Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Browsing Posts tagged Joakim Soria

Some of you have no interest in trade rumors and just plain random speculation and it can get pretty overwhelming this time of year.   Between tweets and posts from reporters with some inside knowledge to those who simply speculate to just random comments  on various sites that suddenly come back around as legitimate rumors – assuming a rumor can ever be categorized as ‘legitimate’ – the whole July trade deadline can simply wear a person out.

That said, if you are one who disdains speculation or are just plain grumpy about the trade deadline and all that comes with it, then this is not the column for you.  

The Royals appear to be leaning towards not doing much at the deadline.   Dayton Moore, thus far anyway, has stuck to his guns about wanting near major league ready starting pitching in return for either Melky Cabrera or Jeff Francouer.    It is not a horrible idea as Cabrera has been outstanding and Francouer okay:  maybe somebody will panic and overpay.   While I would like to see what Lorenzo Cain can do as much as anyone, an outfield of Gordon-Cabrera-Francouer has proven quite capable this season.

The consensus I am getting from within the organization as well as outside of it is that ‘staying the course’ and ‘trusting The Process’ is still the plan.  Dayton Moore has publicly stated that expects to field a contending team made up of mostly homegrown players over the next few seasons.  If it all works as planned, then staying the course is exactly the way to go.   IF….

What about an alternative plan of action?  This might be labeled as bold, risky or just plain stupid and let me state that everything from here on out is mostly just pure speculation from the tortured caverns of this blogger’s mind.

Trade for Wandy Rodriguez

I have beat these horse a couple of times already and the idea was not even mine to begin with (I stole it from Rany and I’m not even sure he was the first to offer it up), but the truth is Rodriguez is better than any starter the Royals are sending to the mound right now and he will be better than anyone they send out in 2012 as well.  In the wildest expectations for Danny Duffy, Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi, Wandy would still be in the middle of a good Kansas City rotation in 2013.

The Astros want out from under the $26 million they owe Rodriguez and that number becomes $39 million if he is traded as a $13 million option for 2014 kicks in on any trade.  Now, in 2014, Wandy will be 36 years old and there exists a real probability that he will not be worth $13 million.    That season would also be the first where the Royals would really start to run into some serious salary concerns, so there is risk in making this move as it could end up hamstringing the organization from adding a piece or two to put them over the top.

That said, the price is reportedly low on Rodriguez for a team willing to take up the salary load and the Royals are pretty much not paying anyone anything this year and truthfully won’t have a big payroll in 2012 or 2013, either.  In addition, tell me the free agent starter that the Royals can get in the off-season that would be better than Wandy Rodriguez.

If the price tag was, say, David Lough and Chris Dwyer, I would make the trade.   If the Royals had to throw in one of the thirty or so live bullpen arm they have in the minors (Buddy Baumann or the like), I probably still make the deal.    Reading the rumors, I am not sure it would take this much to get Rodriguez.

One other cavaet, Rodriguez actually has a negative road split over his career – odd given that Houston is something of a launching pad.  Add that to your risk assessment.

Trade Joakim Soria

I don’t trust closers.   We have all seen them suddenly come apart and never get it back.   There was a time early this year where many thought that Soria was headed down the path of Mark Davis and so many others, but he has righted the ship and pitched like Joakim Soria as of late.   That said, I don’t trust closers.

Dayton Moore’s asking price for Soria was supposedly one major league starter and one near major league starter.   The Yankees, it was assumed, were asked to give up Ivan Nova and one of Dellin Betances or Manny Banuelos and balked.   I don’t blame them.   That said, Mariano Rivera will at some point in our lifetime stop pitching..or at least stop pitching effectively.   

What if the Royals lowered their asking price just a touch?  Say Ivan Nova and D.J. Mitchell instead?   Given that Greg Holland looks like a real life closer of the future to me and Aaron Crow might well be a closer right now and, by the way, the Royals can spend the rest of 2011 grooming one of them to be a closer and still rest comfortably in the AL Central, I make that deal.

Now, we could continue on with other trades.   I would try to move Jeff Francouer and Jeff Francis, maybe Mike Aviles (if he had value) or Chris Getz (if HE had value) or other ‘non-future’ parts of this team, but those are not necessarily BOLD moves.  

Ignoring the trades that might actually happen, would you trade Soria and trade for Rodriguez?

A guy in my fantasy baseball league sent me three e-mails last night, wanting to make some big trades to shake up the league.   He sent me a long list of position players and pitchers he was willing to trade and a similar list of players on my team he had interest in.    

If only it was so easy in real life.

A couple of texts back and forth and Dayton Moore could have Wilson Betemit shipped off for a promising AA arm.   Want some insurance up the middle next year?  Bam!  Three more texts and Mike Aviles and Bruce Chen are sent over in exchange for a, well, younger version of Mike Aviles with better defense.   Another text and Jeff Francouer is traded to a contender for a AAA starting pitcher just a tweak away from a major league rotation.  

Easy, right?

Well, we all know it is not that easy.   Even when we try to play general manager in a realistic fashion (which I do fairly often), it is hard to be truly realistic.  

