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Deconstructing The Process

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Two weeks ago, I think the Royals’ community would have unamiously accepted a 3-3 start to the season.   That is what good teams do:   play .500 ball on the road and take care of business at home, right?  As ugly as yesterday’s 12 inning loss to Oakland was, Kansas City accomplished step one of that theory.    Sure, you hate to lose a game like that, but it is, after all ‘just one game’.

Except ‘just one game’ begins to add up after while.

I am not sure that Denny Matthews came up with this theory, but he refers to it from time to time and I think it makes some sense.   Denny will say that every baseball team plays 50 games that they win no matter what, 50 games that they will lose no matter what and the determination of a team’s season is what they do with the remaining 62 contests.

Using that theory, I think it is safe to say that the season opener against Jared Weaver was one of those 50 that the Royals were just plain going to lose.   The following two games, in my opinion, would both fall into the category of the 50 that the Royals were destined to win, ditto for the 3-0 rain shortened game on Tuesday night.  However, yesterday’s debacle and Monday’s 1-0 loss to Tom Milone have to fall into the critical 62 game column.   There, after just six games, the Royals are 0-2.

Let’s touch very briefly on Monday once more (because a little salt goes well with that open wound from yesterday afternoon).   Tom Milone is a promising young pitcher, don’t get me wrong.  If you pull up his minor league resume, you will be impressed.   However, one thing pops out when you do so is that Milone is something of a strikeout pitcher.   Two years ago in AA, Milone struck out 155 batters in 158 innings and then followed that up last year in AAA by striking out 155 in 148 innings.

So, when Milone throws eight shutout innings without striking out a single Royal, I have to think that is a missed opportunity.   Especially when the Royals ran into three outs on the bases that night:  two in a mind boggling inning in which Milone walked two batters and still needed just TEN pitches to get through the inning.  Yeah, let’s put that as a loss in the 62-game-decide-your-season column.

Then along came yesterday and our good friend Jonathan Broxton.

I raved about Broxton’s Sunday appearance in Anaheim on Monday.  His velocity was up, his slider was unhittable and certainly Jonathan’s confidence had to be high.    After the Royals scored in the top of the 12th thanks to a Billy Butler double and some smartly aggressive baserunning, my confidence was high as well.

Enter Broxton to save the game in the bottom of the 12th.   While his velocity was not consistently as high as it was on Sunday, he still greeted Daric Barton with a pair of 94 mph fastballs, got him to foul off a slider, showed him a 98 mph offering out of the zone, missed with a slider and then got Barton looking with 95 mph heat.   Good start, all is well.

Then the unthinkable occurred:  an Alcides Escobar error.   Okay, it happens.  Ozzie Smith made errors, you know.  Nobody on and Escobar botches Seth Smith’s weak offering at an 0-1 slider.  No big deal, Broxton.   It’s not like Escobar isn’t going to make that up to you in spades as the season goes on.   Except it must have been a big deal to Jonathan Broxton.

I mentioned that Broxton threw a slider (the third of his appearance) to Smith.   That is noteworthy because Broxton would only throw one slider the rest of the inning.   Four straight fastballs to Jemile Weeks for balls and, to be clear, they were not even that fast.   All four whistled in at 92 or 93 mph:  well below what Broxton was throwing in his dominant outing on Sunday.   At that point, you have to start to wonder what is going on and maybe, just maybe, Aaron Crow might be an option.

Eric Sogard enters the batter’s box and Broxton pumps the velocity up a little: seven straight fastballs between 94 and 96 mph.  Sogard never swings the bat and walks when Broxton misses with a 94 mph 3-2 fastball.  Okay, it is officially dicey at this point.   Bases are loaded, one out and Broxton has thrown 8 of his last 10 fastballs out of the strike zone.

Now, we all know the new improved rules of baseball demand that once you insert your closer, you are duty bound to live and die with him.  I hate the rule.  I hated it last year when Joakim Soria was struggling and I hate it even more when the Royals’ closer may or may not be the best arm in the bullpen.   Still, I have to admit that I don’t pull Broxton here, either.

Coco Crisp comes up, takes a 94 mph fastball for a strike, fouls off a 95 mph offering and then takes a 96 mph four seamer for a ball.   Okay folks, here it comes, the last slider of the day.  Crisp hacks at an 89 mph slider and hits a bouncer to second where the only play is at first for the second out and the tying run scores.  Hey, on another day, Crisp hits the ball to Betancourt’s right instead of his left and the Royals turn a game ending double play.   I hate the saying more often than not, but in this case, well, that’s baseball.

Now, runners on second and third, two outs and the game is tied.  Disappointing, yes.  Devastating, no.  Get the third out and let’s play inning number thirteen.

Yeonis Cespedes is up.  Yeonis Cespedes will swing and generally miss anything that breaks at all.  Hell, pretty sure he might swing and miss at Nick’s slider or Craig’s split-fingered fastball.   Feels like a slider here, doesn’t it?  Nope, Broxton throws a 95 mph fastball and hits Cespedes.   Hits him with the first pitch.   Hits a guy who would likely jump out of his shoes to swing big at something on the outer half or even something over his head.

