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Reports are Sal Perez is on his way to Kansas City.

About time.

It’s strange to think this way, but it just feels like the Royals are already Sal’s team. He’s the guy. The one they can’t afford to have out of the lineup.

I mean, we’re talking about a guy with 158 career major league plate appearances. How the hell can he be the big kahuna on a major league team with so little experience?

All I know is what I’ve read and heard discussed from various players and team officials. The guy oozes professionalism and commands respect.

As a writer with a SABR bent, I’m supposed to mock the leadership angle. (Francoeur? Too easy.) But there is no denying that something really cool started last summer when the young guys were brought up to the majors. And it kind of feels like it’s been placed on hold while Perez has been rehabbing. It’s been interesting to me to see the amount of respect he holds within the realm of the clubhouse. Leadership won’t get you wins, but there’s something about it that makes it crazy fun to watch.

Is Sal the Savior? I don’t think so. Defensively, he’s going to be awesome. As long as his knee holds. And I seriously doubt the Royals would be putting him behind the plate if he wasn’t 100 percent ready.

I know many of you are excited by his offensive performance from last season, but there was nothing in his minor league history to indicate he was capable of that. He finished with a line of .331/.361/.473, which was just insane. Yes, he was hitting .340/.365/.380 in Omaha, but I really don’t think we can insert him into the lineup and expect those kind of numbers.

He will be a huge upgrade over the Pena/Quintero tandem, though. And that’s good enough for me.

If Sal is behind home plate tonight, it will feel like Opening Day, Part 2. Welcome home, Sal.

The Bases Are Drunk. A lot.

Jonathan Sanchez has faced 15 batters with the bases loaded – defined as “grand slam opportunities” by Baseball Reference. That’s the second most in the American League this year. The Rangers Yu Darvish has the most in the AL with 16. Interesting. Especially given the fact that Sanchez has thrown 36 innings. Darvish has twirled 89 innings.

Fortunately, in each grand slam opportunity, Sanchez has kept the ball in the yard. Still, 15 opportunities in 36 innings… And you thought Jonathan Broxton pitched on a tightrope.

Sanchez has contributed the lion’s share of the Royals league leading total of pitching with 74 grand slam opportunities. Fortunately, they’ve surrendered just a single slam.

The Twins – with the worst pitching in the league – have faced just 42 grand slam opportunities.

I have no idea what this means…

High Leverage Pen

Not only is the Royals bullpen really good, they’ve been doing it under tremendous pressure. According to Baseball Reference, the bullpen’s average Leverage Index (aLI) is 1.094, which is tops in the league. In fact, only three bullpens have an aLI greater than 1, which is “average” pressure.

Royals – 1.094
Tigers – 1.058
Orioles – 1.054

The Orioles have the best bullpen in the league, according to ERA at 2.38. I’m thinking the high leverage combined with the quality of performance is a huge reason the O’s are leading the uber competitive AL East. The Tigers bullpen ERA is 3.89, which is the second worst rate in the league, better than only the Indians. So I’m thinking the high leverage combined with the poor performance (relative to the league) is a reason the Tigers are scuffling.

The Royals may blow that hypothesis out of the water. Their bullpen ERA of 2.93 is seventh best in the AL, yet they’re nipping at the heels of the Tigers.

It boils down to the offense. The Royals are plating just 3.88 runs per game, while the tigers are scoring 4.4 per contest. That difference of 0.5 runs per game may be enough to offset the Royals bullpen advantage.

I still think the Tigers are the favorites in the Central. But they’ll need their pen to improve. Meanwhile, in a weak division, it’s the pen keeping the Royals in the hunt. If they can get their offense to pick up, they’ll be able to prevent the Tigers from gaining separation.

It’s a simplistic analysis, but sometimes the simple things help you gain the most clarity.

I may be coming around on this whole contention thing.

Dismal.  

That is my complete analysis of the three game sweep at the hands of the Pirates.

Currently, Wil Myers is hitting .341/.388/.714 through right at 100 AAA plate appearances.    He has been playing centerfield in Omaha, but I have yet to get any definitve review of how he has been playing centerfield.   Is he Jeff Francoeur with a touch more range?  David DeJesus minus the instincts?  Melky Cabrera only…well, Melky Cabrera?   Maybe Myers will fall in with the Moustakas syndrome.  You know, we all thought that Moustakas might be passable defensively at third, only to see him be a very good defensive third baseman (at least preliminarily).  Maybe Myers could be the same sort of deal in center.  Maybe.

For fun, I did exhaustively comprehensive research in the last four and one-half minutes, and pulled the leaders in wOBA from Fangraphs and reviewed how many AAA plate appearances each of them had before hitting the major leagues.   The results, as you might imagine from such a small sample size is quite varied:

  • Joey Votto – 580 AAA plate appearances
  • Josh Hamilton – 0
  • Paul Konerko – 868
  • Carlos Gonzalez – 237 (Cargo played half a season with Oakland, then got 223 more AAA PA’s after getting traded to Colorado the next year)
  • David Wright – 134 (only 272 more in AA – all in the same season)
  • Mark Trumbo – 595
  • Ryan Braun – 134 (only 257 in AA as well)
  • Josh Willingham – 279 (Josh was 26 when he made the majors and was still playing A ball at age 24)
  • Carlos Beltran – 0 (just 208 in AA as well)
  • Bryan LaHair – 2,709

LaHair and Willingham are fun cases in that we often just discount those types of players as ‘too old for their level’ and ‘AAAA’ types.  Most times they are, but it is wise to remember that sometimes they are not. 

