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Big news this week as Forbes released their annual look at the valuations of baseball teams. I know, I know… Financials, dollars, blah, blah, blah. This may not be the most exciting post you’ll read this week, but to me, how the Royals (and other teams) go about their business is as important as the prospect rankings. We’re a small market. This stuff matters.

Anywho, included in the report was something that should have made you sit up and take notice, no matter how you feel about ledgers and spreadsheets. Here, according to Forbes, were the most profitable teams in baseball in 2011:

So the Glass family banked a cool $28.5 million last year. Wow.

As always, we need to have a little perspective. How does that number compare to past seasons? Here’s a table going back the previous five years.

Why the huge leap? According to Forbes, revenue went up only a million dollars last year. From $160 million in 2010 to $161. Most of it has to do – as Clark mentioned yesterday – with payroll. The Royals saw their expenditure on player contracts nose dive thanks to the trade of Zack Greinke, the retirement of Gil Meche and the overall youth movement which featured cost-controlled contracts. And like Clark said, they didn’t go cheap. They went young. Big difference.

What’s interesting, there’s very much a plan in place about the amount of money ownership would like the Royals to post in the Operating Income side of the ledger. It seems extremely obvious the Glass family would like to hit an operating income number somewhere close to $10 million. Hey, I’m a free market capitalist. Glass owns the team, it’s his right to make money. It’s a good thing he’s turning a profit. As long as he sinks that windfall into an area of the team. Maybe hire a few more scouts. Or beef up the Latin America academy. Hell, he could reseed the Little K.

Besides, where ownership really makes their money is in the value of the team. About 10 years ago – when Glass officially bought the club – the Royals were valued at just under $100 million. Glass paid $96 million. Of course, there’s the whole situation with the Kauffman Trust and the question of whether or not the Glass family can make a profit, but throw that out for just a moment. Under normal circumstances, if Glass put the team up for sale right now, he could expect a profit of at least $255 million.

For 12 years of ownership. That’s $21.25 million per year. The value of his initial investment has returned over 350%. You know how everyone thinks they should have bought Apple stock 12 years ago? If you couldn’t get in on Apple, you should have bought yourself a baseball team.

Payroll

Looking ahead to 2012, I don’t expect the Glass family to rake in a similar profit. If only because the payroll is going up. Thanks to Cot’s Contracts, here are how things stand with my mythological 25 man roster.

My roster has 12 pitchers and 13 hitters. I left Chris Getz and Danny Duffy off the list, as I think both open the year in Omaha. The more I think about it, Bourgeois and Maier are backups in the outfield, Betancourt is the super utility guy (ick) and Pena/Quintero are the catching tandem. I’ll also go out on a limb and hypothesize that the Royals will assign specific catchers to each starter like they did last year. It seemed to work well enough. That gives Pena three starters and Quintero two. Or vice versa. Giavotella opens the year as the starting second baseman, but loses his job to Betancourt in May.

For the rotation, while I still have serious doubts, Mendoza has certainly earned a shot. The starting five looks like Hochevar, Sanchez, Chen, Paulino, Mendoza. Your bullpen has Broxton as the closer and Holland as the set up man. I’d flip-flop that, but you know that the Royals love Broxton’s pants experience. Crow is in the setup mix. Mijares is a definite lefty and Collins is forcing his way into the conversation, but for now I’m leaning Teaford. The pen rounds out with Coleman.

Or the Royals could deal for a 5th outfielder and blow up my whole roster.

(By the way, the payroll also includes Sal Perez and Joakim Soria, who will open the year on the DL. Players with guaranteed contracts who start the season on the DL are counted as part of the Opening Day payroll.)

So it looks like the Royals Opening Day payroll will be right around $60 million. That’s up from last year’s $36 million. And pretty darn close to their all time record of $72 million set on Opening Day 2010. See how that works? Low payroll means increased profits. And I don’t even have an accounting degree.

So if we’re still thinking about profit, by boosting payroll by $24 million, most of that will go away. If I were a betting man, I’d say that at this time next year, Forbes will peg the Royals at around $8 million for Operating Income in 2012.

In other words… Back to normal.

The Royals have done their part to stay in the news on the true opening day of the NCAA Tournament (Michigan State, by the way, ended up winning my bracket – because I know that was what you all were waiting for).   Let’s just round up some of the goings on.

SALVADOR PEREZ

Yesterday I said not to panic and even today, we probably should not.  A torn meniscus is the cause for knee surgery for the Royals’ catcher of the present and future.   We have heard no firm timetable, but the absolute best case is four weeks and the worst case seems to be somewhere along the lines of eight weeks.  Add at least a week of rehab appearances, maybe two if Perez ends up taking closer to eight to get healthy and Kansas City is realistically looking at an early May return for Salvador.

