Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Browsing Posts tagged Aaron Crow

The Royals have done their part to stay in the news on the true opening day of the NCAA Tournament (Michigan State, by the way, ended up winning my bracket – because I know that was what you all were waiting for).   Let’s just round up some of the goings on.

SALVADOR PEREZ

Yesterday I said not to panic and even today, we probably should not.  A torn meniscus is the cause for knee surgery for the Royals’ catcher of the present and future.   We have heard no firm timetable, but the absolute best case is four weeks and the worst case seems to be somewhere along the lines of eight weeks.  Add at least a week of rehab appearances, maybe two if Perez ends up taking closer to eight to get healthy and Kansas City is realistically looking at an early May return for Salvador.

Assuming my made up logic is anywhere close, I don’t think the Royals need to jump through any hoops to find a catcher to handle the bulk of the playing time.  Brayan Pena is sub-par behind the plate and Max Ramirez is something worse than that, but both have played in the majors and both can hit a little.   I would advocate laboring through the 23 games in April with those two as the catching tandem and hope Perez returns when the Yankees and Red Sox come to Kansas City in early May.

Now, if a veteran dropped in the Royals’ lap and was willing to play everyday for a month or so and then sit the bench the better part of the year for a million bucks (yeah, that’s right, Ivan Rodriguez is exactly who I am talking about) that would be great.  I think it is unlikely and certainly do not believe Dayton Moore should be trying to trade for such a player, but it does not hurt to keep an ear to the ground.

On a long-term note, this is not a bad knee injury and while anything regarding ‘knees’ and ‘catchers’ gets one nervous, Salvador has youth on his side.  Until something begins to tell us otherwise, I think the Royals can assume Perez will come back ready to assume the heavy workload they had planned for him when he signed the contract extension this spring.

SPEAKING OF CONTRACT EXTENSIONS

By now you have  all heard that shortstop Alcides Escobar has inked a four year contract extension that will pay him a cool million in 2012 and then three million per year each of the next three seasons.   The Royals also hold team options for 2016 ($5.25 million) and 2017 ($6.5 million) with a $500,000 buyout.

Now, if Escobar never hits, but continues to be an elite fielder, this guaranteed four years of this deal probably average out at about market rate.   However, if the shortstop Jesus does hit some or, let’s dream a little, hits decently, then this is a great deal for the Royals.   The downside is that Escobar’s bat gets even worse and his defense goes with it (see Berroa, Angel), but Kansas City has to take some leaps of faith and fix some costs for the future, while also hopefully securing talent with that fixed cost.

That is what the Escobar, Perez and to some extent Billy Butler’s extension of last year does.  Nothing about any of those deals is roster wrecking if they don’t pan out and maybe, in some small part, the combination of these helps grease the wheels of future, more important and more expensive, contracts.

ONE DOWN

One possible, albeit longshot contender for the starting rotation was sent to minor league camp yesterday:  Mike Montgomery.   After his struggles at AAA last year, the demotion of the Royals’ number one pitching prospect was no big surprise and certainly a very rational move.   The lefty pitches in Kansas City this year, it is just a question of when.   I put the over/under at July 5th.

Also going down was Wil Myers, Nathan Adcock and Ryan Verdugo.  I bring up the latter two only because they had very, very, very outside shots at making the bullpen.  Adcock will almost surely start in Omaha, by the way, and might be number one in line to get a call-up if an injury occurs early in the season.   For Myers the only question this spring was where he goes, Omaha or NW Arkansas?   Consensus seems to be the south, but I kind of have a hunch that maybe Omaha might be his destination, especially if Jarrod Dyson makes the big league roster.

SPEAKING OF THE ROTATION

Neither Aaron Crow or Felipe Paulino did a whole lot to help themselves last night, so the door is open today for Danny Duffy – dominant his first time out – to stake a deeper claim on the two open rotation positions.  I am and have been a ‘Duffy guy’ since he started out striking out just about everyone in Low A ball, so count me squarely in his camp when it comes to this battle.

If the Royals are hell bent on not losing Luis Mendoza (remember, he is out of options) than I really believe the proper move is Duffy and Paulino in the rotation, Mendoza and Crow in the bullpen.   Paulino has a nightmarish performance record as a reliever, so I don’t see the point of putting him back in that role.  If he continues to flounder through spring training and carries that into three or four April starts, then you pull Paulino out of the rotation and go to Mendoza, but I don’t think you make that move any sooner than that.

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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.

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The catchers and pitchers (well, all of them with working visas, anyway) have reported to camp in Surprise, Arizona and it won’t be too terribly long now before we have actual baseball games to evaluate and battles for roster spots will move from winter time speculation to spring time results.

While the Royals’ starting rotation is generally considered as one of the weakest units on the team, it is one that is still relatively set heading into spring ball.  Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen and Jonathan Sanchez are all locks to open the season in the rotation, while Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy are heavy favorites to be the fourth and fifth members of the group.

Ah, the fifth starter.  While it is often true that teams open the season with just four starters on their roster due to off-days early April, the Royals will have no such luxury this year.

Beginning with Opening Day in Anaheim versus the Angels on April 6th, Kansas City will play six straight games.   That means that a fifth starter will be needed on April 10th: day five of the season.   Assuming Luke Hochevar is the number one man, he will make his second start of 2012 on April 11th and the Royals will have an off-day on Thursday the 12th.   They then play six more games starting on Friday the 13th (Opening Day at the K).

Should the club choose to utilize off-days to get their top pitchers more starts – something I am not sure should or need to be done given this team lacks a true get-him-on-the-mound-as-much-as-possible guy at the front of the rotation – they could bring Hochevar back in the number five starter’s spot on April 16th.   Even then, however, the fifth starter would be needed the very next day.

Another off-day comes on Thursday, April 19th and provides the team an opportunity to bump the rotation again, bringing back Hochevar AND Chen (or whomever is the number two starter) on normal rest before having to go the fifth starter again.  Still, the respite is temporary as the schedule demans a fifth starter on April 24th.   After that, Kansas City embarks on a string of twenty games in twenty days and the five man rotation will be in full effect.

As we can see, this season’s schedule requires a fifth starter three times in the first 18 days.  Not only will the Royals be required to carry the fifth man from basically day one, but they will have little opportunity to use him in any role but as a starter.   Let’s say Danny Duffy is the fifth starter, he cannot pitch in relief in the first four games of the year, then starts game five and has to come back exactly one week later and then a week after that.   While there is extended rest between all of his starts, the period is not long enough for Ned Yost to comfortably insert Duffy into a game out of the pen in between.

