Friday, May 3, 2013

Five For Friday: 5/3/13.

Apparently, the only thing that can slow the Royals down is a snowstorm in May. Yesterday’s “game”, in which the Royals wasted four shutout innings from Ervin Santana and had a 1-0 lead struck from the books, was a debacle and an embarrassment. But it’s not the Royals who should be embarrassed; it’s Major League Baseball.

I wrote about this issue after another Royals’ rainout years ago, and you can read what I wrote here. (Baseball Prospectus re-published this after rains threatened to shorten the deciding game of the 2008 World Series. The Phillies could well have been crowned World Champions by an umpring crew calling Game 5 in the middle of a blinding rainstorm. That didn’t happen only because 1) the umpires let the game proceed in unplayable conditions long enough for the Rays to tie the game, and 2) because Commissioner Bud Selig made the unprecedented decision to “suspend” game until the rains abated…more than 48 hours later.)

There’s simply no precedent in any other major sport for the results of a game that has already started to be completely thrown out simply because of weather conditions. The solution is simple: any game stopped because of weather is suspended, and will be resumed from that point, whether it’s in the fourth inning or the eighth inning.

Instead, we have a ridiculous double standard, whereby a game that goes 3 ½ innings is thrown out completely, but a game that goes 4 ½ innings is considered completed. We have a situation where the umpires are incentivized to let yesterday’s game start even though no one thought the weather would hold up for nine innings – the hope was that they could get just enough of a game in to declare it “regulation”.

You have a situation where Ned Yost is asked to be a meteorologist as well as a maanger, and put his best starter so far this season on the mound in the hopes that he can steal a five-inning game. If the weather had held off another 20 minutes, it would have been a brilliant move. Instead, the Royals got an excellent start from an excellent starter – and it was all for naught. Worse than that, it’s as if it never happened.

It does raise the question of why, given that everyone knew the snowpocalypse was about to hit Kauffman Stadium, the game couldn’t have been started an hour or even 30 minutes early. Sure, it would have meant that some fans would have showed up at gametime and found that they had missed two innings. But is that any less fan-friendly than making fans sit through miserable weather, then through a miserable rain-delay, to find out that the game they attended never actually happened in the first place?

One of these days, Major League Baseball will recognize how stupid and antiquated their rules are regarding rain delays, and will change them. In the meantime, we’ll have to put up with the ridiculousness that we saw yesterday afternoon.

On to your questions:

Bob Long (@BobLeeLong): Am I wrong to be excited about this Royals team?

Not at all. They’re 15-10, they’ve outscored their opponents by 15 runs, they went on a roadtrip against three teams whose records are 17-11, 20-8, and 16-11, and finished 4-3. The Royals have displayed many of the hallmarks of a winning team.

But if you’re excited about this Royals team now, you probably should have been excited by this Royals team before the season began. I predicted them for 86 wins and second place, and so far they’ve played to those expectations. Their pitching has been better than I expected; their offense has been worse. They have yet to suffer an injury or make a single roster change other than bringing up Will Smith to start in a doubleheader.

Even so, they’re now behind the Tigers by a half-game, and a half-game up on the A’s and Orioles for the second wild-card spot. So by all means, be excited, because this is probably the Royals’ best team in the last 19 years. But temper your excitement with the acknowledgment that even if this IS the Royals’ best team in the last 19 years, they still might not be playoff-bound.

AJ Exner (@AJExner): Do you think there are any other teams in the division (besides Detroit) that we should really worry about?

Well, let’s look one by one:

- The Twins are hanging in there at 12-13, but I can’t take their playoff aspirations seriously. They lost 96 games last year, which is close to the record for most losses by a team that reached the playoffs the following season. (The 1991 Braves, 2008 Rays, and 2011 Diamondbacks all went to the playoffs a year after losing 97 games.)

The Braves and Rays, in particular, radically changed their rosters in the interim off-season. The Twins, though, are basically the same team they always are – trying to build an offense around Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, and trying to build a pitching staff out of guys who can’t strike anyone out. Put it this way: the Twins don’t have a single pitcher on their roster with 18 strikeouts. The Royals have two relievers – Holland and Herrera – with 18 strikeouts. The Twins are dead last in the AL in Ks, and first in the league in fewest walks allowed, just the way they like it. Color me skeptical that it’s going to work out for them this year.

