Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

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Two on, two out, bottom of the ninth with the Royals down by two.  It looked and felt like many other nights this season:  the trailing Royals would do enough in the ninth to make it interesting, but ultimately not get the big hit.   We have seen all too often.

Then, John Axford threw his fourth straight 97+ mph fastball to Alcides Escobar and Escobar, as he has a tendency to do with fastballs drilled it for a game tying triple.   A couple innings later, Mike Moutaskas drew his third walk of the game to ‘drive’ in the winning run.   Say what you want about the level of play (at times very good, at times pretty bad), but these two games with Milwaukee have been interesting.

Back to Escobar.

At the end of April, Alcides was hitting .295/.329/.449.   I don’t think anyone really expected him to slug at that rate for an entire season and he didn’t.   By the end of May, Escobar’s triple slash was .303/.344/.404 and after last night, it stands at .292/.330/.392.   Let’s get one thing clear:  Alcides Escobar can hit .292/.330/.392 from here until the end of his contract and I will have not one complaint about it.

There is starting to be a growing body of evidence that Escobar might be able to hit at something resembling that clip.   Starting at June 1st of last year, Escboar finished out 2011 at a .274/.310/.391 pace.   Certainly nothing special there, but a vast improvement over the .216/.252/.253 line he sported on May 31, 2011.

Now, we have bandied about the ‘arbitrary set of dates’ line fairly often around here.   If you look hard enough, you can string together a start and end date for just about any player to make them look as good or bad as you want to.   Fox Sports KC are experts at that:  Yuniesky Betancourt leads all American League right handed second baseman in batting average with a runner on second and the temperature above 81 degrees.

However, I did not arbitrarily pick June 1, 2011 as a nice place to start out.  Not to be THAT guy, but I have been told by someone who was there, that in the first week of June last season, Alcides Escobar was given a ‘come-to-Jesus’ talk about needing to change what he was doing at the plate.   It’s outstanding to be a great fielding shortstop, but this is not 1965 and no team can carry anyone who hits .200 and slugs .250.

Since that point in time, Escobar started to hold his own at the plate.    Carrying that into 2012, Escobar has done more than that with the bat and I think you could call him an average offensive player.

Escobar’s current fWar is 1.1, his wOBA is .326 and his OPS+ is 98.   He has ten steals in eleven attempts.   Although the defensive metrics don’t like him as much as most of us like him, I have to believe that will even out as the year goes on.  It sticks in my head that early on last season, Alcides has some unappealing fielding metrics too, but ended up well into the positives by season’s end.  Of course, I’m old and drink a lot, so that might not be true.

For what the Royals are paying him through 2017, if Alcides Escobar is a 2.2 WAR player each year it will be a tremendous contract.   Buy your jerseys now, kids, because Alcides Escobar might end up being the best shortstop in Royals history when all is said and done.

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Ned Yost trotted out three radically different lineups this past weekend against Arizona and managed to get one win.  Hey, for this particular Royals team, any win at home is an accomplishment.  After a 4-1 road trip, we all expected a better result than a 1-4 homestand.   That result was made all the more bitter by the fact that the Royals seemed in control of the first three games, only to lose all of them.

What this team does or, more precisely, does not do at home is a topic for another column.  Let’s get back to the lineups.   They were basically just all over the place – kind of like that softball team you were on that was not very serious and the batting order was simply the order in which you showed up for the game.   Frankly, I don’t blame Yost for trying some things and, for right now, I like Escobar at or near the top of the order, but it is probably worth noting that the most traditional of the three lineups this weekend did happen to score the most runs.

Truth is, though, you can design just about any lineup you want and as long as Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon are not hitting, it is likely to have production problems.   Just as the ball seems to find the weak defender, the circumstances of the game seem to put the slumping hitter in the eye of the storm at critical times.    Gordon, who is 1 for 25 in what Fangraphs describes as high leverage situations, seems to come up with two outs in the ninth every freaking night.    By contrast, Billy Butler has only 15 high leverage plate appearances thus far in 2012.

What’s going on with these two guys?

If you have been following the Royals at all this year, you have heard more than one reference to Eric Hosmer hitting in bad, make that horrible, luck.  That may sound like a copout, but the numbers back that up.

In 2011, Hosmer had a BABIP of .314 and a line drive percentage of 18.7%.   His 2012 line drive percentage is 17.6% (pretty much league average), but his BABIP is an almost bizarre .165.   You can’t make a living with a .165 BABIP, but you also should not have to endure a long stretch at that level if your line drive percentage is around league average. 