For our purposes, however, Wright, Beltran and Braun are noteworthy.  Myers already has more AA at-bats than any of them and is closing in on the amount of time Braun and Wright spent in AAA.   Beltran, who skipped AAA entirely, got a cup of coffee at the end of 1998 and then won Rookie of the Year honors in 1999.   He did end up spending some time in AAA in 2000, but that situation might apply more to a discussion on Eric Hosmer than Wil Myers.

Certainly and without question, those three players are elite level talents and highly thought of prospects on their way up.   However, isn’t that what most think Wil Myers might be?  Now, you could deal Ryan Braun out of the equation given that he was a college player prior to being drafted, but both Beltran and Wright were not and both were in the majors before age 21.   The point is not to call up Wil Myers this very second, but only to show a very few examples of some really good prospects who spent very little time in getting to the majors.

Of course, the Royals are not a ‘Wil Myers’ away from contention.  Had they drafted Chris Sale instead of Christian Colon and Tim Lincecum instead of Luke Hochevar (or Clayton Kershaw or even Brandon Morrow), then maybe the Royals would be just one player away.   The question is, just how many players away are they?

Let’s remember that even great teams don’t have great players at every position.  They all have a Jeff Francoeur or a Jarrod Dyson or a Johnny Giavotella in their lineup and a Hochevar in the rotation.   Truthfully, it is a bit unfair to even lump Frenchy in with the others.   He is not a good major leaguer, but he is a legitimate major league player:  decent enough to play right and bat seventh on a contending team.

For better or worse, the Royals are set at six spots in the lineup:  Gordon, Moustakas, Escobar, Hosmer, Butler and Perez.  If that core group does not perform over the next two to three years, then this discussion is irrelevant and Dayton Moore will not longer by your general manager.   That group is, as a unit, is not getting it done right now, but let’s pretend (if nothing else) that they will start doing so soon. 

In addition to that core, the Royals have a very good and very deep bullpen and one and one-half starting pitchers.  Bruce Chen is not a number one on any team, but he can certainly be a number four starter on a contender.   Felipe Paulino is good, when he’s healthy.   There is a pitcher like this on a lot of teams.  Hell, Jonathan Sanchez was that guy for the Giants when they won the World Series.

So, where are we?   Right back to where we all thought the Royals were in March?  Two good starting pitchers away from being decent?  Pretty much.

Truthfully, one really good starter and two ‘better than what they have now’ starting pitchers away from being pretty solid.   Throw in Wil Myers and you are getting there.   If Wil Myers can really handle centerfield, then Kansas City moves to very good.   Big ‘if’, but an intriguing if and one that should be explored once the Royals are willing to roll the dice on the Super Two timing as it relates to Myers’ service time.

Myers would make the Royals better and certainly more interesting, but the truth is it doesn’t matter when Vin Mazzaro and Luis Mendoza are your number three and four starters.   IF Paulino could get and stay healthy and IF Jake Odorizzi continues to appear to be and eventually becomes the ‘real deal’, then you could line up Odorizzi, Paulino and Chen in the rotation for the second half with the hope that Danny Duffy could be back by the middle of 2013 to be your number five starter.   That group has some hope.

Of course, that leaves a big blank spot at the top of the rotation.   Your move, Mr. Moore.

xxx

 

Toward the end of last season, I wrote about Luke Hochevar and how I felt he turned the proverbial corner in his underwhelming career. Success, I thought, hinged on the development of a slider as his out pitch. It was so impressive, I dubbed it the Atomic Slider.

Players go on streaks. They can fool fans into thinking a player is better (or worse) than he really is. Given Hochevar’s underwhelming career up to July 2011, it was easy to look at his solid second half and dismiss it as just a hot streak. A guy who made some quality pitches, got on a roll and rode it to a higher strikeout rate and a lower ERA. As someone who likes to look beyond the numbers, I thought there was more to Hochevar’s hot streak than just blind luck. It was the slider, damnit.

In the post from last year, I noted Hochevar began dropping his release point on the slider. This accomplished two things. First, it provided deception as it was leaving his hand at the same point as his sinking fastball. Second, the pitch had a tighter spin, therefore a stronger break.

The results were amazing. After getting a swing and a miss just 12 percent of the time on his slider in the first half, his swing and miss rate leapt to 23 percent once he dropped his release point. Even more impressive was that when Hochevar threw his slider in the second half, he threw it for a strike 74 percent of the time. It was a devastating pitch where his strikeout rate jumped from 4.6 SO/9 in the first half to 7.7 SO/9 in the second half.

So you can understand why I dubbed it the Atomic Slider.

Even better, because this was a mechanical change, I figured it was something he could repeat. This wasn’t blind luck. There was something concrete we could point to as a reason for success. Maybe he wouldn’t throw the slider for a strike three quarters of the time, but if he could keep that whiff rate above 20 percent, he would evolve into an anchor of what figured to be a shaky rotation. I never went so far to think Hochevar was a number one type (an ace, if you will) but I figured he could be a decent number two.

I was wrong.

Before we go further, let’s look at some charts from Texas Leaguers. The first one, is the release point of his slider in the first half of 2011.

Contrast that to the release points from the second half of last season:

You can see how he lowered his release point. Again, it was the key to his second half surge.

Now, we know how brutal Hochevar has been in 2012. Awful. Terrible. Pick a negative adjective and that’s our Hochevar.

That Atomic Slider? It’s a dud.

Here’s his release point in his starts so far this year.

He’s back to where he was to open the 2011 season. For the love of Steve Carlton, what has he done to his slider? Here are the vital stats on his Unatomic Slider:

The key takeaway from the above table is the horizontal movement – or the “slide” of the slider. Hochevar was getting a little over 2 feet of movement from release to the catcher’s glove at the start of 2011. When he dropped his arm angle, he added a half foot of movement. A huge jump. It should be noted that the average major league slider has a horizontal break of around 2.5. Suddenly, Hochevar possessed a pitch that hitters couldn’t reach.

