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Alex Gordon struck out four times on Wednesday night. It was one of, if not the worst, games of the season for the Royals and (obviously) for Alex.  These things happen.  You know, baseball and such.

Not only do these things happen, they happen more often than you might think.  Four strikeouts or more in a single game?  It has happened 109 times to a Royals’ batter and actually three times prior to Wednesday to Alex Gordon.

Bob Hamelin, Greg Gagne and Bo Jackson all hold the distinction of striking out FIVE times in one game.  I remember listening on the radio to the game when Jackson managed (?) the feat against the Yankees on April 18, 1987.

Gordon is the first Royal to strikeout four times this season, but Lorenzo Cain did so twice in 2014 and was joined in this unlucky club by Omar Infante and Eric Hosmer.  Cain also struck out four times in a game in 2013, while Hosmer did so in 2012.  Also getting the quad sombrero in 2012 were Billy Butler, Jarrod Dyson and Mike Moustakas twice.  To be fair to Mike, however, one of those four strikeout games came when he managed seven plate appearances, so not really a sombrero if I am reading the unwritten rules of baseball correctly.

Somewhat interestingly, Gordon’s other three occurrences all came in 2011, which was arguably the best offensive season of his career.  In all three of those games, Gordon actually batted five times and got hits in two of those contests.  Old friend, Jeff Francoeur struck out four times twice in 2011, in the span of just two weeks.  Frankly, I’m surprised it didn’t happen more often.

Going back beyond 2011, you run into a string of Royals who will neither surprise you, nor stir up longing for the past:  Guillen, Pena, Brown, Sanders, Guiel, Gotay, Berroa, Harvey.. you get the picture. Of course, it happens to the best, too.  Mike Sweeney did it, so did Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye.  Michael Tucker managed to do it two times in each stint with the Royals.

Bo Jackson, struck out four times in a game FIFTEEN times, fourteen times more than Joe Zbed ever did.   Pitcher Dick Drago struck out four times in a game four times, both a testament to bad hitting, but good pitching I suppose.   Hal McRae did it (twice), Willie Wilson and Amos Otis did it once.  Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew wore the hat once in his one season with Kansas City.  You know a Hall of Fame member who didn’t strike out four times in a game?  George Brett. Not once, not ever.

There are plenty of obscure names on the list, but I will wager the most obscure would be Scott Northey, whose major league career consisted of 68 plate appearances with the 1969 Royals.  The very first Royal?  Jackie Hernandez on June 6th, 1969.

Baseball is full of bad days and Alex Gordon had one on Wednesday.  How did he do the following game the first three times?

One for two with a home run, two walks and a hit by pitch. Two for four. Two for five with a double.

 

Earlier today, it was Alex Gordon and his wrist.  Just a few hours later, it has become Alex Rios and his hand.  Broken, you know.  Out indefinitely.

Lots of speculation with this news, not the least of which was the removal of Terrance Gore from his AA game today.  In combination with the speedster already being on the 40 man roster, one would be led to believe that Gore will take Rios’ spot on the 25 man roster.  I don’t hate it.

After all, it took six games and an injury to get Jarrod Dyson into live action and, far as we can tell, neither Eric Kratz or Christian Colon really exist.  This is not a team or a manager that is going to utilize the bench very much. Quite frankly, if you want strategery, Gore is probably more likely to see action than say a Whit Merrifield or someone of that ilk.

In the regular lineup, it appears that Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando will platoon and likely do so in right field with Lorenzo Cain staying in center. Dyson, I assume because he is small and fast, is perceived as not having a good arm.  Truthfully, Dyson’s arm is no worse than average, probably not a lot different than that of Cain.  I like the idea of the guy playing everyday (Cain) staying in one spot, where he might be better than Dyson anyway.  So, keeping Lorenzo in center and leaving rightfield to Dyson and Orlando makes sense to me and likely leads to better overall defense than the Royals were getting out of Rios.  That is, by the way, not a criticism of Rios’ early season defense, but more a compliment for the amount of ground Dyson can cover.  It should also be noted that Orlando is considered a superb defender with a very good arm.

