that the order hardly matters, Chen’s performance in spring training shouldn’t be held against him.

But I am deeply worried that Paulino’s performance will. There is just something about Paulino which rubs his teams the wrong way. The Astros gave him up for Clint Barmes, the Rockies gave him up for nothing. Maybe they just couldn’t see past his BABIP luck, but maybe there’s something else – something that we can’t see from our perch as an educated outsider – that makes Paulino add up to less than the sum of his parts. I don’t know, and I’ll confess that there may be factors in play here that I don’t and can’t understand.

In the abstract, giving up on Paulino ought to hurt the Royals far more than sending Giavotella back to Omaha. But if Paulino gets the shaft in the rotation battle, I’ll probably take it a little better. Partly that’s because, with Paulino out of options, if he isn’t in the rotation he’ll be the long man out of the bullpen.

And partly, it’s because I’ll confess to becoming increasingly curious as to just what the hell Luis Mendoza can do. I’ve already broken down his performance last season here, and my conclusion was that while I would be fine with him in a long relief role this season, that his inability to miss bats, even when he led the PCL in ERA last season, meant that it was very unlikely his success there would translate to being even an average starting pitcher in the majors.

Well, in addition to being the best starting pitcher in camp, Mendoza has also shown the ability to miss bats, having struck out 16 batters in 16.2 innings. Again, it’s spring training, so it’s probably meaningless. However, reader Ed Muller pointed out that Mendoza’s strikeout rate last year, while poor overall (5.1 Ks per 9 innings), improved significantly as last season went on – through June, he had a strikeout rate of 4.11 per nine innings, but from July 1st onwards, he struck out 6.51 per nine.

The basic difference is that, while I don’t think Mendoza has figured things out, there’s at least a chance, as opposed to the odds that Chris Getz has finally discovered the Fountain of Extra-Base Hits. Both players are 28 years old, but Mendoza’s a pitcher, and pitchers don’t follow the aging curve nearly as smoothly as hitters. It’s very rare for a hitter to suddenly figure things out in their late 20s. It happens – hello, Jose Bautista – but it’s rare enough that you have to approach any such claims with skepticism.

But pitchers break out in their late 20s all the time, usually due to a substantial change in their approach, like learning a new pitch. Mike Scott learned a splitter* in 1985, when he was 30; prior to that he was terrible, with a 29-44 career record and a 4.45 ERA in his 20s. (A 4.45 ERA in the early 1980s, pitching in Shea Stadium and in the Astrodome, would be like a 5.45 ERA today.) Then in 1985, he went 18-8 with a 3.29 ERA in 222 innings. In 1986, he led the NL with a 2.22 ERA, struck out 306 batters in 275 innings, had a WHIP of 0.923, won the Cy Young Award, and single-handedly scared the bejeezus out of the 108-win New York Mets in the NLCS.

*: Many people, most prominent among them Orel Hershiser, swear that Scott’s “splitter” was really a “scuffer”. I report, you decide.

Esteban Loaiza was a 31-year-old journeyman going into the 2003 season, with a 69-73 record and a 4.88 ERA (95 ERA+). He then signed with the White Sox, Don Cooper taught him his famed cut fastball, and for one glorious season, Loaiza was one of the game’s best pitchers – 21-9, 2.90 ERA, league-leading 207 Ks in 226 innings, and he finished 2nd in the AL Cy Young Vote.

Ken Hill was only 24 when his transformation occurred, but it was equally dramatic. After a rookie season in 1989 when he led the NL in losses (15) and walks (99), he started the 1990 season with a 5.49 ERA in 79 innings and was optioned to Triple-A. He then learned the split-fingered fastball, and was insanely dominant for Louisville – 85 innings, 47 hits, 27 walks, 104 Ks. He returned to the majors in 1991, with a 3.57 ERA in 181 innings, and was an above-average pitcher for the next six years.

And, of course, just last year Philip Humber learned Cooper’s cutter, and went from Quadruple-A pitcher to one of the White Sox’ best starters. So it’s certainly possible for Mendoza to take a great step forward this year; while he hasn’t learned a new pitch, he completely overhauled his delivery last year, and now throws almost directly overhand, giving his pitches more sink.

I still don’t think it’s likely, because in all those cases above, the improvement went hand-in-hand with a new-found ability to miss bats. Mendoza’s ERA title for Omaha last year was not accompanied by a raft of whiffs. If the uptick in Mendoza’s strikeout rate late last year and this spring is meaningful, the Royals may have something on their hands here. I’m skeptical, but I wouldn’t rule it out completely.

And as I finish writing this, it turns out that most everything I’ve just written is a moot point – the Royals have announced that Paulino will start the year on the DL with a sore elbow, giving Duffy and Mendoza the final two spots in the rotation. Obviously, an injury is concerning, but assuming this isn’t season-threatening, this might even be a good thing in the long term. (It’s being reported as a minor forearm flexor strain, that ought to keep him out for no more than a few weeks.) For one thing, it might explain Paulino’s disappointing performance this spring. It also allows the Royals to give Mendoza a legitimate audition in the majors to put the proof in the pudding.

If Mendoza flames out, then the Royals will have seen what they needed to see, and they can move on from Mendoza without needlessly stunting a more talented pitcher’s career. If he turns out to be for real, well, there are worse things than having six qualified starting pitchers. Particularly since, as we’re seeing with Paulino, the odds that all six are all healthy at the same time is slim. (This, of course, is the reason the Royals’ argument that they didn’t need Edwin Jackson because they already had enough starters was so silly. But that ship has sailed.)

And yes, the timing and nature of Paulino's injury seems a little...convenient. But given his erratic performance this spring, Occam's Razor leads me to give the Royals the benefit of the doubt here.

This has been an awful spring, with more injuries in one month than the Royals had all of last year, and at least one questionable roster decision. Certainly, the shine has been taken off my optimism/blind hope/delusion that the Royals could contend in 2012. I don’t want to minimize the short-term hit the Royals have taken. But in the long-term, the impact of everything that’s happened this month should be contained. For 2013 and beyond, my optimism is unshaken.

You may not want to trust my judgment, though. As a new father, everything looks even rosier than usual.