Tuesday, July 15, 2014

State Of The Royals: The Rotation.

I may or may not have been wrong to put the front office on the hot seat last month, but as time goes by it’s becoming harder for me to argue that I wasn’t wrong about Jason Vargas. Despite not calling one of the best pitchers’ parks in baseball home for the first time since 2007, Vargas is doing what he always does: give up about a hit an inning and a home run every nine innings, and make up for striking out a below-average number of hitters with very good command. His FIP this year, which calculates his expected ERA based on his walks, strikeouts, and homers allowed, is 4.10. Last year, it was 4.09. In 2011, it was 4.08.

But his ERA this year is the best of his career at 3.31, and it’s not close – his previous career high was 3.78. Some of that is luck – batters are hitting .232 with men on base compared to .277 with no one on – but most of that is defense. Nine pitchers have thrown 35 or more innings for the Royals this year, and all nine have a lower ERA than FIP. As a team, the Royals are a lowly 10th in the AL in strikeouts, 7th in homers, and 5th in walks – but rank 3rd in fewest runs allowed. It can’t be emphasized enough – so much of the credit given to the Royals’ pitching staff is actually owed to their defense.

Specifically, their outfield defense. With the standard caveat that defensive numbers are unreliable and half a season is a small sample size, here are the players who have saved the most runs defensively in the AL this season according to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved metric:

1. Josh Donaldson  17
2. Alex Gordon     17
3. Lorenzo Cain    15
4. Jackie Bradley  12
5. Jarrod Dyson    12
6. Leonys Martin   12

Keep in mind, Dyson has played less than 400 innings in the field, not even 50% of the games the Royals have played this year. You can make a compelling case that the Royals have the three best defensive outfielders in the league.

This raises a number of issues – like why the hell, exactly, are the Royals screwing around with Raul Ibanez – but for purposes of this column, it’s a reminder that the Royals’ rotation isn’t nearly as good as it looks. And that’s okay, because while the rotation isn’t great, it is perfectly designed to play to the Royals’ strengths. The Royals play in a ballpark that takes away home runs, and they have an outfield that takes away doubles and triples. That’s a setup perfect for a flyball pitcher, and Vargas is just such a beast – his career groundball rate of 37.5% is significantly lower than the league average of around 43-44%.

So while Vargas isn’t as good as he looks, 1) he’s still roughly a league-average pitcher and 2) his pitching style is perfectly catered to the Royals’ strengths. Which is pretty much exactly what the Royals claimed when they signed him. We’re only half a season into a four-year contract, and there’s still plenty of time for things to go wrong. But for now, this looks like a shrewd move by the Royals, and my criticisms of the signing look to be in error.

(Having said that…how good would Phil Hughes look in the Royals’ rotation right now? Hughes has a higher ERA (3.92) than Vargas, because he’s pitching in front of a defense that’s nearly as bad as the Royals’ defense is good. But his FIP is 2.62, thanks to a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 10-to-1 (!). He is quietly one of the breakthrough players in the major leagues this year; if he was pitching in front of the Royals’ defense, he’d probably be an All-Star. If I was wrong to think that signing Vargas was a bad idea, I wasn’t wrong to think that signing Hughes was a better idea.)

Thanks to Vargas, and thanks to the Royals finally developing two quality starters in Ventura and Duffy after not developing even one in the previous eight years, the rotation is in good shape overall. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t use an upgrade, because after getting pounded for 14 runs in 8 innings in his last two starts, Jeremy Guthrie has a 4.56 ERA. With this defense, that’s unacceptable. I expect him to do better in the second half – Guthrie is actually pitching better than he did last year, with a higher strikeout rate and the same rate of walks and homers. But last year he was gifted with an incredible and unsustainable split between runners on base and the bases empty. As much I want to #EmbraceTheLuck, the thing about luck is that it usually ends. Guthrie’s not a bad pitcher, and he’s easy to root for, but if the Royals want to contend, they need better from their fifth starter.

And then there’s James Shields. I know some people don’t want to face the uncomfortable fact that if he were pitching as well as he was expected to pitch, the Royals might well be leading the Wild Card race right now. But he’s not. His 3.65 ERA isn’t terrible, albeit not nearly an ERA worthy of an ace. But Shields’ ERA is deceiving, because he’s allowed nearly as many unearned runs (12) as the rest of the pitching staff combined (15). There’s plenty of evidence that the distinction between earned and unearned runs in modern baseball is pointless and silly; Michael Wolverton’s article originally published 10 years ago remains relevant today.