The Royals are not blessed with a ton of major league ready depth, but they actually were assembled to, at minimum, get by with an injury to the very player who got hurt.  Write this down, because I’m sure it has never been said before, are part of the game.  This is as good a time and as tolerable a position to take the hit as the Royals could hope for.  It’s not the best situation, but it is far from the worst.

Remain calm, everyone.  Don’t panic.

 

Alex Gordon is off to a 1 for 16 start and that one hit was a seeing eye roller up the middle that was not exactly mashed.  There has been some mock-snarky panic, some actual concern and an occasional casual fan wondering if they shouldn’t play ‘that kid’ Orlando more.  Hey, Paulo Orlando is a great story.  A guy I touted highly as a prospect long ago and then gave up on.  A guy who did something that had never been done in baseball by hitting triples for his first three career hits.  Let’s not get carried away, however.

Quick aside.  With Orlando’s triples this year and Brandon Finnegan’s College World Series to actual World Series in the same season feat last year, Kansas City has had two guys in two years do something that has not been done in baseball ever before. It is hard to find something that has not already been done in this game these days – especially something good.  Just kind of a cool side note.

Anyway, back to Gordon.

In a rather amazing trick, Gordon has a .348 on-base percentage despite having just one hit in five games.  That number is courtesy of three walks (one intentional) and four hit by pitch. Getting on base half the time via the hit by pitch is a hell of a way to make a living and, check the math on this, likely not a sustainable model.  Rickey Henderson posted on-base percentages of .400 and .410 in back to back seasons despite hitting below .250 both years.  In one of those (1997), splitting time between Seattle and Anaheim, Rickey hit just .183 in 144 plate appearances but still got on base at .343 clip.  I am not comparing Gordon to Henderson (Alex does not refer to himself in the third person and seems to be aware of who his teammates are and even knows their names), just another fun set of numbers to go with a quirky early season line from the Royals’ Gold Glove left-fielder.

Early is the key word in the previous sentence.

Seven games into 2014, Gordon was sporting a triple slash of just .231/.276/.308 with no home runs. I believe you will note that 2014 turned out alright for Alex. He started hot in 2013, but in 2012, Gordon began the season 0 for 16, didn’t get over the Mendoza line until April 26th and wound up hitting .294/.368/.455. Even in 2011, Gordon started 2 for 13 before notching 11 hits in his next four games on his way to his best triple slash line of his career and tying for his best WAR season of his career.  The point of this is that a) Gordon has a bit of a slow start history, b) five games is JUST FIVE GAMES and c) a player in Gordon’s physical condition who has put up fWARs of 6.6, 5.5, 3.7 and 6.6 the last four years suddenly does not lose it.

Let’s also keep in mind The Wrist. Is it healthy? I don’t know – Ned has not called me this morning (weird, right?), but as cautious as the Royals were throughout the spring, it is hard to believe Gordon is out there playing in pain. And they were cautious this spring.

Gordon only appeared in 10 Major League spring training games, logging just 35 plate appearances:  basically half of the other regulars.  That is also not the entire story, either.  The wrist surgery had to interfere with Alex’s off-season workouts.  We have all heard tell of Gordon’s dedication to working out and while he certainly did not let himself go, the sore wrist and eventual surgery certainly changed the regimen this off-season.  Let’s not underestimate the impact of a change of routine to a creature of habit.

While I am not privy to how many times Gordon steps in a batting cage during the winter, but I would wager the wrist kept him from doing it as much as in prior years. Even after getting back into physical shape, Gordon was still not cleared for actually swing a bat until spring training games were already underway.

Bottom line of all this: Alex Gordon is more than 30 spring training at-bats behind. I don’t know that it’s a stretch to say the Alex likely doesn’t quite feel like he is ready and may feel a tad behind. The wrist may not be, or at least feel quite as strong as it has before. True or not, it would be human nature to have at least a sprinkling of those thoughts going through Gordon’s head right now. Hell, who knows? None of that may be happening and it all may simply be that Alex Gordon is 30 at-bats behind the rest of baseball.  If that is all there is to this story, then Alex is a couple of games from being right where the Royals need him.

If a 7-0 start means nothing, then a 1-16 start from a hitter means even less.  I’m leaning towards Alex Gordon getting more hits this weekend against Oakland than Billy Butler collects against the Royals.