Now, given that Duffy might have a bit of an inning’s limitation this year, having three starts by April 24th as compared to Hochevar’s five makes a lot of sense.    Duffy threw 147 innings between AAA and the Majors in 2011, so conventional baseball wisdom says he maxes out at 175 or so this year.     Chances are, Duffy doesn’t get much beyond that even without skipping starts, but having a couple less in April probably doesn’t hurt.

Of course, if you are talking innings limited guys, the Royals could give the five spot to Aaron Crow.   They could use the three early April starts as an extended look at what he might do as a starter, let Duffy get tuned up in Omaha and make a real decision about who they want to go with in late April.   Should he succeed as a starter, Crow will be under a real innings crunch, so any starts saved will be useful.

The third legitimate contender for this spot is the out of options Luis Mendoza.  It is hard to ignore what he did in the hit happy PCL last year, but equally hard to forget how truly, truly awful he was in the majors the year before.   Still, a good spring by Mendoza might intrigue the Royals enough (not to mention that both Dayton Moore and Ned Yost have expressed a fear of losing Luis without seeing what they’ve got) to go with him in the five spot. 

I am a huge advocate of Danny Duffy continuing his development in the major leagues.  I am not sure that the problems Danny encountered as a rookie can get solved by doing anything but pitching to major league hitters.   That said, a couple of tune-up starts in Omaha to start the year while the Royals figure out where they are going in early April would do little harm.  

It will be interesting to see how Kansas City handles the rotation battle this spring, but you now know one thing:  they will need a fifth starter immediately.    The luxury of saving the roster spot decision for later in April is not one the Royals enjoy this year.

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Who is Aaron Crow?  Who should Aaron Crow be?

It is possible that Crow really is the pitcher who was a top ten pick in 2008, went unsigned, and then was the Royals’ pick in 2009 at number twelve overall.   The guy who had top of the rotation potential and was projected to assume that role sooner rather than later.

It is also possible that Aaron Crow is a back of the bullpen power arm.   The guy we saw in the first half of 2011 who dominated in high leverage situations and earned a berth on the All-Star team.    A future closer with two dynamic plus pitches.

Of course, Aaron Crow could also be the player who was dismal enough in 2010 to be demoted from AA to A ball.  A pitcher who struggled to throw strikes and failed to get enough outs when he did.   It is possible he could be a two pitch starter who cannot master a third pitch.

What we do know about Aaron Crow is that he was an exciting and dominant setup man from April through July for the Royals.  For the season, he struck out more than one batter per inning, gave up less than one hit per inning,  walked a few too many (4.50 batters/9) and uncorked 9 wild pitches.   We also know that Crow nursed an injury for much of the latter half of the season and was used far less frequently, throwing 650 pitches before the All-Star Break and just 357 afterwards.   His average fastball velocity gradually decreased as the season wore:

 

Fastball Velocity - 2011

For the first half of 2011, Crow’s average four seam fastball sizzled in at 95.5 mph and opposing batters whiffed 6.5% of the time.   Post All-Star Break, Aaron’s four seamer was nearly two miles per hour slower and the whiff rate dropped all the way down to just 2.9%.

Despite the decrease in velocity, Crow’s slider still remained a devastating offering.  He threw it a third of the time prior to the break and induced a swing and miss on 25.8% of those pitches.   Despite a slower fastball in the second half (and slower slider for that matter), batters still missed on the slider 25.2% of the time post-break.   That is an encouraging sign if the goal is to have Crow revert back to starting as one would expect he would not throw as hard in that role.  Still having the ability to induce the swing and miss despite throwing a few miles per hour slower is a nice tool to have in the box.

Of course, the issue with Aaron Crow and starting really comes down to mastering a third pitch.   Before the break, only 43 (6.7%) of Crow’s 650 pitches were classified as something other than a fastball or slider.   According to the Pitch F/X data, those were 42 curve balls and 1 changeup.    After the break, 55 (15.4%) of Aaron’s 357 pitches were non-fastballs/sliders and all were classified as curves.

Now, most of the talk surrounding Crow has been the need to develop and master the changeup, so I am wondering if what Pitch F/X is calling a curve might really be more of a changeup?  Or maybe Crow has gone to a curve/slurve pitch in lieu of a changeup?  No matter what the pitch technically is, the ball comes in around 81 mph, breaks from right to left (pitcher’s perspective), down and away from a right handed batter.
Crow 3rd Pitch From Above

Crow 3rd Pitch Movement (Catcher's Perspective)

During the first half of the season, Crow had trouble throwing this pitch for strikes (42.9%) and almost never got a swing and miss (2.4% whiff rate).   In the second half, however, he was much more successful:  a 65% strike rate and 16.4% whiffs.

For whatever reason, despite his slider remaining effective and the curve/change being used more often and more effectively, Crow was not nearly the pitcher in the second half of the 2011 season as he was in the first half.  Now, he had soreness/tightness/fatigue issues and was used less often, not to mention that the league had enough film on him that they had made adjustments as well, so there are a lot of factors in play here.    Truth is, Crow was not awful in August and September, just not dominating and kind of got lost in the ascension of Greg Holland and Louis Coleman as go-to guys in the late innings.  In the scope of young pitchers finding their way in the major leagues, nothing happened to Crow in 2011 that is much different than has happened to hundreds of pitchers in the past.

Of course, and as with many of the young Royals, what happened in 2011 is far less important than what will happen in 2012.  The Royals’ plan for Crow this spring is to ‘give him a long look as a starter’ which makes some sense.  After all, teams seldom spend first round picks on set-up men or even closers for that matter, and blessed with an already deep bullpen, Kansas City can afford to sacrifice some of 2012 to give Crow that long, last look.

Best case, Crow continues to develop that third pitch to compliment his already good fastball and great slider, refines his control and builds his endurance (he did throw 130 innings in 2010) and the Royals find themselves with a number two or three starter ready to go full bore at the start of 2013, if not sooner.

Worst case, Crow flames out as a starter, is ineffective even as the number five guy in Omaha’s rotation and the Royals turn him back into a power reliever.   Sure, you hate to have used a high first round pick on a guy who is going to pitch 60 innings per year that are numbered lower than nine, but Crow could still be a valuable commodity in that role.   While WAR and other metrics really don’t value relievers much, especially non-closers, there is real value to those guys when your team is contending for a title. 