Factor in those unearned runs, and Shields has allowed 4.48 runs per nine innings – in front of the best defense in the league. (And if it doesn’t make sense why we give Shields credit for a good defense here but don’t cut him slack when the defense makes errors behind him – it’s because there’s no difference between, say, Alcides Escobar booting a groundball for an error and Escobar being unable to reach that ball before it goes into left field. When the Royals aren’t making errors, they’re getting to more balls than any other team in the league. For whatever reason, Shields is allowing more runs to score after an error than anyone else on the team.)

This is why Baseball Reference credits Shields with the grand total of 0.6 WAR this season. (By comparison, Kelvin Herrera has 1.0 WAR despite pitching just 39 innings.) Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay…you know I had to go there…Jake Odorizzi has a higher ERA (4.01) than Shields, but has allowed just one unearned run all year. And the Rays’ defense isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be. Baseball Reference credits Odorizzi with 1.0 WAR.

Yeah, Baseball Reference thinks Odorizzi has had a better season – despite pitching 30 fewer innings –  than James Shields. You might recall I wrote this in my Grantland column immediately after The Trade, in one of my rare lucid moments that wasn’t blinded by rage: “And if the Royals traded six-plus years of Wil Myers for seven combined years of control of Shields and Davis, this would almost be a fair deal…Ah, but the Royals also threw in three other prospects!”

And that’s the rub. Sure, Myers hit poorly for two months this year and then hurt his wrist. If the Royals had traded Myers for Shields and Davis straight up, you could make a strong case that the trade made the Royals a significantly better team in 2014, and that’s enough to justify it.

But they didn’t. They gave up Jake Odorizzi, who – by at least one measure – is outpitching James Shields. And is making the major league minimum. And is under contract for the next five years.

Here, let’s draw up a chart comparing what the Royals acquired and what they traded away. Start with 2013.

Acquired: James Shields (4.1 bWAR), Wade Davis (-2.1 bWAR), Elliot Johnson (0.7 bWAR)

Total value acquired: 2.7 bWAR

Traded Away: Wil Myers (1.9 bWAR), Jake Odorizzi (0.3 bWAR), Mike Montgomery (DNP), Patrick Leonard (DNP)

Total value lost: 2.2 bWAR

By this measurement, the Royals gained a grand total of a half-win in 2013…and spent roughly $12 million in extra salaries to do so.

Now 2014.

Acquired: James Shields (0.6 bWAR), Wade Davis (2.0 bWAR)

Traded Away: Wil Myers (-0.7 bWAR), Jake Odorizzi (1.0 bWAR)

(By the way, how bad was Wade Davis last year? So bad that even accounting for his performance this year, he is still below replacement value overall with the Royals.)

Seems like a big gap – the Royals picked up 2.6 bWAR and traded away 0.3 bWAR. But wait! We have to account for the fact that in order to fill the void in right field caused by Myers’ departure, the Royals traded Will Smith for Norichika Aoki.

Acquired: James Shields (0.6 bWAR), Wade Davis (2.0 bWAR), Norichika Aoki (-0.7 bWAR) = 1.9 bWAR

Traded Away: Wil Myers (-0.7 bWAR), Jake Odorizzi (1.0 bWAR), Will Smith (0.5 bWAR) = 0.8 bWAR

So far this season, the Royals have picked up about one extra win because of the trade – and spent roughly $19 million in extra salaries to do so. Even if you factor the Aoki/Smith deal separately, the Royals have spent an extra $17-18 million to pick up 2.3 additional bWAR. That’s higher than the market rate for wins if the Royals had just signed a free agent instead.

And next year, while the Royals will have Wade Davis on a $7 million option, and a draft pick for Shields, they will have lost Myers, Odorizzi, and Smith, all of whom will be making around the major league minimum again in 2015. And again in 2016. Oh, and Mike Montgomery, who’s having his best season in the minors since 2010, and Leonard, who’s hitting .288/.375/.489 as a 21-year-old in high-A ball.

And keep in mind that while I like to use Baseball Reference’s WAR stat because it’s convenient to use, if I had switched to Fangraphs’ WAR metric – which takes into account not just runs allowed but a pitcher’s peripherals – the results wouldn’t have changed much. Shields looks much better by fWAR…but so does Odorizzi, who has struck out 116 batters in 101 innings this year. That would be the highest strikeout rate in Royals history for anyone with 90 or more innings.