And after years of waiting for time and a chronic neglect of their farm system, this looks to me like the year the White Sox finally pay for their sins. They’re dead last in the league in runs scored. Adam Dunn is hitting .147. Paul Konerko is 37 years old and is hitting .227/.287/.392. They’ve fooled us before, in large part because they’re better than anyone at keeping pitchers healthy, but aside from Sale and Peavy it’s not clear they have any starters worth keeping healthy. And Gavin Floyd’s about to have Tommy John surgery. They could still get back in the race, but I think it’s an uphill battle for them.

That leaves the Indians, and…don’t sleep on the Indians. They went into tonight’s game hitting .270/.336/.463, leading the league in slugging. Carlos Santana is having his long-awaited breakout year. Assuming Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall get their bats going, there really isn’t a weak spot in their lineup. If their rotation can just be halfway decent, they could win 85-90 games.

So it’s still a three-team race for now. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it stays that way well into the summer.

Bryan Larson (@jbryanlarson): Does playing Elliot Johnson in three straight games signal a Gio recall? Should it?

It doesn’t signal a recall, but it does raise some questions. Chris Getz isn’t answering them by hitting .227/.250/.364 so far. Yost can make all the excuses he wants about how he started Johnson again at second base on Thursday because Johnson was on a hot streak, but let’s be real – if Getz is doing his job, he doesn’t sit on the bench because a utility guy hit a homer the day before.

I don’t think the Royals are prepared to bring up Giavotella yet. But he is hitting his usual .323/.391/.479 for Omaha, and Getz has an option left. I imagine that if Getz doesn’t pick up his bat significantly by the end of the month, the Royals might make a move. Having one of your best hitters in the leadoff spot in Alex Gordon makes the ability of the #9 hitter to get on base that much more important. If Getz can’t even do that part of his job well, an upgrade will be in order.

Aaron Bryant, Esq. (@aaronjbryant): What would you give up for Giancarlo Stanton mid-season?

Still too soon, guys. Especially since Stanton pulled his hamstring badly and is out indefinitely. It’s fun to think about, though.

Andrew Sutherlin (@Cptndeez): David DeJesus is hitting .282/.351/.541…solid defense despite a weak arm…he’s better than Frenchy…a cheap trade target?

Assuming the Royals don’t break the bank for Stanton, DeJesus actually makes a shocking amount of sense. He’s a free agent at the end of the year, he doesn’t make a ton of money ($4.25 million), and the Cubs are pretty clearly playing for the future. On top of that, DeJesus has a $6.5 million club option for next year. He’s 33, an age where a player of his caliber tends to decline quickly, but he’s shown no sign of it so far, hitting .282/.351/.541.

DeJesus would make a fantastic platoon partner for Francoeur, getting most of the at-bats as the left-handed part of that platoon. And assuming he plays well, he could be the everyday rightfielder again next year on a one-year contract, making him the perfect bridge to Jorge Bonifacio, who if all goes right could be ready by the end of 2014.

Obviously, he has a history in KC and would be welcomed back warmly, and I think Royals fans would appreciate his skill set more than most teams. DeJesus is highly underrated because he doesn’t do anything really well, but he doesn’t do anything poorly either. If he continues to hit this well, he’d be pricey but not prohibitively so. It’s something to keep an eye on if Francoeur doesn’t start hitting.

Kevin Flanagan (@Kevin_Flanagan): What’s wrong with Wade Davis? I thought he was going to step on the gas? His velo is down 2 mph. His line drive rate is 33%. Yikes.

After two shutout starts in a row, Davis was beyond terrible in his last two starts. When you give up more baserunners (27) than you record outs (25) over a two-start stretch, you’ve sucked.

Overall, he has a 5.55 ERA, but his BABIP is .425, which suggests a rather heaping dose of bad luck. His velocity is certainly down from last year, when he was a reliever, but it corresponds pretty well to how hard he was throwing in April of 2011, his last year as a starter.

I don’t think we’ve seen enough of Davis to render any kind of judgment on him yet. He’s on a new team, in a new role, he’s been brilliant and awful already this year…he needs 15 or 20 starts before the Royals have a good handle on what he is. They have a lot riding on him staying in the rotation – if he does, they control him for five years, but if he has to move back to the bullpen, his options are almost worthless. (His options start at $7 million in 2015 and go up from there, and you don’t want to pay $7 million for any but the best relievers. And in the case of Joakim Soria, sometimes not even then.)

So unless he absolutely gets his ass handed to him, Davis is probably going to stay in the rotation at least through the end of June. That will give the Royals more time to make a decision, and that will also give the Royals time to come up with a superior alternative in the form of Danny Duffy, who should be ready by then.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Royals Today: 4/28/13.

