Saturday, April 26, 2014

Royals Today: 4/26/14.

Few things in baseball analysis are more difficult than talking about early-season trends. This is why my friend Joe Sheehan tries to write as little as possible about what’s happening on the field in April. Small sample sizes swamp everything. Anything can happen in five games, 10, 15, but it’s human nature to assume that what happens in those games is somehow real, and meaningful. (Let’s not even get into what this says about postseason coverage.)

And try as I might, I still struggle to avoid seeing trends in April data. Case in point: our friend and hero, Salvador Perez. When last we wrote, eight whole games into the season, Perez was hitting .458/.594/.625, and led the majors in OBP. He had drawn eight walks (one intentional), including walks in six straight games. As much as I knew it was a small – tiny, really – sample size, I also knew that walk rates tend to stabilize faster than batting average, and Perez was young and ever-improving and…who knows?

Two weeks later, Perez hasn’t drawn another walk. He’s barely had another hit. He’s gone 5-for-55 since, for an .091 average and an .091 OBP. He’s in the worst slump of his career, and is hitting just .203/.276/.329 for the season.

So for the thousandth time I remind myself most of all, and the rest of you as well: don’t read too much into early-season stats. Don’t read anything into early-season stats if you can.

Much has been made of Ned Yost refusing to give Perez a day off until finally, grudgingly resting him this past Thursday. I have certainly questioned this decision myself on Twitter. But the reality is that Yost hasn’t been abusing his young catcher that much, because Perez has had several days off – they’re called off-days. He had one on April 1st, and April 3rd (rainout), and April 10th, and April 14th. My general rule of thumb is that catchers are best treated as if they observe the Sabbath – they need one full day of rest out of seven. Perez started six days in a row April 4-9 before a day off, and then started nine days in a row April 15-23. He’ll get an off-day on Monday after three starts in a row, and then the Royals play 12 straight days from April 30-May 11, so he’ll need a day off in there somewhere. But as long as he’s managed appropriately, Perez could start somewhere between 145 and 150 games without setting off too many alarm signals.

But I thought Yost waited too long to give Perez a day off anyway, not because he was in danger of breaking Perez, but because Perez wasn’t hitting. Perez didn’t need a day off physically – he needed a day off mentally. If your first baseman goes 4-for-34, as Perez did from April 11 to April 19, most managers are inclined to give him a day off just to clear his head. Yost didn’t – and Perez went 0-for-13 from April 20 to 22. He homered In his first at-bat on Wednesday night, then struck out three times, and came back after his day off with another 0-for-4.

Perez is too good and too impervious – so far – to the maddening development crises that have struck virtually every other hitter developed by this regime, so I’m not too worried in the long term. But yeah, maybe it’s too soon to say that he’s figured out how to command the strike zone.

Then again, even if he doesn’t draw another base on balls between now and Wednesday, he’s still set a career high for walks in a month.

- Small sample sizes or not, the story of April for the Royals has been Yordano Ventura, or Yordano Targaryen as I’m calling him*, because 1) in his own words, Yordano throws fire and 2) I’m on a Game of Thrones kick right now.

*: Yes, I realize this has as little chance of catching on as every other nickname I’ve coined, but this is my blog, dammit, so deal with it.

For all talk of small sample sizes, when it comes to Ventura, a sample size of a single pitch is enough to explain the excitement around him: the fastball that he threw 102.9 mph, breaking his own Pitch f/x record for the fastest pitch ever delivered by a starter. Or the 13 other pitches he’s thrown this month that broke 100 mph, the most triple-digit pitches ever thrown by a pitcher in the month of April. Or his 95.9 mph average fastball velocity this year, 0.1 mph behind Garrett Richards for the title of the fastest average fastball.

His fastball is actually down about 1 mph from last year, but here’s the thing: it’s April. Fastballs are usually around 1 mph slower in April than they are in late summer, when the weather is warmer and pitchers have had several months to stretch out their arms. So if Ventura’s radar gun reading have made your heart go all a-flutter so far…just wait.

