Friday, April 11, 2014

Royals Today: 4/11/14.

There’s nothing boring about being average. The Royals have won four games and lost four games; they’ve scored 27 runs and allowed 25. They are, 5% of the way through the season, a .500 team. But that hardly means nothing interesting is happening. Let’s dive in.

- A 4-4 record at this point is nothing to complain about, given that the Royals have played five of their eight games so far against teams that made the playoffs last year (and are favorites to make the playoffs this year). By not getting buried in the season’s first three series, the Royals are now well positioned to make their move.

The Royals’ next nine games come against the Twins and Astros, who combined for 207 losses last year. They won’t be that bad this year, but this is a much easier slate of games than the ones the Royals just finished, particularly for the Royals’ beleaguered offense. After facing the likes of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Matt Moore, and Chris Archer in their first eight games, the Royals will be facing the likes of Kyle Gibson, Kevin Correia, Lucas Harrell, and Dallas Keuchel in their next five games. Yum. If the offense still hasn’t come around at that point, then we can start getting worried.

Looking longer term, the Royals follow this nine-game stretch with series against the Indians, Orioles, Blue Jays, Tigers, Padres, Mariners, Rockies, Orioles again, White Sox, Angels, Astros, and Blue Jays again. Their next 48 games, taking us to June 2nd, include just three against a team (Detroit) that I projected to make the playoffs before the season began. That is an incredibly favorable schedule, and the Royals could well go, I dunno, 30-18 in that stretch, and at 34-22 they’ll be the talk of baseball as well as the talk of Kansas City, perfectly positioned to attract enormous crowds to the K once school lets out.

Schedules are designed to even out, of course, and it gets harder from there. In September alone, the Royals face the Rangers, the Yankees, the Tigers, the Red Sox, and the Tigers again. They need to go 30-18 if they want to stay in the race all season long. If they go 24-24 in this stretch, they’ll have a respectable .500 record, but be behind the 8-ball when it comes to making a playoff run in the second half. And if they replicate last year’s May this year…turn out the lights.

But they shouldn’t. They should be comfortably over .500 going into June. So it’s okay to get excited about where the Royals might be in two months. Just don’t forget that just as they have the wind at their backs in April and May, they’ll be running into a headwind after that.

- The unfortunate thing is that while the Royals are a respectable 4-4, they could be 5-3 or 6-2 very easily. I’m not going to get into every tactical decision that Ned Yost has made – I could, and have, written thousands of words on a single decision in the past, and there are only so many hours in the day. And truthfully, Yost’s reputation makes it easy for people to rip on him even when he’s done nothing wrong – or at least, nothing that 90% of the other managers in baseball wouldn’t have done as well.

That’s an interesting philosophical question to ask: if a manager makes a decision that is demonstrably wrong – but is the same decision most of his compatriots would make – how much should we criticize him for it? It’s demonstrably a bad idea that Yost went to Tim Collins in the tenth inning of a tie game against the Tigers instead of going to Greg Holland – but probably 25 of the other 29 managers in baseball would have done the same thing. Maybe more than 25. Managers just don’t go to their closers in tie games on the road. It’s maddening, and it deserves to be called out, but I don’t think Yost deserves to be criticized any more than Mike Matheny or Bruce Bochy would in the same situation.

I’m more critical of Yost’s decision to not pitch Holland in a tie game in the ninth inning on Opening Day, choosing to stick with Wade Davis for a second inning, because once there were runners on first and third with one out, then Yost called on Holland with no margin for error. The lack of consistency bothers me. If you don’t want to “waste” Holland to start the inning in a tie game because you want to save him for a lead that he can close out, then how you can justify wasting him later in the same inning? And if the answer is, “because the game was on the line in that situation”, well, the game was on the line when the inning started. It was a tie game. In the bottom of the ninth. I don’t understand how Yost can acknowledge the former situation calls for your best reliever, but not the latter.

But the decision that got Yost the most attention – it’s never a good sign when your tactical decisions are inviting controversy two games into the season – was the decision to let Alcides Escobar bat in the eighth inning of Game 2, with the Royals down a run and the tying run at second base. I don’t want to rehash Yost’s ridiculous “Pinch-hitting for guys gets in their dome” comments – because Yost has shown faith in Escobar in these situations for the last three years, and it’s been so helpful in developing his bat – I just want to focus, once again, on the lack of intellectual consistency here.

