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Deconstructing The Process

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The Royals enjoy an off-day today at what is basically the halfway mark of spring training.  Without a doubt, how a player performs in the second half of spring training is much, much more important than how he performed in the first half, but enough has transpired for us to know that the Kansas City Royals we thought we would see on April 6th are going to look a little different.

The consensus prior to camp was that the Royals would open up with this lineup:

  • Alex Gordon LF
  • Johnny Giavotella 2B
  • Eric Hosmer 1B
  • Billy Butler DH
  • Jeff Francoeur RF
  • Mike Moustakas 3B
  • Salvador Perez C
  • Lorenzo Cain CF
  • Alcides Escobar SS

Now, and admittedly it is still a long time until Opening Day, the lineup might well look like this:

  • Alex Gordon LF
  • Lorenzo Cain CF
  • Eric Hosmer 1B
  • Billy Butler DH
  • Jeff Francoeur RF
  • Mike Moustakas 3B
  • Yuniesky Betancourt 2B
  • Brayan Pena C
  • Alcides Escobar SS

Obviously, the injury to Salvador Perez and the revelation that he might not be back until deep into June, has thrown that position into uncertainty.   Whereas we thought Brayan Pena and Manny Pina would battle for the backup spot, we now have Pena entrenched as the starter, Pina hurt and minor league veteran Cody Clark the odds on favorite to backup Pena.   You have to kind of root for the 30 year old Clark, who is touted as an excellent handler of pitchers and good defender, but a tandem of Brayan Pena and Cody Clark does not excellent make the Royals strong behind the plate.

At minimum, the Royals have touched base with free agent Ivan Rodriguez, who at 40 years old is a shadow of the guy who tormented Kansas City for years.   I would not be completely surprised to see Pudge in a Royals’ uniform come April, once he realizes that the phone is not going to ring anymore.  Frankly, not a bad gig for a 40 year old:  play regulary for two and a half months, then enjoy the big league lifestyle for the summer and catch one a week.   In my mind, a Pudge/Clark tandem seems stronger than a Pena/Clark or Pena/Max Ramirez unit, but you would not be off base to disagree.

Of course, the Internet and Royals blogosphere consortium erupted with Ned Yost’s revelation that Yuniesky Betancourt was firmly in the mix for the regular second base job.  Many of us sensed that the Betancourt signing as a utility infielder would morph into 500 Yuni at-bats in 2012 and we may be looking right down the barrel of such an occurrence.

Now, I am not going to get all wrapped up in angst over this just yet.   First, we don’t know that this will actually come to fruition:  a big couple of weeks at the plate for Giavotella could still net him the job.   Still, we know the club is concerned about Johnny’s defense and various reports from those who have been to spring training games (several of them who I know are Giavotella supporters) reinforce those concerns.   As Royals’ fans, we have seen Esteban German and Alberto Callaspo mangle second base, but Alberto did so while cracking almost 70 extra base hits that year.   The Royals have to see enough this spring to indicate that Giavotella is really going to hit (not just hit better than Getz) or they simply will not put up with his ‘no play is routine’ defense.

When I first heard of the Betancourt in the second base mix scenario, my initial thought was that the Royals were thinking Betancourt at second, Giavotella to Omaha, with Getz on the bench.  When they wanted to actually utilize Yuni in his ‘utility role’, then Getz would play second and Yuni third or short, but would that work to essentially rest Mike Moustakas against tough left handed pitching when it required inserting the left-handed hitting Getz into the lineup.   While I bristle at the idea of Yuni at second and Getz on the roster, I will admit that Chris Getz has higher career numbers versus lefties than against righties (.280/.330/.327 vs. LHP).

Now, what I really wonder, however, is IF Betancourt is the regular second baseman and IF Getz is on the bench, THEN does that mean that right handed third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff makes the roster over the fifth outfielder (either Maier or Dyson)?   Kouzmanoff, who has a career line versus lefties of .279/.322/.453, and carries a pretty good defensive reputation at the hot corner might make sense on this particular version of the roster.  Let me stop for a moment and offer that I am not onboard with this shift.  The Royals need to find out if Johnny Giavotella can hit enough major league pitching to justify his iron glove and the first couple of months of 2012 is a far better time see about that than the first couple months of 2013.

