Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Score Board: 4/4/13.

Nothing like early April to turn a two-game losing streak into widespread panic.

Fortunately, an 0-2 stretch to start the season counts the same as an 0-2 stretch in mid-August. Two games. Nothing to worry about. There might be reason to be concerned if the Royals had been blown out in both games. But they lost the first game 1-0 because Tyler Flowers heard me mock him on The Baseball Show as not fit to wear A.J. Pierzynski’s jock, and because Salvador Perez hit a bullet that just wasn’t quite high enough to clear the fence in left field.

They lost the second game 5-2 because Alex Gordon set up on the fence about three inches to the right on Dayan Viciedo’s home run. If he were just the slightest bit to the left, he makes an epic catch, the game is tied going into the bottom of the 7th, and there’s no way that Ned Yost goes to Luke Hochevar with the score tied in that situation. (Right? Right?)

If you’re looking for one reason why the Royals started 0-2, you can start with this: four times they batted with the bases loaded, and four times they made out, without driving in a run. You can rail about “they can’t hit in the clutch!” all you want, but aside from the fact that there’s miniscule evidence that “hitting in the clutch” is a real skill: it’s four at-bats.

Two games. Two close games. No reason to panic yet. But yeah, I was awfully relieved when they won this afternoon as well.

- The story so far for the Royals is their inability to generate offense. Five runs in three games, and no homers in maybe the best home run park in the American League, is a little concerning.

In their defense: it’s cold out. It was very cold on Monday and Wednesday, a little warmer this afternoon, when the Royals finally put together a three-run rally (sparked by a walk. Who knew?)

Also, the funny thing about the first series of the season is that you’re pretty much supposed to face the opposing team’s top three starters. Chris Sale is one of the best left-handed starters in the game. Jake Peavy won a Cy Young Award once, and last year (when he was an All-Star) was his best season since then. Struggling to score runs against those two guys isn’t a huge indictment of your offense. Today the Royals faced Gavin Floyd, a perfectly reasonable mid-rotation starter, and got to him for three runs.

So yes, of the ten hitters who have started a game for the Royals, one (Alex Gordon) has an OPS of even 600. But let’s wait until the Royals have actually seen a fourth or fifth starter before we get too concerned.

- Speaking of starters, given that I wrote here that Ervin Santana’s success is directly tied to his ability to keep the ball in the park, it’s not exactly the best omen in the world that he gave up three home runs in his first start. Yes, US Cellular Field is a terrible fit for Santana – but the White Sox were dealing with the same weather conditions the Royals were.

In Santana’s defense, he walked one batter and struck out eight, and if you do that every time out you’re going to have a good year no matter how many home runs you surrender. (Not that I want to test the limits of that prediction. If Santana gives up three homers every start, the previous sentence is invalid.) The homers are concerning, but I see no evidence that Santana is going to go full Jonathan Sanchez on us.

The bigger concern is that, according to Jeff Zimmerman’s research over at Royals Review, Santana’s fastball has been losing velocity all spring, and is now 2 mph slower than it was last year. This is, obviously, a concern, particularly since two of the three homers he gave up were on fat, 89 mph fastballs right down the middle.

Early April sample sizes will be the death of all of us. It’s just one start. But it definitely bears watching.

- If you’re going to panic over Santana giving up three home runs in his first start, then you have to be equally excited over the fact that in his first start, Jeremy Guthrie struck out nine of the 24 batters he faced.

After all, if Santana’s weakness is the gopher ball, Guthrie’s weakness is that, despite a pretty good fastball velocity-wise, he has always had a low strikeout rate in a game in which that is increasingly becoming untenable. His career high K% is 17.0%, and he hasn’t hit even 15.0% since 2008. Meanwhile, the league-wide average jumped all the way to 19.8% last season.

So even though it’s just one start, given that strikeout rates stabilize much quicker than other stats, it’s a good sign that Guthrie missed so many bats. It’s just the sixth time in 184 career starts that he’s whiffed nine or more batters. And just once in his career has he struck out a higher percentage of batters in a start, that coming way back in 2007, when he struck out 10 of 25 hapless Nationals hitters.

I’ll take Santana’s homers if it comes with Guthrie’s strikeouts. Santana may yet prove a turkey like Sanchez was – but like Sanchez, he’s only under contract for this season, and if he’s truly terrible the Royals can cut their losses in June and move on. But the Royals sunk a three-year commitment into Guthrie. They gambled $25 million that his perennially low strikeout rate wouldn’t come back to haunt them. They have to breathing a little bit easier after his performance today. I know I am.

