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Deconstructing The Process

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The Shortstop Jesus.

I hung that moniker on our new shortstop early last season, after witnessing a series of spectacular defensive plays. It was a sight to behold. Especially after watching Yuniesky Betancourt play the position the previous few seasons. Not unlike rubbing battery acid into one’s eyes.

The thinking went, Escobar’s glove was saving the Royals runs aplenty. Thus, he was our long sought after middle infield savior.

An assortment of defensive metrics back this assumption. He finished third in the AL and seventh overall among all shortstop in the Fielding Bible’s +/- rating with a +12. He was third in the AL (and third overall) in UZR and was fourth in the AL in UZR/150. He was involved in 98 double plays last year, fourth most in the AL. He led the AL with 459 assists.

Here are a couple of numbers that should impress:

He led all shortstops in total number of balls fielded. His total of 573 was 23 more than second place Alexi Ramirez. Of those 573 fielding plays, Escobar converted 91% of them into at least one out. That rate was the highest in baseball among all shortstops.

I know there are many of you who don’t like (or believe in) defensive metrics, but if you watched any number of Royals games last season, you don’t need the metrics to tell you what you saw with your own eyes: The SS Jesus can play some shortstop.

About that offense…

I’m intrigued by Alcides Escobar’s offensive splits from 2011. I know, I know… Small sample sizes and all that. But still…

April – .221/.248/.260
May – .209/.258/.244
June – .305/.353/.432
July – .253/.281/.374
Aug – .224/.248/.316
Sept – .324/.367/.459

Two months where he was really good. One month where he was average. And three months where he smelled so bad, there was talk about putting his bat in a landfill in Jackson County.

In June and August, Escobar had exactly the same number of plate appearances (105) and roughly the same number of at bats (95 in June compared to 98 in August.) The difference between the months was a total of seven base hits and three walks. So in June, his .353 OBP was powered by reaching base 10 more times than the .248 OBP he posted in August.

Going through and looking at the pitches he swung at, you get the impression of a hitter with no plan at the plate and more personalities than Sybil. Seriously, the guy just never found an approach that he could repeat.

To underscore this, I’ve pulled the charts from Texas Leaguers that show the pitches Escobar offered at by month. Yes, I may be cherry-picking my data by going month to month, but that’s how the splits are offered at Fangraphs and it’s the clearest way for us to break down Escobar’s season. What follows are also what happened (as a percentage) at the end of each Escobar plate appearance for the month.

April
Escobar is getting the lay of the land with his new team in a new league and is offering at pitches all around the strike zone. He’s particularly susceptible to sliders low and away.

Plate Appearance Resolutions
Groundout – 27.1%
Single – 16.8%
Strikeout – 12.2%

June
This is where Escobar is locked in and enjoys his best month. It’s no coincidence this is his cleanest chart, discipline-wise.

Plate Appearance Resolutions
Groundout – 24.8%
Single – 20%
Flyout – 9.5%
Strikeout – 9.5%

July
Maybe Escobar starts thinking he’s something he’s not. Because he’s chasing a ton of high cheese. Not surprisingly, he makes loads of fly ball outs in July.

Plate Appearance Resolutions
Groundout – 21%
Single – 16%
Flyout – 15%

August
This just baffles me. The inside pitch… What was going on here? Was he trying to pull the ball every single time? He’s still chasing the high stuff, but it’s not so far out of the zone like the previous month, but it’s enough to elevate his fly ball rate to it’s highest point of the year. Seriously, I see a chart like this and think I’m looking at a right-handed Reggie Jackson.

Plate Appearance Resolutions
Groundout – 27.6%
Single – 17.1%
Flyout – 16.2%

Overall, Escobar hit .236 when he put the ball on play on the ground, versus a .173 average when the ball was classified as a fly ball. Judging only from the disparity among the averages, that sounds like what we would expect from a player with the pedigree of Escobar. He lacks power, but has a little bit of speed, so if he can keep the ball on the ground, he can sneak a few past some infielders and maybe beat out some that stay on the infield. That’s why the months where he hit a ton of fly balls, were poor offensive months for Escobar. These were stretches where he was chasing balls he had zero business going after… The high fastballs in July and the inexplicable fascination with pitches on the inside corner (and beyond) in August.

It’s also interesting to note that Escobar hit .684 when he muscled a line drive. If we accept the average major league player gets a base hit on roughly 75 percent of his line drives, Escobar was woefully below average. Deeper investigation shows that the AL average on line drives was .728. As a team, the Royals hit .751 when they squared one up. (The only Royal with a worse average when hitting a line drive? My boy, Chris Getz! Whoooooo!!!)

So is there a conclusion we can draw from this exercise? Damned if I know. But like I said earlier, Escobar is a raw, undisciplined hitter, whose approach is as inconsistent as humanly possible.

Escobar’s contact rate remained static throughout the season. We know he doesn’t draw walks – his walk rate was an anemic 4.2% – and with a strikeout rate of 12.2%, he’s well below the league average in that department. Neither of those numbers experienced the wild kind of swings his batting average and on base percentages endured. It’s obvious he was making contact even when chasing pitches both up and in. Fangraphs confirms this. Escobar made contact on swings out of the strike zone 76.5% of the time, compared to the league average of 68.1%. There are a bunch of hitters who can chase outside the zone and get away with it. (Let’s stop with the Vladimir Guerrero mentions every time we discuss this. Troy Tulowitzki has become quite the bad ball hitter. Let’s use him.) Anyway, Escobar doesn’t have the talent to consistently expand his strike zone. When he’s chasing and making contact, he’s hitting weak dribblers or short pop flies. He doesn’t possess the ability to launch a 425 foot bomb from a pitch dropping on his shoelaces.

