Friday, March 1, 2013

Five For Friday: 03/01/13.

Ca$h-Money. Maddog (@MadDogKiller): How bad of a spring does Hochevar have to have to get cut?

A really bad, no-good, awful, terrible spring. Mind you, it could happen. The Royals really don’t have a significant financial commitment with Hochevar – his salary isn’t guaranteed, and if he’s released before March 15th, he’s owed just one-sixth of his salary, less than $800,000. If he’s released after March 15th but before Opening Day, he’s owed a quarter of his salary, less than $1.2 million.

But the psychological commitment…that’s different. Contrary to how it seems sometimes, the Royals are quite aware of what people think about Hochevar. They are also aware that almost everyone thinks they’ve made a big mistake by retaining him at such a high salary – and by “everyone”, I don’t just mean fans, I mean most front offices. They know they’re bucking conventional wisdom here.

And if they cut bait with him now, they’d be admitting they made a mistake without even giving him the chance to prove it. The embarrassment that would cause makes it highly unlikely that they would do such a thing. The only scenario I could see that would earn him his release is if Hochevar’s stuff is qualitatively down this year – his velocity is gone, or he can’t throw strikes, something like that. Basically, the Royals would need an excuse – an excuse above and beyond the fact that he’s been a lousy pitcher for five years.

Once the season starts, things change. A bad first six weeks in the rotation might be enough to move him to the bullpen, if not off the team. The problem, of course, is that by that point his entire salary is guaranteed.

Sparksjay (@sparksjay): Anything about the Royals’ Spring Training start that has you adjusting the 86+/72- hopes for the season?

Is anyone seriously hurt? No? Then we’re still on course.

Seriously, there is very little that can happen in spring training that should adjust your expectations for an entire team, and most of what can happen is bad. Last year the Royals lost Joakim Soria for the entire season, and Salvador Perez for half the season, so we’re already ahead of the game there.

Every now and then a young player will show up to camp and impress the living daylights out of everyone. The problem is that for every Albert Pujols, there are ten Gary Scotts. Last year Danny Duffy showed some of the best stuff of any left-hander in baseball in March – and got me unduly excited – but that didn’t prevent him from blowing out his arm in May. (Although I still think it bodes well for him upon his return.)

So far, the only blip on this year’s radar screen is left-handed reliever Donnie Joseph, who has faced six batters and struck them all out. He has a chance to be an impact guy in the pen, but probably not until mid-season, and anyway you’re not going to change your projection for the team based on a middle reliever.

And as for the Royals’ 6-0-1 start…two years ago the Royals led all of baseball with a 20-11 record in spring training. They lost 91 games. In 1999 they led all of baseball with a 22-9 record in March. They lost 97 games.

Michael Buchanan (@ExtremeSquirrel): Does Adalberto Mondesi have the potential to become a top 10 MLB prospect?

Man, I could answer Adalberto Mondesi questions all day.

The short answer is: yes. Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks, who is admittedly Mondesi’s biggest fan among the prospect guru ranks, already has Mondesi ranked #58 overall. Remember: Mondesi 1) has played in 50 professional games and 2) is 17 years old. (He was the youngest player on BP’s Top 100 list.)

You might recall that when I wrote about Mondesi, I compared him to where Jurickson Profar was two years ago…and then had J.J. Picollo basically do the same thing. Well, on Twitter recently, Parks was asked what minor league player had the best chance of being the next Profar, and his answer was – Mondesi. So by those standards, Mondesi doesn’t have Top 10 potential – he has Top 1 potential.

He probably won’t get there, but he’s still a magnificent prospect, really unlike any prospect I’ve ever seen in the Royals’ system. He will probably open this season in Lexington, which would make him (to the best of my knowledge) the youngest Royal ever to play in a full-season league. If he makes it to Wilmington before the season ends, he will be the youngest Royal ever to reach that level. If he gets to Double-A before July of 2014, he would be the first 18-year-old Royal ever to reach that level. And so on.

Of course, he might struggle this year and get sent back down to short-season ball. He might have to repeat low-A ball next year, and not reach Wilmington until 2015.

