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Deconstructing The Process

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We have reached the point in the winter where prospect lists and projections are accumulating. As January turns to February, it’s a nice diversion. Baseball is around the corner.

But do these lists and projections mean anything?

This year, PECOTA projects the Royals to win 72 games. Yikes. That’s like Year Two of The Process bad. This projection is causing so much gnashing of the teeth. On the surface, this projection seems incredibly unfair. Last year, PECOTA pegged the Royals at 79 wins and a second place tie with Cleveland. The Royals won 89, outperforming that projection by 10 wins. And they did that minor thing where they won the AL Pennant. I can just feel the indignation among certain corners of Royals Universe building. “PECOTA sucks! They are always wrong about the Royals! I hate them!!!”

That’s the natural reaction to that type of projection. It’s a macro view that elicits a macro reaction. Myself, I see that projection and ask, “Why?” Looking into this year’s PECOTA, the system really doesn’t like the Royals rotation. Like actively loathes it. Serial killers and email spammers get more love. Edinson Volquez? A 4.73 ERA and -0.7 WARP. Jeremy Guthrie? Not much better with a 4.66 ERA and the same WARP as Volquez. I don’t even know if I want to pass along the numbers for Yordano Ventura. (OK, a 4.16 ERA and 0.5 WARP.) Fold in the underwhelming numbers for Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas and the Royals starting five projects to have a -0.3 WARP. Damn. Those numbers are pretty grim.

Is that likely? Hell, no. Last year, eight pitchers in the majors finished with a negative WARP value. PECOTA projects the Royals to have three starters post a negative WARP. I don’t have team numbers broken down, but I’d guess that for an entire rotation to collectively have a negative WARP, it would be a historically terrible rotation.

Believe it or not, PECOTA saves some of its distaste for the Royals offense. It projects a .257 TAv and 641 runs scored. Both marks are dead last in the American League. This computer clearly didn’t get the memo that everyone is supposed to be better. But hang on to your pitchforks… Last year the Royals finished with a .254 TAv. So PECOTA does think the Royals offense will be marginally better? Yet they’ll still be awful? The nerve. What I find interesting is that last year the Royals plated 651 runs. I can do the simple math – that’s 10 runs fewer than they are projected to score this year. However, while their projected run total for 2015 is last in the AL, their real run total in 2014 ranked them ninth out of the 15 teams. So clearly, PECOTA thinks the run scoring environment is going to change for a number of teams. After seeing the shrinking offensive trends of the last several seasons… I’m skeptical.

The system thinks Mike Moustakas will be better than Kendrys Morales, but both would be worse than Josh Willingham, had he not retired. It calls for regression from Lorenzo Cain, but thinks Omar Infante will bounce back offensively. Billy Butler will not be missed.

In a nutshell, PECOTA doesn’t really like any Royal player outside of Alex Gordon. Does this make PECOTA a bad projection system? I don’t think so. It makes it like all the other systems. Imperfect.

You know how everything went right for the Royals last October? Flip that around and that’s how PECOTA is looking at 2015 for the Royals. Everything would have to go wrong. But those are the kinds of projections that happen when you have guys with short track records (like Ventura and Duffy), or players who dabble in mediocrity (Hosmer and Vargas), or out-of-nowhere breakouts (Cain), or are just plain bad (Moustakas). Basically, the computer sees a lot about the Royals that raises red flags and causes a great deal of skepticism. Nothing personal, you know.

Steamer (found on Fangraphs) is more bullish on the Royals chances, but still has them at just 81 wins. They like the starting rotation more than PECOTA – I don’t think anyone can like anything less than PECOTA likes the Royals starting rotation –  but Steamer thinks Moustakas is capable of a 2.7 fWAR season. OK.

All in good fun. Until you realize these silly projection systems don’t give a damn the Royals won the AL Pennant last year. What? October doesn’t count? Nooooooo.

It’s a computer. As some bloggers at The Star will point out, they play the games on the field. I’m aware of the differences, thanks. That doesn’t mean I can’t be entertained by the various projection systems.

