If you missed the news, I wrote an article for the Kansas City Star that was included as part of the newspaper’s annual Sunday-before-Opening-Day blowout today. I’m very excited about the opportunity, and it’s possible I may contribute additional articles to the Star’s baseball coverage in the future. It’s not exactly a secret that the newspaper industry is dealing with unprecedented and literally existential challenges at the moment. I’m honored that the Star saw value in my writing anyway, and I give the newspaper tremendous credit for being creative with their sports coverage.
A nation without a vibrant and fearless media is a frightening thought, and I hope that the industry can weather the challenges that it faces. In the meantime, if you’re in their delivery area and can subscribe, or if (like me) you’re willing to pay for their online service, you’ll be doing your part to support quality journalism. Plus, you’ll be getting the best Royals coverage around. I couldn’t do what I do without it.
#5: Wade Davis
Davis ranks just 5th because this list only accounts for the 2013 season. If we were looking at players whose 2013 performance is most crucial for the Royals long-term, he’d rank as high as 2nd. Shields is the name in the trade, but Davis has a chance to be the prize.
I don’t have much left to say about Davis. He’s proven he can be an outstanding reliever; he hasn’t proven he can be more than a #5 starter. But if he’s even a league-average starting pitcher, he’ll have more value than all but the very best relievers, and that’s in the abstract: to a team like the Royals, even 180 innings of slightly-below average pitching would be more valuable than a reprise of his 2012.
In a spring training filled with positivity – that’s what happens when you go 25-7-2 – it’s worth mentioning that Davis, while nominally pitching well, walked 7 batters and struck out 6. Granted, it’s 14 innings. Far more concerning is his brief bout of shoulder trouble this spring. It probably wasn’t serious – he only missed one start, and teams are always going to be more cautious in spring training. But it’s a good reminder that transitioning a pitcher from the bullpen to the rotation isn’t risk-free.
It isn’t risk-free, but it’s still the right move to make. Davis makes $2.8 million this year, and $4.8 million next year – and then three options of $7 million, $8 million, and $10 million. As a reliever, he’s really only worth keeping for the first two seasons – there are only a handful of relievers worth paying $7 million a year for, and as we saw with Joakim Soria, sometimes even those relievers aren’t worth the risk.
But as a starter, even a league-average one, he would be a significantly under-priced asset for the length of his contract. There’s only one way to find out. The Royals have enough #5 starter options that it wouldn’t be the end of world if Davis doesn’t pan out in the rotation; they could have him swap places with Bruce Chen in June if need be. In the end, two months in the rotation is worth gambling for a potential five years of return.
#4: Jeff Francoeur
Well, he’s operating without a safety net now. Last year, if the Royals wanted to make a change – and if he hadn’t been in the first year of a two-year deal, they probably would have – they could have brought up Wil Myers. But now, if the Royals decide to bench Francoeur, their best in-house options are to either play Jarrod Dyson and move Lorenzo Cain to right field, or David Lough. Neither is all that palatable.
But neither would be as disastrous as getting the same kind of performance from right field as the Royals got last year, when Francoeur was literally the worst player in the major leagues. He had the lowest bWAR (-2.3 wins) in the majors.
There’s this perception around the game that right field is Francoeur’s job this year come hell or high water, that Dayton Moore loves Frenchy so much that he’s willing to overlook all his weaknesses. I think that’s a somewhat naïve and even cynical view of the situation. (Yes, I know – me calling out cynicism. Pot, meet kettle.) The Royals are quite aware that Francoeur was a terrible, rotten, no-good hitter last year. (I’m not sure they realize just how bad he was defensively, though.) Even by basic Triple Crown stats, he was a disaster. A .235 average? 16 homers? 49 RBIs from a full-time outfielder?
They played him last year because they had two years invested in him, and they weren’t going anywhere, and they needed to see if he could turn it around. But this year, if he’s approximating last year’s performance he’ll probably be demoted to a platoon role at best by Flag Day. I don’t know whether it will be Dyson, or Lough, or an outside mercenary that shares the job with him – but I’m fairly confident that Francoeur won’t be allowed to suck all year long.
