Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bouncing Back, And Embracing The Luck.

I haven’t had anything to say recently, partly because I don’t have time, but partly because the Royals have been in this weird part of the schedule where they could only add to the narrative that their world is falling apart, they couldn’t detract from it. As I tweeted a week ago, playing six home games against the Twins and Astros constituted the easiest week on their entire schedule, and they could easily go 5-1 without definitively proving that they weren’t the same team that just endured a 4-19 stretch. They then went out and went…5-1, and many of you thought I was being an annoying jerk for refusing to get excited.

I’m not trying to be an annoying jerk. But I hope that I’ve learned, after nearly two decades of false promises, not to get too excited about the Royals until they force me to get excited. Five wins in a row against two of the worst teams in baseball does not force me to get excited. Particularly when the same weakness that has plagued the Royals all season is still evident.

I mean, even when winning five straight games against the dregs of the American League, the Royals scored just 24 runs. In the five games before that – the first five games after George Brett was hired as the hitting coach – the Royals scored just 11 runs. They’ve scored five runs just twice in their last 19 games. Counting last night’s victory against the Tigers, the Royals have 38 runs in the 11 games of the George Brett Era, or 3.45 runs per game. So please, let’s stop the talk about how Brett has charged up the offense.

To be an equal-opportunity dream-dasher, let’s also stop the talk about how Ned Yost’s “stat guys” – let's give them a proper introduction, that would be Director of Baseball Analytics Mike Groopman and Assistant Director of Baseball Analytics John Williams – are responsible for the turnaround, even though the Royals are undefeated since the new lineup was unveiled. I love the new lineup, I think batting Hosmer #2 makes excellent sense (although I’d lead him off and bat Gordon #2, but that’s a minor quibble). I think that the difference in the new lineup might be worth 15 runs over a full season, but that still comes out to about a tenth of a run per game. And so far, of course, we haven’t even seen that. That’s not why they’re winning.

They’re winning the way they won earlier in the season – with fantastic pitching day in and day out. They’ve allowed three runs or fewer in their last 9 games in a row. That is the longest streak of three runs or fewer allowed by the Royals pitching staff since 1991, when the Royals set a franchise record with 11 straight games of 3 runs or less. (They gave up just 13 runs, total, in those 11 games.)

If they keep pitching like this, they have a chance to get back into the race. Hell, if they can keep pitching like this for the next 36 hours, they will be 3.5 games out of first place. One week ago, that’s not something I expected to write at any point this season, let alone today.

And let’s be clear: the Royals are pitching as well as they’ve pitched in a very long time. They have allowed the fewest runs in the league. They have the best ERA in the league. (They are second in runs allowed per game, right behind the Yankees.) The bullpen has a 2.79 ERA. James Shields has been fantastic. Ervin Santana has been wonderful.

And yet those two pitchers are 6-11, and in the games they’ve started, the Royals are 10-15. The Royals have the best ERA in the league, and they’re 29-32. Because you see, no matter how many times people try to convince you that pitching is 90% of baseball, or 70% of baseball, or even 50% of baseball, it’s just not true. Run prevention and run creation are equally valuable. There is some evidence that preventing runs may correlate with winning, or winning in the postseason, more than scoring runs – but it’s a very small difference, something along the lines of 52% to 48%. And of course, a good deal of run prevention isn’t pitching at all, but defense. As Joe Posnanski pointed out, according to Baseball Info Solutions the Royals have the best defense in the AL. (Yes, even with Jeff Francoeur.)

However you apportion the credit or the blame, the Royals are as good at preventing runs as anyone in the league – and they’re still a .500 team, more or less (they’ve outscored their opponents by five runs), because their offense sucks. Until their offense operates at a level where scoring five runs isn’t considered a slugfest, and where they don’t stop the game for a set of congratulatory speeches every time someone hits a home run, I’m going to remain skeptical that this team has what it takes to contend.

I’m going to remain skeptical because the Royals are going to have to score more runs just to stay in place, because their pitching isn’t likely to remain this effective. Just one guy on the entire roster has an ERA over 4.37. Santana has a 2.99 ERA, but has allowed more home runs (14) than walks (13). Individually, you can make a case that any one of these guys can continue to be this effective. Collectively, almost everyone is likely to worsen, and only Wade Davis is a good candidate to be considerably better (and that’s largely because he’s been so terrible so far.)

But no one is a greater regression candidate than Jeremy Guthrie, who represents the very best and very worst of the Royals pitching staff so far. Guthrie has a very solid 3.60 ERA, he’s 7-3, and I actually read someone speculate recently that he might be an All-Star candidate.

And I have absolutely no idea how he’s doing this.

