Sunday, July 7, 2013

Royals Today: 7/7/13.


As you know, the bar for what constitutes “memorable moments” for Royals fans is set a little lower than for fans of other franchises. In the last decade, and with the exception of 2003 for the last 19 years, the most memorable moments for the franchise are not memorable moments at all – they’re moments that presage more memorable moments to come in the future. The debut of Johnny Damon…the day Zack Greinke got called to the majors…Alex Gordon getting a standing ovation in his first major league at-bat on Opening Day…Eric Hosmer’s first game: all these rank among the most memorable moments since 1995, even though they collectively meant nothing in the here and now.

I believe I’ve written this before, but the most memorable time for me as a Royals fan in the last ten years was in September of 2011, when the Royals were playing out the string of a 71-91 season. They went 15-10 that month, but more importantly, they were winning games thanks to the vanguard of The Best Farm System Ever. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas had been called up early in the year, along with Danny Duffy. But in early August Johnny Giavotella arrived, and five days later so did Salvador Perez, who in barely a month had rewritten the narrative on him from “underrated prospect” to “wait, who the hell is this guy?”

On September 23rd I attended this game at US Cellular Park, and honestly it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a ballpark. Hosmer led off the bottom of the second with a nuclear blast to dead center field; sitting in box seats behind home plate, I described the hit on Twitter as “a near-religious experience”. Two innings later, Perez hit a jaw-dropping three-run home run to the opposite field. “Wait, who the hell is this guy?”

Two batters later, Alcides Escobar connected. Moustakas had four hits. Giavotella had two hits. Lorenzo Cain, just up from the minors because he couldn’t break into the Royals’ outfield, gave Alex Gordon the day off and had two hits. The Royals destroyed the White Sox, 11-1, and the only downside to witnessing the game in person was that I couldn’t hear Hawk Harrelson whine for three hours about where the Royals got all this talent and how the White Sox were in deep trouble.

The future was no longer a deferred dream. It was here. And it was awesome.

Well, it was awesome. The future hit a pothole somewhere along the way, blew out a tire, careened into the guardrail and left a bunch of smoldering wreckage on the highway. It’s the Royals; I was a fool to think otherwise.

But I was reminded of that glorious snapshot in time last week, when the Royals belatedly brought back Giavotella to the major leagues while simultaneously cutting Jeff Francoeur. It was the obvious, really the only, move to make, but I still didn’t think they’d make it. Not cutting Francoeur; I’ve said all along that the Royals were well aware of his deficiencies at the plate, and that if he didn’t bounce back this year he wouldn’t be starting for much longer. And the Royals didn’t fight the inevitable; they moved him into a platoon role by the end of May, and by the time he was cut he was essentially neutered, having been largely replaced by David Lough and Jarrod Dyson.

But Giavotella’s return – that surprised me. I didn’t expect him to be named the Royals’ starting second baseman on Sunday afternoon, given that Thursday evening he was starting for the Omaha Storm Chasers – in left field. The Royals had given up on the idea of Gio as an everyday second baseman even in Triple-A; in his last 34 games in Omaha, he started at second base just four times. He started in left field 11 times – because as you know the Royals have a desperate need for a left fielder – and at third base 17 times. Even though he was absolutely raking after a slow start (from June 8th until his callup, he hit .394/.512/.485, with 16 walks and just 8 strikeouts), it seemed the best to hope for was that the Royals might try him in a Ryan Raburn role.

Instead, the Royals acknowledged reality – that the two guys they had tried at second base, Chris Getz and Elliot Johnson, had both hit under .220, and both had OBPs and slugging averages under .300 – and recognized that while Giavotella hadn’t proven he could hit, that he was the only second baseman in the organization who hadn’t conclusively proven that he couldn’t.

And frankly, it’s far from a given that he will hit. After hits in his first three at-bats last Sunday, he’s gone 0-for-14 since, and today was benched for the second straight game for Miguel Tejada, because it’s the Royals and nothing comes easy for us. His defense has been surprisingly solid for a guy who had barely played the position in the past month, but ultimately he needs to hit, and this is probably his last chance to prove that he can for the Royals.

