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Deconstructing The Process

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Coming off a couple of tough defeats, the Royals needed a shot of adrenaline to jump start their club. Jeremy Guthrie was the man on Wednesday, throwing seven innings of three hit, one run ball to keep the Royals in the game before handing it off to the bullpen.

Guthrie is a confounding pitcher. A pitching wizard. Take Wednesday, for example. Guthrie delivered a performance of quality, but it’s a performance he won’t be repeating too frequently. It’s not difficult to see that when digesting some of the numbers.

— Twelve of Guthrie’s outs were recorded on the ground, compared to seven in the air. For the game according to FanGraphs, Guthrie posted a ground ball rate of 57 percent. Compare that to his seasonal rate of around 43 percent. We know Guthrie has a home run problem (and that’s being kind) so it behooves him to keep the ball on the ground. That’s something he doesn’t do, but he was able to on Wednesday.

— Guthrie threw first pitch strikes to 10 of the 26 batters he faced. That’s a rather thin 38 percent first strike rate. For the season, league average is around 60 percent and Guthrie has outpaced his counterparts, posting a 67 percent first strike rate. It reasons that he can’t afford to fall behind in the count. I mean, that’s kind of an obvious statement, but it applies double to a pitcher like Guthrie who doesn’t miss many bats. The league is hitting .301/.333/.603 against Guthrie when he starts the plate appearance with ball one. Ummm… That’s not good. Despite regularly falling behind in the count, he surrendered only two hits after throwing ball one to open the plate appearance.

— White Sox hitters swung and missed only four times. Guthrie threw an even 100 pitches. I love simple math. That’s a four percent swinging strike rate. For the season, he gets a swing and a miss just under six percent of the time. Not a huge difference, but there’s not far to go when you’re already at six percent.

— Guthrie gets most of his swing and misses against his change and slider. Both pitches generate a whiff around 10 percent of the time. On Wednesday, he threw 19 sliders and got one swing and miss. Tip your cap to the White Sox for laying off the slider. They swung only four times, according to Brooks Baseball. He also had a single swing and miss against his change, although he threw 14 of those.

From Brooks Baseball, Guthrie’s velocity chart is a model of consistency.

Guthrie Velo 521

Guthrie threw five curves all night, none after pitch number 48. The massive dip around pitch 79 is his slow curve he will play with on rare occasions. Pitch f/x classified it as an eephus. And it was awesome.

Guthrie Eephus 521

It was a masterful performance. You could say Guthrie drove Uncle Hud’s bus on Wednesday. (Even though that sounds kind of NSFW.) As much as I loved it and as much as the Royals needed it, but the numbers suggest this is a performance we won’t be seeing too frequently. But as I said at the top of the post, Guthrie seems to have a knack of coming up roses in important spots. I tip my blogging cap in his direction. And hope he continues pulling those rabbits out of his magic hat.

Sure, it’s nice to take two of three from the White Sox, but the last thing you want to see is Danny Duffy exiting just three batters into the game.

Not good. Not good at all.

According to the Royals website, Duffy felt a “twinge” in his elbow on his second pitch of the game. He lasted 11 more pitches before he was pulled.

The warning signs have been there… He had a start skipped at the end of April and in his return against the Yankees on May 3, Ned Yost said Duffy, “couldn’t command his curveball at all, but he was overpowering with his fastball.” This jives with an elbow problem… The pitcher with a sore elbow has issues with location. Velocity isn’t usually affected. Indeed, much has been made of Duffy’s velocity this season. According to PITCH f/x data collected by FanGraphs, Duffy’s fastball is averaging 95.3 mph this season. That’s second only to Stephen Strasburg. (Impressive, although we have to note prior to Sunday, four of Duffy’s five starts have been at home, where the radar gun runs a little on the warm side.)

Anyway, after having difficulty commanding the curve in his first start since being skipped, Duffy really struggled in his next outing. Against the Red Sox on May 8, he walked five and consistently missed his spots up in the zone. He threw 102 pitches, but couldn’t get out of the fifth inning.