Jarrod Dyson was on second base at the time, because Dyson had pinch-run for Salvador Perez after Perez led off the inning with a double. Was Yost not worried about getting into Perez’s dome? An inning later, after Omar Infante hit a one-out single, Yost pinch-ran for Infante with Pedro Ciriaco. After Eric Hosmer walked, Billy Butler also walked, putting the tying run at third base and the winning run at second – and Yost pinch-ran for the runner at first base, because that runner was Billy Butler and Yost is apparently contractually obligated to pinch-run for Butler at every opportunity.

I mean, seriously: if removing a player from the game in key situations because of a perceived weakness is getting into his dome, shouldn’t Butler have PTSD by now? Yost pinch-runs for him even when his run doesn’t mean anything. Butler represented an insurance run at first base, but Yost pinch-ran for him – and took his bat out of the lineup for extra innings – to remove the remote possibility that a batter might hit a groundball too slowly to nail the batter at first base, but not too slowly to nail Butler – who would have a lead off the base, remember – at second base. The odds of that aren’t zero, but they’re a damn sight smaller than the odds that Escobar would make an out when a pinch-hitter might have driven in the tying run in the eighth inning.

So again: which is it? Is Ned Yost worried about his players’ psyche so much that he’ll take the tactical hit now so that they play better in the future, or is he not? If you’re worried that pinch-hitting for Escobar might destroy his confidence, how can you not be worried that calling for a wheelchair for Butler the second he touches first base will destroy his confidence?

The only thing I can think of is that Yost thinks that hitting ability, unlike running ability, is something you can develop over time. A poor hitter can become a good hitter with practice; a slow runner is a slow runner. Maybe he thinks that Butler will accept being pinch-run for because he knows he’s slow, but if Escobar is pinch-hit for he’ll suddenly realize he’s a poor hitter and this will break him. He might be right. But after three seasons with the Royals, it’s time to accept Escobar for who he is, and it’s time he accept who he is as well.

This obsession with pinch-running combined with disdain of pinch-hitting is hardly new. Last year Yost led all AL managers by calling for 48 pinch-runners, but called for only 79 pinch-hitters, and that was his highest number since joining the Royals. (Back in 2011, when the youth movement started and Yost wanted to give them every opportunity to learn, he only called on 36 pinch-hitters all year.)

By comparison, Bob Melvin used only 14 pinch-runners all season – but called on a pinch-hitter 166 times. Jim Leyland used 40 and 105. John Farrell used 40 and 93 – and didn’t have anyone remotely as bad as Escobar in his lineup. Yost is more aggressive than anyone when it comes to a speed edge – but is utterly uninterested in looking for an edge at the plate.

I don’t know why. But if Yost is worried about getting into Escobar’s dome, after over 2500 career plate appearances and a career .258/.295/.342 line, he has bigger issues than just having Escobar’s bat in his lineup.

- The Royals came up with an elegant solution to the complaints of people who thought they should be willing to pinch-hit for the player with the lowest OPS of any everyday hitter last year: they dropped Ciriaco, leaving them – as rumored all spring – without a backup middle infielder.

And hey, give them credit: it took almost three whole days before this decision may have cost the Royals a game. When Infante got hit in the jaw by a fastball on Monday – an injury which could have been a hell of a lot worse than it appears to be – the Royals were forced to play Danny Valencia at second base the rest of that game, and then started Valencia at second base on Tuesday. The Royals, a team with legitimate playoff aspirations, started a shortstop who can’t hit and a second baseman who can’t field – and had absolutely no one on the bench to substitute for them. They were reduced to making backup catcher Brett Hayes their emergency option at third base; presumably Mike Moustakas would have played shortstop if it came to that.

In the ninth inning of a scoreless game – scoreless even though the Royals had nine hits and three walks in the game – James Loney hit a hard but playable shot to Valencia’s right. Valencia was unable to get his glove on it and the ball rolled into right field, allowing Wil Myers to score the game’s only run from second base. Maybe a real second baseman wouldn’t have been able to get to the ball either – although even keeping the ball on the infield would have kept Myers at third base. Maybe the Royals would have lost the game in extra innings anyway. But it’s distinctly possible that having a real second baseman on the roster might have been the difference between victory and defeat.

I don’t even blame the Royals for starting Valencia for this particular game – once Infante went down, the Royals were still in that ten-day window where they couldn’t bring up a player on the 40-man roster without putting someone on the DL. The very next day, that window expired and the Royals brought up Johnny Giavotella, someone I certainly didn’t expect to see batting second in the Royals lineup on April 9th.