In which case, he’ll still be 19 years old. Holy crap.

Nate Freiberg (@NateFreiberg): With the Royals thin at the corners, any chance Nady makes the team with that in mind? And does Endy have any shot over Dyson for 4th OF?

Barring injury, I would be shocked if either player makes the Opening Day roster. Nady is probably finished as a hitter, and Chavez is basically Jarrod Dyson in seven years. But I imagine that the Royals are hoping both players (and Willy Taveras, probably) are willing to accept a minor-league assignment when the season starts. Because as I mentioned in my last column, if any of the Royals’ corner players get hurt, they’re really down to Elliot Johnson as a replacement. If Nady goes to Omaha and rakes, he would actually be a viable call-up option if, say, Billy Butler goes on the DL and the Royals are desperate for DH at-bats.

This should terrify you, by the way.

David Hovey (@davidmhovey): I am a big Will Smith fan. Based on your past age discussions, would the Royals be wise to give him the #5 spot based on potential for improvement?

No. There is a very important distinction to be made here, which is that while age is an extremely important variable to consider for hitters, it is much less important for pitchers. A 20-year-old position player who is capable of being a league-average player in the major leagues is almost certain to improve significantly over time, and will probably become a star. For pitchers, that’s not the case. Just look at Rick Porcello.

Porcello is actually a good example of what is the most important variable for a pitcher’s longevity, which is his strikeout rate. As a rookie, Porcello had a very solid 3.96 ERA. But he struck out just 89 batters in 171 innings (or, if you prefer, a 12.4% strikeout rate), which is terrible. His strikeout rate has veeeerrrry slowly crept up – it was all the way to 13.7% last year – and he has yet to have a season as good as his first one.

Bill James put it this way many years ago (I’m paraphrasing): if you have to choose between a 37-year-old pitcher striking out 10 batters per nine innings, or a 27-year-old pitcher striking out 7 batters per nine innings, the 37-year-old will probably still be pitching in the majors when the 27-year-old has been forced into retirement. (The 37-year-old he was referring to was Nolan Ryan, so James was right.)

Compare Porcello to Ruben Tejada, who came up the year after and was mostly overmatched as a hitter – Tejada hit .213/.305/.282 as a 20-year-old middle infielder. Tejada wasn’t a dominant hitter in the minor leagues, mostly because he was so young for his level, and never made Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect List (Porcello was #21 twice, the first time before he ever threw a professional pitch). Few people thought Tejada was going to amount to much (my Stratomatic opponents will vouch for the fact that I was one of the few). But as a 21-year-old sophomore, Tejada hit .284/.360/.335; last year he took over for Jose Reyes and hit .289/.333/.351 as the Mets’ starting shortstop. If he doesn’t improve any further, he’s a league-average shortstop, and at 23 he’s probably going to improve further.

All of this is my typically long-winded way of saying: no, Will Smith’s age doesn’t make me think that he’s going to improve significantly. If he starts striking out a batter an inning in Omaha this year, then we’ll talk.

Brent Saindon (@basaindon): Just curious: any plans to resume “The Baseball Show”?

I included this bonus question just because it’s an easy way for me to announce: The Baseball Show With Rany & Joe should make its triumphant return next week. With the unfortunate demise of Up And In: The Baseball Prospectus Podcast with Kevin Goldstein and Jason Parks, and ESPN’s Baseball Today with Eric Karabell, Keith Law, David Schoenfield, et al, we know many hard-core baseball fans are looking for their fix of sophisticated baseball discussion. So if you haven’t listened to what Will Leitch calls “my personal favorite baseball podcast”, I hope you give us a try next week.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

2013 Opening Day Preview, Part 2.

Continuing our breakdown of the Opening Day roster…

#20: Elliot Johnson

I already broke down Johnson’s game here, so I won’t rehash it. While I don’t think Johnson’s performance is going to make or break the season, I think it’s fair to say that how much playing time he gets will be a pretty good gauge of how successful the Royals are this year. I imagine that the plan is that he’ll start once a week at various positions, maybe twice a week on occasion. That’s 30-40 starts, maybe 150 plate appearances. Maybe he gets 20-30 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter, or as a late-inning replacement, but really, he should max out at around 180 plate appearances. (With the Rays in 2011, he got 181.)