Moving forward, the Royals and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer will have to watch Escobar closely. Keep an eye on him and reign him in quickly when he begins adjusting his patterns at the plate. Or at least leave him alone until he stumbles across a passable approach.

That bat will continue to give us fits. At least we’ll have his glove.

The Royals love atheletes and Derrick Robinson is a prime example. In 2006, the Royals offered him above the recommended slot bonus to convince him to play baseball instead of football for the Florida Gators. At the time he was a raw athlete who the Royals had hoped could learn to hit.

In 2010, it seemed that the Royals gamble might be close to paying off. At AA, Robinson hit .286/.345/.380 which combined with his extreme speed and solid defense made him a viable option at center field in the not-so-distant future. He got a spot on the 40 man roster and went into 2011 hoping to replicate.

As 2011 rolled around, Robinson again found himself in Northwest Arkansas. He walked a bit more often and struck out a bit more often, but he just didn’t hit the ball very often or very hard. In 483 plate appearances, he hit only 9 extra base hits, compared to 36 in 570 plate appearances in 2010.

Although his hitting plummeted, it wasn’t the only reason that Robinson was never promoted to AAA. In the off-season, the Royals acquired Lorenzo Cain who is the less athletic but better baseball version of Derrick Robinson. Almost over-night, Robinson became organizational filler and a backup plan.

At this point, Robinson is holding onto a spot on the 40 man roster by the thinnest of threads. Honestly, I’m surprised that he has lasted this long. I think it says something about the improving Royals that Derrick Robinson is possibly the 40th best guy on the roster. He has two solid tools, but is lacking the one that teams need most: a bat.

The aesthetic value that speed brings to the table is something I’ll always appreciate. I do hope that Robinson can find the bat from 2010 that put him on the radar. The fact he’s still hanging around is indicative of Dayton Moore’s love-affair with athletes and speed. Robinson may be still on the roster as a potential 4th outfielder who brings some speed on the bases or he may be the next casualty when the Royals sign or promote someone better.

Moose with a familiar outcome (Minda Haas)

This time last winter, I figured Mike Moustakas would be the first of the wave of the heralded prospects to make their way to Kansas City. Close, but Moose was lapped by the amazing Eric Hosmer. No shame in that, though. The Royals third baseman of the future showed he has the chops to survive and thrive in the majors.

Patience has never been a part of Moose’s game. He walked just 27 times in 486 plate appearances in Triple-A and took the free pass 22 times in 365 plate appearances once he arrived in Kansas City. That’s just the type of player he is. He’s been able to get away with that grip it and rip it approach in the minors against lesser competition, but he’s going to have to reign it in for the majors. Last year, he swung at pitches outside of the zone 35.2% of the time. League average was 30.6%.

While he chases out of the zone, he doesn’t miss many pitches. Last year his contact rate was 85.5%, well above the league average of 80.7%. The lesson here though is that when you’re swinging at pitches outside of your happy zone, it may actually be better to miss.

This is going to be an outlier, but from Texas Leaguers, look at his spray chart from July when he hit .160/.198/.223:

It’s pretty obvious he wasn’t driving the ball worth a damn that month. Check his five most common outcomes that month.

Groundout – 20.4%
Pop out – 17.5%
Flyout – 14.6%
Strikeout – 11.7%
Single – 8.7%

I’ve been doing these kind of analytical articles for several years, both here and at Baseball Prospectus. And I’ve never seen a player who had “Pop out” listed in their top five. Let alone second. The numbers at FanGraphs back this up… Over a quarter of his balls in play were classified as infield flies in July.

Wow.

Fast forward to September:

Now, he’s finally driving the ball. Enough that he posted a .352/.380/.580 line. Eleven of his 24 extra base hits came in the season’s final month.

What changed? Pretty simple, actually. He stopped chasing. Here’s his swing chart from July:

Compare that to September:

He just couldn’t resist that high cheese when he broke in to the majors. And it was killing him. Credit to him for making the adjustments and adjusting his approach. He was working the count to his favor, getting a fat pitch and creating havoc with his bat. The strange thing, though… He still dropped his bat head enough that even in a month like September, where he’s posting great numbers, he’s still popping out way too much. Over 16 percent of his balls in play that month were classified as infield pops. And according to the data collected by Texas Leaguers, pop outs were again his second most common plate appearance resolution.

(Some of the credit with the strong September for Moose has to go to Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who worked with the rookie on pitch recognition and helped him make the adjustment in his approach. In July, Moose put a change-up in play only 19% of the time and swung and missed 18% of the time. In September, he put change-ups in play at a 33% clip and swung and missed just 7% of the time. Seitzer is doing some nice things working with these young hitters. I hope the Royals realize this.)

It’s odd because indications are, as he progressed through the system (and improved at each stop after slow starts) he didn’t tinker with his swing all that much. The changes was usually along the lines of the one I outlined above – he read the patterns shown by the opposing pitchers, adjusted his approach and stopped chasing pitches he couldn’t crush.

We’ve seen the September numbers lie before, but I think in this case, it’s a true positive for Moustakas. After his struggles early following his promotion (again), he made the proper adjustments and went on a tear (again.) This is huge. Triple-A is littered with former top prospects who cruised through the minors with little resistance, but when failure reared it’s ugly head, couldn’t make the necessary adjustments to their game.