Then Sunday happened.

Now Duffy is back in Kansas City where he will get an MRI on the elbow. We hope for the best, but it’s likely he’s been dealing with this issue since his start against the Blue Jays on April 22. That start was like his outing against the Red Sox… Duffy walked five and couldn’t get out of the fifth inning while throwing 113 pitches.

I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think the MRI is going to bring good news. Best case scenario is a DL stint where rest is the prescription. Worst case… I’m not going to go there right now.

— The Duffy issue overshadows a late inning outburst where the Royal bats went berzerk hanging nine runs on the Sox in the final third of the game. Is it weird that the Royals have yet to have a double digit scoring game this year? Seems so. On Sunday, a ninth inning explosion where the Royals scored six runs and pushed their game total to nine, matched their previous high scoring game – a 9-11 loss against Cleveland. That was in the season opening homestand we no longer discuss.

The Royals didn’t have much life before Johnny Giavotella pinch hit for Chris Getz in the with two on and two out in the seventh.

For the record: I would much rather see Gio in the lineup instead of Getz. However, Getz has provided some value at the plate this year. He’s not a long term answer, but why not let him play everyday – even against the lefties. On the other hand, it doesn’t make any sense to call Gio up and not play him at least five or six times a week. But this is the Royals we’re talking about. Hardly any of their roster moves make sense. You already have Irving Falu up as your utility infielder, so why bring up another second baseman? It seems you either play Giavotella or find another platoon partner for Getz.

(Meanwhile, doesn’t all of this render The Yunigma irrelevant? Just a dreadful signing by GMDM and company. Actually, to call it dreadful doesn’t do it justice.)

— Yosty finally got around to shoving Eric Hosmer down in the batting order. About time. Hosmer got the day off in the finale of the Red Sox series to allow for two consecutive days away (the off day between Sox series) which made sense. Give him a mental break and a chance to simply think about getting in some work. Just like it makes sense to drop him in the order. Give him a few days with a different kind of look in the lineup and see what happens.

I know there’s a growing set of the fan base that advocates a trip to Omaha for Hosmer. I disagree. He showed last summer he’s a major league first baseman. Yes, this is a painful slump, but he needs to figure out how to work himself out of it at the major league level. He scorched Triple-A pitching last year for a month or so and more than held his own in the bigs.

Besides, don’t forget the guy still has a .171 BABIP. That number hasn’t moved in the last week. His strikeout rate is down. His walk rate is up. He just needs to have some of these hits fall in. They will.

— Jeff Francoeur hit his first home run of the year. Our long, national nightmare is over.

— Naturally, Luke Hochevar went out on Saturday and tossed seven innings of three-hit ball, walking a single batter while striking out five.

In my post from Friday, I noted that Hochevar’s issues were with his slider and how his release point shifted from the second half of last year. In the game on Saturday, his release point was fairly consistent with where it has been all season. And according to PITCH f/x, that was a relatively flat pitch. In fact, of the 21 sliders he threw, seven were put in play and five were fouled off. Hochevar didn’t get a single swing and miss with this pitch.

In this start, he recorded nine ground ball outs against seven fly balls. Hochevar lived around the plate and the Sox were up there hacking. On Saturday, it was a perfect storm of location, aggressive plate appearances and the damp, rainy afternoon.

— The Royals are 10-6 since that losing streak we don’t discuss.

This is the second post in a series of articles looking at the 2010 Kansas City Royals position by position.  In the first post, on catchers, I had an introduction which you can read here.

Below is the list of guys who had more than 20 plate appearances for the Royals while playing first base. Willie Bloomquist, Alex Gordon and Mitch Maier combined for 7 plate appearances.  I left them off this chart, but their numbers are included in the combined position table below.

