Thursday, May 16, 2013

Royals Today: 5/16/13.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I simply can’t write as often as I used to. I’d like to say this is just temporary, but really, it’s the new normal. I’m sure there’s a very strong and inverse correlation between the number of children and the frequency of my writing, and ever since daughter #4 arrived last March, once a week is about all I can manage, at least until the Royals are playing for something in September. I’m not apologizing; I’m just explaining, and hope you all will bear with me anyway. Thanks.

- We lost a good man this week. Denny Matthews is the voice of the Royals and deservedly so, but for 25 years it was Denny Matthews and Fred White on the radio, and if the former was one of the most talented broadcasters of his era, the latter wasn’t far behind.

I was privileged to listen to the Royals on radio many times during their last 10 years together, which means that I missed the glory years when Denny and Fred covered the Royals when they had something to play for. But I didn’t miss Denny and Fred at their broadcasting best. They were both remarkably talented at the simple skill of describing a baseball game orally in a way that your brain could translate visually. If you wanted aural fireworks or blatant homerism from your radio announcer, you were out of luck in Kansas City. If you wanted to know what was going on in the game, there was nowhere else you’d rather be. (Five years ago, I wrote more about the men behind the various mikes here.)

White was let go by the Royals after the 1999 season, through no fault of his own, and like many Royals fans I couldn’t stand Ryan Lefebvre for the first year or two, before I finally gave in and acknowledged he was actually sort of good at this broadcasting thing too. I’m still not sure whether Ryan got better at his craft, or whether I just needed time to process that he wasn’t Fred White.

White’s the second Royals announcer we’ve lost to melanoma in the last two years, following Paul Splittorff, and the timing of his passing made me more melancholic than usual. Partly it’s the suddenness of the news – on Tuesday the Royals announced that White had retired “due to recent health issues”, and Wednesday he was dead. But I think it has something to do with the fact that yesterday, the day Fred White passed away, George Brett turned 60 years old.

I recognize that Brett is not immortal, and is subject to the same aging process as you or I. It’s not that he’s getting older that bothers me – it’s that the last time the Royals were worth watching, he was still in the prime of his career. Brett was 35 years old the day he lifted Bret Saberhagen off the mound, younger than I am today. He’s 60 now, and the Royals haven’t played a meaningful game since. No playoff games, and no late September games where the eyes of a baseball nation have been upon them.

Brett is 60 years old. White has passed away. Splittorff, who had just turned 39 and had been retired barely a year when the Royals won the World Series, died two years ago. Denny Matthews is 70, and I don’t want to think about how I’ll react when he passes on. My childhood heroes are disappearing, years after the memories they created, and the Royals have created precious few of either of them in the years since.

I want Brett to throw out the first pitch before a Royals playoff game. And I want him to still be in the prime of his life when that day comes. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for. I know many of you think I’m too critical of the front office, and maybe I am. Just understand: I want the same thing they want. I want this team to matter again. And I don’t apologize for wanting it perhaps more than I should.

- I hope it’s not too crass to talk about this, but White and Splittorff both died of melanoma, a skin cancer that if caught early is usually curable. If their deaths remind some of you to see your friendly neighborhood dermatologist for a full skin exam, then some good may come of it. You’re all welcome to make an appointment with me, though I suspect I’m a long commute for 99% of you. But see someone. Get that mole checked out. And wear sunscreen.

- Getting back to the team on the field…after a weekend performance against the Yankees that was horrifying as both a fan and as an analyst (given that I wrote in March that the Yankees were about to collapse), the Royals righted the ship by taking two of three in Anaheim. The Angels may be a genuinely bad team, or they may just be a good team going through a terrible stretch – but if the Royals are to be taken seriously, when an opponent is on the ground, they have to keep their boot on their opponent’s neck. To their credit, they did.

So they’re now 20-17. They’ve outscored their opponents by 17 runs, which means their Pythagorean record is…20-17. Which means they’re on pace for 87-88 wins. This is the team we (well, I) thought they would be, even if we had no idea they’d be this good while Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas would be this bad.

- Speaking of Hosmer and Moustakas…I don’t have any answers for you. Hosmer hits like right field is in foul territory, and Moustakas hits like anything hit high in the air is a home run. I still believe in their talent. I still believe they will play well in the long run.

But I’m reminded of a couple of pearls of wisdom from economist John Maynard Keynes: 1) we are all dead in the long run, and 2) markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent. Hosmer and Moustakas may be supremely talented, and eventually that talent might shine through. But their talent can remain dormant longer than the Royals can remain in contention. It will be little solace indeed if by the time they both figure things out, the Royals’ window has passed – or worse, their time with the Royals has passed.

(For more on the remarkable inability of the Royals to produce a top prospect who actually fulfills expectations from the get-go, turn over to Grantland next Tuesday, where a long conversation between Jonah Keri and I on that subject should run.)

