Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bouncing Back, And Embracing The Luck.


I haven’t had anything to say recently, partly because I don’t have time, but partly because the Royals have been in this weird part of the schedule where they could only add to the narrative that their world is falling apart, they couldn’t detract from it. As I tweeted a week ago, playing six home games against the Twins and Astros constituted the easiest week on their entire schedule, and they could easily go 5-1 without definitively proving that they weren’t the same team that just endured a 4-19 stretch. They then went out and went…5-1, and many of you thought I was being an annoying jerk for refusing to get excited.

I’m not trying to be an annoying jerk. But I hope that I’ve learned, after nearly two decades of false promises, not to get too excited about the Royals until they force me to get excited. Five wins in a row against two of the worst teams in baseball does not force me to get excited. Particularly when the same weakness that has plagued the Royals all season is still evident.

I mean, even when winning five straight games against the dregs of the American League, the Royals scored just 24 runs. In the five games before that – the first five games after George Brett was hired as the hitting coach – the Royals scored just 11 runs. They’ve scored five runs just twice in their last 19 games. Counting last night’s victory against the Tigers, the Royals have 38 runs in the 11 games of the George Brett Era, or 3.45 runs per game. So please, let’s stop the talk about how Brett has charged up the offense.

To be an equal-opportunity dream-dasher, let’s also stop the talk about how Ned Yost’s “stat guys” – let's give them a proper introduction, that would be Director of Baseball Analytics Mike Groopman and Assistant Director of Baseball Analytics John Williams – are responsible for the turnaround, even though the Royals are undefeated since the new lineup was unveiled. I love the new lineup, I think batting Hosmer #2 makes excellent sense (although I’d lead him off and bat Gordon #2, but that’s a minor quibble). I think that the difference in the new lineup might be worth 15 runs over a full season, but that still comes out to about a tenth of a run per game. And so far, of course, we haven’t even seen that. That’s not why they’re winning.

They’re winning the way they won earlier in the season – with fantastic pitching day in and day out. They’ve allowed three runs or fewer in their last 9 games in a row. That is the longest streak of three runs or fewer allowed by the Royals pitching staff since 1991, when the Royals set a franchise record with 11 straight games of 3 runs or less. (They gave up just 13 runs, total, in those 11 games.)

If they keep pitching like this, they have a chance to get back into the race. Hell, if they can keep pitching like this for the next 36 hours, they will be 3.5 games out of first place. One week ago, that’s not something I expected to write at any point this season, let alone today.

And let’s be clear: the Royals are pitching as well as they’ve pitched in a very long time. They have allowed the fewest runs in the league. They have the best ERA in the league. (They are second in runs allowed per game, right behind the Yankees.) The bullpen has a 2.79 ERA. James Shields has been fantastic. Ervin Santana has been wonderful.

And yet those two pitchers are 6-11, and in the games they’ve started, the Royals are 10-15. The Royals have the best ERA in the league, and they’re 29-32. Because you see, no matter how many times people try to convince you that pitching is 90% of baseball, or 70% of baseball, or even 50% of baseball, it’s just not true. Run prevention and run creation are equally valuable. There is some evidence that preventing runs may correlate with winning, or winning in the postseason, more than scoring runs – but it’s a very small difference, something along the lines of 52% to 48%. And of course, a good deal of run prevention isn’t pitching at all, but defense. As Joe Posnanski pointed out, according to Baseball Info Solutions the Royals have the best defense in the AL. (Yes, even with Jeff Francoeur.)

However you apportion the credit or the blame, the Royals are as good at preventing runs as anyone in the league – and they’re still a .500 team, more or less (they’ve outscored their opponents by five runs), because their offense sucks. Until their offense operates at a level where scoring five runs isn’t considered a slugfest, and where they don’t stop the game for a set of congratulatory speeches every time someone hits a home run, I’m going to remain skeptical that this team has what it takes to contend.