By the way, 7-0 is kind of fun, isn’t it?

The most recent scuttlebutt (that’s right: scuttlebutt) out of camp reveals that Ned Yost is leaning towards a seven man bullpen and four man bench. That certainly is a more sensible approach to roster management.

The first three bench spots are locks:  Jarrod Dyson, Eric Kratz and Christian Colon. The same Royals.com article that suggests the prevailing winds are blowing towards a seven man pen also speculates that the fourth spot would likely belong to one of Paulo Orlando or Moises Sierra.   I would, however, offer that infielders Ryan Jackson and Ryan Roberts might also be in the mix, if only because they can play the position that is likely the weakest in the lineup: second base.

All four of those players hit right-handed.  Roberts has a ton of big league experience and can play some outfield if necessary. Sierra has played 180 games over the past three seasons in the majors, while Jackson has limited big league time.  Orlando has been in the organization for seemingly forever. If you squint just right, you can see some potential upside in Sierra, but in the end you have four guys who are, not so shockingly, ‘last guy on the bench’ guys.

The bench – you know, the place that Ned Yost really didn’t discover existed until the post-season.  Kudos, however, to Yost for what I really thought was a good job of managing both his bench and bullpen (Ventura in relief excepted) during that time.  Does that mean that he will continue to use it to such an extent?  I’m skeptical, if only because long term change is hard (I’m an old guy, and basically immune to change myself) and also because the American League regular season simply does not lend itself to using the bench much.

How could Yost utilize a four man bench this season, should he so choose?

Well, we know Kratz is going to catch…once in a while.  The Royals might try to assign Kratz to a particular starter if only to force Yost to not write Sal’s name in the lineup every fifth day.  They could simply go with the old ‘day game after night game’ plan, which would give Perez every Sunday and some Thursdays off. Whatever it is they need to plan it out and stick to it.

The second part of the backup catcher equation is that Yost, like many managers, is absolutely terrified of not having his backup catcher waiting on the bench for that one foul tip that knocks his starting catcher out of the game.  While Kratz has some appeal (not a lot, some) as a pinch hitter due to his moderate amount power, Yost will almost never, ever use him in that role simply because the idea of having Perez go down with a late-game injury and not have a bonafide catcher ready to go in.

Colon is the utility infielder, a guy likely to get a start at second every week and maybe one a third every other week. I don’t see him pinch-hitting for either Infante or Moustakas (or anyone else for that matter) and, short of continuing nagging injury issues with Infante, getting more than six or seven starts per month.  Standard utility infielder sort of stuff.  We can lament that a fourth overall pick in the draft turned into this, but it is what it is at this point.

In the end, the entire discussion about the bench and it being three guys or four, really comes down to how Yost wants to use Jarrod Dyson.  If the Royals were hellbent on roster flexibility, they likely would opt to keep Ryan Roberts, who has played some outfield in addition to his usual infield roles (although not much short, by the way), but that they are thinking the fourth bench spot will be possessed by an outfielder tells me they want the freedom to use Dyson more often.

In particular, they want to pinch-run Dyson for Kendrys Morales – likely any time Morales gets on base after the sixth inning.  In reality, Yost should really use Dyson to run not just for Morales, but also Moustakas and Infante as well (yes, Perez, but refer to the above and just accept it).   We can speculate all we want about how to really, REALLY, utilize the bench, but when the real games start and Ned Yost is in command, bench utilization comes down to when and if to insert Jarrod Dyson into a contest as a pinch-runner.  That is your entire Kansas City Royals bench equation.

Now, after a few months pass, the Royals may grow weary of Alex Rios’ defense in rightfield and using Dyson as a defensive replacement might well come back. We know that the best defense alignment the Royals have – regardless of whether we see ‘good Rios’ or ‘disinterested Rios’ – is Gordon-Dyson-Cain.  I doubt that we will see any sort of regular defensive substitutions in the outfield until summer time.

Given the Royals’ lineup and their manager’s preference for playing his regulars regularly, it is not necessarily a criticism that the entire theory about who and how many players to carry on the bench centers around how much the team utilizes Dyson as a runner. In fact, given the realities of the situation, it is probably the right way to look at the situation.