If Johnson gets more than that, most likely one of three things happened:

1) Alcides Escobar gets hurt, and the Royals elect not to bring up Christian Colon to fill in;

2) Another starter gets hurt, and the Royals have so little depth to fill in anywhere that Johnson is forced into duty;

3) The winner of the second base job tanked, the loser doesn’t impress anyone in Omaha, and they turn to Johnson out of desperation.

None of these scenarios are appealing. (2) is the most likely by far; if any Gordon or Francoeur or Moustakas or Hosmer or Butler get hurt, Johnson is going to see a lot of at-bats.

Now, that won’t necessarily happen. All five players are in their 20s, they all have a history of durability, and none of them went on the DL last year. But – and this is no knock against Johnson – if you told me right now that he winds up with less than 200 plate appearances this season, I’d feel a lot better about the possibility that the offense takes a big step forward.

Unless, you know, Johnson himself gets hurt, and we’re treated to a heaping dose of Miguel Tejada instead.

#19: Kelvin Herrera

As you know, I am overly fond of comps for young players, and many of these comps make no sense whatsoever in retrospect. But all last winter I said Kelvin Herrera was the new Rafael Betancourt, and – with one important caveat – you could drop Herrera’s rookie stat line into Betancourt’s career and no one could pick it out.

While their end results are the same, they get there in different ways. Both pitchers rely heavily on a fastball that they throw with pinpoint command, which is why they issue very few walks. (They both give out a fair number of intentional walks, but strip those aside, and Herrera walked 15 in 84 innings – 1.60 per nine – and Betancourt has walked 107 in 618 career innings – 1.56 per nine.) They both combine their control with strikeout stuff – Betancourt’s career rate is slightly higher than Herrera’s.

Both also have fairly large platoon splits; for his career, Betancourt has a .205/.230/.336 line against RHP, but .260/.323/.410 line against LHP. As a rookie, Herrera was .235/.268/.311 against RHP, and .275/.351/.392 against LHP. In Betancourt’s case, his susceptibility to left-handers kept him in a set-up role for most of his career, although he finally earned the closer’s role with the Rockies last year, at age 37, and did just fine.

While the results look the same, their repertoires are different. Betancourt’s main secondary pitch is a slider, and he tosses the occasional changeup. Herrera’s main off-speed pitch is his changeup, and he throws the occasional curveball. This is important because slider-centric pitchers tend to have big platoon splits; changeup- and curveball-centric pitchers tend to have small splits, if any split at all. One season is not nearly enough of a sample size to judge Herrera, so despite his relative struggles last year, there’s good reason to think that he will be able to get left-handers out going forward. Particularly since his changeup is nasty.

The one important caveat, and the reason why Herrera has potential above and beyond what Betancourt has accomplished, is that his fastball is qualitatively better than Betancourt’s. It’s much faster, for one; while Betancourt’s heater has registered in the 91-93 range throughout his career, Herrera averaged 97.4 mph on his fastball according to Pitch f/x, higher than any pitcher in baseball other than Aroldis Chapman last year.

And the other difference is that Herrera’s fastball sinks as much as Betancourt’s rises. Betancourt’s groundball percentage for his career is 30%, and was as low as 23% in 2006; both numbers are insanely low. Herrera, by contrast, was at 55.5% last year, which is Trevor Cahill/Tim Hudson sinker territory, only with a pitch coming in at 97 mph.

For his career, Betancourt has surrendered 65 homers in 618 innings; that’s not a bad ratio per se, but it’s the biggest weakness in his game. Herrera, by contrast, gave up only four home runs in 84 innings last year, and that’s not really a fluke. More impressively, he gave up all four home runs by April 21st. In his first 10.1 career innings, Herrera gave up five homers. Since then, he’s working on a streak of 76 innings without allowing one.

Despite his flyball tendencies, Betancourt’s command has made him a consistently effective, if not dominant reliever. He had one transcendent season, in which he was arguably the best reliever in baseball, in 2007 (79 innings, 51 hits, 6 UIBB, 1.47 ERA). He followed that with his only bad season in 2008 (5.07 ERA, thanks to 11 HR in 71 innings). Every other season of his career has been almost indistinguishable.