What does annoy me is those who take the projections as some kind of mantra. Extremism in all forms is unappetizing. I cite Steamer and PECOTA on this site from time to time in order to give a big picture of a player going forward. I use these projections as a talking point. A conversation piece. When Steamer says Lorenzo Cain is going to hit .267/.315/.377 which would be a huge drop in offensive production, I acknowledge that the system thinks that Cain is going to regress and then I move along. I’m not going to say with certainty that Cain will post a 2.7 fWAR (his Steamer projection) because there are 162 games to play. When someone says the Nationals are only two wins better with Max Scherzer based on his Steamer projection, that may be accurate, but that’s no fun. What’s fun is saying, “The Nationals rotation is going to dominate!” According to PECOTA, they are the anti-Royals.

Now that baseball has leveled the playing field and mediocrity is rewarded with a pair of Wild Cards, you just have to hover around .500 for as long as you can before you make your move. So the good news is PECOTA also projects the Tigers to win the division with 82 wins. Sweet. Instead of looking at the whole numbers, maybe this is a notice that the entire AL Central just isn’t a strong division. Steamer agrees, giving the Tigers 85 wins. The really good news is the White Sox and all those fancy moves last month still aren’t enough to push them to the postseason. Take that, South Siders!

I love the projections. They are something fun to parse when the wind is blowing from the north and it’s dark at dinnertime. It’s fun to try to crack the code… Which system is too optimistic? Which one favors rookies the most? Is it possible to identify a sleeper team?

I just try to keep everything in perspective. Opening Day is about two months away. And we’re eight months away from finding out about the accuracy of these projections.

I noticed a blog the other day where the author wondered if Yordano Ventura should start Opening Day for the Royals. I found it interesting. Etiquette says I should post the link to the blog. So I will. (LINK) My conscience says to tell you to click at your own risk.

I’m breaking all sorts of personal blog rules here. But I thought the post deserved a thoughtful response.

A couple years ago I was standing behind a backstop on one of the Royals spring training fields in Surprise, Ariz. A skinny kid was on the mound and he cut loose with a fastball. After one pitch I immediately turned to the person next to me and asked: “Who is that guy?”

It was my first look at Yordano Ventura.

We’ve almost all had that very same reaction. Ventura is a slight, skinny kid from the Dominican Republic. He looks like he’s skipping his high school algebra class to go to a baseball game. Except he’s pitching. And throwing heat. And regularly getting major league hitters out. You wouldn’t believe it just from looking at him, but after just one pitch, you know. Ventura has a special, special arm.

It’s easy heat in that it doesn’t look like he’s giving max effort to attain max velocity. So smooth. So unhittable when he’s on his game.

When you’re sitting in the upper deck you might think a big-league fastball doesn’t look all that fast, but if you ever get to stand close to home plate when a big-league pitcher throws a big-league fastball, you’ll realize they’re throwing a lot harder than you think — and Yordano Ventura throws harder than almost anybody else.

Translation: I’ve been on the dirt. You haven’t. Therefore, I come to you with knowledge. Knowledge that can only be found on the dirt. Mixed with grit and shells of sunflower seeds. You just can’t understand these ballplayers unless you are with them. On the dirt. Because the dirt is where they play.

So here’s the question: if the Royals get to opening day and their starting rotation is Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, Edinson Volquez, Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura, and Ventura has the best stuff on the staff, should Ventura be the Royals’ opening day starter?

Good question.

It depends.

That’s not an answer.

——————————————————————————————————————–

What follows from the writer is a reminder that Ventura is young and has made a limited number of big league starts. Personally, that’s part of what makes him so exciting. So much potential. And so much heat. Youth!

Here’s why that matters: During the 2014 AL Wild Card Game…

Oh, god.

Ventura threw Moss two fastballs and both missed the zone. With the count 2-0, Ventura threw a third fastball — a fastball in a fastball count — and Moss didn’t miss it. Ventura’s 98 mph fastball was lined over the center-field wall for a three-run homer and the Athletics had the lead.

How about this? Who called for the third consecutive fastballs to Moss?

Makes you think. Which is sometimes the point.