So, the position players that just ten days ago seemed almost locked in, could not break camp in a rather drastically different form than we expected.   We say that, without even mentioning the ongoing struggles of Mike Moustakas (a notoriously slow starter, by the way).   One backup outfielder, two backup infielders (both of whom play one just one position) and at least one catcher we did not even consider as a possibility last week.  Yep, things are different and then, Joakim Soria walked off the mound yesterday.

Soria, who has not gotten anyone out all spring as it is, left the game with a twinge or a pull or an ouchie in his elbow.  It frankly does not sound good.   Again, it could be nothing, but that is not how the Royals’ spring has been going.    Given that Soria has been dramatically ineffective this spring, Kansas City may well utilize this injury, however minor, to buy Joakim some extra time in Arizona to figure out what the heck is going on.

Such a move thrusts Jonathan Broxton or Greg Holland or, more likely, both of them into a closing role and opens up a spot in the bullpen for a Tim Collins and/or Everett Teaford.  I wrote last week about the tremendous depth the Royals enjoy in the pen, so this really does not weaken them at all.   It also would allow the team to keep Luis Mendoza on the roster AND carry a second lefty.   If there is a bright side to your All-Star closer not being healthy, I guess that is it.

To be honest, before Salvador Perez went down, I was pretty confident that I had the 25 players who would break camp down to the very last name.   Now, I am confident in about 20 or 21 of those names and that is without even mentioning the struggles of Bruce Chen and Jonathan Sanchez (again, it’s early and veteran starters tend to come on late in the spring).   Without question, things have changed down in Surprise and are likely to continue to surprise (pun intended) as we edge closer to April 6th.

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

SALVADOR PEREZ

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

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

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

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

SPEAKING OF CONTRACT EXTENSIONS

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

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

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

ONE DOWN

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

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

SPEAKING OF THE ROTATION

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

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

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The Royals committed three errors in the first inning of yesterday’s game.  These things happen, especially in spring training and especially to young teams (or really old ones, I suppose). 

Anyway, it got me to thinking about defense, which invariably leads us down the winding path that has become defensive metrics.   Here’s one thing baseball traditionalists and baseball sabermetricians have in common:  they delight in thinking up variables that are not factored into whatever defensive metric might be up for discussion.   I cannot wait for the day when (if) Fielding F/X data becomes available to the public and the discussion over whether it is properly taking into account the angle of the sun versus the direction of the breeze versus the orientation of the moon.   It all won’t matter to us here in Kansas City who ‘just know’ that Chris Getz does all the little things and Yuniesky Betancourt really is a good fielder.

I digress…

While individual defensive metrics are likely to never fully satisfy the appetite of everyone, team defensive measurements are a little easier.  Bill James, long ago and before he was somewhat banished to the peninsula of the uninformed by the newest generation of sabermetricians, came up with a rather simple Defensive Efficiency.   Nothing fancy here, Defensive Efficiency simply measured the percentage of time a team converted balls in play into outs.   Of course, outs generally come easier with Roy Halladay sawing off bats as opposed to Kyle Davies serving up rockets, so this metric does have a pretty fair pitching component hidden within it.

That’s okay, however.  Dayton Moore’s mantra has been ‘pitching and defense’ since day one.   While it is humorous (and also quite exciting, by the way) that the Royals current greatest strength is a potentially dynamic offense, we know that Moore is still focused on his original mantra.   You need look no further than trading an offensive centerfielder with suspect range (Melky Cabrera) for a talented, but inconsistent, swing and miss pitcher (Sanchez).

So while Defensive Efficiency does not separate pitching from the equation, it does serve the purpose of defining the defensive side of the game, of which pitching is probably certainly the most important component.  However, one thing the original metric did not account for was ballparks.   As is so often the case, size matters. 

Since 2007, the high mark for the Royals was converting 70.2% of balls in play into outs and that actually occurred in 2007 and almost tied (70.1%) last season.  The league leader in this category usually resides up around 72.5%, with Tampa leading in 2011 with a robust 73.5%.   Those numbers, however, do not take the spacious confines of Kaufmann Stadium into account.