 

Did you hear the news? Mike Moustakas is going to bunt more to beat the shift in 2015.

David Schoenfeld had some great numbers at ESPN’s Sweetspot blog. For instance, Moustakas hit just .154 in 2014 when he hit a grounder. That was the third worst ground ball batting average among players who hit at least 100 ground balls last summer. For perspective, major league hitters posted a cumulative .248 batting average when hitting a grounder. So Moustakas was almost 100 points worse than league average in this split. That’s… not healthy.

Sadly, that batting average on ground balls wasn’t out of the ordinary for Moustakas. Although it didn’t used to be that way. Here are his batting averages over his career when hitting a ground ball.

2011 – .254
2012 – .245
2013 – .172
2014 – .154
Career – .202

Interesting that the numbers peaked in his first season and have been sliding ever since. That runs parallel with his offensive performance taken as a whole. It also coincides when opposing teams started deploying the shift. Although it should be noted he was only shifted 23 times in 2013. Maybe the shift just got in his dome. Or something.

Also of note was the fact Moustakas was shifted 290 times last year, which, according to Schoenfeld, was the ninth most in baseball. That was in 500 plate appearances. A whopping 58 percent of the time, Moustakas was shifted. From Brooks Baseball, here is the ugly spray chart for his entire 2014 season.

Moustakas2014Spray

We know Moustakas has always been a pull hitter. Guys with his power potential usually fall into that category. However, he was really pulling the ball on the ground last summer. The next chart is a spray angle. The lower the plot, the more he pulled the ball put in play. Basically, his response to the shift? Moustakas hit more ground balls to the right side, and into the shift. That seems counterproductive.

MooseAngle

(I was struck by the outlier of August of 2013, his month of most extreme ground balls. It also coincides with one of his finest months of his major league career, where he hit .301. It also coincides with one of his lowest ground ball rates in a month of his career.)

I’m not sure what bunting will solve. Sure, it may add a few points to his batting average, but let’s not pretend he’s going to reach a respectable number. Last year, Moustakas collected 97 hits in 457 at bats. If he successfully laid down a bunt 10 times, that gets his batting average to .234, a modest boost of 22 points. In theory that sounds like it will work. I just question his ability to actually convert those bunt attempts into actually reaching base. Look at the spray chart again. Moustakas hits the ball so rarely to the left on the ground, if he starts showing bunt, the third baseman can play in and the shortstop can move to the hole between first and second. He pulls the ball so much, and makes such weak contact, the second baseman can just cheat closer to the first base side which could even cause opposing defenses to eschew the shift altogether. Therein lies the real problem with Moustakas: He rarely makes quality contact. His grounders are easy to defend because they lack punch.

Here’s a novel idea: Maybe Moustakas can make hard contact, hit fewer grounders, and really drive the ball. That would be fun. And incredibly unlikely.

Two on, two out, bottom of the ninth with the Royals down by two.  It looked and felt like many other nights this season:  the trailing Royals would do enough in the ninth to make it interesting, but ultimately not get the big hit.   We have seen all too often.

Then, John Axford threw his fourth straight 97+ mph fastball to Alcides Escobar and Escobar, as he has a tendency to do with fastballs drilled it for a game tying triple.   A couple innings later, Mike Moutaskas drew his third walk of the game to ‘drive’ in the winning run.   Say what you want about the level of play (at times very good, at times pretty bad), but these two games with Milwaukee have been interesting.

Back to Escobar.

At the end of April, Alcides was hitting .295/.329/.449.   I don’t think anyone really expected him to slug at that rate for an entire season and he didn’t.   By the end of May, Escobar’s triple slash was .303/.344/.404 and after last night, it stands at .292/.330/.392.   Let’s get one thing clear:  Alcides Escobar can hit .292/.330/.392 from here until the end of his contract and I will have not one complaint about it.

There is starting to be a growing body of evidence that Escobar might be able to hit at something resembling that clip.   Starting at June 1st of last year, Escboar finished out 2011 at a .274/.310/.391 pace.   Certainly nothing special there, but a vast improvement over the .216/.252/.253 line he sported on May 31, 2011.