Let’s dive a little deeper…

Ventura throws a fastball about 44 percent of the time to left-handed batters. He offers that pitch 45 percent of the time when he’s behind in the count. Also, when he’s behind, Ventura will throw his two-seamer 29 percent of the time and his change-up 15 percent of the time. Yes, it was a fastball count, but the sinker and the change are certainly options. Interestingly enough, in all counts he throws his sinker 18 percent of the time to left-handed batters. He will throw it 29 percent of the time when he falls behind in the count to lefties. That deviation (18 percent in all counts versus 29 percent when he’s behind) suggests to me that Ventura is extremely confident about his command of that pitch. If he’s confident of his command, it’s a good strategy to throw that pitch. It comes in a tick slower than his four-seamer, and features a nice little downward sink. When it’s put in play, left-handed batters hit a ground ball 49 percent of the time. Given the situation – runners on first and second – why wouldn’t Ventura and Perez gone for a ground ball to get the double play? Why throw three consecutive fastballs to a hitter who has already clubbed a monster home run? Sure, it’s a fastball count, but again given the situation, you can’t give him a 98 mph pipe shot. Because home runs.

The counterpoint to this is his two-seamer isn’t a great pitch to throw to left-handed batters. Lefties hit .356 and slugged .452 against that pitch. They swing and miss at the pitch just five percent of the time.

Is there a correct answer? A certain pitch we can say he definitely should have thrown? No. But that’s baseball. I get what happened, though. With two runners already on base, Ventura felt he couldn’t take any chances, so he went fastball and left that third consecutive heater over the heart of the plate in Moss’s happy zone.

Ventura_Moss

Let’s return to the blog post.

Ventura had faced three batters, given up two hits, allowed two earned runs and finished his one-third of an inning with a postseason ERA of 54.00.

Let’s get crazy. One-third of an inning. Three batters. That is just about the smallest sample size you can have. You are forming an opinion off of three batters. You can be anti-stats, but to pass judgement on someone’s guts or confidence based on three batters faced… That just flies in the face of common sense.

The writer fails to bring up two very important points which may have played a role in the outcome of the cited small sample. First, Ventura entered the game having made a start just two days prior. In that start he threw 74 pitches and labored through four innings. That outing followed his penultimate start of the regular season in Cleveland where he threw a season-high 117 pitches. Given an elevated, late season pitch count and the short rest, do you think there was a chance Ventura was a little fatigued? Could that have had anything to do with his struggles in the Wild Card game?

Second, that was just the second time in 2014 that Ventura pitched in relief. And although he had success in his previous relief outing, I personally dislike bringing in a starting pitcher in the middle of an innings, especially with runners on base. Starters are creatures of habit. They have their routines to get ready. Now if you want to bring a starter in in the fourth inning, their may have to abbreviate or rush their routine, but they at least have the luxury of starting a clean inning. Ventura had no such luxury. This wasn’t about cracking under pressure. This was about a pitcher in an unfamiliar spot in a high-leverage situation.

Pedro Martinez, who has spent some time in the dirt, was highly critical of Yost bringing Ventura in to the game in the middle of an inning.

Ugly goat. Perfect. That’s why Pedro is in the Hall of Fame.

CJ Nitkowski also Tweeted from the dirt with some criticism for the Royals manager.

Writers chimed in immediately. Yost’s decision was called questionable and his skill as a manager was classified as terrible. That was a spot for Kelvin Herrera. That’s not hindsight. It was a key situation in a winner-take-all game and with the Royals amazing bullpen, it was appropriate for Herrera to take the mound. Everyone but Yost knew it and I suspect, based on his managerial moves later in October, he learned something from his error in judgement.

Nevermind all that logic above. According to this blog, Ventura pissed himself and nearly threw away the Royals October before it even started.

So what’s all that have to do with being the opening day starter?

Nothing. Duh.
At the beginning of the season, No. 1 starters face No. 1 starters. Each team throws their best guy out there on opening day and for a while — until days off or rainouts throw matchups out of sync — an opening day starter can assume he’ll face the best pitcher the opposition has to offer. 
And that means you can pitch great and still lose.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You can pitch great anytime against any other starting pitcher in the league and still lose. I’ve seen it. Truth.
If a pitcher is mentally strong that might not matter; he knows what he can control and how well the other guy pitches isn’t on the list. But if a guy isn’t confident it can get in his head; he feels like he’s pitched very well and is still losing.