It looks like Moose has what it takes with the bat to play in the big leagues.

Defensively, I think he’s fine at third. His arm is certainly strong enough and he has decent enough footwork and reflexes. I’m not going to discuss his UZR (too small a sample size), but I will note of his 11 errors, six were on throws and five were fielding miscues. Of the 252 balls he fielded at third, 86% were turned into at least one out. That 86% is league average. He’s not going to win any Gold Gloves in the near future, but he’s not going to hurt this team, either. Let’s call him a solid fielding third baseman.

Now we have to worry about the presence of The Yunigma and the fact the Royals actually seem to believe he’s a viable backup at third base. This is a troubling development for a couple of reasons. One, there’s just no way Betancourt can field at third base. And two, Moustakas struggled against lefties last summer, hitting just .156/.229/.219 against southpaws and there has been mention that Yuni may get the call to spell Moustakas when the Royals face a tough left hander. This possibility bothers me. (Although, to be honest, the very existence of The Yunigma on this roster bothers me.) If the kid is going to continue his development into any kind of contributing player, you let him take his licks against the tougher competition. I say, leave him alone unless he’s absolutely sunk into the abyss and his confidence is at an all time low. They did that in July – mainly because by then the Royals lone infield backup was Chris Getz – and he rewarded the team with a great September. (Anyway, I think Yuni is here to take over for Giavotella. A slow start dooms that kid.)

Moose made huge gains in the space of a single season in 2011. If the Royals remain patent with him, he’ll continue his development in 2012.

Eric Hosmer* was the least effective first basemen in the American League Central in 2010. Yes, I know that Carlos Santana hit .239, but he hit 27 bombs and got on base at a .351 clip. In 2011, the average AL first baseman hit .271/.340/.452 while Hosmer posted a .293/.334/.465. So what the Royals had last year in the young Hosmer was an average first baseman.

*It may be early, but I believe that Eric Hosmer needs a nickname. I say this primarily because I love nick names. They add so much fun and color to the game of baseball. Recently it seems the NBA has been completely stealing the nick name thunder from baseball. We need to reclaim that title. I’m throwing out Eric the Blue as a starting point. Add yours in the comments.

It’s not a knock on Hosmer, the kid is still only 21 years old and his best years are almost certainly in front of him and it’s been a long time since the Royals were anywhere near average at first. So there was a lot to like about his rookie campaign. However, if the Royals are going to really compete in the division in 2012, then he needs to be more than average. It’s probably not fair to heap expectations onto a twenty one year old, but it’s not fair that he’s already a multimillionaire. It comes with the territory. And what I know of the kid, he’s not phased by what some nerd writes on the computernets.

While the construction of playoff teams and World Series Champions is always a bit unique, there is nearly one constant. They all have at least one elite offensive player. Right now the Royals don’t have an elite offensive player, they have some players who could become elite but then again so do lots of teams that have sub .500 records. That’s not the goal.

Here are some numbers from Royals history to illustrate the point:

Last time that the Royals had a player with an above 6.0 bWAR – 2003 Carlos Beltran 7.4 (remember the magical 2003?)

Here is a list of every individual season where the Royals had bWAR over 8.0

1980 – George Brett 9.6 – AL Champions

1979 – George Brett 8.7 and Darrell Porter 8.4 – 85-77 record

1976 – George Brett 8.0  – AL West Champions

1985 – George Brett 8.0 – World Series Champions

I know, I just blew your mind, right? Good players make teams win games. I should write a book about my computer that came up with that formula and then make a movie about it where a Royals beat writer will refuse to move out of the shot. I’m thinking about it, don’t you worry. As simple as it is, it’s a formula which is pretty tried and true. Though it’s not always required, a team almost always needs an elite player to win a bunch of games. The question we have right now is can Eric Hosmer be that player? Can he turn this country into the United States of Hosmerica?

Right here is where I should trot out his size, his skill,s his Minor League numbers and try and prove to you all that he can right? Wrong. The answer truly is that we have no earthly clue. I would love to be able to tell you with some degree of certainty that Hosmer will become what we want him to be. I’ve been trumpeting him to everyone I know since the first time I saw him. Heck, I posted this video of him from last Spring Training as he blew me away again in person.

But in reality, I don’t want to know. It’s the reason we watch the game. It’s the not knowing that makes the finding out so much better. It’s like if we had a big holiday where we gave presents and let’s just say it was around this time of year. Let’s call it Hosmas. It wouldn’t be any fun if the presents were clearly labeled as “socks”, “baseball nerd book” or “coal”. The moment as you’re opening the present ans it’s coming into focus, those are the moments we live for. It’s what baseball provides in gigantic heaps.

It feels like we’re balanced on the precipice. As if things are just on the edge of being really, really good for Royals fans. But we’ve seen the heart of darkness, we know how terribly wrong it can go. We see this talented 21 year old who seems to have every skill one could ask for in a baseball player. Next season I’ll be tuning in on my radio and TV and going to the stadium to find out if the Royals can win and if Eric The Blue (just trying it on for size) can be the great Royal that we’ve needed on the team for so long.

Thank you all for a fantastic year, I really enjoy writing about the Royals and having great readers makes it all worthwhile. Please have a happy and safe Holidays. Hopefully here at Royals Authority we’ve armed you the last year with some info to throw at your uncle who’ll tell you how terrible the Royals are going to be and yadda yadda.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

This column is the first of The Authority’s series reviewing each player on the Kansas City Royals’ 40 man roster.  Throughout the next few months, Craig, Nick and myself will go in-depth on each member of the roster every weekday (or close to it).  As rumors, signings and trades break and, on occasion, just at the whim of the writer, we may interrupt this series.