Assuming my made up logic is anywhere close, I don’t think the Royals need to jump through any hoops to find a catcher to handle the bulk of the playing time.  Brayan Pena is sub-par behind the plate and Max Ramirez is something worse than that, but both have played in the majors and both can hit a little.   I would advocate laboring through the 23 games in April with those two as the catching tandem and hope Perez returns when the Yankees and Red Sox come to Kansas City in early May.

Now, if a veteran dropped in the Royals’ lap and was willing to play everyday for a month or so and then sit the bench the better part of the year for a million bucks (yeah, that’s right, Ivan Rodriguez is exactly who I am talking about) that would be great.  I think it is unlikely and certainly do not believe Dayton Moore should be trying to trade for such a player, but it does not hurt to keep an ear to the ground.

On a long-term note, this is not a bad knee injury and while anything regarding ‘knees’ and ‘catchers’ gets one nervous, Salvador has youth on his side.  Until something begins to tell us otherwise, I think the Royals can assume Perez will come back ready to assume the heavy workload they had planned for him when he signed the contract extension this spring.

SPEAKING OF CONTRACT EXTENSIONS

By now you have  all heard that shortstop Alcides Escobar has inked a four year contract extension that will pay him a cool million in 2012 and then three million per year each of the next three seasons.   The Royals also hold team options for 2016 ($5.25 million) and 2017 ($6.5 million) with a $500,000 buyout.

Now, if Escobar never hits, but continues to be an elite fielder, this guaranteed four years of this deal probably average out at about market rate.   However, if the shortstop Jesus does hit some or, let’s dream a little, hits decently, then this is a great deal for the Royals.   The downside is that Escobar’s bat gets even worse and his defense goes with it (see Berroa, Angel), but Kansas City has to take some leaps of faith and fix some costs for the future, while also hopefully securing talent with that fixed cost.

That is what the Escobar, Perez and to some extent Billy Butler’s extension of last year does.  Nothing about any of those deals is roster wrecking if they don’t pan out and maybe, in some small part, the combination of these helps grease the wheels of future, more important and more expensive, contracts.

ONE DOWN

One possible, albeit longshot contender for the starting rotation was sent to minor league camp yesterday:  Mike Montgomery.   After his struggles at AAA last year, the demotion of the Royals’ number one pitching prospect was no big surprise and certainly a very rational move.   The lefty pitches in Kansas City this year, it is just a question of when.   I put the over/under at July 5th.

Also going down was Wil Myers, Nathan Adcock and Ryan Verdugo.  I bring up the latter two only because they had very, very, very outside shots at making the bullpen.  Adcock will almost surely start in Omaha, by the way, and might be number one in line to get a call-up if an injury occurs early in the season.   For Myers the only question this spring was where he goes, Omaha or NW Arkansas?   Consensus seems to be the south, but I kind of have a hunch that maybe Omaha might be his destination, especially if Jarrod Dyson makes the big league roster.

SPEAKING OF THE ROTATION

Neither Aaron Crow or Felipe Paulino did a whole lot to help themselves last night, so the door is open today for Danny Duffy – dominant his first time out – to stake a deeper claim on the two open rotation positions.  I am and have been a ‘Duffy guy’ since he started out striking out just about everyone in Low A ball, so count me squarely in his camp when it comes to this battle.

If the Royals are hell bent on not losing Luis Mendoza (remember, he is out of options) than I really believe the proper move is Duffy and Paulino in the rotation, Mendoza and Crow in the bullpen.   Paulino has a nightmarish performance record as a reliever, so I don’t see the point of putting him back in that role.  If he continues to flounder through spring training and carries that into three or four April starts, then you pull Paulino out of the rotation and go to Mendoza, but I don’t think you make that move any sooner than that.

xxx

 

 

That is the latest tweet from Danny Duffy.  It’s cool to have him say it, but let’s not over think it.

Danny Duffy, pitching as a 22 year old rookie last year, posted a 5.64 ERA over 20 starts.  He struck out over seven batters per nine innings, but walked almost four and one-half.   It was a typical, choppy, rookie season.   It was not bad enough to get the organization discouraged, but not good enough to lock Duffy in as a member of the 2012 starting rotation.

For fun (and to kill time in the week before the most anticipated spring training opening game in eight years), I thought it might be fun to see what some truly great pitchers did in their rookie seasons.   Using Baseball Reference’s career WAR leaders as a starting point, I eliminated pitchers who threw before 1950.  I mean, how do you compare anyone to Cy Young, who threw147 innings as a rookie and 423 the next year?  Or to Walter Johnson who, between the ages of 19 and 31, never posted an ERA above 2.22?

At any rate, taking the career WAR leaders and eliminating the ‘old guys’, let’s have a look at the rookie years of the remainder of the top twenty.

