Sunday, April 28, 2013

Royals Today: 4/28/13.

Your standard caveats that it’s still April, it’s only 20 games, blah blah blah…but after 20 games, the Royals are 12-8, and as the Kansas City Star’s Pete Grathoff points out, this is only the third time in the last 24 years that the Royals have a winning record after 20 games. (The others were in 2003 and 2011.) So enjoy it. At this time last year, I had already moved on to looking at minor league box scores and the latest draft scuttlebutt. The longer those topics are in the background, the better.

- Ervin Santana continues to impress. He’s almost certainly going to win Royals Pitcher of the Month honors for April, with a 2.00 ERA in five starts and 36 innings (over 7 innings a start), with five walks and 31 strikeouts. He’s been worth 1.3 Wins Above Replacement already, which according to makes him the eighth-most valuable pitcher in the AL so far.

Tremendous credit goes to the front office for his acquisition, one which was controversial at the time. My thoughts on the trade were nuanced, but ultimately I endorsed it – you can read my full comments here. The trade was profoundly unpopular among other Royals bloggers, who thought $12 million was a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a pitcher who was worth 1.3 Wins Below Replacement last season.

If there’s a lesson here – and it’s April, so there may not be a lesson at all – it’s that you can’t simply evaluate a pitcher based on his value, the way you can with hitters. So much of a pitcher’s value is tied up in things he can’t control, like his defense, or the vagaries of balls in play, or just flat-out luck. Santana had a 5.16 ERA last year despite pitching in one of the game’s best ballparks for pitchers in Anaheim. He led the league in home runs allowed. On a value basis, he sucked.

But his ERA was largely the product of his home run rate, and his home run rate was largely the product of terrible luck on fly balls – 19% of them cleared the fence last year against Santana, and he had never been over 13% before. Santana’s core skill set was almost unchanged. He didn’t give up fly balls more often than he had in 2011, when he had an excellent season. His walk and strikeout rates had deteriorated only slightly. Despite his terrible season performance-wise, you could argue that he was virtually the same pitcher he had always been, just with worse luck. The Royals made that argument, and took the gamble, and it’s worked out brilliantly for them. So far.

Santana’s outsized success this year is mostly due to his control, which has been fantastic, not just in reducing walks but in getting ahead of counts, allowing him to finish batters off with his slider. It’s likely that it was just one good month and not an indication that he’s taken a step forward as a pitcher – he’s had months like this before. In July of 2011, Santana made five starts, threw 38 innings, walked six, struck out 31, didn’t allow a home run, and had a 1.67 ERA.

But then, 2011 was a very good year for Santana. He’s not going to pitch all season like he has in April. But if he pitches the rest of this season the way he pitched the rest of 2011, he will be worth every penny of his $12 million.

- I’ve already heard questions on Twitter asking me if I think the Royals should sign Santana to a long-term deal. I appreciate the enthusiasm for his work, fellas, but let’s slow down. If Santana continues to pitch this well, he’s likely going to earn something like $15 million a year, for 3 or 4 years, on the open market. That’s a huge commitment for an erratic starting pitcher in his early 30s. For all the reasons I liked Santana on a one-year deal, I would be extremely leery of him on a long-term deal. Last winter the Royals were buying low; signing him to a long-term deal because of his 2013 performance would be buying high.

If he continues to pitch this well, the Royals can make him a qualifying offer – a one-year deal worth around $14 million – which he will likely decline, allowing the Royals to pick up a draft pick when he signs elsewhere. That’s a much preferable outcome than giving him a long-term deal and betting on the fact that 2013 wasn’t simply one of the high points on the roller coaster that is Santana’s career.

- Santana is simply the headline-grabber on a pitching staff which has been phenomenal all season. As I write this, before Sunday’s doubleheader, the Royals have allowed the fewest runs in the league. That’s partly the result of having played fewer games than most teams – the Rangers have a better ERA and have allowed fewer runs per game, despite playing in a hitters’ park – but it’s still an impressive achievement.

The improvement is almost entirely rotation-driven. The bullpen ERA has improved from 3.17 to 2.77, but that’s almost entirely because they haven’t had to throw nearly as many innings as last year, and it’s surprisingly easy to improve your ERA when you’re not sending Vinny Mazzaro and Roman Colon out there to absorb innings. But the rotation ERA has gone from 5.01 to 3.23, while improving from 5.49 innings per start to 6.40 innings per start.

It’s April, blah blah blah. Things can change. I expect things to change. But if you wanted to draft a scenario for the 2013 season which ends with me groveling on my knees and begging forgiveness from Dayton Moore for all the mean things I’ve written and said, well, this is how you’d draw up the first 20 games of the season.