How about this… Three days later, Ventura started Game Two of the ALDS and dominated. He threw seven innings, struck out five and walked just one. He left with the score tied at 1. This means two things: One, he didn’t get the pitcher win that surely is important to this blogger. Two, he was pitching in some high leverage situations as the game progressed. In fact, Ventura’s average Leverage Index for that start was 1.31 which was his highest in a start in October.
Oh, let’s not forget Game Six of the World Series. Do or die. Backs against the wall. And Ventura held the Giants in check for seven innings. His command wasn’t sharp (five walks against four strikeouts), but he survived, kept the Giants off the scoreboard and rode the Royals bats to the decisive Seventh Game. That took some cojones.
Should Yordano Ventura be the opening day starter?

I’m pretty sure I’m unqualified to answer that question.

OK.

I’ll go ahead and take a stab. Sure, Ventura should start the opener. Why not? Ventura was the second-best starter on the team last year to James Shields. He was the best starter in October. With Shields gone, Ventura is the best starting pitcher on the team, so I think he should be the Opening Day starter. Will he get the assignment? That’s an entirely separate question. Yost loves him some veterans. I could see him handing the ball to Jason Vargas. Or it could be Edinson Volquez because he’s the new, big free agent signing. Or maybe Shields makes some sort of triumphant return to Kansas City to complete some unfinished business.

Either way, with the rotation seemingly set, who starts the Opener is going to an interesting subplot of the spring. Glad I could help clear up a few things.

If you followed the Royals throughout 2014 and at this point Lorenzo Cain isn’t your favorite player, I don’t know what you’re thinking.

(I’ll listen to Alex Gordon arguments, but this is Cain’s profile. So deal with a hyperbole-packed lead.)

While Cain wasn’t able to avoid the disabled list (again), he put his early season groin strain behind him and recovered to have the best season of his career. He finished with a .301/339/.412 slash line, a .330 wOBA and a 111 wRC+. He followed up his regular season with an October to remember as he hit .333/.388/.417 in all postseason series while playing his usual stellar defense. Oh, he was also named the MVP of the American League Championship Series.

It only feels right that any profile of Cain start with his defense. Sadly, Cain he so much time between center field and right, he was ineligible for the Gold Glove due to the innings played requirement. I understand why the innings requirement is in place (thank you past voters of Rafael Palmiero) but to apply that to an outfielder is disappointing. But the neat thing was Cain won a defensive award anyway when he was named The Fielding Bible award winner for a new “multi-position” category. Kind of a cool idea to award a guy who excels across the field so to speak. Let’s look at how Cain did according to The Fielding Bible’s Run Saved metric. First in center field:

RS_CF

Now in right:

RS_RF

The takeaways from the tables above is that while Cain played two positions, he was a top five defender in both places. Sure, there are other players with fewer innings that hang with Cain, but no one is on both lists. Then, think about Alex Gordon in left. He was worth 27 Runs Saved, which set a record for left fielders. Gordon in left, Dyson and his 14 Runs Saved in just under 700 innings in center, and Cain who would be worth over 30 Runs Saved if he was a full-time right fielder… Damn. That is a defensive outfield for the ages.

Another thing to consider about Cain in right is if you extrapolate his innings to bring his playing time along Jason Hayward, Cain would have 34 Runs Saved. So as impressive as Hayward is topping this leaderboard by about 18 Runs Saved, he would likely be second best if Cain played exclusively in right.

If you’ve read this blog, you know I don’t normally engage in hypotheticals (“If he played a full season… blah, blah, blah.”), but with Cain, I just can’t help myself. It’s fun to imagine the guy as a full time right fielder. Or center fielder for that matter. Whatever. Wherever. I just want Lorenzo Cain on the field as much as possible. Old time Royals fans will remember watching Frank White make amazing plays at second base, turn an unmatched double play, and just generally appear super human with the glove… That’s Lorenzo Cain today. He’s Frank White level on defense.

How about some more defensive illustrations? How about his range in center field.


Source: FanGraphs

Yeah… He covers a lot of ground.

Contrast that with his missed plays.


Source: FanGraphs

The Inside Edge data breaks down the plays Cain made in center this way:

Routine Plays: 99.5% (Rank 14/24)
Likely Plays: 87.5% (11/24)
Even Plays: 83.3% (7/24)

The ranks can be a little misleading because some guys are up on the leaderboard having just a handful of chances even though they played a larger number of innings at the position. Such is the failing of defensive metrics. The point isn’t to gaze in wonder at his ranking. The point is to see that Cain does, in fact, cover a lot of ground. He not only makes the plays he’s supposed to make, often times he gets the difficult out. That’s why he’s a special defensive outfielder.

