Continuing our breakdown of the Opening Day roster…
#20: Elliot Johnson
I already broke down Johnson’s game here, so I won’t rehash it. While I don’t think Johnson’s performance is going to make or break the season, I think it’s fair to say that how much playing time he gets will be a pretty good gauge of how successful the Royals are this year. I imagine that the plan is that he’ll start once a week at various positions, maybe twice a week on occasion. That’s 30-40 starts, maybe 150 plate appearances. Maybe he gets 20-30 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter, or as a late-inning replacement, but really, he should max out at around 180 plate appearances. (With the Rays in 2011, he got 181.)
If Johnson gets more than that, most likely one of three things happened:
1) Alcides Escobar gets hurt, and the Royals elect not to bring up Christian Colon to fill in;
2) Another starter gets hurt, and the Royals have so little depth to fill in anywhere that Johnson is forced into duty;
3) The winner of the second base job tanked, the loser doesn’t impress anyone in Omaha, and they turn to Johnson out of desperation.
None of these scenarios are appealing. (2) is the most likely by far; if any Gordon or Francoeur or Moustakas or Hosmer or Butler get hurt, Johnson is going to see a lot of at-bats.
Now, that won’t necessarily happen. All five players are in their 20s, they all have a history of durability, and none of them went on the DL last year. But – and this is no knock against Johnson – if you told me right now that he winds up with less than 200 plate appearances this season, I’d feel a lot better about the possibility that the offense takes a big step forward.
Unless, you know, Johnson himself gets hurt, and we’re treated to a heaping dose of Miguel Tejada instead.
#19: Kelvin Herrera
As you know, I am overly fond of comps for young players, and many of these comps make no sense whatsoever in retrospect. But all last winter I said Kelvin Herrera was the new Rafael Betancourt, and – with one important caveat – you could drop Herrera’s rookie stat line into Betancourt’s career and no one could pick it out.
While their end results are the same, they get there in different ways. Both pitchers rely heavily on a fastball that they throw with pinpoint command, which is why they issue very few walks. (They both give out a fair number of intentional walks, but strip those aside, and Herrera walked 15 in 84 innings – 1.60 per nine – and Betancourt has walked 107 in 618 career innings – 1.56 per nine.) They both combine their control with strikeout stuff – Betancourt’s career rate is slightly higher than Herrera’s.
Both also have fairly large platoon splits; for his career, Betancourt has a .205/.230/.336 line against RHP, but .260/.323/.410 line against LHP. As a rookie, Herrera was .235/.268/.311 against RHP, and .275/.351/.392 against LHP. In Betancourt’s case, his susceptibility to left-handers kept him in a set-up role for most of his career, although he finally earned the closer’s role with the Rockies last year, at age 37, and did just fine.
While the results look the same, their repertoires are different. Betancourt’s main secondary pitch is a slider, and he tosses the occasional changeup. Herrera’s main off-speed pitch is his changeup, and he throws the occasional curveball. This is important because slider-centric pitchers tend to have big platoon splits; changeup- and curveball-centric pitchers tend to have small splits, if any split at all. One season is not nearly enough of a sample size to judge Herrera, so despite his relative struggles last year, there’s good reason to think that he will be able to get left-handers out going forward. Particularly since his changeup is nasty.
The one important caveat, and the reason why Herrera has potential above and beyond what Betancourt has accomplished, is that his fastball is qualitatively better than Betancourt’s. It’s much faster, for one; while Betancourt’s heater has registered in the 91-93 range throughout his career, Herrera averaged 97.4 mph on his fastball according to Pitch f/x, higher than any pitcher in baseball other than Aroldis Chapman last year.
And the other difference is that Herrera’s fastball sinks as much as Betancourt’s rises. Betancourt’s groundball percentage for his career is 30%, and was as low as 23% in 2006; both numbers are insanely low. Herrera, by contrast, was at 55.5% last year, which is Trevor Cahill/Tim Hudson sinker territory, only with a pitch coming in at 97 mph.
For his career, Betancourt has surrendered 65 homers in 618 innings; that’s not a bad ratio per se, but it’s the biggest weakness in his game. Herrera, by contrast, gave up only four home runs in 84 innings last year, and that’s not really a fluke. More impressively, he gave up all four home runs by April 21st. In his first 10.1 career innings, Herrera gave up five homers. Since then, he’s working on a streak of 76 innings without allowing one.