  • Roger Clemens (128.4 WAR) – As a 21 year old rookie, Clemens posted a decent 4.32 ERA over 20 starts, striking out 8.5/9 and walking just 2.0/9.  His 9.9 hits per nine innings that year was a career high.
  • Tom Seaver (105.3 WAR) – At age 22, Tom was truly Terrific.  Over 251 innings, he posted a 2.76 ERA.  In fact, from his rookie 1967 season all the way through 1978, Seaver posted ONE season with an earned run average over three. 
  • Greg Maddux (96.8 WAR) – The Professor threw 31 innings at age twenty in 1986, but in his true rookie campaing at age 21, Maddux threw up an unsightly 5.61 ERA over 27 starts.   The next year?  Just 249 innings with an ERA of 3.18, due in no small part to walking a full batter and one-half less than in his rookie season.  
  • Phil Neikro (96.8 WAR) – I can draw no comparison here, as Neikro spent his first four years splitting time between relief and starting.   That includes 1967 when Neikro started 20 games, relieved in 26 more and threw 207 innings to the tune of a 1.87 ERA.  Is that the best ‘swing man’ season in baseball history?
  • Gaylord Perry (96.3) – Like Neikro, Gaylord started just 56 of his first 135 major league appearances.  It didn’t keep him from throwing 206 and 195 innings in back to back years despite being just a part-time starter.   He posted an ERA north of four in three of his first four seasons.
  • Warren Spahn (93.4) – Spahn threw 15 innings at age 21, went to war for three years and then came back to post an ERA 2.94 in 125 innings in what was a delayed rookie campaign. 
  • Randy Johnson (91.8) – At age twenty-four, Johnson threw an impressive 26 innings (25 strikeouts, 2.42. ERA), but in his true rookie season he was not nearly as effective: 160 innings, 4.82 ERA, 7.3K/9 and 5.4 BB/9.   Beginning the next year (1990), Johnson was on his way to being…well..Randy Johnson.
  • Bert Blyleven (90.1) – Came up at age nineteen to throw 164 innings with a 3.18 ERA.   The following six seasons all came with an ERA of three or below and a silly, crazy amount of innings.   Men were men back then, boys.
  • Bob Gibson (85.6) – Here’s a fun one.   Gibson, at age 23, threw 75 innings (9 starts/4 relief) with a decent 3.33 ERA.  However, Gibson walked 4.6/9 and struck out just 5.7/9.  The following year (1960), he posted a 5.61 ERA in 87 innings split between starting and relieving.  Even in 1961, when Gibson began to be a bonafide front-line starter, he was still walking over five batters per nine innings.   From 1962 on, of course, Gibson was a force, but it took him the better part of 350 innings to become that.
  • Nolan Ryan (84.8) – We’ll ignore three innings in 1966 and instead start in 1968 when Nolan was twenty-one.  Despite walking five batters every nine innings, Ryan posted a 3.09 ERA over 134 innings.   The following three seasons were, dare we say it, Jonathan Sanchez-ish:  lots of strikeouts, lots of walks, not many hits and so-so numbers (especially for the era).  Ryan moved to California in 1972 (age 25)  and was that guy from then on.
  • Steve Carlton (84.8) – In 1965 at age twenty, Carlton threw 25 innings.  He tossed 52 the next year and 193 in 1967.  It didn’t matter, Carlton was good from day one and continued to be so until he reached age 41.
  • Fergie Jenkins (81.3) – Baseball was different not so long ago.  At age 23, a rookie Jenkins started just 12 games, but appeared in 61 total and threw 187 innings! His ERA was a solid 3.32 and the peripheral numbers virtually identical to those he would post in the next six seasons.  You know, the six seasons in a row where Jenkins won twenty games.

None of the above really tells us anything about what we might expect from Danny Duffy, but it does show you that great pitchers sometimes take time to develop.  Probably, Danny Duffy won’t end up on the top twenty list for career WAR amongst pitchers, so it would hold true that good (as opposed to great) pitchers are probably even more likely to struggle early in their career.

Even if Duffy finds himself back in Omaha in 2012, it does not foretell doom for his future or for the Royals as a whole.  It would be nice, though, if Danny Duffy’s legacy as a Royal…hell, let’s just say it…a Royal great begins in 2012.

Bury me a Royal?   Why not?

xxx

The catchers and pitchers (well, all of them with working visas, anyway) have reported to camp in Surprise, Arizona and it won’t be too terribly long now before we have actual baseball games to evaluate and battles for roster spots will move from winter time speculation to spring time results.

While the Royals’ starting rotation is generally considered as one of the weakest units on the team, it is one that is still relatively set heading into spring ball.  Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen and Jonathan Sanchez are all locks to open the season in the rotation, while Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy are heavy favorites to be the fourth and fifth members of the group.

Ah, the fifth starter.  While it is often true that teams open the season with just four starters on their roster due to off-days early April, the Royals will have no such luxury this year.

Beginning with Opening Day in Anaheim versus the Angels on April 6th, Kansas City will play six straight games.   That means that a fifth starter will be needed on April 10th: day five of the season.   Assuming Luke Hochevar is the number one man, he will make his second start of 2012 on April 11th and the Royals will have an off-day on Thursday the 12th.   They then play six more games starting on Friday the 13th (Opening Day at the K).