- The importance of a good bullpen is generally overstated, but when you have a bullpen like the Royals do, you can understand why. It took the Royals 24 innings to get their first lead of the season, but when Guthrie turned over a two-run lead with nine outs to go, the relievers did their job. Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera, and Greg Holland may all be among the top 50 relievers in the game (along with Tim Collins, although we haven’t seen him yet and he struggled some in spring training).

It’s not exactly news that the Royals have a very good bullpen, or at least a very good top half, which is what matters most. Last year those four guys combined for a 2.99 ERA, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they improved on that mark this season.

But the real difference this season isn’t that the Royals have the bullpen to shut opponents down when they have the lead after six innings – it’s that they have a rotation full of starting pitchers who are capable of throwing six innings. In each of their first three games of the year, they got six innings from their starter – and keep in mind that managers sensibly don’t want to stretch out their starters too much at this point in the season, particularly in cold weather.

Six innings from your starter each night may not sound like much, until you remember the disaster that was last season. Last year, the Royals didn’t get three consecutive starts of six innings or more until June 17 through 19. They didn’t complete their first four-game streak until August. This is the Royals’ whole strategy this year: get six innings from your starter that don’t suck, and then let your relievers take over. It’s not a bad strategy, so long as your starters don’t suck, and your bullpen takes over.

Oh, and that your offense scores more than five runs in a series. But remember, it’s early.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

2013 Opening Day Preview: The Final Result.


On my last appearance of last season with 810 WHB’s Soren Petro, he asked me to predict what the Royals’ record would be this year. With obviously no idea what the Royals would do over the winter to improve their team, I said they’d win 86 games.

Nothing that has happened over the winter has given me reason to change that projection.

On the one hand, you could say that’s an indictment of the Royals’ decision to trade for James Shields and Wade Davis. I thought that they could get to 86 wins by adding pitching through free agency, and I don’t think that sacrificing Wil Myers et al made the team substantially better than it would have been had they simply signed Edwin Jackson and kept the status quo.

But the other, more optimistic view – and Opening Day was yesterday, so let’s be optimistic – is that an 86-76 record would make this the winningest season for the Royals since 1989. That would be an impressive accomplishment and a testament to a front office that, while making questionable moves at the major-league level, has been one of the game’s best when it comes to player development.

For those of you who think that my goal in life is to be critical of the Royals at every turn, it might surprise you that I’m more optimistic than most about the Royals’ record. Vegas has the Royals at around 78 wins this year; most projection systems have them in the 79-82 win range. Very few analysts project the Royals to win 86 or more. The obvious conclusion is that I’m still a blind optimist at heart.

But I think 86 wins is a very defensible position, because it relies on two simple precepts:

1) The Royals won 72 games last season.
2) The Royals are likely to be improved at many positions this season. They are likely to be worse at very few positions this season.

Let’s start with the first one. The Royals went 72-90 last season. They were outscored by 70 runs, so their true “Pythagorean” record was 74-88. In 2011, they went 71-91, but were only outscored by 32 runs, for a Pythagorean record of 78-84. I think it’s fair to say that the true talent level of the Royals was at least 72 wins last year, and probably closer to 75.

So they need to improve somewhere between 10 and 14 wins this year. That’s a substantial improvement, but hardly unprecedented; a half-dozen teams do that every season.

Now let’s go around the diamond and compare what the Royals got this year to what they’re likely to get next year.

Catcher: .266/.293/.400, 0/2 SB/CS, +15 Defensive Runs Saved

(Note: the defensive numbers I’ll use are the ones from Baseball Info Solutions, which are the ones I trust the most. But still: they’re defensive numbers, so they’re not anywhere near as accurate as offensive ones.)

Salvador Perez may not hit .301/.328/.471, but as long as he stays healthy, he doesn’t have to in order to improve on last year. Brayan Pena and Humberto Quintero didn’t hit at all, and combined for 350 at-bats. With Perez poised to grab most of those, and with George Kottaras wisely having been chosen to take the rest, the overall production from behind the plate should go up. Perez is 22 years old.

That’s an impressive defensive number to match, but most of that was from Perez to begin with. He threw out 42% of attempted basestealers last year.

First Base: .237/.312/.376, 17/1 SB/CS, -8 DRS

Hard to imagine the Royals could do worse here, and easy to imagine they could do MUCH better. Eric Hosmer is 23 years old.