I’m going to remain skeptical because the Royals are going to have to score more runs just to stay in place, because their pitching isn’t likely to remain this effective. Just one guy on the entire roster has an ERA over 4.37. Santana has a 2.99 ERA, but has allowed more home runs (14) than walks (13). Individually, you can make a case that any one of these guys can continue to be this effective. Collectively, almost everyone is likely to worsen, and only Wade Davis is a good candidate to be considerably better (and that’s largely because he’s been so terrible so far.)

But no one is a greater regression candidate than Jeremy Guthrie, who represents the very best and very worst of the Royals pitching staff so far. Guthrie has a very solid 3.60 ERA, he’s 7-3, and I actually read someone speculate recently that he might be an All-Star candidate.

And I have absolutely no idea how he’s doing this.

Well, I know how he’s doing this – he throws the white ball to the man with the wooden stick, who hits the white ball to other men wearing a leather glove. I just don’t know how he’s been able to sustain this kind of end-result success when the means to that end – dare I say the process – seem so terribly flawed.

Start with Guthrie’s basic numbers: 85 innings, 86 hits, 28 walks, 44 strikeouts, 16 home runs.

Guthrie has always had trouble missing bats, but his strikeout rate this year – just 12.2% of batters faced – is the lowest of his career. (Mind you, he hasn’t been above 15% since 2008.) It’s extremely difficult – not impossible, but extremely difficult – to be a successful pitcher in the major leagues in 2013 with a strikeout rate that low.

One way to survive without striking anyone out is to not walk anyone, but Guthrie’s walk rate (7.8%) is actually the highest of his career. He’s not that far off his career norms, but still – he’s striking out fewer guys and walking more guys than he ever has before.

The other way to survive with a low strikeout rate is to not give up any home runs. Jeremy Guthrie leads the league with 16 home runs allowed.

So…um…what’s going on?

Well, for one, Guthrie long ago sold his soul to the BABIP fairy. For reasons that remain unclear to me – and I’m not being sarcastic, I’m genuinely fascinated by this – Guthrie has had an ability to keep his batting average on balls in play well below average throughout his career. Aside from his disastrous time in Colorado last year, he has never had a BABIP over .287, when the league average usually hovers around .300. Pitchers have very little control over what happens on balls in play – but Guthrie, for whatever reason, has more control over it than virtually every other pitcher in the majors today.

Among the 138 pitchers this century with 1000 or more innings pitched, Guthrie’s career BABIP of .277 is the 8th lowest. The seven guys in front of him are either severe flyball pitchers (Ted Lilly, Jered Weaver, Ryan Franklin, Jarrod Washburn), moderate flyball pitches with a knack for pop-ups (Matt Cain, Barry Zito), or knuckleballers (Tim Wakefield). Guthrie falls into none of those camps.

This year, his BABIP is .263. And here’s the thing: I’m not convinced it’s a fluke. His career BABIP has largely occurred in front of some fairly mediocre Oriole defenses. If the Royals really have the best defense in the league, .263 almost seems sustainable. If that were the sole reason why Guthrie’s ERA is so much better than his peripheral numbers, I’d say carry on.

But it’s not. Look at these numbers:

Bases empty: .257/.336/.515
Men on base: .279/.323/.361
Runners in scoring position: .217/.246/.317

That’s a phenomenal breakdown. With the bases empty, batters are slugging over .500 against Guthrie. He’s given up 16 home runs this year, but the two-run shot he gave up to Miguel Cabrera yesterday was just the second home run that came with a man on base. That’s remarkable. I’m not saying it’s sustainable, but it’s remarkable. Guthrie has basically become the anti-Hochevar.

Moreover, the leadoff man in an inning is batting .157/.195/.373 against Guthrie this year. He’s surrendered five home runs to the leadoff man – but if they’re not hitting the ball out, they’re not getting on base. That’s forcing opponents to begin their rallies with at least one out already, making it hard to sustain a big inning.