Foremost, while major league baseball players are commodities, they are also people.   Guys that teams like and dislike, whose teammates like and dislike.  While winning games in 2011 may not be a big priority, especially to many of us waiting for The Process to mature, you can bet that the Royals who have to trudge out on the field everyday are more interested in winning that building for the future.     As a GM, are you sending a potentially damaging message by trading well-liked veterans like Chen and Francouer?   Money, personalties, relationships and perceptions have as much to do with making a major league baseball trade as the actual exchange of on-field talent.

That said, July is trading season or, as we have become accostumed to in Royals territory:  selling season.   While I am still working on what plan of action makes sense for Kansas City, let’s run down the list of players likely to get mentioned/rumored/theorized as tradeable commodities this month.

Joakim Soria – I think we are getting back to the point where we can refer to Soria as an elite closer, and one with an very team friendly contract.   A lot of teams would like to have Soria, but not many are willing to pay the price to acquire him.   Ever since Boston fleeced Seattle in the Heathcliff Slocumb trade, established closers have not brought back a tremendous booty in trades.   I ran an analysis on this the spring before last, came up with a reasonable three player package the Phillies might give up for Soria based upon trades of other closers (and there are not many) and was immediately shot down by Royals’ fans as not getting enought and by Phillies’ fans as asking for too much.   I have a hard time believing that actual GM conversations about Soria – if there are any – go much differently.   Besides, the thought of Montgomery-Duffy-Odorizzi handing off to Collins-Holland-Coleman-Crow handing off to Soria by the middle of 2012 still sounds pretty good to me.

Billy Butler – Yes, Billy is slow and yes, he doesn’t hit for enough power and yes, he is maybe marginally acceptable at first base, but he still can hit.   If Butler is not outright sulking about not playing the field, he is at least grumpy about the situation.   I am not sure if that helps his trade value (a team might believe that Butler will get hot at the plate if they live with him at first everyday) or hurts it (the old ‘bad attitude’ stamp).   No matter which, I don’t think the Royals have any intention of trading Butler.  

I doubt the organization has any more faith in Clint Robinson than they did in Kila Ka’aihue, Butler just signed a four year extension and, grumpy or not, still has an on-base percentage of .395.    Frankly, if Eric Hosmer is going to hit for power and Alex Gordon is going to be a near All-Star, isn’t it okay for Butler to hit .300 with 45 doubles and 15 home runs?

Perhaps the better question for Royals’ fans advocating a Butler trade.   If you see his faults, don’t you think other GM’s do, too?   Assuming that, what would YOU give up for Billy Butler.  My guess is that answer, once you put your Royals’ hat back on, keeps Billy in a Kansas City uniform this year.

Wilson Betemit – Pretty much forgot he existed, haven’t you?   Sadly, most major league GMs probably have as well.    Betemit has pop, is a swith-hitter and won’t turn 30 until this November.   In a pinch, you could play him at short, second or the outfield, which makes him somewhat attractive in the NL where you could live with him playing second for a couple of innings after using him to pinch hit.  

I think Betemit gets traded as the Royals basically don’t play him, he will be a free agent at the end of the season and Mike Aviles can easily take his spot on the bench next to Mitch Maier.   I don’t think the team gets much in return:  probably someone’s version of Sean O’Sullivan or Vin Mazarro who the Royals hope can emerge as the next Bruce Chen instead of the next O’Sullivan or Mazarro.

Mike Aviles – When left alone in one position, Aviles has shown he will hit major league pitching (see 2008 and 2010).   When bounced around the lineup and the infield, Aviles has shown bad defense and less offense (see 2011).   While he can play short, third and second, Mike does not appear to take well to the play here, play there, maybe not play at all role of a utility man.    Given that KC demoted him to Omaha to play Chris Getz everyday and is set on the left side with Moustakas and Escobar, a rival general manager is unlikely to offer much, if anything in return.

Melky Cabrera – You know, if we are all so certain that Alex Gordon turned the corner at age 27, why is it they we are less likely to believe so with 26 year old Melky?  As I have pointed out before, Cabrera is a lot more at-bats into his career, but he seems to be getting better as the year goes on as opposed to worse.   He might well fit better in the Royals’ 2012 outfield (in right, not center) than in any other team’s outfield.

Besides, there were rumblings of Cabrera being a bad influence on Robinson Cano in New York and the perception that he pretty much didn’t care in Atlanta last year.   True or not, those things will come up when trying to get a decent return for Cabrera.

Jeff Francouer – Jeff is right on his career numbers this season, but carries the reputation of being a great clubhouse guy and always playing hard.   A very good defender who could fit in a contender’s lineup against left-handed pitching and would certainly not disrupt the clubhouse, Francouer is the kind of guy who teams look for at the trade deadline.   What a contender is willing to give up, however, is a bigger question.   

In the past, Francouer has been traded for Ryan Church and Joaquin Arias.  

Bruce Chen – Ned Yost will likely quit if Dayton Moore trades Chen, so that might be the end of the discussion right there.   Seriously though, Chen has been Kansas City’s best pitcher this year, might have been last year and still had to sign a minor league deal back with KC to get a paying job this spring.   Good guy, who has reinvented himself into a legitimate major league starter, but for whom no rival GM is probably salivating over.

Jeff Francis – He has a track record of being a top line starter on a good baseball team, so a trade partner will view Francis as a guy with pennant run experience.   Currently, Jeff leads the league in hits allowed, which is not going to win you any Top 10 prospects in a trade, but he has some value as a relatively young (30) option who might get better the farther he gets away from injury.  