Hosmer’s defensive numbers last year were better than they were in his rookie season, but they still don’t match his reputation. Again, it’s unlikely they’ll be worse defensively, and it’s possible they’ll be significantly improved. They’re not likely to match those stolen base numbers, but that’s a trivial concern.

Second Base: .256/.289/.359, 11/4 SB/CS, -15 DRS

In the three years (2009, 2010, and 2012) that Yuniesky Betancourt suited up for the Royals, they finished 29th, 30th, and 28th in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. This is not a coincidence. Yuni’s defensive atrociousness was enough to throw the entire team out of whack. Last year he cost them 10 runs in barely a quarter-season at second base. He’s gone now.

The Royals might not be much better at second base offensively, but they almost certainly won’t be worse. I expect that OBP to be higher and the slugging to be about the same, depending on how the playing time is distributed between Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella.

Third Base: .243/.297/.404, 5/3 SB/CS, +14 DRS

I don’t expect Mike Moustakas to be quite that stellar defensively, but I think he’s going to be substantially better on offense. Moustakas is 24 years old.

Shortstop: .293/.330/.400, 35/5 SB/CS, -5 DRS

This is the one position where I would project the offense to decline, albeit modestly. Knock 20 points off all of those splits. On the other hand, I would expect a a modest bounceback in Alcides Escobar’s defensive performance. (It’s worth noting that Escobar was just two runs below average; the combination of Yuni, Tony Abreu, and Irving Falu cost the Royals three runs in just seven games.) Also, Alcides Escobar is 26 years old.

Left Field: .295/.370/.455, 11/5 SB/CS, +25 DRS

Remind me again, why wasn’t Alex Gordon the Royals’ Player of the Year? I think it’s reasonable to project Gordon to play about as well as he did last year. I wouldn’t be surprised if he starting turning on the inside pitch more and added another ten home runs to his ledger this year. He’s probably not going to be 25 runs above average on defense again - although he already saved a run yesterday with a brilliant backstab of a ball headed to the fence, holding a runner at third base - but overall I don’t expect a decline.

Center Field: .255/.314/.357, 31/7 SB/CS, -1 DRS

A healthy Lorenzo Cain may not reach those steal totals, but he should out-hit that split line handily.

Defensively, Royals centerfielders were below average, but that’s very deceptive. Cain and Dyson were a combined 11 runs above average, but everyone else (Jason Bourgeois, Mitch Maier, David Lough, and even two games of Jeff Francoeur) were so bad that they brought the team total down under sea level. This brings up an obvious point: injuries can play havoc with these projections.

Right Field: .241/.290/.377, 8/7 SB/CS, -12 DRS

Again: it’s hard to see how the Royals could be worse. Francoeur could be worse, but I don’t see the Royals letting him be worse for 600 plate appearances again.

Designated Hitter: .302/.360/.475, 8/1 SB/CS

Billy Butler did some of his best work on the days when he played first base (.288/.376/.534 in 20 games there), so the overall numbers at DH short-change his performance a bit. I think he can certainly match that split line above, even if he doesn’t hit 29 home runs again. And as hard as it is to believe, Butler is - at least for two more weeks - still 26 years old.

So on offense, that’s one position (shortstop) where the Royals are likely to see a decline, two (LF and DH) where they will probably stand pat, and six positions where they are likely to see improvement.

Now the rotation. Since there aren’t any set positions, I’ve taken the liberties of combining pitchers to fill specific “slots”.

#1 Starter (Bruce Chen): 34 GS, 192 IP, 5.07 ERA

I think James Shields can improve on this.

#2 Starter (Luke Hochevar): 32 GS, 185 IP, 5.73 ERA

I think Ervin Santana can improve on this. I’m not 100% certain, honestly; his 5.16 ERA last year in Anaheim would translate to close to a 5.73 ERA in a neutral park. (Santana’s ERA+ of 73 was just barely higher than Hochevar’s 71.) But that’s almost the worst-case scenario with Santana, and unlike Hochevar, if he pitches that poorly, he won’t keep his job all year.

Jeremy Guthrie’s slot (Guthrie, Sanchez, Mazzaro): 32 GS, 171 IP, 5.11 ERA

(I included Mazzaro here just to make the number of starts in each “slot” even.)

I don’t expect Guthrie to come anywhere close to the 3.16 ERA he posted with Kansas City last year. But he doesn’t have to in order to improve upon this slot overall, because Jonathan Sanchez was so bad in his 12 starts that the combined production from this spot in the rotation was pretty terrible. If Guthrie can’t improve on a 5.11 ERA this year, we’re in deep trouble.