Now, Broxton is 24 pitches into this inning, having walked two guys, hit another and forgotten that he actually has a second pitch.  I know Aaron Crow sometimes struggles with his control, but don’t you have to give him a shot here?  

Here is where I freely admit that in all the second guessing that the game of baseball was virtually designed to create, managers get absolutely and unfairly hammered for changing pitchers too late or too soon or too often or not often enough.   Hindsight is painfully obvious in baseball and quite honestly, how often do you see a pitcher hit two guys in a row?

One thing that does seem pretty common is for a pitcher to struggle to throw a strike after hitting a batter, however, and Broxton had not exactly been hammering the zone previously.   This was not fluke, Broxton was drowning out there and was treading into deep water pitch count wise.    I know, 24 pitches is not that many, but it is a lot for one inning and a big number for specialized one inning guys.

Bam! A 97 mph four seam fastball that The Flash could not have avoided and the winning run comes in on a hit batter.   End of game, end of story and the Royals are now 0-2 in the ‘season deciding column’.

A 3-3 road trip is good and probably we might have entered panic mode too soon, but when you have used the ‘it’s only one game’ TWICE in the first six games, I have to admit being a little concerned.   Young teams have a tendency to give away games, but they cannot afford to do so a third of the time.

If you want to be an aggressive baserunning team, do it, but do so with some intelligence.   If you have a dominant bullpen then use it and not just in the traditional baseball fashion.   Losses happen.  The Royals are not going to go 62-0 in the season deciders.   Young teams give away games.

Playing at home, the young Royals need to take some of the games back.

xxx

 

Vin Mazzaro represents progress.

I’ll wait for you to stop laughing.

Done? Good. Here’s what I mean.

In year’s past, where the Royals traded a starter (and a good one at that in David DeJesus) for a pitcher with major league experience, it was pretty much automatic that the new pitcher would open the new season with the team and would log a substantial number of innings. (I’m thinking along the lines of Mike Wood, who got 17 starts after arriving from Oakland in the three team Carlos Beltran deal. Back when Billy Beane was a genius.)

Remember, Mazzaro was slated to open the season as the Royals fifth starter. He was sent to Omaha because the Royals had a couple of early open dates, got shelled in his first two starts for the Storm Chasers and was held back in Triple-A. He didn’t get a chance to appear in KC until Bruce Chen hit the DL in early May. He made one start, didn’t really distinguish himself, and then came May 16. A day that will live in Royal infamy.

2.1 IP, 11 H, 14 ER, 3 BB, 2 SO, 1 HR

Starter Kyle Davies pitched to four batters and walked three before leaving with an injury. Nate Adcock was supposed to be the Royals long man, but pitched only through the second innings. Burning his bullpen Ned Yost turned to Mazzaro.

It’s wasn’t his best moment.

But consider the dominos from this game. The Royals exiled Mazzaro and recalled Everett Teaford. And Mazzaro had been scheduled to start the next game, so Yost’s bullpen gambit meant an immediate rotation shuffle was in the cards and that brought about the major league debut of Danny Duffy. (See… Even in horrible circumstances I can sometimes find the silver lining.)

So after that outing Mazzaro returned to Triple-A and – other than a brief recall in June and another when the rosters expanded in September – spent his summer in Nebraska. His Triple-A numbers were underwhelming: In 123 innings, he had a 4.4 BB/9, a 7.8 SO/9 and a 4.29 ERA. The strikeout rate was surprising. Mazzaro has never been the type of pitcher to miss bats. Still, he was hampered by the walks and the ability of the opposing hitters to put the ball in play with great success. His Triple-A WHIP was a lofty 1.62.

Once upon a time, Mazzaro was a decent prospect. Baseball America rated him the eight best minor leaguer in the Oakland system prior to the 2009 season. This was coming off a season where he made 22 Double-A starts, posted a 1.90 ERA with a 2.4 BB/9 and won Texas League Pitcher of the Year honors. Here’s what they had to say:

Mazzaro’s hard sinker sits in the low 90s and touches 95, generating groundballs. He pitches off his fastball, and he shows the ability to sink, run or cut it. His control got significantly better in 2008, allowing him to keep hitters off balance by mixing locations and changing planes. He showed a greater willingness to challenge hitters than he had in the past.

Now, Mazzaro throws about 91 mph and his GB/FB ratio for his career is 1.08. As I said earlier, he doesn’t get a ton of swings and misses, so it would be in his best interest to used that sinker to rack up some grounders. That hasn’t happened yet at the major league level. And the control? Well, in 242 innings he’s averaging around 4 BB/9. That’s just not going to cut it. Especially when batters are squaring up the way they do against Mazzaro.