This year, he’s lost his second half gains from 2011 and knocked off another quarter foot of movement for good measure. His above average slider is now decidedly below average.

Don’t believe me? Check the results on his slider:

Yes, he’s throwing his 2012 slider for strikes, but that’s because they’re catching more of the plate because they lack horizontal movement. His percentage of sliders fouled off and in play has increased. According to FanGraphs Pitch Type Linear Weights, his slider last year was worth 3.42 runs saved, making it his best pitch in his arsenal. This year, that number is 0.41.

This chart from FanGraphs puts the issue into a broader perspective. The red dots are the average horizontal movement per start of his slider. Note how low his movement was in 2009. Further, find the uptick in movement in the middle of 2011. Finally, look where he is in 2012. Not good.

Hochevar just can’t find the consistency of his slider, and it seems to be affecting the rest of his game. He doesn’t have the mental fortitude to battle through an outing where he struggles with what should be his best pitch. To me, it all falls back on the release point. And for some reason, looking at the above chart, if Hochevar’s slider is flat, all of his pitches are flat. If one pitch is crushable, all his other pitches are crushable. Awful.

While I’ve highlighted the decline of Hochevar’s slider, that’s not the only pitch he’s “lost.” His fastball and his change are getting hammered. His batting average on balls in play is an astronomical .385 and his strand rate is an abysmally low 50%. Obviously, those numbers will regress to the mean over the course of the next five months. But that’s dependent on Hochevar not pitching with his head jammed up his backside. Besides, in his case the mean is still a below average pitcher.

I’ve officially thrown in the towel on Hochevar. He found success, but can’t figure out how to repeat it. One step forward and two giant leaps back. It’s maddening. And frustrating. And just a pain in the ass. He’ll have a decent start at some point and the Royals PR machine will stumble into overdrive to tell us how Hochevar has turned the corner or some such nonsense. Don’t believe it.

Sadly, a winter where the largest addition to the rotation was Jonathan “Ball Four” Sanchez, there’s little alternative the Royals have but to keep throwing Hochevar and his Unatomic Slider out there every fifth day. I figure for the rest of the season we’ll see a pattern of one decent start, one of average quality and two stinkers. He just doesn’t have it within himself to be a consistent, successful starting pitcher.

Last night, Ned Yost wrote down a lineup whose number four through eight hitters combined had ZERO home runs.   Jarrod Dyson, batting lead-off, also has not hit a dinger and Alcides Escobar batting ninth has only one.  Basically, it was Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and no hope…right?   Well, dummy, of course the Royals win with that lineup against Jon Lester.  We all should have known.

Sure, the Red Sox outfielders certainly helped the Royals along and, to be honest, this is hardly the starting nine that Boston fans expected to be on the field when the year started.  Of course, this was hardly the nine that Royals’ fans expected, either.   Let’s call it even and let’s call it what it was:  a good win and a good homestand.

The Royals finished 4-3 on this homestand:  finally winning at home, finally beating a left-handed starter and hopefully giving themselves a good dose of relaxation.    This team started the year anxious, hyped up and fell flat on their faces.  Now, one would hope they should be in something of a groove.

A 4-3 road trip followed by a 4-3 homestand, while not ‘hot’, is certainly in a groove (which is different than a rut, which is different than what Luke Hochevar is in, but I digress).  In fact, if the Royals could win 8 games out of every 14 until the end of June, they would be back at .500.    Realistic?  Maybe.

The Royals head on the road to play three at Chicago and two at Texas.  The Rangers flat out scare the crap out of me, but even though they are playing better than expected, the White Sox are considerably less imposing.    Two out of five on this short trip would not be a disaster, while three out of five would be a great success.

After that, KC comes home to play two against Baltimore (are they for real?  I’m skeptical) and three against Arizona.   Combined with the five games on the road, coming out of this ten game stretch, I would take a 5-5 record right now and head out on a nine game road journey to New York, Baltimore and Cleveland.   That is followed by six games at home against Minnesota and Oakland, then three games at Pittsburgh.

That is twenty-eight games, two groups of fourteen.  Do you see a couple of 8-6 records in there?  Maybe, maybe not.  I know for a fact it won’t happen unless:

The Starting Pitching Stops Going Short

Truthfully, it is kind of amazing the Royals managed to go 8-6 with some of the starting pitching performances that occurred during this span.    In eight of the last eleven games, Royals’ starters have not made it out of the sixth inning.  In six of those they have not made it out of the fifth.   The bullpen, as expected, has been very good (hell, who is kidding who, it’s been great) and Ned Yost and Dayton Moore have done a nice job of cycling guys through to keep it semi-fresh, but you can’t keep doing that.

I am not asking for seven innings plus, but the starting rotation cannot implode on back to back nights, bracketed by five inning grueling performances.   There are not enough relievers in the universe to cover for that all summer.   With one exception, Bruce Chen has given the Royals’ innings and one would hope that Danny Duffy will start to as well.  The addition of Felipe Paulino and the subtraction of Jonathan Sanchez from the rotation can’t hurt, either.

More innings, gentlemen.   More, better innings, please.

Just Hit Eric

He’s going to hit, you hope that Eric Hosmer starts doing it before summer and certainly before next year.   Although it made last night’s lineup look pretty funky, sitting Hosmer for a day was a sound idea.   Frankly, I’m a little surprised Yost did not do it sooner or at least have Hosmer DH for a couple of days just to change things up.    While Hosmer had some pretty bad hitting luck during a lot of this year, lately his contact has been less solid and, frankly, Eric looks a little lost at the plate (or worse, looks a little like Mark Reynolds).