Your standard caveats that it’s still April, it’s only 20 games, blah blah blah…but after 20 games, the Royals are 12-8, and as the Kansas City Star’s Pete Grathoff points out, this is only the third time in the last 24 years that the Royals have a winning record after 20 games. (The others were in 2003 and 2011.) So enjoy it. At this time last year, I had already moved on to looking at minor league box scores and the latest draft scuttlebutt. The longer those topics are in the background, the better.

- Ervin Santana continues to impress. He’s almost certainly going to win Royals Pitcher of the Month honors for April, with a 2.00 ERA in five starts and 36 innings (over 7 innings a start), with five walks and 31 strikeouts. He’s been worth 1.3 Wins Above Replacement already, which according to makes him the eighth-most valuable pitcher in the AL so far.

Tremendous credit goes to the front office for his acquisition, one which was controversial at the time. My thoughts on the trade were nuanced, but ultimately I endorsed it – you can read my full comments here. The trade was profoundly unpopular among other Royals bloggers, who thought $12 million was a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a pitcher who was worth 1.3 Wins Below Replacement last season.

If there’s a lesson here – and it’s April, so there may not be a lesson at all – it’s that you can’t simply evaluate a pitcher based on his value, the way you can with hitters. So much of a pitcher’s value is tied up in things he can’t control, like his defense, or the vagaries of balls in play, or just flat-out luck. Santana had a 5.16 ERA last year despite pitching in one of the game’s best ballparks for pitchers in Anaheim. He led the league in home runs allowed. On a value basis, he sucked.

But his ERA was largely the product of his home run rate, and his home run rate was largely the product of terrible luck on fly balls – 19% of them cleared the fence last year against Santana, and he had never been over 13% before. Santana’s core skill set was almost unchanged. He didn’t give up fly balls more often than he had in 2011, when he had an excellent season. His walk and strikeout rates had deteriorated only slightly. Despite his terrible season performance-wise, you could argue that he was virtually the same pitcher he had always been, just with worse luck. The Royals made that argument, and took the gamble, and it’s worked out brilliantly for them. So far.

Santana’s outsized success this year is mostly due to his control, which has been fantastic, not just in reducing walks but in getting ahead of counts, allowing him to finish batters off with his slider. It’s likely that it was just one good month and not an indication that he’s taken a step forward as a pitcher – he’s had months like this before. In July of 2011, Santana made five starts, threw 38 innings, walked six, struck out 31, didn’t allow a home run, and had a 1.67 ERA.

But then, 2011 was a very good year for Santana. He’s not going to pitch all season like he has in April. But if he pitches the rest of this season the way he pitched the rest of 2011, he will be worth every penny of his $12 million.

- I’ve already heard questions on Twitter asking me if I think the Royals should sign Santana to a long-term deal. I appreciate the enthusiasm for his work, fellas, but let’s slow down. If Santana continues to pitch this well, he’s likely going to earn something like $15 million a year, for 3 or 4 years, on the open market. That’s a huge commitment for an erratic starting pitcher in his early 30s. For all the reasons I liked Santana on a one-year deal, I would be extremely leery of him on a long-term deal. Last winter the Royals were buying low; signing him to a long-term deal because of his 2013 performance would be buying high.

If he continues to pitch this well, the Royals can make him a qualifying offer – a one-year deal worth around $14 million – which he will likely decline, allowing the Royals to pick up a draft pick when he signs elsewhere. That’s a much preferable outcome than giving him a long-term deal and betting on the fact that 2013 wasn’t simply one of the high points on the roller coaster that is Santana’s career.

- Santana is simply the headline-grabber on a pitching staff which has been phenomenal all season. As I write this, before Sunday’s doubleheader, the Royals have allowed the fewest runs in the league. That’s partly the result of having played fewer games than most teams – the Rangers have a better ERA and have allowed fewer runs per game, despite playing in a hitters’ park – but it’s still an impressive achievement.

The improvement is almost entirely rotation-driven. The bullpen ERA has improved from 3.17 to 2.77, but that’s almost entirely because they haven’t had to throw nearly as many innings as last year, and it’s surprisingly easy to improve your ERA when you’re not sending Vinny Mazzaro and Roman Colon out there to absorb innings. But the rotation ERA has gone from 5.01 to 3.23, while improving from 5.49 innings per start to 6.40 innings per start.

It’s April, blah blah blah. Things can change. I expect things to change. But if you wanted to draft a scenario for the 2013 season which ends with me groveling on my knees and begging forgiveness from Dayton Moore for all the mean things I’ve written and said, well, this is how you’d draw up the first 20 games of the season.