There’s reason to think the Royals are already worried about his ability to bounce back. I’m not referring to the fact that he hit just .266 in spring training (remember, the Cactus League is very friendly for hitters), while literally everyone else in the starting lineup hit .310 or better. I’m referring to the fact that the Royals are making noises about using Eric Hosmer in right field during interleague play as a way to keep both Hosmer and Billy Butler in the lineup. At the end of last year, the Royals had made it clear that they considered that experiment a failure, that Hosmer’s defense in right field was so bad that it wasn’t worth trying to keep both bats on the field. That they’re backtracking now is telling. So, too, is the fact that Francoeur is batting 8th in the Opening Day lineup – he’s never batted that low in the lineup since he joined the Royals.
I originally had Francoeur 2nd on this list, because the range of his performance is so great. But in the end I moved him down a little, because there’s a limit to how much he can hurt the Royals before they’ll pull the plug on him. But if he can prove that 2011 wasn’t a fluke, and that 2012…and 2010…and 2009…and 2008 were all flukes, he’ll save the Royals the trouble of finding a replacement for him mid-season. Better still, he might get me to shut up about the loss of Wil Myers all season long.
#3: Salvador Perez
If you’re not aware of the Crown Vision-sized man-crush I have on Salvador Perez, you must be new here. Two years after the Royals had The Best Farm System Ever, the attrition of their nine Top 100 prospects has been humbling…but it’s also been mitigated by the fact that their 18th-best prospect, a 20-year-old catcher who had just hit .290 with seven homers in A-ball, might turn out to be the best of the lot.
It’s that very same fact, though, that makes us just a teeny bit nervous about his future. Perez has played at a superstar level in the major leagues – he’s amassed 4.4 bWAR* in 115 career games – but that’s just it: he’s played in 115 career games. Granted, he’s been awfully busy in those 115 games: he’s hit .301, swatted 14 homers, set the franchise record with eight pickoffs, and set the franchise record for the longest hitting streak (16 games) by a catcher. But still: 115 games.
*: You may notice that Perez’s bWAR is slightly higher than his bWAR that I quoted in my very last article. That is because in the last few days, Sean Forman of baseball-reference.com got together with the bigwigs at Fangraphs, who have their own version of Wins Above Replacement. While they haven’t agreed on a single formula, they did agree on a single, unified definition of “replacement level”. The new replacement level is lower than what baseball-reference used to use (but higher than Fangraphs’ level), which means that bWARs across the board have gone up by a fractional amount. I apologize for this tangent into nerdery. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.
It’s not just that the sample size is so small, but that the performance level Perez has set is, frankly, insane. According to Baseball-Reference, Perez has been the 14th-most valuable catcher in modern baseball history through age 22 – sandwiched right between Brian McCann and Joe Mauer – and he’s played substantially fewer games than the 13 guys ahead of him. Those 13 guys include Johnny Bench, Joe Torre, Ray Schalk, Ivan Rodriguez, Ted Simmons, Darrell Porter, Bill Freehan, Tim McCarver, Gary Carter, and McCann. The next three guys are Mauer, Benito Santiago, and Bill Dickey. This is incredibly lofty territory.
Frankly, Perez might belong there. But another full season at that level would resolve any remaining doubts.
There’s also the matter of the “full” season, given that Perez missed half of last year with a torn meniscus in his knee. It is the only significant injury he has suffered as a pro, and he returned sooner than expected, so he’s certainly not injury-prone. You still have to worry about knee injuries in a young catcher.
So Perez still has something to prove this season. He has to prove he can play 140 games in a season (but no more than that, please Ned, I’m begging you). He has to prove he’s really a .300 hitter, something that’s hard to sustain when you’re a slow right-handed hitter who isn’t legging out a lot of infield singles. He has to prove that his small sample size of performance in the majors means more than parts of five seasons in the minors – when, granted, he was very young for his leagues.
If he proves all that, well, he just might be awesome. And he just might be signed to the best contract in all of baseball.