Should the club choose to utilize off-days to get their top pitchers more starts – something I am not sure should or need to be done given this team lacks a true get-him-on-the-mound-as-much-as-possible guy at the front of the rotation – they could bring Hochevar back in the number five starter’s spot on April 16th.   Even then, however, the fifth starter would be needed the very next day.

Another off-day comes on Thursday, April 19th and provides the team an opportunity to bump the rotation again, bringing back Hochevar AND Chen (or whomever is the number two starter) on normal rest before having to go the fifth starter again.  Still, the respite is temporary as the schedule demans a fifth starter on April 24th.   After that, Kansas City embarks on a string of twenty games in twenty days and the five man rotation will be in full effect.

As we can see, this season’s schedule requires a fifth starter three times in the first 18 days.  Not only will the Royals be required to carry the fifth man from basically day one, but they will have little opportunity to use him in any role but as a starter.   Let’s say Danny Duffy is the fifth starter, he cannot pitch in relief in the first four games of the year, then starts game five and has to come back exactly one week later and then a week after that.   While there is extended rest between all of his starts, the period is not long enough for Ned Yost to comfortably insert Duffy into a game out of the pen in between.

Now, given that Duffy might have a bit of an inning’s limitation this year, having three starts by April 24th as compared to Hochevar’s five makes a lot of sense.    Duffy threw 147 innings between AAA and the Majors in 2011, so conventional baseball wisdom says he maxes out at 175 or so this year.     Chances are, Duffy doesn’t get much beyond that even without skipping starts, but having a couple less in April probably doesn’t hurt.

Of course, if you are talking innings limited guys, the Royals could give the five spot to Aaron Crow.   They could use the three early April starts as an extended look at what he might do as a starter, let Duffy get tuned up in Omaha and make a real decision about who they want to go with in late April.   Should he succeed as a starter, Crow will be under a real innings crunch, so any starts saved will be useful.

The third legitimate contender for this spot is the out of options Luis Mendoza.  It is hard to ignore what he did in the hit happy PCL last year, but equally hard to forget how truly, truly awful he was in the majors the year before.   Still, a good spring by Mendoza might intrigue the Royals enough (not to mention that both Dayton Moore and Ned Yost have expressed a fear of losing Luis without seeing what they’ve got) to go with him in the five spot. 

I am a huge advocate of Danny Duffy continuing his development in the major leagues.  I am not sure that the problems Danny encountered as a rookie can get solved by doing anything but pitching to major league hitters.   That said, a couple of tune-up starts in Omaha to start the year while the Royals figure out where they are going in early April would do little harm.  

It will be interesting to see how Kansas City handles the rotation battle this spring, but you now know one thing:  they will need a fifth starter immediately.    The luxury of saving the roster spot decision for later in April is not one the Royals enjoy this year.

xxx

Over the past three seasons, among pitchers who threw 400 or more innings, newly acquired Jonathan Sanchez ranked fourth in strikeout rate:  average 9.51 strikeouts per 9 innings.   Here is the top ten:

  1. Lincecum 9.79
  2. Kershaw 9.54
  3. Gallardo 9.51
  4. Sanchez 9.51
  5. Lester 9.43
  6. Verlander 9.29
  7. Greinke 9.04
  8. Latos 8.65
  9. Johnson 8.60
  10. Gonzalez 8.56

I love strikeout pitchers.   The ability to punch a hitter out is the single best weapon in baseball for getting out of a jam and, if you are really good (like the majority of the above top 10), it keeps you from ever getting into jams.

Using the same time frame and criteria, no pitcher has walked more batters per nine innings over the last three years than Sanchez.   This top ten list is not as impressive as the previous group:

  1. Sanchez 4.91
  2. Gonzalez 4.29
  3. Zambrano 4.11
  4. Happ 4.09
  5. Burnett 3.98
  6. Liriano 3.85
  7. Zito 3.82
  8. Billingsley 3.73
  9. Richard 3.70
  10. Jimenez 3.65

The free pass is easily one of the most annoying things that can happen when your team is playing the field.    Jonathan Sanchez not only leads in this category, but he dominates it.

Again, using the same criteria, Sanchez has posted the fifth lowest BABIP among pitchers.  There is a good deal of luck in this number and it certainly is tremendously effected by the defense played behind you, but a three year test of BABIP is some indication of hitters’ inability to make solid contact.   This is a somewhat eclectic top ten:

  1. Lilly .256
  2. Cain .258
  3. Arroyo .261
  4. Kennedy .263
  5. Sanchez .265
  6. Weaver .267
  7. Hudson .268
  8. Lewis .270
  9. Kershaw .271
  10. Wolf .271

Ninety pitchers have thrown 400 or more innings between 2009 and 2011.   Among those, 18 have a swinging strike percentage of 10% or more (the leader is Francisco Liriano at 11.9%) and Jonathan Sanchez is tied for ninth at 10.2%.