- And now to move on to less happy things, and by that I mean Mike Moustakas. Moose is hitting .152/.222/.197. He’s popped up eight times in 66 at-bats. His defense has seemingly regressed from last year. Add it together, and he’s been worth almost a win below replacement already.

As recently as a week ago, I was counseling patience, he’s only played about 15 games, he’s a streaky hitter, etc. But on Wednesday, he played about as bad a game as you can play in the major leagues. In the second inning, he batted with a man on third and one out and failed to get the runner home. In the fourth, he led off the inning and struck out. In the fifth, he struck out with the bases loaded and two out. In the seventh, he popped out with two outs and men on first and second. And in the fourth, he led a potential inning-ending double play ball go right through his legs, which led to a four-run inning. The Tigers won by two runs.

On 810 WHB the next morning, I compared Moustakas’ game to George Brett’s legendary Game 3 in the 1985 ALCS…only the complete opposite. It’s hyperbole, but only by a little. To have that kind of a game against your chief divisional rival…the only thing that saves Moose is that it’s April.

And I’ll admit, I’m wavering a little on whether a refresher course in Triple-A might help Moustakas right now. I was fine with sticking with him so long as he was playing good defense, figuring he would still contribute in the field until his bat came around. But that game wasn’t the first time a ground ball when through the wickets on him this year. If he’s taking his offensive struggles with him into the field, though, he’s not helping the team, and this isn’t 2006 anymore – the Royals are trying to win this season, and that means making decisions for the good of the team in the short term. If sending Moustakas down temporarily helps the team today, that has to take priority over helping Moustakas develop as a player in 2014 and beyond.

After some reflection, I’m not convinced we’re at that point yet, primarily because it’s not like there are any good alternatives. If Moustakas goes to Omaha, here are our options:

1) Elliot Johnson and Miguel Tejada, likely sharing the job in a quasi-platoon.

2) Irving Falu, who played so well for the Royals last year, but who is hitting .236/.295/.278 in Omaha right now.

3) Johnny Giavotella is crushing the ball again, hitting .329/.413/.506, and would be an interesting choice to play third base. However, he’s played the position five times in his pro career, and made three errors. I’d like to see him play some games at third base for Omaha to see if he can be even adequate at the position, but he hasn’t played there yet this season, and it’s quite possible (and entirely justifiable) hat the Royals have simply made the decision that he would be a disaster at the hot corner.

4) Christian Colon, as a shortstop, should presumably be able to handle third base in a pinch. He’s hitting .241/.273/.313.

That leaves Anthony Seratelli, who I’m rooting for simply because of his story – he was signed out of the independent leagues in 2007, slowly worked his way up through the minor leagues, and turned himself into an on-base machine in Double-A in 2011. He hit .282/.392/.398 for Northwest Arkansas that year, then .299/.374/.492 for Omaha last year, and is hitting .319/.429/.574 so far this year. He’s also 30 years old and never spent a day in the big leagues. As a human interest story, I would be thrilled for him to get the call. But if the best alternative to Moustakas is bringing up a 30-year-old former indy league ballplayer and making him your starting third baseman…I’m thinking that we probably should stick with Moustakas a little longer.

Moose, more than almost anyone else on the team, is supposed to be a team-first ballplayer who is able to separate his own performance from the success of the team, and put a bad ballgame behind him. On Thursday, he went out and doubled in the eighth inning of a tied ballgame, and then caught the Tigers napping by stealing third base. In the tenth, he drew a walk against Phil Coke, who is tough on left-handed hitters, which helped to set up the bases-loaded walk by George Kottaras and the grand slam by Alex Gordon. So hopefully Moustakas can put his early-season failings behind him and turn back into the ballplayer he was last year. The Royals sure need him to.

- Speaking of Kottaras – he’s appeared in only three games and batted only six times, but he’s already made a significant contribution to the team. In his first game, against the Red Sox on April 20th, he pinch-hit with two outs in the ninth, down a run against the Red Sox, and walked to put the go-ahead run on first base for Alex Gordon. Gordon grounded out, but Kottaras did his job.

The next day, Kottaras finally started a game behind the plate in the second game of the doubleheader. He homered in the fifth inning. The Royals would win in extra innings. And on Thursday, after coming into the game after Salvador Perez was removed for a pinch-runner, Kottaras batted in the tenth with the bases loaded and one out against a left-handed pitcher, and coaxed a walk to drive in the go-ahead run. Gordon would put the game out of reach with his two-out grand slam, but if Kottaras strikes out in that situation, Gordon never bats and the game is very much in doubt.