Despite his flyball tendencies, Betancourt’s command has made him a consistently effective, if not dominant reliever. He had one transcendent season, in which he was arguably the best reliever in baseball, in 2007 (79 innings, 51 hits, 6 UIBB, 1.47 ERA). He followed that with his only bad season in 2008 (5.07 ERA, thanks to 11 HR in 71 innings). Every other season of his career has been almost indistinguishable.
I think that bodes well for the consistency of Herrera’s skill set, only at a potentially higher level than Betancourt. The only real concern with Herrera is simply health; he missed almost all of 2009 and 2010 before the Royals made him a reliever, and making 76 appearances last season approached, if not crossed, the line of danger last season.
But if he’s healthy, he’s almost certain to be effective. Given the variability inherent to the role, that’s a rare trait for a reliever.
#18: Aaron Crow
Well, I guess Crow is a reliever for good now. If the Royals had known they were using the #12 pick in the draft – and giving a major-league contract to – a reliever, I wonder if they would have still taken him. (In fairness, I wanted Grant Green, who’s turned into the A’s version of Christian Colon, a perfectly useful bench guy who’s going to be stretched as an everyday player. Point, Dayton Moore.)
At least Crow’s a good reliever; he’s basically a slightly worse version of Herrera. Herrera averages 97.4 on the gun; Crow averages 94.7. Herrera’s groundball rate is 55.5%; Crow’s career rate is 52.5%. Herrera has substantially better command, possibly because Crow tries to get hitters to chase his slider, which does lead to more strikeouts.
That slider is the difference between the two. He threw it 39% of the time last year, which is an astonishing number for a breaking ball. As he’s gotten settled in the relief role, he’s become exclusively a two-pitch pitcher – he threw curveballs about 5% of the time, and exactly two changeups all of last year. Unlike Herrera, he’s earned his platoon split honestly – for his career, Crow’s line against RHP is .218/.298/.287, while against LHP it’s .257/.333/.424.
Having two right-handed set-up men with varying repertoires is an asset if Ned Yost knows how to use them. Despite last year’s splits, Crow is the guy to use when predominantly right-handed hitters are due up, while Herrera’s the guy to turn to when it’s mostly left-handers or switch-hitters coming.
If this is Crow’s permanent role now, it would be nice if the Royals take the bubble wrap off of him a bit. He threw just 62 innings as a rookie – he was battling a sore shoulder late in the year – and last year, despite pitching in 73 games, threw just 65 innings. Crow is five inches taller than Herrera, he’s three years older, and he’s trained as a starter – he should be the guy throwing 80-90 innings a season. Particularly with the improvements the Royals made to their rotation, increasing Crow’s workload would help insure that their big four relievers are the only ones who ever need to pitch in meaningful late inning situations.
#17: Luis Mendoza
If he was projected to pitch in any kind of meaningful role, Mendoza would rank a lot higher than this, because let’s be honest: we still don’t know what he is. Is he the journeyman AAAA pitcher who, through 2010, had pitched 84 innings in the majors and allowed 92 runs? Is he the pitcher who, in his last 17 starts of last season, averaged over 6 innings a start and had a 3.82 ERA with a pretty K/BB ratio of 74 to 28? And where does the 2011 Mendoza, who led the PCL in ERA but struck out just 81 batters in 144 innings, fit in the equation?
I don’t know. I do know that Mendoza’s impressive second-half performance coincided with learning a new cutter from Dave Eiland in late June, adding credence to the theory that his improvement was not simply random variation.
(Advanced data doesn’t really help here. Pitch f/x doesn’t even recognize his new pitch as a cutter – it lists it as a two-seam fastball. Mendoza threw his four-seam fastball over 70% of the time every year of his career until last season – last year, he threw it just 28% of the time, his “two-seamer” 40% of the time, and his slider, which he threw less than 10% of the time previously, was thrown 22% of the time. My guess is that his cutter is confusing their algorithms, and is getting classified as a two-seamer sometimes and as a slider other times.)
I also know that Mendoza is still only 29 – he’s six weeks younger than Luke Hochevar – and that he’s not even arbitration-eligible yet, and won’t be a free agent for four years. So I know that the Royals should have a lot of motivation to find out who he is.
