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The Twins – who could use the bullpen help – thought so little of Jose Mijares that they cut him loose, rather than offer him arbitration. Meanwhile, the Royals – seeking to shore up one of the stronger aspects of their young team – saw an opportunity and plucked him from the free agent ranks. It’s an interesting look at how two AL Central rivals are positioning themselves for the 2012 season.

We know about Yost and how he wants to have two lefties in the bullpen. Well, in Mijares, he finally has that LOOGY he so often desired last summer. Check out his career splits:

Vs. RHB – .268/.353/.423
Vs. LHB – .212/.276/.331

Bullpens are by nature volatile. Mijares had his worst season by far as a major leaguer last summer… His walks were up, his strikeouts were down and his ERA ballooned to an unsightly 4.59. But even though his struggles, he was still able to get left-handed batters out. His line against lefties was .253/.330/.368. Again, those numbers were way off his career averages, but if Yost uses him in the proper context he’ll be a useful arm out of the pen.

The hope is, Mijares can rediscover some of his past success. What worked against Mijares last year was a notable drop in velocity – his fastball lost two mph over the last two seasons. There’s also the fact he threw a first pitch strike to only 51% of all batters. Major league average last year was a tick below 60%. Basically, he was falling behind way too often and then couldn’t get his fastball past hitters once he had to come back into the strike zone. His 93% contact rate was extremely elevated from his previous seasons.

The glimmer of hope in this was the fact Mijares’ strand rate was 68%, which is about 10% lower than his career average. Strand rate will fluxuate from year to year for relievers due to the small sample size, but his rate is so low, you have to figure he’s due for a positive adjustment.

Then, there’s the Mijares/Mauer kerfuffle from last summer. Mijares was brought in to the game to face Prince Fielder – who laced a two-run double – and wasn’t happy with Mauer’s game calling:

“I don’t know what’s going on with Mauer,” Mijares said. “He never put down a sign for breaking ball. Never. It was fastball, fastball, fastball, fastball.”

I’m pretty sure it’s against the law in Minnesota to speak ill of Mr. Mauer. Although I did enjoy his retort:

“Called for a fastball there,” Mauer said. “I didn’t call for it down the middle.”

Well said, Mauer.

Last season was a forgettable one for Mijares, but moving forward he’s worth the risk. The Royals have a deep bullpen, so if he bombs out early, Yost should be able to minimize the damage. And even if he pitches like last year, he’ll still be able to get left-handers out.

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I’m going to wrap this week with a couple of videos…

Rex Hudler met the KC media this week. I’m OK with The Wonder Dog – for now. I get the feeling I’m in the minority. I also reserve the right to change my opinion.

And we leave with this Gary Carter video. Growing up in an AL city, I didn’t have the opportunity to see much of Carter, but always enjoyed watching him on The Game of The Week or the postseason. I loved the way he played the game.

This is Carter’s final plate appearance of his last game. It’s awesome for so many reasons… I’ve watched this about 20 times. Pure Kid.

Awesome.

By all accounts, Brayan Pena is a heckuva guy:  upbeat, happy, a non-complainer when it comes to his limited playing time.  While we like to boil baseball down to the numbers, Pena is one of those ‘team chemistry guys’.   Twenty-five guys in one locker room, one plane, the same hotel for six months straight:  you need some chemistry.

We can debate the overall value of good clubhouse guys, but it is obvious that the Dayton Moore led Royals’ put a high premium on that variable.  They traded Mike Aviles for a younger version of himself in no small part because of Aviles’ complaints about not being a full-time player and then traded that player, Yamaico Navarro, just a few months later mostly because they were concerned about his impact on the clubhouse.

The willingness to accept their roles is no small part of the reason Brayan Pena and Mitch Maier made the team last year and have the inside track on being Royals again in 2012.  Both guys play sparingly, but when they do, they are ready to go and play with enthusiasm.   They are different players, to be sure, but the attitude and what they bring to the team from a chemistry standpoint do have value.

Of course, that is all fine and good, but the object of major league baseball is to win.  It is nice to have happy players who get along, but it is better to have guys that can, you know, really play the game well.  In that respect, the days of Brayan Pena as a Royal may be winding down.

