Friday, June 21, 2013

(Don't) Blame The K.

To paraphrase Voltaire, sometimes I feel that if the Royals did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them.

As a fan of the franchise, their performance over the last 20 years has been an unending tragedy. But as a fan of baseball, and moreover as someone who has been intimately involved with the rise of analytics in the world of sports, the existence of the Royals has been a constant source of validation. Some team has to play the negative counterpart to the A’s and Rays. Some team has to serve as the control in the hypothesis, “Does sabermetrics work?” I just wish it wasn’t my team.

But that’s what the Royals are. Think about it: if you were to list the teams that come to mind when someone says “small-market franchise”, that list would contain the A’s, the Rays, the Royals, and probably the Pirates. If those teams don’t have the four lowest combined payrolls in the game in the 21st century, they’re very close.

Two of those teams recognized that their financial disadvantages required them to think outside the box, to try new strategies, to win by doing things the bigger teams weren’t doing. Those two teams are the A’s and the Rays.

The A’s went to the playoffs four straight years from 2000 to 2003, again in 2006; from 2000 to 2006 they averaged 95 wins a season. After an extended rebuilding process – they won as few as 74 games, a total exceeded by the Royals just once in the last nine years  – they surprised everyone by winning the AL West last year, and are currently leading the AL West this year.

The Rays went from a 66-96 record in 2007 to the AL pennant in 2008; they’ve gone to the playoffs in three of the last five years, and won 90+ games four times in the last five years.

Two of those teams decided to stay with old-school thinking, and tried to beat the better-funded franchises by playing the same game. Both of those teams ignored the sabermetric revolution early on, and are only cautiously dipping their toes into the movement today. Those two teams are the Royals and the Pirates.

The Pirates have had 20 losing seasons in a row, the longest stretch of consecutive losing seasons in major league history. The Royals have had losing seasons in 17 of the last 18 years, and have actually lost more games since the 1994-95 strike than even the Pirates, or any other major league team.

And as an added piece of evidence, the Devil Rays were an even more inept franchise than the Royals and the Pirates – they lost 91+ games in each of their first 10 years of existence – under an administration that also ignored sabermetrics. Then the owner sold, a new front office was hired that embraced sabermetrics as fiercely as the old front office derided it, and the fortunes of the franchise did a 180.

Honestly, and immodestly, it’s a wonder that there are still people out there – people who work in the industry – who think that sabermetrics is a sham, that it’s a fad, that if it worked then Billy Beane would have a ring, and never mind that Bill James could lend him one and still have one for himself.

But I would like to think that comparatively few of those people are Royals fans. On the contrary, I’d like to think that Royals fans are much more willing to embrace new-school ideas than fans of other baseball teams. I certainly think that’s the case of Royals media. I know I personally take it for granted that I can go on 810 WHB and discuss baseball with any of the radio hosts, and I don’t have to waste time arguing whether an analytical approach to the game has merit. Everyone agrees on that; we’re not arguing about whether the numbers are important, we’re just arguing over what the numbers mean. In print, Joe Posnanski carried the torch for years, and Sam Mellinger picked it up.

It’s easy to take that for granted, until those rare occasions where I listen to talk radio in almost any other sports market…and I remember that the analytical revolution hasn’t reached everyone yet. I can’t think of a prominent member of the KC media that has mocked sabermetrics recently, something that happens in other media markets all the time.

It’s easy to understand why Royals fans, and the journalists who cover the franchise, are more willing to embrace the idea that sabermetrics has value: for the past 20 years, we’ve seen what the opposite approach has wrought. We’ve seen what happens every time the Royals and the A’s get together to make a trade. We’ve seen a franchise in Tampa Bay that seemed more hopeless than the Royals ever were – and are still saddled today with a ballpark monstrosity in an inaccessible location – embrace sabermetrics, and start going to the playoffs almost immediately thereafter.

Maybe I’m just being my usually hopelessly optimistic self, but I believe that Royals Nation is as sabermetrically savvy as any fan base in the game – because while they don’t know if sabermetrics works, they know, through hard experience, that thumbing your nose at sabermetrics doesn’t.

If only the Royals themselves figured that out.