The Royals claim that Shields adds incalculable value in the clubhouse, and I agree. I agree that he adds value, and I agree that we can’t calculate it. Shields may indeed deserve tremendous credit for Danny Duffy’s turnaround, if his example has helped Duffy realize the value of harnessing his emotions on the mound and not losing his cool. It’s also possible that Shields deserves only a small amount of credit, and the true credit goes to that outfield defense, as Duffy is even more of a flyball pitcher than Vargas (career groundball rate of 35.7%). Maybe Duffy has realized that if he pitches to contact, Gordon and Cain and Dyson will run it down, and that’s why his walk rate is more than a third lower than it was prior to this season.

But to justify The Trade, you pretty much have to hang your hat on the notion that Shields is single-handedly the reason why Duffy and Ventura are two of the best young starters in the league this year, because you can’t justify it with his performance on the mound. Now if Shields goes into Anaheim on the final Monday of September and shoves it for seven innings against Mike Trout and Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and Wade Davis then comes in and overpowers the Angels in the eighth, and the Royals win the winner-take-all Wild Card game…well, that victory alone may justify anything and everything. But right now, I remain about as convinced that it was a bad trade as I was 19 months ago. If the Royals do make the playoffs this year, they probably would have made the playoffs had they not made the trade. And if they don’t make the playoffs next year – or in 2016, or 2017, or 2018, or 2019 – they might well have made the playoffs had they not made the trade.

Getting back to 2014, the question is whether the Royals would be best served by making a trade for a starting pitcher. I’m of the opinion that any trade which makes the Royals a better team this season has to be explored, but as we saw on Sunday, the Royals don’t have to be desperate here. Bruce Chen stepped in for Jason Vargas and was solid if not spectacular, and the Royals won. This shouldn’t have been a surprise despite Chen’s lofty ERA; he is the one exception to the ERA-is-better-than-FIP rule this year. He actually has a lower FIP (3.14) than Vargas, but has a 6.46 ERA thanks to a ridiculous .402 BABIP. That’s a fluke; he’s pitched all of 31 innings this year, and I remain confident in his ability to be the perfect swingman, capable of filling whatever role the Royals need him for competently.

The Royals have what every contender needs: six viable options for their starting rotation. As we saw when Aaron Brooks was called up, they sure as hell don’t have seven. And only four of those starters are guys you really want to see on the marquee in September. But with Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel off the market, and a dozen teams looking at David Price and Cole Hamels and every other halfway-decent starting pitcher on the market, I fear that the cost of upgrading the rotation is simply too steep for the Royals to pay. But I wouldn’t particularly upset if, in the next two weeks, they find a way to prove me wrong.

Monday, July 14, 2014

State Of The Royals: The Bullpen.

After doing their best over the last generation to send me to an early grave, the Royals are now trying to kill my professional reputation. Almost immediately after I buried them in the Kansas City Star and put the front office on double-secret probation, the Royals went on their longest winning streak in 20 years. When that streak had concluded and the Royals were atop the AL Central at the 70-game mark since before the AL Central even existed, I had no choice but to start the embarrassing yet exhilarating process of taking back all the mean things I had written about the team over the past two years.

Naturally, they then got swept at home by the Mariners, beginning a stretch in which they went 8-13, and lost six straight against the two teams they need to beat most, the Mariners (for the Wild Card) and the Tigers (for the AL Central) before winning yesterday. So I think it’s safe to say that I have no idea what’s going on with this team, and I should stop making any kind of predictions about them.

If you want to be pessimistic, you can focus on the fact that as bad as it has been for the Royals recently, it could be – should be – a lot worse. The Royals have won more than a few games this year either because their opponents gave the game away or through sheer dumb luck. The quintessential example of this is the opening game in Toronto on May 29th, when Salvador Perez hit a routine ground ball to shortstop Jose Reyes with the Royals losing and two out in the ninth. But Reyes bounced a routine throw to first base, Jarrod Dyson motored around from second base to tie the game, and the Royals won in extra innings.

Exactly one month later, the Royals won the rubber game at home against the Angels when in the sixth inning Albert Pujols was thrown out stretching a single into a double – no, that’s not accurate, he was thrown out sauntering a single into a double, because he apparently confused Alex Gordon with Alex Trebek and couldn’t be bothered to even slide into second base. It was the kind of Little League baserunning that would have caused a riot in the press box if, say, Yasiel Puig had done it, but because it was St. Albert, it was pretty much ignored even though Erick Aybar hit a home run two batters later. This meant the game was tied in the ninth instead of an Angels lead, and then Howie Kendrick muffed the pivot on a potential inning-ending double play ball by Perez, and Omar Infante hit the walk-off single one batter later.

