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This is a statistical snapshot of  the Royals rotation prior to James Shields’s disaster start on Tuesday.

Rk Pos Name ERA G GS GF IP H R ER HR BB SO BF ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
1 SP Jeremy Guthrie 3.69 17 17 0 112.1 110 48 46 16 27 68 469 111 4.67 1.220 8.8 1.3 2.2 5.4 2.52
2 SP Jason Vargas* 3.53 17 17 0 112.1 115 45 44 14 25 74 469 116 4.20 1.246 9.2 1.1 2.0 5.9 2.96
3 SP James Shields 3.79 17 17 0 111.2 120 58 47 15 24 87 476 108 4.12 1.290 9.7 1.2 1.9 7.0 3.63
4 SP Yordano Ventura 3.26 15 15 0 88.1 87 33 32 7 25 76 372 125 3.29 1.268 8.9 0.7 2.5 7.7 3.04
5 SP Danny Duffy* 2.60 17 11 1 72.2 49 23 21 5 29 55 294 157 3.80 1.073 6.1 0.6 3.6 6.8 1.90
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/1/2014.

The symmetry of the top three starters is kind of cool. Seventeen starts for each, they are within two-thirds of an inning and they are within seven batters faced.

What causes some concern is the ERA column followed by the FIP column a little further down the line. Entering Tuesday, all three were outperforming their FIP. Guthrie has been outpacing his FIP and xFIP for his entire career. Last year, the difference between his FIP and ERA was 0.75 and that was good for a 1.1 fWAR. This year, the difference is nearly a full run and at the halfway point, his fWAR is 0.5. Vargas is usually a little closer. Shields’s FIP is his highest since 2010. Not coincidentally, that was his worst season as a starter.

This is three-fifths of the rotation. These are the guys making the serious cash. And they look to be walking the tightrope.

Shields has been miserable his last nine starts. In his last nine starts, he has a 5.43 ERA covering 56.1 innings. During that time, he’s struck out 36, walked 14 and surrendered 10 home runs. Opponents are hitting .323/.362/.557. He doesn’t look hurt or mechanically broken. He’s just hittable.

If you revisit the chart above, Guthrie and Vargas are exactly the same pitcher, statistically speaking. And it looks like both will regress. ZIPS has Guthrie throwing 88 more innings this year with a 4.64 ERA. It has Vargas down for 98 innings and a 4.55 ERA. Obviously, these are projections so they have to be taken as such, but those numbers are frightening. At this point, the best thing we can say about Guthrie and Vargas is they have kept their team in games when they make starts. That’s not meant to be some kind of backhanded compliment. It’s fact. These two are going out there knowing their offense isn’t going to give them a ton of runs, and they grind out their appearances. The Royals have won 19 of their 34 starts. That’s a .559 winning percentage. That gets you into first place in the AL East.

The projection on Shields is more positive. ZIPS has him down for 106 innings and a 3.83 ERA.

Any time we gaze into the crystal ball, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. This isn’t meant to be a negative type of post where I’m spreading gloom and doom. Shields could find his change-up magic and Guthrie and Vargas could beat the projections all season, just like they have so far. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Or everyone could go off the rails. Hell, if anyone missed time due to injury, the whole thing could fall to shambles as there’s no major league depth in the organization right now.

The point is, Shields is scuffling and Vargas and Guthrie are way outperforming their peripherals. The Royals really need Shields to get it together if they are going to make any kind of run at October. Because to count on the rest of this rotation to continue to be this great would be risky.

You thought this post would be about the bullpen, didn’t you? I mean we all saw the game on Thursday. Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Damn.

But, no. This is about Yordano Ventura. And his valgus.

Ventura returned to the mound after missing a start with elbow discomfort. (I guess it was “discomfort.” Ned Yost said, “It wasn’t an elbow issue.” Umm… OK?) I don’t know about you, but I was damned nervous. Not that I thought the Royals would send a damaged pitcher back out to start. They obviously thought he was OK. No, my concern was over the idea of a “what if.” What if he lost velocity in the third inning? What if his command was helter-skelter from the start? What if he experienced the same issues that derailed his last start?

Pitchers are scary creatures. Anymore it feels like each pitch could be their last. It’s nauseating. And when you have a stud like Ventura… Yeah. Scary.

According to Brooks Baseball, Ventura uncorked a 101 mph fastball. Cool. Even better, he found a comfort zone and maintained his velocity throughout the contest.

Ventura_Velo65

Yost pulled him after six innings and 91 pitches. The right move after the issues of the last two weeks.

While the velocity was positive, there were still some bumps along the way to the win. His command wasn’t all that great. He also had a helluva time closing out innings. In the first, he got two outs on six pitches. Then needed 18 more pitches to get the third out. In the second, he got the first batters out, then coughed up a single and a triple before getting the third out. And in the fourth, he got the first two outs on three pitches. Then allowed a single, a walk and a single before getting the third out. He did settle down in the fifth and sixth, working what you would term efficient innings. Although Yadier Molina helped out by running on Alex Gordon after another two-out single.