None of this should surprise anyone who follows the Royals or the Giants.   Sanchez labors to throw strikes, but is extremely effective when he does.  Given that he is not a particularly hard thrower (his average fastball sits a tick below 91 mph) it would seem that a good portion of Sanchez’s effectiveness comes from the fact that he is pretty wild.  That is not ideal, obviously, but it might pretty much be who Jonathan Sanchez is and forever will be.

Since becoming a full time starting pitcher in 2008, Sanchez’s earned run average has shown some dramatic changes:

  • 2008 – 5.01
  • 2009 -4.24
  • 2010 – 3.07
  • 2011 – 4.26

However, Jonathan’s xFIP is remarkably consistent:

  • 2008 – 4.06
  • 2009 – 4.09
  • 2010 – 3.94
  • 2011 – 4.36

The Royals are obviously hoping for the healthy 2009/2010 version of Sanchez as opposed to the injured and even more wild than usual version we saw in 2011.   No matter which version we see this season, Jonathan Sanchez will be a wild ride.

Even in his stellar 2010 campaign, Sanchez was wildly inconsistent.   Ten times he threw seven or more innings and allowed two runs or less. Yet, six times in that same season, Sanchez did not make it out of the fifth inning and seven more times he did not even get an out in the sixth inning.   Here is a classic Jonathan Sanchez outing:

  • Five innings pitches
  • 103 pitches
  • 7 strikeouts
  • 4 walks
  • 2 hits
  • 1 run

There will be brilliant outings this season from Jonathan Sanchez.   There will be gut wrenching 105 pitch/5 inning starts and maddening 3 innings/5 run stinkers sprinkled in.   Sanchez will walk guys with astonishing regularity and strike them out even more often.   The Royals hope they are getting 180 innings of high threes/low fours ERA.   Some are worried that they will get 125 injury plagued walk filled innings with an ERA closer to five.

Here’s what we know:  Jonathan Sanchez will not be boring.   That is both good and bad.

xxx

There are a lot of interesting things about Bruce Chen:

  • He’s 5 years older than the next oldest guy on the 40 man roster.
  • He’s played for 10 different teams.
  • He’s of Chinese descent, but he’s from Panama with a Panamanian accent.
  • He’s hilarious and he has a Will Ferrel moment.
  • His middle name is Kastulo which means “beaver”, according to the internets.
  • He’s the biggest off-season free agent acquisition that the Royals have made in their quest to win the World Series in 2012.

The last of those is both as good and bad as it sounds. In 2011 he was the third most valuable starting pitcher in what was a pretty terrible starting rotation. He was effective when he was healthy, but he missed a large chunk of the season on the disabled list. He ended up being better than I predicted and even with the time missed he was a solid asset.

However it says something about the intentions of Royals management when this is the centerpiece of their free agent acquisitions. Clearly the Royals, given their budget should probably avoid spending too much money on free agents, but I’m not exactly convinced that they made the best use of it this off-season.

That’s not to say I don’t like the signing of Bruce Chen. It’s a low risk signing for a guy that the team is comfortable with and has shown that when he’s on the mound he can contribute positively. I think the roster is better with him on it, but do they really have enough talent through trade and development to sign Chen and call it good?

The simple answer is no. But it gets significantly more complex when the budget and market are taken into account. The relevant question is whether the Royals have acquired the most talent for the money they’ve been allocated, my gut says no, but that’s really a separate point. We are supposed to be talking about Bruce Chen.

What I don’t get about Chen is that he averaged more walks and fewer strikeouts than Luke Hochevar, yet is considered by many to be the superior pitcher. Sure, he’s a crafty lefty, but in the end, he’s just a pitcher. He doesn’t have anything special and I don’t believe that he has found something unique this late in his career. At the risk of repeating my error before last season, I just don’t believe Chen can be effective in 2012.

That’s not to say he can’t be a benefit to the team or that he was a bad acquisition. However, he isn’t the late blossoming miracle that fans and some analysts think he is. He’s also not anywhere near the free agent acquisition that this team needed int he off season.

 

 

If you sort the qualified American League starting pitchers by ground ball rate, this is the list you end up with:

 

1. Trevor Cahill

2. Justin Masterson

3. Fausto Carmona (His fake name is too cool to stop using it)

4. Ricky Romero

5. Ivan Nova

6. Rick Porcello

7. Carl Pavano

8. Jon Lester

9. Felix Hernandez

10. Luke Hochevar

It’s not exactly a who’s who of AL aces, but it’s a list of some pretty solid pitchers. For the most part, guys that nearly any team would love to have on their staff. Our own Luke Hochevar makes the list along with a couple of elite pitchers. So why is it that Hochevar ranks 8th on the list in ERA and 7th on the list in xFIP? We all know that Hochevar is good at inducing ground balls, but he isn’t utilizing that skill to help him become a more elite pitcher. What makes him different from the guys on that list who are putting it all together.

