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Reports are Sal Perez is on his way to Kansas City.

About time.

It’s strange to think this way, but it just feels like the Royals are already Sal’s team. He’s the guy. The one they can’t afford to have out of the lineup.

I mean, we’re talking about a guy with 158 career major league plate appearances. How the hell can he be the big kahuna on a major league team with so little experience?

All I know is what I’ve read and heard discussed from various players and team officials. The guy oozes professionalism and commands respect.

As a writer with a SABR bent, I’m supposed to mock the leadership angle. (Francoeur? Too easy.) But there is no denying that something really cool started last summer when the young guys were brought up to the majors. And it kind of feels like it’s been placed on hold while Perez has been rehabbing. It’s been interesting to me to see the amount of respect he holds within the realm of the clubhouse. Leadership won’t get you wins, but there’s something about it that makes it crazy fun to watch.

Is Sal the Savior? I don’t think so. Defensively, he’s going to be awesome. As long as his knee holds. And I seriously doubt the Royals would be putting him behind the plate if he wasn’t 100 percent ready.

I know many of you are excited by his offensive performance from last season, but there was nothing in his minor league history to indicate he was capable of that. He finished with a line of .331/.361/.473, which was just insane. Yes, he was hitting .340/.365/.380 in Omaha, but I really don’t think we can insert him into the lineup and expect those kind of numbers.

He will be a huge upgrade over the Pena/Quintero tandem, though. And that’s good enough for me.

If Sal is behind home plate tonight, it will feel like Opening Day, Part 2. Welcome home, Sal.

The Bases Are Drunk. A lot.

Jonathan Sanchez has faced 15 batters with the bases loaded – defined as “grand slam opportunities” by Baseball Reference. That’s the second most in the American League this year. The Rangers Yu Darvish has the most in the AL with 16. Interesting. Especially given the fact that Sanchez has thrown 36 innings. Darvish has twirled 89 innings.

Fortunately, in each grand slam opportunity, Sanchez has kept the ball in the yard. Still, 15 opportunities in 36 innings… And you thought Jonathan Broxton pitched on a tightrope.

Sanchez has contributed the lion’s share of the Royals league leading total of pitching with 74 grand slam opportunities. Fortunately, they’ve surrendered just a single slam.

The Twins – with the worst pitching in the league – have faced just 42 grand slam opportunities.

I have no idea what this means…

High Leverage Pen

Not only is the Royals bullpen really good, they’ve been doing it under tremendous pressure. According to Baseball Reference, the bullpen’s average Leverage Index (aLI) is 1.094, which is tops in the league. In fact, only three bullpens have an aLI greater than 1, which is “average” pressure.

Royals – 1.094
Tigers – 1.058
Orioles – 1.054

The Orioles have the best bullpen in the league, according to ERA at 2.38. I’m thinking the high leverage combined with the quality of performance is a huge reason the O’s are leading the uber competitive AL East. The Tigers bullpen ERA is 3.89, which is the second worst rate in the league, better than only the Indians. So I’m thinking the high leverage combined with the poor performance (relative to the league) is a reason the Tigers are scuffling.

The Royals may blow that hypothesis out of the water. Their bullpen ERA of 2.93 is seventh best in the AL, yet they’re nipping at the heels of the Tigers.

It boils down to the offense. The Royals are plating just 3.88 runs per game, while the tigers are scoring 4.4 per contest. That difference of 0.5 runs per game may be enough to offset the Royals bullpen advantage.

I still think the Tigers are the favorites in the Central. But they’ll need their pen to improve. Meanwhile, in a weak division, it’s the pen keeping the Royals in the hunt. If they can get their offense to pick up, they’ll be able to prevent the Tigers from gaining separation.

It’s a simplistic analysis, but sometimes the simple things help you gain the most clarity.

I may be coming around on this whole contention thing.

Yesterday afternoon, Jonathan Broxton notched his 18th save of the year (good for fourth in the American League) and with it secured a winning road trip for the Royals.   He did so in what has become typical Broxton fashion, allowing two baserunners before finally getting his team out of the inning.

So far in 2012, Broxton has had 21 save opportunities and blown (generally in spectacular fashion) three of them.  Obviously, in those three, Jonathan allowed baserunners.   In the 18 successful saves, Broxton has retired the side in order just five times.   Broxton has had some other perfect innings, but in non-save situations. 

In the remaining 13 saves, Broxton has allowed just one baserunner six times, two baserunners six more times and loaded the bases once.   Is that normal? 

In 2008, we saw Joakim Soria in this prime just dominate.  He went seven straight appearances without allowing any baserunners and had another stretch where he did not allow a baserunner in eight out of nine appearances.  Soria blew three saves that entire season.   In 2006, division rival Joe Nathan blew two saves all season and in 21 of his 36 successful save conversions, threw perfect innings.