The fall and rise of Alex Gordon almost assures that the Royals won’t give up on either player until absolutely necessary, and frankly, they shouldn’t. Not only that, but if you listened to this week’s Baseball Show With Rany & Joe podcast (download at iTunes or listen here), then you know that Joe and I discussed the fact that this would be the perfect time for the Royals to offer both players a long-term contract extension.

I know that sounds ridiculous, but that’s exactly the point. If you want to get a young player signed to a long-term deal that buys out free agency years, you either want to do it as soon as he reaches the majors – witness the Salvador Perez contract – or you want to do it when the player is in a down cycle. Both Hosmer and Moustakas are Scott Boras clients, and were both long shots to ever sign a long-term deal. But those shots are suddenly not quite so long. Anthony Rizzo just signed a 7-year, $41 million contract with the Chicago Cubs (with two club options). As recently as two months ago, most people would rather have Hosmer over Rizzo on their team – but given his struggles, you don’t think Hosmer would at least consider the opportunity to sign a contract that guarantees him $41 million right now?

There’s obviously a ton of risk involved for the Royals, because if Hosmer or Moustakas doesn’t figure it out, that’s a lot of money to eat. But if you’re a small-market team, the only way to lock up your best players through their prime years is to assume some risk. The Royals were fortunate to sign Perez and Alcides Escobar to contracts that are so team-friendly that the risk pretty much involves a catastrophic injury – but a contract doesn’t have to be that team-friendly to make it worth doing.

If the Royals want to be bold and savvy, they should be offering contracts right now to Hosmer, and to Moustakas, and frankly they should be laying the groundwork for a long-term deal for Danny Duffy that gets signed the minute he shows his stuff is back to 100%. (If Duffy isn’t willing to sign a long-term deal, then his Twitter account is the greatest acting job of all time.) They should be at least talking with Lorenzo Cain’s agent, acknowledging the fact that they can’t pay Cain based on his performance this year, and that Cain is 27 and is unlikely to improve from here.

On an individual basis, the Royals are likely to get burned on a long-term contract eventually. It’s happened before, after all, with Angel Berroa. But even then, what was the downside – the Royals were out $10 million? In baseball terms, that’s pocket change, even for the Royals. But if you have Perez AND Escobar AND Hosmer AND Moustakas AND Cain AND Duffy all signed before they’re even arbitration-eligible, you can accept the risk that one of those contracts will be a bust – because that means five of those contracts will be a steal. A diversified portfolio is going to bring you big returns even if one of your stocks tanks.

This might be a moot point, given the representation that Hosmer and Moustakas have contracted with. But you never know. Fear of failure does things to people. Having tasted enough failure to know fear, maybe Hosmer or Moustakas has had a change of heart. In which case, it might just be the time to strike.

In the meantime, I think we can agree that Kevin Seitzer wasn’t the problem. Particularly given this study at Baseball Prospectus, which evaluated hitting coaches and came to the conclusion that among hitting coaches with more than two years’ experience, and who didn’t ply their craft at Coors Field, no hitting coach in the last 20 years was worth more runs to his team than Seitzer. It's a crude estimate, but it certainly fortifies my position that Seitzer should be working somewhere in organized baseball.

- Maybe Hosmer and Moustakas can’t hit, but at least we have Salvy. As Sam Mellinger noted, Perez now has exactly 150 games and 600 plate appearances to his credit in his career, and has hit .309/.335/.455 with 15 homers and 32 doubles. Admittedly, he only has 22 walks, and that’s hardly ideal. But he’s now batted 130+ times in three different seasons, and hit over .300 in each one. Batting average is overrated, but that’s still pretty awesome. The only catcher to hit .300 or more (with 100+ plate appearances) at ages 21, 22, and 23 is Ted Simmons, who many people feel should be in the Hall of Fame.

But I don’t want to talk about Perez as a hitter. In light of this terrific article at Grantland yesterday, which crystallizes the latest research on the importance of pitch-framing by catchers, I want to ask the question: how much of the improvement in the Royals’ pitching staff this year is actually due to having Perez behind the plate to frame their pitches?

To be more specific: how much of Ervin Santana’s stunning improvement this year can be traced to getting more strike calls on borderline pitches? How much of Jeremy Guthrie’s renaissance – essentially from the moment he arrived in Kansas City, after Perez had returned from his knee injury – is due to the catcher he’s been throwing to? (Guthrie has made 22 starts since joining the Royals – 21 of them throwing to Perez.)