But I do blame the Royals for dropping Pedro Ciriaco in the first place. For what? For Aaron Brooks – a soft-tossing control specialist who hadn’t even pitched in Triple-A yet? The Royals also brought up Michael Mariot and Donnie Joseph when Tim Collins and Francisley Bueno were put on the DL; Joseph and Brooks are back in Triple-A, and not one of the three pitchers have thrown a pitch.

You want to know why? Because the Royals don’t need seven relievers. James Shields led the AL in innings pitched last year, and the Royals are paying Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie millions of dollars for their ability to soak up innings. Even though it’s early April and arms are not fully stretched out yet, in their eight games so far the Royals’ starters are averaging 6.67 innings a start. That leaves seven outs a game for the relief corps, and you don’t need a reliever for every single out.

Just as Yost’s emphasis on pinch-running over pinch-hitting is baffling, so too is the Royals’ collective emphasis on relief options over bench options. This isn’t on Yost specifically; the GM is supposed to have final say on personnel decisions. The Royals were so terrified of running out of pitchers in the 14th inning that they elected to go without a backup shortstop or second baseman in the first inning.

The decision to go with 12 pitchers isn’t atypical in today’s game. But the decision to go without a backup middle infielder is essentially unprecedented. There’s a reason why no team ever does it – because not only does it leave you exposed in the case of an injury, but it forces you to stick with what are typically two of the weakest hitters in your lineup. The Royals decided to defy 140 years of baseball conventional wisdom, and they got burned.

And the worst part is that everyone saw this coming. I mean, I wrote this at the end of January:

With Maxwell, Dyson, the backup catcher, and Emilio Bonifacio, I don’t even see where Valencia fits on the roster unless the Royals go to an 11-man pitching staff. I would support such a move – the Royals don’t need seven relievers – but of course, they have so many good relievers that it will be hard for them to get down to seven, let alone six. So I expect another move at some point, possibly late in spring training after Moustakas has already earned himself back in the Royals good graces. I expect Valencia or Maxwell to be on the move. But I’ll confess that the Royals rarely do what I expect.

Well, I got that last part right: the Royals rarely do what I expect. I said that the roster didn’t fit together then, but I never thought the Royals would go without a backup middle infielder. But they have. Emilio Bonifacio was the odd man out – and oh, by the way, is hitting .452/.500/.524 and leads the NL in both hits and stolen bases.

I am sometimes too certain with my criticisms of the Royals. I am sometimes not willing to entertain the possibility that the Royals might possess wisdom or insight that escapes me. (This is a subject I plan to write about in more detail later in the season.) I am guilty of not always acknowledging the possibility that I could be wrong.

But this is a prime exhibit in why my criticisms sometimes devolve into exasperation and outrage. The Royals refuse to carry a backup middle infielder. This refusal may have already cost them a ballgame. They have deliberately placed themselves in a situation where they can not pinch-hit for one of the game’s worst hitters last season under any circumstances. And they don’t seem to care.

Well, they cared enough to bring up Giavotella, which means they do have a backup second baseman. They still don’t have a backup shortstop. And Alcides Escobar will continue to bat come hell or high water.

- It’s too early to draw any conclusions about individual players after just eight games, so I’m just going to focus on one player and one conclusion: after eight games, Salvador Perez has eight walks.

You might think that eight games isn’t a meaningful sample size, and it’s not. But walk rate stabilizes pretty quickly; impatient hitters don’t look like Gene Tenace over even a week’s worth of games very often. Perez’s career high in walks is 21. He had never before drawn more than six walks in a calendar month. This year, he’s drawn eight walks by April 9th. (One of those is intentional, but he had also drawn one intentional walk in the months where he had six walks in the past.) This seems significant, as does the fact that he’s, you know, leading the majors in OBP.

Perez has drawn walks in six straight games, in fact. That’s not unprecedented for a Royal; it was last done in 2012, by Jarrod Dyson of all people. But it’s certainly not common. And it’s distinctly uncommon for a player who, prior to this season, had walked just 40 times in 989 plate appearances.

Plate discipline was literally the only relevant skill that Perez had not displayed prior to this season – I’m not counting speed, which is both rare and irrelevant for a catcher – and now, overnight, he seems to be the most patient hitter on the team. Yes, he’s been batting ahead of Mike Moustakas, and maybe teams are just pitching around him – but he’s never let being pitched around stop him from swinging in the past.

Anyway, it merits watching. Perez is unlike any Royals player I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve never before seen a Royals player who not only matches, but exceeds, every expectation put on him.