But for now he’s back, and for now the Royals have a lineup that resembles the one that got me so excited nearly two years ago. Of the ten guys the Royals typically select their lineup card from – counting the three-headed hydra that rotates between center field and right field – eight of them are products of the Royals’ farm system, and the other two (Escobar and Cain) were acquired in the Greinke trade after no more than one season in the majors. Alex Gordon is 29 years old, and – this might surprise some of you – Jarrod Dyson is 28 years old, making him the second-oldest player in the lineup. Everyone else is 27 or less. Giavotella is 25, Moustakas is 24, Hosmer and Perez are 23.

There’s a scar in right field, one where a certain 22-year-old ought to be playing instead of Dyson or Lough, but even so: this is a lineup you can still dream on a little. No one’s old enough to worry about decline yet, and half the lineup’s young enough to reasonably hope for improvement. No one’s leaving for free agency until after the 2015 season. Most nights, there isn’t a single player in the lineup who is just filling space. Escobar needs to prove he can hit again, and Ned Yost needs to take him out of the #2 spot once and for all – but even Escobar has upside and plays good defense and is signed cheaply for years to come. There are no Ross Gloads in the lineup, no Jason Kendalls, no Scott Podsedniks, guys who did nothing to push the team to a championship and were only going to get worse over time.

I still haven’t recovered my previous optimism about the Royals, from back when they still had Wil Myers and when Christian Colon and Bubba Starling weren’t considered busts and when there was still some hope that the Royals could develop a starting pitcher, any starting pitcher, from their own farm system. I’m worried that the Royals will top out as the newer version of the Toronto Blue Jays, consistently good but never great, or even good enough to contend for the playoffs. (From 1998 through 2008, the Blue Jays won between 83 and 88 games eight times in 11 years, but never won 89+ games, and never made the playoffs.)

But for now, in honor of them finally putting the 25 best players in the organization on the 25-man roster, I’m going to dwell on nothing but positives for the rest of this column.

- As I wrote on Twitter, baseball is a much more beautiful game now that Eric Hosmer has his swing back.

From June 6th through July 6th, exactly one calendar month, Hosmer hit .321/.366/.607, with nine walks and just ten strikeouts. He hit eight homers, all of them in his last 21 games, after hitting just one homer in his first 63 games. Actually, going back to last year, Hosmer hit seven homers from June 15th, 2012 through June 12th, 2013 – and then hit more homers in three weeks than he had in the past year.

Just as important as the results are the process that has led to those results – by which I mean his swing, which appears to have finally found 2011 again. Vicious yet controlled. Powerful enough to push what appear to be routine flyballs off the bat into the third row of the bleachers. Hitting bombs to all fields – including the pull field, which is only recently became reacquainted with.

I don’t want to read too much into one month’s worth of efforts, but it’s hard not to. Because in the context of his career, the anomaly isn’t Hosmer’s last month – it’s 2012 and the first two months of 2013.

There just isn’t much precedent for a 21-year-old to come up and exceed league-average performance by as much as Hosmer did, only to go completely bust. I did a search for the list of all players who debuted in the majors at age 21, played in at least 100 games, and had an OPS+ of between 110 and 125 (Hosmer was at 118). It’s only been done seven times prior to Hosmer, which is in itself a mark of quality; it’s rarer than you think.

Two of them played prior to World War II, so you might not be familiar with them, but they had excellent careers. George Burns was a rookie in 1914, and went on to a 16-year career, and actually won the AL MVP award in 1926, when he hit 64 doubles (back then there was a rule that you couldn’t win the MVP award more than once, which might explain why Babe Ruth didn’t run out of mantle space). He then went on to a celebrated career as one of America’s finest comedians. (Sorry, wrong George Burns.)

Ben Chapman hit .316/.371/.474 as a rookie, and played 15 years and collected 1958 hits in the majors with a final line of .302/.383/.440. His career as a hitter ended when World War II broke out, but he came back in 1944 as a pitcher (without much success) and then as the Phillies’ player-manager, where he revealed himself as a world-class racist in leading the charge against Jackie Robinson. But we’re getting off track.

Anyway, since World War II, five other players fit that criteria. They are Richie Ashburn, Rod Carew, Eddie Murray, Carney Lansford, and Delino DeShields. The first three are in the Hall of Fame; the other two played in the majors for a long time and made a lot of money doing so.

