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Deconstructing The Process

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While some might like Wins Above Replacement level (WAR) to be that magic ‘one stat’ that tells us which player is more valuable than another, it is not.  Brett Gardner is a fine player, but his fWAR (Fangraphs) was basically the same as that of Albert Pujols this season.  That does not mean that WAR is useless, just that it is not the ONLY stat when it comes to evaluating players.

That said, WAR is a very good tool.   For position players, it attempts to consolidate hitting, baserunning and fielding into a tidy little package that gives us a general idea of his overall value.   It is not a fail safe option when calculating team wins.  

In 2011, Kansas City compiled a total team fWAR of 39.1 and won 71 games.   Chicago had 40.3 total fWAR and won 79, while Cleveland totalled up just 30.1 fWAR yet won 80 games.  If you want to know how many fWAR your roster needs to contribute to get 94 wins, I can probably find you 15 different answers…in the last five years.   Like I said at the beginning, WAR (be it fWAR or bWAR or some other WAR…good god, y’all) is not the be all and end all of the statistical world.

Here is what I know, if you want to win the A.L. Central, you have to have more fWAR than the other four teams.    Detroit won 95 games the division in 2011 with an fWAR of 48.5 (8.2 better than anyone else).   Minnesota won in 2010 with 94 wins and a fWAR of 49.7 (6 better than Detroit and 6.7 better than Chicago).  Minnesota only won 87 games in 2009, but it was enough to take the Central and their 41.2 cumulative fWAR was 4 better than second place Detroit.

How many fWAR will it take to win the Central?  I don’t know.   How many will it take to win 92 games?  I don’t know.   What I do know, is that the Royals are almost certain to need more than last year’s 39.1.   If you take my approach of last week that Kansas City should not make any drastic off-season moves (unless someone drops a gem in their lap), then what are the possibilities for the current roster to improve on last year’s mark?

Let’s start with the position players, who provided 25.6 fWAR in 2011.   Alex Gordon (6.9), Melky Cabrera (4.2) and Jeff Francoeur (2.9) accounted for 14 of that total.   All three played everyday, Gordon and Cabrera set career high marks and Francoeur had his highest fWAR since 2007.   Kansas City also got 1.1 fWAR from Mitch Maier, Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain.   If you believe the Royals’ outfield will total 15.1 fWAR again next year, then I have some start-up tech company stock to sell you.

Almost universally, people think it is far more likely that Alex Gordon is more likely to sustain his 2011 performance than Melky Cabrera.   You can count me among them, although I readily admit there is not any real logical reason to have such a clear cut division on two players of basically similar age.   Kansas City can afford to have Melky falter, but they cannot make up for a big Gordon drop-off.   Simply put, if Alex Gordon is a 2.3 fWAR player next year, the Royals are going nowhere.   I don’t think he will drop that far, but I also cannot see Gordon, Cabrera, Francoeur and Cain posting 15.1 fWAR in 2012, either.

Let’s set the outfield aside for a moment and look at three other positions:  third, first and DH.   Billy Butler was the Royals’ everyday DH and provided 1.8 fWAR – the lowest total in three years.   Hosmer provided 1.6 fWAR which we will use to quantify the first base position.  (Without getting too crazy, we know that Ka’aihue provided no value at first – fWAR speaking – and Butler played there when one of the outfielder’s took a half day and DH’d – it’s not exact, but close enough for this rough review).   At third, the Royals got 0.7 fWAR from Moustakas and 0.5 from Wilson Betemit for a total of 1.2.  All told, these three positions contributed 4.6 fWAR last season.

Hosmer is, well he HAS TO BE, the real deal.   It seems as though the question is not ‘will Hosmer progress in 2012?’, but instead is ‘how much will he progress?’.     In addition, Moustakas seemed to ‘get it’ as the season wore on and while he is not a lock to improve, I would say the odds are decent that he will.   I would also expect improvement from Butler, who probably won’t spend the first three months of the season being put off about not getting to play first base.

Is it realistic to say the the outfielder, corner infielders and designated hitter can contribute the same 19.7 fWAR as they did in 2011?  Certainly, the contributions might be weighted more heavily to the infielders than the outfielders in 2012, but I can envision Hosmer, Moustakas, Butler making up the difference from the expected regression (hopefully minor) of the three everyday outfielders.

If so, then the Royals would be looking to Alcides Escobar (2.2 fWAR), the catchers (2.9 fWAR total in 2011) and second base (1.1 fWAR total) to hold the line.   Salvador Perez, who provided 1.4 fWAR himself, might be hard pressed to get to 2.9 in his first full season as a regular, but one can hope that Escobar might hit just a little more and that second base might add a little more as well (not exactly sure how, but we can hope).

At any rate, all of the above considered, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Royals’ position players could contribute close to their 2011 output.  If they do that, then the pitchers need to hold up their end of the bargain.   Wow!  I bet you didn’t see that coming did you?

In 2011, the Royals’ pitching staff contributed a pretty awful 13.5 fWAR.   Felipe Paulino and Jeff Francis each contributed 2.6, Luke Hochevar 2.3, Greg Holland 2.0 and Bruce Chen 1.7 (remember, throwing innings is big part of fWAR for starters and Chen threw just 155).   Joakim Soria chipped in 0.9 fWAR, the lowest of his career (his previous marks were 2.4, 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0).    Those pitchers right there get you to 12.1 of the 13.5 fWAR total.

Danny Duffy’s 0.6 is cancelled out by Sean O’Sullivans -0.5.   Kyle Davies, yes KYLE FREAKING DAVIES, provided 0.7 fWAR which was cancelled out by the negative contributions of Vin Mazzaro, Jesse Chavez and Robinson Tejeda.   WAR, in any form, really does not think much of relief pitchers – which points out how good Greg Holland was in 2011 – and as such, Louis Coleman gets a skinny 0.1, Aaron Crow 0.3 and Blake Wood 0.4.   I do believe that WAR undervalues the contributions of a relief pitcher, especially a non-closer, but that is a debate for another time.