Now, we have bandied about the ‘arbitrary set of dates’ line fairly often around here.   If you look hard enough, you can string together a start and end date for just about any player to make them look as good or bad as you want to.   Fox Sports KC are experts at that:  Yuniesky Betancourt leads all American League right handed second baseman in batting average with a runner on second and the temperature above 81 degrees.

However, I did not arbitrarily pick June 1, 2011 as a nice place to start out.  Not to be THAT guy, but I have been told by someone who was there, that in the first week of June last season, Alcides Escobar was given a ‘come-to-Jesus’ talk about needing to change what he was doing at the plate.   It’s outstanding to be a great fielding shortstop, but this is not 1965 and no team can carry anyone who hits .200 and slugs .250.

Since that point in time, Escobar started to hold his own at the plate.    Carrying that into 2012, Escobar has done more than that with the bat and I think you could call him an average offensive player.

Escobar’s current fWar is 1.1, his wOBA is .326 and his OPS+ is 98.   He has ten steals in eleven attempts.   Although the defensive metrics don’t like him as much as most of us like him, I have to believe that will even out as the year goes on.  It sticks in my head that early on last season, Alcides has some unappealing fielding metrics too, but ended up well into the positives by season’s end.  Of course, I’m old and drink a lot, so that might not be true.

For what the Royals are paying him through 2017, if Alcides Escobar is a 2.2 WAR player each year it will be a tremendous contract.   Buy your jerseys now, kids, because Alcides Escobar might end up being the best shortstop in Royals history when all is said and done.

xxx

 

Ned Yost trotted out three radically different lineups this past weekend against Arizona and managed to get one win.  Hey, for this particular Royals team, any win at home is an accomplishment.  After a 4-1 road trip, we all expected a better result than a 1-4 homestand.   That result was made all the more bitter by the fact that the Royals seemed in control of the first three games, only to lose all of them.

What this team does or, more precisely, does not do at home is a topic for another column.  Let’s get back to the lineups.   They were basically just all over the place – kind of like that softball team you were on that was not very serious and the batting order was simply the order in which you showed up for the game.   Frankly, I don’t blame Yost for trying some things and, for right now, I like Escobar at or near the top of the order, but it is probably worth noting that the most traditional of the three lineups this weekend did happen to score the most runs.

Truth is, though, you can design just about any lineup you want and as long as Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon are not hitting, it is likely to have production problems.   Just as the ball seems to find the weak defender, the circumstances of the game seem to put the slumping hitter in the eye of the storm at critical times.    Gordon, who is 1 for 25 in what Fangraphs describes as high leverage situations, seems to come up with two outs in the ninth every freaking night.    By contrast, Billy Butler has only 15 high leverage plate appearances thus far in 2012.

What’s going on with these two guys?

If you have been following the Royals at all this year, you have heard more than one reference to Eric Hosmer hitting in bad, make that horrible, luck.  That may sound like a copout, but the numbers back that up.

In 2011, Hosmer had a BABIP of .314 and a line drive percentage of 18.7%.   His 2012 line drive percentage is 17.6% (pretty much league average), but his BABIP is an almost bizarre .165.   You can’t make a living with a .165 BABIP, but you also should not have to endure a long stretch at that level if your line drive percentage is around league average. 

Those numbers are but one component of a player’s performance at the plate, but for a struggling hitter, Eric Hosmer does not exhibit any of the statistical evidence that would indicate that he is struggling.  His strikeout rate is down (14.6% in 2011, 11.6% in 2012)  and his walk rate is up (6.0% in 2011, 7.9% in 2012).     Hosmer is swining at fewer pitches out of the strike zone (almost 7% less than in 2011) and his overall contact rate is virtually identical to 2011.   Overall, after swinging at 48% of the pitches he saw as a rookie, Eric is swinging at 46% this year.  What the above shows is a player who is not hacking at everything, failing to make contact and losing his plate discipline.   

I don’t know what Eric Hosmer did, but he really pissed off the baseball gods.

Are pitchers approaching him differently this year?  A little is the answer.  Less fastballs, more changeups with everything else being thrown to him in roughly the same percentages as last year.   In 2011, Hosmer put 26.5% of changeups thrown to him into play, but in 2012 that percentage is just 15.4%.   More changeups, less balls in play, hmmm.

