Friday, April 12, 2013

Five For Friday: 4/12/13.

Working on a column, but I owe you a morsel to tide you over until then, and it’s been a few Fridays since a Five For Friday, so here you go.

Matt B (@_MathewB): What are your thoughts on Santana’s velocity? It looked to be better in his second start. Kauffman inflation?

Certainly there are a few extenuating factors to Santana’s velocity on Monday. The Kauffman Stadium gun has historically been juiced relative to the gun in other parks; a fastball at Kauffman will register as much as 1.1 mph faster than the same pitch at another stadium. It was the home opener, and maybe Santana was a little fired up.

But if you look at this chart, and see the gap between his first and second start, you can’t help but feel optimistic. Santana averaged barely 90 mph on his fastball in Chicago, but averaged over 93 mph on Monday in Kansas City. He had better velocity in his last start than he did in all but one start last season. This continues to bear monitoring, naturally, but I’m feeling a lot better about Santana’s skill level right now than I did this time last week.

Jeff Russell (@rock_hawk): I put on my Greinke jersey for the first time since he left today. Your take on the brawl?

I haven’t worn my Greinke jersey in years, and that sounds like an excellent way to actually get some use out of it – take a stand against Carlos Quentin’s churlishness by saying We Are All Zack Greinke today.

My take is this: Carlos Quentin has taken advantage of the rule which awards a batter first base when a pitched baseball touches a part of his body more than all but a few players in major league history. (The last player I can think of who more brazenly used the HBP as a weapon was Ron Hunt 40 years ago. Take a look at his page.)

Quentin led the NL in hit-by-pitches with 17 last year. He led the AL in hit-by-pitches with 23 the year before that. He averages 26 HBPs per 162 games in his career. He holds the all-time minor league record for HBPs in a season with 43 back in 2004. (Granted, HBP stats were not always kept in the minors, so it’s possible that someone got plunked more once upon a time.)

There is no one in the major leagues today who has less standing to protest being hit by a baseball than Quentin. It takes some level of chutzpah for him to charge the mound after getting hit under any circumstances, let alone a full-count pitch to lead off an inning with his team down by one run, let alone against Zack Greinke, whose jersey I own, and who may or may not be on my Stratomatic team.

I know the precedent for charging the mound is a suspension of no more than 10 games, but I’m hoping Bud Selig throws the book at him. A 15-game suspension seems reasonable to me.

Jake Lebahn (@JakeLebahn): Most underrated Royal right now during this 6-3 stretch?

I’m going to say Ned Yost. Yost doesn’t have the greatest reputation as a tactical manager, and a nine-game stretch doesn’t prove he’s improved as a tactician any more than Jose Iglesias going 9-for-20 to start the year proves he’s a better hitter for the Red Sox. But he’s pushed all the right buttons so far.

I love his bullpen management so far, and the way rosters are set up today (with 7 or 8 relievers and just 3 or 4 bench guys), bullpen management is at least half the job between first pitch and last. He’s using Tim Collins as a multiple-inning reliever, letting Collins go two innings twice, and in his other outing Collins came in mid-inning and then went out for another clean inning. He’s handled Greg Holland’s struggles as well as could be expected. After Holland blew the save on Saturday and got into trouble Sunday, Yost made what could be one of the season’s signature moves, pulling him for Kelvin Herrera to nail down the win.

There has been no better sign this season that the Royals are playing to win in 2013. This isn’t 2011, where Yost wanted Alcides Escobar to learn how to face tough pitching in the ninth inning even if it cost the Royals games in the standings. Yost wasn’t prepared to let Holland work through his troubles at the expense of losing a game that the Royals led by five going into the ninth. Nor should he have.

Yost has handled the fallout of that decision as well as possible. He publicly stuck with Holland as his closer after the game. With Holland and Herrera having both pitched Saturday and Sunday, Yost called on Aaron Crow to pitch the ninth on Monday – a move I called for on Twitter – and it worked well. Holland closed Tuesday and nearly blew the save, but in his defense was pitching in the middle of a monsoon. He threw enough pitches that Yost could say he was just giving him a rest when he turned to Herrera Wednesday night.

The Royals finished off a three-game sweep in which three different relievers both earned a save. That’s not quite as rare as I thought – ESPN’s Jayson Stark did the research and found that the Braves had a similar sweep last May against the Rockies. But in the Braves’ case, two of the saves were of the long reliever variety – Christhian Martinez threw 2.2 innings in a 7-2 win, and Livan Hernandez pitched 1.2 innings to close out a 13-9 game. What the Royals did – three different relievers came into the game to start the ninth in a save situation – strikes me as exceedingly rare, if not unprecedented.