So, go ahead and put your gene

I have been on vacation since June 3rd: out of the country kind of  vacation and hence quite removed from the Royals.   While managing to check the box scores late at night and marginally keep up with roster moves, it was all pretty superficial stuff.   The night before leaving and a full week before Mike Moustakas got the call, I wrote this, so my internet persona remained somewhat topical.

While Craig and Nick carried the load of the MLB Draft, Moustakas and a four game sweep at home to the Twins, I reemerge to a reality where the Kansas City Royals are only six and one-half games out of first place.   What would you have said back in March if told that the Royals would be in that position in the middle of June?   Due to how this situation has transpired, most of us have passed through the euphoria of contending and back into the status quo of wait until next year.

Think about it this way:  since calling up Eric Hosmer, the Royals have gone 12-23 yet lost only two games in the standings.   Those two games, however, have certainly turned the tide (probably correctly) from ‘hey, we can win this!’ to ‘let’s not worry about wins and losses and get set to be somebody next year’.   Listen, I don’t have any idea where this team is going this year, but I am certain that the call-up of Moustakas signals Dayton Moore’s intention to at least be in and stay in the conversation, not in 2013, but instead in 2012.

To Close Or Not to Close

In the span of ten days, Joakim Soria surrendered the closer role, got and back and then notched two saves (one pretty, one not).   In between, Soria pitched five perfect innings, albeit with just one strikeout, but perfect nonetheless.

Alas, Aaron Crow’s career as a Royals’ closer came and went without an opportunity, which was probably good considering he has allowed three runs and four walks in his last five plus innings.    Probably just a little case of rookieitis, but Crow could be possible use a couple of low leverage stints to right the ship.

Right now, is the best pitcher in the Royals’ bullpen Greg Holland?

Rotation, rotation, rotation

What happens this year, next year and the year after that really pretty much comes down to the starting rotation, doesn’t it?

I thought Craig had a very interesting piece on Danny Duffy last week and one has to wonder if maybe a sub-par outing on Tuesday versus a bad Oakland lineup might signal the southpaw’s return to Omaha for a little more work.   I don’t have a big problem with Duffy continuing to grind here in the majors, but could certainly see the logic in return him to AAA as well.    Doing so would also ‘game’ Duffy’s service time as well, but Dayton Moore does not seem to be running the organization with that as a primary concern this year.

The interesting pick-up in the rotation is Felipe Paulino, who was not particularly good over the weekend, but has been quite solid thus far.   In the past, Paulino has had stretches of starts like this, so any expectations for him going forward need to be tempered, but he certainly has done enough to warrant staying in the rotation when Bruce Chen and Kyle Davies return.

With Chen and Davies beginning their rehab assignments, what does this rotation look like in a couple of weeks?   Chen obviously gets back in, probably at the expense of Vin Mazzaro.   Despite seven shutout innings yesterday, Mazzaro’s zero strikeouts versus five walks and a hit batter probably will spell another trip up I-29 (assuming it’s not flooded).

How about Davies?   Does he get back in the rotation and, if so, at who’s expense?

Fun With OBP

We’ll finish up with some ‘did you know?’ on-base information (and yes, I realize most of you actually DO know):

  • Second best OBP of a regular on the Royals?   Matt Treanor’s .361, trailing only Billy Butler.
  • Chris Getz has a better OBP than Jeff Francouer and trails that of Melky Cabrera by one point.
  • In his first three games Mike Moustakas,  not know for taking a walk, has three of them.
  • Not really an OBP factoid, but Eric Hosmer has grounded into just one less double play than Billy Butler.

Tell the truth, how excited are you to have Moustakas and Hosmer at the corners for the remainder of 2011?

Sean O’Sullivan remains Exhibit A as to why The Process cannot be fully trusted. How can you believe in an organization that sees the value in a pitcher of his caliber? Enough value that they traded one of their everyday players for him last year?

This is a question that has to be asked: What was Dayton Moore thinking when he decided he would like to add O’Sullivan to his team?

Remember, the Royals unloaded Alberto Callaspo to acquire O’Sullivan. The thinking at the time was someone needed to be moved because Mike Moustakas was tearing up the minors. To the Royals, Callaspo was the obvious candidate because he would be in line for a first year arbitration deal of $2.5 million (he signed for $2 million). The company line was, the more expensive the contract, the more difficult it would be to make a trade.

Here’s what GMDM had to say about O’Sullivan:

“We got a young pitcher we think can be part of our future.”

As my blogger brethren know from attending a couple of those behind the scenes events, GMDM specializes in speaking, yet saying nothing. That quote is quintessential Moore.

Callaspo had no future on this team. Solid hitter who made contact, but his defense was a serious liability. And the Royals figured with the young bats developing, they could jettison an older one who was below average with the glove. Can’t find fault with that. Besides, everyone in the universe knew the Royals number one priority as last year wound down was to get stronger up the middle defensively. Can’t fault the idea.

We can fault the execution. The fact is, by being “proactive” and unloading Callaspo before he became eligible for arbitration the Royals sold low and came away with a lemon of a pitcher.

