Friday, September 28, 2012

It's Not The Fans Who Are Impatient, Dayton.

(One correction to my last column – I wrote that the Royals didn’t sign any of their young players to long-term deals during the Herk Robinson & Allard Baird years. I forgot one player did, in fact, receive an eight-figure contract early in his sophomore season: Angel Berroa. I regret the error. The error of signing Angel Berroa, of course.)

This is one of the easiest columns for me to write, because I could have written it at any point this century, and in fact I have written variations of this column from time to time. On the other hand, this column is difficult to write, because reliving three decades of Royals incompetence is never easy.

1981: 10th (301 BB – strike-shortened season)
1982: 13th (442 BB)
1983: 14th (397 BB). Every other MLB team had at least 436 walks.)

Once upon a time, the Royals were a patient team. In 1972 – 40 years ago – the Royals led the American League in walks. They finished second in the league in walks in 1973, and third in 1974. Before the 1972 season, Royals’ GM Cedric Tallis made one of his annual player robberies at the Winter Meetings, stealing John Mayberry from the Astros for nothing. Mayberry was the Travis Hafner of his generation, an unathletic first baseman who was given up on by his original team because they didn’t appreciate the fact that he had both the power to crush a meaty pitch and the discipline to lay off the other ones.

In 1971, Mayberry had hit just .182/.260/.350 for the Astros; the year before he had hit .216/.318/.365. But he was just 22 when he was traded, and in the previous two years, in 134 games at Triple-A, he had drawn 92 walks and had a .420 OBP. Basically, Mayberry was exactly the type of player that the Royals have traded away for the last quarter-century. But in 1972, they acquired him instead. Mayberry is probably the most patient hitter in Royals history; he led the AL in walks twice, going over 110 walks each year. Aside from Darrell Porter in 1979, no other Royals has accomplished either feat once.

As recently as 1980, the Royals ranked a comfortable 6th in the AL in walks drawn. No Royal drew even 70 walks that year, but five different players drew at least 50.

1984: 14th (400 BB) – every other team in the majors had at least 420 walks.
1985: 12th (473 BB) – Last in AL with 416 UIBB
1986: 13th (474 BB)

But the seeds were already being sown for a generation of free-swingers. Two of the integral members of the 1980 Royals, Frank White and Willie Wilson, were excellent overall players despite not being aware that you were allowed to walk to first base if the pitcher threw four pitches out of the strike zone that you didn’t swing at.

White was the Royals’ everyday second baseman from 1976 through 1985 without ever drawing even 30 walks in a season. He finally learned some semblance of plate discipline in his mid-30s, drawing 43 walks in 1986 and 51 walks in 1987, and not coincidentally had two of his best seasons. Wilson played 19 years in the majors, and never drew 40 walks in a season. This was particularly absurd given that Wilson, in his prime, was one of the fastest ballplayers who ever lived. The man once hit five inside-the-park home runs in a single season – you would think that either Wilson or the Royals would recognize that his priority should be to get to first base by any means necessary, and let his speed take over from there.

Granted, at the time, the importance of walks as a means of getting on base – hell, the importance of getting on base – was not properly appreciated by the baseball establishment. The Royals were hardly alone in this.

Tracy Ringolsby, a fine Kansas City sportswriter who reaches a national audience through The Sporting News and Baseball America, wrote last winter, while comparing Willie Wilson to Rickey Henderson, that the biggest difference between the two was that Henderson had more power. In view of the fact that Henderson walks 106 times per 162 games played and Wilson walks 32 times, that statement is fairly preposterous. It’s quite a bit like saying that Twiggy and Dolly Parton are built about the same except that Twiggy is a half-inch taller. – Bill James, 1985 Baseball Abstract

But while the industry didn’t appreciate walks as much as they should have, no team appreciated them less than the Royals. By 1983, the Royals were dead last in the majors with 397 walks. Not one player drew even 50 walks of the unintentional variety. The 1983 Royals walked less than any other team from 1982 to 1992. Second on the list? The 1984 Royals.

In 1985, the Royals jumped all the way to 12th place in the AL in walks, but even that number was deceptive. In 1985, George Brett had one of his best seasons, and unlike earlier in his career, there was almost no one else in the lineup who was a threat. As a result, Brett was intentionally walked 31 times that year. Between 1958 and 2009, only one other AL player was given as many free passes – John Olerud (!) in 1993. The Royals led the AL in intentional walks – if you remove them from the equation, they were once again last in the AL in walks.