That’s a reflection of the depth of the pen, but it’s also a testament to Yost not getting too wrapped up in the myth of the closer as some sort of special reliever. When Crow came in on Monday night, he had two saves in his career. When Herrera came in to rescue Holland on Sunday, he had three saves in his career. They both closed out the game with a win, because they’re both excellent relievers, and almost without exception, excellent relievers can close.

There’s the hit-and-run Yost called for last Thursday in Chicago, which Jeff Francoeur executed perfectly for a single that put men on first-and-third and set up a three-run inning that won the game.

There’s the way that Yost aggressively used pinch-hitters last Friday in Philadelphia after the Royals fell behind 4-0. He pinch-hit for Wade Davis, who had only thrown four innings, in the top of the fifth, and Miguel Tejada responded with a single; the Royals would score two runs in the inning. Bruce Chen came in ostensibly to pitch long relief, but when Chen’s spot came to bat in the top of the sixth, with men on second and third, Yost didn’t hesitate to turn to Billy Butler. The Phillies intentionally walked Butler, because apparently any time you have the chance to pitch to Alex Gordon with the bases loaded you should do so. Gordon cleared the bases with a triple, the Royals led 5-4, and they’d cruise from there.

(Speaking of dumb intentional walks – Yost hasn’t issued a single one in nine games. While there is a time and a place for them, generally speaking they are vastly overused by managers who underestimate the risks involved in issuing one.)

And then Wednesday, after Davis had worked in and out of trouble for five scoreless innings, Yost turned to Chen again. Chen threw a scoreless sixth and seventh, and after the Royals added two insurance runs in the bottom of the seventh to runt heir lead to 3-0, Yost stuck with Chen for another inning. And why not? While there are benefits to having relievers throw max-effort for one inning at a time, the downside is that managers will pull a reliever even when he’s pitching well. Chen was pitching well, and has the stamina to go multiple innings, so why not stick with him until he gets into trouble? He gave up a triple with one out on a ball that Lorenzo Cain almost hauled in, but then went back-to-back strikeouts to get out of the inning.

I can’t say Yost has been completely perfect; George Kottaras is the only player in all of baseball who 1) has been on a major league roster since Opening Day and 2) hasn’t appeared in a game yet. I get that you want Perez starting every day – and will all the April off-days, I don’t disagree – but if you can’t find a way to use Kottaras for an entire series in an NL park, then you’re essentially wasting a roster spot.

But really, Yost has done nothing to materially hurt the team so far. And he’s done a lot of things to help.

Bill Carle (@BillCarle1): What has surprised you most about the team so far?

Right now, the Royals’ pitching staff leads the AL in most strikeouts (86) AND fewest walks (21). I expected the pitching staff to be better, but I didn’t expect to see a K-BB ratio of better than 4-to-1. (Take out Holland, and the ratio is 81 to 15.) On an individual level, I’m sure some of those performances are outliers, but as a team, you can hardly ask for better than that.

Here’s a hidden stat that may speak to the team’s defense: in 300 at-bats, Royals opponents have hit just seven doubles and one triple. That’s not sustainable, but it’s still pretty remarkable. (The Royals themselves have 22 doubles and three triples.) If you’re wondering how the Royals can play so well despite being outhomered 11-4, their advantage in the other extra-base hits is a big part of the answer.

Shawn Michael Deegan (Deeg_1990): What’s one thing you see from the Royals so far that has the best chance to carry through the season?

It’s not a surprising answer, but it’s the innings totals from the starters. Wade Davis has only throw nine innings in two starts – he was pinch-hit for in one of them – but the Royals have received 6+ innings in every other start. They have 53.2 innings in nine starts, just a tick under 6 innings per start on average, and that’s in early April when they’re still stretching out their arms. Just once in nine games has a starter been pulled from a game mid-inning.

There’s a reason why Luke Hochevar has thrown just two innings in nine games. The Royals are likely to get 100 more innings from their starters this year compared to last year, which means they simply don’t need as many relievers as they did in 2012. The six-man bullpen has essentially disappeared from the game, but if the Royals want to be bold, replacing one of their relievers with a bench player who can hit right-handed pitching would be a smart move. It’s unlikely to happen barring a trade, because the only pitchers in their bullpen with options are the four guys who are way too good to demote. But it’s something to think about.