But like I said in the open, Mazzaro isn’t a huge concern because there are other pitchers in the pipeline – along with enough talent already on the 40 man roster – that he can return to Omaha to fill out the Triple-A rotation. The control he possessed in Double-A has deserted him as he’s moved up the ladder. Hitters don’t chase and his secondary pitches are lacking.

This seems to be his future… Organizational filler. Triple-A starter. Break glass only in emergency.

If you see him in Kansas City at any point in this season, you’ll know something has gone horribly awry with the rotation.

The Royals held their end of the season press conference and used it as an opportunity to announce pitching coach Bob McClure wouldn’t return for the 2012 season. Ned Yost had the honors:

“We threw too many balls, we walked too many hitters. We fell behind in the count too much. McClure did a phenominal job here for many, many years. Had a great working relationship with these young pitchers. We just felt as an organization it was time for a different voice.”

Yost is absolutely correct on this count. Royals pitchers threw a grand total of 24,376 pitches this year. No team in baseball threw more pitches. League average was 23,595. Think about that one for a moment… Royals pitchers threw almost 1,000 more pitches than the average major league pitching staff. That’s like playing a 170 game schedule.

Taking this further… Royals pitchers threw a strike 62% of the time. Although major league average is 63% (and all teams threw a strike between 65% and 62% of the time) the Royals tossed the fewest strikes percentage-wise of all teams in baseball. Here’s the list:

Oakland – 62.5%
Toronto – 62.4%
Baltimore – 62.3%
Houston – 62.2%
Kansas City – 62.1%

To be the team with the highest number of total pitches and the lowest percentage of strikes… Yeah, that’s not so good.

So who swung the hatchet and sent McClure to the unemployment line?

“There’s a lot of input from Dayton. Dayton and I talk about everything. I trust Dayton. Uh… As much as I could trust anybody in this business. We started really talking about it the last six weeks and thought it through and made sure it was the right decision for our organization.”

Make no mistake… Yost was the triggerman on the McClure hit. I think Yost had been unhappy with McClure for a long time and started putting this move in motion shortly after the All-Star Break. Here’s what GMDM had to say.

“I like Bob’s style. The most important trait of a pitcher is toughness and poise. At the same time you have to think through the process. You have to overcome so many things. It’s gotta be a very tough, tough thing to be able to succeed in that role. I think McClue has that. Ned certainly has a vision for what he wants. He’s with the players every single day. He knows what they need and we’ve gotta trust his opinion there. And that’s what we’ll do. We’ll find somebody that compliments our coaching staff and someone who works very well with Ned and somebody that can give our pitchers the extra boost they need right now. Make no mistake, Bob McClure has created a great foundation on and off the field on all these pitchers.”

McClure was a holdover from the Baird regime (Buddy Bell brought him over from Colorado prior to the 2006 season), but clearly had a fan in GMDM. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have lasted six seasons. GMDM is loyal to his guys. To a fault, I think. If it had been solely his call, I doubt this move would have happened.

I know a bunch of people looked to McClure as the scapegoat, but honestly, I have no idea how much effect a pitching coach has on a major league staff. Bruce Chen seemed to figure out how to change arm slots and has had a small dose of success. Is that McClure? Danny Duffy struggled in his debut season. Is that McClure? Luke Hochevar put together a solid second half after turning to his slider. Is that McClure? Some guys showed up in KC and pitched well… Some guys didn’t. Happens all the time.

Having said that, six years is a long time for a pitching coach to be on a team that isn’t winning. Yost wasn’t happy with the results, he wants his guy and GMDM wants Yost to feel comfortable. Both want someone who can work with young pitchers since that’s the next wave of The Process. Maybe McClure couldn’t communitcate with the youth. Maybe Hochevar figured out how to be successful on his own and maybe he could just never reach Duffy.

So Yost wanted McClure gone. As I said, GMDM is loyal, but ultimately his style is to hire his people and let them do their jobs. It’s a standard organizational ladder. If one of the higher-ups wants someone beneath them gone… It’s done. Will at Royals Review thinks this is a sign that Yost is the long-term guy as manager. I don’t necessarily read it that way. Yost is under contract through next season. I suppose an extention could happen, but I see this as GMDM basically giving his manager what he wants. (Kudos to whomever asked Yost about his contract. Without an extension, he’s a lame duck manager in 2012, so this is a fairly important issue. And thankfully, Karen Kornacki got in a question about Santa Claus. Seriously. She freaking name-dropped Santa at a baseball press conference.) Everything could change by this time next year. It’s baseball. Just ask Terry Francona.

Similarly, Yost will play a huge part in the hiring of the next pitching coach. And he knows exactly what he wants…

“I’m looking for a guy that has energy, a guy that has competitive spirit, a guy that is focused on teaching mechanics and a guy that can formualte an idividual game plan for each pitcher on each particular day. You know, I learned a lot with Mike Maddux when we were together for 6 years. I watched how he did it, and he was pretty good.”

Maddux is currently the pitching coach for Ron Washington’s Texas Rangers.