Pena brings an immediate appeal as being a catcher who can switch-hit, but his hitting has been in gradual decline.   Although he has received a fairly similar amount of playing time in his three seasons with Kansas City, Pena’s batting average has decayed:

  • 2009 – .273
  • 2010 – .253
  • 2011 – .248

So has his on-base percentage:

  • 2009 – .318
  • 2010 – .306
  • 2011 – .288

And his slugging:

  • 2009 – .442
  • 2010 – .335
  • 2011 – .338

As has Pena’s wOBA:

  • 2009 – .325
  • 2010 – .290
  • 2011 – .276

After hitting six home runs in 183 plate appearances in 2009, Brayan manged only one dinger the next year and just three in 240 plate appearances in 2011.  Oddly, all three 2011 homers were three run shots all in Texas – baseball’s a funny game.

On top of the declining offense, Pena is not a very good defensive catcher.   The Royals talk of him being ‘improved’ and ‘a hard worker’ behind the plate and I would agree, but improving from truly awful is a long way from being ‘okay’.   We all know that there is no good metric to quantify a catcher’s defense, so we have to read between the lines of what people around the game say.   When it comes to Pena, they are polite in their assessment:  kind of like how you might complement the really nice woman who works in your office on whatever ill-fitting, poorly selected outfit she wears to your Christmas party.

If Brayan Pena was 23 years old it would be one thing, but he turned 30 this January.   His closest comp on Baseball Reference is Bob Brenly, who actually had a break out All-Star season at age 30, but it is hard to see that happening with Pena.   Given that the current plan is to have Salvador Perez catch a ton of games (I have heard 135-140 floated out by the Royals themselves), the back-up catcher is hardly a position to wring hands over.

In a perfect world, it might be nice to have a veteran catcher with good defensive skills to mentor Perez (frankly, the Royals acquired Matt Treanor one year too early), but on the flip side, even those types of players would like to catch more than 28 games a season.   In that respect, Brayan Pena may be just the guy to back-up Salvador.

Frankly, if Salvador Perez flops in 2012, who the back-up catcher is will not keep the Royals from underachieving.  That is how important he is to this team and there is no way the Royals can go find someone who can provide insurance for that scenario.  They cannot afford to spend even decent money on a back-up catcher and, frankly, find me someone who would realistically be that guy.  I don’t know exactly what tree catchers grow on, but I do know that tree is really, really scarce.

Come April, I see the Royals breaking camp with Brayan Pena as their back-up catcher (he is out of options, by the way) mainly because he’s harmless.   The team is used to him, they know what they are going to get and, every once in a while – particularly in Texas – he will get you some hits.   The organization will likely have Manny Pina, a good defender, and Max Ramirez, a bad defender, catching in AAA, which makes more sense for both of those players than have them sitting on the major league bench.

In a perfect 2012 scenario, back-up catcher is the most irrelevant position on the the Royals’ roster.   If it turns out not to be irrelevant, then the Royals have big problems no matter who is filling that position.

xxx

 

Clint Robinson will celebrate his 27th birthday on Thursday.

Besides Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur, Robinson is older than any Royals projected starting position player. Yet he has never swung the bat in a major league game.

Baseball people and prospect mavens have under estimated Robinson for years. He was undrafted as a college junior out of Troy University in Alabama. He played his senior year, hit .364/.449/.661 with 17 home runs and just 32 strikeouts, yet lasted until the Royals plucked him in the 25th round of the 2007 draft. Then they signed him for $1,000. He opened his professional career in Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League where he hit .336/.388/.593 and was named that league’s most valuable player. But the prospect watchers didn’t notice him until he won the Texas League triple crown – with 29 HR, 98 RBI and a .333 average – in 2010. And all that got him was a number 28 organizational ranking by Baseball America. Hell, in divvying up the players for our 40 man roster review, we forgot to include him.

Last season in Triple-A, Robinson’s rate stats took a step back – as you would expect as a hitter progresses through the system. Compare his killer 2010 season in Double-A with his results from the next level.

Still, not too shabby. What I like about that table is it looks like his plate discipline remained the same as his walk and strikeout rates both held steady. His approach was the same as he continued to spray the ball to all fields last summer. The big drop came in the power department where he hit six fewer doubles and six fewer home runs. (And his triples dropped from five in 2010 to a big fat zero last year. Yeah… He’s not exactly a triples kind of guy.) Surely the fact he was hitting against better pitching was part of the reason, though I suspect park factors are involved here as well. Still, he more than held his own in the PCL last summer.

Overall, we’re looking at a player who has put up solid minor league numbers over the last two seasons. Under normal circumstances, he would merit a long look in spring training.