Frankly, his fastball isn’t what’s gotten my attention – we already knew he threw as hard as any man in the world. It’s his changeup, which continues to get better and better, and his curveball, which when paired with his fastball makes grown men weep – especially when they're standing 60 feet away.

Last night he topped out at 98, but had probably his most impressive start yet, because he seemed to be getting the notion that he can be even more effective throwing 94-95 with command than 99-100 without, and his off-speed stuff just made the Orioles look silly. The Orioles rank fifth in the league in scoring, and for most of the night they looked like they had no chance.

Yost opened some eyes by letting Ventura come out to pitch the 8th, and letting him throw a career-high 113 pitches despite a four-run lead. I probably wouldn’t have done it myself, but I have no real qualms with it. 113 pitches just aren’t that many. Fifteen years ago, when pitch counts were perhaps the #1 flashpoint in baseball between the analytic community and the industry as a whole, you’d see rookie starters throw 123 pitches all the time, and 133 pitches wasn’t unheard of. That we’re now in a world where 113 pitches raises eyebrows tells you just how much the game is changed. I’d be more concerned if Ventura was a 20-year-old phenom, like Jose Fernandez was last year, but Ventura is actually not that young for a rookie – he turns 23 in June. Thanks to an off-day on Monday, he’ll get five days off before his next start. And perhaps most importantly, his stuff showed no degradation as the start went on – I believe he threw more 98 mph pitches in the eighth than any other inning.

The Royals will need to be careful with Ventura’s arm going forward, but they know that. The days of Tony Muser letting a gassed Jose Rosado throw 135 pitches in a hopeless cause are a distant memory. Thank God.

I don’t know where Ventura goes from here. As I tweeted last night, I’ve never seen a Royal rookie with this kind of stuff before, probably because there hasn’t been one. Zack Greinke probably had this in him, but it took five years before he was willing to unleash the beast. Kevin Appier had a very different repertoire, with that funky delivery and hellacious slider, but I’m not sure he threw a pitch 98 mph in his life. Bret Saberhagen probably comes closest; while he didn’t throw quite this hard, he combined nasty stuff with preternatural control.

We’re Royals fans, so we know this can end badly. It can end on a single pitch and Ventura walking off the mound holding his arm, or it can end in an endless string of six-walk outings followed by a demotion to Omaha. But right now, Ventura’s the most compelling reason to tune into a game. Not into a Royals game – into any game. He’s turned Royals games into must-watch TV for the entire country. That’s a hell of a trick he’s turned. It’s almost hard to believe that last summer some moron wrote that he’d consider trading Ventura for Howie Kendrick.

- Speaking of bad decisions on my part, my constant needling of the Royals’ decision to sign Jason Vargas looks like another bit of inspired genius. Vargas is currently second in the AL with a 1.54 ERA, throwing a quality start in all five of his starts so far.

I remain unconvinced that this is indicative of a new and improved Jason Vargas. In 35 innings this year, he’s struck out 18 batters. Among the 108 pitches that currently qualify for the ERA title, Vargas’ strikeout rate of 4.63 per nine innings is the fifth-lowest in the game. (He’s behind Jeremy Guthrie, for goodness’ sake.) His FIP, an estimation of what his ERA should be, is 3.94. By comparison, Phil Hughes, who…um…has gotten off to a slow start, has a FIP of 4.04.

You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to, but in terms of the three things that pitchers control – homers, walks, and strikeouts – Vargas and Hughes have been almost identical. Hughes has more Ks (20 to 18), fewer walks (6 to 8), and the same number of homers (3) allowed. The difference between them has been a bit of skill, a fair amount of luck, and a lot of defense.