This is why, even at his darkest moments, I was never as down on Hosmer as I was on Moustakas. That year of age is a crucial one, and I always bet on youth. Hosmer crushed in the minors during the one-plus seasons he was healthy, his rookie performance suggested greatness, and the scouts loved him even more than the numbers. Even now, at 23, he’s young enough to improve substantially.

The best comparison I can make for Hosmer is this: Carlos Beltran. Beltran came up at 22, a year older than Hosmer, and hit .293/.337/.454, which sounds great until you remember that it was 1999, and the fences were in at Kauffman, and his slash line was actually below average – his OPS+ was 99. Still, he was a great defensive center fielder, he stole 27 bases, and he won Rookie of the Year honors.

The next year, he hit .247/.309/.366, played in just 98 games, and squabbled with the Royals about where to rehab his injury.

And in his third season – this gets forgotten now, when you look at his final line – he continued to struggle for the first half of the year. Through June 24th, he was hitting .249/.294/.372. At the time, I wrote publicly that I was “this close to giving up on Carlos Beltran”.

That would have been an egregious error. From that point on, he hit .355/.420/.636 and stole 24 bases in 25 attempts. He would be Carlos Beltran from that point on. I believe he deserves to go in the Hall of Fame some day, and I believe – if he just has one more All-Star-caliber season after this one – he will.

I learned from Beltran that when it comes to young players who have already shown the ability to excel, you’re better off waiting too long than not long enough. Hosmer won’t continue to slug .600 forever; he’ll have his ups and his downs. But I think the worst is behind us now. I think we have an above-average first baseman for the next four-plus years. And maybe a star.

- The most interesting thing on Hosmer’s stat line is that his defensive metrics are finally in line with his reputation. According to Baseball Info Solutions, he was nine runs below average defensively as a rookie, and five runs below average last year. But this year, he’s seven runs above average, in half a season, which is why according to Baseball-Reference.com, Hosmer already has more WAR (2.1) this year than he had in his entire rookie season (1.6).

Defensive metrics are notoriously unreliable in small samples, and even more so for first baseman, so I don’t really think this means anything. I bring this up only to segue to the defense of the team as a whole, which – according to our best defensive metrics – might just be the best in the major leagues.

According to BIS, the Royals are +7 runs defensively at catcher, +7 at first base, +9 at second base, +3 at third base, +4 at shortstop, +6 in left field, +9 in center field, and +10 in right field. They’re even +2 runs from their pitchers, which means that the Royals have above-average defense from every position on the field. That’s remarkable.

Again, in half a season, metrics at any individual position are shaky; the runs credited to the third baseman might actually belong to the shortstop, or whatever. But on a team-wide level, the sample size is much larger, and the odds that this is all a fluke is much smaller. Overall, the Royals are 57 runs above average defensively, which leads the majors. The Diamondbacks are at +56; no other team is better than +31. The Royals are 32 runs better than every other American League team.

Other metrics aren’t quite as positive about the Royals. Baseball Prospectus uses a stat called Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE) to grade a team’s overall defense, and by that metric the Royals rank 8th among 30 major league teams. But even that represents a remarkable improvement, given that by the same metric, the Royals ranked 28th last year, 24th in 2011, 30th in 2010, 29th in 2009, 16th in 2008, 21st in 2007, 28th in 2006, 29th in 2005, 29th in 2004, 23rd in 2003, 24th in 2002, 22nd in 2001, 18th in 2000, 18th in 1999, and 22nd in 1998.

You have to go back to 1997 – sixteen years – to find a Royals team that was above-average defensively. Bad defense has been almost as much a staple of Royals teams as low walk rates. The Royals haven’t done anything to solve the latter, but for the first time in ages, they are finally paying more than just lip service to the former.

- The flipside of having a great defense is that the pitching staff isn’t as good as it looks – that league-leading ERA is greatly enhanced by the other eight guys in the field. According to BIS, the Royals defense has saved the pitching staff 0.67 runs per game. Think about that: 0.67 runs a game works out to about 60 points of ERA (after factoring in unearned runs). That’s enough to make a bad pitcher (4.60 ERA) look good (4.00 ERA), a good pitcher look very good (3.40 ERA), and a very good pitcher look great (2.80 ERA).

And that effect plays out on every pitcher on the entire roster. Put it this way: according to Baseball-Reference.com, an average pitching staff with the Royals’ defense behind it should allow 3.87 runs per game. The Royals are allowing 4.01 runs per game. In other words, the Royals, with the best ERA in the league, have a below-average pitching staff once you account for their defense. That’s amazing.