Luis Mendoza’s slot (Mendoza, Teaford, Adcock): 32 GS, 178 IP, 4.55 ERA

This seems like a reasonable approximation of what Mendoza might do over a full season. He might be better than this if he carries over the success that he had with his new cutter last year, but let’s call this a wash.

Others (Paulino, Duffy, Verdugo, Odorizzi, Smith): 32 GS, 164 IP, 4.50 ERA

This is Wade Davis’ slot. Like Mendoza, I think this is roughly what we can expect from him.

So of the five spots in the rotation, the Royals will probably be about the same in two spots, and significantly better in three of them. Notice also the innings totals: Chen led the staff with 192 innings, and the Royals didn’t average even six innings a start from any of the spots in their rotation. Shields has thrown 200+ innings six years in a row (and 215+ innings in five of those six years). Santana missed a couple of starts last year and threw only 178 innings, but had thrown 219+ innings in three of the previous four years. Guthrie threw 182 innings last year thanks to his nightmare in Colorado, but 200+ innings each of the three years before that.

And that leaves the bullpen, which is the one area where the Royals can reasonably expect regression. The Royals got 561 innings of relief with a 3.17 ERA, which is fantastic. Let’s break that down into the four guys who are returning, and everyone else:

Fantastic Four (Holland, Herrera, Collins, Crow): 285.2 IP, 2.99 ERA
Everyone Else: 275.2 IP, 3.36 ERA

Health permitting, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the four returning guys will come close to last year’s overall performance. In today’s offensive context, and with the way that relievers are developed and deployed, an ERA under 3 just isn’t that hard anymore. Of the 167 pitchers last season who relieved in 40 or more games, 70 of them (42%) had an ERA under 3.

The challenge for the Royals will be getting a 3.36 ERA from Hochevar, Chen, JC Gutierrez, and whoever comes up during the season. The Royals definitely got lucky with the performances of some of their lesser relievers last year. Nate Adcock had a 1.32 ERA in 27 innings; Francisley Bueno had a 1.56 ERA in 17 innings. Jonathan Broxton pitched well, as did Jose Mijares. Louis Coleman, who really has no business being back in Triple-A, had a 3.71 ERA.

But while the Royals are unlikely to get an ERA this low from their middle relief corps, they are also unlikely to require nearly as many innings. The Royals got 890 innings from their starters last year, and it’s reasonable to think they’ll get another 80 or so innings from their improved rotation this year.

If you assume those innings won’t be taken away from Holland, Crow, Collins, and Herrera, that means fewer innings from the less effective pitchers in their pen. Even if the middle relievers aren’t as effective on a per-inning basis, the fact that they will be relied on less will mitigate the regression.

In sum, I don’t think the bullpen will be as effective as it was last year. But I think the decline there will be dwarfed by the improvement in the rotation and in the lineup.

Obviously, this is a rosy, best-case scenario analysis that includes one fatal assumption: that no one will get hurt. But even building in a fudge factor to account for that, I just think there are simply too many areas where the Royals can improve, and so few areas where they will decline, to project anything less than a 10-to-15 win improvement. Hence, 86 wins.

And if injuries do strike, at least on the pitching side, they’re better equipped to deal with it than they have been in years. They have two starters – admittedly marginal starters – in the bullpen already, and if an injury strikes in July or later, it may merely open an opportunity for Danny Duffy or Felipe Paulino. The bullpen doesn’t have room for Coleman or Donnie Joseph at the moment. An injury to Shields would be crippling; an injury to anyone else on the staff wouldn’t.

Offensively, the danger is that the Royals are protected at only three positions: center field, where Jarrod Dyson would be an adequate replacement for Cain, and right field and second base, where the incumbent isn’t clearly better than the alternatives in the first place. But everywhere else, the Royals are vulnerable. The dropoff from Perez to Kottaras wouldn’t be terrible offensively, but defensively would be significant. And if any of Gordon, Escobar, Moustakas, Hosmer, or Butler get hurt, the next guy on the totem pole is Elliot Johnson.

To protect against an injury at those five spots, the Royals have two weapons: age and history. Age, in that young players don’t get hurt as often as old hitters, and those five hitters collectively average under 26 years old. History, in that none of those five players has been on the DL in either of the last two years. They all played at least 149 games last year (Moustakas brought up the rear because he was sat against tough lefties). Butler has missed 11 games in the last four years combined.