On Thursday, O’Sullivan blamed his poor performance on introducing a change in his delivery where he shortened his stride. Apparently, he’s only tried this in one bullpen session. Wow. That’s a great idea… Change your delivery and try to get major league hitters, not to mention little leaguers like the Minnesota Twins, out. That’s probably not a way to be successful. And when you are “talent challenged” to start… It’s just not going to end well. If this was truly the case, I can’t believe that Bob McClure or Ned Yost didn’t notice and put a stop to it. If you want to work on mechanics during a game, there’s a place in Arizona in March…

I can’t speak to his change in mechanics, but the one thing I noticed from his outing was O’Sullivan was really missing his spots. Coach Treanor would set up inside, and he’d deliver several inches outside. Coach Treanor would call for a low pitch and it would be at the letters. And so on, and so on. Also, it just seemed that none of O’Sullivan’s called balls were close to the zone. Brooks Baseball confirms he was locating his pitches like a drunken blind man throwing darts.

Looks like he was getting squeezed a bit on the low strike, but he compensated for that by elevating several pitches. Not a good night.

We’re still going to get the postmortem that the Royals didn’t have anyone else to turn to for their rotation. Yes, we are aware the starting pitching is thin. Yes, we know injuries have played a factor. No, we don’t want to endure another O’Sullivan start.

– Good to see Joakim Soria enter in mop-up duty and pitch two effective innings. He needed just 19 pitches to get six outs and threw 15 strikes. One thing to note: He didn’t get a single batter to swing and miss at a pitch. Of his 15 strikes, six were called, three were fouled off and six were put in play for outs.

For those interested, he threw three curves. And he only threw those when he was ahead in the count. Two were put in play and one was fouled off. It was a good outing, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s still work to be done.

The first day of June and the fact we’re already a third of the way through the season seems like as good a time as any for a quick review of how the season has gone so far.

Thumbs up…

To Eric Hosmer. His recall energized the fanbase, even if it was only for a few games. With a line of .274/.314/.505 through his first 102 plate appearances, he’s doing just fine, thank you. He spent the first month plus of the season in Omaha, but with five home runs, he’s closing in on Jeff Francoeur and the team lead of nine. He’ll get there. And stay there. For years.

Thumbs down…

To Joakim Soria as the closer. It’s been dissected and deconstructed by every Royals site in the universe – including this one – so there’s no reason to rehash it here. Although I will say I don’t agree with the decision to demote him. I’m of the thought there is something physically wrong. And that’s with the manager saying he doesn’t know if it’s mechanics. (I’m working on process of elimination here of the possible issues. That, and a declining strikeout rate and doubling walk rate.) It’s not going to serve the Royals and Soria any purpose in having him throw a few innings in mop-up duty. He needs some rest and a mental break from the closing grind.

Thumbs up…

To Alex Gordon’s start. The month of April was his best month as a major leaguer. Through his first 27 games, he posted a line of .339/.395/.541. It was fun to watch.

Thumbs down…

To Alex Gordon’s slump. From May 3 to May 21, he went into a tailspin that had many of us mutter to ourselves about the Old Alex Gordon. He hit an anemic .169/.250/.262 which included several horrific plate appearances. It was vintage 2007 Gordon. That was a very bad year.

Thumbs up…

To Alex Gordon’s recovery and power surge. His on base percentage has stabilized for now, but the impressive thing is he’s found a home run stroke. On Tuesday, he blasted his fifth home run in his last nine games. The power was something that was missing from his hot start, so it’s good to see it’s return.

Thumbs down…

To the starting rotation as a whole. Yes, there have been some solid performances, but that’s been the exception, rather than the rule. Their starters ERA is a whopping 5.22, which is the highest in the AL and it’s not even close. They also don’t strike anyone out. Their 184 strikeouts as a staff is, again, the worst in the league. They’re the only rotation with fewer than 200 strikeouts.

Thumbs up…

To Danny Duffy. Yes, he’s struggled at times with command, but we can all see why he’s up in Kansas City well ahead of schedule. He’s struck out 14 batters in 15 innings, making him the Royals starter most likely to get three strikes on a hitter.

Thumbs down…

To Dayton Moore’s recent trades. Sean O’Sullivan’s starts make me want to skin baby seals and Vin Mazzaro’s relief appearance where he was allowed to get sodomized was the stuff of legend. O’Sullivan and his 3.0 SO/9 strikeout rate would be the lowest since Chien-Ming Wang finished with a 3.1 SO/9 back in 2006. I want to wholly buy into The Process (really, I do) but when the GM is actively acquiring pitchers like O’Sullivan and Mazzaro to round out a pitching staff, you have to wonder.

I’m almost certain the Royals will trot out the “they were the only pitchers available” defense. That was the same justification they used when they foisted the awfulness that was Yuniesky Betancourt. Sorry, it doesn’t work. Not every trade needs to be a home run. We only ask they don’t make history for being awful.

Thumbs up…

To the bullpen. For the most part, they have kept this team in games, which is why so many contests have gone extra innings. Their 3.92 bullpen ERA is close to league average and has them in the middle of the pack in the AL. The fact this happened with Soria struggling is nothing short of a miracle.

Thumbs down…

To John Lamb visiting Dr. Lewis Yocum. While the prospect of Tommy John surgery isn’t the end of the world – or a pitching career – it’s a cold reminder that The Process and our stocked minor league is no guarantee of future success.