- And now to move on to less happy things, and by that I mean Mike Moustakas. Moose is hitting .152/.222/.197. He’s popped up eight times in 66 at-bats. His defense has seemingly regressed from last year. Add it together, and he’s been worth almost a win below replacement already.

As recently as a week ago, I was counseling patience, he’s only played about 15 games, he’s a streaky hitter, etc. But on Wednesday, he played about as bad a game as you can play in the major leagues. In the second inning, he batted with a man on third and one out and failed to get the runner home. In the fourth, he led off the inning and struck out. In the fifth, he struck out with the bases loaded and two out. In the seventh, he popped out with two outs and men on first and second. And in the fourth, he led a potential inning-ending double play ball go right through his legs, which led to a four-run inning. The Tigers won by two runs.

On 810 WHB the next morning, I compared Moustakas’ game to George Brett’s legendary Game 3 in the 1985 ALCS…only the complete opposite. It’s hyperbole, but only by a little. To have that kind of a game against your chief divisional rival…the only thing that saves Moose is that it’s April.

And I’ll admit, I’m wavering a little on whether a refresher course in Triple-A might help Moustakas right now. I was fine with sticking with him so long as he was playing good defense, figuring he would still contribute in the field until his bat came around. But that game wasn’t the first time a ground ball when through the wickets on him this year. If he’s taking his offensive struggles with him into the field, though, he’s not helping the team, and this isn’t 2006 anymore – the Royals are trying to win this season, and that means making decisions for the good of the team in the short term. If sending Moustakas down temporarily helps the team today, that has to take priority over helping Moustakas develop as a player in 2014 and beyond.

After some reflection, I’m not convinced we’re at that point yet, primarily because it’s not like there are any good alternatives. If Moustakas goes to Omaha, here are our options:

1) Elliot Johnson and Miguel Tejada, likely sharing the job in a quasi-platoon.

2) Irving Falu, who played so well for the Royals last year, but who is hitting .236/.295/.278 in Omaha right now.

3) Johnny Giavotella is crushing the ball again, hitting .329/.413/.506, and would be an interesting choice to play third base. However, he’s played the position five times in his pro career, and made three errors. I’d like to see him play some games at third base for Omaha to see if he can be even adequate at the position, but he hasn’t played there yet this season, and it’s quite possible (and entirely justifiable) hat the Royals have simply made the decision that he would be a disaster at the hot corner.

4) Christian Colon, as a shortstop, should presumably be able to handle third base in a pinch. He’s hitting .241/.273/.313.

That leaves Anthony Seratelli, who I’m rooting for simply because of his story – he was signed out of the independent leagues in 2007, slowly worked his way up through the minor leagues, and turned himself into an on-base machine in Double-A in 2011. He hit .282/.392/.398 for Northwest Arkansas that year, then .299/.374/.492 for Omaha last year, and is hitting .319/.429/.574 so far this year. He’s also 30 years old and never spent a day in the big leagues. As a human interest story, I would be thrilled for him to get the call. But if the best alternative to Moustakas is bringing up a 30-year-old former indy league ballplayer and making him your starting third baseman…I’m thinking that we probably should stick with Moustakas a little longer.

Moose, more than almost anyone else on the team, is supposed to be a team-first ballplayer who is able to separate his own performance from the success of the team, and put a bad ballgame behind him. On Thursday, he went out and doubled in the eighth inning of a tied ballgame, and then caught the Tigers napping by stealing third base. In the tenth, he drew a walk against Phil Coke, who is tough on left-handed hitters, which helped to set up the bases-loaded walk by George Kottaras and the grand slam by Alex Gordon. So hopefully Moustakas can put his early-season failings behind him and turn back into the ballplayer he was last year. The Royals sure need him to.

- Speaking of Kottaras – he’s appeared in only three games and batted only six times, but he’s already made a significant contribution to the team. In his first game, against the Red Sox on April 20th, he pinch-hit with two outs in the ninth, down a run against the Red Sox, and walked to put the go-ahead run on first base for Alex Gordon. Gordon grounded out, but Kottaras did his job.

The next day, Kottaras finally started a game behind the plate in the second game of the doubleheader. He homered in the fifth inning. The Royals would win in extra innings. And on Thursday, after coming into the game after Salvador Perez was removed for a pinch-runner, Kottaras batted in the tenth with the bases loaded and one out against a left-handed pitcher, and coaxed a walk to drive in the go-ahead run. Gordon would put the game out of reach with his two-out grand slam, but if Kottaras strikes out in that situation, Gordon never bats and the game is very much in doubt.