Today, we will get started with the youngest member of the roster:  Salvador Perez.

Perez, who will not turn twenty-two until May of 2012, is a giant behind the plate at 6’3″ and 230 pounds (he looks even bigger).  Despite his size, Salvador appears nimble and agile with borderline unbelievable pop times throwing to second.    Those attributes led Perez to be voted the best defensive catcher in the system for three straight years and, in his very first major league game, Sal picked not one, but two runners off base.  

As August and September droned on,  the raw defensive numbers of Perez did not reflect the defensive wizardry many of us expected.  Perez was tagged for two passed balls and three errors over the final 38 games he played.   Pitchers uncorked 18 wild pitches with Sal behind the plate (a crude and unfair measurement of catching efficiency, I know) and opposing runners successfully stole 26 bases in 33 attempts.   Those are not glowing defensive numbers, but we all know the inefficiency of any defensive metric – particularly these very crude numbers – and the added inefficiency when it comes to assessing catchers.  What we saw, mostly, was a very young player playing a very demanding defensive position and showing a ton of potential.

Next to Alcides Escobar, who is the Royal most likely to win a first Gold Glove?   I bet most of you said Salvador Perez. 

The defense did not surprise me, but the offense did.  In the first 158 plate appearances of Perez’s major league career, he hit a zesty .331/.361/.473 for a wOBA of .361.  Those are huge numbers, but in a very small sample size and boosted  by the dreaded unsustainable BABIP of .362.     Perez, who comes with the reputation of a free swinger, may have simply been on a hot streak and is due for serious, serious regression.

The funny thing about Salvador is, despite not posting a walk rate above 5.2% since emerging from Rookie ball, that he does not strike out.   There was concern that Perez was being rushed (maybe he was) after getting just 49 AAA at-bats in which he never walked, but even there he struck out at an acceptable 12% rate:  basically the same frequency as he did upon his promotion to the majors.   Prior to those two brief samples, struck out less than 10% of the time in his stints at Northwest Arkansas and the year before in Wilmington.   There is a difference between a free-swinger and a hacker and, thus far, Salvador Perez is no hacker.

While his AAA numbers were also inflated by a ‘lucky’ BABIP, Perez posted a AA line of .283/.329/.427 with a very average .290 BABIP and a very impressive, given the park and league, High A line of .290/.322/.411 with a BABIP of .301.  Other than a rough quick look at A ball in 2009 where Salvador hit just .189, Perez has hit more than well enough for a catcher throughout his minor league career.

In 340 minor league games, Perez posted a cumulative .285/.328/.397 line and, oh by the way, threw out 43% of potential base stealers.    Quite frankly, who among us would not take that sort of performance for the next ten years?

Who among us, however, did not watch Perez and think there might be more upside than that?  The organization has talked of the potential power that Salvador may realize:  he certainly has the physicality to support that assumption.  After hitting just three home runs in his first 150 minor league games, Perez hit seven in Wilmington, ten more between Northwest Arkansas and Omaha last year and then three more in six weeks in Kansas City (along with 8 doubles and 2 triples).    A lot of that power has come by hitting to the opposite field as well: the scouts love opposite field power.

Not many expect Salvador Perez to hit .331 next year, but a lot expect him to become one of the best defensive catchers in baseball beginning Opening Day.   While the average may slip and the on-base percentage will go with it, it might be quite logical to assume that Perez will display more power in the majors than he did in the minors.

Frankly, the Kansas City Royals need Salvador Perez to manage the pitching staff (pitchers up and down the system have loved throwing to him), they need him to control the running game (as he did in the minors) and, at the minimum, hold his own at the plate while dominating behind it.    Name the next regular catcher coming up through the system…..keep looking….yeah, you get the point.

For six and one-half weeks last season, Salvador Perez looked like the real deal and did so at the grand old age of twenty-one.  He hit line drives, he hit with power the opposite way, he looked like a leader.  Hell, Salvador Perez looked like an All-Star for 39 games.  While it would be great if he duplicated or even came close to duplicating his 2011 short stint over a long 2012 season, what the Royals need is good defense, sound game calling and decent hitting:  just enough to keep a Perez-Escobar bottom of the order from turning into a black hole.

The Royals are looking for defense first out of Salvador Perez, thinking they will find more offense from other positions, but should Perez prove to be a free-swinger with good contact skills and power as opposed to being exposed as hacker with no control of the strike zone, then Kansas City has solved its catching situation for years to come.

xxx

 

 

 

 

Virtually every off-season discussion surrounding the Kansas City Royals has centered (rightfully so) on starting pitching.    The acquisition of Jonathan Sanchez was just step one in what most Royals’ fans assume will be at least a two, maybe even three, step process.  With the bullpen well stocked and eight of nine positions locked in, Dayton Moore certainly should be spending the bulk of his time focused on improving a starting rotation that was second worst in the American League last season.

That said, what about the ninth position?   I refer to second base, of course.

While most people believe and I tend to agree that Johnny Giavotella will get the first crack at being the team’s regular second baseman in 2012, he is hardly a sure thing.    While Johnny possesses a minor league resume that is probably better than those carried by Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Salvador Perez, he lacks the one thing all three of those players possess:  a plus defensive skill.