Well, I know how he’s doing this – he throws the white ball to the man with the wooden stick, who hits the white ball to other men wearing a leather glove. I just don’t know how he’s been able to sustain this kind of end-result success when the means to that end – dare I say the process – seem so terribly flawed.

Start with Guthrie’s basic numbers: 85 innings, 86 hits, 28 walks, 44 strikeouts, 16 home runs.

Guthrie has always had trouble missing bats, but his strikeout rate this year – just 12.2% of batters faced – is the lowest of his career. (Mind you, he hasn’t been above 15% since 2008.) It’s extremely difficult – not impossible, but extremely difficult – to be a successful pitcher in the major leagues in 2013 with a strikeout rate that low.

One way to survive without striking anyone out is to not walk anyone, but Guthrie’s walk rate (7.8%) is actually the highest of his career. He’s not that far off his career norms, but still – he’s striking out fewer guys and walking more guys than he ever has before.

The other way to survive with a low strikeout rate is to not give up any home runs. Jeremy Guthrie leads the league with 16 home runs allowed.

So…um…what’s going on?

Well, for one, Guthrie long ago sold his soul to the BABIP fairy. For reasons that remain unclear to me – and I’m not being sarcastic, I’m genuinely fascinated by this – Guthrie has had an ability to keep his batting average on balls in play well below average throughout his career. Aside from his disastrous time in Colorado last year, he has never had a BABIP over .287, when the league average usually hovers around .300. Pitchers have very little control over what happens on balls in play – but Guthrie, for whatever reason, has more control over it than virtually every other pitcher in the majors today.

Among the 138 pitchers this century with 1000 or more innings pitched, Guthrie’s career BABIP of .277 is the 8th lowest. The seven guys in front of him are either severe flyball pitchers (Ted Lilly, Jered Weaver, Ryan Franklin, Jarrod Washburn), moderate flyball pitches with a knack for pop-ups (Matt Cain, Barry Zito), or knuckleballers (Tim Wakefield). Guthrie falls into none of those camps.

This year, his BABIP is .263. And here’s the thing: I’m not convinced it’s a fluke. His career BABIP has largely occurred in front of some fairly mediocre Oriole defenses. If the Royals really have the best defense in the league, .263 almost seems sustainable. If that were the sole reason why Guthrie’s ERA is so much better than his peripheral numbers, I’d say carry on.

But it’s not. Look at these numbers:

Bases empty: .257/.336/.515
Men on base: .279/.323/.361
Runners in scoring position: .217/.246/.317

That’s a phenomenal breakdown. With the bases empty, batters are slugging over .500 against Guthrie. He’s given up 16 home runs this year, but the two-run shot he gave up to Miguel Cabrera yesterday was just the second home run that came with a man on base. That’s remarkable. I’m not saying it’s sustainable, but it’s remarkable. Guthrie has basically become the anti-Hochevar.

Moreover, the leadoff man in an inning is batting .157/.195/.373 against Guthrie this year. He’s surrendered five home runs to the leadoff man – but if they’re not hitting the ball out, they’re not getting on base. That’s forcing opponents to begin their rallies with at least one out already, making it hard to sustain a big inning.

Again, his success has been remarkable. But it’s not sustainable. For his career, Guthrie’s splits with the bases empty (.261 AVG, 763 OPS) are essentially the same as with men on base (.266, 765) and with runners in scoring position (.263, 771). This is a stone-cold fluke. I’m not saying it hasn’t been a valuable fluke – but I don’t see how he can sustain this for very long.

Put it this way: Guthrie has allowed 16 homers, and struck out 44 batters. That’s a ratio of just 2.75 strikeouts per home run. If you can’t miss bats and give up lots of big flies, you’re supposed to get pummeled. Which is why in the post-Deadball-II era (i.e. since 1969), not one pitcher has made 12 or more starts in a season, had a K/HR ratio of less than 2.8, and still allowed fewer than 3.9 runs per nine innings.

Well, one pitcher. Counting unearned runs, Guthrie is at 3.81. More power to him; he’s gotten outs when he’s needed them, and he’s winning games that the Royals need him to win. And I’m rooting for him to continue to defy everything we understand about how pitchers achieve success. When the Royals were swirling the drain, I told you to #EmbraceTheSuck, but every time Guthrie takes the mound, I’m going to #EmbraceTheLuck.

But I don’t know how he can continue to do this for much longer. There’s a reckoning coming, for him and for the pitching staff as a whole. If Hosmer doesn’t reacquaint himself with the fly ball to right field, if Moustakas doesn’t reacquaint himself with first base, if Chris Getz doesn’t reacquaint himself with Omaha, I don’t see how the Royals survive in the long run.

But at least they’re making things interesting.