Obviously, Crow becomes a bonafide major league starter and while we can debate whether the Royals’ usage of Aaron in 2011 was wise, I think most of us agree that their plan to give him a chance to be that starter is the correct move this spring.   Barring some monsterous breakout this spring (who among us thought Crow had any chance of breaking camp with KC in 2011?), it would not surprise me to see Crow stay behind in Surprise doing extra instructional work before joining the Omaha rotation sometime in May.  

Whenever he joins the Omaha staff, what happens from there is really anyone’s guess.   I do believe, however, that come Opening Day 2013, Aaron Crow will be a member of the Kansas City Royals’ pitching staff.  I am just not sure whether it will be as starter or a reliever.

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While some might like Wins Above Replacement level (WAR) to be that magic ‘one stat’ that tells us which player is more valuable than another, it is not.  Brett Gardner is a fine player, but his fWAR (Fangraphs) was basically the same as that of Albert Pujols this season.  That does not mean that WAR is useless, just that it is not the ONLY stat when it comes to evaluating players.

That said, WAR is a very good tool.   For position players, it attempts to consolidate hitting, baserunning and fielding into a tidy little package that gives us a general idea of his overall value.   It is not a fail safe option when calculating team wins.  

In 2011, Kansas City compiled a total team fWAR of 39.1 and won 71 games.   Chicago had 40.3 total fWAR and won 79, while Cleveland totalled up just 30.1 fWAR yet won 80 games.  If you want to know how many fWAR your roster needs to contribute to get 94 wins, I can probably find you 15 different answers…in the last five years.   Like I said at the beginning, WAR (be it fWAR or bWAR or some other WAR…good god, y’all) is not the be all and end all of the statistical world.

Here is what I know, if you want to win the A.L. Central, you have to have more fWAR than the other four teams.    Detroit won 95 games the division in 2011 with an fWAR of 48.5 (8.2 better than anyone else).   Minnesota won in 2010 with 94 wins and a fWAR of 49.7 (6 better than Detroit and 6.7 better than Chicago).  Minnesota only won 87 games in 2009, but it was enough to take the Central and their 41.2 cumulative fWAR was 4 better than second place Detroit.

How many fWAR will it take to win the Central?  I don’t know.   How many will it take to win 92 games?  I don’t know.   What I do know, is that the Royals are almost certain to need more than last year’s 39.1.   If you take my approach of last week that Kansas City should not make any drastic off-season moves (unless someone drops a gem in their lap), then what are the possibilities for the current roster to improve on last year’s mark?

Let’s start with the position players, who provided 25.6 fWAR in 2011.   Alex Gordon (6.9), Melky Cabrera (4.2) and Jeff Francoeur (2.9) accounted for 14 of that total.   All three played everyday, Gordon and Cabrera set career high marks and Francoeur had his highest fWAR since 2007.   Kansas City also got 1.1 fWAR from Mitch Maier, Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain.   If you believe the Royals’ outfield will total 15.1 fWAR again next year, then I have some start-up tech company stock to sell you.

Almost universally, people think it is far more likely that Alex Gordon is more likely to sustain his 2011 performance than Melky Cabrera.   You can count me among them, although I readily admit there is not any real logical reason to have such a clear cut division on two players of basically similar age.   Kansas City can afford to have Melky falter, but they cannot make up for a big Gordon drop-off.   Simply put, if Alex Gordon is a 2.3 fWAR player next year, the Royals are going nowhere.   I don’t think he will drop that far, but I also cannot see Gordon, Cabrera, Francoeur and Cain posting 15.1 fWAR in 2012, either.

Let’s set the outfield aside for a moment and look at three other positions:  third, first and DH.   Billy Butler was the Royals’ everyday DH and provided 1.8 fWAR – the lowest total in three years.   Hosmer provided 1.6 fWAR which we will use to quantify the first base position.  (Without getting too crazy, we know that Ka’aihue provided no value at first – fWAR speaking – and Butler played there when one of the outfielder’s took a half day and DH’d – it’s not exact, but close enough for this rough review).   At third, the Royals got 0.7 fWAR from Moustakas and 0.5 from Wilson Betemit for a total of 1.2.  All told, these three positions contributed 4.6 fWAR last season.

Hosmer is, well he HAS TO BE, the real deal.   It seems as though the question is not ‘will Hosmer progress in 2012?’, but instead is ‘how much will he progress?’.     In addition, Moustakas seemed to ‘get it’ as the season wore on and while he is not a lock to improve, I would say the odds are decent that he will.   I would also expect improvement from Butler, who probably won’t spend the first three months of the season being put off about not getting to play first base.

Is it realistic to say the the outfielder, corner infielders and designated hitter can contribute the same 19.7 fWAR as they did in 2011?  Certainly, the contributions might be weighted more heavily to the infielders than the outfielders in 2012, but I can envision Hosmer, Moustakas, Butler making up the difference from the expected regression (hopefully minor) of the three everyday outfielders.

If so, then the Royals would be looking to Alcides Escobar (2.2 fWAR), the catchers (2.9 fWAR total in 2011) and second base (1.1 fWAR total) to hold the line.   Salvador Perez, who provided 1.4 fWAR himself, might be hard pressed to get to 2.9 in his first full season as a regular, but one can hope that Escobar might hit just a little more and that second base might add a little more as well (not exactly sure how, but we can hope).

At any rate, all of the above considered, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Royals’ position players could contribute close to their 2011 output.  If they do that, then the pitchers need to hold up their end of the bargain.   Wow!  I bet you didn’t see that coming did you?

In 2011, the Royals’ pitching staff contributed a pretty awful 13.5 fWAR.   Felipe Paulino and Jeff Francis each contributed 2.6, Luke Hochevar 2.3, Greg Holland 2.0 and Bruce Chen 1.7 (remember, throwing innings is big part of fWAR for starters and Chen threw just 155).   Joakim Soria chipped in 0.9 fWAR, the lowest of his career (his previous marks were 2.4, 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0).    Those pitchers right there get you to 12.1 of the 13.5 fWAR total.