Baseball Prospectus took care of that for us, by adding a park adjustment to Defensive Efficiency and giving us PADE.  This metric is produced in a form where 0.00 is league average and 1.00 mark would indicate that a team converted one percent more balls in play into outs than an league average.   

Here are the PADEs of the Dayton Moore era:

  • 2007: -0.25
  • 2008: +0.34
  • 2009: -1.60
  • 2010: -2.24
  • 2011: -0.98

Last year, Tampa led baseball in PADE with a sky high 4.80 rating.   The second best was San Diego way down at 1.79.  In 2010, Oakland (2.72) narrowly edged Tampa (2.59).   The Twins were worst in 2011 with a -2.63 mark, while the Royals’ -2.24 in 2010 was last.

In the span of one season, Kansas City went from the worst defensive team in baseball to 21st overall.   They did so playing Aviles, Betemit and Mike Moustakas at third and with two months worth of Johnny Giavotella at second.   Not to mention a rookie first baseman who, despite some rather obvious defensive skills, did commit seven errors at first.   Advanced metrics are advanced metrics and eyes tell another story, but an error is still an error…..especially at first base.

Given that the Royals were running the second worst rotation in the American League out there every day, that level of improvement is a hopeful sign.  

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The Royals got off to a nice start yesterday, winning their spring training opener 6-1.  Billy Butler hit a home run, Lorenzo Cain went two for two, Luis Mendoza pitched two scoreless innings and it was apparently a super great day in Surprise.   If one wanted to, one could delve at great detail into what transpired on the diamond yesterday, but it would mostly be a waste of time (although it’s sure nice to have a box score to look at again, isn’t it?).  

Instead, let’s reset the Opening Day roster and narrow the focus on what the real battles this spring are.

Several weeks back, Ned Yost intimated that he would likely break camp with a twelve man pitching staff, which opens up one additional bench spot for the position players.   There is not much math to be done here as the Royals are as set in the field as probably any team heading into the season.

The catchers will be Salvador Perez and Brayan Pena.   While Pena was the odds on favorite to win the backup job even before Manny Pina was injured, he is a lock now.  We will probably see Pina in the majors at some point this season, but it won’t be in April.

First base and designated hitter are locked down by Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler, while the left side of the infield is also locked in with Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar.   Even the utility infield spot is a certainty with free agent signee and everyone’s favorite Royal Yuniesky Betancourt back in the fold.    I have grown to accept this signing and will find it tolerable  as long as Betancourt’s name is on a lineup card two times or less per week.

The remaining infield spot, second base, is Johnny Giavotella’s to lose.   As long as Johnny hits the ball hard regularly this spring and does not boot every grounder hit to him, he will be the Opening Day second baseman.  If he flounders horribly, then Chris Getz will get the nod.   There is a theory out there that Betancourt will end up playing second more than anyone else this year and it might well come true, but it won’t happen in April.   It will be Giavotella or Getz and, given both have options, the loser will be the opening day second baseman for Omaha.  

The outfield is set as well:  Gordon, Cain and Francoeur with Mitch Maier all but assured of the fourth outfield spot.  Maier is proof positive that if you work hard, keep your mouth shut and not mope about playing time, people will like you.  When people like you, they are happy to let you be their fourth outfielder.

If you are doing the math, you know that leaves one open spot for a position player.  The odds on favorite is Jarrod Dyson because he brings crazy, silly ability to the basepaths.  Although the Royals’ starting three all are viewed as plus defensive outfielders (in one fashion or another), Dyson is also a tremendous defender.  The last bench spot is really Dyson’s to lose with his only real  competition coming in the form of Chris Getz (assuming he loses the battle Giavotella) and possibly Kevin Kouzmanoff. 

I really do not believe the club will keep Getz on the big league roster to start the year, simply because he only plays second base and, again, has an option left.  It makes more sense to play Getz every day at second in Omaha while the club gets a good look at Giavotella.   With regard to Kouzmanoff you have a good deal of big league experience at third base and a right handed hitter to give Moustakas a break against tough lefthanders, but he also brings little versatility to the table positionally speaking.   Besides, how often do you really want to sit Mike Moustakas this year anyway?