Let’s get back to the starting rotation.   We pretty much know that Hochevar, Paulino and Duffy will be in the 2012 rotation.   Can they better their combined 5.5 fWAR?  To begin with, baseball history is full of young pitchers who are not very good as rookies and take a big step forward in year two.   I think Danny Duffy is likely to do the same.   I am not saying his going to become an ace, but it is reasonable (albeit hardly a sure thing) that he could become a 2.5 fWAR pitcher in 2012.   If Paulino can give the Royals another 2.5 fWAR and Hochevar finally, FINALLY, put it all together and become a 3.5 fWAR guy, the Royals could have 8.5 fWAR out of just three starters – that’s not horrible.  Problem is, that is just one win more than Francis, Paulino and Hochevar gave them last year.

Now what? 

Does bringing back Bruce Chen give you another two wins?  After that, can the number five spot, in combination with the spot starts and injury fill-ins from other starters, get you a ‘barely-head-above-water’ 0.5 fWAR?  You would certainly hope for better, but I am not sure logic will back us up on that one.  Let’s say that Kansas City does gleen 2.5 fWAR total out of the number four through eight starters.    Now, you are at 11 fWAR heading into the bullpen.

Can Joakim Soria bounce back?  If he can, Soria is probably good for 2.0 fWAR.   Then you have Greg Holland coming off a terrific year, Louis Coleman and Tim Collins (0.0 fWAR by the way) setting him up.   Combined, those three accounted for 2.1 fWAR in 2011, you have to get at least that much again in 2012.   Now, the Royals are at 15.1 fWAR out of their staff with the back of bullpen coming into play.   Basically, there was an entire negative win contributed by a bunch of arms last year, which is not uncommon, but it would be nice to avoid.   If the Royals would somehow not have the negative numbers and get another win out of Wood, Herrera, Crow (?) et.al. would that translate into a net gain of 2.0 fWAR?  Maybe….maybe just.

If the above scenario played out, Kansas City would have 17.1 fWAR from their pitchers and another 26 from the position players for a total of 43.1.   Would that translate into a division title?  That is hard to tell, but it almost certainly would get the Royals around or above .500, maybe even into the high 80′s in wins. 

In my opinion, getting an eight at the front of your win total and hoping for some luck and good breaks in 2012 is better than stretching to make a risky deal in a skinny off-season market.   I would rather the Royals shop for that one arm to put them over the top coming off an 84 win 2012 campaign than to do so now, coming off a 71 win season.

xxx

 

 

Bruce Chen has started 48 games for the Kansas City Royals over the last two seasons.   In 2010, Chen threw 131 innings as a starter, posting an ERA of 4.26 and an xFIP of 4.73.   He struck out 6.11 batters per 9 innings and walked 3.37.   In 2011, Bruce threw 155 innings with an ERA of 3.77 and an xFIP of 4.68.   Along the way, Chen struck out 5.63 batters per 9 innings and walked 2.9.   It was his best season since 2005.    He will turn 35 next June.

So, do you resign Chen as a free agent?

The Royals, whether they intend to resign Chen or not, will almost certainly offer him arbitration.   Doing so, will net the Royals a sandwich pick as compensation should Bruce, a Type B free agent, sign with another team.   Notable sandwich picks on the Royals’ 40 man roster are Mike Montgomery and Mitch Maier.   Another Royals notable, who happened to be a sandwich pick in the same draft as Montgomery, is Jake Odorizzi.   

Going back to the 2007 draft, here are some notable sandwich picks:   Brett Cecil, Julio Borbon and Travis d’Arnaud.   Obviously, there is value to be had in that range of the draft.   Value, of course, that will likely take four or five years to be realized.

Chen is a likeable guy, by all accounts a good clubhouse presence and certainly one to be admired for getting the most out of his ability.    A lot of guys with a lot better stuff than Bruce would have packed it in several years ago:  having a couple of guys (dare we say ‘gritty’?) on the roster is good for overall team chemistry.    Sure, the very phrase ‘team chemistry’ is open for ridicule and impossible to truly define, but it is a factor (rightly or wrongly) that is considered by every general manager in baseball.

While Chen’s xFIP would suggest that Bruce might be due for some regression, it is also very possible that Chen is simply a perennial outlier.  He may be a pitcher who defies the common logic of advanced statistical metrics.   I have seen games where Chen simply cannot keep the ball in the park, but have also seen many starts where there seemed to be nothing fluky about his ability to stymie the opposing team.

Chen is an enigma wrapped in a riddle.  He is ‘Bruce F’ing Chen’.

The downside of Chen is that he will be 35, has missed time due to injuries in both of the last two seasons and is just as likely to turn into a guy who can’t get anyone out as he is to turn into Jamie Moyer (of course, it is possible he turns into no one and simply stays Chen, which ain’t all bad).   He might well be looking for a two year deal as well.   A year of Chen at $5 million sounds pretty good, two years at $10 million?  Maybe not so much.

The Chen question really plays into the entire ‘are the Royals ready to contend in 2012 or not’ question that is swirling around the team.   Does having Chen on a .500 team in 2012 outweigh having another possible major prospect in 2016?   Keep in mind that not every sandwich pick turns into Mike Montgomery or Jake Odorizzi and that, frankly, what don’t know what Montgomery and Odorizzi are going to turn into yet, either.  

Signing Chen won’t kill the Royals, but letting him go and getting a draft pick won’t kill them, either.   Does signing Bruce help stabilize a shaky rotation on a team that, should everything break just right might contend?   Or does he stand in the way of the development of a younger pitcher who could possibly be a key player in a strong rotation on a realistic playoff contender in 2013/2014?

Let me rephrase that last question:   is it more important for the Royals to get Mike Montgomery through his rookie season (ala Danny Duffy this past season) with an eye toward Montgomery being a front line guy in 2013 than it is for the team to have Chen piling up quality starts for the 2012 team?   Are the two mutually exclusive?