Danny Duffy’s 0.6 is cancelled out by Sean O’Sullivans -0.5.   Kyle Davies, yes KYLE FREAKING DAVIES, provided 0.7 fWAR which was cancelled out by the negative contributions of Vin Mazzaro, Jesse Chavez and Robinson Tejeda.   WAR, in any form, really does not think much of relief pitchers – which points out how good Greg Holland was in 2011 – and as such, Louis Coleman gets a skinny 0.1, Aaron Crow 0.3 and Blake Wood 0.4.   I do believe that WAR undervalues the contributions of a relief pitcher, especially a non-closer, but that is a debate for another time.

Let’s get back to the starting rotation.   We pretty much know that Hochevar, Paulino and Duffy will be in the 2012 rotation.   Can they better their combined 5.5 fWAR?  To begin with, baseball history is full of young pitchers who are not very good as rookies and take a big step forward in year two.   I think Danny Duffy is likely to do the same.   I am not saying his going to become an ace, but it is reasonable (albeit hardly a sure thing) that he could become a 2.5 fWAR pitcher in 2012.   If Paulino can give the Royals another 2.5 fWAR and Hochevar finally, FINALLY, put it all together and become a 3.5 fWAR guy, the Royals could have 8.5 fWAR out of just three starters – that’s not horrible.  Problem is, that is just one win more than Francis, Paulino and Hochevar gave them last year.

Now what? 

Does bringing back Bruce Chen give you another two wins?  After that, can the number five spot, in combination with the spot starts and injury fill-ins from other starters, get you a ‘barely-head-above-water’ 0.5 fWAR?  You would certainly hope for better, but I am not sure logic will back us up on that one.  Let’s say that Kansas City does gleen 2.5 fWAR total out of the number four through eight starters.    Now, you are at 11 fWAR heading into the bullpen.

Can Joakim Soria bounce back?  If he can, Soria is probably good for 2.0 fWAR.   Then you have Greg Holland coming off a terrific year, Louis Coleman and Tim Collins (0.0 fWAR by the way) setting him up.   Combined, those three accounted for 2.1 fWAR in 2011, you have to get at least that much again in 2012.   Now, the Royals are at 15.1 fWAR out of their staff with the back of bullpen coming into play.   Basically, there was an entire negative win contributed by a bunch of arms last year, which is not uncommon, but it would be nice to avoid.   If the Royals would somehow not have the negative numbers and get another win out of Wood, Herrera, Crow (?) et.al. would that translate into a net gain of 2.0 fWAR?  Maybe….maybe just.

If the above scenario played out, Kansas City would have 17.1 fWAR from their pitchers and another 26 from the position players for a total of 43.1.   Would that translate into a division title?  That is hard to tell, but it almost certainly would get the Royals around or above .500, maybe even into the high 80′s in wins. 

In my opinion, getting an eight at the front of your win total and hoping for some luck and good breaks in 2012 is better than stretching to make a risky deal in a skinny off-season market.   I would rather the Royals shop for that one arm to put them over the top coming off an 84 win 2012 campaign than to do so now, coming off a 71 win season.

xxx

 

 

We’re getting closer to firing up the hot stove, so this seems to be a great time to look at the Royals contract obligations for the upcoming season.

Guaranteed Money
Billy Butler – $8 million
Jeff Francoeur – $6.75 million
Aaron Crow – $1.1 million

The Butler contract hits the second year arbitration escalator. And if that number seems hefty for a player with that kind of service time, remember he signed for less that he submitted to the Royals prior to the arbitration process last year. According to FanGraphs, Butler’s production was worth $8.1 million. And that was probably the least productive year of his last three. Still a good piece of business by GMDM, I say. Even if he clogs the bases. That number does not include what is thought to be a pro-rated signing bonus of $500k.

The Frenchy money is an estimate based on his two-year, $13.5 million extension.

The Crow deal is a leftover from his major league deal signed after the 2009 draft.

Options
Joakim Soria – $6 million ($750k buyout)

No-brainer. The option would have escalated to $6.5 million if he had become a starter. But he didn’t.

First Year Arbitration Eligible
Mitch Maier – $459k
Chris Getz – $443k
Aaron Laffey – $432k

Laffey, as I wrote earlier, is insurance. The deadline to offer contracts for the 2012 season is December 12. If GMDM isn’t able to bring in a couple of bullpen arms by then, Laffey will get tendered a contract. Simple as that. He could be gone before then if the Royals are super aggressive and need the room on the 40-man roster.

Maier would probably get around $650k, I imagine. That’s not too much for a fourth outfielder. Do the Royals want to dip into the prospect pool for the fourth guy? I don’t think so. They know what they have in Maier… A guy who shows up, works hard and doesn’t complain. (And when they’re short an arm, he can pitch!) If they’re really looking to save a few bucks, the could bring up David Lough. Clearly, they don’t think of him as anything more than a fourth outfielder at this point. I’d rather they spend a few hundred thousand more and keep Our Mitch around for another season.

And you know my opinion on Getz. There’s no reason for him to be tendered a contract. He’s a utility player without utility. The Royals picked up their 2012 utility guy when they grabbed Yamaico Navarro from the Red Sox. He may play with less GRIT, but he can play more positions.

Second Year Arbitration Eligible
Brayan Pena – $660k
Felipe Paulino – $790k
Luke Hochevar – $1.76 million

Pena is an interesting case. He stands to make around $800k next year, but has confirmed that he can’t play defense and the lone reason for him to be kept around – his OPB ability – has vanished. Manny Pina would be an adequate backup and the Royals have gone on the record saying they don’t think they need to have a veteran catcher on the roster. Besides, with new bench coach Chino Cadahia in the fold, there’s the catching experience right there. I don’t think Pena will be tendered a contract.

Paulino and Hochevar are no-doubters. MLB Trade Rumors has Paulino doubling his salary to around $1.6 million. Given he proved to be a durable and decent starter for the Royals, I can’t argue with that. Hochevar will get a nice raise as well. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million.

Third Year Arbitration Eligible
Alex Gordon – $1.4 million

This is where the Royals are going to have to reach for their pocketbooks. Gordon was worth $31 million on the open market based on his 2011 production. Obviously, he’s not going to get that kind of coin, but it just gives you some perspective at how good he was for the Royals last year. Domination.

Gordon lacks a solid track record and that’s kept his salary depressed as he enters his third go around on the arbitration wheel. It will continue to hurt him here, as he stands to get a raise somewhere around $5 million. That’s assuming the Royals don’t do the right thing and extend him.

Fourth Year Arbitration Eligible
Melky Cabrera – $1.25 million

Cast off from the Braves last year, the Melk-Man took a hefty pay cut to play for the Royals. He made $3.1 million in 2010. Look for him to bounce to the $4 million range.

