I had this column all but finished yesterday morning, but right now my mind isn’t really on baseball, and I suspect yours isn’t either. On Patriots Day, at the finish line of the Boston Marathon – as close to a secular holy time and place as there is in New England – criminals inflicted a terror attack on our nation, the most significant in its scope since 9/11. Three are reported dead at this moment; dozens are critically wounded, many with dismembered limbs. It is an unthinkably awful end to one of our country’s most festive events, and it was intended to be so.
We will, I hope, know more in the coming days about the identity of those pieces of human refuse who committed this attack. As you can imagine, while I am horrified as an American by what has happened, I am terrified as a Muslim by the possibility that the people who did this claim to share my faith. I will simply reiterate what I said before the towers had fallen on 9/11: this is not Islam. It is a bedrock principle of my faith to condemn this sort of attack. The words harsh enough to convey my feelings about this do not exist.
Most of you know where I stand on the issue of Islam and terrorism, I hope, given that I wrote about it here on a Tuesday in September in 2001. But I just want to make it perfectly clear: I am not some sort of anomaly. EVERY Muslim I know condemns this act. Essentially every Muslim organization in America has already condemned it, and extended thoughts and prayers to the victims. Of all the generalizations made about Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, the one that rankles me the most is the notion that “if terrorism really is forbidden in Islam, why don’t Muslims speak out against what happened?”
They have. Repeatedly and consistently. Just Google “Muslims Condemn Terrorism”, or for some examples, just click here or here. And it’s not just organizations that condemn terrorism – according to this Gallup poll, people in Muslim countries are significant LESS likely to see attacks on civilians as sometimes justified as people in America or Canada. But for far too many people, the answer to the question, “If a Muslim condemns terrorism and a journalist isn’t there to report it – or just chooses not to – did it really happen?” is unfortunately “no.”
In any case, to the victims of yesterday’s attack, the identity of their attackers is hardly relevant at this time. I’m praying for them. I’m praying that our government identifies the people who did this as quickly and as accurately as possible. And I’m praying that all Americans – our government, our media, and us – have the sense to differentiate between the criminals who did this and the people who just vaguely look like them.
There’s no harder time of year to write a column about a specific baseball topic than in April. The season’s begun, so you want to focus on the results on the field, but at the same time the sample sizes are so small that drawing any conclusions from said results is folly. So I’m just going to bullet-point the season so far:
- The most pleasant surprise of the season so far has to be Ervin Santana. After giving up four runs in six innings in his first start, Santana has gone eight innings in back-to-back starts, allowing just one earned run in each start. He’s actually tied for the AL lead in innings pitched with 22. He’s walked five and struck out 19 so far. After averaging barely 90 mph on his fastball in his first start, and better than 93 mph in his second, he was somewhere in between in his third start, running his fastball up there in the 91-92 mph range. His slider has been biting as sharply as ever – according to Fangraphs, the pitch has already been worth over five runs in just three starts, which is kind of ridiculous.
It’s just three starts; it’s way too early to get excited. But it’s not too early to be relieved, that this acquisition is unlikely to burn the Royals the way the acquisition of Jonathan Sanchez did. Santana’s just 30 years old, he was an above average starter just two years ago, he’s in a contract year – there are reasons to think this can work. As you’ll recall, I was ambivalent about the trade for Santana. While I loved the idea of trading a token prospect for the option year on an Angels pitcher, I was much more enthusiastic about – and had advocated for – trading for Dan Haren instead of Santana.
Haren had the better and far more consistent track record, with the caveat that his velocity had declined significantly last year. So far, at least, it looks like the Royals made the right move – Haren has been battered for 19 hits and nine runs in nine innings for the Nationals so far. (In his defense, he has 10 strikeouts and no walks, and his velocity has ticked up a bit from last year.) I’ll be keeping an eye on this pair all season, but it’s quite possible that both Santana and Haren will have fine seasons. In which case the key decision for the Royals wasn’t deciding on which Angels pitcher they wanted – it was deciding that they wanted an Angels pitcher in the first place. You can’t normally acquire 200 quality innings on a one-year contract. When you can, it’s worth it to overpay a little.