For the game, Ventura stuck out one batter. He got only seven swings and misses. That’s not the Ventura we saw pre elbow discomfort. But the velocity was there. I’m not ready to move past the elbow discomfort, but I do feel better about how he’s doing moving forward.

And finally, from gifsection, your latest gif of Nori Aoki losing his battle against baseballs.

aokihead

Happy Friday. Be careful out there.

On May 17, Danny Duffy threw what was among the best starts of his still-young major league career. Remember that? A 1-0 Royals victory over the Orioles?

I ask because in the haze of Wednesday’s debacle at the hands of the Houston Astros, it may be difficult to summon that outing from the memory bank.  Duffy was, in his own words, “hogwash,” against the former worst offensive team in the AL. (The Royals, in addition to being swept by the Astros, also seized the opportunity to supplant them as the worst offense in the American League. Victory cigars for everyone!)

Anyway, it wasn’t about the miserable performance from Duffy. We’ve seen plenty of those. What we saw on Wednesday was much more alarming. Duffy’s fastball averaged 92.8 mph while his sinker clocked in at 90.1 mph. In the start against the Orioles referenced above, his fastball was 94.9 mph and his sinker averaged 93.8 mph. Simple math: Duffy’s fastball was two mph less than in his best start of 2014 and his sinker was almost four mph less. This is not good.

(I don’t want to look at Duffy’s seasonal velocity average because it will be skewed by his time in the bullpen.)

Maybe we can dismiss the velocity on his sinker since that’s a pitch he doesn’t use that frequently. Perhaps more notable was his usage of his change-up. In his start on May 17, Duffy mixed 10 change-ups among his 97 pitches. Wednesday, he threw his change once in 83 pitches. Maybe that’s another reason the Astros were banging the ball around the yard. They were sitting fastball and adjusting slider. There was no in-between.

Speaking of his slider, he was throwing that like normal. The break was close to his usual movement, accounting for the fact it was averaging about three mph less than his May 17 outing.

Perhaps more alarming was how Duffy was losing velocity through those 83 pitches. From Brooks Baseball, here’s the ugly velocity chart:

Duffy_Velo528

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compare that to the May 17 game.

Duffy_Velo517

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duffy always loses a little off his fastball the deeper he goes into the pitch count. But Wednesday’s game was something we haven’t seen in some time. Post-game, it was revealed Duffy was battling a “dead arm.” I suppose that’s possible. It’s fairly common. I just wonder how common for a pitcher who has thrown 35 innings in the season’s first two months to have a dead arm. With eight of those innings coming in relief.

I’m still not sold on Duffy being anymore than rotational filler. But with the uncertainty of Yordano Ventura, the Royals rotation is already stretched. (Yeah, there’s uncertainty around Ventura. Do you believe anything the Royals say when it comes to injuries? How many starters leave a start with elbow pain and are back a week and a half later?) Last I saw, the Royals starter for Ventura’s turn on Saturday was “TBA.” Because there aren’t any palatiable options. Lose Duffy at the same time… Let’s put it this way: The offensive struggles won’t be the only thing we’re discussing.

We’ve been over this before. At four games under .500, the season isn’t lost. But with a corpse-like offense that is showing no signs of a pulse, the season is slipping away. Lose two guys from your rotation and this team becomes a runaway freight elevator heading for the basement.

I am a Royals fan.

That’s a rather straightforward declarative statement. Not a surprise, either. This is a Royals blog, after all. On the scale of “shocking development” to “no duh,” it gal

The last 25 years or so (I’ve lost count and really, it’s not all that important) the Royals as a team have presented us with little to be happy about. A nice run of games here or there – That 15-5 run from last year was pretty insane – but largely we are talking about some really dreadful teams. It’s been a struggle finding reasons to watch. Thankfully, there have been some individual performances of quality in the midst of some awful team efforts.

Happy Greinke Day was born in a season where the Royals lost 96 games and had Jose Guillen in the lineup. Horrible team. A great individual season gave us reason to watch at least every fifth day.

The 2011 team had 325 doubles, which was the second highest total in the league. It featured four guys – Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur – who all hit at least 44 two-baggers. They lost 91 games, but the offense could be kind of fun to watch.

Eric Hosmer’s second-half renaissance was equal parts amazing and enjoyable. Even if it wasn’t enough to rescue the Royals from the hole they dug for themselves in May.

Your mileage may vary on the positives above, but the point is, when you’re a fan of a dreadful team, you need to search for those kind of things. You need something to pull you to tune into the game. A favorite player. A good player. A sustained performance of the highest quality. Something. Anything. It’s about finding something fun to watch on an mediocre to poor baseball team.

For me thus far in 2014, it’s been all about Yordano Ventura.

Ventura has been Must-See TV. The fastball, the change and the curve. I can’t wait for every fifth day to roll around so I can watch him start. He isn’t as dominant as early ’09 Greinke, but that electric stuff is so fun to watch. The Royals offense is awful. Their pitching is keeping them around .500. And Ventura is the most entertaining of the bunch.