Again, his success has been remarkable. But it’s not sustainable. For his career, Guthrie’s splits with the bases empty (.261 AVG, 763 OPS) are essentially the same as with men on base (.266, 765) and with runners in scoring position (.263, 771). This is a stone-cold fluke. I’m not saying it hasn’t been a valuable fluke – but I don’t see how he can sustain this for very long.

Put it this way: Guthrie has allowed 16 homers, and struck out 44 batters. That’s a ratio of just 2.75 strikeouts per home run. If you can’t miss bats and give up lots of big flies, you’re supposed to get pummeled. Which is why in the post-Deadball-II era (i.e. since 1969), not one pitcher has made 12 or more starts in a season, had a K/HR ratio of less than 2.8, and still allowed fewer than 3.9 runs per nine innings.

Well, one pitcher. Counting unearned runs, Guthrie is at 3.81. More power to him; he’s gotten outs when he’s needed them, and he’s winning games that the Royals need him to win. And I’m rooting for him to continue to defy everything we understand about how pitchers achieve success. When the Royals were swirling the drain, I told you to #EmbraceTheSuck, but every time Guthrie takes the mound, I’m going to #EmbraceTheLuck.

But I don’t know how he can continue to do this for much longer. There’s a reckoning coming, for him and for the pitching staff as a whole. If Hosmer doesn’t reacquaint himself with the fly ball to right field, if Moustakas doesn’t reacquaint himself with first base, if Chris Getz doesn’t reacquaint himself with Omaha, I don’t see how the Royals survive in the long run.

But at least they’re making things interesting.



18 comments:

John said...

I think Rany is probably right, generally and for the most part. (Per the usual.) But a couple developments are likely to break in the Royals favor. First, Shields and Santana have been very unlucky in terms of W/L. Just as Guthrie's good luck is unlikely to hold, so also their luck will likely get better. Second,Gordon has been slumping of late, and, aside from a game here and that one spectacular series there, Butler hasn't really gone on a sustained tear yet. When they are on, both are capable of carrying the offense for a week. Not long ago, I would have added that Moustakas can't continue to be this bad much longer . . . but I'm now convinced that yes, he can indeed continue to be this bad, indefinitely. (Not saying he will, just that he could.)

Jack Campbell said...

This is a longer post-worthy comment, but I have a question about fly ball luck, and more specifically, about "fly balls" as they relate to babip.

Understand that this an honest question. I'm a student in the classroom raising his hand.

Rany has written here - as many have written elsewhere - that the only three things (it is generally acknowledged) that pitchers can control are K's, BB's and home runs. It's the last of these that intrigues me.

Question: If a pitcher can control home runs, how can it be the case that said pitcher cannot control balls in play?

Put another way, if a pitcher can control how hard a batter hits the ball as it relates to whether ball goes over fence vs. doesn't go over fence, why couldnt the pitcher also control bounces off of the wall vs. lazy fly? Especially when you consider that the difference between a homer and a rocket off the wall is millimeters - or fractions of millimeters - of the point at which ball meets bat head.

Are we saying that a batted ball that travels along an arc just inches flatter than the arc that would have produced a homer constitutes something the pitcher has no control over vs. something he controls?

I'm no scientist, but I did minor in philosophy - for which I had to take a couple of logic classes.

Bryan said...

Jack

When it is written that the pitchers can control home runs, I think what is meant is that a pitcher should have the ability to limit the number of home runs.

I think you are looking at 'control' a little too literally. No one can control as much as you discuss, but a pitcher of immense ability has the ability to limit the number of homeruns.

Not sure if I am getting across what I mean, but hopefully this helps.

First Baptist Church, Stephens said...

It seems that if Hosmer can get that batting average and walk rate up a little bit, he might just develop into 1992-93 Rod Brewer.

Ethan Herbertson said...

Jack

There is a growing confusion amongst sabermetrics enthusiasts that the "The True Outcomes" are the "three things pitchers can control".