- The most significant managerial decision of the young season may have occurred on Tuesday, when Ned Yost issued a starting lineup that had Jarrod Dyson in center field, Lorenzo Cain in right field, and Jeff Francoeur on the bench.
Let’s be frank: this is the outfield arrangement – at least against right-handed starters – that gives the Royals the best chance to win, and the more they use it, the more likely they are to win.
I don’t think there’s another player in the past five years who has won me over the way Dyson has. I could never understand why the Royals kept talking up this 50th-round draft pick, and kept promoting him, even though he 1) was really old for his levels and 2) couldn’t really hit. In 2008, Dyson hit .260/.337/.288 in Wilmington when he was 23 years old. The next year, he hit .258/.331/.319 in Double-A. In 2010, he missed half the season with injuries, rehabbed in rookie ball (6 games) and A-ball (12 games), then played 7 games in Double-A, then reached Triple-A Omaha for the first time, hit .272/.327/.349 in 46 games – and was in the major leagues. He was 26 years old, and had just hit the first home run of his pro career, and the Royals were acting like he was a legitimate prospect, and I couldn’t understand it.
And then I saw him play. I wrote about him extensively here. And I realized that even though he was old for a prospect – he was nearly 22 and exceptionally raw when the Royals drafted him – that his speed, defense, and (unusual for a tools guy) plate discipline were enough to make him a good fourth outfielder if nothing else.
Coming into this season, Dyson had played 146 games in the majors – many in a pinch-running role only, as he had only 448 plate appearances. He had hit just .247 and slugged .323, but with enough walks for a respectable .320 OBP. Even so, a .247/.320/.323 line from an outfielder is barely replacement level. (Mitch Maier’s career line, by way of example, is .248/.327/.344.)
And yet, according to Baseball Reference, in less than a season of playing time Dyson was worth 3.0 Wins Above Replacement. He’s been worth that much largely because of his speed (50 steals in 57 attempts, worth an extra nine runs of offense) and because of his defense (12 runs above average in center field). But runs count the same whether you’re driving them in with your bat, stealing them with your legs, or saving them with your glove.
And frankly, he’s the third-best outfielder on the team, at least against right-handers. Francoeur is a perfectly acceptable platoon option; he has a career line of .290/.341/.479 against left-handed pitchers, and is 5-for-15 against them this year. But against right-handers, Francoeur has hit .256/.297/.405, while Dyson has hit .262/.331/.357. At the plate, they’ve been almost equally valuable – but Dyson holds a significant edge in almost every other facet.
The main reason I’m supporting a platoon option is what happened Friday night against the Blue Jays, when Emilio Bonifacio launched a fly ball to deep rightfield in the top of the second inning. Francoeur took a tentative route to the wall and the ball ticked off his glove at the warning track for a double – a double that turned into a Little League home run when Francoeur missed the cutoff man, allowing Bonifacio to head to third base, and then Salvador Perez overthrew third base and Bonifacio was able to scamper home.
Perez got the only error on the play, but it was Francoeur’s defense that cost the Royals most dearly. It was a catchable fly ball, and if Francoeur catches it the Blue Jays score at most one run in the inning, and possibly none. If they don’t score, Yost doesn’t bring in Luke Hochevar to pitch in a tie game in the sixth inning (right? Right?) and the Royals might actually come back to win.
With Dyson in center field and Cain in right, along with Gordon in left field the Royals have one of the best defensive outfields in baseball. With Francoeur in right field they have two-thirds of a great defensive outfield, and Jeff Francoeur.
I don’t expect Francoeur to be demoted into a strict platoon yet, but at the very least, he should be on the bench any time the Royals face a right-handed pitcher who throws a good slider. Sliders are naturally tougher on same-side hitters than opposite-side hitters to begin with, and anyone who has watched Francoeur bat knows how completely helpless he is against the pitch. If the Royals move to a job-sharing arrangement where Francoeur plays against lefties and select right-handers, and both Francoeur and Dyson wind up with 300-350 plate appearances, they’ll be a better team for it.