I have yet to form a final opinion on this issue, but right now I would lean towards letting Chen go and taking the compensation pick.  

xxx

This is the worst time of year to blog about a perennial also-ran. October baseball means another post season spent on the sidelines and it also means front office inertia. I don’t mean that the Royals brain trust has shut down for the month… Just, there’s not much happening that is actually newsworthy.

– The Royals announced their player of the month for September and gave it to Eric Hosmer. Interesting choice if only because there was an actual plethora of excellent candidates from which to choose. When was the last time we could say that? Check some of these numbers.

Mike Moustakas – .352/.380/.580, .227 ISO
Sal Perez – .375/.400/.513, 14 runs
Eric Hosmer – .349/.360/.557, 5 HR, 21 RBI
Jeff Francoeur – .329/.345/.600, 5 HR, .271 ISO

And we can’t forget Billy Butler who hit 10 doubles, or Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar who both had identical .367 OBPs. I cannot remember a month like this where seemingly everyone in the lineup was a difficult out. (Except when Yost was playing for one run and sac bunting. Small Ball!)

What a month for the hitters.

That was a tough ballot for the writers. For sure. I can make a case for any of those guys.

Allow me to climb on my soapbox for a moment: The monthly awards are voted on by “Kansas City media.” I assume that means dudes from the Star with press passes who attend the game where the ballots are distributed and the odd TV guy who just happened to be at the stadium that night. The Royals made an effort to include “social media” this year, but it’s time for them to open this voting to include the blogs. There are a bunch of writers out there who follow this team as close as any professional writer. It would be a heckuva gesture if the Royals opened up their voting.

– Having said that, if I had a vote, I’d give it to Alex Gordon for Player of the Year. I don’t think that is a shock to anyone who regularly reads this blog. The guy lead the team in OBP and slugging, OPS+ and WAR. And outfield assists. Can’t forget the assists.

To me, it’s a no-brainer.

– For Pitcher of the Year, I’d give my vote to Greg Holland. The guy was absolute nails coming out of the bullpen, with an 11.1 SO/9 and 1.80 ERA.

Sure, it’s a little unorthodox to give a pitcher of the year award to a set-up guy, but since the closer struggled for most of the season and the starting rotation was… Let’s be nice and call it inconsistent, Holland is my guy.

I’m sure Chen will get some consideration because he led the team in Wins (Old School!) and ERA, but Hochevar, with his strong finish, posted stronger overall numbers and Paulino was better as well.

Nope… The bullpen was a strength of this team for the most part, so the award has to go to a reliever.

– Actually saw Trey Hillman’s name mentioned in connection with the vacancy in Boston. Then, Pete Abraham, who is the Red Sox beat writer for the Globe, brought it up again on Tuesday:

When the Red Sox last hired a manager, in 2003, general manager Theo Epstein went with a 44-year-old bench coach who had a background in player development and a brief, unsuccessful run as a major league manager.

Terry Francona did not seem like a particularly inspired choice at the time. But he proved to be the most successful manager the Red Sox ever have had.

Assuming Epstein remains with the Red Sox, he’s going to stick with the plan that worked so well the first time.

“In respect to the qualities that we’re looking for, this is a tough job,’’ Epstein said. “I think I’ll use the same process that we used eight years ago when we identified and hired Tito. Looking back at that process eight years ago, I think we found the right guy and hired the right guy.’’

One potential candidate who fits largely the same profile that Francona did is Dodgers bench coach Trey Hillman.

When it comes to baseball, I’m a pretty forgiving guy. I believe in second chances and that managers (and players) can sometimes experience a reawakening when given a change of scenery.

However, in the case of SABR Trey, I’ll lay it out there… There’s no way he can ever be a successful major league manager. The guy had plenty of time in Kansas City to prove he learned something… Anything. Yet he was as horrible at his job the last day as he was on the first. When I say that, Hal McRae comes to mind for the opposite reason. When he took over as manager, he had an extremely difficult time adapting. Yet, by the time he was fired in 1994, he had evolved as a manager. He was not the same guy who came into the position as a rookie a couple of years earlier. He learned and he improved. You can’t say the same about SABR Trey.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against Hillman getting another managerial job. In fact, I welcome it. Let another fan base experience the wonder of the Trey Hillman Experience. They’ll love it in Boston.

The Royals held their end of the season press conference and used it as an opportunity to announce pitching coach Bob McClure wouldn’t return for the 2012 season. Ned Yost had the honors:

“We threw too many balls, we walked too many hitters. We fell behind in the count too much. McClure did a phenominal job here for many, many years. Had a great working relationship with these young pitchers. We just felt as an organization it was time for a different voice.”

Yost is absolutely correct on this count. Royals pitchers threw a grand total of 24,376 pitches this year. No team in baseball threw more pitches. League average was 23,595. Think about that one for a moment… Royals pitchers threw almost 1,000 more pitches than the average major league pitching staff. That’s like playing a 170 game schedule.

Taking this further… Royals pitchers threw a strike 62% of the time. Although major league average is 63% (and all teams threw a strike between 65% and 62% of the time) the Royals tossed the fewest strikes percentage-wise of all teams in baseball. Here’s the list:

Oakland – 62.5%
Toronto – 62.4%
Baltimore – 62.3%
Houston – 62.2%
Kansas City – 62.1%

To be the team with the highest number of total pitches and the lowest percentage of strikes… Yeah, that’s not so good.

So who swung the hatchet and sent McClure to the unemployment line?

“There’s a lot of input from Dayton. Dayton and I talk about everything. I trust Dayton. Uh… As much as I could trust anybody in this business. We started really talking about it the last six weeks and thought it through and made sure it was the right decision for our organization.”

Make no mistake… Yost was the triggerman on the McClure hit. I think Yost had been unhappy with McClure for a long time and started putting this move in motion shortly after the All-Star Break. Here’s what GMDM had to say.

“I like Bob’s style. The most important trait of a pitcher is toughness and poise. At the same time you have to think through the process. You have to overcome so many things. It’s gotta be a very tough, tough thing to be able to succeed in that role. I think McClue has that. Ned certainly has a vision for what he wants. He’s with the players every single day. He knows what they need and we’ve gotta trust his opinion there. And that’s what we’ll do. We’ll find somebody that compliments our coaching staff and someone who works very well with Ned and somebody that can give our pitchers the extra boost they need right now. Make no mistake, Bob McClure has created a great foundation on and off the field on all these pitchers.”