But the Royals system isn’t a normal system. There’s so much depth… Of course, what can you do? Robinson is a first baseman – allegedly – but he truly projects as a designated hitter. That’s a role that is filled by Billy Butler, the Royals (current) best hitter. I suppose he could play first in a pinch, but that spot is locked down by Eric Hosmer for the next six seasons (hopefully). He throws left-handed and lacks mobility, so it’s not like you can give him reps anywhere else on the diamond. And it’s not like he’s trade bait. Since he’s not a prospect and because he’s yet to even sit in a major league dugout, there isn’t a single team who would give up anything of value to add him to their roster.

It just feels like Robinson’s Royal Destiny is to play out his career in Triple-A. At some point, he’ll move on to another organization – either as a minor league free agent, or as a waiver claim when he’s removed from the 40 man roster to make room for a new acquisition. As of now, he’s the ultimate Break-Glass-In-Case-Of-Emergency guy. And it would have to be one hell of an emergency for Dayton Moore to even think of reaching for that hammer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, Jonathan’s xFIP is remarkably consistent:

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

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

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

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

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

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

xxx

I have always found it odd that there is such a division between ‘statistical minds’ and ‘baseball minds’ in the modern game.   No game has so faithfully tracked statistics for longer than baseball.   In fact, I don’t think it would be possible to develop a team sport that lends itself more easily to record keeping and statistical innovation than baseball.

Yet, here we are in 2012 where you seemingly either ‘a nerd’ or a ‘baseball man’.  For those of you who believe you simply must be one or the other or have uttered the phrase ‘I don’t care what your numbers say, I know what I see’ or used this beauty in an argument ‘You are seeing what you want to, the numbers don’t lie’, may I present Felipe Paulino.

While many of us have jabbed the Royals about their apparent disdain for modern statistics, the acquisition of Paulino early last season is an example that, at least once in a while, they do listen to the ‘nerds in the corner’.   Sure, Jin Wong did not print off Paulino’s page on Fangraphs, slap it down on Dayton Moore’s desk and see Moore immediately pick up the phone to acquire Felipe, but it did get the big right hander on the Royals’ radar.

The Rockies designated Paulino for assignment on May 22nd and the Royals acquired him for cash (and not very much of it) on May 27th.   They were getting a pitcher who had fashioned a 7.36 earned run average in 14 innings of bullpen work for Colorado.   Prior to going to Colorado, Paulino had gone 1-9 with a 5.11 ERA for Houston in 2010 and 3-11 with a 6.27 ERA in 2009.  Frankly, the back of Felipe Paulino’s baseball card is hideous.

What the Royals’ saw, however, was a pitcher whose strikeout rate was consistently near one per inning (career 8.3/9) and one who had the ability to limit the home run ball when working as a starter (0.8/9).    Felipe’s fastball velocity had remained consistently at 95 mph through good and bad and despite unsightly traditional numbers, Paulino had posted xFIPs of 4.04 and 4.36 in 2009 and 2010.  The numbers said that Felipe Paulino should be better than he was.

Immediately, Paulino was better. 

He came out of the bullpen in his first Royals’ appearance, throwing 4.1 shutout innings against Texas.  Five days later, Paulino started against the Angels and threw five more shutout innings, striking out four and walking no one.

From that point on, Felipe made 19 starts for Kansas City.  He threw six innings or more in 13 of those starts and only once did Paulino not finish the fifth inning.   Twelve times, he allowed three earned runs or less.    As a starter for Kansas City, Paulino struck out 8.7 batters per nine innings and posted a strikeout to wal ratio of 2.42.   His xFIP was a solid 3.73 and Paulino posted an fWAR of 2.6:  tying for the team lead among Royals hurlers last season.

Paulino is predominately a fastball/slider pitcher who mixes in a changeup and a curve.   As a Royal, he used his change more often (10% of the time) and the curve less.  Simply put, Felipe Paulino is a power righthander who regularly threw 100+ pitches per start and generally held his stuff through the game.    At 6’2″ and 270 pounds, there might be some room for improved conditioning (and he did miss one start with some back issues), but one does not want to mess too much with a guy who throws 95 mph as a starter and does so for six innings.

Going into 2012, Paulino is not considered a lock for the starting rotation, but I have to believe he is close.  One wonders if the Royals wanted to ensure that Paulino was not ‘too comfortable’ with his 2011 campaign during the off-season and hence have not assured him a spot on the roster.  Past history suggests that Paulino simply does not take well to a relief role, but it also shows us that he might well become a solid number three/four starter.