Save for a magical stretch in mid-summer, Escobar hit sporadically at best for most of the year, but because he played a premium defensive position and played it very well, Alcides came home with a fWAR of 2.2.   Salvador Perez hit well for the Royals in his limited time, but more importantly displayed the type of defensive abilities behind the plate that will keep him in the lineup and allow him to be a positive impact even if he does not hit.   The jury is out on what type of defender Cain will be in the majors, but all indications are that he will be a plus defender if not more.   At one point there was some talk about Cain’s routes to the ball, but those were mostly due to his relatively late start in baseball and I heard little about that being a problem this past season in Omaha.

Bottom line, all three have at least one ‘plus’ skill and all three have athletic upside.   Giavotella, who made some spectacular defensive plays in 2011, is never likely to become more than an average second baseman, if that.   His body type does not lead one to envision the ever elusive ‘projection’ that we prospect hounds crave and Johnny is not  tremendously athletic.   All of those things lead us to a player that will have to hit and hit early or the organization will begin looking elsewhere.    Alex Gordon could hit .195 as a rookie and you could still look at him and say ‘that guy should get better’.   If Giavotella hits .195 in his first 300 at-bats this year, people are rightly going to start thinking ‘well, this is who is’.

Now, I am 100% willing to give Giavotella a bunch of at-bats to either prove he it the .305/.375/.437 hitter his career minor league line reflects.   He just might be the player who in four full minor league seasons (all at A ball and above) never posted an on-base percentage below .351.   While Johnny’s numbers have benefitted from playing the last two years in hitter-friendly parks, he managed a respectable .258/.351/.380 in the hitter’s graveyard that is Wilmington.   Frankly, if Giavotella could hit .260/.350/.400 and not terribly screw-up in the field, that might be good enough playing between a Gold Glove shortstop and hopefully MVP level first baseman.

The current alternative to Giavotella is Chris Getz.     When the Royals acquired Getz for Mark Teahen, I defended him (yes, I actually was on the GETZ TRAIN) by pointing out that his minor league numbers (.286/.363/.380) and partial first major league season were remarkably similar to those of Brian Roberts.   Heck, Robinson Freaking Cano had similar minor league numbers!   Truthfully, it was worth a shot and the Royals have won that trade simply because Teahen cost real money while giving the White Sox not much more, if any more,  than Getz has given the Royals.

Getz, for his part, hit .237/.302/.277 in 2010 and followed that up with a .255/.313/.287 line in 2011.   He did post his best fielding numbers (by any metric) of his career in 2011.   If you believe that three years of fielding data is equal to one year of batting data, then Getz is slightly above average in UZR and decidedly below in Defensive Runs Saved.  There cases to be made for both metrics, but let’s blend them and say he is an average defensive second baseman.   Watching him, that would be my uneducated analysis.   

While Getz appears to be a guy who will work the count and get on base, he simply has not done it over the long haul.  I am not sure there is a place in modern baseball for a player who cannot slug over .300 (in fact, I am almost certain there is not), but I KNOW there is no room for a player with zero power who gets on base at a .315 clip (career mark) and plays just average or a tick above average defense.

I can make a case that Getz, because he can run and handle the bat (yes, every once in a while I can see the need for a sacrifice bunt – I really can!), could be a nice utility player.  Except, Getz has little experience playing shortstop or third base and is widely considered to have neither the arm nor the range to handle the left side of the infield.   Unlike some, I don’t have a problem bringing Getz to spring training, but he has done his best to prove he cannot be a regular major league second baseman and simply has not shown he can be more than an emergency fill in at any other position.

After the above two players, one of who will almost certainly be in the opening day lineup at second, the Royals offer Irving Falu, who has spent nine seasons in the organization, played everywhere and only kind of hit (.275/.342/.350).   You have to like his versatility and on a young team where the lineup is going to be basically the same every day, I could see Falu being on the Royals’ bench in early 2012.  This is not a player whose development you are concerned with stunting and you could buy yourself another roster spot simply because Falu could not only be your utility infielder, but also serve as your fifth outfielder.

Of more promise at the AAA level is Yamaico Navarro, acquired for Mike Aviles late in the summer.   Now, Yamaico is a shortstop with some pop (.430 minor league slugging), who has some time at third, short and even a little in the outfield.  He has the look of someone with potential.   The downside is that Navarro has played 312 minor league games at short and just 23 at second.   If I had to guess, Navarro starts 2012 in Omaha and plays shortstop more than second as insurance against an Escobar injury or, and this is actually possible, the chance that Alcides hits .201/.240/.260.

I say the above, because I believe that the organization still has high hopes for Christian Colon (keep in mind, this organization has a pretty broad stubborn streak) despite hitting an unimpressive .257/.325/.342 in Northwest Arkansas.    Drafted as a shortstop, Colon moved over to play 15 games at second last season and I have to imagine he will spend most of his time there in 2012.  Truthfully, he has yet to show anyone much of anything to make one believe Colon is going to be a major league regular.

Down the line one more tick is Rey Navarro.  It is quite possible he is the best defender (at second or short) of anyone we have talked about today.  In 2011, Navarro hit an outstanding .285/.337/.484 in Wilmington and a pretty mundane .271/.332/.330 in Northwest Arkansas.    Prior to this past season, Navarro really had not hit anywhere and so I doubt there is a risk of losing him in the Rule 5 draft (as has been postulated in various spots).    I have not seen enough to get on the Navarro bandwagon yet and I think it is more likely that he becomes Irving Falu than anything resembling a major league regular.   Certainly we have not seen enough to consign him to the minor league journeyman scrap heap, but there is plenty that remains for him to show before we start our ‘Free Rey’ campaign.