So, there you go. 86 wins. Call me a bleeding-heart optimist if you will.

That leaves one last question: if the Royals win 86 games – but miss the playoffs, as I expect they will – does that justify the Shields trade? To me, the answer is obvious, but a lot of people share the opposite opinion. To a fan base starved of winning, for a team that has one winning season in the last 18 years, a team that hasn’t won 85 games since the 1980s, apparently it’s worth cashing in the farm system for respectability alone. And maybe the Royals share that sentiment. If the Royals win 86 games, a lot of people will declare the trade a success, I will claim that it’s a failure (at least pending 2014), and there may simply be no middle ground to compromise on. We may have to simply agree to disagree.

Last year I ran this list of the accomplishments the Royals needed to check off their list of goals. They only managed #3 on this list:

1) Win 76 games, the most by any Royals team since 2003.
2) Win 78 games, the second-most by any Royals team since 1993.
3) Finish in third place, the highest rank by any Royals team since 2003. (DONE!)
4) Reach .500 for the first time since 2003 and the second time since 2004.
5) Outscore their opponents for the first time since 1994.
6) Finish in second place, the highest rank by any Royals team since 1995.
7) Win 84 games, the most by any Royals team since 1993.
8) Win 85 games, the most by any Royals team since 1989.
9) Win the division or qualify for the playoffs, for the first time since 1985.
10) Win 92 games, the most by any Royals team since 1980.

For a lot of people, crossing off the first seven or eight items off this list would be enough to justify everything the Royals did this off-season. But for me, #9 is all that matters.

That’s the danger with being an optimist. When you expect good things to happen, you expect good things to happen.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

2013 Opening Day Preview, Part 5.

If you missed the news, I wrote an article for the Kansas City Star that was included as part of the newspaper’s annual Sunday-before-Opening-Day blowout today. I’m very excited about the opportunity, and it’s possible I may contribute additional articles to the Star’s baseball coverage in the future. It’s not exactly a secret that the newspaper industry is dealing with unprecedented and literally existential challenges at the moment. I’m honored that the Star saw value in my writing anyway, and I give the newspaper tremendous credit for being creative with their sports coverage.

A nation without a vibrant and fearless media is a frightening thought, and I hope that the industry can weather the challenges that it faces. In the meantime, if you’re in their delivery area and can subscribe, or if (like me) you’re willing to pay for their online service, you’ll be doing your part to support quality journalism. Plus, you’ll be getting the best Royals coverage around. I couldn’t do what I do without it.

#5: Wade Davis

Davis ranks just 5th because this list only accounts for the 2013 season. If we were looking at players whose 2013 performance is most crucial for the Royals long-term, he’d rank as high as 2nd. Shields is the name in the trade, but Davis has a chance to be the prize.

I don’t have much left to say about Davis. He’s proven he can be an outstanding reliever; he hasn’t proven he can be more than a #5 starter. But if he’s even a league-average starting pitcher, he’ll have more value than all but the very best relievers, and that’s in the abstract: to a team like the Royals, even 180 innings of slightly-below average pitching would be more valuable than a reprise of his 2012.

In a spring training filled with positivity – that’s what happens when you go 25-7-2 – it’s worth mentioning that Davis, while nominally pitching well, walked 7 batters and struck out 6. Granted, it’s 14 innings. Far more concerning is his brief bout of shoulder trouble this spring. It probably wasn’t serious – he only missed one start, and teams are always going to be more cautious in spring training. But it’s a good reminder that transitioning a pitcher from the bullpen to the rotation isn’t risk-free.

It isn’t risk-free, but it’s still the right move to make. Davis makes $2.8 million this year, and $4.8 million next year – and then three options of $7 million, $8 million, and $10 million. As a reliever, he’s really only worth keeping for the first two seasons – there are only a handful of relievers worth paying $7 million a year for, and as we saw with Joakim Soria, sometimes even those relievers aren’t worth the risk.

But as a starter, even a league-average one, he would be a significantly under-priced asset for the length of his contract. There’s only one way to find out. The Royals have enough #5 starter options that it wouldn’t be the end of world if Davis doesn’t pan out in the rotation; they could have him swap places with Bruce Chen in June if need be. In the end, two months in the rotation is worth gambling for a potential five years of return.