That’s the one thing I’m taking away from Vargas’ start so far – that the Royals’ defense might be as good as it was last year. While defensive metrics are sketchy even in large sample sizes, it’s worth pointing out that our friends at Fangraphs – who ranked the 2013 Royals defense the second-best defense of the last dozen years – currently rank the 2014 Royals defense as the best in baseball so far.

And as long as the Royals’ defense continues to play at this level, Vargas should continue to pitch well. Mind you, that’s true of any pitcher the Royals throw out there – it’s important to separate pitching from defense, and not to give Vargas credit for having great defenders behind him. But by being a pitch-to-contact kind of guy, Vargas is going to benefit a little more than your average pitcher from that defense. As Jeremy Guthrie showed last year, you can survive in the majors even with a terrible strikeout rate if your defense is good enough.

And even if Vargas tails off the rest of the season, his first five starts were so good that they’ll elevate his overall numbers. If he has a 4.50 ERA the rest of the season and winds up with 200 innings, Vargas’ overall ERA will be 3.98 simply by how well he’s pitched to this point.

I remain skeptical about his contract overall, given its length and my concern for his ability to continue to fool hitters, particularly in seasons where the Royals’ defense isn’t as good as it is now. But at least for 2014, he looks like everything the Royals expected him to be.

Of course, it’s still April, and remember what I just said about sample sizes.

- Even with Ventura and Vargas pitching this well, the Royals are just 11-11. The Royals’ rotation, which I (and most everyone else) thought would be their Achilles’ heel, ranks second in the league with a 3.08 ERA, and yet they’re only .500. (By the way, after a terrible start, the bullpen ranks fourth in the league with a 3.34 ERA, which seems a reasonable expectation for where they’ll finish up.)

The problem is pretty simple: after all these years, the Royals still can’t hit. I’ll spare you my Kevin Seitzer hagiography for now, but just remember: three years ago, the Royals finished 6th in the AL in runs scored, fifth in OBP, and fifth in slugging average, with a 21-year-old Eric Hosmer, a 21-year-old Salvador Perez (who didn’t come up until August), a 22-year-old Mike Moustakas, a 24-year-old Alcides Escobar, a 25-year-old Billy Butler, and a 27-year-old Alex Gordon.

The next year, they finished a disappointing 12th in runs scored, 8th in OBP, and 10th in slugging, and Seitzer got fired. Last year they finished 11th in runs, 9th in OBP, and 12th in slugging. So far this year, they’re 14th in runs, 13th in OBP, and 15th in slugging.

Whether it’s the loss of Seitzer or something else, the fact is that three years ago, the Royals had a lineup which was 1) the youngest in baseball by a wide margin and 2) above-average. It would have been disappointing enough had the offense simply not improved – but instead, it’s regressed massively. Their league ranks in OBP and slugging average have declined three straight years. And that, despite all of the organization’s many savvy (I mean that without a hint of sarcasm) moves on the pitching side of things, is why they remain a mediocre ballclub.

A year ago, the Royals were 64-13 when they scored four or more runs, but just 22-63 when they scored three or fewer. I think too much emphasis was put on those splits – the reality is that the fourth run isn’t that much more important than any other run, but the way those numbers are spun make it look that way. For instance, the Royals were 46-74 when they scored FIVE or fewer runs, but 40-2 when they scored six or more. That doesn’t make the sixth run magical any more than the fourth run was magical.

But this year, the fourth run really is magic. Eleven times the Royals have scored three or fewer runs, and they’ve lost every game. Eleven times they have scored for or more runs, and they’ve won every game. The season is not even a seventh of the way over, but still – that’s a wacky statistic.

And it tells you – or should tell you – that scoring runs is just as important as preventing them. When the Royals allow four or more runs, they are 3-9; when they allow three or fewer, they are 8-2. The Royals have won on days when their pitchers weren’t great, but they have yet to win on a day when their lineup wasn’t clicking. It’s yet another reminder that the conventional wisdom of pitching uber alles is a misguided one.