But they won the World Series, and never mind that their championship was due to fantastic starting pitching, a weak division, and some postseason luck. If the Royals could win a world championship without drawing any walks, then they must not be that important, right?

1987: 10th (523 BB)
1988: 9th (486 BB)
1989: 5th (554 BB)

In 1989, almost by accident, the Royals finished 5th in the AL in walks. The team still had its free swingers; White and Wilson were still playing regularly, and Bo Jackson walked 39 times, which I suppose was pretty good for a guy who went straight from the gridiron to the major leagues. But the Royals had acquired Danny Tartabull from the Mariners two years earlier, and Tartabull was always a patient hitter. And they had Kevin Seitzer.

Since Porter led the AL with 121 walks in 1979, only twice has a Royals player drawn even 90 walks in a season. Think about that for a second. Since 1980, a player has drawn 90 walks for his team 391 times – about 13 times for each franchise. The Phillies have had 27 ninety-walk seasons since 1980. The Indians had four players draw 90 walks – in 1999 alone.

Every other team in the majors has had more 90-walk seasons since 1980 than the Royals.

And one of those seasons, again, was George Brett in 1985, when he was walked intentionally 31 times – and 72 times of his own accord. Brett didn’t draw 103 walks that year because he was patient – he drew 103 walks because he was awesome.

But in 1989, Kevin Seitzer walked 102 times, and only seven were intentional. Frankly, it’s surprising he got that many intentional walks – while he hit .281 that year, he had no power to speak of, slugging .337. He earned his walks, and thanks to them, he put up an OBP north of .380 for the third straight year.

Naturally, a year and a half later he was on the bench because Hal McRae didn’t like his defense at third base. The following spring, Seitzer was released a week before Opening Day. If the Royals thought he was done, they miscalculated; he played six more years in the majors. He played five years with the Brewers, and hit .300/.376/.422 for them.

If you’re wondering why I’ve been such a strong supporter of Kevin Seitzer as the team’s hitting coach, wonder no more. In the last 30 years, he is quite literally the only player the Royals have employed who embraced the base on balls as an offensive weapon.

1990: 10th (498 BB)
1991: 10th (523 BB)
1992: 13th (439 BB)
1993: 14th (428 BB) – every other AL team had at least 483 walks.

In 1989, the Royals won 92 games, the most the franchise has won since 1980 – yes, more than they won in 1985. In 1989, the Royals drew more walks relative to the league than any other Royals team since 1980. This is not a coincidence.

Unfortunately, it was an anomaly. The Royals went back to their free-swinging ways the next year; by 1993, they were such hackers that they spotted every other AL team 55 walks – that’s one every three games.

1994: 12th (376 BB)
1995: 13th (475 BB)
1996: 12th (529 BB)
1997: 9th (561 BB)

The Royals have ranked in the bottom half of the American League in walks drawn for 22 consecutive seasons, from 1990 to 2011. They’ve ranked in the bottom half in walks drawn for 30 of the last 31 years, with 1989 the only outlier between 1981 and 2011.

1998: 12th (475 BB)
1999: 10th (535 BB)
2000: 14th (511 BB) – every other team in the AL had at least 526 walks.
2001: 14th (406 BB) – every other team in the majors had at least 456 walks.

And if anything, the problem is only getting worse over time. From 1981 through 1999, the Royals ranked at least 10th in the AL in walks eight times. Since the turn of the century, they’ve done so only three times in 13 years. Since 2000, the Royals are more likely to finish dead last in the AL in walks (four times) than finish 10th or higher (three times).

2002: 8th (524 BB)
2003: 10th (476 BB)
2004: 13th (461 BB)
2005: 12th (424 BB)
2006: 11th (474 BB)

Even more amazing is this: since 1998, when Jose Offerman walked 89 times, not a single Royals player has drawn more than 72 walks in a season. Carlos Beltran’s 72 walks in 2003 represents the franchise’s high-water mark for this century.