I’m not asking a rhetorical question – I honestly don’t know. The numbers I have seen have shown Perez to be a very good pitch framer, but not one of the game’s elites. But this is a great example of the fact that the more we learn about baseball, the more we learn what we don’t know. This is why I love sabermetrics, and why so many of the criticisms of sabermetrics are so shrill. Contrary to what some believe, we don’t think we know all the answers – if we did, we wouldn’t have looked into the importance of a catcher’s ability to frame pitches in the first place. Three years ago we thought that Jose Molina was a fringe major leaguer at best – today we’re wondering if he’s one of the most underrated players in the game.

I don’t know how valuable Perez has been to the pitching staff. But I sure as hell know he hasn’t hurt. And I sure as hell think he’s the most important player, signed to the most important contract, on the roster.

- Jarrod Dyson makes me happy. The player who once had eight extra-base hits in an entire 93-game minor league season has eight extra-base hits in just 41 at-bats. That’s ridiculous, of course, as is the fact that Dyson’s slugging average (.561) is nearly double his on-base average (.286). But it’s not ridiculous to say that he has dramatically improved as a hitter in the last 2-3 years, and it’s not ridiculous to say that he should be starting in a platoon role in the major leagues.

Obviously, he should be starting in a platoon role for the Royals, given that the alternative is Jeff Francoeur. And to their credit, the Royals have all but acknowledged that, even if Ned Yost won’t admit to it – Dyson has been in the lineup in five of the last six games the Royals have faced a right-handed pitcher. But I think Dyson could be more than just a guy that starts for the Royals because they don’t have anyone else.

Think of how Angel Pagan became a valuable everyday outfielder, or Andres Torres, or even Endy Chavez for a time. When you have elite speed and defense, you don’t have to be a great hitter to be a good player. Dyson isn’t an elite defender, but he’s not bad, and he’s one of the fastest players in the major leagues. He is, honestly, probably the fastest player I’ve ever seen in a Royals uniform – with the caveat that I didn’t see Willie Wilson when Wilson was young. But keep in mind, the young Willie Wilson has a case to be made as the fastest player in major league history. (Wilson hit 12 inside-the-park homers in his career. All came by 1983, and five were in 1979 alone, including this walkoff homer against the Yankees.)

I just hope Dyson’s ankle is okay. (Late update: it's not; he's probably going on the DL. Dammit. Let's just hope that David Lough, hitting .340/.393/.477 in Omaha, keeps Francoeur in a platoon role.)

- Chris Getz is hitting .193. He has three walks this year, one of them intentional (yay, Robin Ventura!) He does have the first home run in his four-year career with the Royals. Since hitting that home run, he is 4 for his last 46, all singles.

Meanwhile, Johnny Giavotella is hitting .289/.364/.465 in Omaha, which qualifies as a slump for him. Yes, Elliot Johnson is hitting .302/.333/.395 in 46 plate appearances. That raises Johnson’s career line to .229/.287/.343; yippee. Giavotella, having failed both of his trials in the majors to this point, has a career line of .242/.271/.340. The fact that Giavotella is considered a major disappointment because he’s hit about as well as Johnson in his career is an indictment of Johnson more than Giavotella.

But then we don’t really need to compare Giavotella to Johnson, because Johnson isn’t the odd guy out on this roster. Getz doesn’t have the range for shortstop, the arm for third base, or the bat for anywhere. If he’s not in the lineup, he’s a glorified pinch runner. Send him to Omaha, bring up Giavotella, and you can still spot Johnson in the lineup. Johnson has hit right-handed pitchers better than left-handed pitchers in his career, so instead of platooning him with Getz (forcing Johnson to hit from his worse side), the Royals can start him against tough right-handers in Giavotella’s place. They can also use Johnson as a defensive replacement. Johnson complements Giavotella’s talents far better than he does Getz.

I’m sure you’re sick of my Gio fetish, but let’s be clear: whether or not Giavotella can be an above-average second baseman in the majors is irrelevant at this point. All that’s relevant is whether he can be better than Getz. He can, and he is. The Royals are just postponing the inevitable here.

- Finally, you’ve probably heard the news that Bubba Starling is getting his eyesight checked out, and might have had LASIK surgery by the time you read this. As someone who has written on multiple times – and this wasn’t my opinion so much as I was relaying what I was hearing from the industry – that Starling looks like a bust, this can only be described as good news. Maybe this is just a case of the Royals desperately trying to find a solution. But maybe it really is a solution, and at this point, there aren’t a whole lot of other solutions for a player who turns 21 in August and is hitting .213/.286/.354 in low A-ball, with 10 walks and 41 strikeouts.

Eric Hosmer hit .241/.334/.361 in A-ball in 2009, then ended his season a few days early to get LASIK. The next year, he hit .338/.406/.571 and finished the year with six home runs in the Texas League playoffs. The LASIK wasn’t everything, but it was something. So if Starling does go under the laser, let’s hope he can start fresh, and I’ll do my best to start fresh with my evaluation of him as well. It looks like the Royals blew one top-five pick already. They can’t afford to blow another one.