Those are two very good closers in probably their two best years, however.  Where does Broxton stand right now?  Is he getting just plain lucky and due for a series of devastating team gutting blown saves?  Or is this how it is across baseball?   Royals’ arch-enemy Chris Perez leads the league in saves, let’s take a look at what he has done.

Perez has converted 22 out of 23 save opportunities.   He had a one out save, which we will sort out of the equation.  Of the 21 remaining saves, Perez was perfect in 9 of those.   He allowed one baserunner in 6, two baserunners in 5 and three baserunners in the other.   It is noteworthy that while Broxton has not allowed a run in any of his 18 successful saves, Chris Perez has three times allowed  a run to score, but had enough cushion to still get the save.   In comparing Perez vs. Broxton, we see a few more flashes of dominance out of Perez, but also some poorer outings as well:  not a tremendous difference, frankly.

The Orioles Jim Johnson is second in the league in saves and has allowed just 15 hits in 31 innings of work.   Johnson has converted 20 of 21 save opportunities and been perfect in 9 of those 19 saves.   He has allowed one baserunner eight times, two on three occassions and never has put three runners on base.   Johnson has, however, allowed a run and still gotten the save twice.  It is also noteworthy that in his last six save opportunites, Jim has blown one and been perfect the other five times.

 The only other closer in the AL with more saves than Broxton is Tampa’s Fernando Rodney.  Two of his twenty saves (the first two actually) were just one out saves and Rodney has blown one save opportunity as well.  Of the remaining 18 saves, Rodney has been perfect in 12 of them.   He allowed one baserunner in four (along with an unearned run), two baserunners just once and three baserunners once (along with a run).

I am going to skip down a couple of spots to the most established closer type on the leaderboard:  Joe Nathan.  The Rangers’ closer has converted 15 of 16 save opportunities and been perfect in 10 of those.   In the other five saves, Nathan has allowed one baserunner four times and two runners just once.  He has not allowed a run in a successful save situation.

Now, baserunners happen.  Allowing one batter to reach base in the ninth inning is hardly a sign of the apocalypse (at least I don’t think so, the Mayans are hard to figure out), so let’s forgive all those outings for the guys we are looking at and compare the number of multiple runners on in save situations:

  • Perez – 6 out of 21 (1 blown save)
  • Johnson – 3 out of 20 (1 blown save)
  • Rodney – 2 out of 18 (1 blown save)
  • Broxton – 7 out of 18 (3 blown saves)
  • Nathan – 1 out of 15 (1 blown save)

Quick and dirty research tells us that Broxton’s success, if not lucky, has come in a manner different than that of the other save leaders in the league.   That said, closers are all different (I mean, most of them are really, really different) maybe Broxton has always been this way.

Well, in 2009, Broxton had a career high 36 saves, striking out 114 in 76 innings.   He allowed more than one baserunner in just 7 of those 36 successful saves, but he also suffered six blown saves.   In 2010, he was 22 of 27 in save opportunities and allowed multiple baserunners in five of his 22 successful saves.  It is noteworthy that his 2010 performance resulted in Broxton losing his closer job in August.

In his prime, Broxton did not walk the high wire to quite the extent he has thus far for the Royals (although he was still prone to the blown save).  That does not mean that Jonathan will not be able to continue:  the ability to throw 98 mph can help offset runners on base.   However, the odds would seem to suggest that Broxton might be running out of wiggle room.

There is, however, one additional consideration.   Broxton is really just two and one-half months back from injury.   He has spent the better part of the last two years getting lit up.  Could this all be just part of ‘getting back’?  I think that is a very real possibility and the truth is, if Broxton ends up saving 36 games this year, blowing six and taking us on a ride in half of those 36 successes, that is still going to be a pretty decent year.

It’s not dominant and it’s not ideal, but not everyone can be Joakim Soria.   Heck, Joakim Soria wasn’t Joakim Soria the last couple of years.

xxx

Being a long reliever is an inglorious job.  You sit and sit and wait and wait and people make jokes about putting your face on the side of a milk carton.   When the call finally comes, it is usually when your team is in dire straits (or not straits at all) and, after sitting for a week, you are expected to pitch multiple innings. 

Everett Teaford was the original long man this year, sitting for seven days to start the season before being called upon to pitch four innings against Cleveland with his team down five runs.   He waited eight more days before throwing three more innings and then was called upon to make a spot start last Friday. 

Teaford did not have a good start on Friday:  lasting just four innings.   At that point, without a long man in his pen and due to the back and forth nature of that very entertaining contest, Ned Yost had to use five relievers to finish out the game.  The five combined for 85 pitches and the Royals’ deep pen was suddenly in real trouble.

Probably the rain out on Saturday, which did nothing to help Kansas City’s building momentum, was a very good thing for the bullpen.  That and the callup of Nathan Adcock to replace the ‘used up’ Everett Teaford on the roster.