“I’m looking for a guy that pitched in the big leagues for a long time with mediocre stuff. Mike Maddux had mediocre stuff, but he pitched 15 years in the big leagues. Because he knew how to pitch, he understood mechanics, he understood the importance of fielding your position, he understood the importance of controlling the running game, he understood the importance of knowing the signs and the situations at all times. And those guys that have to work real hard at their game and have longevity in their game usually make dynamic pitching coaches.”

McClure had a 19 year major league career that spanned over 1,150 innings. With an ERA+ of 102, I’d call him mediocre. I’d also call him left-handed, which surely helped him pitch into his forties.

Using Yost’s criteria, I did a search for pitchers who played at least 15 years, finished with an ERA+ between 95 and 105 and threw at least 1,000 innings. Here are some candidates for the Royals pitching coach job:

Bruce Kison
Milt Wilcox
Andy Hassler
Doyle Alexander
Bob Forsch
Mike Norris
Bob Knepper
Rick Sutcliffe
Floyd Bannister
Jim Clancy
Rick Honeycutt
Dennis Lamp
Dan Schatzeder
Juan Berenguer
Mike Morgan
Bruce Hurst
Danny Jackson
Kevin Gross
John Burkett
Dave Burba
Chris Hammond
Scott Erickson

I have no clue who on this list is active in baseball and who’s been working on their golf game. It would be kind of fun if the Royals next pitching coach was one of these guys.

The Royals had a decent second half and Yost is flexing his muscles. McClure and Gibbons were his call. No mistake. And the next hires will be his guys. Again, no mistake. So at this time next year if the pitching staff has taken a step forward, we can give Yost some of the credit for bringing in his guy. He’ll have to take the blame if things get worse.

Meanwhile, John Gibbons, the bench coach got the axe as well. Yost has someone in mind for his replacement and says he will come from within.

“I’m looking for somebody with catching experience. A really good teacher. A real good catching coach, that can work with these young catchers.”

All indications are the Royals will look to Chino Cadiha who is currently a special assistant to the Royals player development staff. Prior to that he was… Hold on… a bench coach with the Braves. He worked with GMDM as the Braves roving catching instructor and was a minor league field coordinator.

There was plenty more from GMDM’s press conference, but this post is already running long. Look for a weekend post. Special edition.

The off season has begun…

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.

That was a crazy start to the Cleveland Indians series. The game started out as a nicely played game by both teams and then just took a left turn into bizarro land as soon as the bullpens got involved.

Kyle Davies looked really good last night. He went 6.0 innings, struck out 7 and walked none. He was working quickly on the mound and pounding the strike zone. He also threw one of the sickest breaking balls I’ve seen all season. Just an absolute beast of an un-hittable pitch. Davies has become one of the whipping boys for the Royals fanbase, but guys who can put together that kind of start have value in many rotations. He isn’t going anywhere this season and he shouldn’t.

There was a ball hit into the corner over Alex Gordon’s head and he overplayed it. He got too close to the wall and didn’t wait for the carom. The ball scooted away from him and allowed a runner to score. He’s been playing pretty good defense, but as Corey Ettinger remarked on Twitter, he is rounding off his routes and has to overcompensate by diving for balls. He’s still learning the position and he has the athleticism to make up for some of the mistakes, but it’s going to cost the Royals some bases or as was the case last night, runs.

There was a crazy play at second base last night involving umpire Joe West (shocker). Billy Butler was sliding into second and it seemed clear that Asdrubal Cabrera touched the base long before Butler got there. Joe West signaled safe, but it seems he didn’t announce it very loudly. Butler walked off the base and was tagged out. It ended up being a huge play because it would’ve meant the bases were loaded with no outs rather than first and third with two outs.

It’s easy to place blame on Billy Butler for walking back to the dugout, but from what I could see he didn’t do anything wrong. It seemed from the TV angles that he was out by a mile. But even if he isn’t, the umpire has a responsibility in situations like that to make sure everybody knows full well what the call is. I can’t imagine he yelled “SAFE” and Butler just walked away from the bag. It likely ended up costing the Royals runs, but I can’t fault Butler. Players don’t usually hang around bases double-checking every call, especially ones that look that obvious.

I know that Craig isn’t concerned about Joakim Soria, but I’m a little bit worried. I’m not sounding the alarms or anything. I’m not about to demote him from the closers role, but I need more information to allay my fears. He only missed one bat last night and that’s just not typical Soria. I really hope my concerns are just an over-reaction, but at this point I just don’t know.

There were some chinks in the armor of the bullpen last night. Jeremy Jeffress was wild. He doesn’t really have an out pitch, so if he isn’t locating that super-sonic fastball then he’s kind of stuck. He really could use a nice changeup or a better curve ball. Tim Collins just had a blow up. Those happen, it’s not something that gives me less confidence in the kid. The concern that he might be over-worked is certainly legitimate. He could probably use a couple of days to recoup.