McClure was a holdover from the Baird regime (Buddy Bell brought him over from Colorado prior to the 2006 season), but clearly had a fan in GMDM. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have lasted six seasons. GMDM is loyal to his guys. To a fault, I think. If it had been solely his call, I doubt this move would have happened.

I know a bunch of people looked to McClure as the scapegoat, but honestly, I have no idea how much effect a pitching coach has on a major league staff. Bruce Chen seemed to figure out how to change arm slots and has had a small dose of success. Is that McClure? Danny Duffy struggled in his debut season. Is that McClure? Luke Hochevar put together a solid second half after turning to his slider. Is that McClure? Some guys showed up in KC and pitched well… Some guys didn’t. Happens all the time.

Having said that, six years is a long time for a pitching coach to be on a team that isn’t winning. Yost wasn’t happy with the results, he wants his guy and GMDM wants Yost to feel comfortable. Both want someone who can work with young pitchers since that’s the next wave of The Process. Maybe McClure couldn’t communitcate with the youth. Maybe Hochevar figured out how to be successful on his own and maybe he could just never reach Duffy.

So Yost wanted McClure gone. As I said, GMDM is loyal, but ultimately his style is to hire his people and let them do their jobs. It’s a standard organizational ladder. If one of the higher-ups wants someone beneath them gone… It’s done. Will at Royals Review thinks this is a sign that Yost is the long-term guy as manager. I don’t necessarily read it that way. Yost is under contract through next season. I suppose an extention could happen, but I see this as GMDM basically giving his manager what he wants. (Kudos to whomever asked Yost about his contract. Without an extension, he’s a lame duck manager in 2012, so this is a fairly important issue. And thankfully, Karen Kornacki got in a question about Santa Claus. Seriously. She freaking name-dropped Santa at a baseball press conference.) Everything could change by this time next year. It’s baseball. Just ask Terry Francona.

Similarly, Yost will play a huge part in the hiring of the next pitching coach. And he knows exactly what he wants…

“I’m looking for a guy that has energy, a guy that has competitive spirit, a guy that is focused on teaching mechanics and a guy that can formualte an idividual game plan for each pitcher on each particular day. You know, I learned a lot with Mike Maddux when we were together for 6 years. I watched how he did it, and he was pretty good.”

Maddux is currently the pitching coach for Ron Washington’s Texas Rangers.

“I’m looking for a guy that pitched in the big leagues for a long time with mediocre stuff. Mike Maddux had mediocre stuff, but he pitched 15 years in the big leagues. Because he knew how to pitch, he understood mechanics, he understood the importance of fielding your position, he understood the importance of controlling the running game, he understood the importance of knowing the signs and the situations at all times. And those guys that have to work real hard at their game and have longevity in their game usually make dynamic pitching coaches.”

McClure had a 19 year major league career that spanned over 1,150 innings. With an ERA+ of 102, I’d call him mediocre. I’d also call him left-handed, which surely helped him pitch into his forties.

Using Yost’s criteria, I did a search for pitchers who played at least 15 years, finished with an ERA+ between 95 and 105 and threw at least 1,000 innings. Here are some candidates for the Royals pitching coach job:

Bruce Kison
Milt Wilcox
Andy Hassler
Doyle Alexander
Bob Forsch
Mike Norris
Bob Knepper
Rick Sutcliffe
Floyd Bannister
Jim Clancy
Rick Honeycutt
Dennis Lamp
Dan Schatzeder
Juan Berenguer
Mike Morgan
Bruce Hurst
Danny Jackson
Kevin Gross
John Burkett
Dave Burba
Chris Hammond
Scott Erickson

I have no clue who on this list is active in baseball and who’s been working on their golf game. It would be kind of fun if the Royals next pitching coach was one of these guys.

The Royals had a decent second half and Yost is flexing his muscles. McClure and Gibbons were his call. No mistake. And the next hires will be his guys. Again, no mistake. So at this time next year if the pitching staff has taken a step forward, we can give Yost some of the credit for bringing in his guy. He’ll have to take the blame if things get worse.

Meanwhile, John Gibbons, the bench coach got the axe as well. Yost has someone in mind for his replacement and says he will come from within.

“I’m looking for somebody with catching experience. A really good teacher. A real good catching coach, that can work with these young catchers.”

All indications are the Royals will look to Chino Cadiha who is currently a special assistant to the Royals player development staff. Prior to that he was… Hold on… a bench coach with the Braves. He worked with GMDM as the Braves roving catching instructor and was a minor league field coordinator.

There was plenty more from GMDM’s press conference, but this post is already running long. Look for a weekend post. Special edition.

The off season has begun…

It might have been easier if Luis Mendoza had imploded in his two starts this September or if the same had happened to Everett Teaford. 

Rightly or wrongly, we are more likely to believe a bad September is more indictative of a player’s future performance than a good September.  If Mendoza had looked like the guy we saw early in 2010, then the Royals likely would have been ready to move on:  freeing up a valuable 40 man roster spot this winter.   As it is, Kansas City is virtually assured of keeping Mendoza over the winter and getting a look at him next spring.  Same for Teaford.

That is a good thing, frankly, but it certainly does not make the job of Dayton Moore and Ned Yost any easier.

As good as Mendoza has looked in his two September starts, and as outstanding as he was all summer in AAA, one has to be somewhat skeptical of a major league pitcher who struck out just 4.3  batters per 9 innings in his two starts and walked 3.1 per 9 innings.  It is possible to make a living doing that for a full season, but rare.  As a frame of reference, Bruce Chen struck out 5.7 per 9 innings while walking at a slightly lower rate than Mendoza (2.9).   Interestingly, Everett Teaford had the exact same strikeout and walk rates as Chen.