I would have no problem with Hosmer swapping places in the order with Mike Moustakas (man, is he playing well or what?) and, as mentioned above, spending a day or two at DH just to give him something different to think about.  I’m not Kevin Seitzer, (even though I did hit .556 at Fantasy Camp) but my advice to Eric Hosmer is to stop thinking so much and just swing the stick.

Hosmer’s going to hit…eventually.   When he does, the Royals’ lineup goes from alright to really good.

LET THEM PLAY, NED.

There exists a very good probability that if I was a major league manager, I would want to ‘manage all the time’ as well.  I mean, that is Ned Yost’s job and is one where every single decision, including where you stand in the dugout, can and will be second guessed.  It’s the nature of the beast, it’s not going to change and, frankly, there is nothing wrong with that.

That said, Yost needs to let the games unfold on their own sometimes.   This team, if you assume Hosmer will hit and Francoeur will sort of hit, once in a while, will score runs all on their own.  The Royals swing the bats well enough that they don’t have to manufacture runs (there is a time and place of that, but it is nowhere near as often as Yost thinks), they don’t have to force the issue and risk running into outs at a breakneck pace.  

Believe in your lineup and let them score runs.  Besides, Ned, with this starting rotation, you will have many, many chances to ‘manage’ each night.

After a dismal beginning, this team has won on a regular basis over the past couple of weeks.  They have done so without playing really good baseball and certainly with the handicap of poor starting pitching.  There have been baserunning gaffes, defensive miscues and questionable strategy, but the Royals have managed to grind out a nice 8-6 run.

Taking whatever opinion you might have of Ned Yost, positive or negative, out of the equation, whether this team can keep moving forward will come down to the other two issues above.   Eric Hosmer needs to hit and hit a lot and the rotation is whatever form it becomes needs to take games into the sixth inning.   

Easier said then done to be sure, but doable…..maybe.

xxx

 

When Luke Hochevar stepped to the mound yesterday afternoon to start the third inning, it was the beginning of his 614th career major league inning.  Six runs and just two outs later, Hochevar’s day was done and it marked the end of this writer holding out hope that Hochevar will ever be something more than what he basically is.

Through 613.2 innings, Hochevar has a career 5.46 earned run average.  He has allowed 662 hits and 70 home runs, while striking out 5.9 batters per nine innings and walking 3.1 per nine.   Through 706 innings (which is everything but his truly horrible 2011 campaign), Kyle Davies allowed 792 hits, 92 home runs, struck out 6.3 per nine and walked 4.3 per nine; pitching to a 5.49 earned run average.   Davies was a very poor major league starting pitcher and Luke Hochevar is better than him…but not by a wide margin.

To be fair, Hochevar’s career FIP is 4.40 and his xFIP is 4.29, which would seem to indicate that he is, or at least should be, a better pitcher than his traditional numbers imply.   That said, Hochevar does not pass the eye test any longer.   He is an inconsistent pitcher who, after 600 major league innings, does not look much different than he did after 129 major league innings.

Hochevar has made six starts this season and in three has failed to get past the fourth inning.  In those three starts, Luke has allowed SEVEN earned runs twice and NINE another time.   This is not a ‘rut’ or a ‘rough patch’, this is bad, bad pitching. 

Last year, after the All-Star Break, Hochevar threw 79 innings, allowing 66 hits, struck 68, walked 24 and posted a 3.52 ERA.   That run came on the heels of two starts where Luke allowed 11 runs over 8 innings.   He has been awful before and gotten better.   Heck, pull the game logs from any of Luke’s seasons and you can find a string of bad starts and a string of good starts.  You can find some truly masterful games and some truly horrific outings.   You can find them in each and every season and that’s the point:  it isn’t getting any better. 

In fact, it might be getting worse.

Short of the three season ending starts for Hochevar way back in 2009, where he allowed 21 earned runs in a combined 14 innings, this stretch of three awful starts in six tries might well be the worst of Luke’s career.   They come at a time when many of us believed that Hochevar had or at least should be turning the corner and becoming a consistent middle of the rotation starter.

He is 28 years old and 600 innings into his career, coming off a 2011 season where he made 31 starts and threw 198 innings.   THIS was the year.     Apparently, 2012 is the year we all become convinced that Hochevar will never be more than a fringe rotation contributor.   The guy at the front of the line to be replaced if Mike Montgomery and his new release point come of age in Omaha.

I know what you might be saying.   Just a couple weeks back I was still on the Hochevar bandwagon.  He had three decent starts out of four and seemed to have discovered increased effectiveness through the increased use of his off-speed pitches.   You might also offer that as bad as Luke’s three starts have been, he has given his team a chance to win half the time he takes the mound and that every starter has bad starts.

Every starter does have bad starts and they might well end up being tagged for seven runs at times, but consistently all in one inning?  Three runs in the second, one in the third and two in the fourth add up to six runs and a bad outing, but six runs in the third buries your team.  Chances are six runs however you slice them ends up in a loss, but I like my chances a lot better if they don’t come in one demoralizing inning.  Down 3-0 in the second and 4-1 in the third is not the Mount Everest for your hitters to climb that 6-1 in the third is.

At one time or another, at one level or another, we have all played baseball.   Three to nothing is a walk, a double and a single away from being back in the game.   Six to one is forever and back to get into the game.   It affects how your hitters approach their at-bats and how your fielders play their positions. 

Three times out of six, Luke Hochevar has buried his team.   Three times out of six, he has given the Kansas City Royals virtually zero chance to win a game.   Bruce Chen was tagged for six on Friday night, but he gave the Royals six innings to try to do something against C.C. Sabathia.   Hochevar gave his team just two innings on Sunday to try to master the struggling Phil Hughes before the game became academic.