Felipe Paulino, whose acquisition was a perfect marriage of sabremetrics and scouting, was a great find for the Royals last season.  The 28 year old was a perfect stopgap in a year when the organization’s pitching prospects marked time.  He is likely to be Kansas City’s number four starter in April and, as a guy you hand the ball to and pretty much know will give you six innings and keep you in the game, it is not unreasonable to see him as a number four starter on future contending teams.

xxx

 

There are a lot of interesting things about Bruce Chen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Today is my first day back to work after a week in Arizona at Royals’ Fantasy Camp.   I am going to fore-go my review of Felipe Paulino until later this week as I think both the acquisition, performance and future surrounding Paulino is worthy of a more in-depth review than what my feeble mind is capable of today.   So, just a few random thoughts to begin the week.

Fantasy Camp

If you have even a little interest in ever attending, do it.   I guarantee the experience will surpass whatever your expectations might be.     My fellow campers ranged in age from 30 to 78 with skill levels as varied as the ages.  I would guess the median age was probably somewhere in the low to mid forties.  The alumni from George Brett to Jerry Terrell were all tremendous and the organization of the event by Dina Blevins was outstanding.

Just a great experience and I would say that even if I had not hit .556 and tied for the lead league in doubles (you didn’t think I would leave that out, did you?)

A Great Bullpen Is Like…

Heard this analogy on MLB radio this morning:  ‘Having a great bullpen as your primary strength is like saying you put the best tires on the market on your 1968 Dodge Dart’.   Now, that is a little bit of an exaggeration, but the statement also holds some validity as well.   As good as we think the Royals’ pen is going to be this year (and Joakim Soria is already in Surprise working out, by the way), it won’t do Kansas City any good if they are pitching in the 5th inning already down 6-2.

My personal forecast sees the Royals’ starting rotation being better than last year, but  still a touch below league average (they were the second worst in the AL last season).   Would that be good enough to keep the Royals  in most games long enough to get to the vaunted bullpen?   It might be.    I am not sure the 9th best rotation coupled with one of the top bullpens make your team a playoff contender, but it probably gets the Royals to 80 or 81 wins.

The Bench

Will Kansas City break camp with seven relievers or eight?  Hard to say right now, but you know they would love to make a go of the season with what is now a standard bullpen of seven relievers.   Doing so would allow the team to keep a four man bench.   Even though Ned Yost is not a big ‘bench guy’, you have to believe he would at least like to have the flexibility available that a four man bench would bring.

Obviously, Yuniesky Bentancourt owns one of the bench positions and a second goes to the backup catcher (Pena or Pina).  The third spot obviously belongs to a back-up outfielder:  either Mitch Maier or Jarrod Dyson at this point.  If we are to assume that Johnny Giavotella gets the opening day start at second (barring a horrific spring, he will), then the fourth spot might come down to a battle between Chris Getz, Kevin Kouzmanoff and the other of Maier/Dyson.

Kouzmanoff has an out date of May 1st to be on the major league roster, so you could envision a scenario where the Royals keep Getz for April as they watch Giavotella play second.   If they decide that Johnny needs more time in Omaha then it is almost a certainty that Getz slides in to play second and Kouz gets the call as a backup infielder.

Anticipation

I am pretty certain that 2012 is the most anticipated season since 2004 (which did not work out so well).   I have yet to encounter a Royals’ fan who is not hyped up for the season to begin.  A lot of casual fans (and some hardcore ones as well) think the team may be contenders.   The more likely scenario has this team still a year away from full fledged contention.   That said, would win total would be a disappointment to you?   Personally, anything less than 76 wins would leave me thinking 2012 was not as good as it should have been.

xxx

 

 

Mitch Maier has done everything the Royals have asked.

As an outfielder, he’s played all three positions. While he doesn’t exactly play any one of those positions with distinction, the defense doesn’t notably suffer when he’s in the field. He passes the: “Oh My God, That’s Mitch Maier In The Outfield!” test because you’ve never actually spoken those words with an inflection of disgust. Let’s call him solid.

Of course, my favorite Maier moment of the last three years came on July 26 when he pitched a scoreless eighth inning against the Red Sox in Fenway. His fastball and his change averaged 75 mph. Yet he insists he threw both. I’ve shown this chart before, but I really like it, so I’m bringing it back for an encore… Here’s Maier’s velocity from his appearance:

That’s Our Mitch… Doing anything to help the team.

As a hitter, Maier isn’t going to set the American League on fire. I’m not even sure he’s ever had what you would consider to be a hot streak. Instead, you have a guy who gets on base at a clip that’s better than league average and doesn’t make many boneheaded mistakes on the bases. He owns a career .332 OBP. League average during his time in the big leagues is .329. He doesn’t have any power, but if he had pop, he wouldn’t be a backup.

