Tuesday, March 19, 2013

2013 Opening Day Preview, Part 3.

#15: Luke Hochevar

Hochevar was going to be third on this list until he was moved to the bullpen, and I don’t have to tell you how much of a relief it is to move him down this far.

I already said plenty last time, but two points I didn’t get to:

- When Kyle Davies was stinking up the joint for the Royals year after year, I kept asking why they wouldn’t at least try him in the bullpen. The results he was getting didn’t correlate with his stuff, so he seemed like a prime candidate to see whether working in short stints might give him some more velocity on his fastball, which would in turn make his off-speed stuff play up.

The Royals never did give the bullpen a shot; Davies never pitched a game in relief for the Royals. And maybe it’s a moot point; Davies was released a season and a half ago, and hasn’t even thrown a pitch in the minors since. (So much for the Royals’ claim that if they let him go, 29 other teams would want him.)

I have to think that’s factored into the Royals’ decision with Hochevar a little. Hochevar’s problem is a little different – whereas Davies had good stuff but poor peripherals, Hochevar has good stuff and good peripherals – in particular, his walk rate is about 30% lower than Davies. Hochevar’s problem is that his ERA trails his peripherals by a historic degree. I don’t know whether that problem can be solved in the bullpen, but having advocated the same move for Davies, I’d be disingenuous if I said it wasn’t worth trying for Hochevar. I don’t like the price, but the experiment itself is fine.

- Of course, the reason Hochevar’s ERA is so much worse than his peripherals is because he can not pitch with men on base. That doesn’t seem like a problem that will naturally get fixed in the bullpen. At the very least, he’s not a reliever you want to bring into a game with ducks already on the pond. This may factor into the Royals wanting to try him as a short reliever – long relievers have to come in to clean up the starter’s mess, and there may be no one in the major leagues more ill-suited to the task. If Hochevar can start an inning clean and air it out for an inning or two, he might surprise us. But I’d keep him away from the high-leverage situations until he’s proven himself – many times over.

#14: Tim Collins

Speaking of Greg Holland and strikeout rates last time around, here’s a chart for you:

Highest Strikeout % by a Royal (min: 25 IP)

Year Pitcher        K%

2011 Greg Holland 31.76%
2012 Tim Collins  31.53%
2012 Greg Holland 31.49%
2009 Joakim Soria 31.08%

While strikeout rates have gone up significantly just in the last 5-7 years, that’s still an impressive testament to the current administration’s bullpen-building skills. That’s a Rule 5 pick, a 10th-rounder listed at 5’10”, and an undrafted 5’7” guy who was acquired for Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth. Not bad.

(Of course, the bullpen also will have two guys drafted in the top half of the first round. Neither Crow nor Hochevar was drafted to be a reliever, but it’s a good reminder that drafting relievers in the top half of the first round is almost always a mistake.)

Last winter I postulated that Collins’ control problems could improve quickly, because a higher-than-normal fraction of his walks as a rookie came on 3-2 pitches – in other words, he wasn’t walking guys because he couldn’t throw strikes, but because he was just nibbling too much. As it happens, Collins’ walk rate dropped significantly, particularly when you account for the fact that he intentionally walked eight batters last year (up from just two as a rookie). He faced exactly 295 batters in both 2011 and 2012, and his unintentional walks dropped from 46 to 26. His K/UIBB ratio jumped from 1.30 to 3.58. Partly this was because his command problem wasn’t as bad as it looked, and partly this was because of some changes Dave Eiland made to his delivery (detailed here by Baseball Prospectus).

Collins is just 23, and it’s unusual for a left-handed reliever to establish himself in the majors at such a young age. Collins has made 140 relief appearances in the majors, and just three other lefties in major league history have relieved 100 or more times by the end of their age 22 season: Terry Forster (201), Billy McCool (174), and Mitch Williams (164).