Truthfully, it is Jarrod Dyson on the bench with Maier, Betancourt and Pena and the only real roster question is Giavotella or Getz.  You can watch all the other guys who get into games after the fifth inning all you want and listen to Yost and Moore discuss all their options to your heart’s content, but in the end there is not much left to be decided here.

Now, onto the pitching.   What happens with the last two spots of the starting rotation will have a tremendous effect on who makes the team as relievers.   Many/most of us believed that when the Royals announced that Aaron Crow would get a look at starting that the likely result would be that Crow would end up in the Omaha rotation to start the season.  The club, however, has indicated that should Crow not make the big league rotation, then he will break camp in the big league pen.

In addition, Dayton Moore seems to have a bit of an obsession over having lost Philip Humber one off-season ago and seems driven to make sure the out of options Luis Mendoza does not surface in Minnesota or Pittsburgh or wherever as a decent fourth or fifth starter.  Given that, should Mendoza not win a starting rotation spot, it seems very likely that he would also break camp in the bullpen.

We are getting ahead of ourselves, however. 

The rotation will have Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen and Jonathan Sanchez.   Some of you may debate whether that makes sense, but the Royals have already locked these three in.   From there, rather curiously, they have not assured Felipe Paulino a spot, despite the fact that he probably had as good or better 2011 than any of the top three.    While the organization will regale us with a long, long list of potential candidates, you can pretty much focus on five names:  Paulino, Mendoza, Crow, Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery.

Five names, two spots and, quite honestly, four names for one spot as I think Paulino is a double secret lock for the number four spot.  Keep in mind, Paulino is out of options and has been a disaster working out of the bullpen in his major league career.    All indicators would point to Paulino being all but a lock for the fourth rotation position.

That leaves one spot open with Danny Duffy the leader for this spot.  He could certainly pitch his way out of it and is not quite in the ‘his to lose’ position, but Danny has the inside track.  Should Duffy not win the fifth spot (and keep in mind, the Royals need a fifth starter basically right away to start the season), he almost certainly goes to Omaha and not to the pen.  Ditto for Mike Montgomery, who will have to blow everyone away to make the team out of camp.

Basically, this will be the most hotly contested spot on the 25 man roster this spring.   Again, while the Royals are likely to throw a whole bunch of names at us over the next month, the competition is really just Duffy, Montgomery, Crow and Mendoza.   Which brings us back to the bullpen.

In my opinion, there are four locks in the pen:  Joakim Soria, Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland and Louis Coleman.    That leaves three spots open, with one of those almost certainly going to a lefty.   The enigmatic Jose Mijares has the inside track, but I would not consider him a lock.   His competition is Tim Collins and Everett Teaford.  The Royals did not spend enough to sign Mijares to make it prohibitive to cut him and both Collins and Teaford have options.   The club can quite honestly award the first, maybe only, lefty spot in the pen to the whomever pitches the best.

Now, we are down to two bullpen spots and should Danny Duffy win the fifth starter spot, you can pretty much hand both of those to Aaron Crow and Luis Mendoza.   Additional competition here comes in the form of Kelvin Herrera, Blake Wood and the other two lefties mentioned above.   Again, we will be inundated with all sorts of names this spring, but the battle really comes down those mentioned above.

If you are willing to concede second to Johnny Giavotella,  a rotation spot to Felipe Paulino and a bench spot to Jarrod Dyson, you can then narrow your focus on camp battles to the fifth starter, left handed reliever and two other bullpen spots.  

It is spring training, where the box scores generally include twenty players, so hopefully this will let you zero in on the guys who are really battling for a big league job.   While there are not a lot of open jobs, it does not mean that this spring will be boring.  In fact, this is certainly the most exciting spring in many years.  It has been a long time coming.

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The Twins – who could use the bullpen help – thought so little of Jose Mijares that they cut him loose, rather than offer him arbitration. Meanwhile, the Royals – seeking to shore up one of the stronger aspects of their young team – saw an opportunity and plucked him from the free agent ranks. It’s an interesting look at how two AL Central rivals are positioning themselves for the 2012 season.