Those numbers are but one component of a player’s performance at the plate, but for a struggling hitter, Eric Hosmer does not exhibit any of the statistical evidence that would indicate that he is struggling.  His strikeout rate is down (14.6% in 2011, 11.6% in 2012)  and his walk rate is up (6.0% in 2011, 7.9% in 2012).     Hosmer is swining at fewer pitches out of the strike zone (almost 7% less than in 2011) and his overall contact rate is virtually identical to 2011.   Overall, after swinging at 48% of the pitches he saw as a rookie, Eric is swinging at 46% this year.  What the above shows is a player who is not hacking at everything, failing to make contact and losing his plate discipline.   

I don’t know what Eric Hosmer did, but he really pissed off the baseball gods.

Are pitchers approaching him differently this year?  A little is the answer.  Less fastballs, more changeups with everything else being thrown to him in roughly the same percentages as last year.   In 2011, Hosmer put 26.5% of changeups thrown to him into play, but in 2012 that percentage is just 15.4%.   More changeups, less balls in play, hmmm.

In 2011, Hosmer swung at over half the changes thrown to him, whiffing just 11.3% of the time.  While Eric is not swinging at the change as much in 2012 (41%), he’s missing it almost 17% of the time.   I am not going to tell you that the changeup is the reason for all of Hosmer’s struggles, we are talking about just 15% of the pitches he has seen and, as the numbers above show, Eric’s overall plate performance has not really taken a hit.  The changeup is an issue, but it is hardly the only reason Hosmer is buried beneath the Mendoza line.

Here is what I will tell you:  I don’t believe you learn to hit major league changeups in AAA and I don’t think you really consider sending Hosmer down until his strikeout rate jumps and his percentage of swings at balls outside of the strike zone increased dramatically.

If the solution for Hosmer is to keep sending him out there and bank on the odds turning in his favor (it works in Vegas, right?), then what about Alex Gordon?

After a sensational 2011 campaign, we wake up this morning to find Alex Gordon hitting .231/.320/.363.   Triple slash lines are hardly detailed analysis, but that ain’t what the doctor ordered.  Is Gordon striking out a lot?  He is, 21% of the time, but Gordon always has struck out a lot.   In 2011, when he was one of the better players in the American League, Alex struck out 20% of the time.   Plus, if you are about plate discipline, Alex’s walk rate is up from 2011.

Going down the same path as we did with Hosmer, we find that Gordon’s line drive percentage thus far in 2012 is 23.8% (it was 22% in 2011), but his BABIP is just .280 compared to a robust .358 in 2011.   Gordon had some good fortune last year, but he is having some misfortune so far this season.

Now, if you are like me, the thought on Gordon might be that he back to trying to pull everything.   Much as it seems like Gordon is always up with two outs in the ninth, it also seems like he grounds out to second base pretty much every at bat.   Truth is, Gordon is pulling the ball less than he did last year.

Here is how the balls in play breakdown for Alex in 2012:

  • Pull – 38%
  • Center – 41%
  • Opposite – 21%

And how it broke down in 2011:

  • Pull 44%
  • Center  – 31%
  • Opposite – 25%   

Basically, Alex is pulling less, going to the opposite field less and hitting up the middle more.  Using the middle of the field is generally considered to be a good thing, but in Gordon’s case it does not seem to be helping.

How about Hosmer?   Here is the breakdown for 2012:

  • Pull – 32%
  • Center – 38%
  • Opposite – 30%

And 2011:

  • Pull – 39%
  • Center – 34%
  • Opposite – 27%

Hosmer was pulling the ball considerably more in 2011 with considerably more success.   Maybe it is not such a good thing when we see Eric take a ball to the opposite field? That’s an oversimplification to be sure, but pulling the ball and being aggressive worked in 2011.   Would you tolerate a few more strikeouts for some more pop (or any pop for that matter) out of Hosmer? 

What’s the bottom line of all of this?  Pick a spot in the order for both of them, leave them there and wait it out.

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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.

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.

In 2008, Jeff Francoeur went from budding superstar to a guy who hit .239/.294/.359.   From that point forward, it became something of a running joke that it was only a matter of time before Frenchy became a Kansas City Royal.

When Francoeur actually did re-unite with Dayton Moore prior to the 2011 season (signing for a modest $2.5 million coming off a .249/.300./383 season), the deal was mocked, ridiculed and generally lambasted by pretty much anyone and everyone not getting a paycheck with a big crown in the lefthand corner.   This was, as many said, just another sign that the Royals don’t really get it.   For the previous three years, Francoeur had been a cumulative +0.1 WAR.  He had never been a good on-base guy and now had become a flailing free swinger who didn’t even hit for power.   Even his once Gold Glove level fielding seemed to be in decline.