Every roster spot counts. The Royals finally aren’t wasting any, not even on their backup catcher, and it’s paying dividends in the win column.

- Speaking of bases-loaded walks, the Royals have already drawn four of them this year, in just 28 plate appearances with the bags full. Last year, in 113 plate appearances, they walked just twice. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s nice to see.

- Speaking of Kottaras and Salvador Perez, the lineup for today’s first game has been announced, and Perez is catching. Assuming that Kottaras is starting the second game of the doubleheader – never a safe assumption with Ned Yost managing – this means that the Royals have chosen to start Perez against Justin Masterson, and Kottaras against Corey Kluber.

This is absurd. Masterson throws close to sidearm; his arm slot is lower than just about every other right-handed starter in the majors. Not surprisingly, his platoon split is huge – for his career, lefties hit .290/.365/.430 against him, while righties are at just .223/.303/.299. Kluber is a journeyman pitcher who is 27 years old and opened the season in Triple-A. If you’re forced to start your left-handed backup catcher in one of the two games, wouldn’t you start him against the guy who has been killing right-handed batters for his entire career?

I understand that Ned Yost isn’t the most sabermetrically-friendly manager in the world. But is it too much to expect that he understands the nature of platoon splits? Apparently so.

(And just watch. Perez is going to go nuts off Masterson this afternoon, because he’s Salvador Perez, and he can hit anyone.)

- Speaking of Giavotella, am I permitted to point out that Chris Getz is hitting .228/.241/.386? It's nice that he finally hit his first home run as a member of the Royals, but that means he has as many homers this season as walks. Giavotella is crushing Triple-A pitching even more than usual; after a slow start the first week of the season, he's hitting over .400 the last two weeks. I appreciate what Getz brings to the table defensively, I really do. But I'd appreciate a second baseman and #9 hitter who can get on base for Alex Gordon even more. I just wish the Royals felt the same way.

- In the second game of today’s doubleheader, the Royals will be starting Will Smith, who has been called up for the spot start (and because the new CBA allows teams to add a 26th player to the roster for doubleheaders).

In what has been, generally speaking, a disappointing start of the season for the Royals’ top prospects, Smith has been a very pleasant surprise. After impressing everyone in camp, he went back to Omaha and struck out 11 batters in five innings in his first start. In four starts overall, he’s whiffed 31 batters in 22 innings, or 34.8% of batters faced overall.

I have long been skeptical of Smith’s upside, even though he’s left-handed and throws strikes, because of his inability to miss bats in the minor leagues. So this is an unexpected and very welcome surprise. Smith’s career best strikeout rate was 25.5%, and that was way back in rookie ball. Coming into the season, his career strikeout rate in Triple-A was 18.2%; it was 14.9% in his rookie season last year.

So even in a sample size this small, the jump in Smith’s strikeout rate is notable. The rest of his game was already major league-caliber; a jump in his strikeout rate would make him a legitimate #4 starter. So I’ll be watching his performance this evening with interest.

- Smith, as the 26th player on the roster today, will also become just the 26th player to appear in a game for the Royals this year. Were it not for back-to-back Sunday doubleheaders, the Royals wouldn’t have made a roster transaction all year. More to the point, they haven’t had a single injury this season.

Two years ago, you might recall, the Royals won the Dick Martin Award for having the best training staff in the majors, after a season in which they suffered almost no injuries to speak of. Last year was quite different; Perez missed half the year with a torn meniscus, and an epidemic of Tommy John surgery felled four of their pitchers (Joakim Soria, Blake Wood, Danny Duffy, and Felipe Paulino).

I have held the Royals’ training staff in high regard ever since Nick Kenney and Kyle Turner were hired before the 2010 season, and I thought 2011 was more a reflection of their skills than 2012. So far this year, my faith has been justified. Duffy and Paulino are the only guys on the 40-man roster who are on the DL. Of the other 38 guys, the most significant injury all year was the arm tightness that caused Wade Davis to miss a spring training start for precautionary reasons.

Talent wins ballgames, but talent means nothing if you can’t put that talent on the field. That holds even more true than usual for the Royals, who have very good front-line talent but questionable depth beyond their 25-man roster. More than even Yost or Dave Eiland, the success that Kenney and Turner have at their jobs may determine the course of the Royals’ season. So far, they’re having a lot of it.


Benjamin said...

If Will Smith turns into the real deal, can we call him The Fresh Prince? He is a Royal after all.

stand said...