No one knows right now what Mendoza’s two starts mean.  Both the Tigers and the White Sox trotted out a major league line-up to face Mendoza, but you wonder about their level of interest.  Still, they are professionals and no one likes to look bad, so we’ll give Mendoza credit for mowing down two decent offensive lineups.   Probably that is enough to put him in the mix for the 5th starter spot next season.

If Dayton Moore determines that a 2012 rotation of Hochevar, Paulino, Duffy, Chen and either Teaford, Mendoza or even Mike Montgomery is better than going ‘all in’ on a free agent or, more likely, blockbuster trade, I might not disagree with him.  He has options and might look pretty smart should the second half Hochevar be the real Luke, Duffy makes a step forward in year two and Paulino remains a horse in the middle of the rotation.   Moore might look pretty stupid if he stands pat and all those guys post plus five ERAs in April and Mendoza gets lit up as well.

Here is something to remember when we start projecting Mendoza into the 2012 rotation.   In 2006, Bobby Keppel allowed just 3 runs over 14.2 innings in his first two starts for the Royals.  He struck out six and walked three and I remember thinking that maybe the Royals had found a hidden gem. 

Keppel proceeded to give up 16 runs over 11 innings in his next 4 starts.

So Luke Hochevar has become a fairly decent pitcher in the second half, hasn’t he? Don’t believe me… Believe the splits:

Wow.

There’s a bunch that jumps out from that table. He’s shaved two whole runs off his ERA. He’s striking out three more batters per nine innings. He’s cut down on his base runners. And he’s done it all while walking the batters as roughly the same rate as before.

Hopefully, this was a strike. (Minda Haas/Flickr)

(WPA is Win Probability Added. It’s a cumulative number and is basically how many wins a player adds over the course of the season given his performance against “average” teams. Pitching God Roy Halladay is roughly worth 4.5 wins this season for the Phillies.)

Well done, Hochevar. Well done.

We know Hochevar. We’ve followed him since the Royals made him the number one overall (number one!) draft pick back in 2006. This run of quality outings is not only unprecedented, it’s entirely unexpected. He’s never, ever put together a string of starts like this. We saw it early in the season in a microcosmic fashion, when he could give five or six really strong innings… And then implode so spectacularly it rivaled one of those Sunday morning stadium demolitions (thinking Kingdome) for the fallout.

Now? The implosions (and the fallout) are seemingly in the past. A remnant of the first half.

The question then, is how has he done it? How has he pumped his strikeout rate and sliced his ERA?

The answer is simple. I’m going to boil it down to one word to you. Just one word. Are you ready?

Sliders.

Yes, it’s Hochevar’s slider that has become a weapon on par with weapons-grade plutonium. I will now refer to it as the Atomic Slider.

Before the All-Star break, Hochevar threw the slider roughly 11% of the time. According to PitchF/X, it was his fifth most used pitch. (PitchF/X is a little muddy on the types of pitches Hochevar throws. I suspect it’s a common issue with pitchers who throw a cut fastball and sinking fastball. According to their classifications, Hochevar throws a four-seam fastball, a cut fastball, a sinker, a curve, a slider and a change. I’m not worried about how to break down his fastballs and sinkers… The focus here is only on the slider.)

After the break, Hochevar has gone to the Atomic Slider over 18% of the time. It is now his second most used pitch.

It makes sense he’s leaning more heavily on his slider. According to data compiled by FanGraphs, it’s always been his best pitch. The raw numbers support this. Batters hit .163 this season when they put Hochevar’s slider in play. They are over .300 on all other pitches. It’s a pitch he should be throwing more frequently. He used to throw it a lot. He’s finally decided to return to his bread and butter.

OK… Hochevar is throwing more sliders since mid-July. So what? He was so horrible up to that point, just by throwing that one pitch more frequently can’t possibly explain his success. You’re skeptical. I don’t blame you.

Would you be surprised if I told you there was more to the slider than just an increase in times thrown? How about we discuss how Hochevar is throwing his best pitch.

From the excellent Texas Leaguers, here is a side by side comparison of Hochevar’s release point when throwing his slider. The chart on the left is his release point before the break. The chart on the right is his release after the break.

Notice, he’s lowered the arm slot on his slider, which may have something to do with it’s increased value. The new release point has allowed him to get a tighter spin on the pitch, so it has a greater horizontal break. Think of it as more of a sweeping motion, running away from right handed hitters. It’s also allowed him to add a full mph to the pitch. Before the break, his slider averaged 84.4 mph. Post break, he’s throwing the pitch at an average of 85.6 mph. It’s a small bump, but by bringing the velocity of his slider closer to the velocity of his sinking fastball, it allows Hochevar a little more deception in his arsenal. And as any pitcher will tell you, deception is the key in getting hitters out. In fact, where he is releasing his slider now… It’s almost exactly where he’s releasing his sinking fastball.

Compare the results Hochevar has experienced his slider from before and after the break…

Wow. Just wow.

Not only does he have the deception working for him, this slider is now a pitch he can really, really control. Almost three quarters are thrown for strikes… Are you kidding? And he’s getting a swing and a miss on almost a quarter of them? That just reinforces my theory… hitters see the low release point, quickly pick up the speed of the pitch… and think the ball is going to sink. Instead, it slides away (from right-handed batters.) All they can do is give up about halfway through their swing. And take their seat on the bench.

Again, look at the results. Here were Hochevar’s five most common plate appearance resolutions before the All-Star break:

Groundout – 25.3%
Single – 14.1%
Flyout – 13.9%
Strikeout – 11.8%
Walk – 7.3%

Compare those to his five most common resolutions post-break:

Groundout – 22.5%
Strikeout – 21.5%
Flyout – 14.2%
Single – 12.9%
Walk – 6.3%

The single and the strikeout have flip-flopped and the strikeout rate (as we previously discussed) experienced a crazy-huge increase. That’s why he’s been the best Royals starter in the second half. And it all goes back to his Atomic Slider.

We’ve seen crazy improvements from mediocre pitchers before. The question is always, “Can the improvement be sustained.” I was skeptical that Hochevar had really found true improvement. (In fact, I tweeted about him being another September tease, a la Kyle Davies in his second to last start.)