In 2011, Hosmer swung at over half the changes thrown to him, whiffing just 11.3% of the time.  While Eric is not swinging at the change as much in 2012 (41%), he’s missing it almost 17% of the time.   I am not going to tell you that the changeup is the reason for all of Hosmer’s struggles, we are talking about just 15% of the pitches he has seen and, as the numbers above show, Eric’s overall plate performance has not really taken a hit.  The changeup is an issue, but it is hardly the only reason Hosmer is buried beneath the Mendoza line.

Here is what I will tell you:  I don’t believe you learn to hit major league changeups in AAA and I don’t think you really consider sending Hosmer down until his strikeout rate jumps and his percentage of swings at balls outside of the strike zone increased dramatically.

If the solution for Hosmer is to keep sending him out there and bank on the odds turning in his favor (it works in Vegas, right?), then what about Alex Gordon?

After a sensational 2011 campaign, we wake up this morning to find Alex Gordon hitting .231/.320/.363.   Triple slash lines are hardly detailed analysis, but that ain’t what the doctor ordered.  Is Gordon striking out a lot?  He is, 21% of the time, but Gordon always has struck out a lot.   In 2011, when he was one of the better players in the American League, Alex struck out 20% of the time.   Plus, if you are about plate discipline, Alex’s walk rate is up from 2011.

Going down the same path as we did with Hosmer, we find that Gordon’s line drive percentage thus far in 2012 is 23.8% (it was 22% in 2011), but his BABIP is just .280 compared to a robust .358 in 2011.   Gordon had some good fortune last year, but he is having some misfortune so far this season.

Now, if you are like me, the thought on Gordon might be that he back to trying to pull everything.   Much as it seems like Gordon is always up with two outs in the ninth, it also seems like he grounds out to second base pretty much every at bat.   Truth is, Gordon is pulling the ball less than he did last year.

Here is how the balls in play breakdown for Alex in 2012:

  • Pull – 38%
  • Center – 41%
  • Opposite – 21%

And how it broke down in 2011:

  • Pull 44%
  • Center  – 31%
  • Opposite – 25%   

Basically, Alex is pulling less, going to the opposite field less and hitting up the middle more.  Using the middle of the field is generally considered to be a good thing, but in Gordon’s case it does not seem to be helping.

How about Hosmer?   Here is the breakdown for 2012:

  • Pull – 32%
  • Center – 38%
  • Opposite – 30%

And 2011:

  • Pull – 39%
  • Center – 34%
  • Opposite – 27%

Hosmer was pulling the ball considerably more in 2011 with considerably more success.   Maybe it is not such a good thing when we see Eric take a ball to the opposite field? That’s an oversimplification to be sure, but pulling the ball and being aggressive worked in 2011.   Would you tolerate a few more strikeouts for some more pop (or any pop for that matter) out of Hosmer? 

What’s the bottom line of all of this?  Pick a spot in the order for both of them, leave them there and wait it out.

xxx

 

By all accounts, Brayan Pena is a heckuva guy:  upbeat, happy, a non-complainer when it comes to his limited playing time.  While we like to boil baseball down to the numbers, Pena is one of those ‘team chemistry guys’.   Twenty-five guys in one locker room, one plane, the same hotel for six months straight:  you need some chemistry.

We can debate the overall value of good clubhouse guys, but it is obvious that the Dayton Moore led Royals’ put a high premium on that variable.  They traded Mike Aviles for a younger version of himself in no small part because of Aviles’ complaints about not being a full-time player and then traded that player, Yamaico Navarro, just a few months later mostly because they were concerned about his impact on the clubhouse.

The willingness to accept their roles is no small part of the reason Brayan Pena and Mitch Maier made the team last year and have the inside track on being Royals again in 2012.  Both guys play sparingly, but when they do, they are ready to go and play with enthusiasm.   They are different players, to be sure, but the attitude and what they bring to the team from a chemistry standpoint do have value.