Mind you, Collins is already notable for being the shortest successful pitcher the majors has seen in a half-century. Collins already has more Wins Above Replacement than any pitcher listed at 5’7” or shorter since Bobby Shantz retired in 1964. Seabiscuit is among the most unique players the Royals have ever employed, a bundle of contradictions. He’s the shortest pitcher ever to suit up for the team, but throws harder than all but a few left-handers in the organization’s history. At age 17 he wasn’t considered good enough to be drafted, but by the age of 21 was in the majors in a role usually reserved for much older players.

And he’s left-handed, but for the second straight year he was more successful against right-handed hitters. As I wrote last year, that’s not a fluke – the combination of his delivery (over-the-top) and repertoire (reliant on a 12-to-6 curveball) is typically associated with reverse platoon splits. Right-handed batters hit just .196/.293/.333 against Collins last year – but left-handers hit .239/.333/.436.

While I think the Royals are aware of this to the point where they don’t use him as a lefty specialist, I also think Ned Yost doesn’t appreciate that Collins is legitimately better against right-handed hitters. Last year, 135 of the 295 batters Collins faced were left-handed. The first batter he faced was typically left-handed, and not surprisingly, the first batter of each appearance hit .237/.361/.492 against him. It’s unconventional, but the Royals would be better off calling on Herrera against left-handed hitters and Collins against right-handed hitters, at least until Donnie Joseph or someone else establishes themselves as a legitimate lefty specialist.

However he’s used, Collins is a joy to watch and a bear to hit. The novelty of his height wore off a long ago; what we’re left with is a hell of a reliever.

(Although he also makes a hell of a leprechaun.)

#13: Billy Butler

Again, these rankings account for a player’s consistency – Butler ranks this low not because he’s not important, but because even in a down year he rakes. He hit .291/.361/.461 in 2011, and all three rate stats were his worst numbers of the last four years. The legends say that hitting .300 is the mark of a good hitter. Billy Butler’s career batting average is .30006. That’s who he is: Billy Butler, Professional Hitter.

I’d like to say that I buy into his power surge last year – hitting 29 home runs after never hitting more than 21 before – but I suspect it will turn out to be an outlier. A true power surge would have resulted in more extra-base hits overall, but Butler hit just 32 doubles after hitting 44 or more in each of the previous three years. His extra-base-hit totals the last four years read: 73, 60, 63, 62.

In essence, about a dozen balls that bounced on the warning track in years past just cleared the fence. He didn’t hit more fly balls than in years past. He didn’t show better plate discipline – actually, he had the fewest walks (54) and the most strikeouts (111) of the last four years, suggesting he might have been selling out for power a little bit at the plate. Those are not the signs of a player who took a legitimate step forward with his power.

Not that he needs to; Butler has been one of the best DHs in the league for four years running, and doesn’t even turn 27 for another month. While I wouldn’t bet on a player with his physique to age particularly gracefully, he’s still years away from a likely decline. He is also a graduate of the Prince Fielder School Of Surprisingly Durable Fat Guys – Butler has only missed 11 games in the last four years, and at least a couple were probably interleague games where he couldn’t start and wasn’t need as a pinch-hitter.

It certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if Butler did take a real step forward this year – this is his age 27 season, and 27 is still the most common peak age for a hitter. But the Royals don’t need Butler to take a step forward. They just need him to be himself. That’s plenty good enough.

#12: Jeremy Guthrie

It’s hard to evaluate a pitching coach after just one season, but between his work with Collins and with Guthrie, Eiland certainly earned his keep last year. Guthrie was broken when the Royals got him last year. Eiland said it would take a couple of starts to work out the problems with his delivery, and sure enough, he got rocked in his first two starts with the Royals. From that point on, he had a 2.34 ERA in 81 innings.

Of the four starters the Royals are really counting on, Guthrie strikes me as the guy with the smallest difference between his floor and his ceiling in terms of his skill set. Last year was screwed up by his Colorado Experience, but from 2007 to 2011, his xFIPs read 4.18, 4.48, 5.13, 4.60, and 4.47. He’s a low-walk, low-strikeout pitcher, which limits his downside and his upside.