Personally, I was sort of ambivalent about the signing.   After all, who exactly was going to play in right field?   Keep in mind, Frenchy came on board before Melky Cabrera and before the Greinke trade.   All things considered and with all the young prospects not expected to be in Kansas City until late in the year at the earliest, it seemed to be a low risk deal:  albeit one with little chance of success.   Even with the goofy mutual option tagged on it was still better than Jose Guillen for three years.

Oh, Dayton Moore, you glorious…..

Francoeur, long known to be a ‘good clubhouse guy’, was actually just that.  I know that stuff gets shoved in the faces of us non-baseball insiders with such a high level of condescension that it is quickly and often disparaged, but it does matter.   Frenchy brings a big personality:  fun loving, a little (maybe a lot) nuts, a leader.   I was not a big fan of the type of leadership that a Mike Sweeney brought to the clubhouse – Sweeney may be one of the very best people in the world, but I’m not sure that translated well into a sports leadership role.  I was certainly not a fan of the grim, prickly type of leadership that Jason Kendall brought – certainly, Kendall was outstanding professional in how he went about the business of baseball, but the grumpy old man in a foxhole routine wore thin at least to those of us outside the organization.  Without question, I was definitely not a fan of the ‘big’ personality that Jose Guillen brought to the clubhouse – there’s eclectic, then there’s crazy and then there’s just being a jerk.  Jose combined them all.

Again, I have no real insight into the clubhouse, but Jeff Francoeur seemed to balance personality, fun and leadership as well as almost anyone to put on a Royal uniform in recent history.  What was nice about all that was that, for once, the guy being pumped as a great clubhouse leader was also actually, you know, playing good baseball.

Frenchy’s .285/.329/.476 line, .346 wOBA and 2.9 fWAR were right on par with any of the best years of his career and by far the best season Jeff had since 2007.   He came out of the gate hot, slumped through May and June, but rallied to have a solid second half.   Jeff held his own against right handed pitching and thrashed lefties.

Frenchy’s  walk and strikeout rates were right in line with his career (surprisingly, when Jeff was truly awful from 08-10, he posted his lowest strikeout rates and highest walk rate).   However, after swinging at pitches 57% of the time in 2009 and 2010, Francoeur swung at 54% in 2011:  basically the same as earlier in his career.    That is still a good nine percent about league average, but better than he had been doing.    After being double digit percentage points above the league average in swinging at pitches both inside and outside of the strikezone, that Francoeur reduced that to 9% above league average in both categories is a noticeable change.

That change and likely simply being in ‘the best shape of his life’ turned Francouer’s always near league average contact rate (despite swinging at, well, everything) into more good contact.    His HR/FB percentage jumped to 10.3% after languishing from three years down around seven.   Jeff’s line drive percentage was nearly 20%, driving his BABIP to .323.   That number is above league average, but not ‘crazy lucky’ above average.

There exists the real possibility that a modest change in approach at the plate in 2011 might carry forward through the life of Francoeur’s new two year/$13.75 million contract.   Jeff will never sport a good on-base percentage, but he might sustain the rediscovered slugging that deserted him in the latter portion of the last decade.

ZiPS projects a .273/.314/.437 2012 for Francoeur (OPS+102), which would be a bit disappointing, but not line-up destroying either.   In theory, should Mike Moustakas come along as is hoped, Frenchy could find himself comfortably batting between Billy Butler and Moose and hence, seeing more good pitches.   I don’t foresee Jeff having a better year than 2011, but sandwiched in the middle of a more potent offensive lineup, I am not sure it is much of a stretch to have him come closer to what he did last year than he does to the ZiPS projection.

We know this much:  Jeff Francoeur will play everyday (in 5.5 seasons, he has played in 998 games), he will be a positive influence for a young team, and he will take a cannon of an arm with him to the outfield.   We also know, that right now, Frenchy blocks no one.

I wrote about David Lough last week and we pretty much know what we have in Mitch Maier (not a whole lot).  At this point, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson are both unknowns at the major league level and Wil Myers is not ready.   Francoeur could revert to doing Angel Berroa impersonations at the plate and become a free swinging black hole in the middle of the 2012 lineup.   That would certainly keep the Royals from any dreams of contention this coming year, but it does not really harm the organizational process as a whole.

Could Dayton Moore have spent the money more wisely this off-season?  Maybe.   Maybe it gets the Royals an Edwin Jackson, but at the expense of an empty spot in the everyday lineup.   Is the 2013 portion of the contract going to be a problem?  Maybe.   The risk really is not Jeff Francoeur flopping badly in 2012, but that his money and presence in 2013 might hinder the Royals from contending.