I have to admit, when Adcock was summoned from Omaha to replace Teaford, I kind of thought it was an overreaction by the Royals.  They have exhibited a tendency to panic at the first sign of stress on their bullpen arms.   Yost, in particular, seems borderline paranoid at times about having a long man ready to go.   Hey, the baseball men got it right this time.

Enter the bad Bruce Chen on Sunday.  We see him from time to time – frankly, I remain continually surprised we don’t see him more often.  When Chen doesn’t have it, balls get ripped around the ballpark.  It happens to everyone not named Verlander and Halladay, and it happened to Chen on Sunday.   His defense didn’t help him much, but Bruce did not help himself much, either.

With two outs in the third and six runs already in, Nate Adcock got the call.   

The Royals were down 6-1 and, although they would make some runs at the Twins, this game was pretty much decided.  There is no glory to be had here and, with five plus innings left to go, Yost had to be thinking he was going to grind through the pen again.   With three games looming at Detroit, two of which will be started by Sanchez and Mendoza (combined will they reach double digits in innings pitched in the Motor City?), that is not a scenario where you have to burn up the likes of Collins, Coleman and Crow just to finish a blowout game.   You can insert your Mitch Maier comment/joke here, by the way.

Instead of that, Adcock got Alexi Casilla to pop out to end the third.   He worked around a one out walk in the fourth, wriggled out of a bases loaded jam in the fifth, faced the minimum in the sixth and was tagged for a run on two doubles in the seventh.  After getting two groundouts to start the eighth, Adcock walked back to back hitters before getting Josh Williingham to fly out to end the inning.

It was not the prettiest of outings, as Adcock allowed eight baserunners in five and one-third innings, but he held the Twins to just one run over that time.  Had his offensive mates managed to get more than four runs out of fourteen baserunners, Adcock might have gotten a little glory after all.  

As it stood, though, Kansas City never seemed to really be in this game.   That left Nate Adcock out on the mound with one mission:  save the rest of the staff for games that the Royals might have a real chance to win and that is exactly what he did.    The Royals enter Detroit tonight with a fully stocked and fresh bullpen, except for a long man.

There’s the rub.   Adcock, by doing his job and pitching five innings on Sunday, likely got his ticket punched back to the minors so that the Royals can recall someone who will be available to throw early this week.  Such is the life of the long man.   Everett Teaford and Nate Adcock know the drill.   They are the forgotten men:  seldom needed, but expected to excel when duty calls and, if they pitch well enough, likely to be sent to the minors in exchange for a fresher arm.

Like Teaford’s performance on April 13th, we probably won’t give Adcock’s five innings of cleanup work yesterday much thought as the season progresses.  However, when Ned Yost makes the slow walk to the mound tonight and on Tuesday night, you can thank Adcock for the fact that everyone is ready for duty.

xxx

 

On Saturday night, with the Royals protecting a 6-2 lead, we got our first look at Jonathan Broxton as a Royal.   He faced four batters, allowing two hits and a run and, quite frankly, was not all that impressive.  

Throwing ten pitches, Broxton induced zero swinging strikes and one foul ball.  Torii Hunter bunted a 96 mph fastball for a single, which was the hardest pitch Broxton threw on Saturday.   Here is the complete pitch sequence for the outing:

Against Kendry Morales

  • 94 mph fastball – called strike
  • 86 mph slider – double

Against Torii Hunter

  • 96 mph fastball – bunt single

Against Bobby Abreu

  • 74 mph curve – called strike
  • 95 mph fastball – ball
  • 92 mph fastball – ball
  • 88 mph slider – foul
  • 85 mph slider – sacrifice fly

Against Vernon Wells

  • 87 mph slider – ball
  • 95 mph fastball – ground ball into double play

Let’s not panic here, that isn’t horrible:  a double and a goofy bunt single when up by four runs, but it is hardly dominant.  Nothing happened on Saturday to make me think that Greg Holland won’t be the closer for the Royals by mid-May.

Then came Sunday.

Let’s run down the outing for Jonathan Broxton in the ninth inning of the series clinching game after Aaron Crow had allowed runners to reach first and second with no one out. 

Against Torii Hunter

  • 96 mph fastball – foul
  • 96 mph fastball – swinging strike
  • 97 mph fastball – swinging strike

Against Vernon Wells

  • 99 mph fastball – ball
  • 97 mph fastball – foul
  • 91 mph slider – swinging strike
  • 98 mph fastball – ball
  • 91 mph slider – foul
  • 97 mph fastball – swinging strike

Against Kendry Morales

  • 97 mph fastball – ball
  • 89 mph slider – swinging strike
  • 89 mph slider – foul
  • 97 mph fastball – foul
  • 90 mph slider – swinging stirke

Okay, so maybe Greg Holland won’t be the closer by mid-May.   What you notice right away is that the velocity is up across the board – which is a great sign for a pitcher coming back from injury and working his second day in a row.  