Historically, the Three True Outcomes are merely those outcomes of plate appearances where the vagaries of defense do not come into play. That means that both pitchers *and* batters exert a more direct influence over those outcomes than over things like line-outs.

Doug Kirks said...

I'd like to hear Rany's thoughts on the, if any, difference Perez had made since his return from bereavement leave. He seems to not only do a great job behind the plate and managing pitchers, but has appeared to spark the team as much as Brett's attitude has.

twm said...

Jack: pitchers control home runs by inducing ground balls. This is all that is meant.

Jeff Basinger said...

I wonder if an actual moose could bat over .183

twm said...

Jack: I have been thinking about my reply to your question and now consider it imprecise. Pitchers control, or limit, home runs by limiting the number of fly balls allowed.

BobDD said...

"Pitchers control three things: K's, Walks and HRs"

What it is really meant by that is that those are the three things that are directly attributable to the pitcher and pitcher alone.

Michael said...

Now that we've taken two of three from an actual good team, is it ok to get excited?

Jason and Kirstin said...

Since we are delving into stats, explain this, Mr Jazayerli: Moose WAR = -0.9

So, exactly how bad would this replacement for Moose have to be to have helped the Royals to only one more win in the last 63 games??

IndifferentDisdain said...

As of this morning, if the Royals had just scored a league-average number of runs (excluding KC's own numbers), they'd be 2nd in the AL in win percentage with a record of 38-25, just behind Boston.

KHAZAD said...

Ethan- That's a great point. The three true outcomes are simply skills that we can quantify easily. But many sabermetricians have taken it a step further by erroneously saying that pitchers have zero control over balls put in play, and that is simply not true.

There are guys who fairly consistently allow more or less hits on balls in play, and even more who allow more or less extra base hits than expected, over an entire career. Just because we can't quantify it properly does not mean that it is not a skill.

Sabermetricians who put too much stock in the three true outcomes constantly call these guys lucky or unlucky. While luck can change from year to year, and defense plays a part, especially with ground ball guys, I think that eventually we will be able to analyze hits enough to realize that some pitchers are just better than others at getting softer ground balls that don't get through the infield or lazy cans of corn rather than more difficult flys.

While it is true in general that pitchers that get more swings and misses give up less solid contact, there are plenty of cases of pitchers with nasty stuff that still groove too many, and pitchers who are not swing and miss type guys that still make the batter miss just enough to be successful.

We have a long way to go in analyzing pitching and contact, and those who take the three true outcomes and stick their head in the sand and say that's all there is to it are holding up that progress.

Daniel Kim said...

Consider an at bat where the count is in the pitcher's favor (1-2 or 0-2 type of count). Usually the hitter should be expecting junk not near anywhere in the middle of the strike zone. The pitcher throws a fastball at the hitter's "cold zone" in the strike zone area. The hitter pops the ball up weakly.

Consider another at bat where the count is in the batter's favor (2-1 or 3-1). The hitter is expecting something hittable near the strike zone area. If the pitcher can throw a good change up or a slider that starts over the middle of the plate than falls at the last second, the hitter hits the ball weakly on the ground to an infielder.
Are these not instances of "control" as it has been talked about that can be exerted by a pitcher against a hitter?
To be more specific, a type of controlling of how solidly (or not solidly as it may be more accurate to say) a hitter hits a ball by a pitcher.
I think a pitcher can control the outcome of an at bat more than what some sabremetricians give them credit for if you take into consideration the "chess match" aspect of the duel.

Michael said...

Can we get excited now that we are beating good teams AND the offense is scoring runs?

Cecily said...

"Edge % " is the answer to this ridiculous saberfag argument.

Every time Rany arrogantly uses "luck" as an excuse for why he doesn't get the answers he wants, it makes me want to vomit.

Baseball is much smarter than you are Jazzy. Just stick to popping pimples.






Fast Eddie said...

Why is "A. Moore" (Adam) listed at 3B in tonight's starting lineup?