That’s also probably a little hyperbole. Very few teams are 100 runs above average defensively over the course of a season, which is what the Royals are on pace for. There’s some noise in those numbers, some regression due, and at the end of the year the defense won’t look quite this good, meaning the pitchers will look better than this little experiment suggests.

But it’s worth considering, when you look at a rotation that has James Shields and (a rejuvenated) Ervin Santana, but also has Jeremy Guthrie and Wade Davis and Luis Mendoza, that maybe the Royals really don’t have the best pitching staff in the league. Maybe Dave Eiland really isn’t a witch. Maybe they have an average staff overall, maybe slightly better than average, that’s propped up by a terrific defense.

There’s nothing wrong with that. If anything, it bodes well for the future if it means that the Royals can more easily replace Santana this winter, and can more easily transition someone like Yordano Ventura into the rotation next year, knowing that the defense behind him will be stellar. But it’s important to give proper credit where credit is due. Otherwise you might do something foolish like re-sign Santana to a long-term deal, when much of his improvement this year is thanks to the guys behind him.

- Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez made their first All-Star teams, giving the Royals more than a single token representative for the first time in a decade. Both spots are deserved. Gordon has been the best left fielder in the AL since the beginning of 2011, and should have made the All-Star team each of the last two years. Perez is hitting .302 – a career low, mind you – and even with his free-swinging ways and only modest power, when you hit .300 while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense behind the plate, you’re a hell of a player.

Some of you more cynical types – you know who you are – have mocked the Perez pick given that “he’s the third-best catcher in the division”. Even if that’s true, the third-best catcher in the AL Central is probably the third-best catcher in the AL, because there isn’t anyone in the AL West or East that compares. But beyond that, while it’s easy to make the claim that Carlos Santana is a better catcher than Perez because he draws walks and hits home runs, it’s not necessarily accurate. (No one’s disputing Joe Mauer as the best catcher in the league.)

Perez is hitting .302/.326/.420; Santana is hitting .266/.373/.455. But Perez’s edge behind the plate is just as formidable as Santana’s edge at it. Perez has allowed 25 steals, and thrown out 12 runners; Santana has allowed 34 steals and thrown out 5 runners. In 56 games behind the plate, Santana has allowed 34 wild pitches and 5 passed balls; in 71 games behind the plate, Perez has allowed 31 wild pitches and not a single passed ball.

Perez has caught every inning he’s played in the field this year; Santana has started at first base 11 times and DHed 15 times. That’s an enormous positional and defensive advantage for Perez. Add it up, and Baseball Reference rates Santana at 1.9 WAR so far this year – and Perez rates at 2.2 WAR. That difference is within the margin of error, certainly – but it’s just flat-out wrong to snarkily dismiss the notion that Perez is a more worthy All-Star selection than Santana. As we’ve seen this season, defense matters.

(Jason Castro, who also made the team, has 2.4 WAR this season. Given his lack of a track record prior to this year, I’m comfortable placing him behind Perez and Santana for now, but he’s a heck of a player, and might be the best player on the Astros.)

- I don’t necessarily think this rises to the level of a snub, because it’s almost impossible to “snub” a reliever for the All-Star team, given how few innings they pitch. But Greg Holland might be the best reliever in the league. He’s almost certainly one of the three best, and he’s absolutely and unequivocally better than all five relievers that Jim Leyland placed on the Final Vote ballot.

Holland has faced 128 batters this year, and struck out 56 of them, or 43.8%. Not only does that break his own Royals record, not only does it lead all major league pitchers this year, but it’s the fifth-highest strikeout rate of all time among pitchers with 25+ innings:

Year Pitcher           K   BF    K%

2012 Craig Kimbrel   116  231  50.2%
2003 Eric Gagne      137  306  44.8%
2012 Aroldis Chapman 122  276  44.2%
2011 Kenley Jansen    96  218  44.0%
2013 Greg Holland     56  128  43.8%

Holland hasn’t sacrificed his command to miss bats; in 33 innings he’s allowed just 10 UI walks, and has surrendered just two homers. Put it all together, and his xFIP (1.49) is even better than his actual ERA of 1.91. His xFIP is easily the best in baseball for anyone with 25 innings; only two other pitchers have xFIPs under 2. (They’re both Pirates: Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon. And they’re both big reasons why the Pirates are in first place.)