He is what he is. And basically every team needs a player like Maier. Managers must take comfort knowing they have short-term cover should one of their three outfielders go down for any reason. He’s our safety blanket.

Why am I OK with Our Mitch and not with Getzie? Both are backup players who should – if the season goes according to plan – spend most of the summer on the bench. They both make just under a cool million. So why one and not both? Simple. Maier plays league average in nearly all aspects of the game provided he has limited playing time. He’s versatile. He won’t kill you with the bat. He’s not the prototypical grinder, full of grit and heart, like Getz. He just fills the utility role and fills it well. I wish we had someone on the infield who was like Mitch Maier.

Thanks to three outfielders you couldn’t remove from the lineup with a crowbar and Ned Yost’s allergy to pinch hitters, Our Mitch appeared in only 44 games – his lowest total since 2011 2008. With Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur returning to the corners, Maier’s hope for playing time hinges on the performance of Lorenzo Cain. Cain is the wild card in the outfield deck. If he struggles early in the season, Maier will likely see an increase in playing time. If Cain gets off to a hot start and can perform to expectations in his rookie season, Our Mitch will again be picking splinters out of his backside for most of the summer.

With David Lough waiting in the wings as the fourth outfielder of the future and with Jarrod Dyson outrunning cheetahs, road runners and other assorted speedy wildlife, Our Mitch doesn’t have much of a future in Kansas City. Fourth outfielders are a unique species. Enjoy him while you can.

How did he get here? (flickr/Keith Allison)

As much as sabermetricians and the “old-school” like to see their work in the starkness of black and white, they’re both wrong. Everything is gray.

My task today is to write about Chris Getz. I can’t think of any player more polarizing than Getzie. Some fans (and managers) love the guy because he plays the game the right way. Other’s loathe him because the numbers paint the picture of a player who is well below league average.

It’s funny to listen to the self-proclaimed “Old Schoolers” insist that what makes Getz so great doesn’t show up in the numbers. I’m going to put on my wizard hat, warm up a Hot Pocket and prove that there are numbers out there that support the theory that there are things that Getzie does does well.

– He avoids the double play.

This seems strange for a guy who puts the ball on the ground 51% of the time in his career, but last summer Getz came to the plate 71 times with a runner on first and less than two outs. He grounded into exactly five double plays. That’s an average of just 7%. For perspective, the league average is around 11%. So Getzie is better than average by quite a bit.

But there’s probably a reason he hit into so few twin killings last year. It’s probably because there’s something else he does well…

– He can get a bunt down.

According to Baseball Reference, Getz attemted to sacrifice 16 times last year and was successful in 14 of those attempts. (To clarify, BR defines an unsuccessful attempt as bunting for a sacrifice and getting youself out. Attempting early in a plate appearance and then swinging away doesn’t count as a sac attempt. So it’s likely he attempted to sacrifice more than 16 times.) That puts Getz at an 88% success rate. Again, way above league average, which in this case was 69%.

– He can put the bat on the ball.

Believe me, this is huge. Getzie makes contact when he swings 90% of the time. It’s probably because he’s what I would call a patient hitter. While he doesn’t take a ton of walks, he doesn’t go up there hacking at the first pitch he sees, either. Last year, Getz swung at the first pitch just 15% of the time. To me, that’s an astonishing rate. Had he received enough playing time to qualify for the batting title, he would have had the seventh lowest rate in the American League for swinging at the first pitch. (JJ Hardy swung at the first pitch only 8% of the time last year. If you are a pitcher and throw him a ball out of the zone with your first pitch, you deserve the worst.)

I could be completely wrong here, but Getz seems like a cerbral guy. He approaches each plate appearance with a plan. Part of that plan includes getting as good a look as possible at the opposing pitcher. I’m guessing he’s looking at release point. Once he has that little tidbit, he’s ready to go to work. Of course, he’s hardly ever successful, but at least it’s a plan.

Fun fact: Chris Getz has been at the plate 54 times with the count in his favor 3-0. He has never once swung at the fourth pitch.

OK… I’ve written close to 600 words on Chris Getz and it’s all been praise. (You may bookmark this page for future reference. There is no guarantee this will be up past lunch. I am putting my blogger ID card in serious jeopardy.) It is possible to use numbers to show that Getz does have his strong points as a batter.

But fair is fair…

– He can’t get on base.