For 2012, I don’t mind Jeff Francoeur playing rightfield everyday for the Kansas City Royals.  In fact, I actually look forward to it.

xxx

 

Giavotella was never a standout prospect. In their annual rankings, Baseball America runs down a list of players who have the best “tools.” Gio never made this list. Last year, he was the Royals number 18 prospect, sandwiched between Sal Perez and Louis Coleman.

“An offensive second baseman, Giovatella has proven he can turn on just about any fastball. He has a very good awareness of the strike zone, and his ability to draw walks is enhanced by his pronounced crouch in his stance.”

Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus was a bit more bullish, ranking him at number nine.

“More and more scouts are sold on Giavotella’s pure hitting ability, with one saying, “He just squares everything up… velo, breaking balls… he hits everything.” He has a patient approach and a very short, quick swing with surprising strength that projects for 10-15 home runs annually.”

It’s interesting that both reports mentioned his plate discipline as a strength. Because we didn’t see that once he joined the Royals. After walking about nine percent of the time throughout his minor league career, Gio posted a 3.2% walk rate. Disturbing. Also after striking out about 10% of the time in the minors, he whiffed at a rate just above 17%. Not good.

(Of course all the proceeding major league numbers come with a ginormous caveat: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE. We’re dealing with less than 200 major league plate appearances. And his first 200 plate appearances at that. As we all know – cough – Mike Moustakas – cough – some players go through a stage where they need a little time to adjust to the better pitching. Take all of this with a grain of salt.)

So having said that, Gio whiffed a total of 32 times. From the Bill James Baseball IQ, here is a heat map illustrating where that third strike was in the zone.

Six of his 32 strikeouts were on sliders, and all of them are represented in the pitch low and away. The red in the lower third of the zone down the heart of the plate represents curves, which were the money pitch in just three of his strikeouts. Seems a little reactionary to make a judgement based on six (or three) strikeouts. I’m just pointing out potential weak spots. Something to keep in mind as we move forward. Because if we have this information, you know opposing pitchers have it as well.

There’s specualtion that Giavotella would be a candidate to hit second behind Alex Gordon next summer. That’s a tall order to fill (done surprisingly well last year by Melky Cabrera) but Giavotella has the potential to make enough contact to justify his placement as the number two. Batting in the sixth and seventh positions last year, he wasn’t asked to play small ball – Yost never had him attempt a sacrifice. And I’m certain he will hone his plate discipline, cut down on the whiffs and draw more walks.

Despite Giavotella being what we would consider a piece of The Process, the Royals have been jockying all winter to line up backups at second. How else do you explain the three million combined to bring Yuniesky Betancourt back for an encore and to retain Chris Getz? Betancourt is awful… Poor defense and he doesn’t get on base. He’s never played second, but with Alcides Escobar and his amazing technicolor glove at short, that seems his most likely position. Barring something unforseen happening to the SS Jesus. And then there’s Getz. Not as horrible as Betancourt, but given an equal number of plate appearances it could be a photo finish. (I know, I know… Getz does the little things. Hell, he led the team in GRIT last summer. Let’s stay on target… I’ll rip Getz to shreds in a post in a couple of weeks. I know you can’t wait.) Getz is a natural second baseman with decent – but limited – defense, and a bat that makes Mario Mendoza look like Babe Ruth.

The question we have to ask is why? Why bring in two guys to potentially backup second base? The answer seems fairly obvious. The Royals don’t trust Giavotella.

I have to assume this is because of his defense and questionable judgement of the strike zone once he arrived in KC. I’m loathe to use defensive metrics in this situation because of the sample size, but they weren’t kind to Giavotella last year. He didn’t pass the eye test, either. (Take that however you like. I’m near sighted.) He looked slow to react and didn’t flash what I would call ideal range – especially flagging down balls hit up the middle. He could turn the double play, though. The defensive questions have followed Gio throughout his time in the organization. The Royals challenged him to improve with the glove last winter and he did make strides. The bottom line is Gio is a short, squat dude who will never look graceful in the field. He range isn’t going to blossom overnight. He’s going to be an average to below average defender. The Royals have to decide if they can live with the defense, but will take the bat. Or if they want neither.

I sure hope the Royals aren’t losing faith based on less than two months of major league playing time. Sad thing is, I don’t trust them enough to dismiss that as a possibility.

My bold prediction is Giavotella will get off to a slow start at the plate, play average to below average defense and the Royals will ship him to Triple-A before the end of May. That’s right… I’m betting on Betancourt and/or Getz to be the Royals regular second baseman about a quarter of the way into the season. It’s just a gut feeling. I hope I’m wrong.