So, Luke my friend, I am done.   Done analyzing your cutter and your pitch selection and getting hopeful when you string together two or three good starts.  I’m done because I know for every start where you go seven strong innings, there is a four inning/five run outing just around the corner (or worse).   I am done, because after six hundred innings you probably are who you are.

Now, the Royals don’t really have an option at this point and likely would not use it to replace Hochevar even if they did.   I am not calling for Luke’s immediate removal from the starting rotation because Mike Montgomery is not ready, Jake Odorizzi is in AA, Nate Adcock is not likely (at this point) to be any more consistent and neither is Everett Teaford.   Vin Mazzaro?  Well, would he be an upgrade?

Nope, Hochevar will make more starts for this team.  He might well make about 25 more this year and some of them will be quite good.   When 2012 ends, some may still believe that Luke Hochevar will be a valuable member of what is hopefully a contending rotation in seasons to come.  I think that is wrong thinking.  Hochevar is who he is and, should Luke get on a run in June or July, Dayton Moore would be wise to shop him for something…anything to a team with pitching woes and high hopes.

xxx

 

 

It was over almost before it began. It took Luke Hochevar eight batters to record his first (and second) out of the game on Tuesday. It was the second time in five starts he’s allowed the opposition to put up a crooked number in the first frame. It’s almost becoming habit.

Here, for your reading pleasure, is a batter by batter breakdown of the carnage.

1 – Austin Jackson

Hochevar starts with a slider and falls behind 2-0 and 3-1 to the Tigers leadoff man. Once he fell behind to Jackson, Hochevar went exclusively to his fastball, except for a 3-2 cut fastball. That is pitch number six down the heart of the plate. I’m thinking Jackson fouled it off because he was looking fastball. That pitch was 88 mph, instead of Hochevar’s typical 92 mph heater.

The next pitch was thigh-high fastball that was grounded back up the middle for a single.

2 – Brennan Boesch

Hochevar actually makes a decent pitch – an 0-1 change that was low and away in the strike zone. Boesch was out in front and dribbles a ground ball to right. Yuniesky Betancourt was shading up the middle, but shows his amazingly horrible lack of range going to his left and can’t make a play. He should have made the play. Hochevar probably knows this. Instead of one out and a runner on second, we have two on with nobody out.

I cannot understate this – Yuniesky Betancourt is Public Enemy Number One.

3 – Miguel Cabrera

How dumb of a pitch is this?

The answer: Exceptionally dumb.

4 – Prince Fielder

As bad as the pitch was to Cabrera, the pitch to Fielder wasn’t bad. It was a curveball, down and out of the strike zone. And it should have resulted in an out. Except Eric Hosmer decided to make a play at the plate and airmailed the throw. Two runs score. Still no outs.

A really dumb decision from Hosmer. He double-clutched pulling the ball out of his glove and still tried to come home. And he was playing back. The correct play would have been to take the ball to the bag for the easy out. This isn’t hindsight, this is fact.

5 – Andy Dirks

A sinking fastball that hangs in the upper half of the strike zone. Dirks squares it up and Jarrod Dyson misplays the liner allowing Prince Fielder to score from second.

Going back, that was a big error by Hosmer. Had he gone to first to get Fielder out, a run would have scored but the Royals would have had an out in their back pocket. Another run would have scored on the Dirks liner, but at that point the Royals would have been down by three with one out. Instead, they were down four with no outs.

Tiger announcers were discussing how they thought Hochevar’s ankle was bothering him. He wasn’t comfortable landing on his left ankle and that was leading to him keeping the ball up in the zone. I’ll buy that.

6 – Alex Avila

Hochevar starts Avila out with a change-up taken down the heart of the plate. Good pitch because he had yet to throw a change to start an at bat. I say good pitch, but the location sucked. Had Avila been able to pull the trigger on that, he would have put it into orbit. The selection is what makes it a good pitch. Then he followed that with a cut fastball down the middle that Avila was able to drive into center.

The cutter was in Avila’s wheelhouse. He’s a low ball hitter, especially pitches down the center of the plate. Here is Avila’s chart detailing his hitting zones:

Just a horrible location for Hochevar.

7 – Jhonny Peralta

Discouraging because Hochevar had him down 0-2 with back to back curveballs. He went with a belt-high slider that Peralta went with and took to right field for a single and a five run lead.

Ahead 0-2, Hochevar controlled the at bat. By hanging a slider on the outer half to a right-handed batter, he essentially surrendered control.

8 – Ramon Santiago

Finally. Solid execution. Santiago can’t lay off the pitches high and away. And when he makes contact on those pitches, he doesn’t do much with them. Hochevar delivers two pitches up and away. Santiago takes the first one, but can’t resist the second.

Double play. I’m sure in the pregame planning session, the Royals told Hochevar to attack Santiago up and away. (At least they should have… As I said, that’s his weak spot.) Locate your pitches and good things can happen.

9 – Don Kelly

Nice sequence here from Hochevar. Starting Kelly high in the zone with a curve for a strike. Then following that with a pitch in the dirt. His 22nd pitch of the inning was popped to Mike Moustakas for the third out.

For the inning, Hochevar threw 17 strikes and five balls. Two of his strikes were actually hits on swings that likely would have been called out of the zone – the curve to Fielder and a curve to Peralta. Regardless, he was leaving just a ton of pitches in the meat of the plate. Just awful location.

The worst pitch was probably the meatball served to Cabrera. I really, really hate how the Royals announcers mention the small sample size of hitter versus pitcher matchups. But in the case of Hochevar versus Cabrera, it may be worth noting that in 31 plate appearances, the Tigers third baseman has collected 15 hits and owns a 1.376 OPS. If a good pitcher makes a mistake like Hochevar made to Cabrera, he’s going to punish the ball. And when he already has strong numbers against that pitcher… Yeah.