But it also makes him more dependent on his defense than the average pitcher, because more balls are going to be put in play against him. He has maintained below-average BABIPs throughout his career; his career mark is .278, and excepting his time with the Rockies, since 2007 he’s never had a mark above .286. After 1200 innings, it’s reasonable to suggest that his below-average BABIPs are a real skill. At the same time, if he has anomalous year where his BABIP is .320, he gives up so much contact that he could get slaughtered. So while his skill set is stable, the end results may not be.

I continue to think that Bronson Arroyo is a really good comp for Guthrie. Since 2005, Arroyo has a 15.2% strikeout rate, to Guthrie’s 14.2%, but Arroyo has spent almost all that time facing pitchers in the NL. Their walk rates are similar (5.9% for Arroyo, 6.7% for Guthrie), as are their home run rates (1.29 HR/9 for Arroyo, 1.26 HR/9 for Guthrie), their groundball rates (40.2% for Arroyo, 40.6% for Guthrie), and their BABIPs (.283 for Arroyo, .278 for Guthrie). And the end results are about the same (4.14 ERA for Arroyo, 4.28 for Guthrie). One big difference: Arroyo’s fastball has averaged between 87 and 89 mph for most of his career. Guthrie’s fastball has been 92-93 mph his entire career, and showed no hint of a decline last year, coming in at 92.6.

Neither pitcher is going to excite a fan base, but they both have value because they provide league-average innings in bulk. Arroyo has made 32+ starts for eight years running, and Guthrie has averaged 30 starts a season over the past six years – his own streak of 32+ starts was snapped only because he was shell-shocked by Coors Field.

After the 2010 season, the off-season before he turned 34, Arroyo signed a 3-year deal with the Reds for $35 million (but with a lot of deferred money). This winter, at the same age, Guthrie got 3 years/$25 million. If you believe that last year’s carnage was entirely explained by the altitude, then Guthrie’s not overpaid. Though looking at the way the market shook out, they probably didn’t need to guarantee him that third year.

In the first year of his deal, Arroyo pitched about as well as he usually does – except he surrendered a whopping 46 home runs in 199 innings, leading the NL in runs allowed with a 5.07 ERA. But last year he bounced back as if nothing had happened, throwing 202 innings, walking just 35 batters, with a very solid 3.74 ERA. If Guthrie follows the same path, I think we can expect him to be durable and to maintain his skill set for the bulk of his contract – but the vagaries of the batted ball means at least one of his three years is going to be a stinker.

#11: Alcides Escobar

One of the reasons why I am reasonably optimistic about the Royals’ performance this season – certainly more optimistic than the consensus – is that there just aren’t a lot of guys on the roster who are likely to be significantly worse than they were last year. On the offensive side of things, Escobar is the most likely to decline, and even in his case I expect the decline to be modest.

Escobar’s batting average has gone from .235 to .254 to .293 over the last three years, despite no real change in his home run or strikeout rates (last year his strikeout rate actually jumped along with his batting average). The difference stems from his BABIP, which has climbed from .264 to .285 to .344. Now, here’s the thing: hitters have much more control on BABIP than pitchers do, so we can’t simply chalk up an 80-point jump in his BABIP to randomness.

But if it’s not randomness, than what is responsible for the jump? And which number is most reflective of Escobar’s abilities? To answer those questions, I searched for a formula that would project Escobar’s BABIP based on his inherent skills – most notably his rate of hitting line drives (which turn into hits 75% of the time) and pop-ups (which turn into outs 95% of the time). I unfortunately wasn’t savvy enough to figure out how to use the most sophisticated xBABIP calculators, but I was able to use this quick-and-dirty one, which projected these BABIPs for Escobar:

2010: .315
2011: .333
2012: .348

First off, Escobar has legitimately improved his ability to turn balls in play into hits. In 2011 he cut his pop-up rate in half, and in 2012 he increased his line-drive rate by 5%. That’s enough to move the needle a little. He also gets a bonus for his speed – his stolen bases climbed from 10 to 26 to 35, and the formula assumes that more stolen bases means more speed, which means beating out more infield singles. On the one hand, I’m not sure Escobar got faster so much as he learned how to use his speed better; on the other hand, he’s also become more proficient at bunting for a base hit:

2010: 3-for-10 (.300)
2011: 7-for-32 (.219)
2012: 11-for-27 (.408)

So some improvement should be expected. But the big take-home point is that last year’s BABIP was not the anomaly – his BABIPs in 2010 and 2011 were. If that’s the case, his .293 average may not be quite the outlier I thought it was. I still think he’s more of a .270-.280 hitter, unless he’s able to cut back on the strikeouts, but that’s still plenty good enough. (And let’s not forget: after Kevin Seitzer fixed his swing in 2011, Escobar hit .286/.323/.411 from June 7th onward. So he’s basically been a .290 hitter for his last 250 games.)

His offensive breakthrough last year allowed his defensive decline to fly under the radar. To the naked (non-scouting) eye, Escobar looked like a perfectly average shortstop last year, but not the defensive marvel he was in 2011 (particularly the first half). The defensive metrics are not that kind. Almost all metrics were in agreement that he was one of the best shortstops in the AL in 2011, but in 2012, their evaluations range from slightly below-average to well below-average.

The truth, as it usually is, is somewhere in between. He was a good shortstop; he just wasn’t the shortstop he was in 2011. He was only 25 and it might be a fluke, but analysis shows that defensively, players peak in their early 20s, which is to say they start declining in the field almost from the moment they reach the major leagues.

Regardless, Escobar was a more valuable player on the whole. He’s 26 years old and he’s under club control for the next five years at a total cost of under $21 million. He’s not Salvador Perez, but he’s a highly underrated asset.


KHAZAD said...

I grow weary of hearing about Hochevar's great peripherals. While they might be better than his performance, it is not as if they indicate that he should be special.

I compared his career peripherals to all the other starting pitchers the Royals have had since he's been here, and weighted it so that each year the Royal starters would have the same amount of playing time he had, according to number of starts. ( So the 2007 Royal starters only accounted for 1/128th of the starts, as Luke only had 1 start that year, and the 2012 team had 25%, as Luke had one fourth of his career starts that year etc.)

K/9: Hochevar 6.22, other starters 6.45. BB/9: Hoch 3.01, other starters 3.18, HR/9 Hoch 1.10, other starters 1.05.

I figured you could do hits per nine as well, (which some people put down to luck) since both use the same fielders and park, and hoch has an edge here with 9.64 to 9.79 for the others.

But following the same theory I used an unscientific way to figure up the extra bases not shown above. I took the extra bases given on doubles, triples, stolen bases, HBP, WP, and balks, and subtracted the runners erased by GIDP and CS. Luke gives up a net 3.52 of these extras per nine while the others are at 2.77, a pretty large difference.

So, in my view Hochevar's CEILING is just the average guy that the team has run out there as a starter the last 6 years. That would be below average for the league, and a prize not worth waiting for.

Jack Campbell said...

Predicting the top ten:

1. Hosmer
2. Perez
3. Moose
4. Shields (question on the methodology: if Shields craps the bed the Royals are totally cooked; does that make him #1? But his good performance is more predictable, so we move him further down, a la Butler? In that case, Moose should be #2 and Perez #3 since Perez is more likely to perform well than Moose I think... on the other hand, if Perez DOESN'T perform well, the Royals are more screwed than if Moose doesn't - I think - hence Perez being #2?)

5. Santana
6. Wade Davis (My #6 is already sidelined with a shoulder problem - *gulp*)
7. Cain
8. Gordon (can't decide if he should be further down - given his likelihood to succeed this year - or further up - given how crucial his bat is to the lineup)

9. Francoueoeuouoeuer
10. Duffy?

anonymous said...

I understand broxton was a lttle more established but why all the 4.5 mil waste of money talk on a reliever for hoch when we paid broxton 4 mil?

Chris Esch said...

Broxton was more than "a little more established", he made less money, and he played a key roll in the bullpen (setup man). Hoch has proven nothing, makes more money, and is being stashed in the bullpen because he failed in his assigned roll. I guarantee you Rainey will not complain if we swing a trade with Hoch like they did with Broxton!

McGoldencrown said...
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