Click to Enlarge

Not a gigantic surprise here.  Billy Butler got the bulk of the duties with Kila Ka’aihue coming in second.  I really liked how much time they gave Kila at first base after his call up.  I think that we already know what Butler has defensively, and it gives him the opportunity to spend some time learning the role of designated hitter.  For Kila, it was a chance to see what he could do as an every day player in the Big Leagues.  I don’t believe that 34 games is enough of a sample size to really tell what he can do and I expect him to be a regular in 2011. I heard some worries about whether or not Ned Yost would stick with Kila even if he struggled, but those questions were answered.  I think his willingness to understand sample size and to give guys an extended look are some of the best attributes of the Royals Manager.

As for Billy Butler, well I think he might be one of the most underrated players in the American League.  More than that I believe he is the most underrated player amongst Royals fans.  Usually a guy will get respect locally but not as much run nationally as he should (see Shin Soo-Choo), however Butler gets a lot of grief from the local fan base.  I don’t know exactly what to ascribe that to.  Maybe it’s that he plays at best average defense, or that he hasn’t hit for as much power as some people had projected, he certainly got a lot of heat for hitting into a ton of double plays.  But what he does well, he does extremely well.  Which brings me to the heat chart.

Red = highest in category, Green = lowest

As a group the Royals first basemen were 5th best in the American League offensively.  A couple of things jump out at me from this chart.  First, the AL Central has some really good first basemen.  Miguel Cabrera, Justin Morneau and Paul Konerko are certainly no slouches.  Maybe that is why Butler gets the Rodney Dangerfield treatment, his peers in the division are world-class.  Using the heat chart, the strikeout rate for Royals first basemen really jumps out.  It’s the lowest in the American League.  Royals first basemen struck out 90 times all season, the next team on the list, the Detroit Tigers struck out 112, or 24% more often.

Billy Butler is just getting to arbitration and Kila Ka’aihue should get another long look at first base next year.  With the results put up in 2010, there doesn’t seem to be any need to improve the position offensively.  Eric Hosmer and Clint Robinson are the guys knocking on the door from the minors, but I’d figure the earliest either make it to Kansas City barring injury is September 2011.  The production at first could drop in 2011 if Butler gets more time at designated hitter and Kila plays more at first.  It’s my preferred setup because Kila is the more polished defender.

Nick Scott writes about the Royals for Royals Authority, podcasts about the Royals at Broken Bat Single and writes about the Chiefs for Chiefs Command. You can follow him on Twitter @brokenbatsingle, on Facebook or email him at brokenbatsingle at gmail dot com.

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This whole Jeckyll and Hyde thing with Brian Bannister cracks me up.  The day and night splits… It’s something that’s been going on for a long, long time.  Just for fun, here are his career splits:

Night – 5.43 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 1.68 SO/BB
Day – 3.87 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 2.00 SO/BB

And his splits from this year:

Night – 7.66 ERA, 1.75 WHIP, 1.65 SO/BB
Day – 2.37 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 2.25 SO/BB

I love it that people (i.e. reporters) feel the need to get to the bottom of this anomaly.  Just because Bannister is a smart guy, he’s supposed to have the answers.  Hilarious.

I’m not a smart guy, but here’s my guess at the answer:

It’s a strange coincidence.  You know, sometimes things just happen.  Did you know that Bannister has been much better at home this year than on the road?  Look at this:

Home – 3.45 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 2.56 SO/BB
Road – 7.30 ERA, 1.72 WHIP, 1.47 SO/BB

So he struggles at night, yet he was at home where he’s thrived this year.  Someone needs to figure this out!

This is just a bunch of noise.  Pick your split to fit your game story.  I suppose if Bannister had dominated the White Sox, we would have read something about how he likes sleeping in his own bed.

Look, Bannister is a back of the rotation starter.  His xFIP is 4.62, which is right in line with his career mark of 4.82.  He generally allows a bunch of base runners and has difficulty keeping them from crossing the plate.  A full 31% of all runners are scoring against him this year.  And that’s among the best rate of his career.