This discussion, again, leads us back to the ‘can the Royals contend in 2012 or not’ debate.   If not, then you see what happens with what you have.  If you believe 2012 is a contending year, however, then you almost have to address second base.   With a young team, plugging in a Rafael Furcal or someone similar as a veteran presence at second might make some real sense.    I probably will take the chicken way out here and say the Royals should give Giavotella a shot and, should he be struggling but the team contending in July, THEN make your move for a veteran second baseman.

Without question, Kansas City is going to have a number of in-house options at second base over the next two to three years, I am just not convinced any of them will turn out to be good options.

xxx

 

A couple of years ago, Alex Gordon found himself in Omaha, learning a new position. It seemed like an odd move by the Royals… A last gasp of sorts. Something to make their once prized prospect stick in the major leagues. It reeked of desperation.

And it paid huge dividends.

Gordon was honored on Tuesday night with the Gold Glove award for his defensive contribution for the Royals in left field.

Those of us who write with a sabermetric bent are supposed to mock the Gold Gloves. Believe me, I’ve done my share. And I’m pretty sure voters got this one wrong. But I don’t care. I figured Brett Gardner was a lock for the award. He plays left like a center fielder, meaning he gets a great read, covers a ton of ground and runs exceptional routes. He also has a strong arm. If you’re being honest with yourself, Gardner is a superior defensive player over A1.

In the end, I think it was Gordon’s assist numbers that pushed him over the top in the eyes of the voters. It’s not every day a left fielder racks up 20 assists. The Royals outfield was a huge story in 2011. Not just in Kansas City, but their play collectively gained national attention. From the assist numbers (particularly at the plate) to their strong offensive output, to the circus reel catches of The Frenchman in Seattle, to Melky’s base running gaffes, people noticed the Royals outfield in 2011. This award can be seen as a tip of the cap to the group as a whole, I suppose.

And while there will be many who will claim Gardner was robbed, he certainly is the better defender, it’s not as if Gordon is a slouch in left. He’s certainly second best, with a bullet. So if he beats a Yankee and picks up an award, I’m pleased. (Besides… This is a Royals blog. If you want to read someone complain about the outcome, do a quick Google search.)

The cool thing about this award is it actually validates something. It hardly ever does that. I’ve said it in this space a number of times in 2011: I’m thrilled that Gordon has turned his career around. He should win the Royals Player of the Year Award, but that’s obviously local. This is a national acknowledgement that the guy had a great year. That’s pretty cool.

Credit has to go to whomever on the Royals brain trust decided it would be a good idea (or final chance) to send Gordon to the outfield. And Rusty Kuntz, who worked with Gordon when he was demoted to Omaha to learn his new position, deserves kudos as well. Although at the time, Kuntz lavished praise on Gordon because he took to his new position so quickly, the coach certainly had some responsibility in molding his charge.

Gordon is heading to arbitration, but I’m not sold winning the Gold Glove will impact the raise he’s going to get from the Royals. Sure, hardware is nice and all that, but let’s not kid ourselves… It’s a Gold Glove. I figured him at around $5 million for next season and I’ll stand by that. Will it push the Royals toward extending him? It’s possible, I suppose. Again though, I really doubt this award changes how the Royals think about him. Unless I’m way off base and the Royals are truly the shallowest organization in baseball. They saw what Gordon did this year. They know he played solid defense and threw out 20 runners and led the league in assists. Again, the Gold Glove is an acknowledgement from players and coaches. It’s not some revelatory moment where the Royals are like, “Wow! We had no idea the guy played so well in the field last summer! Lifetime contract!” It doesn’t work like that. Because it’s a Gold Glove.

Finally, I said a number of times that Gordon had no chance at winning. I was wrong. (That’s the meaning behind the headline. I called it not unlike the Tribune went for Dewey over Truman.) Not the first time, not the last. (Although if you’re feeling charitable toward me, think of it as my awesome attempt at a reverse jinx.) Gordon had a helluva season. One that should get MVP consideration (down ballot, but still, consideration). It’s nice to see him pick up some post season hardware. Even if it is just a Gold Glove.

Congratulations, Alex.

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.

I’m sure this got the Lee Judge Fanboys all hyper (kind of like when I mainline Cheez-Doodles and Mountain Dew) but there was some chatter in the middle of the week about how Eric Hosmer ranks last among American League first baseman in Ultimate Zone Rating. (UZR) It’s important because with the Rookie of the Year race getting closer by the inning, defense could come into play with some voters who will have a difficult decision to make.

Keith Allison/Flickr

We’ve all seen The Hos play first. In my opinion, he’s the best defensive first baseman we’ve had in Kansas City since Wally Joyner. From watching the games, I give him high grades for footwork, fielding grounders to his right and throwing the ball to pitchers covering the bag. (The latter is an underrated skill, in my opinion. Watching Joyner in ’93 underscored just how valuable this is for first basemen.) My eyes tell me Hosmer is a quality defensive first baseman.

However, UZR disagrees. It hangs a -9.9 rating on our rookie. Worst in the AL. Ugh.

But… But… What about all those awesome scoops he makes at first? How can his UZR be so abysmal if he’s making all these sweet picks and saving valuable runs? Simple. UZR does not account for scoops at first. It’s just another out. (And before you decide to kill the messenger, remember this is just the way it is. I didn’t invent the system… I’m merely trying to shed some light.)