#2: Ervin Santana
For better or for worse, Santana is likely to play for the Royals for only one season. He’s a hired gun, and the fate of the Royals’ season may well depend on him. The Royals would probably settle for a perfectly mediocre campaign from Santana, but his history suggests mediocrity is not on the menu. Here are his ERAs the last six years: 5.76, 3.49, 5.03, 3.92, 3.38, 5.16. Three times he had an ERA under four – three times he had an ERA over five.
The reason for his variability is pretty simple. Here are his walk rates the last four years: 7.0%, 7.5%, 7.2%, 7.7%. Can you pick out which two were good seasons and which were bad?
Here are his strikeout rates: 17.4%, 17.7%, 18.8%, 17.4%. A little more of a clue, maybe.
Here are his home run rates: 3.9%, 2.8%, 2.7%, 5.1%. Yeah.
That’s pretty much the story with Santana: when he keeps the ball reasonably in the park, he’s effective. When he doesn’t, he gets hammered. The strange thing is that while his home run rate fluctuates, his flyball rate – which is the main determinant of those home runs – has been pretty stable. Santana has actually become a little more groundball-friendly the last two years; from 2005 to 2010 his flyball rate ranged from 41.5% to 45.7%, but the last two years have come in at 37.9% and 37.3%. Other things equal, that’s a good thing. But other things haven’t been equal; last year he gave up home runs on 19% of his flyballs, compared to 10% the year before.
The evidence shows that pitchers have little if any ability to control the rate at which flyballs leave the park. There’s no obvious reason why Santana should be this erratic. But he is. He’s erratic even within a season; last year he had an ERA of 6.00 through July 21, but then had a 3.76 ERA in his final 11 starts. He was still homer-prone during his hot streak – he gave up 16 homers in 67 innings – but was successful because he allowed a .186 BABIP, which I’m quite certain has never been sustained by a starting pitcher over a full season in the history of baseball.
So I don’t know what to expect from him this season. Kauffman Stadium is certainly a good fit for his gopher ball tendencies, but then Angel Stadium is (with the rebuilds in Seattle and San Diego) possibly the toughest home run park in baseball, and that didn’t keep Santana from leading the league in homers allowed last season.
Since I mentioned that Davis, despite a good ERA, had a poor strikeout-to-walk ratio this spring, I’ll make up for it by noting that Santana, despite a 4.70 ERA, struck out 21 batters and walked only four. His velocity seems to be good. He’s 30 years old, and in a walk year, and he just might live up to the #2 starter expectations that have been placed on him (even though, as I wrote at the time, I would have preferred Dan Haren.) But all we know for sure is that it’s likely to be a roller coaster ride with Santana. Whether it leaves us feeling exhilarated or nauseous remains to be seen.
#1: Eric Hosmer
How bad was Hosmer last year? At the plate, he was basically indistinguishable from Jeff Francoeur. He hit .232/.304/.359; Francoeur hit .235/.287/.378. Hosmer had an 82 OPS+; Francoeur was at 81. Hosmer was 14 runs below average with the bat; Francoeur was 18 runs below.
Hosmer put a comfortable distance with Francoeur in overall value, partly because he was fantastic on the bases (Hosmer was 16-for-17 in steals) and because Francoeur was also a defensive nightmare, with his cannon arm covering for the fact that he moved in right field like he had borrowed Jose Guillen’s Hoveround.
But still…Hosmer was Francoeur-level bad at the plate last season. That was unexpected.
I generally try not to dwell on psychological factors in my baseball analysis, partly because it’s very difficult to analyze something we can not see, and mostly because I think psychological factors like “grit” and “chemistry” and “intangibles” are vastly overrated. (See, for instance, this.) But if I’ve ever seen a case of a ballplayer whose season was destroyed by his mental approach, it was Eric Hosmer last season.
Hosmer, remember, actually hit the ball very well for the first six weeks of last season. He hit two homers in the Royals’ first three games – both in Anaheim – and continued to hit line drives all over the park. Through May 20th, Hosmer had walked 13 times in 151 at-bats, and struck out just 19 times – both rates a significant improvement on his rookie season.