- Speaking of Luke Hochevar…he entered Friday’s game with men on second and third and two outs, because apparently Ned Yost wanted to find out one last time whether the rumors about Hochevar’s inability to pitch with men on base were really true. He gave up a two-run single, and then a walk, and then fell behind Jose Bautista 3-0 before somehow coming back to get the strikeout.
He then faced six batters in the eighth and ninth, all with the bases empty, and retired them all, four on strikeouts.
For his career:
Bases empty: .251/.312/.425
Men on base: .304/.373/.479
Scoring position: .315/.388/.503
Le plus ca change…
- The Royals won Sunday thanks to Santana’s terrific outing and another scoreless inning from Kelvin Herrera. But they pissed away a terrific opportunity to take the lead in the seventh, thanks to one of my managerial pet peeves – the dreaded sacrifice bunt with a man on second base.
The standard sacrifice bunt – with a man on first base and no one out – is almost always a poor percentage play unless the guy at the plate is an absolutely terrible hitter – and by “absolutely terrible” I mean he’s a pitcher. There are exceptions, but generally speaking the odds that you’ll score one run in the inning go up very slightly if at all when you bunt, and the odds that you’ll score MORE than one run in the inning go down significantly. (Keep in mind that with men on first and second, the bunt is more defensible, because in that case you’re moving two runners up a base instead of one.)
But as bad as it is to bunt with a man on first only, it’s even worse to bunt with a man on second. Perhaps the most underappreciated benefit of bunting is that you stay out of the double play. With a man on second base, the double play has already been taken out of the equation.
And then there’s the fact that with a man on second base, a groundball to the right side will almost certainly move the runner over to third base anyway. The batter was Chris Getz, who 1) is a groundball hitter and 2) bats left-handed, meaning if he just pulls the ball, he’ll move the runner over. So why would you give up an out on purpose when you could swing away and likely gain the same result even if you don’t get a hit?
Oh, yeah – the runner on second base was Dyson, one of the fastest players in the majors. He was on second base because he had just stolen second base, his 53rd steal in a career of just 154 games so far, his 53rd steal in 61 attempts (87%). If you really wanted to get him to third base, why wouldn’t you just send him again?
Instead, on a 3-1 count (!), Getz put down a bunt which moved Dyson to third. Alex Gordon failed to take advantage, striking out on three pitches when he somehow took a called strike three. Alcides Escobar would fly out with two outs to end the inning. In the end, it didn’t matter because Getz doubled in the ninth and Gordon swung at the first pitch and drove it into right field. But it was a terrible managerial call, combining a high cost (an out) with a minimal gain (a base which could have been picked up by other means).
- Speaking of Herrera, Sunday was the first time all season in which he didn’t strike out at least half of the batters he faced. (He was only one for three.) For the year, Herrera has whiffed 11 of the 19 batters he faced, or 58%.
Last year Herrera whiffed 22.4% of the batters he faced, which is solidly above-average but not as high as you’d expect for someone who throws 96-99 with a killer changeup. At no point last season did he have a stretch like this one – the closest he came was striking out 11 of 24 batters from June 13 to June 20. I don’t think he’s going to go all Craig Kimbrel on the league, but I do think it’s reasonable to assume, given his age, given that he has one full season under his belt, and given his ridiculous two-pitch arsenal, that a big bump in strikeouts may be in order this season.
He’s the best reliever on the team. Whether he’s the closer or not is almost irrelevant – I actually prefer him as the set-up man, because it allows Yost the flexibility to pitch him in different situations – he can come in with men on base, or (as he did yesterday) in a tie game in the ninth inning. Let Holland get most of the saves; just let Herrera get most of the key outs.
- Speaking of Getz, in 2011 he played in 118 games and swatted nine extra-base hits. In 2013, in 11 games, he already has five extra-base hits.