The best pitch was the double play ball delivered to Santiago. As I mentioned, that was the one plate appearance where Hochevar had what resembled a game plan.

The bad break was on the curve to Fielder. He got him to chase – which was what he wanted – and his defense let him down.

I’ve written about Hochevar at length and bought into the fantasy that he had altered his delivery in a manner that would bring him continued success. Cliff’s Notes version: He dropped the arm angle when he threw his slider which resulted in a tighter spin, which meant more break, which equalled second half success. The arm angle is still there. The results are not.

This is now the second time in five starts Hochevar has plunged his team into the depths of a first inning hole. It was as if the seven pitch at bat to Jackson took something out of him… It was the first seven pitches of the freaking game. Check out Hochevar’s velocity chart (courtesy of Brooks Baseball) and see how his speed dips immediately following the first batter.

How does that happen? He delivers three pitches to Jackson 92 mph or higher and can’t reach that speed until he gets the double play ground ball against Santiago. Meanwhile, Tiger batters are having their way with him. Again, how does that happen?

Yes, there was some bad luck involved in this inning. But a good pitcher can overcome something like that to regain control. Hochevar needed eight batters to right the ship on Tuesday night. By then, the ballgame was over.

Unacceptable.

Eight runs last night for the Kansas City Royals on four home runs.  That’s pretty much what one might have expected before the season started, right?  Billy Butler with two blasts, Eric Hosmer with his fifth of the year and Alex Gordon with the bomb to put the game away while the bullpen polished off the last two plus innings:  pretty much the pre-season gameplan.

While the offense stole the show in the streak stopper last night, Luke Hochevar had a fine outing.  The home opener disaster that Luke provide Royals’ fans on April 13th has tainted the view of him thus far in 2012.   Last night was his second very good start and third decent start out of four this season.  He’s no Bruce Chen, mind you, but Hochevar has actually been alright.

Luke opened the season throwing 6.1 innings against the Angels, allowing five hits and two runs.   After being knocked out, in more ways than one, in the home opener, Hochevar game back the following Friday to allow just two hits and a run in five innings of work.   Then last night, Luke tossed another 6.1 innings, allowing just four hits and two runs.  We may all want Hochevar to live up to that first overall draft pick status, but truth is that three out of four ain’t bad.

Let’s go back to last night. 

Pitch F/X via Brook’s Baseball classified Luke as throwing five different pitches last night (six in his first three starts):  four seam fastball, sinker, changeup, slider and curve.   The sixth pitch not used last night but used quite a bit by Hochevar in his first three starts was the cutter.   Now, you can call the sinker whatever you want (two seamer maybe?), but it is as fast or faster than Hochevar’s four seam fastball, and for the purposes of this column they are all fastballs.

Last night, Hochevar threw 47 fastballs, 29 sliders, 13 curves and 8 changeups.    Off his fastball offerings, 28 were strikes, and 22 of his 29 sliders were strikes with six of those being whiffs.   Luke only found the strike zone once with his change and half the time with his curveball.  

This season, the changeup has mostly been a ‘here’s something to think about pitch’ for Hochevar.   In his four starts, Luke has thrown it 4, 9, 9 and 8 times and hence it is not a huge part of his game.    So, let’s take that out of the equation for now as well.

The cutter, not used at all according to the data last night, was a good pitch for Hochevar earlier.  He threw it 14 times for 8 strikes (2 whiffs) on April 7th and threw it for virtually identical numbers in his third start.   In the debacle that was Friday April 13th, Hochevar offered it up seven times for five strikes.  An effective cutter helped Hochevar in his good start on the 7th an decent start on the 20th, but was not a part of his good outing last night.    Now, it is also possible that the cutter gets classified as a slider or vice-versa, but we could add them all together and only add more to the point that I am about to make below.

So, now we’re down to fastballs, curveballs and sliders. 

Compare the pitch counts of these pitches from Hochevar’s starts on April 7th (shown first) and last night:  two very good and very similar nights.

  • Fastballs – 43/47
  • Sliders – 21/29
  • Curves – 13/13

Okay, now look at the pitch usage from the awful start on the 13th:

  • Fastballs – 41
  • Sliders – 6
  • Curves – 7

Here is the interesting thing about the dramatic disparity in pitch selection:  the strike percentage of those three pitches is actually almost the same between the starts on the 7th, 13th and last night.   While Luke was getting lit up in Kaufmann Stadium, he three five of six sliders for strikes, 29 of 41 fastballs for strikes and three of seven curves.   Of course, ‘hits’ are considered strikes, so it is possible that Luke threw some pretty crappy sliders and fastballs (well, it’s not possible, he DID) on the 13th.

What should not be lost in this equation is when Hochevar offers up sliders somewhere at or above 20% of the time, he has been very effective this season.   Looking back at 2011, Hochevar barely threw the slider at all in April, May and June of that season (less than 5%), but gradually started using it more and more after that and was throwing it 18% of the time in September.

If want to lump the slider and cutter together as one ‘genre of a pitch’, Hochevar threw 35 on the 7th, 33 on the 20th and 29 last night, but only 13 on April 13th.  Call it what you want, but Hochevar need to command it and throw it often to be successful.

You can go back into 2011 and note that in the first three months and find that twenty percent of Hochevar’s pitches were being classified as cutters.   If you add that to the sliders, the percentages really don’t change that much over 2011, but something did change.   Starting in July of 2011, Hochevar either threw the slider more or changed his cutter enough to make the data reflect a change in pitch.  Hey, if the computers see it different, so do the hitters.