I think that bodes well for the consistency of Herrera’s skill set, only at a potentially higher level than Betancourt. The only real concern with Herrera is simply health; he missed almost all of 2009 and 2010 before the Royals made him a reliever, and making 76 appearances last season approached, if not crossed, the line of danger last season.

But if he’s healthy, he’s almost certain to be effective. Given the variability inherent to the role, that’s a rare trait for a reliever.

#18: Aaron Crow

Well, I guess Crow is a reliever for good now. If the Royals had known they were using the #12 pick in the draft – and giving a major-league contract to – a reliever, I wonder if they would have still taken him. (In fairness, I wanted Grant Green, who’s turned into the A’s version of Christian Colon, a perfectly useful bench guy who’s going to be stretched as an everyday player. Point, Dayton Moore.)

At least Crow’s a good reliever; he’s basically a slightly worse version of Herrera. Herrera averages 97.4 on the gun; Crow averages 94.7. Herrera’s groundball rate is 55.5%; Crow’s career rate is 52.5%. Herrera has substantially better command, possibly because Crow tries to get hitters to chase his slider, which does lead to more strikeouts.

That slider is the difference between the two. He threw it 39% of the time last year, which is an astonishing number for a breaking ball. As he’s gotten settled in the relief role, he’s become exclusively a two-pitch pitcher – he threw curveballs about 5% of the time, and exactly two changeups all of last year. Unlike Herrera, he’s earned his platoon split honestly – for his career, Crow’s line against RHP is .218/.298/.287, while against LHP it’s .257/.333/.424.

Having two right-handed set-up men with varying repertoires is an asset if Ned Yost knows how to use them. Despite last year’s splits, Crow is the guy to use when predominantly right-handed hitters are due up, while Herrera’s the guy to turn to when it’s mostly left-handers or switch-hitters coming.

If this is Crow’s permanent role now, it would be nice if the Royals take the bubble wrap off of him a bit. He threw just 62 innings as a rookie – he was battling a sore shoulder late in the year – and last year, despite pitching in 73 games, threw just 65 innings. Crow is five inches taller than Herrera, he’s three years older, and he’s trained as a starter – he should be the guy throwing 80-90 innings a season. Particularly with the improvements the Royals made to their rotation, increasing Crow’s workload would help insure that their big four relievers are the only ones who ever need to pitch in meaningful late inning situations.

#17: Luis Mendoza

If he was projected to pitch in any kind of meaningful role, Mendoza would rank a lot higher than this, because let’s be honest: we still don’t know what he is. Is he the journeyman AAAA pitcher who, through 2010, had pitched 84 innings in the majors and allowed 92 runs? Is he the pitcher who, in his last 17 starts of last season, averaged over 6 innings a start and had a 3.82 ERA with a pretty K/BB ratio of 74 to 28? And where does the 2011 Mendoza, who led the PCL in ERA but struck out just 81 batters in 144 innings, fit in the equation?

I don’t know. I do know that Mendoza’s impressive second-half performance coincided with learning a new cutter from Dave Eiland in late June, adding credence to the theory that his improvement was not simply random variation.

(Advanced data doesn’t really help here. Pitch f/x doesn’t even recognize his new pitch as a cutter – it lists it as a two-seam fastball. Mendoza threw his four-seam fastball over 70% of the time every year of his career until last season – last year, he threw it just 28% of the time, his “two-seamer” 40% of the time, and his slider, which he threw less than 10% of the time previously, was thrown 22% of the time. My guess is that his cutter is confusing their algorithms, and is getting classified as a two-seamer sometimes and as a slider other times.)

I also know that Mendoza is still only 29 – he’s six weeks younger than Luke Hochevar – and that he’s not even arbitration-eligible yet, and won’t be a free agent for four years. So I know that the Royals should have a lot of motivation to find out who he is.