I think I was wrong about the whole “September tease” aspect. I think this improvement sticks.

Hochevar has changed his mechanics when throwing his best pitch and has made that pitch even better. It’s repeatable… It’s not the product of luck, or defense, or playing second division teams. This is something Hochevar should be able to do again and again. Because of that, we can reasonably expect him to give us something approximating his second half results in 2012.

On Thursday, the Royals announced they were shutting Hochevar down for the rest of the season. Not a bad idea for a couple of reasons. One, he’s thrown 198 innings, a career high by over 55 innings. And two, he’s had a great run of success. After going seven consecutive starts with over 100 pitches, he wasn’t as sharp his last time out against the Twins. There’s probably not much left in the tank. Don’t ruin a good second half because the guy is on fumes. It’s good to quit while he’s ahead.

Finally, does all this mean Hochevar morphed into the ace we’ve been missing all season? Not necessarily. But it does, in my mind, make him a solid number two or number three starter. And when Dayton Moore goes shopping for pitching this winter, that’s a very big deal. Think back to where we were at the start of the season… A bunch of number fours and fives. With Hochevar figuring out how to master his slider, the Royals have upgraded their rotation without having to explore the trade or free agent markets. Like I said, it’s a big deal.

Note: I noticed a couple of starts ago that Hochevar was having more success with his slider. That point was reinforced in a Tweet sent last week from Keith Blackburn (@doublestix) that caught my eye because we were thinking the same thing. There are several Royals fans out there with a keen eye and he’s one of them.

I personally have spent much of the last couple of months writing about the Royals’ young position players and, to a lesser extent, about their rookie laden bullpen.   The reason is quite simple:  after years of projecting and theorizing about ifs and buts and whats and whens, we can actually look at the lineup that takes the field every night and know that ‘next year’ applies most if not all of them.

Seriously, when was the last time you watched a Royals’ team play in August and September and knew that basically the same team was going to take the field again in 2012….and be generally happy about it?

Ditto for the bullpen.   Sure, there might be/will be some changes in the pen, but the core group will be back.   Again, not only will they be back, but the thought of Coleman-Holland-Soria to finish out games in 2012 makes me happy.

So, long story to nowhere, but that is why I have spent a lot of time discussing the above.   It is a real life, real time topic as opposed to the years of prospect watching and trade scenario (fun as it may be) fantasizing that was all we had as Royals’ fans to keep us marginally sane.

The starting rotation, however, throws us back into more theory than fact.   We think Felipe Paulino is a true hidden gem:  a strikeout pitcher with good control, who finally blossomed.   We think Danny Duffy showed enough promise, enough stuff, as a rookie to progress into at least a middle of the rotation starter.   While no one believes Luke Hochevar will ever justify his overall number one pick status, we think that his post All-Star break performance might indicate that he is ready to be a solid number three/four type starter as well.

Do three ‘thinks’ and a ‘might’ equal league average 2-3-4 starters?  Or is it more like 3-4-5 starters?

At minimum, the Royals do not have a number one starter, much less an actual ace.   Not long ago, we thought that Mike Montgomery might be that guy as early as 2012, but he is finishing off a AAA campaign that featured 69 walks in 150 innings with a decent, but modest, 129 strikeouts.   John Lamb has spent all of 2011 on the shelf with Tommy John surgery.   Chris Dwyer, who was never projected as a number one type guy, posted a AA earned run average solidly north of five.   Jake Odorizzi had a very nice season, but spent just half of it above A ball.   Will Smith also did a nice job this year, but his 108 strikeouts in 161 AA innings points more towards back of the rotation duty.

It would be foolish to give up on Montgomery or dismiss Lamb as wrecked, but none of the young arms the Royals so highly value is going to lead the rotation in 2012.   That’s okay, all in all, unless you want to contend in 2012 and my gut feeling is that Royals’ GM Dayton Moore thinks his team can do just that.

Let’s go along with Moore for a moment and assume that Kansas City can at least consider contending in 2012.   A lot has to go right, obviously, not the least of which is the three ‘thinks’ and a ‘might’ referenced above have to come true.  If so, then you can rely on some combination of a resigned Bruce Chen, Everett Teaford or Aaron Crow to fill the fifth spot in the rotation and assuming THAT works out, you still have a big gaping hole in the number one spot of the Royals’ rotation.

How do you fill it?  Free agency? 

Unlikely.   C.J. Wilson is not coming to Kansas City and neither is C.C. Sabathia, should he opt to opt-out.   The rest of the market is thin and likely to be extremely overpriced.   We are not talking about giving Gil Meche one more contract year than anyone else, we are talking about the Royals paying for an extra year and paying too much for all the years in front of that.

Trade?

Now, it gets interesting.   In the prospect hungry world of major league baseball, number one pitchers are just three or four prospect away from wearing your uniform.   It is a steep price, but doable.   Keep in mind, the hopeless, money starved Astros were apparently asking for a package that starts with something comparable to Montgomery or Wil Myers for Wandy Rodriguez, who is not an ace to begin with.  Doable, but steep….really steep.

To make it even a little more risky, the Royals might well find themselve trading, not for an ace or even a ‘number one’, but for a player who they think might become a number one.   Think James Shields of the Rays as an example.   There is talk he is available, but it could be just talk.   Frankly, was it clear at this time last year that Zack Greinke would not be a Royal in 2011?  Names could come up this off-season that you might never expect.   Would the Angels consider trading Dan Haren to bolster an offense that is getting outstripped by the Rangers?   Would the Phillies move Cole Hamels?  What about the Dodgers and their off-field mess?

The names are all speculation, the price is actually a little easier to define.   The Indians basically gave up the equivalent of Mike Montgomery, Aaron Crow, Tim Melville and Paulo Orlando to acquire Ubaldo Jimenez.   You know what Milwaukee gave the Royals and what the Nationals offered.  The packages are all different, but they are also similar in the overall talent given away.  If the Royals do it, it is going to hurt.