Line drives are similarly ignored. So, those great diving stabs we’ve seen Hosmer make? Not counted in UZR. The developer of this metric says snaring a line drive is more a luck factor than a skill factor. Not certain I agree with this. For sure, the infielder’s position counts big-time on a scorching liner, but if the fielder doesn’t have the reaction time, that catch won’t be made.

Another thing to remember is we’re dealing with a sample size of four months. The creators of UZR realize their system has limitations and stress that to get a portrait of “true” talent, you need to accumulate at least three years of data. Even then, there are players all over the game who have something like a +10 UZR one year, followed by a -10 UZR the next. What gives?

From the UZR primer at FanGraphs:

…there is still a potentially large gap between what you might see on the field if you were to watch every play of every game and what UZR “says” happened on the field. And that is one of several reasons why one year or even 10 years of UZR (or any other sample metric) does not give us a perfect estimate of a player’s true talent or even an accurate picture of what actually happened on the field. The reason for that is that the data is imperfect.

It all goes back to the data, the data, the data. It’s categorized by Baseball Info Solutions where batted balls are placed in “buckets” based on a number of factors. Yet, there are still a number of variables that are not accounted for in charting fielding plays. It’s an imperfect science.

Does this mean we dismiss UZR and other defensive metrics out of hand? I don’t think so. At least I hope not. While the data may be imperfect, it ultimately underscores the need to have more of it before we can make any kind of assumption. Even then, on defense, we need to use our eyes, along with the numbers to form an informed opinion. I really like the advancements in defensive metrics. In particular, I’m a fan of Dewan’s Plus/Minus system. But I understand their limitations. Maybe FieldF/X will perfect the research. Sadly, that’s data we will probably never get to see.

In explaining Hosmer’s low UZR rating, let’s say it’s a combination of an imperfect science made even more imperfect by a lack of data and further complicated by his position on the field. We know he hasn’t been that bad with the glove, no matter what the metrics say. That’s why things like Tango’s Fan Scouting Report – a system that relies on the input from those who regularly watch the games – are so useful. (Take a moment and fill out the report for the Royals.) Sorting by current first basemen on Tango’s report, you see that Hosmer fares much better and rates as an above average defensive first baseman.

So, looking at Hosmer’s UZR and drawing a conclusion from not even a full season of data isn’t going to accomplish anything productive. We’ve seen him play in the field… Let’s give UZR another couple of seasons and see how the ratings and rankings evolve.

In the meantime, if anyone with a ROY ballot is reading this, please don’t pay attention to UZR when evaluating Hosmer’s defense. He’s been solid, steady and at times, exceptional with the glove.

On Hosmer’s Opposite Field Power

The other day, I touched on Eric Hosmer’s opposite field power as a sign of future success.

Daniel Russell/Flickr

A study in the 2010 Baseball Forecaster found that nearly 75% of all home runs were hit to the batter’s pull field, with the remaining quarter distributed between center and the opposite field. After analyzing over 4,000 batters covering nine years, the research found that a high percentage of players under the age of 26, who hit two or more opposite field home runs for the first time in their careers, subsequently experienced a sustained three year breakout in value.

This was an exercise to identify potential breakout players for fantasy baseball for the bargain hounds. It can certainly extend into the real game as a method to find players with potential to improve… Or to breakout.

When Hosmer hits the ball to the outfield, he truly hits to all fields. (As opposed to when he hits the ball on the ground. Then, he’s a strict pull hitter.) And we know that with 18 home runs, Hosmer has the capacity to club the ball over the fence. And we know from my post on Wednesday that he is hitting with power to left and center field. To get some perspective of how well The Hos is doing in hitting to the opposite field for power, we need to look at some of his peers. Using the Baseball Reference Play Index, I generated a list of all hitters 24 (keeping the list manageable and closer to Hosmer’s age) and under who have at least 15 home runs. The search returned 10 players who can be considered the next wave of elite power hitters.

Here are the players with their home run location broken down by field.

(Sandoval’s numbers aren’t there because, as a switch hitter, I don’t have the same data for him as the other players. Besides, this is about future greatness and with his body type… Let’s just say I’m betting against him.) The raw number of opposite field home runs may not look like much, but percentage-wise Hosmer has clubbed 22% of his home runs to left. Of the guys on the list, only McCutchen and Avila – both at 26% – has a higher percentage of opposite field long balls.

Remember nearly 75% of all home runs are hit to the batter’s pull field… Hosmer is pulling just 44% of his homers. To be hitting like this – spreading the power to all fields – at his age… He could be in for a monster run over the next several years. Hosmer is already in elite company as a young power hitter and his home run profile means he has the chops to hang with this crew. (Stanton and McCutchen are already great and have spectacular futures.)

Hosmer’s had a heckuva debut season. The great thing about it is, it’s no fluke. He’s the real deal. Set to explode. And he’s a Kansas City Royal.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that The Hos breaks Steve Balboni’s franchise record of 36 home runs within three seasons.

With another home run, Eric Hosmer continues his power surge and what looks like a late season run at collecting some hardware… Namely, the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award.

In his last 10 games, Hosmer is hitting .350./430/.730 with five home runs and seven RBI. (Is it strange that he last hit a double on August 16? He hit just three doubles over the entire month.)

Anyway, as The Hos heats up, so inevitably does the talk of him being named the top rookie in the American League. But before we can bestow the accolades, we need to see how he measures among his peers.