Thumbs up…

To Jeff Francoeur and his late inning performances. He’s come to the plate 67 times from the seventh inning on and is hitting .346/.448/.577 with eight extra base hits and 10 walks. Several of those plate appearances have come in extremely high leverage situations.

He can still frustrate the hell out of me, expanding the strike zone at the most inopportune times, but he’s been much better than I thought he would be. Since we’re this far in the season, he can still go in the tank, but we’ll have fond memories of at least his first two months.

Thumbs down…

To Kila Ka’aihue’s performance. Come on, dude… As one of your biggest advocates, I took this personally. And now that Hosmer is here, you’ll probably never wear a Royals uniform again.

Thumbs up…

To Alcides Escobar’s defense. The guy is simply electric with the glove. Part of the fun of watching him play the field are the plays he makes on instinct. After being force fed the dreck that was the Yunigma, this is an extremely refreshing change.

Thumbs down…

To Alcides Escobar’s offense. A .258 on base percentage and 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio isn’t helping. I’m not asking for a world class bat, but this is crazy. His glove will only take him so far.

Thumbs up…

To the Royals base running game. They are much improved on the bases, giving away fewer outs as a team. Still, there are moments… But for the most part, they’re doing a good job.

Thumbs down…

To cancer. Nice tribute by the RoyalVision crew at Monday’s game honoring Splitt. He will be missed.

The biggest fear of people who claim to be anti-statistics is the idea that there will be no room for the human element in baseball — no strategic decisions, nothing based on the mental side of the game or the intangibles inherent in human players, or there will be some kind of robot making decisions based on human players.  It seems like an absurd notion, but that day arrived years ago.

One of the silliest accusations of people who say they don’t like statistics is that “the game isn’t played on a spread sheet”. A statement which is as condescending as it is obvious. However, it’s not the advanced-statistics crowd that needs the preaching, it’s the Major League mangers and general managers. It’s they who continually run this simple program on a loop:

IF I = 9

AND 4 > L > 0

THEN INSERT C

WHERE

I = INNING

L = LEAD

C = CLOSER

It’s almost astonishingly simple, this program. The only pieces of information needed are the inning and the difference in team scores. In a game that can be as complex as baseball, where there are millions of variables it’s amazing that managers continually rely on something so simple. With apologies to Occam and his razor, the simplest solutions aren’t always the best.

This solution has worked pretty well for the Royals for the past few seasons as the pitcher they used as their closer was one of, if not the best relief pitcher in baseball. Rare though, is the pitcher who can stay dominant for season after season. Short bursts of brilliance followed by mediocrity are far more common. At the time, nobody believes it will happen. Typically while in the moment, people tend to project the future based on the present. Few and far between were the analysts and fans predicting the downfall of Eric Gagne when he was mowing down hitters in the 9th inning for the Dodgers. It’s just as impossible to find anyone who predicted a fall to earth by the suddenly human Joakim Soria. But that’s exactly what has transpired.

Speculation as to the reason for Soria’s sudden fall from grace are numerous and rampant. The most significant seems to be his lack of curveball command. His once devastating, knee-buckling curve ball is now a shell of it’s former self, mirroring in some ways the ice-cold Mexican saves leader himself.

Once upon a time in the not so distant past, when Soria would have his opponent behind in an 0-2 count, everyone in the ballpark, including the batter knew that the curve was coming. 12-6 didn’t do justice to just how much movement and how little speed was on the pitch. It froze hitters and left them shaking their heads. It made spectators turn to each other and mutter “wow”. Now, it’s barely thrown and when it is, it’s rarely in the strike zone. The old curve would seemingly drop out of a batters chin and be perfectly placed in the catcher’s mitt, giving the umpire an easy “STRIKE!” call.

But for whatever reason, that pitch isn’t effective now and neither is Joakim Soria. Nobody should be ready to proclaim the end of a still young career or even a still young season. Pitchers go through periods of struggle and many recover. It seems obvious that at the very least he shouldn’t be in the game during important, potentially-game-changing moments.

We  now return to our simple program from above. There’s very little room in it for adjustment, for as long as Joakim Soria is designated the “closer” then he is brought into the game in the save situations. It’s the kind of closed-minded thinking that the stat crowd despises and it’s the managing to some in-human equation that the anti-stats crowd decries.

Managers see only the opportunity to get a (S) in the boxscore next to his most valuable reliever’s name. The general manager sees merely an opportunity to prove to the next free-agent closer that joining his team will get the closer more saves on his resume so he can put more money in the bank. It’s a scenario which is as ironic as it is maddening. Baseball managers create “closers” by giving them a big number in the spreadsheet column labeled “save” so that the closer can earn more money and so that the general manager can go out on the market and pay exponentially more for some other guy who has received the same treatment from another team.

Luckily, baseball in general is still a merit based game so while closers may command an over-inflated price they typically are the best relief pitchers. But there is little doubt that being tagged with the term closer for a general manager is tantamount to a brand-name clothing designer to a teenager. In many  cases that tag denotes a higher quality, but make no mistake that tag is what creates the value.

For teams that not only can afford to pay the higher prices commanded by closers, but actually set the market for them by paying extraordinary prices there isn’t near as much risk. But for small-market teams like the Royals, trying to play the same game as the large-market teams is a game that’s rigged against them.