Should Dayton Moore make that kind of plunge in an effort to contend in 2012 or would it be wiser to make a smaller deal for an established mid-rotation guy and hope the Kansas City offense and bullpen are good enough to carry the team? 

I will be honest, there is part of me that believes prospects are overrated (that may shock some of you) and that same part is impatient to contend.   If Montgomery and Crow put James Shields (or insert your name of choice here if Shields bugs you) on the mound for the Royals on April 6, 2012, I would be hardpressed to say no.  If throwing four prospects – four really good prospects (Wil Myers AND Montgomery to start, boys and girls) – gets Clayton Kershaw in a Royals’ uniform, I have to tell you that I am probably all in.

All that said, the prudent move is probably to bring in one mid-rotation veteran for a moderate trade price (Cain or Cabrera and something) and see what happens in 2012.   The Royals might catch lightning in a bottle next season, but they are more likely to progress in fits and spasms:  winning 12 of 14 and then dropping seven of eight.   It might be wise to hope 2012 AAA is kinder to Mike Montgomery than this summer was and to hope that Aaron Crow’s bullpen stint turns him into a legitimate number two or three starter by 2013.

It is possible that a 2013 rotation of Montgomery, Duffy, Paulino/Hochevar, Crow and Odorizzi, with John Lamb rebounding nicely in AAA, may be a contending level group.  The Royals could have all that and still have all their coveted prospects as well.   Maybe.

Probably won't see this next year. (Photo: Minda Haas/Flickr)

The Royals announced they will shut down starter Jeff Francis after his next start on Thursday. Francis, who is making $2 million this year, will finish the season with somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 innings. That represents the most work for Francis since he topped 215 innings back in 2007.

At the same time, the club also let it be known that Everett Teaford will make two more starts before he’s finished for the season. His final start will be on September 25 at Chicago, three days before the end of the season.

Back to Francis… At $2 million the left-hander provided the Royals with the following line (current through Tuesday):

30 starts, 177 IP, 4.88 ERA, 1.429 WHIP, 4.5 SO/9, 1.9 BB/9, 4.27 xFIP

The lack of walks is a delight. The lack of strikeouts is a problem. But that’s the way Francis has always pitched. Since his injury, he’s sped up the evolution to control pitcher.

Remember back to those days when the mantra for Royals pitchers was “pitch to contact?” Let’s just say Tony Muser and Brent Strom would have loved Jeff Francis. Over 80% of all plate appearances ended with the ball in play. Additionally, 10% of all plate appearances, batters went for extra bases. Although there’s no shame in his 1.0 HR/9.

His xFIP may indicate there’s a level of bad luck on his side, but the truth is, Francis just isn’t the kind of pitcher who can go out and make success for himself on a regular basis. He’s more likely to get lit up than to dominate in one start. Although, to be fair, he’s really more likely to pitch a solid game. Maybe a quality start, maybe not. (He had 15 quality starts this year for the Royals, a rate of 50%.) It seems difficult to imagine over the course of a full season of starts that Francis could give his team enough for them to win over half their games. But he gives you a chance, and for a team like the Royals, that’s what it’s about.

Francis wasn’t here to be a front line starter, or even a number two or three guy. He was here to eat innings. That’s kind of a gutsy move to make for a player with a pretty serious shoulder history. Even though the Royals could only win nine of his 30 starts, Francis did pretty much what the Royals asked… He took the ball every fifth day and usually went until the sixth inning. On this team, with this rotation, that’s something.

According to FanGraphs, that’s worth $11 million dollars on the open market. Not a bad piece of business from Dayton Moore. But those numbers just seem arbitrary. Even though they are assigned to a player based on WAR, they aren’t real. Francis would never get that kind of money on the free agent market. But the numbers do give us a measure of some kind of worth to the Royals rotation. Subtract Francis and the team’s record may not be much different, but the strain placed on an overworked bullpen certainly would have increased. Francis the innings eater was just what the Royals needed this year.

So as Francis prepares for another spin in free agency, there will doubtless be talk from both team and player about a mutual respect they have for each other, and how it would be really nice if he could return for another year. With free agent pickings looking slim this winter, and with no immediate help coming from The System, it’s not a horrible thought that Francis could be back in Royal blue next spring.

We just need to realize we’ve probably seen him at or near his post injury peak. If the Royals could bring him back for another year at under $3 million, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

The Royals will be in a similar position with last night’s starter, Bruce Chen. Against the helpless Twins lineup, Chen was, dare I say, dominant.

8 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 SO

He threw 119 pitches and 82 of them were strikes.

His Game Score was 85, which made his effort last night the best Royals start of year. And it’s the highest Game Score since October 1 of last year when Chen posted an 88 against the Rays. He finishes strong.

Chen has been a different pitcher ever since he started varying his arm slot, dropping it lower when he throws a sinker. He’s not dropping his arm as low as he did last year, but I’m not sure that makes a lot of difference. Here were his release points from three starts in September, 2010:

Compare that to his release point in his last three starts:

Like I said, not as low this year, but that’s more about finding his comfort zone in his delivery and release than anything. The results have been fairly consistent from last season.

Chen is another pitcher whom the Royals will have to make a decision on this winter. He’s been a good starter for the Royals, but I don’t get the hype from those who wish to anoint him the best starter on this staff. For my money, Paulino has been better. So has the second half version of Hochevar. That’s not a slight against Chen, just how I see the starters stack up according to performance. But that’s OK… If Chen is the best starter on your club, your staff needs some serious help. Not that Chen can’t help a rotation… We know he can. It’s just he’s better suited to the back of the rotation. Not the front.

I’d prefer to have Chen back in the fold next year, but at a price tag under $4 million. And if by some stroke of luck, the rotation entering 2012 is good enough that there is only a single opening… I’d opt for Chen ahead of Francis.

I have a hunch it was a pretty busy weekend for all of us.  College football was in full swing, the NFL started up and it was just about perfect weather just about everywhere in the Midwest.   On a far more important note, it was the 10th anniversary of 9/11, which took up at least a few hours of most everyone’s weekend.