The change worked last season and, through four starts this year, when Hochevar uses that pitch often he is effective.   It was not used often or effectively on April 13th and we all saw the results.   Throw the slider, Luke, throw it often.

xxx

 

 

 

A minor Twitter kerfuffle erupted on Tuesday when Deadspin published excerpts from each of the 30 team chapters of the latest Baseball Prospectus Annual. Publishing excerpts isn’t exactly noteworthy. Except in this case, they were accompanied by a projected win/loss record.

And the Royals were projected to finish with a 68-94 record.

Ouch.

That’s three wins less than last year’s total. And the lowest projected total in the American League.

PECOTA hates the Royals. And PECOTA probably hates you.

Full disclosure: You may know, I’ve written off and on at Baseball Prospectus for the last two years. This year, I wrote the player profiles and the team essay for the Royals. Undoubtedly the highlight of my blogging career.

Many Tweets encapsulated anger and a feeling of injustice. (As much as you can in 140 characters, counting hashtags.) It was like watching someone mourn a lost loved one. All the stages of grief were there:

Denial – Oh, no… Baseball Prospectus released some projections. They hate the Royals… I’m not going to click that link. If I don’t click, maybe it will go away.

Anger – 68 wins? Who the hell do these geeks think they are? I will kick their collective, scrawny ass. Then, I will trash them anonymously on Twitter. Screw Baseball Prospectus.

Bargaining – Maybe the projections are wrong. I mean, they’re not always right, are they? I’ll give someone my All-Star Game ticket if we could just finish at .500.

Depression – Players are hurt, Chris Getz is starting and we still have no starting pitching… we’re going to suuuuuuuck.

Acceptance – If the Royals only win 68 games, there’s no way Ned Yost returns in 2013. Maybe that’s no so bad.

Really, there are gajillion different variables that go into the PECOTA projections. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I kind of doubt it. Even though I’ve written at BP, I’m not allowed in the secret room with the formula. If I nudge a decimal, the Earth shifts off it’s axis and becomes one of Saturn’s moons.

Here’s a brief explanation as to why PECOTA hates the Royals.

– The starting pitching will be awful. PECOTA pegs the Royals staff as allowing 855 runs. That’s epically awful. Last year, Baltimore coughed up more runs than any team in baseball with 860. The Twins were second worst at 804 runs allowed. No other team surrendered more than 800 runs. There’s no way the Royals can compete for anything but a high draft pick if they land anywhere near this number.

Among starters, PECOTA feels that only Jonathan Sanchez and Bruce Chen will be above replacement level. They have Chen at a 0.0 WARP and Sanchez at 0.3 WARP. For reference, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander had a 6.0 and 5.8 WARP, respectively. Danny Duffy had a 0.5 WARP.

The starting five rounds out with Duffy at -0.1 WARP, Luke Hochevar at -0.3 WARP and Luis Mendoza at -0.7 WARP. That’s just a really bad starting rotation.

The funny thing is, I don’t agree with any of it.

First of all, PECOTA thinks that Sanchez will be the Royals top starter. No way. In fact, I’d wager of the five listed above, he’s the fourth or fifth best. They expect a steep drop from Chen and virtually no improvement from Duffy. I’m betting that Chen takes a step back in ’12, but I think it’s a small one. And Duffy… Man, I just don’t see how he doesn’t pitch better this season.

This is something that gets all the Lee Judge acylotes in an uproar… Projections don’t account for changes of a mechanical nature. Take Hochevar, for example. Last summer, Hochevar shifted his arm angle on his slider and developed that pitch into something that could be called above average. As I said before, I’m not privvy to the secret sauce of PECOTA, but I’m fairly certain it’s not taking into account his new arm angle, or the fact he upped the percentage he threw his slider. Instead, it’s looking at things like ballpark, age and past performance. I think if a player struggles in the first half, but has a strong second part of the season, but his overall numbers are weak, projections systems have a difficult time with that player.

– Six of the nine Royal regulars are projected to have a sub .325 on base percentage. Last year the league average was .321 OBP. Of the lineup, only Hosmer, Butler, Gordon and Chris Getz will top that mark. (Relax, Getz is the lowest of the four with a .324 projected OBP.) That’s a reversal from last summer, where six regulars topped a .329 OBP.

Gordon is projected to drop 24 points, which isn’t surprising given his past performance. Last year was his breakout, and projection systems have a difficult time buying into a guy who had over 1,600 plate appearances and outperformed his career averages by a large margin.

Meanwhile, Butler is projected for a .360 OBP, just one point below his 2011 mark. The last three seasons, Butler has been Mr. Consistent. His projected slash line of .294/.360/.453 almost exactly matches his career line of .297/.360/.458. While a player like Gordon is difficult to project due to the circumstances surrounding a “breakout” season, a player like Butler is the opposite. He’s so steady, it’s difficult to miss by much.

– Kansas City is going to experience another power outage. No Royal is projected to top 20 home runs. Hosmer and Gordon are the team leaders with 19 bombs and Butler and Moustakas are right behind them with 17. Last year, the Royals had five players top 18 long balls.

That combination of sub-par on base percentage and almost non-existent power means the Royals will struggle to score runs. PECOTA has them for 716 runs scored. That’s actually just off the 730 they scored last season.

Again, I don’t agree with all of the offensive projections. Butler aside, most of them seem very conservative.

Any projection system has hits and it has misses. And if you search hard enough, there are tons of projections available this time of year. If you must, look until you find one that fits your selection bias. In the meantime, take PECOTA for what it is… A projection. It’s something that can be fun to look at, but don’t take it at face value. Investigate. Try to decide if you agree or disagree. Dig around and see how they arrived at their projection. Most of all, be constructive in your criticism. “PECOTA sucks because they say the Royals are only going to win 68 games,” isn’t helpful. But if you say, “I disagree with PECOTA because I think our pitching is going to be better than they project, because…”

Do I think the Royals are better than a 68 win team? Yes. Do I think they’ll win 80? No. I’m still kicking around some win totals in my mind. That post comes on Friday… Opening Day, when we call our shot.

