Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Missing Ingredient.

For most of this season – even when the Royals were at their worst, a designation they appear intent on challenging yet again – I have tried to refrain from blaming Ned Yost too much for their problems. It’s not that I think that Yost is a great manager, or even a good one. But at least this season, I don’t think he’s been a bad one, and more importantly, I think that the problems that have bedeviled this team all season – i.e. offense – have been more the result of roster construction than of roster deployment. And I think that placing the spotlight on Yost just allows Dayton Moore to scurry away and hide in the darkness.

So I haven’t written too much about Yost. I think he’s cost the Royals some runs by letting guys like Chris Getz and Alcides Escobar bat waaaay too often at the top of the lineup. But where I think he has cost the Royals the most is if, as rumored, he is the reason why Kevin Seitzer was let go. This season is a bright, shining exhibit of how the disappointing offense of 2012 wasn’t Seitzer’s fault:

- Jeff Francoeur was a worse hitter for the Royals this year (.208/.249/.322) than last year (.235/.287/.378), and even worse after joining the Giants (.194/.206/.226). Seitzer only worked with him for two seasons, and in one of those Francoeur hit .285/.329/.476. It looked like an impressive achievement at the time; it looks like a freaking miracle today.

- Alcides Escobar hit .235/.288/.326 with the Brewers in 2010, then hit .254/.290/.343 and .293/.331/.390 in his two years with Seitzer. That first season breaks down as .203/.237/.236 through June 3rd, then .286/.323/.411 the rest of the way. Selective endpoints and all that, but if you give Seitzer two months to work with his new hitter, he basically turned Escobar from a .230 hitter to a .290 hitter with some pop.

This year, Escobar hit .295/.333/.429 through May 5th – and he’s hit .218/.241/.266 since. He’s at .236/.262/.303 overall, even worse than his one full season in Milwaukee. If you assume that there’s a lag of a month or two between the time a hitting coach works with a player and the time the results manifest themselves, Seitzer is basically the difference between Escobar being an above-average shortstop offensively and one of the worst everyday hitters in the game.

- Salvador Perez hit .331/.361/.473 and .301/.328/.471 in two seasons with Seitzer as his hitting coach. This year, he hit .318/.340/.439 through June 15th – and .213/.260/.290 since. He’s hitting .268/.301/.367. Again, a guy who hit beyond expectations under Seitzer, and doesn’t resemble the same batter at the plate this year.

- Mike Moustakas hit .263/.309/.367 and .242/.296/.412 under Seitzer – not great, but not terrible, and he was trending upwards, particularly when you consider how bad he was when he first came up (he hit .182/.237/.227 in the first 53 games of his career, then hit .379/.412/.564 in 36 games the rest of the way). This year, he’s hit .235/.292/.366. This, despite being at an age where you would expect him to improve over time.

- Alex Gordon struggled for two years after Seitzer was first hired in 2009, partly because he was injured and partly because he was in Triple-A. After the 2010 he reconfigured his swing. He hit .303/.376/.502 in 2011, and .294/.368/.455 in 2012. This year, he hit .340/.379/.502 through May 29th. Since then, he’s hit .214/.299/.346; he’s at .268/.332/.413 overall. Two years ago, he hit 45 doubles, and last year he led the league with 51 doubles. This year, with a month left to go in the season, Gordon has only 22 doubles.

- In four years under Seitzer, Billy Butler hit between .291 and .318 every year, and slugged between .461 and .510 every year. This year, he’s batting .289 and slugging .423, although he’s walking more than before, so his .383 OBP is his highest since 2010. From 2009 to 2011 he averaged 47 doubles a year; he hit only 32 in 2012, but also hit a career-high 29 homers. This year, he has just 12 homers and 24 doubles. He had at least 60 extra-base hits every year under Seitzer; with a month to go, he has just 36 this year.

- Even Eric Hosmer, who was probably the reason Seitzer got fired last year after he hit just .232/.304/.359 last year, didn’t do a damn thing under the new hitting coaches until Jack Maloof and Andre David got fired. He’s been terrific ever since, but his overall line this year of .299/.347/.453 is essentially indistinguishable from his performance as a rookie in 2011 of .293/.334/.465. (His OPS+ is 118 each year.) He was 21 then; he’s 23 now, and the same hitter overall, although we’re certainly hopeful that the hitter he is now is the hitter he’s been for the last two months.

Add it all up, and a team that finished 6th in the AL in runs scored two years ago WITH THE YOUNGEST OFFENSE IN BASEBALL is 13th in the AL this year. It’s not just that almost every hitter has hit worse – it’s that they’ve hit worse even though they’re at an age where they should be improving, in some case dramatically. Even today, Hosmer and Perez are 23 years old, Moustakas is 24, Escobar is 26. Gordon and Butler, the old men in the lineup, are 29 and 27. Not one of them – NOT ONE OF THEM – is having a better year at the plate than they had two years ago. Only one of them is having a better year at the plate than they had LAST YEAR, which is the year that got Seitzer fired.

Heck, throw Lorenzo Cain in there if you want. He only played 67 games under Seitzer, and 96 this year, but with Seitzer as hitting coach he batted .266/.315/.410, and this year he’s at .261/.324/.362.