Last year, he kept the ball down and enjoyed some success.  This year, he’s elevating a bit more and has been touched for about three home runs for every two games. That’s not good.  Not good at all.  His strikeouts are down.  His walks are up.  He’s not having a good year.  Yet, he’s having a Brian Bannister kind of year.

He’ll have good starts.  He’ll have bad starts.  Some will come during the day.  Some will happen at night.  Based on his skill set, he’ll have more bad than good – no matter the time of day.  Not by a ton.  But a few to make a difference.  Enough to keep him in the back of a rotation.

Let’s quit trying to pinpoint Bannister’s issues with meaningless splits.

— Speaking of meaningless splits, did you know the Royals are something like 1-10 this year on Saturday.  Did you know if Bannister starts a night game on Saturday on the road, the universe could explode?

— Kendall Watch:  Fair is fair, so I’m obligated to point out Kendall has strung together a handful of decent offensive games and is now hitting .222/.301/.259 as a number two hitter.  Maybe I should give him a break since his OBP is above .300.  Plus, he only has one fewer extra base hit than Jose Guillen since June 3.

— Apparently, Guillen’s power has been suffering due to a blister on his foot.  So he’s been playing more outfield.  Makes sense.

— Blake Wood is getting a swing and a miss in around 7% of all strikes thrown.  Yet he enticed Paul Konerko to flail at three pitches last night.  That was kind of fun.

The Royals aren’t good at figuring out this roster business, are they?

Kind of a problem for a baseball team.

News came down yesterday afternoon that the Royals placed Rick Ankiel on the 15 day DL with his quad strain.  The move was retroactive to May 2.  Of course, the move could have been made retroactive to April 24, except SABR Trey used him twice as a pinch hitter in the Tampa series.  Two at bats, two strikeouts.  Awesome.

Big picture, it doesn’t mean anything.  Ankiel isn’t good at baseball, but he’s good for the Royals.  Allegedly.  Really, Mitch Maier is a better defender in center (minus the arm) and is better at getting on base.  So Ankiel’s return will be May 18th at the earliest.  Big deal.  The guy is fragile anyway… I’m betting he won’t be ready to be activated on that date.

Still, it reeks of incompetence that the manager uses a guy who’s not in the starting lineup because of injury as a pinch hitter just prior to landing on the DL just a few days later.  Par for the course when you’re following the Royals.

So Kila Ka’aihue gets the call.  It’s deserved.  The dude is banging .304/.466/.620 this year in Omaha with 7 HR, 24 BB and 17 SO in 103 plate appearances.  Solid.

I know there are a huge number of readers who are members of the Free Kila Society, so I don’t mean to be a downer, but I just get the feeling this guy has been recalled to be Justin Huber, Version 2.0.  Remember back in 2006, when Huber was recalled when Iron Mike Sweeney hit the DL?  We were all excited… Huber was a quality hitting prospect who had done good things in Omaha and the thought was the Royals were going to give him an extended look.  Except the Royals were committed to Doug Mientkiewicz and Matt Stairs.  Huber had 11 plate appearances and was shipped back to Omaha.  Out of site, out of mind.

Of course, those were different times in Kansas City.  The Royals, for some strange reason, thought they had the talent to compete.  Look at some of those lineups.  Dreadful.  With Allard Baird was calling the shots and Buddy Bell was absorbing the losses, it was decided it wouldn’t be fair to Dougie to hand some of his playing time to the rookie Huber.

That brings us to today.  Things are different… sort of.  The names have changed.  We now have Dayton Moore calling the shots and Trey Hillman absorbing the losses.  The team is still old, and they are still under the illusion they can compete, but they really can’t.

Ka’aihue is joining the team, but can he breakthrough a lineup that includes stalwarts such as Jose Guillen?  I guess this is where things are different from 2006.  Guillen is the DH and Billy Butler is the first baseman – the two positions where Ka’aihue plies his trade.  Butler deserves his time and is part of the future.  Guillen has been playing well, but isn’t part of the future.