But as it stands, right now he’s the team’s seventh starter, and is more than likely to spend the year in long relief. A year ago that made sense, because his OPS rose dramatically after his first time through the lineup – but his difficulty the second and third times through the lineup disappeared around the time he learned the cutter.
If it were me, Mendoza would start the year in the rotation, and get a month or two to prove whether he really can be a cheap league-average innings eater. If he lost the job to Bruce Chen, I’d argue that’s a defensible decision, and I’d credit the Royals for having enough depth that they didn’t need Mendoza in their rotation.
Instead, he’s going to lose his job to Hochevar. If the Royals are right, more power to them. If they’re wrong, they can’t claim that they didn’t have any better options.
#16: Greg Holland
I really don’t think enough has been made about how unlikely Greg Holland’s emergence as a dominant reliever was. Two years ago, he was a short right-hander with okay stuff and command issues, a former 10th-round pick who in five minor-league stops never had an ERA under five. I don’t have my 2011 copy of the Baseball America Prospect Handbook on me, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t even rank among the Royals’ top 30 prospects. He started 2011 in Omaha and didn’t get called up until mid-May.
He then pitched 60 innings, allowed 37 hits, walked 16 batters and struck out 74. He became the second Royal ever – after Robinson Tejada in 2009 – to have twice as many strikeouts as hits allowed.
It was one of the best middle-relief seasons in franchise history, but given his history we wanted to see him do it again. And when he got cuffed around in April, losing two games and allowing 13 hits and 8 runs in 6.1 innings, it looked like 2011 might have just been a wonderful outlier. But it turned out he was pitching through a strained ribcage muscle; he missed three weeks to let it heal, and when he came back was almost the same guy he was the year before.
2011, all season: 60 IP, 37 H, 16 UIBB, 74 K, 3 HR, 1.80 ERA
2012, May 12th-: 61 IP, 45 H, 26 UIBB, 81 K, 2 HR, 2.08 ERA
His command was not quite as sharp, but he still missed tons of bats. (While Holland’s K/9 ratio was a full point higher in 2012 than 2011, he actually struck out a slightly lower percentage of batters overall – 31.5% instead of 31.8%. But because he faced more batters per inning, he had more opportunities for strikeouts. This is one example of why I’m trying to switch over to strikeout percentage instead of strikeouts per inning.)
I didn’t see Holland pitch in the minor leagues, so I don’t know if he’s a fundamentally different pitcher now than then. He threw hard in the minors, but I wasn’t expecting an average fastball of 95.6 mph, which he’s maintained throughout his career. He has used a nasty splitter as an out pitch, although that can’t alone explain his success, as he throws it only about 5% of the time. (I’m approximating – Pitch f/x doesn’t recognize his splitter at all. I’m thinking the Pitch f/x people still need to tighten up their algorithms a little.)
It’s tough to reconcile the pitcher we’ve seen the last two years with the pitcher we were told about in the minor leagues. But the Greg Holland we’ve seen has legitimate closer stuff, and he’s done it two years in a row now, and at this point we can stop worrying about whether it was a fluke. Like Joakim Soria, Holland was an unexpected gift for the Royals’ bullpen.
The difference is that Soria was unexpected because no one had seen him pitch in so long, and it is to the Royals’ credit that they scouted him and thought he could jump straight from A-ball and the Mexican League to the majors. But in Holland’s case, everyone had seen him pitch, and no one was particularly impressed.
But this is where relievers come from. They come from humble beginnings, they come from the Northern League (Jeff Zimmerman) and from underneath (Dan Quisenberry) and they master a new pitch (Bruce Sutter) and they’re 28th-round picks who learn the perfect slider (Sergio Romo). Greg Holland’s transformation is small potatoes compared to, say, Jonny Venters. Relievers are comets that arrive unexpectedly, and disappear just as fast. Which is why, when you’ve got a superfluous one, you need to trade him right away.
The Royals never traded Soria because they never understood that when you’re losing 95 games a year, a great reliever is superfluous even when you don’t have a replacement. And they don’t seem at all eager to turn trade from their current depth of relievers. But they really should. A team that likely can’t find room for Donnie Joseph or Louis Coleman is a team that can afford to trade relievers for help elsewhere.