One thing that jumps to mind is that he might be walking too many guys. While Luke isn’t exactly the stingiest with his walks, on this list he ranks 5th. Right in the middle. Sure he’s below Felix Hernandez, but he’s just below Justin Masterson and well above Jon Lester. It’s something I’d like to see Hochevar improve upon, but it isn’t absolutely critical.

The best way to ensure an at-bat ends in an out is to not let the guy leave the batters box. Strike a man out and there’s almost no chance he scores a run. Once the list of 10 is sorted by K/9 ratio, you start to see a more organized list of who is the most effective. Felix Hernandez and Jon Lester top the list and Luke Hochevar ranks 6th. Not terrible, but he’s hanging around a few too many 4+ ERA guys, it’s not the kind of company we wish our man to keep.

The comparison to Justin Masterson seems good for Hochevar. I’m pretty sure he isn’t turning into Hernandez or Lester, but can he be Masterson?  I don’t see why not. They seem very similar in styles of pitching and Masterson is just a tad better than Hochevar in all of these important categories. In terms of strikeouts, once again Hochevar is only 2 slots below him, however Masterson strikes out 0.75 more men every 9 innings than Hochevar. That is significant. Hochevar has a 5.82 K/9 rate and it seems that there is a real inflection point at about 6 to 6.25 K/9 for these players. If you can surpass that mark, combined with a great ground ball rate and effectiveness takes a giant leap.

What I’ve been looking at though so far is the entire season of 2011 and if you watched last year you know that there were two distinct versions of Luke Hochevar. The first half, aka “not good” version and the second half version. How does 2nd half Luke compare to the guys on this list?

The first thing is that his ground ball rate dropped precipitously in the 2nd half of the season. It’s possible that he took a look at the rather large dimensions at Kauffman and decided that he could allow more fly balls, but only if it helped him in another area, likely strikeouts. Did it work?

Luke Hochevar’s K/9 during the first half: 4.6

Luke Hochevar’s K/9 during the second half: 7.7

Yeah, I’d say that the tradeoff worked handsomely. The results bear it out as well since he dropped going into the All-Star game he had a 5.46 ERA and in the second half he posted a 3.52 ERA. A 7.7 K/9 rate would have crushed Justin Masterson’s 6.57 and would have surpassed guys like Dan Haren and Jared Weaver as well. That kind of strike out rate is bordering on elite, particularly combined with a high ground ball rate.

Unfortunately, the Luke who has found the Force and is able to strike guys out also came with the whiney ineffective Luke from Tatooine who allowed his family to get slaughtered by the Empire. We need the confident Luke who has the ability to fool is enemies into swinging and missing. Can he be that guy in 2012 or will he revert to his old self?

I don’t think Luke Hochever an important guy in the teams ability to contend in 2012. I think he’s THE most important player on the team. If Luke has the Force, the Royals can absolutely contend. If he doesn’t they might not stand a chance.

 

 

 

 

- Nick Scott
Follow @brokenbatsingle

 

 

Luis Mendoza embodies the pitching cliche.

Cliche #1:
The pitcher who reinvents himself.

Mendoza arrived in Kansas City just prior to the 2010 season when he was a late cut by the Texas Rangers. He opened the season in the majors and promptly did his best impersonation of an arsonist.

In the season’s third game, Brian Bannister squared off against Dontrelle Willis in a pitcher’s duel at the K. (WHAT?!?) With the Royals holding a 2-1 lead against the Tigers, Dusty Hughes started the eighth by walking Johnny Damon. That’s when Trey Hillman summoned Mendoza from the bullpen to face Magglio Ordonez, who rapped an infield single. That brought up Miguel Cabrera. After jumping ahead 0-2, Mendoza centered one and Cabrera deposited the pitch in the right field bleachers. Ballgame. (Hillman left Mendoza in for the rest of the inning and five batters in the ninth before executing a mercy pitching change. In the span of an inning, the Royals went from a one run lead to a three run deficit. While Hillman pulled a Todd Haley. I miss SABR Trey.)

Anyway, Mendoza made three more appearances for the Royals in relief, coughed up seven more runs and was exiled to Omaha for the rest of the summer. He pitched almost exclusively in the rotation in Triple-A and finished the year with a 4.10 ERA with a 4.0 SO/9 and a 2.2 BB/9. His FIP in Omaha was 4.48.

Those results led him to Omaha pitching coach Doug Henry who broke down Mendoza’s delivery. He adjusted his arm angle to release the ball on a higher plane which gave his fastball a little more sink. He also worked on developing a consistent delivery – something he apparently had difficulty accomplishing in the past.

The transformation was astounding.

Mendoza was named the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year for 2011, finishing the season with a 2.18 ERA with a 5.1 SO/9 and 3.4 BB/9. His final FIP over 144 innings was 3.80. He made 33 appearances for the Storm Chasers, with 18 starts. Included in his fine season was a no-hitter.

Once the Chasers were done with their post season, and with the Royals resting assorted starting pitchers down the stretch, Mendoza was rewarded for his Triple-A efforts with a recall to Kansas City.