The reason for my mini-diatribe today is Jeff Flanagan’s latest article for Fox Sports Kansas City, in which he gets the Royals front office to acknowledge something that I’ve been writing about for a very long time – that the Royals don’t draw walks. That they haven’t drawn walks in over 30 years. That they’ve finished in the top half of the league in walks drawn just once since 1980 – and that year (1989) they won 92 games, their most in that span.

Flanagan also got the Royals to provide an explanation for their lack of walks: it’s the ballpark. No, really: the culprit is Kauffman Stadium.

It was less than a month ago that hitting coach – ex-hitting coach – Jack Maloof explained to Flanagan that Kauffman Stadium was the reason why the Royals don’t hit any home runs, even though the ballpark doesn’t have that effect on opposing batters. (As an aside – and I mean this without irony whatsoever – kudos to Flanagan, who apparently has the ability to get people in the Royals organization to open up and say some pretty interesting things.)

So evidently Kauffman Stadium is the reason why the Royals don’t hit home runs and the reason why don’t draw walks. Which raises the question: what other crimes has this ballpark committed? What other secrets are hidden at the Truman Sports Complex? Personally, I’d like to know if George Toma has an alibi for the night that Jimmy Hoffa disappeared.

“We have the largest ballpark in terms of square footage of any ballpark in baseball,” Moore says.

This is true, so long as we are talking about fair territory only.

“When pitchers come here, they have the mindset to use that park – put the ball in play, throw strikes, attack the zone.”

Sounds reasonable.

“There isn’t the same fear factor of getting beat deep that you might have elsewhere.”


“I think that plays a huge factor in that walk statistic.”

Alright, this is where you’ve lost me.

It’s true that Kauffman Stadium suppresses home runs quite a bit. Not nearly to the extent that it justifies the Royals’ inability to hit home runs this year, which is why Maloof lost his job. But yes, it’s not an easy place to hit home runs.

But the notion that because a ballpark is tough to hit homers, pitchers are going to pound the strike zone and give up fewer walks as well – well, we can test this theory. We have data. We can look at this data. We can analyze it. That’s what we call – dare I say it? – sabermetrics.

Last year, the Royals drew 202 walks at home. They drew 202 walks on the road. Using complicated mathematics, I can conclude that the ballpark probably didn’t have anything to do with their walk rate last year.

Moreover, since 2007 – since Dayton Moore’s first full year as GM – the Royals have drawn more walks at home than on the road.

Using more sophisticated analysis, like that done at Fangraphs, we can come up with a Park Factor for walks, which computes the impact that a ballpark has on walk rate, looking at the performance of both the Royals and their opponents. Park Factors are scaled so that 100 is a completely neutral park; numbers over 100 mean the ballpark increases that statistic, and numbers under 100 mean the ballpark decreases that statistic.

Looking at the most recent numbers, the Royals’ Park Factor for home runs is 93 – meaning that a player on the Royals will wind up with about 7% fewer home runs in a season than a player on a neutral team. (Kauffman Stadium reduces his home runs by about 14%, but he only plays half his games at home.)

Kauffman Stadium’s Ballpark Factor for walks is…100. No difference whatsoever.

Let’s think through this some more. If Kauffman Stadium encourages pitchers to throw strikes, then we would expect that just as the Royals’ hitters don’t draw walks, their pitchers should give up fewer walks as well. But as Sam Miller tweeted, since Dayton Moore was hired, the Royals’ pitching staff has given up the second-most walks of any AL team at home. If we’re going to excuse the Royals’ hitters for not drawing walks, then the inescapable conclusion is that their pitching staff can’t hit the broad side of a barn.

And if the problem is the ballpark, then why, as Sam Miller also pointed out, do the Royals’ hitters have the second-fewest walks of any AL team on the road since Moore was hired?

And the final nail in the coffin: if Kauffman Stadium’s dimensions make it hard to draw walks, then how do you explain the Coliseum in Oakland? I said that the Royals have the largest dimensions in fair territory of any team, but when you count foul territory, the Coliseum might actually be bigger.

Kauffman Stadium’s Park Factor for homers is 93; Oakland’s Park Factors is 94. And whereas Kauffman increases singles, doubles, and triples – which is why the park is neutral overall – Oakland suppresses every type of hit, because the foul ground leads to many extra foul pop-outs. The A’s certainly take advantage of their ballpark when it comes to their pitchers. For instance, Tom Milone was the fourth guy in the Gio Gonzalez trade, a strike-thrower with marginal stuff. But the A’s have turned him into an above-average major league starter thanks to their ballpark. On the road, Milone has a 4.66 career ERA. At home? 2.91.