On the other hand, Aaron Crow continued throwing lights out. He is just nasty coming out of the pen.  Right now, he is unquestionably the pitcher I have the most confidence putting in high leverage situations. He has really come into his own in relief. As a starter last year he struggled mightily. I think he’ll get another shot at starting, but I don’t know that he’ll stick there. For now, I’ll just sing Crow-lay-o-lay-o-lay-0-lay Crow-lay Crow-lay when he comes into the game. It’s either that or the chicken dance from Arrested Development.

Kila Ka’aihue is clearly struggling, he could probably use a day or two off, but the Royals need to keep running him out there. It is extremely normal for guys to struggle when they start their Major League careers. Lots of great players started out looking lost at the plate for an extended period of time. The Royals are within striking distance of first place now, but they still need to use their Major League at bats to develop young players like Kila. Eric Hosmer is not coming up soon, and I don’t believe the Royals will give Clint Robinson a chance either. Kila needs the time to work out his difficulties and the Royals should afford that to him.

The game was interesting, but the real highlight of yesterday came from manager Ned Yost. Before the game he was asked if he liked hearing that Butler still wants to play first base. His response:

“Sure I do, but you know what, I’d like to be an astronaut”

Every baseball fan questions decisions made by the manager. It’s just what we do. But regardless of any issues I have with the things Ned Yost does on the field, the man can put out a good quote. I think we lack interesting personalities in baseball and Ned Yost seems to be thoughtful, honest and he says some great things. It’s why I’m a huge fan of the Yostronaut.

Nick Scott hosts the Broken Bat Single Podcast and writes a blog for the Lawrence Journal World. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or email him at brokenbatsingle at gmail dot com.

After winning four straight games in their last at-bat, one had to figure the Royals might be due for a rather gut wrenching loss.   The predictable randomness of baseball almost demands that if you spend the better part of a week beating up on other teams’ relievers then some team is sure to beat the crap out of your own.

The Royals’ bullpen, after allowing just four runs over twenty-three innings was tagged for eight runs in just over five innings by the White Sox on what originally appeared to be the makings of an exceptional Wednesday afternoon.  

While that may have been coming, that it happened after a second straight masterful performance out of Jeff Francis and a solid offensive game handed a three run lead to Joakim Soria was the true shock.   Even more-so, Soria recorded the first two outs of the ninth inning before allowing three singles, a walk and a double to not only blow the save, but put his team behind.

Bullpen meltdowns happen, even to very good bullpens, but if you want to register some concern it might be in the rather unimpressive 19 strikeouts in 28 innings of relief work thus far in 2011.   Here is a number for you:  THREE.   That is the number of bullpen strikeouts registered by non-rookies this season.   Given that the two best relievers on the Royals roster, Joakim Soria and Robinson Tejeda, traditionally average a strikeout per inning one has to hope  that is simply a statistical anomaly of small sample sizes.

On the subject of small sample sizes, it has felt like the Royals have filled the bases with runners in their first six games and done a somewhat sketchy job of scoring said runners.  In fact, including Wednesday’s loss, Kansas City has put 94 runners on base and scored 35 of them.    That 37.2% of runners scored is well ahead of the club’s 2010 pace of 33.1% and the major league average from last season of 35.6%.  

Those numbers could certainly be dramatically effected by even skewed date from just one game, but if the Royals could hold this four percentage advantage over last year that would translate into upwards of 80 more runs scored over 2010.  That number assumes no increase in the number of baserunners or decrease in the number of outs made on the bases.   Bump up the gross number and drive them in at a higher percentage and well, obviously, the Royals could venture into a truly impactful run producing territory.   Enough runs to take some pressure off a shaky starting rotation and to, on occasion, overcome a bullpen implosion.

Truthfully, the last five games did put an incredible strain on the bullpen.   Twenty-five innings over five games (even with a day off) is asking a lot even from an eight man pen.   Heck, being perfect through five straight outings is actually quite a lot to ask even from Joakim Soria.   Of course, given that he went 24 straight appearances without allowing a run at one point last season, it is still unexpected when Soria is tagged.    In this case, he was blasted for more runs than in any other outing in his entire career.

Do not get too discouraged, however.  Mariano Rivera was tagged for four runs in on July 16th, 1999 and gave up ONE more run the entire rest of the 1999 season.   He gave up three runs on June 6, 2009 and then just FOUR more the rest of that season.   In fact, the number of three and four run innings allowed by Rivera throughout his illustrious career surprised me and pointed out just how absolutely consistent Soria has been and, even though he has just one strikeout thus far in 2011, likely will continue to be.

The Royals have lived in the realm of comebacks and extra innings thus far in 2011 and the truth is, we don’t have any idea what this team is or will be, other than extremely interesting.   That alone, makes 2011 a season worth watching.

Avoiding 100

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Hooray for 63 wins!

It’s come to this.  A celebration of avoiding 100 losses.

Sigh.

Don’t blame me if I kept the champagne on ice last night.  The Royals have never really been in danger of hitting the century mark this season.  In fact, the Royals will really have to go into the tank if they are to match last season’s total of 65 wins.