But as it stands, right now he’s the team’s seventh starter, and is more than likely to spend the year in long relief. A year ago that made sense, because his OPS rose dramatically after his first time through the lineup – but his difficulty the second and third times through the lineup disappeared around the time he learned the cutter.

If it were me, Mendoza would start the year in the rotation, and get a month or two to prove whether he really can be a cheap league-average innings eater. If he lost the job to Bruce Chen, I’d argue that’s a defensible decision, and I’d credit the Royals for having enough depth that they didn’t need Mendoza in their rotation.

Instead, he’s going to lose his job to Hochevar. If the Royals are right, more power to them. If they’re wrong, they can’t claim that they didn’t have any better options.

#16: Greg Holland

I really don’t think enough has been made about how unlikely Greg Holland’s emergence as a dominant reliever was. Two years ago, he was a short right-hander with okay stuff and command issues, a former 10th-round pick who in five minor-league stops never had an ERA under five. I don’t have my 2011 copy of the Baseball America Prospect Handbook on me, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t even rank among the Royals’ top 30 prospects. He started 2011 in Omaha and didn’t get called up until mid-May.

He then pitched 60 innings, allowed 37 hits, walked 16 batters and struck out 74. He became the second Royal ever – after Robinson Tejada in 2009 – to have twice as many strikeouts as hits allowed.

It was one of the best middle-relief seasons in franchise history, but given his history we wanted to see him do it again. And when he got cuffed around in April, losing two games and allowing 13 hits and 8 runs in 6.1 innings, it looked like 2011 might have just been a wonderful outlier. But it turned out he was pitching through a strained ribcage muscle; he missed three weeks to let it heal, and when he came back was almost the same guy he was the year before.

2011, all season: 60 IP, 37 H, 16 UIBB, 74 K, 3 HR, 1.80 ERA
2012, May 12th-: 61 IP, 45 H, 26 UIBB, 81 K, 2 HR, 2.08 ERA

His command was not quite as sharp, but he still missed tons of bats. (While Holland’s K/9 ratio was a full point higher in 2012 than 2011, he actually struck out a slightly lower percentage of batters overall – 31.5% instead of 31.8%. But because he faced more batters per inning, he had more opportunities for strikeouts. This is one example of why I’m trying to switch over to strikeout percentage instead of strikeouts per inning.)

I didn’t see Holland pitch in the minor leagues, so I don’t know if he’s a fundamentally different pitcher now than then. He threw hard in the minors, but I wasn’t expecting an average fastball of 95.6 mph, which he’s maintained throughout his career. He has used a nasty splitter as an out pitch, although that can’t alone explain his success, as he throws it only about 5% of the time. (I’m approximating – Pitch f/x doesn’t recognize his splitter at all. I’m thinking the Pitch f/x people still need to tighten up their algorithms a little.)

It’s tough to reconcile the pitcher we’ve seen the last two years with the pitcher we were told about in the minor leagues. But the Greg Holland we’ve seen has legitimate closer stuff, and he’s done it two years in a row now, and at this point we can stop worrying about whether it was a fluke. Like Joakim Soria, Holland was an unexpected gift for the Royals’ bullpen.

The difference is that Soria was unexpected because no one had seen him pitch in so long, and it is to the Royals’ credit that they scouted him and thought he could jump straight from A-ball and the Mexican League to the majors. But in Holland’s case, everyone had seen him pitch, and no one was particularly impressed.

But this is where relievers come from. They come from humble beginnings, they come from the Northern League (Jeff Zimmerman) and from underneath (Dan Quisenberry) and they master a new pitch (Bruce Sutter) and they’re 28th-round picks who learn the perfect slider (Sergio Romo). Greg Holland’s transformation is small potatoes compared to, say, Jonny Venters. Relievers are comets that arrive unexpectedly, and disappear just as fast. Which is why, when you’ve got a superfluous one, you need to trade him right away.

The Royals never traded Soria because they never understood that when you’re losing 95 games a year, a great reliever is superfluous even when you don’t have a replacement. And they don’t seem at all eager to turn trade from their current depth of relievers. But they really should. A team that likely can’t find room for Donnie Joseph or Louis Coleman is a team that can afford to trade relievers for help elsewhere.