And yet the A’s – who rank just ninth in the AL in homers – lead the league in walks drawn. They were fourth last year. They’ve finished in the top half of the AL in walks drawn in 26 of the last 27 years – but haven’t finished in the top five in the league in home runs since 2002.

While Dayton Moore that blames the ballpark. Kevin Seitzer, much to my disappointment, blames the overall lack of power.

“Pitchers mainly fear the long ball,” he says. “If your lineup isn’t hitting home runs, pitchers aren’t pitching around you. They’re going after you. There’s no need not to.”

There’s no question that there’s a correlation between power and walks – the more of a threat you are to hit a homer, the more likely the pitcher is to nibble and try to get you out with stuff off the plate. But it’s far from a perfect correlation.

I’ve used this example before, but it’s a fun one, so I’m going to use it again: the 1987 St. Louis Cardinals finished dead last in the NL in homers. They had one player hit more than 12 homers. But they led the league in walks drawn, and led the league in OBP, and went to the World Series.

That year, Ozzie Smith didn’t hit a single home run. Not only that, but he was a devastating basestealer – he stole 43 steals in 52 attempts. Given his inability to hit the ball over the wall, and given how dangerous he was once he reached base, why would any pitcher ever let him draw a walk?

Smith drew 89 walks that year. That’s more than any Royal has drawn in a season since 1990 – but it wasn’t even enough to lead the Cardinals that year. Jack Clark had 136. Clark, at least, had power. Vince Coleman stole 109 bases that year, and hit three home runs – opposing pitchers had even more incentive to throw him strikes than Ozzie Smith. Coleman drew 70 walks of his own.

So please, stop blaming the ballpark. Stop blaming the weather, or the traffic, or the rabid Kansas City media, or any other extraneous reason that pops into your head. Because what bothers me today isn’t that the Royals don’t draw walks – that faded into the background a long time ago. I literally have no recollection of a Royals organization that valued the base on balls as a weapon. What bothers me is that the Royals aren’t willing to accept responsibility for their shortcomings. They don’t even have to accept full responsibility – the organization’s lack of interest in walks preceded Dayton Moore’s regime by a quarter-century. How hard would it be to say this?

“You’re right, Jeff, while we stress the importance of plate discipline and patience at the plate, as an organization we haven’t seen those results on the field yet. I know that this has been a problem for the organization since even before we got here. I’m confident that our players just need to mature and gain experience at the plate, and the walks will follow. It’s not a coincidence that our most experienced hitters, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, are the most patient hitters on the team, and I have no doubt that with more experience, guys like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas will develop the same approach.”

No one’s asking anyone to fall on their sword – we’re just asking someone, anyone, to acknowledge that it’s a problem, and to acknowledge that it can be fixed. By blaming the ballpark, the Royals are claiming that the problem is inherent to the team, that it’s unfixable. And I’m sorry, but that’s a copout. It’s not true.

The problem can be fixed. But to fix the problem, the Royals are going to have emphasize acquiring players who have plate discipline in the first place. You would think that learning to take on the balls and swing at the strikes is something that can be taught, and occasionally you will find a player who does improve as his career goes on. But it’s more rare than you might think. The evidence is that, at least by the time most players start their pro careers, plate discipline is an inherent tool, like arm strength or power.

And Moore, to his credit, acknowledges as much in this column. “Some guys just have that natural discipline, guys like Alex and Billy. It’s not something you can necessarily teach, though we do preach plate discipline throughout the minor leagues.”

That sounds great. But I hope you’ll forgive me if I point out a few problems with that statement:

1) The Royals may be preaching plate discipline throughout the minor leagues, but as Flanagan points out in the column, few of their minor leaguers appear to be listening. The Omaha Storm Chasers are 12th out of 16 PCL teams in walks drawn. The Northwest Arkansas Naturals are 7th out of 8 teams. The Wilmington Blue Rocks are 7th out of 8 teams. The Lexington Legends are 9th out of 16 team. Four full-season minor league teams – none of them are in the top half of their league in walks drawn.

2) The two guys Moore mentions by name as having “natural discipline”, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, are quite literally the only two players on the roster who were already here when Moore was hired. That should tell you something.