For a quick refresher, here are the team winning percentages since Dayton Moore took over:

2007 – .426
2008 – .463
2009 – .401
2010 – .414

For the team to match ’07, they will have to win six of their last ten.  Come on, boys!  Or something.

— Sean O’Sullivan got the “win” (which if you’re spending any time on the baseball internets these days means he pitched a better game yesterday than Felix Hernandez) but wasn’t exactly sharp.  He put the leadoff man on base in five of the seven innings he started and threw a total of 92 pitches in six innings.  His final line:

6 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 4 BB, 3 SO

O’Sullivan was bailed out by an inept Indian offense.  Philip Humber came on in relief and allowed both of his inherited runners to score.  Of course, it would help if Billy Butler could catch a pickoff throw.

— Why did it take 12 days to get Humber some work?  Is it any wonder he struggled to find his rhythm? Of course, he’s not that good to begin with, but still…

— If you’re looking for something to do today, head to Royals Prospects and check out some of the videos Greg uploaded from his recent trips to Northwest Arkansas and Burlington.  Watching guys like Johnny Giavotella and Eric Hosmer, you can’t help but get excited.

— Minda Haas at Royal Blues had an interesting post where she looked at the Royals win to save ratio and found it to be the highest in the majors this season.  I’m not surprised.  The Royals have one of the top three closers in the game in Joakim Soria.  And they have been involved in 55 one-run games, which is the most in baseball.  For awhile, they had the most wins in one-run games, but a late season run of futility has dropped them to fourth – behind the Rays, Twins and Rangers.

— In Dutton’s Friday notes article, he reports the Royals won’t make any changes to their coaching staff with the exception of replacing first base coach Rusty Kuntz who resumed his role as special advisor to the GM for player development.  Following GMDM for the duration of his tenure, this doesn’t come as a shock.  He values loyalty and continuity on his staff.  Obviously, the coaches (particularly the Kevin Seitzer and Bob McClure) haven’t had a ton of talent at their disposal.

Seitzer’s accomplishments this year would include leading the league in total hits and finishing last in strikeouts.  Their 84% contact rate (a percentage of swinging strikes that are either fouled off or put in play) is the best in baseball as well.  On the negative side of the ledger would be the fact Royal batters see an average of 3.73 pitches per plate appearance, which ranks them 26th and their 7.5% walk rate is 27th.

As for McClure, this year has been kind of a disaster.  Kyle Davies and Brian Bannister have been stagnant in their development.  Royals pitchers posted a 1.85 SO/BB ratio, second worst rate in baseball, their team ERA of 5.04 is the highest in the AL and the same goes for their ERA+ of 84.  Looking for positives there were some minor individual success stories… Luke Hochevar was showing improvement before he missed most of the second half of the season with injury.  Kyle Farnsworth improved to the degree GMDM was actually able to get value in a trade.  Bruce Chen became a serviceable starter.

We all know the influx of youth will begin next season and will roll into 2012 and beyond.  GMDM obviously has confidence in his staff and their ability to work with young players.  I’ve seen enough from the pitching and hitting coaches to think they at least deserve a chance. The successes were limited this year because the talent was limited.  This is an area where we will simply have to trust The Process.

Tuesday’s game was almost as epic as the Royals-Rangers tilt back on May 6.  You know… The game officially known as “The Last Time Joakim Soria Blew a Save.”

Yunigma Update

Yuniesky Betancourt walked twice last night.  That’s happened only eight times in his career.  (He’s never walked three times in a game.)  The last time he walked twice in a game?  Try May 6 against the Rangers.

Please remember, Yuni is not the team leader in home runs.  Jose Guillen is still two ahead of the Yunigma.  However, Yuni is tied with Billy Butler for the team lead in RBI… If you’re into that sort of thing.

Feast or Famine With Alex Gordon

Typical night for Gordon.  At least it felt that way.  A single and a double against Cliff Lee drove in a total of three runs.  That was good… Then he struck out three times, twice looking.  That was bad.

You know my stance on strikeouts – they’re just another out – but those looking, called third strikes are beginning to try my patience.  We’ve been over this before… Oftentimes, Gordon doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.  Reputations are difficult to shake and he certainly has the reputation of a complainer… At least at the plate.  Of all of Gordon’s third strikes, 36% of happen when the bat doesn’t leave his shoulder.  That’s a high percentage.  Major league average this season is 25%.

Plus, who is he?  Nobody outside of Nebraska and Kansas City gives a damn about Alex Gordon.  Not now, anyway.  So when you’re up against a pitcher like Cliff Lee and you have two strikes on you, you damn well better expand that zone.