We know about Yost and how he wants to have two lefties in the bullpen. Well, in Mijares, he finally has that LOOGY he so often desired last summer. Check out his career splits:

Vs. RHB – .268/.353/.423
Vs. LHB – .212/.276/.331

Bullpens are by nature volatile. Mijares had his worst season by far as a major leaguer last summer… His walks were up, his strikeouts were down and his ERA ballooned to an unsightly 4.59. But even though his struggles, he was still able to get left-handed batters out. His line against lefties was .253/.330/.368. Again, those numbers were way off his career averages, but if Yost uses him in the proper context he’ll be a useful arm out of the pen.

The hope is, Mijares can rediscover some of his past success. What worked against Mijares last year was a notable drop in velocity – his fastball lost two mph over the last two seasons. There’s also the fact he threw a first pitch strike to only 51% of all batters. Major league average last year was a tick below 60%. Basically, he was falling behind way too often and then couldn’t get his fastball past hitters once he had to come back into the strike zone. His 93% contact rate was extremely elevated from his previous seasons.

The glimmer of hope in this was the fact Mijares’ strand rate was 68%, which is about 10% lower than his career average. Strand rate will fluxuate from year to year for relievers due to the small sample size, but his rate is so low, you have to figure he’s due for a positive adjustment.

Then, there’s the Mijares/Mauer kerfuffle from last summer. Mijares was brought in to the game to face Prince Fielder – who laced a two-run double – and wasn’t happy with Mauer’s game calling:

“I don’t know what’s going on with Mauer,” Mijares said. “He never put down a sign for breaking ball. Never. It was fastball, fastball, fastball, fastball.”

I’m pretty sure it’s against the law in Minnesota to speak ill of Mr. Mauer. Although I did enjoy his retort:

“Called for a fastball there,” Mauer said. “I didn’t call for it down the middle.”

Well said, Mauer.

Last season was a forgettable one for Mijares, but moving forward he’s worth the risk. The Royals have a deep bullpen, so if he bombs out early, Yost should be able to minimize the damage. And even if he pitches like last year, he’ll still be able to get left-handers out.

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I’m going to wrap this week with a couple of videos…

Rex Hudler met the KC media this week. I’m OK with The Wonder Dog – for now. I get the feeling I’m in the minority. I also reserve the right to change my opinion.

And we leave with this Gary Carter video. Growing up in an AL city, I didn’t have the opportunity to see much of Carter, but always enjoyed watching him on The Game of The Week or the postseason. I loved the way he played the game.

This is Carter’s final plate appearance of his last game. It’s awesome for so many reasons… I’ve watched this about 20 times. Pure Kid.

Awesome.

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.

Over the past three seasons, among pitchers who threw 400 or more innings, newly acquired Jonathan Sanchez ranked fourth in strikeout rate:  average 9.51 strikeouts per 9 innings.   Here is the top ten:

  1. Lincecum 9.79
  2. Kershaw 9.54
  3. Gallardo 9.51
  4. Sanchez 9.51
  5. Lester 9.43
  6. Verlander 9.29
  7. Greinke 9.04
  8. Latos 8.65
  9. Johnson 8.60
  10. Gonzalez 8.56

I love strikeout pitchers.   The ability to punch a hitter out is the single best weapon in baseball for getting out of a jam and, if you are really good (like the majority of the above top 10), it keeps you from ever getting into jams.

Using the same time frame and criteria, no pitcher has walked more batters per nine innings over the last three years than Sanchez.   This top ten list is not as impressive as the previous group:

  1. Sanchez 4.91
  2. Gonzalez 4.29
  3. Zambrano 4.11
  4. Happ 4.09
  5. Burnett 3.98
  6. Liriano 3.85
  7. Zito 3.82
  8. Billingsley 3.73
  9. Richard 3.70
  10. Jimenez 3.65

The free pass is easily one of the most annoying things that can happen when your team is playing the field.    Jonathan Sanchez not only leads in this category, but he dominates it.