Holland may still wind up on the team once the raft of starting pitchers inevitably jumps ship, and in the grand scheme of things it’s not a big deal if he doesn’t. I’d much rather have a position player than a reliever on the roster, and the Royals have two. But I think it’s worth pointing out that Greg Holland has a case to be made as the best reliever in the game right now. Because while Royals fans might know that, the All-Star roster is a good sign that the rest of baseball doesn’t.


14 comments:

Mick Unsell said...

Rany,
Thanks for the update - it is a much anticipated surprise when you write. A couple of thoughts:
-no more Escobar in the #2 hole...ever...
-I went to the 10-7 Royals win on July 4th. Best game of this season thus far as far as entertainment value goes. The Royals had more walks than Ks...just saying.

Mick Unsell said...

Oh, and why does Ned insist on making Salvy the next Johnny Bench? Catch him 150+ games/year until he flames out before the age of 30???

Adam said...

I just turned 30. It didn't make me feel old until I read this and realized that I'm older than every starter in the Royals lineup.

Unknown said...

“At the time, I wrote publicly that I was “this close to giving up on Carlos Beltran”.”

Where are those “public” writings, by the way? The ones where you and Rob Neyer showed an absolute lack of baseball acumen and were wrong just about all of the time? They’ve been deleted from the internet and clearly hidden..

Unknown said...

http://www.robneyer.com/robrany.html

Seems to still be there, unknown. Maybe you should check before being so provably wrong.

Unknown said...

Um, that's like a tiny slice of part of a year. There's still a shitload of them being wrong that they're hiding. Maybe you should check before being so provably wrong.

Unknown said...

So it's June - February. That's a tiny slice of one year. OK. I guess 8 months and 1 day is a tiny slice of one year in your world.

And they HIDE it? It's odd behavior for someone "hiding" their wrongness to clearly admit to it as Rany did here. Since you can't actually hide anything that you've ever posted on the internet (you do know this, don't you?) I suppose you should have kept all the screenshots (as I have with some folks I've dealt with) so that you could trot them out to embarrass Rany.... Oh wait, you would rather insinuate things....

Never mind.

Unknown said...

For what it's worth: given that these are comments from 8 months worth of time in Royals history - if they were wrong ALL THE TIME as you allege, you should be able to find something in there.

Are you this guy: http://archive.omgn.com/nexus/?p=516 ?

Because your comments certainly echo his weird comments.

Unknown said...

They wrote that dialogue for years. There are only a few months worth of conversation available. You make the call!

Kansas City said...

Time for Randy to deliver an assessment of Moustakas and, for that matter, Cain.

Kansas City said...

Make that Rany, of course. He does a great job, with a combination of confidence and humility.

Unknown said...

To Unknown 7/8/13 18:12

Really? It was a dialogue that went on for years. But 8 months worth is still there. IF they were wrong all the time there should be something to really get on him.

More to the point: EVERY post for Rany on the Royals is still available. Every one. He leaves plenty of stuff for you to attack.

As you can see, I have made the call. You're just wrong and weird.

Good bye to you.

On to other things: has anyone been watching the second and third order adjusted standings at BP? The Royals must be seriously over performing their run elements. Is it possible that their top notch fielding ratings are under-represented there? If the adjusted standings are to be believed the Royals are barely better than last year (currently performing at a 73 win pace). While I feel that they are nowhere near a playoff team, I just feel that they are better than 73.....

Chris Esch said...

Rany, can I just take a moment to vent on why playing the A's alwayse depresses me. They are us only not us. Everything the Royal's do wrong seems magnified.

-they would never put their worst hitter in the two hole
-they would never give Francouer 15 million dollars
-they would never let a guy like Hoch start for them...for several games let alone several years
-they would never trade for a guy who has never been a good starter, GIVE him a starting spot, then watch him blow up once every three starts
-they would never allow their 3B to hit .180 with no power while in a 4-18 slump
-they would never employ Chris Getz

Of course, I could go on. The Royals may end up being better next year , but I doubt it. You can't be this dumb and succeed.

twm said...

Tried to watch some All Star Game on my phone tonight and was dismayed to find that MLB.tv blacks out the mid season classic. When do we start talking about why it is that baseball hates its fans?