Along the way, the Royals were still playing baseball:  rallying from an 0-2 start against Seattle to win the final two games of the series.   A split with a team sporting a virtually identical poor record is not exactly front page news, particularly on a weekend like this past one.

It’s that time of year, folks.   The time when local sports radio might give you twenty minutes of Royals’ talk per show, if you’re lucky.   When the only baseball highlights (unless you can tolerate the ridiculous ‘look at how lively and funny we are’ Baseball Tonight show) revolve around teams that, you know, are still playing for something.    Short of Alcides Escobar catching a grounder in his hat and then drop kicking it to Eric Hosmer for the out, you won’t see a Royals’ highlight on any national media outlet until sometime next year.   Heck, you might not see many on any of the Kansas City stations!

I will have to admit that I paid minimal attention to the Seattle series myself.   We had a huge airshow up here in Lincoln (Blue Angels, baby!), the Huskers played at night, the deck had to be stained and Mom gave me an extra half hour each night before having to return to the basement.   All that said, the Royals did do some good things over the weekend:

  • Felipe Paulino struck out 11 batters over seven innings of work, allowing just two hits.   So much for concerns about his back.
  • My new prospect to hype, Everett Teaford, stepped up Sunday and threw five shutout innings in his first major league start.   Of course, Teaford was facing the Mariners who don’t sport a whole lot of anything offensively after Ichiro and Dustin Ackley, but it was a positive performance nonetheless.
  • By the time the dust settled Sunday, Alex Gordon was leading the AL in doubles with 45.  The last double on Sunday was his 70th extra base hit of the year.  For those of you new to the game, 70 freaking extra base hits is a lot.  When Gordon was a rookie, what were your expectations?  Something like .300/.400/.500 as a slash line?   Well, Alex stands at .299/.371/.500 right now.
  • Eric Hosmer hit home run number 17 in Seattle.   Get your prediction in now:  how many home runs will Hosmer hit in 2012?  I am setting the over/under at 29.
  • With a little luck, the Royals could end the season with four players who each have 40 or more doubles and 20 or more home runs.   While the offense has been somewhat spastic this year, it really is not the problem (which pretty much everyone knew already).
  • Neither has the bullpen.   After a bit of ‘rookie hitting the wall-itis’ the past few weeks, the Royals’ pen threw 12 innings in the Seattle series, allowing just 3 runs and 2 walks while striking out 22 batters.   They are not the problem, either, and are likely to be even better in 2012.
  • The problem, of course, is the starting rotation.  Again, we already knew that and in the coming months you can count on this writer coming up with six thousand and seven scenarios to make the rotation better.   I believe it is quite likely you will disagree with all of them.

I will leave you with one question for the day:  is the 2012 Opening Day starter on the current 40 man roster?

Although the Royals official website lists Bruce Chen as the probable starting pitcher on Sunday, I do not believe that is correct.  At this point in this season, there is no reason to bring back Chen on short rest.  Not to mention, for all that he has done for Kansas City the past two years, this is still Bruce Chen we are talking about:  a solid contributor to the rotation, but not a pitcher you want on the hill so bad that you bring him back on three days rest.

The last we heard from Ned Yost, lefty Everett Teaford is the tentative starter for the Sunday game, ‘unless the Royals need him to win a game between now and then.’   First off, Ned, your quest to get win number 63 is decidedly secondary to preparing for next year:   just forget Everett is out in the pen (you’ve done that before) and let him start on Sunday.

Assuming Teaford does actually get to start on Sunday, that would put him in line to get two additional starts before the season’s end.   Both of those would be on Saturdays and both would be against the White Sox.   Now, after the current four game set with Seattle, the Royals are going to be playing the Twins, White Sox and Tigers.   Detroit comes in for just a two game set, so 12 of the last 14 are against Minnesota and Chicago.

With the Sox currently nine back of Detroit, nobody the Royals play is likely to be very interested and their lineups might be sprinkled with a fair number of September call-ups.   Still, if starts two and three are against the same team, usually a daunting task for any starter, it might tell us more than a little about Everett Teaford’s future as a starter.  At least, it might give us an idea, which is more than we have now.

Royals’ fans have been stung by September starts before, of course.   Kyle Davies made millions by have a stellar September and Dayton Moore traded Leo Nunez for Mike Jacobs under the false assumption that an 18-8 September meant the Royals were ready to contend the following season, so we need to be careful.   That said, IF Teaford is granted the three starts he would currently be in line for, it would give us some indication of whether he might fit at the back of the 2012 starting rotation.

Some, mind you, and far more than we will have based on the one start that Luis Mendoza, Vin Mazzaro and Sean O’Sullivan might get after the AAA playoffs are over.   Truthfully, I don’t care if they do get a start or share a start or whatever.   It is quite possible that should Luis Mendoza take the mound for the season’s final game on September 28th that he will be facing a Twins’ lineup that is not as good as what he just faced in the first game of the AAA playoffs.  

And it will be just one start.   If three Everett Teaford starts gives us just an inkling, than one does one Mendoza start give us?  

The Royals have talked a fair amount about getting a look at Mendoza, Mazzaro and SOS this September in an effort to ‘see what they’ve got’, but the truth is they won’t really know anything.  Not off of one start or even two against teams with nothing to play for.

That is not to say the Royals should not give them a start.   After all, Hochevar is at a career high in innings, Paulino has a bad back and veterans Francis and Chen have shouldered their share of the load in 2011.   Heck, if the Royals wanted to trot out a rotation of Teaford, Adcock, Mendoza, O’Sullivan, Mazzaro the last couple of weeks of 2011, I would not have a huge problem with it.

Organizations are not supposed to say it outloud, but would it not be better in the long term to win 65 games and pick third in next June’s draft than to win 70 and pick eighth?

Whatever the Royals decide to do with their rotation from here on out is not going to raise my ire in any respect.  If you are asking, I think they should try to get as many starts for the unknowns as possible.   The limited number of innings, however, won’t really tell us anything…or at least not very much…but maybe something….sort of.