Teams like the Royals have to make up the difference in revenue with smarts. They aren’t afforded the luxury that the born-wealthy teams like those in New York, Los Angeles and Boston are. They have to work harder and smarter to over-come their inherent deficiencies. Being outside the scrutiny of major market teams though does provide some benefits.

Nobody is forcing them to play the same game the Yankees and Red Sox play. There isn’t anything in any rule book saying that every team must do things in a certain way. The rules in regards to roster construction and player use in fact are extremely open and free. Yet the Royals, like every other team in baseball just do what every other team does. Change comes glacially. The Royals, in an attempt to do things exactly like every other team in baseball, have handed wins over to their opponents.

Just looking at the statistics from this year, the Royals have been putting their worst relief pitcher in the most important situations. They’ve taken leads into the 9th inning on a number of occasions and looked to the bullpen have essentially said “bring out our least effective guy and see what happens”. At this point it’s bordering on insanity, but because this is what baseball teams do the Royals can continue to do it without fear of criticism. Because how can a team be criticized for doing what everyone else does? It’s not those that melt into the crowd who get noticed, but those that stand out.

So the Royals choose to try and hide behind their baseball brethren in terms of relief pitcher usage and those actions have cost them wins.  Of course there is more statistical information than what is at hand this year and Joakim Soria hasn’t just been a good relief pitcher, he’s been one of the best for the past three seasons. So I’m going to assume that when manager Ned Yost makes the call to the pen in the 9th he’s actually thinking “send out one of the best relief pitchers in the past few years who has struggled this season and let’s hope he’s figured it out.”

It’s perfectly acceptable to do that for a time, but eventually it had to end. That end came yesterday as the Royals replaced Joakim Soria with Aaron Crow in the role of closer. But it didn’t have to come to that. Had they just avoided using the term closer they could have put both pitchers in situations where they had a better opportunity to succeed. As one out-performs the other, he gets shifted towards more important situations. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be the need for an embarrassing demotion from the invented role of closer.

What’s the real cost to the Royals of ignoring “roles”? They would be a less attractive spot for the high-profile free-agent closers? Is that something the Royals should really be concerned about? We’ve already established that high-profile closers command too much money in free-agency and the Royals have to be smarter than that. If they were to change the way they use their bullpen, they could possibly be a MORE attractive place to high quality relievers who are not tagged closers — guys who will get a chance to get some saves on their resume if they are pitching well — guys who are failing as starters, but still have the stuff to be decent bullpen guys. In other words, guys that are almost certainly under-valued in the baseball market. The Royals, by doing something different could position themselves into a destination for exactly the kind of players they need to acquire and at likely lower than market rates.

Yet the Royals persist in following the leader in a game that’s stacked against them. They say that if you’re at a poker table and you can’t identify the sucker, then it’s you. My guess is the Royals look around baseball and think “huh, not a sucker to be seen.”


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.

It’s time for me to throw my hat into the ring, joining those who are worried about Joakim Soria.

After Tuesday’s debacle, I’m not just worried… I’m frightened.

For starters, Soria is falling behind in the count early. Baseball-Reference only charts the extremes, but even these numbers are staggering. Here is Soria’s percentage of plate appearances that begin with an 0-2 count since his rookie year:

2007 – 25%
2008 – 32%
2009 – 34%
2010 – 35%
2011 – 11%

Whoa. A full third of all plate appearances last year against Soria started with an 0-2 count. This year, he’s not just down… He’s waaaay down.

Now look at the percentage of plate appearances that start out 3-0:

2007 – 3%
2008 – 4%
2009 – 5%
2010 – 5%
2011 – 8%

Not as dramatic as the dip in 0-2 counts, but still… The increase in the number of plate appearances that start 3-0 alone would be enough to set off alarm bells. As I said, those are extreme counts, but it’s a snapshot to the larger picture. Soria is falling behind in the count much more frequently than he did in past seasons. And he’s paying for this.

Then, there are his walk and strikeout totals. For the season, he has a 4.8 BB/9. His career average entering this season was 2.5 BB/9 and he’s never been above 2.7 BB/9 in a single season. Of course, when you see an increase in 3-0 counts, it stands to reason your walk rate will jump.

And when Soria is falling behind, he’s abandoning his secondary pitches for his cut fastball. He’s throwing the cutter 88 percent of the time when he’s behind in the count. That’s not a difficult mystery to solve if you’re a hitter. Just wait until Soria falls behind in the count and then sit cutter. Nine times out of ten, that’s the pitch you will see.

While the walk rate is alarming, the downturn in strikeouts is a Code Blue. He’s owns a paltry 5.8 SO/9. Entering this season, his career strikeout rate was 9.9 SO/9. He’s lost over four strikeouts per game. We are almost a third of the way through the season… This can no longer be attributed to small sample size. (Honestly, all stats involving relievers deal in small sample sizes.) Yes, he’s thrown more strikeouts this month, but his walk totals have increased as well.

Remember the dip in 0-2 counts? Maybe it’s better that that’s happening this year. Hitters own a line of .571/.625/.857 when Soria jumps to an 0-2 head start. Are you kidding? Overall, when Soria has two strikes on a hitter, he’s just not putting them away. The opposition is hitting .345/.457/.517 against Soria when he has two strikes. Unreal.