3) If it’s true that plate disciple is not something you can necessary teach, wouldn’t that make it more important to draft and acquire guys that already have it? And yet here’s assistant GM J.J. Picollo:

“When you’re looking at the impact guys in the first couple of rounds,” Picollo says, “you look at the major tools. Can he square up a ball? Can he hit for power? What’s his speed? Can he he hit consistently? All those things.

“You have to have the tools first or it really doesn’t matter. Now, when it gets to later rounds, when the talent gap isn’t that much between players, that area (on-base percentage) has more of a chance to stand out and it may separate one player from another.”

So basically, the Royals focus on everything but plate discipline in the first couple of rounds, but in the later rounds, OBP matters more.

You’ll be shocked to learn that I disagree completely.

First off, if you don’t focus on plate discipline in the first couple of rounds, you might as well not focus on it at all, because the vast majority of major league regulars are picked in the first couple of rounds. I don’t care if your 20th-round draft pick knows the strike zone, because 98% of those guys never make an impact in the majors anyway. It’s the guys taken in the first three rounds that are expected to contribute. Primarily, it’s the guys taken in the first round. Four of the guys in the Royals lineup were drafted in the top 15 picks: Gordon, Butler, Moustakas, and Hosmer. The first two were drafted by Allard Baird, and know the strike zone – they showed the ability to walk even in the minors. Hosmer showed good plate discipline in the minors, and has held his own in the majors. Moustakas was a relatively free swinger in the minors, and is a relatively free swinger in the majors.

The first round is where you expect to get your everyday players, so if you draft a player in the first round who doesn’t know the strike zone, you can’t pretend to be surprised when he never learns the strike zone. “We took guys like Brian McCann and Adam LaRoche and Rafael Furcal – all very good on-base guys. We also took Jeff Francoeur, who had a different approach that worked for him.”

Well, Francoeur – the 23rd overall pick in 2002 – certainly had a different approach. But “worked for him”? Sure – for the first month of his major league career, when he hit .419, slugged .802, and didn’t draw a single walk in 86 at-bats. The rest of his rookie season, he hit .240/.294/.421. From his sophomore season to today, he’s hit .262/.306/.415. Francoeur is pretty much the poster boy for how not having plate discipline can destroy an otherwise promising career.

But I also disagree with Picollo’s other point, which is that you value plate discipline more in the later rounds. Since late-round picks are, by definition, long-shot gambles, I’d much rather bet on athleticism and tools, hoping that out of 10 or 20 players one of them learns how to hit, rather than taking a bunch of hitters who know the strike zone but don’t have the bat speed to take advantage of it.

I’d much rather bet on guys like, say, David Lough (11th round), who was as much a football as a baseball player at Mercyhurst College, or Lorenzo Cain (17th round), who didn’t even start playing baseball until he was a high school junior, or, of course, Jarrod Dyson, drafted in the 50th round because he could run really fast and, um, he could run really fast.

Most of those guys aren’t going to pan out, and many of the guys who would pan out get undermined by their inability to master the strike zone. Lough will probably never have plate discipline, which will likely limit him to fourth outfielder duties. But occasionally you get a tools guy who figures it out, and both Cain and Dyson have acceptable walk rates to go with their other skills.

But anyway, you don’t build rosters with 17th and 50th round picks – you build them around guys at the top of the draft, and if the guys you take at the top of the draft don’t know the strike zone, they’re unlikely to ever learn the strike zone. And if the guys at the top of the draft never learn the strike zone, you wind up with a team that doesn’t draw a lot of walks, year after year after year.

No, it’s not a particularly bold or interesting explanation for the Royals’ perennial lack of walks. But it does have the advantage of being accurate.

The Royals are doing a lot of things right, and I want to give them credit for it. Despite the organization’s inability to develop starting pitching, Dayton Moore has fashioned together a pitching staff with the best ERA in the league without a single starting pitcher who was signed or developed by the organization. That’s fantastic, and the Royals deserve to be lauded for it.

But all their success on the mound won’t matter if they don’t score, and not drawing walks makes it harder to score. It’s a weakness, which I hope the Royals fix, and which I expect them to at least recognize. Instead, they’re blaming the ballpark. The first step to overcoming a problem is to acknowledge it. Until the Royals do that, I’m going to keep hammering them for it.