So where does Kila fit?  The Royals management is a thick bunch, but even they know Butler needs to get as many innings at first as possible.  They’re not about to remove Guillen from the lineup, either.  They could play him in right, but damn that’s just painful to watch.  If they moved Guillen to right, they could slide DeJesus over to center and bench Maier.  That really weakens the outfield defense.  Ideally, they would platoon Ka’aihue and Guillen.  Let Ka’aihue hit against the right handers and Guillen can square off against the lefties.  A solution like this would likely piss Guillen off something fierce, but it’s something the Royals can afford to do since, you know, Guillen is in the final year of his contract and isn’t part of the future. Sadly, I doubt the Royals agree.  Guillen homered on Tuesday, so he remains a valuable cog in the wheel of mediocrity.  He stays in the lineup, Ka’aihue sits.

Keep those corks in your champaign bottles, Kila Krew.  He’s with the big club, which is good.  But with Guillen on the roster, he doesn’t have a spot, which is bad.

Anyway, I’m more interested in Mike Aviles, who is way, waaaaaay better than his counterpart, Yuniesky Betancourt.  Quite the triumphant return for Aviles, bagging three hits including a home run.

Aviles and the rest of the Royals offense overcame a slow start on Tuesday.  In the first three innings, the Royals had a total of eight runners on base with no outs.  Unique way to look at it, no?

Top of the first – DeJesus doubles to lead off followed by a Podsednik bunt single.
Top of the second – Kendall walks, Aviles singles, Maier singles.
Top of the third – Guillen singles, Callaspo singles, Kendall walks.

And of the cavalcade of base runners, the Royals scored exactly two runs.  Two.  One run came on a Billy Butler double play.  The other scored in the second when Chris Getz hit a bases loaded single to plate Kendall.

Offensive malpractice like that normally bits teams in the ass.  A strong performance by Luke Hochevar and a pair of late inning home runs rendered that moot.  More on Luke later in the week…

With about a week remaining until camps open, now is as good a time as any to take stock of the AL Central and see how the Royals rivals have done this winter. We know all about the Royals additions Scotty Pods, Ankiel, the South Side duo of Getz & Fields (or Fields & Getz) and the Punchless One behind the plate. How do the Royals moves stack up against their division rivals? Has anyone done enough to run away with the title, or will it be another close one?

And most importantly, how will everything shake out once the dust settles in October.

What follows is a brief capsule of each team in the Central and how the moves they’ve made effect their title chances. At the end of the article, you’ll find my current (in other words, subject to change) picks for the order of finish.

Chicago White Sox

This is where the strongest rotation in the Central lives. Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and a healthy Jake Peavy will be difficult for any other division rival to top. Hell, that could be the best rotation in baseball. Plus, those four can rack up the innings so if the Sox can get some quality work out of newcomer JJ Putz in the eighth and Bobby Jenks in the ninth, they’re going to get some wins no matter how bad the offense is.

Speaking of the offense, what exactly is going on here? Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones and Omar Vizquel are all newcomers who will certainly have some impact on the team, but it s not going to be positive. Pierre will have the most opportunity to do some damage as he figures to slide into left and will certainly bat leadoff. He s a player only Ozzie could love. Jones and Vizquel are backups although it s not difficult to imagine Jones could get some playing time if Alex Rios can t rediscover his stroke.

Once upon a time, I had a man-crush on Rios. I really bought into the hype that he was going to be one of the best young outfielders in the game. Now? Not so much. That’s what back to back underwhelming seasons will get you at Royals Authority – no more respect. And since Rios was downright horrible last year after his move to the South Side (.199/.229/.301 in 154 plate appearances) he s the leading candidate for Ozzie Guillen s Dog House. How great would it be if Jones reports to camp fat and Rios continues to forget how to hit? Imagine the quote gold we’d get from Guillen. And that it would be happening to the White Sox would be a bonus.

Cleveland Indians

We’ve said it before, but it just has to suck to have surrendered CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee and gotten so little in return. Matt LaPorta will get an opportunity to start, as will Lou Marson, so it’s probably still a little early to completely trash the trades, but still… Quite a bummer for Indian fans.

