Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Score Board: 4/18/12.

In the past, when the Royals eliminated themselves from playoff contention with an early-season dive, I’d start a column with some variation of “Mayday!”

The problem is, it’s only April 18th.

That the Royals are in the midst of a long losing streak this early in the season is so unremarkable that it’s remarkable. For those of you who missed it on Twitter last night or the discussion on the radio today, here you go:

This is the ninth consecutive season in which the Royals have lost six games in a row by the 14th of May.

Nearly as remarkable is that this is the seventh time in those nine seasons – only 2009 and 2010 are exempt – in which the Royals lost six in a row by the end of April. Which means the losing streak had to begin no later than April 25th.

By comparison, the Royals once went over five years – from April 2003 to June 2008 – without a single six-game winning streak at any point in the season.

And now, they’ve lost seven in a row. Far be it from me to suggest that Dayton Moore and Ned Yost might not live up to the standards set by their mentors John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox, but the Atlanta Braves went nearly 16 years – from August 1990 to June 2006 – without a seven-game losing streak.

The Braves lost 10 in a row in 2006, and in 2009 they had a nine-game losing streak in April which dropped their record to 8-14. If you’re looking for a silver lining, the Braves recovered that year to finish 91-71 and make the playoffs.

If you’re looking for a silver lining, you’re best off not reading the remarks that Ned Yost made after tonight’s game. The Royals blew a 3-2 lead in the seventh inning, thanks to Jose Mijares allowing two-out singles to Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder sandwiched around a wild pitch, plating the tying and winning runs. After the game, Yost admitted that he made a mistake in the inning.

The mistake? After Mijares’ wild pitch tied the game and moved Cabrera to second base, he should have had Mijares intentionally walk Fielder.

Here’s what Yost said about giving up a hit to Fielder after giving up one to Cabrera: “The second time was pure stupidity on my part, plain and simple that’s what it was. After the wild pitch, we had a runner on second. I started to overthink the situation.”

This is where things start to go off the rails, my friends. Jose Mijares is on the roster for one reason: to retire left-handed batters. (Or at least, he should be.) I didn’t get around to commenting on his signing this winter, but I liked the acquisition. We saw a lot of Mijares the last four years when he pitched for the Twins, and he was generally effective as the quintessential left-handed specialist. Pitching from a near three-quarters delivery, his career line against left-handed batters was .212/.278/.331. For $925,000 guaranteed, he was a good gamble that he might bounce back from a disappointing 2011 season and fill that role, freeing Tim Collins up to pitch longer outings against hitters from both sides of the plate.

Coming into the game, Mijares had pitched well, allowing one run in five innings, walking two and striking out five. It’s his job to get left-handed hitters out. Prince Fielder bats left-handed. If you don’t trust Jose Mijares to get Prince Fielder out, why the hell is he on the roster?

What really bothers me about Yost’s comments is that THIS EXACT SAME SITUATION essentially sealed his fate as manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. Read this article. Please. On September 14th, 2008, with the Brewers in the thick of the wild-card hunt, with the game tied 3-3 in the bottom of the eighth, Yost brought Brian Shouse – like Mijares a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Left-Handed Specialists – in the game to pitch to left-handers Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. After Utley bunted a runner over to second, Yost had Shouse intentionally walk Howard.

THAT Ryan Howard. The Ryan Howard who has maybe the biggest platoon split of any left-handed hitter in the game. When you have the chance to face Howard with a left-handed pitcher in a key situation late in a game, you’re supposed to get on your knees and kiss the ground.

Instead, Yost walked Howard, so that Shouse could face Pat Burrell, a right-handed hitter who crushes left-handers. Burrell singled in the go-ahead run. Shane Victorino, batting from the right side, then hit a three-run homer off Shouse.

On September 15th, 2008, Ned Yost was fired. The Milwaukee Brewers would rebound to win the wild card by a single game.

I wrote about this extensively when the Royals hired Yost, which you can read here. My conclusion then was that while Yost has never shown tactical decision-making to be a strength of his, that we shouldn’t let a single horrific decision overshadow the terrific work he had done in developing young talent.

I stand by that. I think Yost has generally done a good job of bringing the Royals’ young players along, and that Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy might benefit from his presence the way Fielder and Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy did.

But if he really thinks that the mistake he made tonight was not giving the Tigers a free baserunner, then he’s starting to panic. He’s letting the outcome dictate his decisions. Never mind that pitching to Fielder with Mijares was the best matchup the Royals had at that time – Fielder drove in the winning run, and that’s all that matters.

Which is ridiculous. Look at the real outcome of the at-bat – Fielder hit a hard groundball to the left of second base, about where the shortstop would normally set up. But because the Royals had the shift on against Fielder – which they should – Escobar was to the right of second base and the ball got through for a single.

In the bottom of the ninth, with two on and one out, Escobar hit a ball just inside the third-base line. But because the Tigers were playing their no-doubles defense – as they should – Miguel Cabrera was in position to snag the ball, step on third base, and throw to first to end the game.

As painful as it was, the game was essentially decided by defensive positioning and the vagaries of ground balls. One grounder had eyes, the other didn’t. Mijares was the right matchup against Fielder, and more than that, he did what he was supposed to do: he got a ground ball. No less an authority than Mariano Rivera once said after a blown save – I’m paraphrasing here – “I can only get ground balls – I can’t point them in the direction I want them to go.”