Of course, I’m probably picking the wrong time to go off on a “swing the bat, meat” tangent.  Both his called third strikes on Tuesday were against left handed pitching.  And he certainly showed what he could do against Lee, ripping a couple of hits.  Go back to his at bat against Lee in the fifth.  Two outs, two runners on and Lee tries to get him to chase a couple of cutters out of the zone and falls behind 2-0.   Lee is struggling to get out of the inning, so he’s not going to screw around.  Everyone knows this… And Gordon takes a strike down the heart of the plate.  My first reaction was, I couldn’t believe that Gordon didn’t take a rip at that pitch.  Typical Gordon… Missing his pitch in a hitter’s count.

These are situations he has to take advantage of if he’s going to be successful.  When pitchers jump ahead of Gordon with the first strike, he’s hitting .138/.198/.150.

Then I thought Lee wouldn’t want to fall behind 3-1, so I figured Gordon would get another pitch to handle.  He did – a fastball, belt high and on the outer half of the plate.  Gordon really turned on the pitch and ripped it for a two-run double.

So maybe he knows what he’s doing after all…

I’m still rooting for Gordon.  Probably more than anyone on this team.  (And probably because I HAVE to.  Gordon’s success means this franchise moves up the MLB food chain a notch or two.)  So it was a typically crazy night… A couple of hits and a handful of strikeouts.  Just another day in the development.

Yosting the Bullpen

Chew on this for a moment…

— Joakim Soria is having another dominating season.
— After a rough April (and a stint on the DL) Robinson Tejeda has been awesome.
— Kyle Farnsworth had an excellent season for the Royals.
— The Royals bullpen ERA is 4.64 – worst in the AL.

How is that remotely possible?

Step forward Jesse Chavez.  Take a bow Victor Marte.  Is that Brad Thompson in the corner?  Hey, there’s Josh Rupe.  Has anyone seen Luis Mendoza?

It’s really difficult to believe the Royals got solid seasons from three relievers, but the rest of the bullpen has been so putrid, it’s pulled the collective reliever ERA into the abyss.

I know the Royals won last night and I know at this point in the season we’re looking at the “young” guys, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to hang seven runs on Cliff Lee and then see Chavez cough up a lead in 16 pitches.  Followed by a Blake Wood escape act in the eighth when he got Vladimir The Royal Killer to ground out with the bases loaded.

On Wilson Betemit

I know a couple of weeks ago, Fangraphs speculated that Betemit may price himself out of Kansas City on the back of a strong finish.  I suppose anything is possible, but seriously… The notion that Betemit will break the Royals bank (or stretch the budget) is laughable.

He joined this team on a minor league contract last November.  A minor league contract… It wasn’t even a split contract, promising a certain amount if he got called up.  According to Cot’s, the most he’s ever made in a season is $1.3 million back in 2009.  That contract was really just a carryover from the $1.165 million he made in his first year of arbitration eligibility.  At that point, he had been a semi-regular for three years.

The point is, his last two contracts (before signing with the Royals) were reasonable, given his playing time, production and economics of the time.

He will certainly stand to make more than his $1.3 million.  However, we’re talking about a guy who will have less than 350 plate appearances and wasn’t a regular until the team jettisoned Alberto Callaspo at the end of July.  I figure he’ll earn somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million.  And that’s my guess at an absolute ceiling.  I know outsiders think of our team as cash poor, but that’s an acceptable contract.

Of course, there’s the other issue:  Mike Moustakas.  Hey, did you hear about his three home run, 11 RBI game?  Of course you did.  (Great game… Largely irrelevant in the big picture.  It’s simply the cherry on top of the sundae that is his outstanding season.)

Does signing Wilson Betemit for next season block the promotion of Moustakas?

I don’t think it does.

Moustakas needs to open the 2011 season in Triple-A.  For two reasons.  One, the Royals need to make sure he picks up where he finished.  This, in my mind, is a huge deal.  We know he’s been raking all season, but the Royals need to make sure he remains sharp during the off season.  (Rumors of him playing in the Dominican League are encouraging.)  I’m not going to draw parallels between Moose and Gordon on the “rush a prospect” front… Every player is different.  However, if the Royals are serious about this batch of prospects and aiming for 2014, they need to make absolutely certain Moustakas is ready.

Second, (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) is they need to take advantage of his service time.  If this kid is truly this good, I’ll gladly take a half year of his production in 2011 in exchange for at least six full seasons.  I’ve always kind of laughed at this kind of roster manipulation, but other teams are doing it.  The Royals need to join this parade.

And that means no September call-up.  I’m fine with that.  Have him finish the season with Omaha, take some time to recharge and then play some winter ball.  Sounds like a plan.

Back to Betemit… If the Royals follow this plan, they’ll need him to return.  That takes the pressure off of everyone involved.  Then, if Moose is abusing Triple-A pitching through the first three months of 2011, the Royals can flip Betemit and we can begin the new era.

It will be worth the wait.

Well, that was bound to happen sooner rather than later.  Frankly, I’m surprised Blake Wood hasn’t coughed up more leads.  Thursday was only the fourth blown “save” in 40 appearances this year.