Free Agents
Bruce Chen
Jeff Francis
Jason Kendall

Sigh… Another Kendall sighting. Last one. Promise.

Chen projects to be a Type B free agent which means the Royals could be in line for some compensation if they offer him arbitration. Last winter, Chen shopped for a two-year deal, but returned to the Royals when it was obvious he couldn’t find a taker. He’ll be looking for something similar this time around. And again, I think he will have some problem finding what he’s looking for. He’s proven himself, but as Ozzie Guillen so eloquently put it, it’s “Bruce F’n Chen.”

I think the Royals will offer Chen arbitration. At least, they should. If he accepts, the Royals have a serviceable starter for around $3.5 million. If he declines, they get a supplemental. Win-win.

Assuming Getz and Pena are non-tendered, and assuming Laffey sticks and Chen departs as a free agent, the Royals are somewhere in the range of $38 million for their guaranteed and arbitration contracts. Add another $7 million for the remaining 15 players filling out the roster (assuming each of the remaining players have less than three years of service time), and you have a current projected payroll of close to $45 million. Probably a little more because they will certainly have a couple of guys on the 25 man roster that aren’t currently in the picture.

Of course, this is all extremely preliminary. Trades will be made. It’s possible a free agent may be lured to KC. What this represents is a snapshot in time of where the Royals are with their payroll. I’ll revisit this from time to time this winter. It will be interesting to see how the off season payroll evolves.

In part 1 of this series, I looked at the offense and came to the conclusion that it’s not the teams biggest problem, but rather it’s their inability to prevent runs. In part 2 I looked at the defense and found it to be missing some pieces but again not a huge problem. That leaves us with the pitching. This isn’t really a shocking conclusion. We all knew it was leading us there, but I think it’s instructive and helpful to get there step-by-step. The pitching neatly breaks up into two distinct parts: starting and relief. Today we’ll focus on relief.

Here is a chart showing the Royal relieves ERA and the league rank for the past few years.

Year ERA AL Rank
2011 3.69 5th
2010 4.46 14th
2009 5.02 14th
2008 4.26 10th
2007 3.89 6th

The Royals have clearly had a contending level relief core this year, but history shows that it’s a fickle thing. One year you can have a great bullpen and the next year it can be putrid. There’s a number of reasons for this phenomenon. Bullpens have high turnover, small inning sample sizes can skew the numbers, more players means more possibility for injuries or other changes and pitching is just a fickle art.

With all of these different possibilities it’s hard to make any concrete conclusions on whether or not the Royals will continue to have a contention level relief corps.  However, there are some things that can help guide us. Primarily age and team control. Here is the list of the important relief pitchers this season for the Royals and the year that they become a free agent

Player Free Agency Season
Joakim Soria 2015
Blake Wood 2017
Tim Collins 2017
Aaron Crow 2017
Louis Coleman 2017
Nate Adcock 2017
Greg Holland 2017
Everett Teaford 2017
Jeremy Jeffress 2017

Why am I just now realizing that other than Joakim Soria (and Mitch Maier of course) every relief pitcher of note is a rookie this season? The chart should make it clear that the bullpen shouldn’t turnover much based on free agency. That doesn’t mean that injury, trade or a move to the starting rotation won’t change things, but based on the results from this season and the youth, we can for the near future rule out the bullpen as a major area where the Royals should focus in order to improve their ballclub to make it a contender.

Next time we’ll get into the heart of the matter and discuss the starting pitching, and more importantly how to fix it.

 

 

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.

Last night’s five run debacle in the bottom of the ninth brought back memories of some really, really bad Royals’ teams of the past.   Although charged with just one error in the inning, the Royals committed enough gaffes and bobbles to make one wonder if the ghost of Chip Ambres was not lurking somewhere near.

Let’s start at the beginning.  

After Melky Cabrera mashed a three run homer in the top of the ninth to give Kansas City a four run lead, Ned Yost opted to go with Aaron Crow instead of Joakim Soria to start the bottom of the inning.    Soria, who had not pitched since throwing 11 pitches on Sunday, was already warm when the decision was made to switch to Crow.  I can only assume that the primary driver behind this decision was that the bottom of the ninth was no longer a save situation.  

I did not like this move at the time (my wife will sign an affidavit stating such).    Crow jumped ahead of both Matt Joyce and Johnny Damon 0-2, but yielded ground ball singles to both.   Does Chris Getz get to Joyce’s ground ball?  Maybe, but more on that in a minute.

In comes Soria, entering a game in the middle of an inning for just the fourth time this season and just the second time since April.   Now, it should not matter to an expeirenced reliever when they come in, who is on and who is up.  In the convuloted world of closers and bullpen management, however, relievers seem to have all sorts of comfort zones and I am pretty sure the Royals were outside of Soria’s at this point.

Don’t get me wrong, going to Soria was the right move at this juncture.   The problem was that Yost should have stuck to his plan despite Cabrera’s home run and let Soria start the ninth inning (particularly considering Crow has been nursing a dead arm or sore shoulder or whatever we are calling it this week).  

Okay, Soria is in and promptly is tagged on a ‘double’ by Evan Longoria.  I note the ‘double’ in that Melky Cabrera, who had spent the ninth inning changeover yapping at some fans who had been razzing him, fielded the hit and threw to third instead of second.   Does Longoria go to second if the throw is headed that direction instead?  The angle on television I saw was not clear, but both Ryan Lefevbre and Frank White (two guys who make a living generally making excuses for the players) seemed to think that Cabrera threw to the wrong base and allowed Longoria to turn a single into a double.

The relevancy of that play immediately came to light when Ben Zobrist grounded out to second baseman Johnny Giavotella.  There are a lot of variables that come into play, but there was a chance that, had Longoria been standing on first this was a double play ball.   I don’t know, the defensive positioning, the pitch selection and likely Zobrist’s approach at the plate all are different given where Longoria is on the bases, but I do know that there is a much better chance to turn a double play if the runner is on first instead of second.

Next up is Casey Kotchman who grounds to Giavotella’s right and right into the play that, according to Lee Warren  is the most troublesome for the rookie second baseman.   Johnny bobbles the backhand, turns and jump throws to first to give Kotchman a hometown infield single.  Again, not sure Chris Getz does or does not make that play:  Chase Utley does and probably a fair portion of major league regulars at the position do as well.