This isn’t quite as bad as what happened in Milwaukee, because Yost did indicate he would have then brought Louis Coleman in to pitch to Delmon Young. But if Yost really regrets letting Mijares pitch to Fielder, then he’s saying that he cares more about the results than he does about the process. And if Yost doesn’t trust the process, why should we trust The Process?

It’s unfortunate and upsetting that the Royals are 3-9. But it’s the job of the fans to overreact to the losing streak, to beat their fists against their chest and wail and gnash their teeth. It’s the job of the manager to stay the course, to trust the process more than the results, to have faith that the team he thought was good enough to compete two weeks ago is still good enough today.

It’s not his job to panic. If Ned Yost is starting to let the losing get to him, we’re going to be in for a long summer. And it’s still early spring.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Score Board: 4/16/12.

Hey, no one said this would be easy.

The Royals were two outs away from starting the season with a 4-2 road trip. Then Jonathan Broxton couldn’t find the strike zone, Luke Hochevar gave up seven runs in the first inning of the home opener, and the Royals gave up 32 runs in a three-game series to the Indians.

Three days ago, the Royals had surrendered the second-fewest runs in the league. Now, they’ve given up the third-most.

The point here is that the standings can change wildly in the first few weeks of the season, and no matter how many times you tell yourself not to put too much meaning in such a small slice of the season, it’s human nature to ignore that advice. Just remember: the team that has given up the most runs in the AL right now is…Tampa Bay.

The Tigers started the year 4-0, and were leading game five 2-0 in the ninth with Justin Verlander on the mound, and I heard otherwise sensible people suggesting the Tigers could win 110 games this year. They lost that game and two of their next three; at 6-3 they still look like a good team, but not the unstoppable juggernaut that they resembled on Wednesday.

So let’s keep perspective here. If the Royals were 6-3, it wouldn’t mean that they were playoff-bound; we all remember just how meaningful an 18-11 start was. On the extremes, a team’s early-season record may portend something – the Royals’ 9-0 start in 2003 famously presaged a winning season a year after 100 losses. But 3-6 has no inherent meaning other than the fact that the Royals have lost a couple of games they could have won. It sucks that they’re 3-6, but it’s hardly time to jump ship on the youth movement because the pitching staff got its brains beat in for one weekend.

- Jarrod Dyson had an eventful weekend, and I say that as politely as possible. A terrible read on the flyball in the first inning on Friday set the tone, as he took the wrong route on another ball on Saturday, and then had the chance to throw Asdrubal Cabrera out at the plate in the fourth inning, but double-clutched the throw and then air-mailed the throw, allowing Cabrera to score easily. He then got thrown out trying to steal second in the ninth inning, killing what would have been the capper on a seven-run rally.

Dyson, unlike most low-power speedsters (think Juan Pierre), actually has an above-average arm. He also has well above-average range. He has elite speed. What we saw from him defensively for those two games was very much out of character for him. He’s played great defense in the past – remember, he already shares the Royals’ team record for most putouts (10) by an outfielder in one game. He was 20-for-22 in stolen base attempts in the majors - now 20-for-23 - and he had already stolen 6 bases in one week in Omaha this year. Frankly, if he was three inches taller, he might have erased all his bad mojo this weekend, because he would caught Shin-Soo Choo’s tenth-inning double, which would have been one of the most fantastic and clutch catches of the season – he got to the wall in plenty of time and timed his leap perfectly.

I point this out only because I’ve heard many fans ripping Dyson as a terrible fielder who has no business in the major leagues. I’m not defending his performance in those two games, but to judge him on those two games would be like judging a highly-touted hitter for going 0-for-8 with 6 Ks after getting called up. Ultimately, what will determine whether Dyson has a major-league career or not isn’t his defense or his speed; it’s whether he can sustain a .330 OBP or not. On that, the jury is still out.

- Through two starts, Luis Mendoza has thrown 9.2 innings, allowed 14 hits, walked 8 batters (one intentional), and struck out 3. The Royals wanted to believe his performance in Omaha last year was for real, but at some point the fairy tale has to end. His place in the rotation isn’t in imminent jeopardy, as it will be 2-3 weeks before Felipe Paulino is ready to return. But at some point the Royals need to confront reality.

- Then again, confronting reality has long been a weakness of the organization, e.g. Yuniesky Betancourt. I don’t want to waste precious minutes in every column ripping on Yuni, and he certainly had a good game on Saturday, including the game-tying homer in the eighth inning.

But I just want to point out that in the sixth inning, after he had reached base on an error with two outs, Betancourt failed to score on Mike Moustakas’ double that Choo had in his glove before he hit the wall and the ball popped out.

They barely mentioned it on the broadcast, and there was no replay that showed Betancourt running the bases at all, but I heard from a fan who was at the game that Betancourt stopped between first and second base when the ball was hit, because he forgot there were two outs. (The same fan claims that the fans were booing Betancourt after the play, but on the replay it’s impossible to tell whether they’re booing or yelling “Moooose”. Another reason why I’ve never been a fan of Moose calls – it’s impossible to separate approbation from reprobation.)

Given that the Royals lost in extra innings, you might argue that Betancourt’s failure to score on that play was important. You might even argue that it cost the Royals the game. Betancourt has his uses on the roster, and I even defended the notion of having him as a utility infielder when the Royals signed him. But this is just another example of how he just kills the Royals with things that don’t show up in the box score. The irony is that non-sabermetric types accuse people like me of overlooking the little things, while they praise Betancourt because he led the Royals in homers and RBIs in 2010.