Which brings us to…

Cliche #2:
September stats must be taken with a grain of salt.

Mendoza made two starts for the Royals. His first came against those nasty Tigers. Although they had clinched the Central by this point, they did open the game with a full strength lineup. Mendoza threw seven innings, surrendering two runs (one unearned) in leading the Royals to the win. He walked three, whiffed three and allowed 11 ground balls, 13 fly balls and five line drives. Mendoza retired the Tigers in order only once in his seven innings.

His next start was against a White Sox team that had clearly checked out from about August onward. In this start, he pitched into the eighth, gave up four strikeouts and two walks. He was charged with a run when Greg Holland allowed an inherited runner to score with two outs. Overall, Sox hitters hit 10 grounders, 12 fly balls and seven line drives.

This leads to…

Cliche #3:
Pitch to contact.

You can see from the two games and his minor league stats that Mendoza doesn’t miss a lot of bats. In the major league starts last September, he threw a total of 202 pitches and got a swing and a miss strike 10 times. He also surrendered 12 line drives in play. Yet he allowed no home runs and only 11 hits.

Again, we’re dealing with the small sample size here, but it’s not surprising Mendoza limited hitters to a .239 BABIP on an 89% contact rate. The results we saw from Mendoza were certainly possible (they happened, didn’t they?) yet over the course of 32 major league starts those results are unsustainable. Some will like to draw the comparison between Mendoza and Bruce Chen – another pitcher who tinkered with his delivery and who lacks the high strikeout totals. Close, but no cigar. Chen alters arm angles during the game. Mendoza doesn’t utilitze this trickery. And Chen’s contact rate over the course of the season was almost six percentage points lower. I like what Chen has done to revive his career, but with his ground ball rate combined with his contact rate, I’m not betting on him finishing with a sub 4 ERA again.

Mendoza, with the sinking action on his fastball, has the ability to get more ground balls than Chen, but misses fewer bats. If the Royals hand him over 30 starts, he won’t finish with a sub 4 ERA either. Over the last five years, 24 times has a pitcher who qualified for the ERA title whiffed 4.3 SO/9 or less. Six times, that pitcher led the league in hits allowed. Only twice did that pitcher post a sub 4 ERA. (One of them was John Lannan in 2009 whose 3.88 ERA matched his 3.88 SO/9. Paging Jayson Stark…) Two of those pitchers were on the Royals – Bannister and Mark Redman. Just to give you an idea of the quality of starters who populate this list.

I’m not assigning Mendoza a 4.3 SO/9 for a whole season based on just two starts. But his Triple-A strikeout rate since joining the Royals is 4.6 SO/9. And his career major league rate (including his two starts last September) is… 4.6 SO/9. So, the evidence is kind of strong this is who he is. Is it possible Mendoza can be a contributor? Sure. Just the numbers suggest that the odds of him being halfway decent are long.

In a perfect world Mendoza opens the year in Triple-A and is in the mix for emergency spot starter. He’s a guy who can fill in for a few starts in the back of the rotation. But if you’re counting on him to make quality starts for you throughout the season, you may as well book your reservation for the bottom half of the division.

Vin Mazzaro represents progress.

I’ll wait for you to stop laughing.

Done? Good. Here’s what I mean.

In year’s past, where the Royals traded a starter (and a good one at that in David DeJesus) for a pitcher with major league experience, it was pretty much automatic that the new pitcher would open the new season with the team and would log a substantial number of innings. (I’m thinking along the lines of Mike Wood, who got 17 starts after arriving from Oakland in the three team Carlos Beltran deal. Back when Billy Beane was a genius.)

Remember, Mazzaro was slated to open the season as the Royals fifth starter. He was sent to Omaha because the Royals had a couple of early open dates, got shelled in his first two starts for the Storm Chasers and was held back in Triple-A. He didn’t get a chance to appear in KC until Bruce Chen hit the DL in early May. He made one start, didn’t really distinguish himself, and then came May 16. A day that will live in Royal infamy.

2.1 IP, 11 H, 14 ER, 3 BB, 2 SO, 1 HR

Starter Kyle Davies pitched to four batters and walked three before leaving with an injury. Nate Adcock was supposed to be the Royals long man, but pitched only through the second innings. Burning his bullpen Ned Yost turned to Mazzaro.

It’s wasn’t his best moment.

But consider the dominos from this game. The Royals exiled Mazzaro and recalled Everett Teaford. And Mazzaro had been scheduled to start the next game, so Yost’s bullpen gambit meant an immediate rotation shuffle was in the cards and that brought about the major league debut of Danny Duffy. (See… Even in horrible circumstances I can sometimes find the silver lining.)

So after that outing Mazzaro returned to Triple-A and – other than a brief recall in June and another when the rosters expanded in September – spent his summer in Nebraska. His Triple-A numbers were underwhelming: In 123 innings, he had a 4.4 BB/9, a 7.8 SO/9 and a 4.29 ERA. The strikeout rate was surprising. Mazzaro has never been the type of pitcher to miss bats. Still, he was hampered by the walks and the ability of the opposing hitters to put the ball in play with great success. His Triple-A WHIP was a lofty 1.62.