We also have to go back to his pitch selection. Two years ago, according to Fangraphs (and my own damn eyes) Soria’s best pitch was his curveball. It was a pitch he threw almost 12 percent of the time. Last year, he started moving away from the curve and featured a slider more frequently. As that happened, his curve became less effective. Last summer, his slider was his best pitch. This year, the exact same thing is happening. He’s now throwing his curve just four percent of the time. Again, it’s turned from an asset to a liability.

This post only tells part of the story as I’ve illustrated how Soria is struggling. It’s the why that is so confounding. Is it mechanics? Is it injury? Or is it regression to mean? None of this tells us why on a 1-2 pitch to Adam Jones, Soria tossed a belt high cutter right down the middle of the plate. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Soria leave a pitch in that location.

It’s troubling and disheartening at the same time.

The only way the Royals make a change is if Soria hits the disabled list. Honestly, that probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to give him a break so he can sort things out. Or rest if his issues are injury related. Nervous Ned isn’t going to dump his Proven Closer after a couple of shaky months. Even if the evidence says he should. Yost is too automatic with his bullpen to start shifting roles. Nope… The only way Soria is removed from the ninth inning role is if he goes on the DL.

This is Exhibit A for why any second division team with a quality, Proven Closer, should be actively exploring a trade. Closers (and by extension, relievers) have an extremely difficult time repeating success. For every Mariano Rivera, there’s a Frank Francisco. And a George Sherrill. The point is, consistent closers are rare. If you’re lucky enough to land one, you better be in a position to win. Otherwise, it’s a waste of resources. Dayton Moore is learning another lesson the hard way.

After the Indian home run barrage on Tuesday, Royal pitcher now have served up 29 home runs… Most in the American League. Bruce Chen and last night’s starter, Luke Hochevar are responsible for more than half that total.

It took a few weeks, but as the team drifts closer to the .500 mark, it seems safe to say that this pitching staff is what we thought it would be as far as performance. However, while the bullpen has been a strength, it seems as though it is teetering as well.

It’s time to examine Ned Yost’s pattern of bullpen usage.

– Through the first 23 games of the season, Tim Collins has appeared in 13 games. That’s simply a workload that is unsustainable. At his current usage level, the diminutive left-hander will appear in 92 games. 92! That would have tied for the major league lead last season.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Collins, but there’s absolutely no reason to use (and abuse) a 21 year old rookie like that.

So I’m a little confused why he entered the game last night.

I understand that the Cleveland portion of the lineup featured two left-handed hitters in Hannahan and Brantly. But in a 7-3 game, would Yost play the match-ups? (Probably best not to answer that.)

Plus, Collins is far from being a lefty specialist. With his delivery and stuff, he’s been much more effective against right-handed bats than those who bat from the left.

– Then, there’s Joakim Soria. Has anyone seen the Royals closer? Of course, there haven’t been any save situations in the last week. So the last time Soria appeared was way back on April 19th when he needed 23 pitches to lock down the save. This is something that could actually work in the Royals favor, as Yost leaned extremely heavily on Soria over the season’s opening two weeks. In the Royals first nine games, Soria threw seven times.

I don’t know what Yost is saving him for at this point. He needs work. The way the starting pitching has been going, there aren’t going to be many save opportunities around the corner.

– Has Aaron Crow done something to fall out of favor? I ask because he’s thrown a grand total of 20 pitches since April 18. Kind of weird after Yost leaned on him so heavily at the start of the season.

– Perhaps he’s been replaced in the pecking order by Louis Coleman. He’s looked great since his recall from Omaha on April 21 – that home run from Tuesday aside. Yost has called on Coleman to throw in three of the five games he’s been with the team.

– Nate Adcock finally got into a game last week… A mere 16 days since his last appearance.

I understand that Adcock is the Rule 5 guy and as such, must remain on the 25 man roster for the entire season. What I don’t understand is why you would burn a roster spot on a guy you don’t trust. He’s made three appearances on the season. Why wouldn’t Yost use a guy like this in a game like Tuesday? The Royals are down 7-3 in the eighth inning on the road… Seems almost tailor made. A perfect opportunity for the rookie to get some work. At the very least, you save a truly valuable guy like Collins.

This is going to sound like second-guessing (never done that before…) but I wasn’t happy to see Collins enter the game last night. It just seems like he’s Yost’s go-to guy, no matter the situation. Every manager is going to have favorites, especially in the bullpen where players run excruciatingly hot and cold. A good manager will resist the temptation of bias and will effectively balance a bullpen. Looking at the long view and all that.

It’s only April, but it really looks like Yost is failing this portion of his job description.

There’s been just a little bit of worry regarding Joakim Soria in the early going this season. For starters, there’s that ugly blown save last week against the White Sox where he coughed up a three run lead. Then, there was his following appearance where he surrendered yet another run (yet still got the all-important save) against the Tigers. My Twitter feed practically exploded after that one… The consensus being that something wasn’t right with the Royals closer.

A couple of things seem to be happening here…

First, Soria has begun to mix a cut fastball that is a notch slower than his normal cut fastball. I was alerted to this point by Pitch F/x guru Mike Fast who mentioned he introduced a cut fastball that averaged around 87 mph in August of last year. That’s quite a bit slower from his normal cutter that lives around 91 mph. However, Mike doesn’t seem to think the reduced velocity is an issue for the closer – the slower cutter actually has a little more action to it.