Oh, and Chris Getz hit .255/.313/.287 in 2010, and .275/.312/.360 last year – yes, Chris Getz was almost respectable last season. This year, he’s hitting .224/.290/.281.

This is astounding. You can lay the blame at whichever hitting coaches you want this year; Moustakas and Hosmer have turned things around since George Brett and Pedro Grifol took over in late May, but that’s roughly the same time that Perez, Escobar, and Gordon all went into the tank. Both sets of hitting coaches have plenty of questions to be asked of them. Grifol earned lots of plaudits (and the full-time job) because of the turnarounds from Hosmer and Moustakas, but the Royals aren’t scoring any more runs now than they were three months ago, because in fixing two problem spots in the lineup, three more have sprouted up.

The drop in doubles is particularly astonishing. Two years ago the Royals finished second in the league with 325 doubles. Last year they dropped all the way to third, with 295 doubles. This year they are 12th, on pace for just 258, with almost exactly the same personnel. This is what people who were critical of Seitzer harped on – that he focused on hitting the ball up the middle, and gap power, which was good for two-base hits but not so much for the four-base hits that you really want.

Seitzer is gone, and so are the two-base hits. Yost evidently wanted the Royals to hit more home runs – remember the comments he made to the media at the end of last season, when Seitzer was let go. And it’s true, under Seitzer they didn’t hit a ton of homers. They were 11th in the AL in 2011, and 13th in the AL last year. Of course, they’re always at the bottom of the league in homers, largely because Kauffman Stadium (except during that 1995-2003 era when the fences were moved in) is a tough park to hit homers in.

Well, the Royals sacrificed doubles to hit more homers…and this year, they’re the first team in AL history to be 15th in home runs. (Okay, so it’s the first year there’s been 15 AL teams.) They don’t hit doubles or homers, so despite being 7th in the league in batting average, they’re dead-last in slugging average. Under Seitzer, maybe they didn’t hit the ball over the fence, but they still had a little of what Trey Hillman called slug: 5th in the AL in slugging average in 2011, 10th in 2012.

Back in May, Russell Carleton published a study at Baseball Prospectus that evaluated hitting coaches based on whether the hitters under their tutelage improved or declined. By his methodology – and it’s only one way of looking at things – Kevin Seitzer was worth about 58 runs over an average hitting coach over the course of a season. Among every hitting coach of the last 20 years who had held the job for more than two seasons, the only hitting coach worth more was Clint Hurdle – who coached for the Rockies from 1997 to 2001, before the humidor, when Coors Field was maybe the best hitters' park in world history. Carleton admits that the extreme conditions may have affected the numbers in a way he could not control for, and made Hurdle look better than he was.

So basically, Carleton came to the conclusion that Seitzer was, if not the best hitting coach of the last 20 years, certainly close. And that was before this season, when practically every hitter he coached last season has declined to varying degrees. I imagine the same study performed today would rank Seitzer even higher.

You want to know what’s wrong with the offense? The answer is astoundingly simple: Kevin Seitzer isn’t here anymore.

I’m just going to stop here. When I sat down to write this article an hour ago, I had a completely different article in mind. I planned to write about Yost’s tactical screwups, which seem to be coming more frequently as the team wilts in the August heat, culminating in last night’s terrible 9th inning, when Jarrod Dyson pinch-ran for Billy Butler even though Butler wasn’t the tying run, and Escobar was allowed to bat against a right-handed reliever with a big platoon split while George Kottaras sat on the bench. I was repeatedly warned by Joe Sheehan that in a pennant race, Yost’s tactical blunders would come back to haunt the Royals, and he was certainly proven right last night.

But what was supposed to be a brief detour into Yost’s influence on the decision to fire Kevin Seitzer turned into the destination, because the evidence is pretty overwhelming: firing Seitzer was the worst decision the Royals made all off-season – at least when it came to the 2013 season. (Insert necessary reference to The Trade here.) Keeping Seitzer around may well have been the difference between a team struggling to stay over .500, and a team that right now could be at the head of the wild-card race. If you think that’s an exaggeration, ask yourself how good the Royals would be if they had the 6th-most runs scored in the league to go with the AL’s second-best ERA. And then remind yourself that two years ago, with virtually the same lineup, the Royals were 6th in the league in runs scored. And once Perez was called up in 2011, no one in the entire lineup was more than 27 years old

It is almost literally unbelievable that a lineup that was above-average two years ago, with a pair of 21-year-olds (Hosmer and Perez), a 22-year-old (Moustakas), a 23-year-old (Johnny Giavotella), a 24-year-old (Escobar), a 25-year-old veteran (Billy Butler), and a 27-year-old (Alex Gordon), all of whom are still in the organization today, would be one of the worst offenses in the league this year.

I was planning to make the case that it might be time to let Ned Yost go because of his tactical deficiencies. But I’m not going to make that case. Because there’s a much simpler case to be made here: Ned Yost should be fired because he couldn’t get along with Kevin Seitzer, and because he couldn’t appreciate the fine work that Seitzer was doing.

It’s time to let Yost go.

And with all due respect to Pedro Grifol, who I’m sure can be an asset to the organization in another capacity, it’s not too late to bring Seitzer back. But they better hurry before it is.