Every roster spot counts. The Royals finally aren’t wasting any, not even on their backup catcher, and it’s paying dividends in the win column.

- Speaking of bases-loaded walks, the Royals have already drawn four of them this year, in just 28 plate appearances with the bags full. Last year, in 113 plate appearances, they walked just twice. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s nice to see.

- Speaking of Kottaras and Salvador Perez, the lineup for today’s first game has been announced, and Perez is catching. Assuming that Kottaras is starting the second game of the doubleheader – never a safe assumption with Ned Yost managing – this means that the Royals have chosen to start Perez against Justin Masterson, and Kottaras against Corey Kluber.

This is absurd. Masterson throws close to sidearm; his arm slot is lower than just about every other right-handed starter in the majors. Not surprisingly, his platoon split is huge – for his career, lefties hit .290/.365/.430 against him, while righties are at just .223/.303/.299. Kluber is a journeyman pitcher who is 27 years old and opened the season in Triple-A. If you’re forced to start your left-handed backup catcher in one of the two games, wouldn’t you start him against the guy who has been killing right-handed batters for his entire career?

I understand that Ned Yost isn’t the most sabermetrically-friendly manager in the world. But is it too much to expect that he understands the nature of platoon splits? Apparently so.

(And just watch. Perez is going to go nuts off Masterson this afternoon, because he’s Salvador Perez, and he can hit anyone.)

- Speaking of Giavotella, am I permitted to point out that Chris Getz is hitting .228/.241/.386? It's nice that he finally hit his first home run as a member of the Royals, but that means he has as many homers this season as walks. Giavotella is crushing Triple-A pitching even more than usual; after a slow start the first week of the season, he's hitting over .400 the last two weeks. I appreciate what Getz brings to the table defensively, I really do. But I'd appreciate a second baseman and #9 hitter who can get on base for Alex Gordon even more. I just wish the Royals felt the same way.

- In the second game of today’s doubleheader, the Royals will be starting Will Smith, who has been called up for the spot start (and because the new CBA allows teams to add a 26th player to the roster for doubleheaders).

In what has been, generally speaking, a disappointing start of the season for the Royals’ top prospects, Smith has been a very pleasant surprise. After impressing everyone in camp, he went back to Omaha and struck out 11 batters in five innings in his first start. In four starts overall, he’s whiffed 31 batters in 22 innings, or 34.8% of batters faced overall.

I have long been skeptical of Smith’s upside, even though he’s left-handed and throws strikes, because of his inability to miss bats in the minor leagues. So this is an unexpected and very welcome surprise. Smith’s career best strikeout rate was 25.5%, and that was way back in rookie ball. Coming into the season, his career strikeout rate in Triple-A was 18.2%; it was 14.9% in his rookie season last year.

So even in a sample size this small, the jump in Smith’s strikeout rate is notable. The rest of his game was already major league-caliber; a jump in his strikeout rate would make him a legitimate #4 starter. So I’ll be watching his performance this evening with interest.

- Smith, as the 26th player on the roster today, will also become just the 26th player to appear in a game for the Royals this year. Were it not for back-to-back Sunday doubleheaders, the Royals wouldn’t have made a roster transaction all year. More to the point, they haven’t had a single injury this season.

Two years ago, you might recall, the Royals won the Dick Martin Award for having the best training staff in the majors, after a season in which they suffered almost no injuries to speak of. Last year was quite different; Perez missed half the year with a torn meniscus, and an epidemic of Tommy John surgery felled four of their pitchers (Joakim Soria, Blake Wood, Danny Duffy, and Felipe Paulino).

I have held the Royals’ training staff in high regard ever since Nick Kenney and Kyle Turner were hired before the 2010 season, and I thought 2011 was more a reflection of their skills than 2012. So far this year, my faith has been justified. Duffy and Paulino are the only guys on the 40-man roster who are on the DL. Of the other 38 guys, the most significant injury all year was the arm tightness that caused Wade Davis to miss a spring training start for precautionary reasons.

Talent wins ballgames, but talent means nothing if you can’t put that talent on the field. That holds even more true than usual for the Royals, who have very good front-line talent but questionable depth beyond their 25-man roster. More than even Yost or Dave Eiland, the success that Kenney and Turner have at their jobs may determine the course of the Royals’ season. So far, they’re having a lot of it.