On Sunday, Broxton threw five sliders, the slowest of which was faster than any of the four sliders he threw on Saturday.   Those five sliders induced one two foul balls and three swinging strikes.  Can you say ‘out’ pitch?    On top of that, Broxton’s nine fastballs were all as fast or faster than his high water mark on Saturday.

Same stadium, same time of day, same gun and basically the same hitters and Broxton when from so-so to freaking dominant in the span of 24 hours.  Maybe the more appropriate analogy is that we saw the 2011 Jonathan Broxton on Saturday and the 2009 version (when he struck 114 in 76 innings) on Sunday.    Who said you can never go back?

Now, 10 pitches on Saturday and 14 more on Sunday are not enough of a sample size to really come to any conclusions (other than Jonathan is better when he throws harder – duh!), but it is enough to get this writer more than interested.  An effective, borderline dominant Broxton, gives the Royals tremendous flexibility going forward.   Especially early on when the team’s relievers have a curious tendency to be very good coming into a game and very bad once they try to pitch a second inning.

If Broxton continues to perform as he did yesterday, Ned Yost will have the confidence to go early and often to the pen (even more than he does now), knowing that he won’t need to save a Holland or Crow to back-up Broxton.    Given the number of young, talented arms in Omaha (I mean, seriously, name me a Royals’ bullpen in the last decade that Louis Coleman wouldn’t be the second or third best pitcher), should Dayton Moore find himself in contention in late June he could confidently move a bullpen arm or two to plug a hole somewhere else.   Should the Royals not be a serious contender by then, what would an effective Jonathan Broxton mean to someone like the Red Sox, for example?

Of course, what would an effective Jonathan Broxton mean to the 2013 Royals?  Let’s remember, Broxton will just be 29 years old next year.   How would it feel as a Royals’ fan to start 2013 with this same bullpen, but add Joakim Soria (I’m expecting the Royals to opt out of his contract, but resign him to a more favorable deal) at some point during that season?

Okay, okay, okay, I have gotten ahead of myself.  Broxton likely is unavailable for tonight’s game against Oakland and might well come out of the gate on Tuesday throwing 93 and all of this will just be pie in the sky.  Still, if Broxton starts stringing together velocity numbers like those posted on Sunday, his somewhat controversial $4 million deal will look like another shrewd Dayton Moore reclamation project.

Anybody having fun, yet?

xxx

 

A good writer creates an interesting topic, fleshes it out with solid research, expands on it with creativity and presents it with fluid prose.  Today, you get none of that.  NO SOUP FOR YOU!

I have an assortment of topics, which either are not quite robust enough to warrant a column on their own or which would require research and thought beyond my appetite.  

The Royals Made A Lot of Money Last Year

Forbes reported that the Kansas City Royals turned a $28.5 million profit last season, second only to the Cleveland Indians in all of baseball.  At best, that is an educated guess by Forbes, if not just a straight out shot in the dark.   I have no doubt that this revelation will stir up a bit of outrage among certain portions of the fanbase.

The truth is, however, that the Royals did not go cheap last year:  they went young.   If you believe David Glass and the team roughly broke even in past years with higher payrolls, then the Forbes’ number makes some sense.   It is nothing that should be used as an indictment of the Glass ownership, but simply a profitable portion of a very logical business cycle.

Now, the test is whether that $28.5 million (or whatever it actually was – my guess is something a little less than that) comes into play next off season or the season after that.  If Glass did make $28.5 million in 2011 and basically breaks even when the Royals’ payroll is around $70 million, then will a hopefully talented and contending Royals’ team in 2014 or 2015 be able to carry a payroll somewhere north of $80 million?   Basically, did David Glass bank the $28.5 million or, as my wife certainly would do, did he go on a bunch of really nice vacations and get four new cars…and a jet…and a boat?

Do Sabermetrics Undervalue Relief Pitchers?

In 2011, Craig Kimbrel had the highest WAR (according to Fangraphs) of any reliever in baseball:  3.2.   Thirty-eight starting pitchers posted an fWAR higher than Kimbrel’s.  In fact only seven relievers in the game would appear in the top 74 fWAR posted by pitchers in 2011.  One of those was the Royals’ Greg Holland, by the way.

Now, WAR has a lot to do with ‘showing up’.  A position player can have tremendous stats, but if he missed 25 games with an injury, his WAR will take a hit.   We may all disparage the ‘Replacement Player’, but not even Albert Pujols is better than Mr. Replacement if Albert is sitting on the bench.   When it comes to pitching, innings matter.

Jeff Francis was more valuable (in WAR terms) than any Royals’ relief pitcher last year based almost completely on the fact that Jeff ground his way through 183 innings of work:  nearly three times what any reliever pitched.  Now, the argument exists and I cannot really dispute the general theory, that a run in the third inning is really the same as a run in the ninth inning, but it sure does not feel that way.