After Soria strikes out B.J. Upton (easily one of the most dislikable players in the league), Sam Fuld triples into right center.   Fuld is fast and that ball was a triple from the beginning even with Jeff Francoeur fielding the caroom well and firing a strike to cut-off man Johnny Giavotella.

Now, Giavotella is young and just failed to make a play and, as you might expect, tries to make up for it.   His throw to third was good right up until the time that it hit the sliding Fuld’s foot.   The two good throws gave the Royals a slight, slight mind you, chance to throw out Fuld, but I’m pretty sure he’s safe regardless.   Let him have his triple and hope that Soria gets Kelly Shoppach and the Royals at least get to play more baseball.

At any rate, here is a question that I don’t have the answer to.   Where was Joakim Soria in all of this?  Obviously, he would have been moving to back up home as soon as Fuld hit the ball, but once the play started heading towards third, should Joakim have been up the line to back up an errant throw to that base?

I will be honest in that one replay of what happened was enough for me to turn off the television before seeing if I could locate Soria on any of the replay angles.   I do know that in the bottom of the eighth, in a similar situation, Greg Holland could be seen busting his tail up from behind home up to third to back up a possible play there.   Again, not so much a criticism as a question and, honestly, maybe not even a relevant one.

At any rate, it was simply a horrific display of baseball in the bottom of the ninth, but these sorts of innings even happen to good teams sometimes and to young teams more often.  The latter, of course, is what the Royals are:  young.

Ned Yost could have inserted Chris Getz into the game for defense in the ninth, but that does not do Johnny Giavotella any good in 2012.   I know, a lot of you are tired of playing for next week or next year or the year after that, but the Royals need Giavotella to learn what he can and cannot do and when he should and should not do it.     That is what this seven week experience is all about for both him and Salvador Perez:  getting used to making big league decisions in the big leagues.

Let’s face it, with the possible change of one outfield position, last night’s lineup is going to be the 2012 lineup and could very well be the 2013 lineup as well. They are going to have some ugly innings out there.   That they do post a stinker more often than we would like is not an indictment of the lineup or, dare we say it, The Process.

Last night sucked and there might be others like it as the Royals play out the string in 2011, but I can live with that if this same group or something close to it makes the move from ‘young and promising’ to ‘youthful and good’ by next year.

On to the pitchers…

We know the starters have, taken as a whole, been horrible. And we know the bullpen has been one of the strengths of this team. I don’t know how the rotation can improved in the second half. Aside from Danny Duffy, these guys pretty much are who we thought they were. Which is not good.

The bullpen, on the other hand, has overachieved. Many of the relievers have outperformed their xFIP and have incredible batting averages on balls in play and even more incredible strand rates. That points to the volatility of the bullpen. It’s still a strength of this team, but I’m not certain it will be as strong in the second half.

One area where you notice the chasm is in strikeouts. The Royals starters couldn’t pitch their way out of a paper bag. (When I talk about the “starters,” know that I’m excluding Duffy. He’s the Chosen One adrift in a sea of batting practice pitchers.) Meanwhile, the bullpen is full of flame throwers who have made missing bats a habit. There may be some regression to the bullpen mean in the second half, but the strikeouts will cushion the blow.

Luke Hochevar
2.9 BB/9, 4.6 SO/9, 5.46 ERA, 4.22 xFIP
0.6 WAR

Key Stat: Allowing opponents to hit .300/.379/.461 with runners on base.

I don’t know if it’s fair to call Hochevar “frustrating.” That would imply we have expectations that he could actually be… good.

Instead, we’re teased with a pitcher who retires three or six or nine batters in a row and then implodes in a spectacular fashion. Read that key stat again… there’s something happening when Hochevar pitches from the stretch. Even more frustrating, when runners reach base, Hochevar slows to the game to a speed that resembles Billy Butler running the 100 yard dash… Stand. Still.

I read somewhere that the KC Star’s Sam Mellinger thought Hochevar is a victim of heightened expectations that come with being the team’s Opening Day (read, number one) starter. I just can’t buy into this theory. Mainly because I haven’t thought about Hochevar as the Opening Day starter since… Opening Day. I mean, even Hochevar has to know he was the “number one” starter only because there wasn’t anyone else.

Grade: D

Jeff Francis
1.7 BB/9, 4.4 SO/9, 4.60 ERA, 4.01 xFIP
1.8 WAR

Key Stat: His average fastball is 85 mph.

Francis was always one of the softer throwers in the game, but he’s lost a couple mph off his alleged fastball since returning from shoulder surgery. Having said that, he’s compensating by featuring the best control of his career. The issue with Francis – and it will always be an issue – is that when he catches too much of the plate, it’s easy for opposing batters to make solid contact. His line drive rate hovers around 20% and his BABIP is always north of .300, meaning his WHIP will always be elevated, even though his walks are under control.

Despite the warts, he’s having a pretty decent season.

Grade: B-

Bruce Chen
3.0 BB/9, 5.6 SO/9, 3.26 ERA, 4.37 xFIP
0.7 WAR

Key Stat: Chen has a 76.5% strand rate.

If you’re looking for a reason for Chen’s solid ERA, look no further than his strand rate. It’s about three percentage points better than his career rate. If he regresses to the mean, the second half could be a bit bumpy, but given the way he’s turned his career around, I’m not certain I would bet against him.

Bringing Chen back for 2011 was a good piece of business by Dayton Moore.

Grade: B

Kyle Davies
4.0 BB/9, 6.3 SO/9, 7.74 ERA, 4.78 xFIP
0.2 WAR

Key Stat: Has thrown three quality starts in 11 overall starts. The Royals have lost all three of those games.

Dreadful.

Grade: F

Sean O’Sullivan
4.4 BB/9, 3.0 SO/9, 6.92 ERA, 5.59 xFIP
-0.5 WAR

Key Stat: His 0.69 SO/BB ratio is the worst rate among pitchers who have started more than five games this season.

Double dreadful.

Grade: F

Danny Duffy
4.3 BB/9, 7.3 SO/9, 4.85 ERA, 4.20 xFIP
0.0 WAR

Key Stat:

Duffy is just a few adjustments away from moving to the front of the rotation. Really. It all comes down to location and an economy of pitches. These are things he can adjust. The successes have been there… there will be more in the near future.

Grade: C

Aaron Crow
4.2 BB/9, 9.1 SO/9, 2.08 ERA, 3.15 xFIP
0.5 WAR

Your 2011 All-Star!