Gio is one of those guys with little of the upside that excites the prospect watchers, but he is someone who could develop into a solid regular. Given the options that Dayton Moore has stockpiled behind Giavotella, we certainly need to hope he reaches his full potential. And quickly.

Another GMDM stealth move came today where the Royals signed third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff to a minor league contract. The deal will pay Kouzmanoff $1 million if he makes the major league team with an opportunity to earn an extra $300,000 in incentives. The deal also includes an opt-out in that he can leave the organization if he’s not on the major league roster by May 1.

The opt out says this isn’t a move to stock the minors with organizational filler. This is the Royals accumulating players to provide options as they move toward Opening Day. The Royals signed Yuniesky Betancourt to be their utility infielder, but they’re only kidding themselves if they think he can play third. (I’ll buy him as a second baseman – barely. But there’s no way he can play the hot corner.) Kouzmanoff provides cover at third.

I suppose if Mike Moustakas struggles in the spring, he could be shipped to Omaha to start the season. It’s also likely a slow April could see him exiled back to Triple-A. I don’t see that as a real possibility. Moose struggled last season, but the Royals showed great patience and they were rewarded when he made the proper adjustments and finished the season strong. Not to say there shouldn’t be any competition, but unless Moose has just a catastrophic spring, there’s no way he shouldn’t be the teams third baseman.

Kouzmanoff has a career .300 OBP and a 4.6% walk rate. He has some power, but has played the majority of his career in San Diego and Oakland, two places that are death to hitting. He’s 30 and has almost 2,800 career major league plate appearances, so it’s not like his approach is going to change. But I don’t expect to see him in Kansas City. I suppose he could stick as a right handed bat off the bench, but since the Royals will need a fifth starter early in the season and we know that Yost loves the eight man bullpen, there won’t be room for him. You have Our Mitch as the backup outfielder, the Yunigma on the infield and Pena as a backup catcher. Kouzmanoff is insurance. Break glass in case of emergency. That’s all.

And for the financial outlay, that’s not a bad thing.

When the Royals traded Melky Cabrera to the Giants in November, all eyes shifted towards Lorenzo Cain who was acquired as part of the Zack Greinke trade with the Milwaukee Brewers last season. After spending 7 years in the minors, it’s finally time for Lorenzo Cain to get his shot to prove he belongs in the big leagues.

In his 7 years, he’s produced a line of .295/.368/.430 and the last two seasons split between Double-A and Triple-A have been his best since he was in Rookie ball. Since he was acquired from the Brewers there has been a steady drum-beat to get him into a Royals uniform and see if he can be the center-fielder that the Royals are in need of. That beat slowed a bit as Melky Cabrera surprised everyone last season by

1. Not being cherubesque in appearnce

2. Producing at the plate

However, Cabrera still wasn’t a good defender in center field. He was passable, especially with the way he handled the bat, but any drop-off in offensive production could not be carried by his poor range. While I’d like to think that the Royals moved Melky Cabrera because the market for him was at it’s apex, it’s more likely that he was dealt because he wasn’t the defensive wizard that the team expects “up the middle”.

It’s a philosophy that the Royals have been hammering for years now through words and actions. They’ve been trying hard to find a center fielder who has the speed and defense to patrol the sizable Kauffman outfield with just enough bat to keep him in the lineup. From Joey Gathright to Jarrod Dyson and Derrick Robinson they’ve paraded a host of athletic center fielders who haven’t been able to hit.

Lorenzo Cain comes with a better pedigree with a piece of lumber in his hands, though he isn’t likely going to earn his keep that way. He’s also touted as a very good defender. This may in fact be the Android that Dayton Moore has been looking for and he can now move along.

My guess is that Lorenzo Cain will be adequate. I don’t believe he’ll be great, but that’s just fine. I’d love nothing more than for the Royals to have a roster filled with All-Star caliber players, but it’s not realistic or necessary.

The Royals have a series of progressive goals to achieve, the first being to win more games than they lose. A team filled with mediocre players should put a team somewhere near .500. Luckily the Royals are not a team filled with mediocrity, they have some potential stars in Hosmer, Gordon and Moustakas. Every team has some average guys who have one good skill starting on their team. The better teams have them to fill gaps, terrible teams try and sell them as stars. In 2006, Lorenzo Cain would be considered a lynchpin for the organization, now he’s a guy trying to win a starting job. It’s a sign of progress.

The 2012 season does not hinge upon whether or not Lorenzo Cain can be a productive Major Leaguer. He can certainly help propel the team and has some big shoes to fill offensively, but it’s not an absolute requirement for a competitive team.