Of course, that is all fine and good, but the object of major league baseball is to win.  It is nice to have happy players who get along, but it is better to have guys that can, you know, really play the game well.  In that respect, the days of Brayan Pena as a Royal may be winding down.

Pena brings an immediate appeal as being a catcher who can switch-hit, but his hitting has been in gradual decline.   Although he has received a fairly similar amount of playing time in his three seasons with Kansas City, Pena’s batting average has decayed:

  • 2009 – .273
  • 2010 – .253
  • 2011 – .248

So has his on-base percentage:

  • 2009 – .318
  • 2010 – .306
  • 2011 – .288

And his slugging:

  • 2009 – .442
  • 2010 – .335
  • 2011 – .338

As has Pena’s wOBA:

  • 2009 – .325
  • 2010 – .290
  • 2011 – .276

After hitting six home runs in 183 plate appearances in 2009, Brayan manged only one dinger the next year and just three in 240 plate appearances in 2011.  Oddly, all three 2011 homers were three run shots all in Texas – baseball’s a funny game.

On top of the declining offense, Pena is not a very good defensive catcher.   The Royals talk of him being ‘improved’ and ‘a hard worker’ behind the plate and I would agree, but improving from truly awful is a long way from being ‘okay’.   We all know that there is no good metric to quantify a catcher’s defense, so we have to read between the lines of what people around the game say.   When it comes to Pena, they are polite in their assessment:  kind of like how you might complement the really nice woman who works in your office on whatever ill-fitting, poorly selected outfit she wears to your Christmas party.

If Brayan Pena was 23 years old it would be one thing, but he turned 30 this January.   His closest comp on Baseball Reference is Bob Brenly, who actually had a break out All-Star season at age 30, but it is hard to see that happening with Pena.   Given that the current plan is to have Salvador Perez catch a ton of games (I have heard 135-140 floated out by the Royals themselves), the back-up catcher is hardly a position to wring hands over.

In a perfect world, it might be nice to have a veteran catcher with good defensive skills to mentor Perez (frankly, the Royals acquired Matt Treanor one year too early), but on the flip side, even those types of players would like to catch more than 28 games a season.   In that respect, Brayan Pena may be just the guy to back-up Salvador.

Frankly, if Salvador Perez flops in 2012, who the back-up catcher is will not keep the Royals from underachieving.  That is how important he is to this team and there is no way the Royals can go find someone who can provide insurance for that scenario.  They cannot afford to spend even decent money on a back-up catcher and, frankly, find me someone who would realistically be that guy.  I don’t know exactly what tree catchers grow on, but I do know that tree is really, really scarce.

Come April, I see the Royals breaking camp with Brayan Pena as their back-up catcher (he is out of options, by the way) mainly because he’s harmless.   The team is used to him, they know what they are going to get and, every once in a while – particularly in Texas – he will get you some hits.   The organization will likely have Manny Pina, a good defender, and Max Ramirez, a bad defender, catching in AAA, which makes more sense for both of those players than have them sitting on the major league bench.

In a perfect 2012 scenario, back-up catcher is the most irrelevant position on the the Royals’ roster.   If it turns out not to be irrelevant, then the Royals have big problems no matter who is filling that position.

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Clint Robinson will celebrate his 27th birthday on Thursday.

Besides Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur, Robinson is older than any Royals projected starting position player. Yet he has never swung the bat in a major league game.

Baseball people and prospect mavens have under estimated Robinson for years. He was undrafted as a college junior out of Troy University in Alabama. He played his senior year, hit .364/.449/.661 with 17 home runs and just 32 strikeouts, yet lasted until the Royals plucked him in the 25th round of the 2007 draft. Then they signed him for $1,000. He opened his professional career in Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League where he hit .336/.388/.593 and was named that league’s most valuable player. But the prospect watchers didn’t notice him until he won the Texas League triple crown – with 29 HR, 98 RBI and a .333 average – in 2010. And all that got him was a number 28 organizational ranking by Baseball America. Hell, in divvying up the players for our 40 man roster review, we forgot to include him.

Last season in Triple-A, Robinson’s rate stats took a step back – as you would expect as a hitter progresses through the system. Compare his killer 2010 season in Double-A with his results from the next level.