There’s going to be a ton of talk over the next couple of months about moving Crow into the rotation. Personally, I’m on the record saying that everyone from the bullpen should be given a shot at starting. Seriously, the rotation is dreadful so something needs to be done.

Now, having said that, I don’t think that Crow will ever transition back to the rotation. Part of my reasoning has to do with his performance this season. He’s walking too many guys to be a middle of the rotation starter. Also, his success this year is built around an unsustainable 90% strand rate. Then, there’s also his track record from the minors. Don’t forget, he was demoted as a starter after getting raked to the tune of a 5.66 ERA in Double-A. He followed that with a 5.93 ERA in Single-A. Yikes.

Crow seems to have found his groove as a reliever and has emerged as a dependable set-up man. Why mess with a formula that’s been successful?

Grade: A-

Tim Collins
6.6 BB/9, 7.7 SO/9, 3.74 ERA, 4.86 xFIP
-0.1 WAR

Key Stat: Lefties are hitting .215/.381/.354 against Collins. Right handers are batting .193/.316/.301.

Collins is an enigma in more ways than one. To start, there’s his reverse split described above. Then, there’s the fact he’s walking a metric ton of batters. No pitcher who has thrown more than 30 innings has a walk rate higher than Collins.

Sadly, those walks are going to catch up with Collins. And that’s probably going to happen in the second half.

Grade: C+

Blake Wood
2.7 BB/9, 8.0 SO/9, 2.89 ERA, 3.08 xFIP
0.4 WAR

Key Stat: Wood is getting a swinging strike in 9.8% of all strikes thrown.

I don’t know how he’s doing it… With a fastball straighter than a piece of dried spaghetti. But Wood has become a dependable reliever out of the bullpen. It helps that his slider is much improved as well. Still, I can’t help but worry… I’m a Royals fan.

Grade: B+

Louis Coleman
4.3 BB/9, 10.9 SO/9, 2.01 ERA, 3.80 xFIP
0.0 WAR

Key Stat: Opponents are hitting .167/.280/.361 against Coleman.

Coleman is off to a great start and has been a versatile arm out of the pen for the club. He’s pitched multiple innings in 12 of his 27 appearances and has thrown anywhere from the sixth inning on. With the lead, in a tie game, or with the Royals down… Yost is using him in just about any situation.

His BABIP is .200 and his strand rate is a whopping 96%. There’s no way he can keep those numbers for the second half. His xFIP suggests he’s had luck on his side.

Grade: A-

Felipe Paulino
2.3 BB/9, 8.9 SO/9, 3.38 ERA, 3.24 xFIP
1.3 WAR

A revelation…

Interesting story… At the Baseball Prospectus event at the K last week, Jin Wong talked about how one of the things his job entails is to identify potential talent. Basically, looking at fringe players and deciding if there’s some upside there. If there is, and that player becomes available, they pounce. According to Wong, the club identified Paulino early in the year as a potential guy for them because he throws 95 mph (on average), strikes out a fair number of hitters and can keep the ball on the ground. So, when Paulino struggled in 18 appearances out of the pen for the Rockies, and they let him go, the Royals were ready.

Great story… You hope it’s true. Paulino has never had an ERA lower – or even close – to his xFIP, so he was always a guy with upside. Good for the Royals for grabbing him off the scrap heap when the Rockies were ready to let him go.

The Royals will need to find a few more gems in the rough like Paulino. Capable middle of the rotation guy.

Grade: B+

Nate Adcock
3.7 BB/9, 5.9 SO/9, 4.91 ERA, 4.11 xFIP
-0.1 WAR

Key Stat: Only 2 of 12 inherited runners have scored against Adcock.

Adcock was the Rule 5 pick and the Royals have been treating him with kid gloves. He completely disappears for extended stretches. Like right now… He last pitched on July 1.

I’d like for the Royals to use him a little more frequently, especially when their starters spit the bit in the early innings. Adcock isn’t doing exceptional, but when you consider he had never pitched above A-ball prior to this year, the Royals have to be pleased with the results.

Grade: C

Greg Holland
2.2 BB/9, 10.8 SO/9, 1.08 ERA, 2.35 xFIP
0.8 WAR

Key Stat: Only 60% of all plate appearances against Holland end with the ball in play.

Many felt Holland should have been in the bullpen at the start of the season. Many were correct. He’s been lights out. Like Crow and Coleman, his strand rate is north of 90%.

Easily, the best reliever in the Royals pen.

Grade: A

Vin Mazzaro
5.5 BB/9, 3.3 SO/9, 9.25 ERA, 5.97 xFIP
-0.1 WAR

Key Stat: The Royals sacrificial lamb.

It is the seminal moment of the 2011 season… Ned Yost leaving Mazzaro to get his brains beat in by the Indians, allowing 14 runs in 2.1 innings.

Grade: F

Jeremy Jeffress
6.5 BB/9, 7.6 SO/9, 4.70 ERA, 4.40 xFIP
0.0 WAR

Key Stat: A 1.50 WHIP in 15 innings of work.

Jeffress has the potential, but until he finds his control, it will remain potential. It’s not going so well in Omaha as he’s walking 6.6 per nine.

Grade: D+

Everett Teaford
3.4 BB/9, 4.0 SO/9, 2.30 ERA, 4.56 xFIP
-0.2 WAR

Key Stat: Has a 100% strand rate.

Teaford is pitching out of his mind. A .195 BABIP and that strand rate… That’s why his xFIP is over two runs higher than his ERA.

Grade: B

Joakim Soria
2.8 BB/9, 7.8 SO/9, 4.03 ERA, 3.57 xFIP
0.2 WAR

I maintained all along that Soria would be OK… It took a “demotion” for him to find his closer mojo. That, and losing one of his cut fastballs.

Whatever, it was an ugly start. Can’t deny that. He’s already matched his career high for home runs allowed (five) and is still down about two whiffs per inning on his strikeout rate. This serves as a cautionary tale that you should never, ever overvalue your closer. Unless his name is Mariano Riveria. Had the Royals dealt Soria last winter, his value would have been at it’s maximum. According to reports, the GMDM is still asking for everything under the sun when teams call inquiring about Soria.

Hopefully, he can pitch lights out in the second half and restore some of that trade value.

Grade: C

Over the break, Dayton Moore made the proclamation that the Royals were still in the race for the AL Central. I had no idea he was an outpatient at the Menninger Clinic. The bats are in decent shape and the bullpen is strong, but the starting pitching will continue to drag this team to what will be a top three pick in next year’s draft.