I don’t think anyone would argue that a good starting pitcher is more valuable than a good reliever.   In fact, one can pretty effectively argue that an average starting pitcher is more valuable than a good reliever and, quite possibly, more valuable than even a great reliever.  However, WAR really tells us that a below average starting pitcher (Jeff Francis) is more valuable than almost every reliever in the game.

My current allotment of grey matter does not properly equip me with the ability to dive into the internal mechanizations of fWAR and debate that fact.   Nor does the fact that my gut disagrees with the above assessment invalidate the value of WAR as a statistic.   Baseball is certainly a game of numbers, but it is also a game of feel.

I know, I know, we are dancing our way into the world of intangibles where Jason Kendall and Dayton Moore sit amongst the clouds and lord over the baseball world, but there is something to it.   Baseball players and fans, as well, are conditioned that they will give up runs.  A starter gives up three runs and leaves the game tied after six innings and we applaud the effort.   The team feels good:  he gave them a chance to win, after all.   Everyone’s happy, until a reliever gives up a solo homer in the bottom of the 8th and the Royals lose.    Of course, if the starter had stranded on of those three runs in the fourth, the solo homer would not have triggered the loss, but in the clubhouse, the starter did his job and the reliever did not.

That run in the eighth inning may not be statistically different than a run in the fourth, but it certainly feels different and, I have to believe, it affects the team differently.  If your bullpen does that on a regular basis it can tremendously batter the collective psyche of the team.   Conversely, if your bullpen is truly a lock-down unit it can buoy that same team is a tremendously positive way.   

WAR may never truly love a good bullpen, but I have to believe that a good bullpen is more valuable than the sum of it’s WAR.

Catchers, Catchers, and More Catchers

Should Brayan Pena or Humberto Quintero every bat after the seventh inning? 

As Craig detailed yesterday, Quintero is a legendarily poor hitter and as I pointed out in the comments and on Twitter, Brayan Pena has spiraled into something that more closely resembles Quintero at the plate than Mauer.  The Royals are hoping for more offense out of Alcides Escobar (and I think they will get it), but one can only expect so much and the team may not get a whole lot of punch out of the second base position, either.   Given that, should the Royals take a big step outside of the box and plan on pinch-hitting for the catcher almost every night?

Now, I know this won’t really happen and I also admit that this theory falls back on the possibly flawed idea that a run in the eighth is more important than a run in the third, but let’s take a quick look anyway.

I don’t care what the score is, just plus or minus five runs either way (basically any situation short of a Mitch Maier getting ready to pitch scenario), but what if the Royals simply assumed that any time the catcher came up in the sixth inning or later, they would pinch-hit for him?   Pena starts, his turn comes up in the sixth, and Maier pinch hits.   Quintero enters the game, comes up in the eighth, and Bourgoeis pinch hits, but then what?

Ah, you need to carry three catchers.  To do that AND pinch hit for said catchers, the Royals would have to carry three catchers AND a five man bench.  That forces them into breaking camp with just six relievers, which I know sounds like disaster when the starting rotation is what it is.   Except, given there is really nothing to prevent Kansas City from pitching the hell out of Louis Coleman and Tim Collins for three weeks, then sending them to Omaha to pitch sparingly while Kelvin Herrera and Everett Teaford come to KC to throw for two or three weeks.

The whole concept is dicey, unconventional and truthfully won’t work for any extended period of time.  Not to mention that the Royals’ options for pinch hitters are only slightly more productive than letting Pena, Quintero and even Cody Clark hit.  Right there, is the real problem with virtually any scenario that heavily involves using the Kansas City bench players.

Option 2013

With Joakim Soria headed towards a second Tommy John procedure, the question of whether the Royals should pick up Soria’s $8 million 2013 option will be a recurring theme throughout the season.   Personally, that eight million looks a lot better put toward an Eric Hosmer contract or, for that matter, even an Alex Gordon extension.

Sure, the Royals are on the hook for Soria’s six million this year, but does knowing that they might have an extra eight million available next year grease the wheels to getting Gordon locked down and out of the way?  Let’s also keep in mind that no one is going to be throwing money at Soria next winter.   Unless Joakim gets offended by the Royals turning down his option, there is nothing that says he could not come back on a lesser deal.  It seems like a no-brainer at this point.  I feel bad for Soria, but the game is a business and the Royals cannot afford to gamble with eight million bucks.

xxx

 

The bullpen was one of the strengths of the 2011 Kansas City Royals and is perceived to be one again heading into 2012.  In fact, with the anticipation that the team’s five man starting rotation is likely to be average at best, the Royals have made moves to bolster their already strong relief corps in an effort to forge a ‘super bullpen’.