Again, using the same criteria, Sanchez has posted the fifth lowest BABIP among pitchers.  There is a good deal of luck in this number and it certainly is tremendously effected by the defense played behind you, but a three year test of BABIP is some indication of hitters’ inability to make solid contact.   This is a somewhat eclectic top ten:

  1. Lilly .256
  2. Cain .258
  3. Arroyo .261
  4. Kennedy .263
  5. Sanchez .265
  6. Weaver .267
  7. Hudson .268
  8. Lewis .270
  9. Kershaw .271
  10. Wolf .271

Ninety pitchers have thrown 400 or more innings between 2009 and 2011.   Among those, 18 have a swinging strike percentage of 10% or more (the leader is Francisco Liriano at 11.9%) and Jonathan Sanchez is tied for ninth at 10.2%.

None of this should surprise anyone who follows the Royals or the Giants.   Sanchez labors to throw strikes, but is extremely effective when he does.  Given that he is not a particularly hard thrower (his average fastball sits a tick below 91 mph) it would seem that a good portion of Sanchez’s effectiveness comes from the fact that he is pretty wild.  That is not ideal, obviously, but it might pretty much be who Jonathan Sanchez is and forever will be.

Since becoming a full time starting pitcher in 2008, Sanchez’s earned run average has shown some dramatic changes:

  • 2008 – 5.01
  • 2009 -4.24
  • 2010 – 3.07
  • 2011 – 4.26

However, Jonathan’s xFIP is remarkably consistent:

  • 2008 – 4.06
  • 2009 – 4.09
  • 2010 – 3.94
  • 2011 – 4.36

The Royals are obviously hoping for the healthy 2009/2010 version of Sanchez as opposed to the injured and even more wild than usual version we saw in 2011.   No matter which version we see this season, Jonathan Sanchez will be a wild ride.

Even in his stellar 2010 campaign, Sanchez was wildly inconsistent.   Ten times he threw seven or more innings and allowed two runs or less. Yet, six times in that same season, Sanchez did not make it out of the fifth inning and seven more times he did not even get an out in the sixth inning.   Here is a classic Jonathan Sanchez outing:

  • Five innings pitches
  • 103 pitches
  • 7 strikeouts
  • 4 walks
  • 2 hits
  • 1 run

There will be brilliant outings this season from Jonathan Sanchez.   There will be gut wrenching 105 pitch/5 inning starts and maddening 3 innings/5 run stinkers sprinkled in.   Sanchez will walk guys with astonishing regularity and strike them out even more often.   The Royals hope they are getting 180 innings of high threes/low fours ERA.   Some are worried that they will get 125 injury plagued walk filled innings with an ERA closer to five.

Here’s what we know:  Jonathan Sanchez will not be boring.   That is both good and bad.

xxx

I have always found it odd that there is such a division between ‘statistical minds’ and ‘baseball minds’ in the modern game.   No game has so faithfully tracked statistics for longer than baseball.   In fact, I don’t think it would be possible to develop a team sport that lends itself more easily to record keeping and statistical innovation than baseball.

Yet, here we are in 2012 where you seemingly either ‘a nerd’ or a ‘baseball man’.  For those of you who believe you simply must be one or the other or have uttered the phrase ‘I don’t care what your numbers say, I know what I see’ or used this beauty in an argument ‘You are seeing what you want to, the numbers don’t lie’, may I present Felipe Paulino.

While many of us have jabbed the Royals about their apparent disdain for modern statistics, the acquisition of Paulino early last season is an example that, at least once in a while, they do listen to the ‘nerds in the corner’.   Sure, Jin Wong did not print off Paulino’s page on Fangraphs, slap it down on Dayton Moore’s desk and see Moore immediately pick up the phone to acquire Felipe, but it did get the big right hander on the Royals’ radar.

The Rockies designated Paulino for assignment on May 22nd and the Royals acquired him for cash (and not very much of it) on May 27th.   They were getting a pitcher who had fashioned a 7.36 earned run average in 14 innings of bullpen work for Colorado.   Prior to going to Colorado, Paulino had gone 1-9 with a 5.11 ERA for Houston in 2010 and 3-11 with a 6.27 ERA in 2009.  Frankly, the back of Felipe Paulino’s baseball card is hideous.

What the Royals’ saw, however, was a pitcher whose strikeout rate was consistently near one per inning (career 8.3/9) and one who had the ability to limit the home run ball when working as a starter (0.8/9).    Felipe’s fastball velocity had remained consistently at 95 mph through good and bad and despite unsightly traditional numbers, Paulino had posted xFIPs of 4.04 and 4.36 in 2009 and 2010.  The numbers said that Felipe Paulino should be better than he was.