In other words, don’t sweat the speed difference. If you check his player page at Fangraphs, you’ll notice he has, in fact, lost a couple of mph off his average cut fastball. If he truly introduced this slower version of his pitch last August, then the loss in velocity may not be anyting to worry about, as long as he still has his cutting movement. The last two months of the season Soria posted a 0.79 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 22.2 innings.

Second, is his swinging strike percentage. Long time readers will know I’m all about missing bats. (Perhaps it’s a natural reaction to the Royals “pitch to contact” scheme of the early 90′s.) Here are Soria’s swing and miss rates from the last three seasons:

2009: 13.2%
2010: 9.5%
2011: 4.2%

A trend like that is never positive for a pitcher, no matter the role.

Perhaps this is a matter of location. Check out the plane of his “average” cutter from a period of a couple of weeks in September of last year:

Compare that to the plane from his first several appearances of 2011:

He appears to be catching a little more of the plate. So it makes sense that he’s not missing as many bats.

The good news about his location is he started almost exactly the same way last season. If you remember, his first 12 or so outings were very average – for him at least. And his rough patch culminated with surrendering back to back home runs in that wild game against Texas. His ERA at that point was a gaudy 4.15. From then to the rest of the season it was a more Soria-like 1.20.

And even when he was dominating in mid summer last year, he would go through occasional stretches where he wasn’t missing many bats. Usually, the reduction in swings and misses would begin to appear when he was used frequently. There was a stretch in mid-August where his swing and miss rate was around 6%. That was in the same stretch where he pitched six times in ten days.

So, yes, Soria’s swing and miss rate is lower in the early going this season, but he’s been used seven times in the Royals first nine games. That’s a lot of usage. Fortunately, it’s early in the season where there are a few off days built into the schedule. He didn’t pitch in the opener but from the second game to the ninth, he got three days of rest – two of those days were off days for the team. Blame the rash of extra inning contests and late game rallies by the Royals.

What I’m trying to say is it’s a little to early to start worrying about Soria. He will go through patches like this from time to time and the increased workload certainly hasn’t helped. If we get to the end of May and he’s still not missing enough bats, then maybe I’ll start to worry.

As a guy who likes to look at the numbers, the first month or so of the season always presents difficulties. Jeff Francoeur is hitting .296/.345/.444 with an OPS+ of 118? Yeah, those numbers are going down. (For the interested readers, I am now contractually obligated to drop at least one anti-Frenchy note in the first five graphs. Got this one out of the way early.) And Jeff Francis isn’t going to keep his ERA below 3.00 all year.

That just makes trends a little more difficult to identify. I don’t know how long the following will continue, but here are a couple of trends that will be fun to watch as the season unfolds.

Balanced Lineup

Go look at the team page at Baseball Reference… As of today, each of the regulars has contributed between two and four RBI. Now you know I’m not a fan of the RBI as a statistic, but in this case it tells me that there is some balance across the lineup. Guys are getting on base and guys are driving them home. The guys at the top and bottom of the order (Aviles, Escobar and Getz) each have two RBI while the rest of the gang has four.

We know there have been a bunch of timely (not clutch… timely) hits. Along with good pitching – and we know that aside from the Soria Debacle on Wednesday – the bullpen has been pretty great – that’s basically how winning stretches of baseball are played out.

The Royals have scored 5.8 runs per game, behind only Texas and Chicago. Again, it’s way too early to jump to any conclusions, but it is interesting to note how they got there.

Running Wild

When Ned Yost was talking about running more in spring training, he wasn’t kidding. Everyone is running… All the time. Collectively, the Royals have 14 stolen bases, by far the most in the American League. Even more impressive, they’ve been caught only once. That’s 15 attempts total. The second place team – the Angels – have run a total of nine times.

Of course, the team leader in steals is Jarrod Dyson, who must be a clone of Herb Washington. Dyson has played only a single inning of defense, has just one plate appearance where he sacrificed, so he doesn’t even have an official at bat, yet has scored two runs and has those steals.

If Dyson keeps up his current pace, he’ll finish the season with 78 steals and 26 sacrifice bunts. And no at bats.

Like I said, early baseball…

First Place

So we’re basically through a week of games and the Royals sit in first place. I can’t lie, I have a real difficult time looking at the standings this time of the year. I guess my only concern would be if they lost their first six games. (PANIC RED SOX NATION!!! PANIC!!!) It’s a good start, maybe even a great start, but every team has at least one stretch in the season where they will win four of six games. Certainly, the games the Royals have played have all been great on one level or another.

Quick aside: Seriously Red Sox fans… we as Royals fans have been here before. Trust me, this is the beginning of your death spiral. Stock up on bottled water and canned goods because you are about to embark on a 20 year long odyssey to baseball’s hinterland.

So one week in, this looks like a fun team. The starting pitching (aside from Francis) hasn’t been that great, but we knew that going in. The bullpen is going to be solid as long as they don’t develop Hillmanitis and all land on the DL from overuse because the starters fail. The lineup is going to score runs. They’re going to steal bases and they’re going to hit a few doubles. They aren’t going to stay in first all year and they aren’t going to continue winning games at a 67% clip, but that’s not really the point…

The point is, the most positive trend is baseball in Kansas City looks to be on the rise. I still think The Process will be slow and steady, but it will be noticeable and really damn enjoyable.

It’s early, but so far, it’s all working. It’s all working…

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