To narrow down the candidates for the award, I created a table of the top position players with at least 200 plate appearances. I bolded the numbers that are leading the rookie pool in their respective categories.

One name is missing from this table that is certainly in the discussion – Desmond Jennings. You think the Royals waited too long to call up somebody like Johnny Giavotella? How in the world could the Rays have decided they needed to get Jennings more at bats in Triple-A?

If I’m going to arbitrarily set the cut off at 200 plate appearances for one table, I may as well do another at a similarly arbitrary cutoff of 150 plate appearances. Here’s how that one looks.

Well, that’s no fun. Going back to the first non-Jennings table, it would appear that the race would be run between Ackley and Carp. Ackley has the advantage in the on base department and the True Average, while Carp owns the batting average, slugging and wOBA. Of course, throwing Jennings into the mix simply adds another candidate. Jennings has been flat out awesome since joining the Rays. Had he played a full season at anything close to his current level, he’d be a stone cold lock for the honors.

But that’s the problem. Not only with Jennings’ candidacy, but with Ackley’s and Carp’s as well.

In the last 30 years, only one position player has won the Rookie of the Year award with fewer than 350 plate appearances. Ryan Howard appeared in 88 games for the 2005 Phillies and came to bat 348 times. Ackley will approach that number of plate appearances, while Carp and Jennings will certainly fall short.

I suppose that’s due to the reliance of voters on the old “counting” stats. Home runs and RBI have long been justification for this kind of exercise. And you can’t rack up those bombs and rib-eyes if you don’t play. If that’s the case, the favorite this year has to be Trumbo. His 24 bombs and 73 RBI lead all AL rookies. Ditto for his 58 runs scored. Notice from the table above, he does lead in one category I chose to cite… Plate appearances. Get the connection?

Anyway, the conventional wisdom has Trumbo as the front runner. Disagree. His sub .300 OBP disqualifies him in my mind.

Of course, I’ve ignored pitchers throughout this exercise. That’s because they’re sub-human. (Apologies… I’ve seen far too much of the Royals bullpen this week.)

For voters, three things count when making their selection for the rookie of the year. Saves, Wins and ERA.

I listed saves first, because only two starting pitchers have collected the AL Rookie of the Year since 1976… Justin Verlander and Mark Fidrych. Since then, Gregg Olson (27 saves), Kazuhiro Sasaki (37 saves), Huston Street (23 saves), Andrew Bailey (26 saves), Neftali Feliz (40 saves) have won the award as relievers. In the modern game, it is simply too difficult for starting pitchers to collect enough wins to be considered. This year, two rookies have double-digit wins, with a third one threatening. And there’s that closer lurking…

Ivan Nova – 14 wins, 3.96 ERA
Jeremy Hellickson – 11 wins, 3.01 ERA
Michael Pineda – 9 wins, 3.71 ERA
Jordan Walden – 2.70 ERA, 26 saves

Nova, supported by the Yankee offensive juggurnaut, has only four losses, while both Hellickson and Pineada are both just a game over .500 with their record. I point this out only because of the recent advancements in the sabermetric cause which has led to voters properly devaluing wins when selecting worthy candidates for post season hardware. In the past, voters would have discarded someone with a .500 record. Today, that’s doubtful. Walden doesn’t get consideration from me because I have closer bias and there is plenty to choose from among the candidates previously listed.

If I were ranking only the pitchers, I would place them in inverse order of wins. Pineda has a superior xFIP, strikeout rate and the best walk rate. He’s the cream of the rookie starter crop. (And please, don’t even talk to me about Walden. Rookie relievers should only get consideration if there are literally no other rookies who appeared in the league that year. I’m not kidding.)

So if I’m not going to vote for Trumbo and if voting closed today, (and I had a ballot) I would vote Jennings, Ackley and Carp. In that order. Maybe Pineda. That flies in the face of conventional wisdom (that you have to play a majority of your team’s games) but we need to work on expanding the pool of candidates to find the cream of the crop. Besides, if you play enough to lose your rookie eligibility for the following season, you’ve done enough to earn consideration. (That reasoning is why Brett Lawrie isn’t among my candidates, even though he’s hitting .326/.381/.674. With just 89 at bats, if the season ended today, he would still be considered a rookie in 2011.) Longevity does count though… There’s something about being consistent over more than a couple of months. I’m satisfied with the time Carp and Ackley have played… Jennings will ultimately play less than half a season. I struggle with this, but I think given how he’s outperformed the field, it’s enough. For now.

So where is Hosmer in all of this? He’s close. Fourth or fifth. That’s near enough that a few torrid weeks could catapult him into contention. He’ll need some help, though. The top three will need to experience a bad month. Remember, my ballot is based if the season ended today. It can (and probably will) change. I think the race is so close, the last 25 games (give or take) will be crucial to deciding this vote.

It can be done, though. Hosmer can force his way into the discussion. Ackley had a difficult August and Jennings can’t possibly continue his pace. At least I don’t think he can… He has a .386 BABIP and just a 17% line drive rate. Likewise, Carp has .389 BABIP and Pineda will be shut down after a couple more starts. Fingers crossed, right?

Really, it seems to me you can build an objective argument for any of the contenders. They all have negatives, as well. This could be the zaniest post season award vote we’ve seen in some time. Unfortunately, Nova’s wins, Walden’s saves and Trumbo’s home runs may just carry the day among real voters.

It’s possible Hosmer puts together a sweet September while his rivals falter and storms to the award. That would be ideal. There’s still plenty of baseball to be played…