Once upon a time, Mazzaro was a decent prospect. Baseball America rated him the eight best minor leaguer in the Oakland system prior to the 2009 season. This was coming off a season where he made 22 Double-A starts, posted a 1.90 ERA with a 2.4 BB/9 and won Texas League Pitcher of the Year honors. Here’s what they had to say:

Mazzaro’s hard sinker sits in the low 90s and touches 95, generating groundballs. He pitches off his fastball, and he shows the ability to sink, run or cut it. His control got significantly better in 2008, allowing him to keep hitters off balance by mixing locations and changing planes. He showed a greater willingness to challenge hitters than he had in the past.

Now, Mazzaro throws about 91 mph and his GB/FB ratio for his career is 1.08. As I said earlier, he doesn’t get a ton of swings and misses, so it would be in his best interest to used that sinker to rack up some grounders. That hasn’t happened yet at the major league level. And the control? Well, in 242 innings he’s averaging around 4 BB/9. That’s just not going to cut it. Especially when batters are squaring up the way they do against Mazzaro.

But like I said in the open, Mazzaro isn’t a huge concern because there are other pitchers in the pipeline – along with enough talent already on the 40 man roster – that he can return to Omaha to fill out the Triple-A rotation. The control he possessed in Double-A has deserted him as he’s moved up the ladder. Hitters don’t chase and his secondary pitches are lacking.

This seems to be his future… Organizational filler. Triple-A starter. Break glass only in emergency.

If you see him in Kansas City at any point in this season, you’ll know something has gone horribly awry with the rotation.

The 2012* Rose Bowl has just come to it’s conclusion and I’m supposed to be writing about newly acquired Royals left-hander Ryan Verdugo. I pulled open his Baseball-Reference page and see that he was born in Pasadena, California in April of 1987. It’s a great excuse to check in on the first Rose Bowl that young Verdugo would experience: 1988.

*It seems weird to write and read that number. Something about 2012 seems too futuristic to actually be happening. I didn’t feel that way about 2000 or any other year this millennium. 2012 doesn’t just look like a year that would have flying cars and jetpacks but that they should be relics. Happy New Year?

The 1988 Rose Bowl was a re-match of an earlier game that season between Michigan State and USC. Michigan State won a tight game by three points thanks to 17 unassisted tackles by Percy Snow** and a long catch by Andre Rison. I’m going to assume that young Verdugo was rooting on USC and head Coach Larry Smith. Those three names should be familiar as they all spent some time in the state of Missouri. Percy Snow was a Chief until he had a mo-ped accident. Rison was a Chief and had his house burned down by a singer who wore a condom over one eye. Smith was the head coach at Missouri when their fortunes started to turn around.

**It makes me feel old that I can distinctly remember a guy being drafted the year that a guy on the Royals roster was born. Everyone who was a Chiefs fan at the time remembers Percy Snow. He was a sure-fire, can’t miss prospect. It was the first time I recall in my young sports fandom that guys were not always who they were hyped to be and that sports is a series of disappointments and surprises.

Little did the young Verdugo know that he would find himself sent to Missouri just like the linebacker and wide-receiver who broke his young heart. He was packaged with Jontathan Sanchez in an off-season trade for Melky Cabrera. I bring this all up becase basically there isn’t much to say about Verdugo and it’ll likely be the only opportunity for me to ever bring up Percy Snow.

That isn’t to say I don’t like him or think he won’t be valuable. He has shown a propensity to strike out a ton of guys. On the other hand, he also gives up a lot of walks and hits. In the minors he has an 11.2 SO/9 rate to go along with 4.5 BB/9 and 7.9 H/9 rates. His WHIP last year was 1.366 in Double-A, however it was his first season as a starter in professional baseball.

I’m a big fan of guys who can get guys to strike out. You know who “pitches to contact?” Guys who aren’t making a living playing as pitchers. Striking batters out is a must-have skill for a Major League player. Ryan Verdugo isn’t likely going to be a great player, but he provides some nice depth and is flexible enough to start or come out of the bullpen. The fact that he was a throw-in along with Jonathan Sanchez for a year of Melky Cabrera basically makes him house money.

Verdugo’s role this season will be dictated on the needs of the club. If there is an open spot in the Omaha rotation, then he’ll find himself there. If the Royals need an arm in the pen due to injury or ineffectiveness, then he’ll be called upon for that. He may even find some starts at the Big League level if things pan out a certain way.

This kind of depth is something the Royals have been lacking for some time and the Melky Cabrera move last season is one that is now paying dividends.  Full disclosure: I was not a big fan of the Melky move initially. I’m glad I was wrong.

 

 

Nick Scott hosts the Broken Bat Single Podcast and writes a blog for the Lawrence Journal World. You can follow him on Facebook or email him at brokenbatsingle at gmail dot com.