I am not going to get into the validity of whether a great bullpen can counterbalance a poor rotation.  I know a bad bullpen can wreck a good rotation, but whether it works the other way around is yet to be seen.   Suffice it to say, the Royals expect to have a top tier bullpen in 2012, which is logical given the fine level of performances they received from so many reliever last year.

Of course, relievers are among the most volatile creatures on the planet.   One day you are Brad Lidge, premier closer in baseball, and the next day your, ugh, Brad Lidge.  Any Royals fan that was around and aware in 1990 is keenly familiar with the spectacular disintegration of Mark Davis.   The list of lock down relievers who imploded is long and ugly and every team in baseball has a long one.   Add the factor of youth and the possibility for disappointing results from highly thought of bullpen arms becomes even more likely.

Kansas City, however, has a valuable commodity when it comes to overcoming the potential devastating volatility of a young bullpen:  a lot of arms.

Right now, the favorites to break camp in the pen are Joakim Soria, Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Jose Mijares, Aaron Crow and Luis Mendoza.   Based on what we have heard out of camp, I don’t know that you can make an argument on the first six (you can make an argument about the logic that leads to the first six and whether it is right or wrong, but you pretty much have to admit that those six names are at the top of a whiteboard in Dayton Moore’s office).  With Mendoza pitching well in camp to date (it is admittedly early), one gets the feeling that the Royals will want to keep him around, even if Paulino and Duffy win the final two rotation spots – which I think they will.

If that is the seven man pen, then the Royals will have these familiar names starting the year in Omaha:  Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins, Blake Wood, Everett Teaford, Jeremy Jeffress and Nathan Adcock.  

In Herrera, you have the organization’s closer of the future (or at least back of the bullpen fixture of the future, anyway).   Possessing the best fastball in camp, the 21 year old would have been a lock to make virtually any bullpen of the past ten years. 

While Wood is something of a whipping boy amongst Royals fans, he did throw 69.2 pretty decent major league innings in his second season.  He also cut his home run allowed rate in half and upped his strikeouts per nine innings to 8.0 from 5.6 the year before, and did so without elevating his walk rate (which is still too high).    Blake is no star, but he has gone from THE 8th inning guy in 2010 to a pitcher who probably won’t make the club in 2012 while improving his game.

Last spring, Tim Collins was the darling of camp.  He was a strikeout machine in the minors and Tim got off to a quick start in the majors only to be undone by spotty (at best) control.   Still, Collins threw 67 innings last year, struck out 60 and allowed just 52 hits.   Early on this spring, he is showing much better ability to consistently throw strikes and, wait for it, he is lefthanded.  Like Wood and Herrera, he would have been a lock to make this team in most any other year – hell, he WAS a lock just last year.

While it is possible that Everett Teaford, another lefty, will start if sent back to Omaha, his big league future is probably as a reliever.  In 2011, Teaford appeared in 23 games out of the pen, started 3 more and basically did everything you could ask.    That is not enough to make this year’s bullpen.

There are four pitchers with experience (save for Herrera, who has the best arm of the bunch), who the Royals can draw on and barely miss a beat.

Broxton not healthy?  No problem, pull up Herrera or Wood.   Mijares not worth the trouble?  Go to Collins or Teaford. One can create quite a doomsday scenario and still have a hard time getting this bullpen down to average. 

Let’s say Joakim Soria is ineffective and Jonathan Broxton never healthy:  the Royals’ closer would become Greg Holland, with Aaron Crow and Kelvin Herrera setting him up.   At the same time, let’s say the league figures Louis Coleman out and Jose Mijares is a disaster.   Enter Tim Collins and Blake Wood.   That may make you a little nervous, but remember we are talking about sixth and seventh inning guys at this point.   Simultaneously, Luis Mendoza reverts to pre-2010 form or has to go into the rotation.   The Royals can call upon Everett Teaford (who might be a better options as the long man anyway).

All of the above could happen and the Royals would still have Nathan Adcock in Omaha, who frankly wasn’t bad in 2011 and probably will be better in 2012.   They also have an electric arm down there in Jeremy Jeffress.   Like many, I am not sure Jeffress will ever ‘figure it out’, but if you have to replace half your bullpen before you resort to calling up a guy who can throw 100 mph, that is pretty nice situation to be in.

All that and we have not mentioned any of the non-roster guys like lefties Tommy Hottovy and Francisley Bueno, the highly thought of Brandon Sisk (yes, another lefty) or the ‘other guy’ in the Melky Cabrera trade:  Ryan Verdugo.   Another lefty, Verdugo is a guy who would have gotten a serious look when the Royals were stocking their bullpen with the Jamey Wrights of the world.  Now, he has zero shot at making this team.