And then there was Wednesday’s game in Tampa Bay, in which the Royals had stranded a hundred baserunners and appeared doomed to lose the rubber game just ahead of the crucial four-game series against Detroit. With two on and one out in the ninth, Perez skied a high fly ball that managed to travel 338 feet – into Crawford’s Corner down the left field line, where the fence at Tropicana Field juts in sharply, and turned a ball that would have been an out in 13 other American League parks (I’m guessing it would have hit off the Green Monster in Boston) into a game-winning home run. It might be the shortest over-the-fence home run of such import in Royals history. (It was only the 27th home run in team history that turned a deficit into a lead in the ninth inning or later, so that statement isn’t as outlandish as it sounds.)

And proving once again that the notion of momentum in sports is an absurd fallacy that should have been abandoned generations ago, the Royals followed up their biggest win of the season by coming home and getting spanked by Detroit, 16-4, their most lopsided loss of the year.

That’s what the pessimists will say. An optimist will point to the Royals' 10-18 record in one-run games and make the convincing argument that the Royals have simply been very unlucky in close games, and given that they have maybe the best one-two relief combo in baseball, there’s no reason why their luck can’t turn around in a heartbeat.

There’s validity in both arguments, which is why they cancel each other out. The Royals have outscored their opponents by five runs all season, which leads to an expected record of 48-46. They are 48-46.

The bottom line is that the Royals have not played well enough to make the playoffs, not even the Mediocrity Parade that is the second Wild Card race in the American League. If they continue to trend downward, they aren’t that far away from restoring the narrative that it’s time to blow everything up, including the front office – they are merely four games ahead of the White Sox and Twins, who are tied for last place in the division. But let’s assume that they’re still in it for this season, which is reasonable given that 1) they’re only 2.5 games behind the Mariners, who hold the final Wild Card spot right now, and 2) this front office is all-in for 2014, so unless and until they get fired, the Royals will be buyers, not sellers, at the deadline.

But with the All-Star Break upon us, it’s time to take an unflinching look at where the Royals are, how they can get better, and whether they can be good enough to win. Let’s start with the bullpen.

A year after posting the lowest bullpen ERA (2.55) by any AL team since 1990, the Royals’ bullpen ranks a mediocre 7th in the league with a 3.62 ERA. No position in baseball regresses as fast as relievers do, and we can’t be surprised by this.

What is surprising is that the two guys the Royals were most counting on haven’t regressed at all; they might even be better than expected. Greg Holland hasn’t been quite as good as last year; he’s given up more walks, hits, and home runs per inning than last year, and his ERA has jumped over 50%. Of course, it’s “jumped” from 1.21 to 1.82, and he’s surrendered fewer than one baserunner per inning. Last year, Holland had the highest strikeout rate (40.4%) in Royals history (min: 30 innings). This year, he has the third-highest strikeout rate (39.3%) in Royals history.

And the second-highest rate in Royals history (40.3%) is currently occupied by his set-up man, Wade Davis. Davis replaced Luke Hochevar, who was outstanding last year (1.92 ERA, batters hit .169/.227/.306 against him), and has been even better, with a 1.13 ERA and an opponent’s line of .112/.221/.112. Going back to last September, when he moved back to the bullpen, Davis has not allowed an extra-base hit in 39 straight games covering 43.2 innings.

With the caveat that the Play Index only allows you to search for consecutive games, not consecutive innings, here are the longest streaks without allowing an extra-base hit by a reliever that I was able to find:

Pitcher         Year        IP

Greg Cadaret    1988-89    47.1
Frank Linzy     1967       46.2
Larry Andersen  1990       45.1
Terry Forster   1978-79    44.1
Frank Williams  1986-87    44.0
Wade Davis      2013-14    43.2

Larry Andersen’s stretch was so impressive that the impending free agent middle reliever was traded during it for a prospect named Jeff Bagwell.

It’s much more difficult to search for starting pitchers, so it’s possible that a starter has had a longer stretch. But I can’t rule out the possibility that, with another week of dominant pitching, Wade Davis will have gone longer without giving up an extra-base hit than any pitcher in major league history.