Immediately, Paulino was better. 

He came out of the bullpen in his first Royals’ appearance, throwing 4.1 shutout innings against Texas.  Five days later, Paulino started against the Angels and threw five more shutout innings, striking out four and walking no one.

From that point on, Felipe made 19 starts for Kansas City.  He threw six innings or more in 13 of those starts and only once did Paulino not finish the fifth inning.   Twelve times, he allowed three earned runs or less.    As a starter for Kansas City, Paulino struck out 8.7 batters per nine innings and posted a strikeout to wal ratio of 2.42.   His xFIP was a solid 3.73 and Paulino posted an fWAR of 2.6:  tying for the team lead among Royals hurlers last season.

Paulino is predominately a fastball/slider pitcher who mixes in a changeup and a curve.   As a Royal, he used his change more often (10% of the time) and the curve less.  Simply put, Felipe Paulino is a power righthander who regularly threw 100+ pitches per start and generally held his stuff through the game.    At 6’2″ and 270 pounds, there might be some room for improved conditioning (and he did miss one start with some back issues), but one does not want to mess too much with a guy who throws 95 mph as a starter and does so for six innings.

Going into 2012, Paulino is not considered a lock for the starting rotation, but I have to believe he is close.  One wonders if the Royals wanted to ensure that Paulino was not ‘too comfortable’ with his 2011 campaign during the off-season and hence have not assured him a spot on the roster.  Past history suggests that Paulino simply does not take well to a relief role, but it also shows us that he might well become a solid number three/four starter.

Felipe Paulino, whose acquisition was a perfect marriage of sabremetrics and scouting, was a great find for the Royals last season.  The 28 year old was a perfect stopgap in a year when the organization’s pitching prospects marked time.  He is likely to be Kansas City’s number four starter in April and, as a guy you hand the ball to and pretty much know will give you six innings and keep you in the game, it is not unreasonable to see him as a number four starter on future contending teams.

xxx

 

There are a lot of interesting things about Bruce Chen:

  • He’s 5 years older than the next oldest guy on the 40 man roster.
  • He’s played for 10 different teams.
  • He’s of Chinese descent, but he’s from Panama with a Panamanian accent.
  • He’s hilarious and he has a Will Ferrel moment.
  • His middle name is Kastulo which means “beaver”, according to the internets.
  • He’s the biggest off-season free agent acquisition that the Royals have made in their quest to win the World Series in 2012.

The last of those is both as good and bad as it sounds. In 2011 he was the third most valuable starting pitcher in what was a pretty terrible starting rotation. He was effective when he was healthy, but he missed a large chunk of the season on the disabled list. He ended up being better than I predicted and even with the time missed he was a solid asset.

However it says something about the intentions of Royals management when this is the centerpiece of their free agent acquisitions. Clearly the Royals, given their budget should probably avoid spending too much money on free agents, but I’m not exactly convinced that they made the best use of it this off-season.

That’s not to say I don’t like the signing of Bruce Chen. It’s a low risk signing for a guy that the team is comfortable with and has shown that when he’s on the mound he can contribute positively. I think the roster is better with him on it, but do they really have enough talent through trade and development to sign Chen and call it good?

The simple answer is no. But it gets significantly more complex when the budget and market are taken into account. The relevant question is whether the Royals have acquired the most talent for the money they’ve been allocated, my gut says no, but that’s really a separate point. We are supposed to be talking about Bruce Chen.

What I don’t get about Chen is that he averaged more walks and fewer strikeouts than Luke Hochevar, yet is considered by many to be the superior pitcher. Sure, he’s a crafty lefty, but in the end, he’s just a pitcher. He doesn’t have anything special and I don’t believe that he has found something unique this late in his career. At the risk of repeating my error before last season, I just don’t believe Chen can be effective in 2012.

That’s not to say he can’t be a benefit to the team or that he was a bad acquisition. However, he isn’t the late blossoming miracle that fans and some analysts think he is. He’s also not anywhere near the free agent acquisition that this team needed int he off season.

 

 

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