There are few real failsafes in the world, much less in baseball and certainly not when it comes to bullpens, but the 2012 Kansas City Royals’ group comes pretty close.   Depending on who is healthy and who is effective, they may not be great, but are almost certain to be good and, at the very worst, likely to be no worse than above average.

xxx

 

500 Innings

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In 2011, the Kansas City Royals’ bullpen threw 508 combined innings.   That number was the eighth highest in all of baseball (Baltimore led the way with 565 innings, the Rays pitched the fewest with just 391).   Going into 2012, most people would assume, correctly I believe, that this year’s pen will likely throw a similar number of innings.

As good as the bullpen was in 2011 and is likely to be in 2012, the less Ned Yost needs to use the pen the better.   That is one of the most obvious statements in baseball and the reason that an average starting pitcher makes way more than an average outfielder and, even more so, the reason horrible starting pitchers get multiple chances.

Five hundred innings is a load no matter how you slice it.   A seven man pen has to average over 71 innings per pitcher to reach the 500 mark:  that is just not going to happen.   The Royals, as will every other team, will use more than seven relievers in 2012 no matter if they need 500 innings or 400 innings of relief work.   Still, if the starters can go just one out farther than last year in every game (one freaking out), that translates into 54 fewer innings the bullpen will have to pitch.   That translates into just under 65 innings per man in a seven man pen.

Last season, Joakim Soria, Blake Wood, Tim Collins, Louis Coleman, Greg Holland and Aaron Crow all pitched at least 60 innings out of the pen.    Combined they threw 378 total innings and that was with Wood, Holland and Coleman all spending some time in Omaha.

Projecting forward to 2012, one would have to think that a combination of Soria, Jonathan Broxton, Holland and Coleman will provide a minimum of 250 innings of work.   The Royals would be halfway to 500 with just their best (theoretically) four relievers.   When you have a roster where you are four deep in your bullpen before you have mentioned Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera, and two guys (Wood and Collins) who threw almost 70 innings a piece for you in 2011, that is a pretty sweet situation.   It makes 500 innings seem pretty doable and gives one hope that a high percentage of those 500 innings will be quality appearances.

The missing Jose Mijares comes into play, as does valuable swingman Everett Teaford who could gobble up innings in big chunks and do so more effectively that Jimmy Gobble ever did.  (Sorry, too easy).    Also coming into play would be Luis Mendoza should the Royals opt to both keep him and not give him a rotation spot.   All that, and we have not even mentioned non-roster invitees (seems like one always makes the bullpen to start the season, doesn’t it?) or any of the talented minor league arms still populating the AAA and AA bullpens. 

The Royals will likely be demanding a ton of relief innings this season.    Going with a seven man pen, as Ned Yost mentioned yesterday, will require some shuffling of tired arms to the minors throughout the season.   Other than the top four guys mentioned above, I can see almost every pitcher spending some time in Omaha (mostly watching) as the team keeps the bullpen fresh throughout the summer and it would have nothing to do with how effective they are.

The good news is that Kansas City has the arms to just about flat-out abuse the bullpen and still enjoy effective relief pitching for the entire 2012 season.   To be honest, I am not sure the model of a suspect starting rotation being overcome by a dominating bullpen is one that leads to true contention, but the Royals are more than stocked to give a go.

xxx

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well said, Mauer.

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

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

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

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

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

Awesome.

We all know that 2011 was not a vintage Joakim Soria campaign.   He blew seven saves, one more than in the two previous seasons combined.   Soria surrendered two runs or more in seven different outings in 2011:  again one more than in the two previous seasons combined.   Strikeouts were down, walks were up and home runs (1.04/9) were dramatically higher than at any time in his career.  To be fair, a home run rate that was nearly double his previous career average means that Soria gave up two more home runs than in 2008 or 2009, so let’s not read just a whole lot into that number.

 In a season that spawned high hopes for many players and saw several maligned acquisitions come through as only Dayton Moore could have imagined, Soria was one of the few dark clouds (which is kind of a funny thing to say when discussing a team that lost 90+ games…again).     The Royals’ closer’s issues were discussed by our own Craig Brown and by Jeff Zimmerman just a few weeks ago. 

Truth is, Joakim Soria had a very similar year to 2011 back in 2008.  Then, however, aided by an unsustainable .207 BABIP, Soria saved 42 games and sported a 1.60 ERA (against a 3.62 xFIP).  Fast forward to 2011, change the BABIP to .312 and you have the worst season of Joakim’s career.   Again, though, his xFIP was actually lower than in 2008 (3.38).   With a little luck and a couple less home runs and Royals fans might not have had discussion after discussion regarding their closer.

That said, as both Craig and Jeff document in the links supplied above, things were different.   Soria was throwing a cutter, especially early in the year and it simply was not an effective pitch.  Given that the cutter became Soria’s weapon of choice in lieu of his curveball from the middle of 2010 through the first half of 2011 and given how poor a pitch that cutter turned out to be, the answer to Soria’s problems might be that simple.   Ditch the cutter, give the curve another try and get back to being the Soria of old.