So the difference between this year’s bullpen and last year’s bullpen isn’t the 1-2 guys. It’s everyone else. What distinguished last year’s bullpen wasn’t simply that Holland and Hochevar were so good, it’s that literally no one was bad. And I mean literally no one: 13 pitchers made more than half their appearances out of the bullpen for the Royals last year, and every one of them had an ERA of under 4, all the way down to Everett Teaford, who threw two-thirds of an inning. This year, 13 pitchers have made more than half their appearances out of the pen, and six of them have ERAs above 4. (And that doesn’t include Aaron Brooks, who made one start and one relief appearance, and sucked both times.)

Louis Coleman had a 0.61 ERA last season. He has a 7.48 ERA this season. The Royals aren’t blowing leads in the 8th and 9th inning; they’ve lost just one game all year that they were leading after seven innings. But they’re getting killed in the middle innings, and in tie games. They’re 5-10 in games that are tied after six innings, and have a losing record in games that are tied at the end of every inning between the second and the seventh.

They have two other effective relievers besides Davis and Holland in Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow. My skepticism in Crow’s ability is well-documented, and he gave up two home runs to the Tigers Saturday night – he has a 2.75 ERA, but just 21 strikeouts in 39 innings, and that’s not sustainable. I have much more confidence in Herrera, and he has mostly justified it this year – he has a 2.08 ERA and hasn’t allowed a home run all season. He’s not pitching quite that well; his once pinpoint command is gone (16 walks in 39 innings), and while his fastball has lost a bit of velocity this year, he’s throwing his changeup a little harder, which isn’t a good combination. Still, he’s a very good seventh inning guy.

The problem is that in today’s game you really need two seventh inning guys, and you also need a lefty. Thanks to Tim Collins losing the strike zone this year, the Royals don’t have either. Collins is back in Triple-A, and while he’s dominating hitters down there, he continues to walk enough guys (six in 12 innings since his return engagement there started two weeks ago) that the Royals justifiably have no confidence that he can get hitters to chase his stuff if he returns to the majors. Collins’ absence means that a contending team is actually going with Francisley Bueno as its #1 left-hander out of the pen. The Royals claimed 38-year-old Scott Downs off waivers and have already given him important innings. Bruce Chen could have an important role as a lefty out of the pen, at least once Jason Vargas returns from his appendectomy.

But in the meantime, the Royals have a real need for one more good reliever in their bullpen, which is why they turned to Yordano Ventura in a key spot yesterday, a wise if unrepeatable decision. The lack of that extra reliever was glaring on Tuesday against Tampa Bay when the Royals entrusted Bueno to keep a 2-1 deficit from expanding in the eighth inning. (Kelvin Herrera was the obvious man to pitch there; afterwards the Royals claimed he had tightness in his shoulder and wasn’t unavailable.) A cynic would point out that they had the perfect guy for that role in Will Smith, who they traded to Milwaukee to get Nori Aoki for one season to fill the void in right field created by the…but we’re not going to go there. (And in fairness, after having a 1.36 ERA through the end of June, Smith gave up 9 runs in 2 innings in his first three appearances of July, taking the loss in two of those games and blowing a save in the other. I’d still love to have him on my team for the next five years.)

It seems kind of galling that the Royals, who had a historically good bullpen last year, would find themselves needing to trade for a reliever the very next season. But that’s the nature of bullpens, which are, after all, made up of relievers. The good news is that unless you’re trading for an elite closer-type guy, you can usually get a reliever of some utility at the trading deadline for a minor prospect. (We should know. The Royals have dealt many such relievers away over the years, and with rare exceptions – Collins himself in the Kyle Farnsworth/Rick Ankiel trade – haven’t gotten anything substantial in return.)

If the Royals have truly given up on Collins, you would think that he alone would bring back a highly useful reliever. Collins, keep in mind, is still just 24 years old – I mean, he’s younger than Michael Mariot. He’s under club control for three more years after this one, and even at arbitration-enhanced salaries, he’d be a heck of a guy to take a flyer on for a rebuilding team that’s looking to deal a quality reliever in his contract year.

Whether the Royals deal Collins – who I would miss, both for his unique physical characteristics and for his consistently above-average performance – or go the more conventional route of trading a second-tier prospect, I fully expect them to acquire a reliever sometime between now and the trading deadline. It’s almost de rigueur for a team that fashions itself a contender to make a deal for a reliever in July unless that team has a truly elite bullpen. Last year, the Royals had one. This year, they don’t. Last year, they won most of their close games. This year, they’re not. One more reliever might not change their fortunes, but the Royals can’t afford not to take the gamble that it will.