Since 1999, a player has drawn 73+ walks a total of 473 times, including 12 players already this year. EVERY SINGLE TEAM IN THE MAJORS HAS DONE IT AT LEAST EIGHT TIMES. Except the Royals. They haven’t done it once.

2007: 13th (428 BB)
2008: 14th (392 BB) – every other team in the majors had at least 417 walks.
2009: 13th (457 BB)
2010: 9th – tie (471 BB) – the Royals were closer to 13th than 8th.
2011: 11th - tie (442) – the Royals were just 7 out of last place.

And in 2012, it’s more of the same, if not worse. With six games to go, the Royals have drawn 381 walks. They are 35 walks behind every other team in the majors – the Red Sox (!) have 416. They need to draw 20 walks in their last six games in order to get over 400. If they don’t, they would be just the 12th team in the last 30 years to walk 400 times or fewer in a full season. But they’d be the fourth Royals team in the last 30 years.

It might even be worse than that. The Royals actually rank third in the AL in intentional walks – Jeff Francoeur, hysterically, has received a free pass nine times. I’ve been Seitzer’s biggest fan, and this time last year he looked like a hitting savant. But here we are, and for the 23rd consecutive season, and the 31st time in the last 32 years, the Royals are below average in walks. For the eighth time in 32 years, they rank dead last in the league. Either Seitzer isn’t preaching patience, the hitters aren’t listening, or they’re just not capable.

You have to hope there’s room for improvement. Francoeur will be replaced by Wil Myers at some point, and Myers has generally shown good plate discipline in the minors. Yuniesky Betancourt is gone. But beyond that, it’s hard to see how the Royals will improve to the point where they’re above league average in the next few years.

Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar will probably never walk in 10% of their plate appearances – like Frank White and Willie Wilson before them, that doesn’t mean they’re not excellent all-around players, but it is a weakness in their game. Mike Moustakas’ career high for walks in the minors was 43 – he’s a free swinger, and while I think his walk rate will go up as his power develops (because pitchers will be afraid to challenge him), he’s likely to always be an early-in-the-count swinger. Lorenzo Cain’s walk rates in the minors were average at best; he’s probably a 40 or 50-walk guy at his peak.

Johnny Giavotella has been a disappointment in a number of ways, but consider this: in the minor leagues, he drew 238 walks against 2091 at-bats. In the majors, he has 14 walks against 349 at-bats. His walk rate has dropped 62% with the Royals. Plate discipline is such a low priority for the organization that a reasonably patient hitter in the minor leagues can turn into Angel Berroa once he gets to The Show.

If there’s hope for improvement, it rests with Eric Hosmer, who despite a nightmare of the season has upped his walks from 34 to 56 this season. He had a reputation for great strike zone knowledge in the minors; if he fixes his swing to the point where pitchers have to work him carefully, he could be the first Royal since the 1980s to draw 90 walks.

And then there’s Alex Gordon, who is clearly the most (and possibly only) patient hitter in the lineup, with 67 walks each of the last two years. It is partially for that reason that I think he should have been left alone in the leadoff spot in the lineup. Instead, the Royals moved him back to the #3 spot, because they see him more as a “run producer”, and never mind that it’s difficult to produce runs when there aren’t any runners on base for you to drive home.

But here’s why I’m worried. This year, in the leadoff spot, Gordon drew 39 walks against 335 at-bats, a healthy ratio that led to a .379 OBP. But since moving down to #3, he has drawn just 13 walks against 164 at-bats, a 30% drop in his walk rate. Not surprisingly, his OBP is down to .330.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I’m skeptical that the Royals are going to fix their plate discipline problem anytime soon. The Royals have taken the only patient hitter in their lineup, moved him to a lineup spot in which his on-base skills are not nearly as appreciated, and he’s responded by abandoning his signature skill in order to be a better fit in his new spot.

The Royals are fourth in the AL in batting average. But thanks to their lack of walks, they’re just 9th in the league in OBP, and 12th in the league in runs scored.

As the 1985 Royals showed, it is possible to win while being among the most impatient teams in baseball. But as the 1986 through 2012 Royals have shown, it is also immensely difficult. If the Royals make it a point of emphasis of ending their decades-long streak of not giving a damn about walks, it will make ending their other streak – their 27 playoff-free seasons in a row, the longest streak in American professional sports – a lot easier.