For a guy who supposedly can run fast and hit balls on the ground, Getz just can’t buy a hit. His BABIP last year was .288 which was up from the previous season’s .270. We say that a .300 BABIP is “average” but that’s painting with too broad a stroke. Everyone is different. And Getzie, who is a banjo-hitting, ground ball machine who doesn’t move as fast as everyone thinks, will never have a BABIP over .300.

I know there are those who are skeptical of the numbers, but in this case, you don’t need to read anything into the formula – Getz’s career .315 on base percentage sucks. Sucks. And in his two seasons with the Royals, it’s at .309 which sucks even more. It’s because he’s making contact (good) but he’s doing it with a spaghetti noodle for a bat (bad). I happen to fall into the category of those who feel that OBP is life. (If you didn’t realize this after all these years I can’t help you.) Getz simply cannot be a contributor to this team if he keeps his OBP that far beneath the league average. I don’t care how many sac bunts he lays down.

And for his “plan” at the plate, that doesn’t include taking a walk which is too bad. He reaches via the base on balls around 7% of all plate appearances. He doesn’t strike out a ton and doesn’t chase an obscene number of balls out of the zone, but this is a case where his skill – making contact – actually hurts. That leads me to a second negative…

– He can’t make decent contact.

Last year, Getzie’s percentage of plate appearances that went for extra bases checked in at 2.3%. Words can’t describe how abysmal that is. You want perspective? Juan Pierre hit for extra bases 3.2% of the time.

In the words of the immortal David St. Hubbins, that’s too much f***ing perspective.

I’ve also discussed this before, but it bears repeating… Even his line drives fail to impress. The conventional wisdom (and data) suggests the average major league hitter, bats around .750 when he puts the ball in play via the line drive. Last year, as a team the Royals hit .751 collectively when hitting a line drive. Of all the players on the team with at least 300 plate appearances, Getz’s .673 batting average on line drives was the worst rate by far. That simply shows his even his line drives are weak. There’s no other rational explanation for why his average for this type of contact is so low. Which leads to…

– Power? HA!

This isn’t exactly a newsflash. Getz doesn’t have any. Not even doubles. (I’m thinking Joey Gathright without the car jumping ability.) So if you believe that getting on base and hitting for a little pop every now and then (or at least finding the gap) is key to a decent offensive performer you’re going to have to find someone other than Getz to support. Among those with more than 400 plate appearances, his .032 ISO was dead last. His OPS+ of 68 speaks for itself. Again, we’re in Juan Pierre territory here. If you’re in a situation where you wish Chris Getz was as good at the plate as Juan Pierre… I can’t think of many worse things to have happen to a ball player.

Brutal.

And finally, just to throw something along the lines of common ground into the mix…

– He’s decidedly average with the glove.

Defensively, Getz grades out as average. His three year UZR/150 is 2.9, which isn’t spectacular, but it puts him solidly in the middle of the pack. Tango’s Fan Scouting report agrees with the average rating as well, giving Getzie a 49 score on a 80 to 20 range. My unscientific eye test has him as a reliable defender, who doesn’t make the spectacular plays, lacks plus range, but can get the outs on the balls hit within his area of influence. Last year, 93% of all balls in play that Getz fielded resulted in at least one out. Again, for second baseman, that’s right at the league average.

Look, Getz is what he is… the 25th man. I understand why managers and baseball personnel adore the guy. He does do the “little” things… If you think making outs are little things. But in this age of specialization, where teams have eight man bullpens, five man rotations and a limited bench, do you really want to make a place for a guy who’s biggest contribution is making an out on a sac bunt?

There’s no place to hide Getz in the lineup. Putting him in the lineup is making a statement that you’re playing for the single run and eschewing the big inning. Because if you have a rally going, the most you can expect from Getz is a “productive out.” Don’t get me wrong… There are rare times where a productive out can be a good thing. However, when you’re down by two in the fifth inning, that’s not one of those times. Jeff Parker at Royally Speaking plugged Getzie’s numbers since joining the Royals into Baseball Musings lineup tool to see how well a lineup of nine second base heroes would do. The answer… Ugh. They’d score less than three runs per game. But I suspect they’d lead the universe in sac bunts.

The Royals seem to be leaning toward Johnny Giavotella to open the season at second. That’s a good thing. I read on another blog that the choice the Royals will have to make is do they try to win now (Getz) or build for the future (Giavotella). If the Royals brain trust is even taking two seconds to figure this one out, may the ghost of Mr. Kauffman have mercy on our tormented baseball souls.

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