Still, not too shabby. What I like about that table is it looks like his plate discipline remained the same as his walk and strikeout rates both held steady. His approach was the same as he continued to spray the ball to all fields last summer. The big drop came in the power department where he hit six fewer doubles and six fewer home runs. (And his triples dropped from five in 2010 to a big fat zero last year. Yeah… He’s not exactly a triples kind of guy.) Surely the fact he was hitting against better pitching was part of the reason, though I suspect park factors are involved here as well. Still, he more than held his own in the PCL last summer.

Overall, we’re looking at a player who has put up solid minor league numbers over the last two seasons. Under normal circumstances, he would merit a long look in spring training.

But the Royals system isn’t a normal system. There’s so much depth… Of course, what can you do? Robinson is a first baseman – allegedly – but he truly projects as a designated hitter. That’s a role that is filled by Billy Butler, the Royals (current) best hitter. I suppose he could play first in a pinch, but that spot is locked down by Eric Hosmer for the next six seasons (hopefully). He throws left-handed and lacks mobility, so it’s not like you can give him reps anywhere else on the diamond. And it’s not like he’s trade bait. Since he’s not a prospect and because he’s yet to even sit in a major league dugout, there isn’t a single team who would give up anything of value to add him to their roster.

It just feels like Robinson’s Royal Destiny is to play out his career in Triple-A. At some point, he’ll move on to another organization – either as a minor league free agent, or as a waiver claim when he’s removed from the 40 man roster to make room for a new acquisition. As of now, he’s the ultimate Break-Glass-In-Case-Of-Emergency guy. And it would have to be one hell of an emergency for Dayton Moore to even think of reaching for that hammer.

Mitch Maier has done everything the Royals have asked.

As an outfielder, he’s played all three positions. While he doesn’t exactly play any one of those positions with distinction, the defense doesn’t notably suffer when he’s in the field. He passes the: “Oh My God, That’s Mitch Maier In The Outfield!” test because you’ve never actually spoken those words with an inflection of disgust. Let’s call him solid.

Of course, my favorite Maier moment of the last three years came on July 26 when he pitched a scoreless eighth inning against the Red Sox in Fenway. His fastball and his change averaged 75 mph. Yet he insists he threw both. I’ve shown this chart before, but I really like it, so I’m bringing it back for an encore… Here’s Maier’s velocity from his appearance:

That’s Our Mitch… Doing anything to help the team.

As a hitter, Maier isn’t going to set the American League on fire. I’m not even sure he’s ever had what you would consider to be a hot streak. Instead, you have a guy who gets on base at a clip that’s better than league average and doesn’t make many boneheaded mistakes on the bases. He owns a career .332 OBP. League average during his time in the big leagues is .329. He doesn’t have any power, but if he had pop, he wouldn’t be a backup.

He is what he is. And basically every team needs a player like Maier. Managers must take comfort knowing they have short-term cover should one of their three outfielders go down for any reason. He’s our safety blanket.

Why am I OK with Our Mitch and not with Getzie? Both are backup players who should – if the season goes according to plan – spend most of the summer on the bench. They both make just under a cool million. So why one and not both? Simple. Maier plays league average in nearly all aspects of the game provided he has limited playing time. He’s versatile. He won’t kill you with the bat. He’s not the prototypical grinder, full of grit and heart, like Getz. He just fills the utility role and fills it well. I wish we had someone on the infield who was like Mitch Maier.

Thanks to three outfielders you couldn’t remove from the lineup with a crowbar and Ned Yost’s allergy to pinch hitters, Our Mitch appeared in only 44 games – his lowest total since 2011 2008. With Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur returning to the corners, Maier’s hope for playing time hinges on the performance of Lorenzo Cain. Cain is the wild card in the outfield deck. If he struggles early in the season, Maier will likely see an increase in playing time. If Cain gets off to a hot start and can perform to expectations in his rookie season, Our Mitch will again be picking splinters out of his backside for most of the summer.

With David Lough waiting in the wings as the fourth outfielder of the future and with Jarrod Dyson outrunning cheetahs, road runners and other assorted speedy wildlife, Our Mitch doesn’t have much of a future in Kansas City. Fourth outfielders are a unique species. Enjoy him while you can.

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