There’s still hope for Cleveland fans that Grady Sizemore will bounce back and Shin-Soo Choo can build off his breakout year. And maybe Travis Hafner can hit 20 bombs. Although he hasn’t done that since 2007. They picked up Austin Kearns and Shelley Duncan on minor league deals, which I suppose could help at some point. Other than that, their big major league move was to sign Mike Redmond. In this case, big is a relative term.

But the pitching even with Lee for half the summer the Indians had the second worse staff in baseball. And now they tentatively have Jake Westbrook penciled in as their number one starter with Fausto Carmona as their number two. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d prefer someone else at the top of the rotation other than a guy who hasn’t pitched in a year and a half after undergoing the Tommy John surgery. And with Kerry Wood at the back of the pen, this staff looks like it will once again flop to the bottom of the AL.

Oh, the Indians will likely have the lowest payroll in the division come Opening Day.

Detroit Tigers

The Verlander extension got a ton of ink, but that masks a simple fact about this team: They are extremely unbalanced with old players (Magglio Ordonez, Adam Everett, Brandon Inge) and newcomers (Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore are currently listed at the top of the Tigers depth chart in center and second, respectively.) That’s a potentially combustible mix.

I see some similarities with the Royals here: A lockdown top of the rotation ace (Verlander for the Tigers and Greinke for the Royals) and a big bat in his prime in the middle of the order (Miguel Cabrera and Billy Butler.) The Tiger veterans are a little better than the Royal veterans, but that just means they cost more.

Further, it will be interesting to see where Max Scherzer figures into the Tigers pitching mix. For now, he’s slated for the rotation but many feel his future lies in the bullpen. One thing is for sure, with Verlander and Scherzer in the rotation the Tigers will be making a ton of hitters look foolish. While Porcello doesn’t pile up the strikeouts, he is developing into a talent. Beyond that, there are a ton of question marks for the rest of the staff. For Tiger fans that’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins overhauled the middle of their infield by trading for JJ Hardy in November and then acquiring free agent Orlando Hudson just last week. Both players represent upgrades from the players they are replacing. Hardy is superior with the glove and is a prime candidate for an offensive rebound from his dismal 2009. He has 20 home run power, but before we project any power numbers, it will be interesting to see how the Twins new outdoor stadium plays. Hudson is solid with the glove, with better range to his left than back up the middle. Offensively, this is a huge win for the Twins. Last summer, their 2B hit a combined .209/.302/.267. Yuck. That s Royals designated hitter territory. (Memo to Dayton: Check on the availability of Matt Tolbert!) Hudson will have no problem improving upon that production.

Last year, the Twins had an extremely productive offense – one of the best in the league. Their 5 runs per game was the fourth best rate in the AL, behind the other three playoff teams. (Yankees, Angels and Red Sox were one, two and three respectively.) I suppose we can expect a little less from MVP Joe Mauer and the Twins still are going to give some at bats to Delmon Young. Still, you have to admit the Twins have improved their offense.

The big mystery is the aforementioned Target Field. Past years, the Twins held a distinct home field advantage and knew exactly how to tailor their club to the Metrodome. Now, it’s anyone s guess.

Quick Summary

The division still belongs to the Twins who were able to upgrade an already solid offense. The Sox could pose a threat with their rotation, but haven’t replaced the power they lost when Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome left as free agents. It feels like the Tigers are looking toward the future and the Indians are hoping a pitching staff cobbled together with spit and duct tape holds up.

The Royals haven’t done much to improve their team but it’s not difficult to envision a scenario where they finish third. That’s an optimistic, if everything goes right, best-case scenario finish.

So here’s my predicted order of finish in the Central. I ll revisit this about a week before the season starts and make changes as necessary before submitting my final selection just prior to Opening Day.

1. Twins
2. White Sox
3. Tigers
4. Royals
5. Indians

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