#4: Jeff Francoeur

Well, he’s operating without a safety net now. Last year, if the Royals wanted to make a change – and if he hadn’t been in the first year of a two-year deal, they probably would have – they could have brought up Wil Myers. But now, if the Royals decide to bench Francoeur, their best in-house options are to either play Jarrod Dyson and move Lorenzo Cain to right field, or David Lough. Neither is all that palatable.

But neither would be as disastrous as getting the same kind of performance from right field as the Royals got last year, when Francoeur was literally the worst player in the major leagues. He had the lowest bWAR (-2.3 wins) in the majors.

There’s this perception around the game that right field is Francoeur’s job this year come hell or high water, that Dayton Moore loves Frenchy so much that he’s willing to overlook all his weaknesses. I think that’s a somewhat na├»ve and even cynical view of the situation. (Yes, I know – me calling out cynicism. Pot, meet kettle.) The Royals are quite aware that Francoeur was a terrible, rotten, no-good hitter last year. (I’m not sure they realize just how bad he was defensively, though.) Even by basic Triple Crown stats, he was a disaster. A .235 average? 16 homers? 49 RBIs from a full-time outfielder?

They played him last year because they had two years invested in him, and they weren’t going anywhere, and they needed to see if he could turn it around. But this year, if he’s approximating last year’s performance he’ll probably be demoted to a platoon role at best by Flag Day. I don’t know whether it will be Dyson, or Lough, or an outside mercenary that shares the job with him – but I’m fairly confident that Francoeur won’t be allowed to suck all year long.

There’s reason to think the Royals are already worried about his ability to bounce back. I’m not referring to the fact that he hit just .266 in spring training (remember, the Cactus League is very friendly for hitters), while literally everyone else in the starting lineup hit .310 or better. I’m referring to the fact that the Royals are making noises about using Eric Hosmer in right field during interleague play as a way to keep both Hosmer and Billy Butler in the lineup. At the end of last year, the Royals had made it clear that they considered that experiment a failure, that Hosmer’s defense in right field was so bad that it wasn’t worth trying to keep both bats on the field. That they’re backtracking now is telling. So, too, is the fact that Francoeur is batting 8th in the Opening Day lineup – he’s never batted that low in the lineup since he joined the Royals.

I originally had Francoeur 2nd on this list, because the range of his performance is so great. But in the end I moved him down a little, because there’s a limit to how much he can hurt the Royals before they’ll pull the plug on him. But if he can prove that 2011 wasn’t a fluke, and that 2012…and 2010…and 2009…and 2008 were all flukes, he’ll save the Royals the trouble of finding a replacement for him mid-season. Better still, he might get me to shut up about the loss of Wil Myers all season long.

#3: Salvador Perez

If you’re not aware of the Crown Vision-sized man-crush I have on Salvador Perez, you must be new here. Two years after the Royals had The Best Farm System Ever, the attrition of their nine Top 100 prospects has been humbling…but it’s also been mitigated by the fact that their 18th-best prospect, a 20-year-old catcher who had just hit .290 with seven homers in A-ball, might turn out to be the best of the lot.

It’s that very same fact, though, that makes us just a teeny bit nervous about his future. Perez has played at a superstar level in the major leagues – he’s amassed 4.4 bWAR* in 115 career games – but that’s just it: he’s played in 115 career games. Granted, he’s been awfully busy in those 115 games: he’s hit .301, swatted 14 homers, set the franchise record with eight pickoffs, and set the franchise record for the longest hitting streak (16 games) by a catcher. But still: 115 games.

*: You may notice that Perez’s bWAR is slightly higher than his bWAR that I quoted in my very last article. That is because in the last few days, Sean Forman of got together with the bigwigs at Fangraphs, who have their own version of Wins Above Replacement. While they haven’t agreed on a single formula, they did agree on a single, unified definition of “replacement level”. The new replacement level is lower than what baseball-reference used to use (but higher than Fangraphs’ level), which means that bWARs across the board have gone up by a fractional amount. I apologize for this tangent into nerdery. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

It’s not just that the sample size is so small, but that the performance level Perez has set is, frankly, insane. According to Baseball-Reference, Perez has been the 14th-most valuable catcher in modern baseball history through age 22 – sandwiched right between Brian McCann and Joe Mauer – and he’s played substantially fewer games than the 13 guys ahead of him. Those 13 guys include Johnny Bench, Joe Torre, Ray Schalk, Ivan Rodriguez, Ted Simmons, Darrell Porter, Bill Freehan, Tim McCarver, Gary Carter, and McCann. The next three guys are Mauer, Benito Santiago, and Bill Dickey. This is incredibly lofty territory.