Do you think moving Alex Gordon back to third is a stupid idea compared to the options you listed?

Antonio. said...

I think moving to Alex Gordon to third is a very interesting question. He was supposed to be really good there...but he was really bad there...but his offensive game is a lot better now than it was then, so maybe he would be more relaxed...but he hasn't played there for several seasons...but he is a great athlete with good reflexes...but his moving to third would cause a huge hole in the outfield... Love it!

Devon Young said...

Recently, I was curious about the latest point in each season that the Royals have been alone in 1st place...

2012: Never
2011: 7- 4 (Apr 13)
2010: Never
2009: 18-13 (May 9)
2008: 8- 5 (Apr 14)
2007: Never
2006: Never
2005: Never
2004: Never
2003: 65-59 (Aug 19)
2002: Never
2001: Never
2000: Never
1999: Never
1998: Never
1997: 20-19 (May 17)
1996: Never
1995: Never
1994: Never
1993: 35-31 (Jun 20)
1992: Never
1991: Never
1990: Never
1989: Never
1988: 6- 4 (Apr 16)
1987: 30-24 (Jun 8)
1986: 5- 3 (Apr 16)
1985: 91-71 (Oct 6) - WS champs
1984: 84-78 (Sep 30) - AL West champs
1983: 12- 8 (May 3)
1982: 84-64 (Sep 18)
1981: 30-23 (Oct 5) [counting 2nd half W-L only]
1980: 97-65 (Oct 5) - AL Champs
1979: 71-62 (Aug 30)
1978: 92-70 (Oct 1) - AL West Champs
1977: 102-60 (Oct 2) - AL West Champs
1976: 90-72 (Oct 3) - AL West Champs
1975: 30-20 (Jun 3)
1974: Never
1973: 70-51 (Aug 15)
1972: 3- 1 (Apr 18)
1971: Never
1970: Never
1969: 5- 3 (Apr 16)

Joe said...

Does Will Smith take Mendoza's spot if he has a quality start?

KHAZAD said...

Stand & Antonio- Moving Gordon back to third, where he struggled, would make the Royals about 15-16 runs worse over the course of the season.

Gordon is one of the best defensive outfielders in the major leagues, and one of the best all around players. He is no longer a project. He is not a marginal Teahen type to move around to wherever there is a hole. He is the best player on the team and should not be jacked with.

Kansas City said...

Moving Gordon back to 3b is one of those ideas that seems clever, but probably would be a significant mistake. If it opened up a spot for a top flight corner outfielder, maybe, but that is not the case.

Kansas City said...

Moustakis pop up problem seems highly unusual and might be fatal to him every being a good ML hitter. Has anyone ever overcome such a problem?

Kansas City said...

Kottaras is an intersting player. First, Yost is a fool for playing Perez so much. It will wind up hurting the Royals late in the season and hurting the career of Perez. Yost seems to have a blind spot on overuse of catchers.

Second,Kottaras has had significant positive impacts in two wins (out of three games he has played). His WAR is .2. I understand it is an apple and oranges deal, but is there any stat assessment that looks at how guys actually affect games?

Kansas City said...

Also, Kottaras has played MLB third base and has a Rtot/year of 180. Problem solved. Is 4 innings too small a sample size?

Kansas City said...

I promise to stop, but I'm afraid the Royals are winning in pitchers and mirrors. With Moose, Hosmer, Getz, and Frenchy looking as bad as they have, and with Cain certain to come back down from 450 BABIP, I'm afraid the whole thing is a mirage.

Any good reason not to put Gio at

Antonio. said...

I simply said it was an interesting question. Not that they should do it. Not that they will do it. Not that I advocated it. Just interesting. And -15 to -16 runs? I find that to be a made up number.

J35J said...

I'm absolutely for Gordon moving to 3rd base. It would only be for 2-4 weeks so Moose can figure a few things out. Bring up Lough to platoon with Frenchy in RF. Move Cain to LF and put Dyson in CF. Toronto just did the same thing recently with Bautista moving to 3rd base when Reyes went down with injury. Gordon is a veteran now and should have his big boy pants on so that he shouldn't miss a beat offensively...and again it should only be for a couple 3 weeks. If we did have a better option at 3rd I'd be fine with any of those other options but I'm not really a fan of any of our other options.

Fast Eddie said...

What do you get when you win the "Dick Martin Award", a "flying fickle finger of fate" trophy?

Fast Eddie said...

What do you get when you win the "Dick Martin Award", a "flying fickle finger of fate" trophy?

Soria_Fan said...

Not a fan of messing with Grodon. Falu could fill in just fine.