Play ball.

In the blink of an eye, the Royals solved another of their roster mysteries yesterday by placing Felipe Paulino on the 15 day disabled list.  With that, Luis Mendoza became the fourth starter and Danny Duffy secured a roster spot and the role of fifth starter.

Paulino, who had been anything but sharp this spring, might be eligible to come off the disable list as early as April 10th.   The way the Royals’ early season schedule flows, he could theoretically return in time to take the fifth starter’s second turn, but it seems unlikely he will return that quickly.

To begin with, Paulino was put on the disabled list with the rather mysterious ‘sore elbow’, which we have seen could be anything from ‘just a little sore and we don’t like how you’re pitching and anyway we really want time to look at these other two guys’ to ‘sorry, you’re having surgery’.   My guess is the Royals really are not sure why Paulino’s elbow is sore and hence have no desire to rush him back.   

The benefit of this hopefully mild injury is that is delays having to send Danny Duffy to AAA or figuring out what to do with the out of options Luis Mendoza (Paulino is also out of options). 

Although he has struggled mightily this spring, Duffy probably has the best stuff on the current rotation and I really want to see if he has figured out how to a) throw more strikes and b) get strike three against major league hitters.   In Mendoza, even us critical, jaded spirits here at Royals Authority are now curious as to what this guy can really do in real major league games that are not played when the leaves are falling off trees.

Listen, as Craig mentioned yesterday, while spring training stats don’t mean much, Mendoza’s are so good that, coupled with his excellent AAA season in what is basically a hitters’ league, the Royals almost have to see what he can do.   I will be curious to see how long the leash is on Mendoza.   Do the Royals really, really believe in him now or, like many of us, do they remain skeptical that Luis has turned himself into a legit major league starter?

xxx

 

The whole Opening Day starter thing is waaaaay overblown. Who really cares? I mean, other than the starter?

There is one thing that kind of bugs me about Chen getting the ball for Opening Day. One would assume it’s a reward handed to the best pitcher on your staff. In the Royals case, there isn’t exactly a stand out starter in the rotation. Fine. All winter the Royals have said there were three locks for the rotation: Hochevar, Chen and Sanchez. Understandable. Those three represent the three pillars of roster building: The high draft pick. The big money free agent.* And the big trade.

Given the pedigrees and the financial commitments, it’s no wonder these three guys were “locks.”

*Please bear with me here. When I say “big money” free agent, it’s relative. Although Chen did represent Dayton Moore’s most aggressive foray into the free agent market since 2008 when he splashed the cash on Kyle Farnsworth. So yes, Chen was a big free agent signing. And yes, that’s sad.

So what bothers me about Chen as the Opening Day starter is the fact he’s been horrible this spring. (At least before his start on Tuesday when he pitched six strong innings before faltering in the seventh.) It’s part of baseball’s caste system I suppose, where a guy like Johnny Giavotella has to battle Chris Getz and Yuniesky Betancourt for a roster spot – and is ultimately demoted for a sub-par spring. Meanwhile, Chen owns an 11.25 ERA in 18 innings where batters are hitting .405 against him and he gets the Opening Day carrot. Ahh… the luxury of being the veteran.

Big picture, it’s not a huge deal. We’ve seen Chen pitch the last two summers and while he’s not overwhelming, he’s at least been adequate. And I really can’t concern myself with spring stats for veteran pitchers. They work on certain things and pitch to prepare for the season. Completely different mindset as opposed to the real games. His command has been fine – just two walks with 12 strikeouts – so I’m not too worried about Chen. He’ll be underwhelming, win a few games and everyone will think he’s awesome.

And is it me, or does the whole “stack the rotation so it goes LHP-RHP-LHP-RHP-??? not really make a huge difference. I suppose there will be series where you throw a pair of lefties against a weaker side of a platoon, or vice-versa, but I just don’t really see how this matters. Really, what difference does a rotation make at all? Ideally, you want your best starters to make the most appearances. So if your each member of your rotation didn’t miss a single start all year, starters one and two would make 33 starts while three through five would toe the slab 32 times. Ho-hum. Certainly, at some point a manager could juggle the rotation to make sure his best two starters gained those extra starts.

And you have to love the people who worry about matching up their number one starter with the other team’s top guy. Because it doesn’t always happen that way.

Quick example: if the A’s decide to use a fifth starter in the first week of the season (anything can happen with the A’s since they’re opening the season Wednesday in Tokyo) that pitcher would match-up against Chen. In his second start of the season.

See what I mean?

It’s understood that Yosty is stacking his rotation so Hochevar gets the home opener against the Indians. That’s cool, I suppose. Personally, I’d much rather pay to see a Hochevar start instead of Chen. At least while I’m still intrigued to see if Hochevar can carry over his second half success from last season.

Somebody has to start Opening Day. Might as well be Chen.

More pressing is the same question we’ve been asking all spring: Who will hold down the fourth and fifth spots of the rotation? The fact the Royals and Dayton Moore obviously crush on Luis Mendoza – not to mentions that the dude is out of options – means he gets one of the two. I’d like to disagree, but damnit, he’s pitched well enough to earn a shot.

My hunch is the fifth spot goes to Felipe Paulino. I will stand by this prediction: Put the guy in the rotation, let him make 30 to 32 starts and at the end of the season he will have been the best starter on the staff. I truly believe that. Like Mendoza, he is out of options. This is a case where the option situation will save the Royals from doing something foolish. Yeah for rules!

So that leaves Danny Duffy as the odd man out. Sucks for Duffy, but I would bet that he goes down to Triple-A, dominates, and is back in the Royals rotation by May. He can take the place of Chen.