Frankly, Perez might belong there. But another full season at that level would resolve any remaining doubts.

There’s also the matter of the “full” season, given that Perez missed half of last year with a torn meniscus in his knee. It is the only significant injury he has suffered as a pro, and he returned sooner than expected, so he’s certainly not injury-prone. You still have to worry about knee injuries in a young catcher.

So Perez still has something to prove this season. He has to prove he can play 140 games in a season (but no more than that, please Ned, I’m begging you). He has to prove he’s really a .300 hitter, something that’s hard to sustain when you’re a slow right-handed hitter who isn’t legging out a lot of infield singles. He has to prove that his small sample size of performance in the majors means more than parts of five seasons in the minors – when, granted, he was very young for his leagues.

If he proves all that, well, he just might be awesome. And he just might be signed to the best contract in all of baseball.

#2: Ervin Santana

For better or for worse, Santana is likely to play for the Royals for only one season. He’s a hired gun, and the fate of the Royals’ season may well depend on him. The Royals would probably settle for a perfectly mediocre campaign from Santana, but his history suggests mediocrity is not on the menu. Here are his ERAs the last six years: 5.76, 3.49, 5.03, 3.92, 3.38, 5.16. Three times he had an ERA under four – three times he had an ERA over five.

The reason for his variability is pretty simple. Here are his walk rates the last four years: 7.0%, 7.5%, 7.2%, 7.7%. Can you pick out which two were good seasons and which were bad?

Here are his strikeout rates: 17.4%, 17.7%, 18.8%, 17.4%. A little more of a clue, maybe.

Here are his home run rates: 3.9%, 2.8%, 2.7%, 5.1%. Yeah.

That’s pretty much the story with Santana: when he keeps the ball reasonably in the park, he’s effective. When he doesn’t, he gets hammered. The strange thing is that while his home run rate fluctuates, his flyball rate – which is the main determinant of those home runs – has been pretty stable. Santana has actually become a little more groundball-friendly the last two years; from 2005 to 2010 his flyball rate ranged from 41.5% to 45.7%, but the last two years have come in at 37.9% and 37.3%. Other things equal, that’s a good thing. But other things haven’t been equal; last year he gave up home runs on 19% of his flyballs, compared to 10% the year before.

The evidence shows that pitchers have little if any ability to control the rate at which flyballs leave the park. There’s no obvious reason why Santana should be this erratic. But he is. He’s erratic even within a season; last year he had an ERA of 6.00 through July 21, but then had a 3.76 ERA in his final 11 starts. He was still homer-prone during his hot streak – he gave up 16 homers in 67 innings – but was successful because he allowed a .186 BABIP, which I’m quite certain has never been sustained by a starting pitcher over a full season in the history of baseball.

So I don’t know what to expect from him this season. Kauffman Stadium is certainly a good fit for his gopher ball tendencies, but then Angel Stadium is (with the rebuilds in Seattle and San Diego) possibly the toughest home run park in baseball, and that didn’t keep Santana from leading the league in homers allowed last season.

Since I mentioned that Davis, despite a good ERA, had a poor strikeout-to-walk ratio this spring, I’ll make up for it by noting that Santana, despite a 4.70 ERA, struck out 21 batters and walked only four. His velocity seems to be good. He’s 30 years old, and in a walk year, and he just might live up to the #2 starter expectations that have been placed on him (even though, as I wrote at the time, I would have preferred Dan Haren.) But all we know for sure is that it’s likely to be a roller coaster ride with Santana. Whether it leaves us feeling exhilarated or nauseous remains to be seen.

#1: Eric Hosmer

How bad was Hosmer last year? At the plate, he was basically indistinguishable from Jeff Francoeur. He hit .232/.304/.359; Francoeur hit .235/.287/.378. Hosmer had an 82 OPS+; Francoeur was at 81. Hosmer was 14 runs below average with the bat; Francoeur was 18 runs below.

Hosmer put a comfortable distance with Francoeur in overall value, partly because he was fantastic on the bases (Hosmer was 16-for-17 in steals) and because Francoeur was also a defensive nightmare, with his cannon arm covering for the fact that he moved in right field like he had borrowed Jose Guillen’s Hoveround.

But still…Hosmer was Francoeur-level bad at the plate last season. That was unexpected.