He still doesn’t have a home run in a Royals uniform – let’s not get crazy now – but he has a different batting style at the plate, and it appears to be paying off. He has the very strange batting line of .306/.306/.472 – while he’s able to hit the ball in the gaps, Getz hasn’t drawn a single walk yet.
From 2010 to 2011, Getz hit .248/.309/.283 for the Royals – even though he had less power than pretty much every other position player in the game, he was able to coax 49 walks in 604 at-bats. Since the beginning of last year, when he switched to a more upright stance in spring training, he’s hitting … with 14 doubles and 4 triples in 225 at-bats, but just 11 walks. Maybe the reason is as simple as the fact that by standing more upright, his strike zone is enlarged because the top of his zone is higher than it was before. So far it’s been a tradeoff worth making, but you’d like to see him mix in a walk every now and then.
And by “him”, I mean “99% of Royals batters from 1981 until today.”
- I know people are worried about Eric Hosmer and I’d like to see him with more than one extra-base hit (a double) in 10 games. But you know what? For now, at least, I’ll take the .400 OBP. He’s second on the team with five walks, and until he gets his swing completely straightened out, he can help the team just fine by doing what he’s been doing.
- Hosmer is second on the team in walks, but the guy in front of him, Billy Butler, has twice as many walks as anyone else on the team, with 10. (Granted, two of them are intentional.) Butler is hitting .257/.435/.457, and has just four strikeouts to go against those 10 walks. That seems meaningful, as meaningful as any stat can be on Tax Day. Butler has never drawn more walks than strikeouts, and last year had more than twice as many Ks (111) as walks (54). But this year, if it’s not in the strike zone, he’s not chasing. And if it is in the strike zone, he’s hammering it.
Perhaps it’s because he has more faith in the guys batting behind him to come through. Perhaps it’s because opposing managers look at what the Royals are getting from their cleanup hitters, and deciding that they’ll take their chances with the guy batting behind Butler. But perhaps this represents Butler’s ongoing maturation as a hitter. Going into the season, I thought last year represented the peak of Butler’s ability level, because his doubles dropped even while he set a career high in home runs. But even if last year marks the limits of his power potential, there’s one way he could still substantially improve as a player, and that’s to develop the ability to walk 100 times a season.
Edgar Martinez, the greatest DH of all time, has long represented the best-case scenario for Billy Butler’s career. The greatest difference to this point has simply been Martinez’s ability to walk. Martinez was always a patient hitter – in his first full season, 1990, he drew 74 walks, which is more than Butler has drawn in any full season. But Martinez didn’t become a true on-base machine until 1995, when he walked 116 times. That began a run of four straight 100-walk seasons and seven straight 90-walk seasons. Martinez was a beast in 1995, finishing third in the AL MVP vote, winning a batting title (.356), leading the league with 52 doubles, and hitting 29 home runs.
Butler’s not going to hit .356/.479/.628 – to put that in perspective, Martinez’s OPS (1107) was just 11 points lower than George Brett’s in 1980 (1118). But his skill set isn’t that different. He’s a career .300 hitter. (Keep in mind, 1995 was in the heart of the juiced era, and the old Kingdome was a hitters’ park.) Butler hit 51 doubles in 2009. He hit 29 home runs last year. The only skill he hasn’t flashed yet is the ability to just take first base whenever it’s offered to him. For all of Butler’s talents, his career high in OBP is just .388. If he starts spitting on pitches out of the strike zone, he could get into the .400 range, a level no Royal has reached since Mike Sweeney in 2002.
And if you’re worried that having Butler on first base all the time will only clog up the basepaths, remember that Edgar Martinez wasn’t exactly a burner. In 1995, Martinez was on first base when a single was hit 39 times, and only went first-to-third nine times. But you know what? He led the league in runs scored anyway. On the journey to touching home plate, the first step is to touch first base.
(Granted, Martinez would have still whipped Butler in a race. Last year, Butler went first-to-third just six times in 36 opportunities – and that was a career high. In 2011, Butler was on first base when a single was hit 25 times…he made it to third base once. But even playing strict station-to-station baseball, if Butler gets on base 40% of the time, he’s going to score a bunch of runs.)