As I said above, this is just my personal preference. You may like James Shields. Or Greg Holland. Or Wade Davis The Reliever. Any of those (and others) are acceptable. But for me, Ventura has become my favorite Royal.

It was immediately obvious something was wrong with Ventura on Monday. Diminished velocity. Location was all over the place. He just wasn’t right.

This is his confrontation with Dexter Fowler, the third hitter in the game for the Astros. Gameday doesn’t do justice to how badly Ventura missed.

FowlerPA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the saddest image of all, Ventura’s velocity chart from Brooks Baseball:

Ventura_Velo525

 

That decline after around pitch 33. Oh, jeez.

The Royals announced during the game Ventura left with lateral elbow discomfort. He’s going for an MRI on Tuesday. A quick Google says lateral elbow discomfort is basically tennis elbow. Tennis elbow is treated with rest and anti-inflammatory medication. At this point, we can consider this the best case scenario. If the Royals were incorrect in their initial diagnosis (or decided to float a smoke screen) and it’s the medial portion of the elbow… Yeah. We’re all baseball fans. We know what’s happened this year to basically every decent young pitcher. And we’re Royals fans, too. Total doomsday scenario.

I’m reserving my total freak out for when the announcement is made, but let me put it this way: I’m stockpiling like it’s Y2K. You can’t be a Royals fan without a touch of fatalism. What happened to Ventura on Monday is simply another notch on the bedpost of bullshit we have to endure as Royals fans. I’m not going to type the words, but I fear it’s coming. It’s just better to be prepared.

To add insult to injury, the same game Ventura leaves with elbow discomfort, the Astros young phenom George Springer goes 4-4 with five runs scored and a monster jack into the fountains in left. Sometimes, baseball just isn’t fair. Sometimes, it’s three decades of crap.

Nobody said baseball was fair. As Royals fans we’ve become accustomed to abuse. What happened Monday was just cruel. It’s not about Ventura pitching this team to October. He’s good, but he’s not that good. For me, it’s about watching a potentially great pitcher do his thing every fifth day. It’s about looking forward to a game. It’s about electricity. It’s about excitement. It’s about fun.

Hey… Looks like Alex Gordon is warming up.

Coming off a couple of tough defeats, the Royals needed a shot of adrenaline to jump start their club. Jeremy Guthrie was the man on Wednesday, throwing seven innings of three hit, one run ball to keep the Royals in the game before handing it off to the bullpen.

Guthrie is a confounding pitcher. A pitching wizard. Take Wednesday, for example. Guthrie delivered a performance of quality, but it’s a performance he won’t be repeating too frequently. It’s not difficult to see that when digesting some of the numbers.

— Twelve of Guthrie’s outs were recorded on the ground, compared to seven in the air. For the game according to FanGraphs, Guthrie posted a ground ball rate of 57 percent. Compare that to his seasonal rate of around 43 percent. We know Guthrie has a home run problem (and that’s being kind) so it behooves him to keep the ball on the ground. That’s something he doesn’t do, but he was able to on Wednesday.

— Guthrie threw first pitch strikes to 10 of the 26 batters he faced. That’s a rather thin 38 percent first strike rate. For the season, league average is around 60 percent and Guthrie has outpaced his counterparts, posting a 67 percent first strike rate. It reasons that he can’t afford to fall behind in the count. I mean, that’s kind of an obvious statement, but it applies double to a pitcher like Guthrie who doesn’t miss many bats. The league is hitting .301/.333/.603 against Guthrie when he starts the plate appearance with ball one. Ummm… That’s not good. Despite regularly falling behind in the count, he surrendered only two hits after throwing ball one to open the plate appearance.

— White Sox hitters swung and missed only four times. Guthrie threw an even 100 pitches. I love simple math. That’s a four percent swinging strike rate. For the season, he gets a swing and a miss just under six percent of the time. Not a huge difference, but there’s not far to go when you’re already at six percent.

— Guthrie gets most of his swing and misses against his change and slider. Both pitches generate a whiff around 10 percent of the time. On Wednesday, he threw 19 sliders and got one swing and miss. Tip your cap to the White Sox for laying off the slider. They swung only four times, according to Brooks Baseball. He also had a single swing and miss against his change, although he threw 14 of those.

From Brooks Baseball, Guthrie’s velocity chart is a model of consistency.

Guthrie Velo 521

Guthrie threw five curves all night, none after pitch number 48. The massive dip around pitch 79 is his slow curve he will play with on rare occasions. Pitch f/x classified it as an eephus. And it was awesome.

Guthrie Eephus 521

It was a masterful performance. You could say Guthrie drove Uncle Hud’s bus on Wednesday. (Even though that sounds kind of NSFW.) As much as I loved it and as much as the Royals needed it, but the numbers suggest this is a performance we won’t be seeing too frequently. But as I said at the top of the post, Guthrie seems to have a knack of coming up roses in important spots. I tip my blogging cap in his direction. And hope he continues pulling those rabbits out of his magic hat.

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

 

 

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