I generally try not to dwell on psychological factors in my baseball analysis, partly because it’s very difficult to analyze something we can not see, and mostly because I think psychological factors like “grit” and “chemistry” and “intangibles” are vastly overrated. (See, for instance, this.) But if I’ve ever seen a case of a ballplayer whose season was destroyed by his mental approach, it was Eric Hosmer last season.

Hosmer, remember, actually hit the ball very well for the first six weeks of last season. He hit two homers in the Royals’ first three games – both in Anaheim – and continued to hit line drives all over the park. Through May 20th, Hosmer had walked 13 times in 151 at-bats, and struck out just 19 times – both rates a significant improvement on his rookie season.

Just one problem – he was hitting just .172.

People like to say that scouts and stats are at war with each other, but the reality is that most of the time they agree. And they were this time. The scouting eye – or even the fan’s eye – could tell you that Hosmer was hitting into some of the toughest luck you’ll ever see, line drives straight into an outstretched glove, a groundball up the middle that was eaten up by the shift, a home run that Mike Trout leapt over a 20-foot wall to corral. (Note: one of these things may not have happened.) The stats would tell you that through May 20th, Hosmer’s BABIP was .165. His luck was comically bad.

And from that point on, Hosmer was a mess at the plate. There was a hitch in his swing he couldn’t fix; he kept turning over the ball and grounding out to second base; his power stroke died. From May 21st onward, Hosmer’s BABIP luck returned to normal, pretty much, at .293. But he hit just .255/.329/.378. I don’t know about you, but when last season started, I didn’t think Hosmer was going to be the second coming of Doug Mientkiewicz.

And now everyone is spooked. People were freaking out about Hosmer’s performance in the World Baseball Classic, as if 25 at-bats could tell us anything, particularly when he went from leisurely batting against minor leaguers in early March to suddenly and unexpectedly facing the best pitchers Latin America had to offer, with the pride of their homelands at stake. In spring training, Hosmer has hit .385/.439/.596. That doesn’t mean much – he was even better last season – but if we’re going to take 25 at-bats seriously, we should take his other 52 at-bats of 2013 seriously as well.

I think it’s almost impossible for Hosmer to be worse than he was last year, and I think his ceiling is virtually unchanged. He has the talent to be a .300/.400/.500 hitter in the major leagues. Prior to 2012, he had the statistical track record that pointed in that direction as well. One awful year doesn’t change his ceiling, particularly when it wasn’t accompanied by a significant physical change. He didn’t suffer a ghastly injury, or suddenly gain 50 pounds. His swing might have been off, but his bat speed was about the same.

While his ceiling hasn’t changed, his beta level sure has. He could hit .232 or he could hit .332 this season – everything is in play. I’m not making any predictions, but I will just say: Hosmer is just 23 years old. When he was 21, he hit .293/.334/.465, and while his performance at that age wasn’t that unusual for a first baseman – this isn’t Salvador Perez’s comp list we’re talking about – it’s still pretty unusual.

Hosmer’s OPS+ was 118 in 2011. Since 1900, he is the 36th player with an OPS+ between 111 and 125 while qualifying for the batting title at the age of 21. In the last 35 years, 12 other players have done so. They are, in reverse chronological order:

Freddie Freeman (2011)
Starlin Castro (2011)
Ryan Zimmerman (2006)
Adrian Beltre (2000)
Andruw Jones (1998)
Alex Rodriguez (1997)
Juan Gonzalez (1991)
Gary Sheffield (1990)
Delino DeShields (1990)
Jose Canseco (1986)
Cal Ripken (1982)
Eddie Murray (1977)

The jury’s still out on Freeman and Castro, although both played very well in 2012. But every other guy on that list, even the goof-offs who coasted on their talent, had an outstanding career. The worst guy on the list is probably DeShields, who like Hosmer slumped as a sophomore. I wouldn’t read too much into the comparison – DeShields was an extremely different kind of player, all speed and little power, but even he bounced back with two excellent seasons – and then got traded straight-up for Pedro Martinez.

But the point is: even after a sophomore slump for the ages, Hosmer is part of a group that is almost always destined for great things. Last year complicates that destiny, but it certainly does not destroy it.

Which is good, because if Hosmer hits .232 again, the Royals are toast. They know this. You know this. The Royals can’t think about the playoffs unless Hosmer plays this year like 2012 never happened. And that very well might happen – last season seems like a bad dream anyway. But we don’t know. No one does. Which is why Eric Hosmer is the most important player for one of the most important seasons in Royals history.

No pressure, kid.