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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.

 

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.

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