Of course, that is easier said than done.  The curve was a horrible pitch for Soria in 2010.  He could not throw it for strikes and could not get the swing and miss when he did.   It was actually better in 2011, but by then Joakim had moved onto the cutter and was throwing the curve half as often as he had in past years.

It is odd, but for a guy who was among the best closers in the game for three straight seasons, Soria spent much of 2011 lost; searching for answers when he probably did not need to be asking any questions in the first place.   It happens:  the classic ‘outhink yourself’ maneuver.

The burning question, of course, is was 2011 just a dip in the road or the start of a career implosion.  Baseball has seen its share of closers seemingly overnight go from dominant to awful.   Any of us who lived through the Mark Davis nightmare can attest to that.   To that end, Soria was not consistently awful in 2011.   He had stretches of outstanding effectiveness interspersed with gut wrenching implosions, so there is a lot of evidence that Soria might well be dominant once again in 2012.

Thus we come to the burning question of the off-season:  to trade Soria or not to trade Soria? 

The contract has progressed from great to merely good and is no longer the bargaining chip it used to be.   The Royals have Soria under control through the 2014 season and a vintage Soria, no matter how good Greg Holland is, looks awfully good finishing out important games in 2013 and 2014.   Provided, of course, that the Royals HAVE the vintage version of Soria those two years and not a deteriorating shell of that guy.

Let’s be clear, you are not getting an established number two starter in exchange for Joakim Soria:  there is no precedent that should make anyone think any team gives that up for a closer.   The Royals might get some organization’s version of Mike Montgomery in return, but not two of those (as Dayton Moore reportedly asked the Yankees for at some point).  That’s your return, so start there if you want to debate whether the prudent move is to trade Soria.

That statement comes off as a ‘don’t trade Soria’ argument and I am not really in that camp.  I think there is a 20% chance that Joakim Soria’s days as an elite closer are over, so there is a risk going into 2012.   The argument that a closer is an uneccesary luxury on a non-contending team holds water and likely will apply to the Royals in 2012, but hopefully not after that.

Do you leverage the risk that Soria’s value might continue to decline against the risk that a prospect you trade for washes out?   The downside for the Royals is trading Soria, who remains effective for his new team, for a player or players who do not help Kansas City win in 2013 or 2014 and find yourself a closer away from the playoffs through the bulk of Eric Hosmer’s run with the Royals.

In my opinion, the Royals should stick with Soria, at least through July:  hoping he returns to dominant form and is either helping Kansas City stay in contention or jumping his trade value to a higher level.    There are a lot of teams that expect to contend that have less than solid closer situations right now.   Come July, if Greg Holland is still lights out and the Royals are not in the race, maybe then you pull the trigger and get more than a prospect, however good, in return.

xxx

 

Everett Teaford is a guy that in the past would have been penciled into the starting rotation while I hoped that he could harness his potential and help win games. Of course the past is a nightmare in baseball terms and it’s starting to look like there is hope on the horizon. In the 2012 version of the Royals Everett Teaford, who had a solid minor league career as a starting pitcher comes in as just another bullpen arm.

I’m not going to dismiss Teaford or his talents though. He was one of the most effective relief pitchers on the team in 2011. His 1.136 WHIP was only surpassed by Greg Holland while his 2.9 B/9 was matched by Holland and surpassed by Joakim Soria. His 5.7 k/9 rate was pretty pedestrian compared to the rest of the pen, but he countered that with a lowwer H/9 rate. On another team he may be considered a potential setup man. On this roster filled with bullpen arms, he’s just another guy.

Teaford brings more than a bullpen arm to the table, however. He has started 99 games in the minors and could be leaned on to start games for the Royals if he’s needed. While having a top flight #1 and #2 starter can propel a team, having depth is the next best thing. In a 162 game season, pitchers will get hurt, they will start to lose their tough and they will need to be replaced.

None of us are used to following a team in the pennant race, but it’s a different animal than a regular old losing season. Imagine this scenario: The Royals are holding a slim 1 game lead in September and are making a trip to 2nd place Detroit. Bruce Chen is scheduled to start game one but has a tweaked shoulder. These are must win games, and in the past there was nobody but scrubs waiting in the wings. This season, they could pull Teaford in to start, or Crow or someone quality from Omaha.

It’s these little things that combine to create one big thing. I don’t know if Everett Teaford can continue to pitch well for the Royals. He may spend the season in Omaha. He may never get a start. But he is a quality pitcher and one of many on the team. He’s flexible and can help the team out in a pinch. It’s something new, at least for the Royals. And who knows, he just may find himself starting one of the most important games of the season if the above scenario comes to fruition. I trust him a hell of a lot more than Eduardo Villacis. Don’t you?

 

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