Aaron Crow has been a very useful pitcher for the Royals in 2011. True, he blew the game last night against the White Sox by allowing three runs in 1.2 innings and topped it off by balking in the wining run, besides that he’s been the definition of lights-out. He’s been fantastic in the setup role and even owned the closer role for a minute while Joakim Soria was demoted. His season hasn’t gone unnoticed as he was named to the 2011 All-Star team. It’s a great honor for a really good pitcher. It’s also completely asinine.
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I’m not knocking Aaron Crow. He’s done a marvelous job in the role he’s been given, however that role is a small one. He’s only pitched 41.1 innings, which is less than Felipe Paulino who the Royals acquired at the end of May. He’s appeared in 34 games, which is only 6 more than the rarely used Mitch Maier. Nobody is even considering those two as representatives for the Royals in Arizona and rightfully so. Yet if you look at their fWAR they have as good or better cases than Crow to be the team’s representative.
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fWAR
Felipe Paulino 1.2
Mitch Maier 0.4
Aaron Crow 0.4
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The All-Star roster is not created in a vacuum and is rarely representative of the best players of the season up to that point. Often, players are rewarded for popularity, longevity or merely by being a decent player on a terrible team. If the roster were created by selecting the best players at each position in the American League and relief pitchers were considered, then Aaron Crow would be a no-doubter. Unfortunately, that’s not even close to how the rosters are picked.
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First, there is a fan vote to decide the 9 starting position players. The primary goal of this vote is to market the All-Star game. Get people to care about who makes the team, let them tell you who they want to see and develop a series of sign-posts to remind people that the game is coming up and to keep them voting. Since the game is an exhibition game I have no problem with this process. The biggest problem is that MLB has allowed Fox and ESPN to dictate which teams get the most coverage in exchange for money. The networks obviously choose large-market teams and so their players are over-represented in any kind of fan vote. It’s not the fans who are to blame, it’s the short-sighted decision-makers at MLB who have allowed their brands to be manipulated by other parties.
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Next, the players, coaches and managers vote for 8 pitchers (five starters and three relievers) and 8 position players. In theory, allowing the people who actually play the game to vote on their peers is a nice inclusion. You’d think that the players would have a pretty good idea who deserves a spot in the All-Star game, but that doesn’t exactly seem to be the case. These players are extremely busy people and often are working when the rest of the teams are playing baseball, since, you know, they are baseball players too. So again, their primary source for learning about players they don’t see regularly is through major media outlets like ESPN. Their approach is typically more nuanced, but again relies primarily on legacy and popularity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s just the way it is.
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Then the manager of the All-Star team selects 8 players to fill out his roster. This is part politics, part marketing and part trying to actually win the game. At this point, the manager in conjunction with the Commissioner’s office has to make sure that every team is represented and fill needs on the team. It’s the first time in the process that anyone truly considers which player from each team is most deserving of a spot in the game. Meanwhile, the roster as it’s already constructed has 8 pitchers and 17 position players. With the possibility of extra-innings and the brief appearances of pitchers, it’s no surprise that the managers select a lot pitchers. When a team like the Royals needs to get a player on the roster and they have a very good reliever, then it’s an easy decision for the manager.
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Finally, there is one roster spot left and again the fans get to vote from a small selection of players deemed worthy of inclusion but who weren’t selected in the first three methods of roster creation. It’s actually the first time in the entire process where players are put to a vote who most deserve to be included on the All-Star team for their performance this season. But again, the fans vote on the winner and it boils down to a popularity contest.
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An almost non-existent part of this process is looking at which players have out-performed their peers and should represent their teams at the game. It seems to be at best a tertiary criteria for selection. So given the way the system works now, Aaron Crow was the obvious selection. However, he’s far from the most valuable player on the team. That distinction belongs to Alex Gordon, who has been the best left-fielder in the American League.
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Among left fielders in the American League, Alex Gordon is 1st in fWAR, 2nd in wOBA, 1st in OBP, 2nd in SLG. He’s been an excellent defender, an excellent hitter and he’s been doing it for the entire season. He’s been mercifully placed into the Final Vote where he will almost undoubtedly lose to a player from a better team in a larger market. Meanwhile, his teammate who hasn’t come any where near being as productive as he has (nor jerked around near as much), will be representing the Royals at the All-Star game.
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The worst part of this whole debacle is the fact that for the 4th year in the last 6 there will almost assuredly be no Royals in the box score of the All-Star game. In the modern “it counts now because we can’t have a tie for some reason in an exhibition game” All-Star game, pitchers are left on the bench in case of exta-innings. Barring some extraordinary scenario or a mandate from the Commissioner’s office to ensure every team’s representative makes it into the game, Crow will languish on the bench. That will leave the thousands of Royals fans feeling a bit empty after the game.
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As fans of one of the worst franchises in sports, we have few moments of pride in our team. The chance to see one of our own on the same field with the superstars is one of them. Watching Soria enter the game and saying “Hey, that’s our guy! Show ‘em what you got!” is a moment of true pride for Royals fans. Watching one of our own take the plate is a fuzzy memory that last took place in the 2004 when Ken Harvey went 0-for-1. The last time we got to stand up in our living rooms and cheer for a Royal getting a hit in the All-Star game was in 1989 when Bo Jackson won the game’s MVP award.
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I’m a huge fan of Aaron Crow. I’m proud of him for making the All-Star game and I sincerely hope he gets in the game and succeeds. I also hope that somehow Alex Gordon will win the Final Vote and earn his rightful spot amongst the games best players. Regardless, he’s a victim of being a part of a woeful franchise and a terrible selection process. A process, much like baseball itself that is stacked against the Kansas City Royals.
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It may seem trivial to care which Royal dons the All-Star jersey in Arizona next week, but it’s our team’s one moment to shine in the national spotlight. It’s the one moment where dad’s can nudge their kid and show him that there is a good reason to be a Royals fan. It’s a moment that will likely not come this year and a moment which will mean a bit less as the most deserving player is watching from his home in Kansas City and possibly pondering if he’d have been there if he was on a different team. It’s those thoughts that can combine to form a decision to walk when free agency presents itself. It’s those decisions which perpetuate a downward spiral for a franchise that hasn’t been relevant since the last time a Royal got a hit in the All-Star game 22 years ago.


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.
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