(I put save in quotes because we all know Wood isn’t the closer, so it’s not up to him to earn the save.  Although by pitching late and in close games, he often enters the game in save situations.  Thus, the blown save stat.)

A couple of things stood out to me about his appearance:

–  That was only the third time all year Wood appeared in three consecutive games.  The  other time was way back in Trey Hillman’s last game and carried into Ned Yost’s first two games in charge.  Perhaps not so surprisingly, Wood gave up two hits and a run in blowing a lead in that third game.

To be fair, it wasn’t like he had been overworked the previous two appearances.   He threw 10 pitches on Tuesday and just two pitches on Wednesday.  Still, something has to be said for getting a pitcher up three days in a row, warming him up in the bullpen and then bringing into a game.  There’s a certain amount of stress involved in this routine, pitch counts be damned.

—  In the match-up against Asdrubal Cabrera (which tied the game), Wood threw eight pitches – all fastballs.  The fastest was clocked at 98 mph and the slowest was 96 mph.  These eight pitches were essentially identical.  The result was predictable.

For some reason, Yost trusts Wood in these high leverage situations like the one we saw on Thursday.  Here are the Royals leaders in Leverage Index who are currently on the roster according to Baseball Prospectus:

Joakim Soria – 1.97
Jesse Chavez – 1.68
Blake Wood – 1.44
Bryan Bullington – 1.01

In many ways, it’s good to see Soria at the top of the list.  It underscores the importance of the closer – something I have mocked in the past.  Of Soria’s 35 saves, 19 have been of the one run variety while eight have been in games with two run margins.  Pretty tight.

It’s a little surprising to see Chavez so high.  However in his seven appearances, he’s entered with the game tied twice, with the Royals ahead by one or two runs three times and with the team down by a run twice.  He’s not coming into the game in blowouts.  That’s not going to end well, either.  Chavez just doesn’t possess the command to be reliable late in close games.

And Bullington is now in the rotation.

Yost doesn’t have a ton of options in the bullpen.  Maybe that’s why he keeps turning to Wood.

By the time Yost turned to Dusty Hughes (who couldn’t get the left handed hitting Travis Hafner out) and by the time the inning was over, a three run lead turned into a two run deficit.  Ballgame.

It’s too bad because Kyle Davies awesome through seven innings.  Not being able to see the game (not on TV?  What’s up with that?  Maybe that’s a good thing… The Indians commit five errors, but win with seven runs over the last two innings?  It’s possible I would have chucked my Boulevard through the screen.) but knowing Davies threw only 84 pitches entering the eighth and had surrendered only four hits, it was probably the correct call by Yost to send him back to the mound.  According to Pitch f/x, his velocity was fine at that point and he had been effectively changing speeds all evening.  Plus, as  the fact he didn’t walk a batter all evening will attest, he was working in the zone.

And with the current state of the Royals bullpen, why not see if Davies can go eight before turning it over to Soria in the ninth?

Unfortunately, when Davies got into hot water, Yost didn’t have a reliable Plan B waiting in the bullpen.

———————————————————————————————————————

— Yuniesky Betancourt came to the plate four times and saw a grand total of nine pitches.  Stop with the “Betancourt is pretty good” talk.  Please.

Yes, it’s great he’s hitting for power.  That’s something no one saw coming this year.  And his home runs have been timely – seven of his 12 have given the Royals the lead or tied the game.  There have been times where I have been surprised at his ability to deliver in key situations.  Although I think Betancourt’s positive moments stand out because they’re infrequent and expectations couldn’t be much lower to start.  When the D student turns in an A paper, it kind of gets noticed.

What I fail to understand is how certain people around the Royals seem to delight in pointing out his offensive “excellence” while ignoring the fact his .290 OBP is the fifth lowest in the league this year and he continues to exhibit next to no discipline at the plate.  Last night was Exhibit A. The guy goes up there hacking, with no feel for the situation and with no ability to employ strategic situational hitting.

However, his defense is still in the bottom of the league among shortstops.  And don’t forget to factor Betancourt’s defense into his overall performance on the season.  He remains terrible by any metric you choose – UZR, +/- – you name it.  According to the Fielding Bible’s plus/minus system, Betancourt is currently a -9 on fielding plays.  Not good.  Especially for a shortstop.  Going a step further, the Bible has Betancourt at -7 for runs saved with his glove.  Again, not good.  That ranks him 32nd out of 35 shortstops.  Plus, his double play efficiency has really declined this year.  After converting about 62% of all double play opportunities over the last couple of seasons, he’s converting roughly 45% of all double play opportunities.  That ranks him 35th.

Of course, looking at (less than) a single season while using defensive metrics is sketchy.  Those in the know say you need to look at at least three seasons of defensive data before you draw a conclusion.

Going back to 2008, Betancourt has ranked dead last in the AL among shortstops in UZR.  My eyes see a lack of mobility and range.  While Betancourt can occasionally make a stellar play, for every one Web Gem, he neglects three or four makable fielding chances.  The numbers back this up.

Focus on the big picture.

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