Just one problem – he was hitting just .172.
People like to say that scouts and stats are at war with each other, but the reality is that most of the time they agree. And they were this time. The scouting eye – or even the fan’s eye – could tell you that Hosmer was hitting into some of the toughest luck you’ll ever see, line drives straight into an outstretched glove, a groundball up the middle that was eaten up by the shift, a home run that Mike Trout leapt over a 20-foot wall to corral. (Note: one of these things may not have happened.) The stats would tell you that through May 20th, Hosmer’s BABIP was .165. His luck was comically bad.
And from that point on, Hosmer was a mess at the plate. There was a hitch in his swing he couldn’t fix; he kept turning over the ball and grounding out to second base; his power stroke died. From May 21st onward, Hosmer’s BABIP luck returned to normal, pretty much, at .293. But he hit just .255/.329/.378. I don’t know about you, but when last season started, I didn’t think Hosmer was going to be the second coming of Doug Mientkiewicz.
And now everyone is spooked. People were freaking out about Hosmer’s performance in the World Baseball Classic, as if 25 at-bats could tell us anything, particularly when he went from leisurely batting against minor leaguers in early March to suddenly and unexpectedly facing the best pitchers Latin America had to offer, with the pride of their homelands at stake. In spring training, Hosmer has hit .385/.439/.596. That doesn’t mean much – he was even better last season – but if we’re going to take 25 at-bats seriously, we should take his other 52 at-bats of 2013 seriously as well.
I think it’s almost impossible for Hosmer to be worse than he was last year, and I think his ceiling is virtually unchanged. He has the talent to be a .300/.400/.500 hitter in the major leagues. Prior to 2012, he had the statistical track record that pointed in that direction as well. One awful year doesn’t change his ceiling, particularly when it wasn’t accompanied by a significant physical change. He didn’t suffer a ghastly injury, or suddenly gain 50 pounds. His swing might have been off, but his bat speed was about the same.
While his ceiling hasn’t changed, his beta level sure has. He could hit .232 or he could hit .332 this season – everything is in play. I’m not making any predictions, but I will just say: Hosmer is just 23 years old. When he was 21, he hit .293/.334/.465, and while his performance at that age wasn’t that unusual for a first baseman – this isn’t Salvador Perez’s comp list we’re talking about – it’s still pretty unusual.
Hosmer’s OPS+ was 118 in 2011. Since 1900, he is the 36th player with an OPS+ between 111 and 125 while qualifying for the batting title at the age of 21. In the last 35 years, 12 other players have done so. They are, in reverse chronological order:
Freddie Freeman (2011)
Starlin Castro (2011)
Ryan Zimmerman (2006)
Adrian Beltre (2000)
Andruw Jones (1998)
Adrian Beltre (2000)
Andruw Jones (1998)
Alex Rodriguez (1997)
Juan Gonzalez (1991)
Gary Sheffield (1990)
Delino DeShields (1990)
Jose Canseco (1986)
Cal Ripken (1982)
Cal Ripken (1982)
Eddie Murray (1977)
The jury’s still out on Freeman and Castro, although both played very well in 2012. But every other guy on that list, even the goof-offs who coasted on their talent, had an outstanding career. The worst guy on the list is probably DeShields, who like Hosmer slumped as a sophomore. I wouldn’t read too much into the comparison – DeShields was an extremely different kind of player, all speed and little power, but even he bounced back with two excellent seasons – and then got traded straight-up for Pedro Martinez.
But the point is: even after a sophomore slump for the ages, Hosmer is part of a group that is almost always destined for great things. Last year complicates that destiny, but it certainly does not destroy it.
Which is good, because if Hosmer hits .232 again, the Royals are toast. They know this. You know this. The Royals can’t think about the playoffs unless Hosmer plays this year like 2012 never happened. And that very well might happen – last season seems like a bad dream anyway. But we don’t know. No one does. Which is why Eric Hosmer is the most important player for one of the most important seasons in Royals history.
No pressure, kid.