Offensively, 2014 was the best season of Cain’s career. He has a fine batted ball profile for the type of player he’s become, hitting grounders 51 percent of the time, while clubbing line drives at a rate of 22 percent. He has a little power potential and the ability to leverage his best offensive asset (speed) to steal a few hits or leg some singles into doubles.

Cain sprays his line drives to all fields. His doubles (and limited home run) power comes from the pull side.

CainSprayChart

There is some cause for concern going forward regarding his offensive game. Cain’s BABIP was a robust .380. His profile as a line drive hitter/speed guy means he’s always going to have a BABIP greater than the league average. A .380 BABIP is insane even for him. After his 2014 season, his career BABIP stands at .345, which has to be a little misleading considering that in the two previous seasons he posted BABIPs of .319 and .309. I know this is a lot of discussion of batting average on balls in play and often times, it’s a crutch to explain a deviation from the norm, but in Cain’s case because of his profile, it’s relevant.

Another trend that should set off an alarm bell or two is his proclivity to swing at nearly everything. Last summer, Cain swung at 50 percent of the pitches he saw. (OK, he didn’t swing at everything. How about half of everything?) Cain isn’t Sal Perez (56 percent swing rate) or Pablo Sandoval (60 percent swing rate) but again, given his profile as a speed guy with line drive potential, it would behoove him to be a bit more selective. He certainly took the Royals offensive mantra of making contact to heart. Cain’s walk rate dipped to a career-low of 4.8 percent. Keep that in mind the next time someone who doesn’t read this blog suggests Cain would be an ideal candidate to bat leadoff.

According to data collected by Brooks Baseball, Cain has a poor eye on identifying fastballs in the zone. In 2014, he swung at 66 percent of fastballs in the strike zone and 34 percent of fastballs outside the zone, which is a below league average ratio. The good news, his fastball discipline has actually improved over the last couple of seasons. While he shows below average discipline on the fastball, he can still rip the heck out of the heater. Last year, he hit .352 and slugged .520 on four-seamers. On two-seam fastballs, he hit .379 and slugged .448. It probably won’t surprise you he saw fewer fastballs last summer than at any time in his career.

CainPitchDiet

I suspect the black line will continue to decline while Cain will start seeing more breaking stuff to keep him off balance. Last year he hit just .243 with a .341 slugging percentage against breaking balls.

Now, let’s talk about an unpleasant subject: Injuries. From Baseball Prospectus here is Cain’s injury history going back to his minor league days. A trip to the DL is denoted by an asterisk.

4/9/09 – Hamstring strain. Missed 11 games.
4/24/09 – Knee strain. Missed 88 games.
4/26/10 – Groin strain. Missed 17 games.
4/7/11 – Groin strain. Missed 7 games.
4/11/12 – Groin strain. Missed 88 games.*
4/27/12 – Severe hip flexor strain. (Occurred during rehab for above injury.)
9/14/12 – Hamstring strain. Missed 19 games.
7/28/13 – Groin strain. Missed 3 games.
8/9/13 – Oblique strain. Missed 26 games.*
4/17/14 – Groin strain. Missed 17 games.*

Quite the injury past. A couple things stand out. First, let’s just get the guy through April, is that too much to ask? Second, all of these aside from the oblique injury in 2013 are leg issues. And third, he has yet to play a full major league season without spending time on the disabled list. In what should have been three full seasons with the Royals, Cain has missed 153 games due to injury. In other words, in three seasons, Cain has been healthy enough to play two.

Cain is eligible for arbitration for the first time and has asked for a $3.6 million contract. In the current market, his defense alone is probably worth $15 million. That’s not crazy. The Royals countered with $2 million, which is their prerogative. MLB Trade Rumors estimated Cain would make $2.3 million. The guess here is they will settle just above the halfway point. Figure Cain will earn $2.65 million next summer.

He is an exceptional defender at a premium position. The bat showed life last year. He also was relatively healthy for the first time in his career. Is Cain a candidate for a contract extension? I’m skeptical. He turns 29 next April and the Royals control his rights for the next three seasons. That means he won’t hit the free agent market until his age 32 season. While his offense was improved in 2014, he doesn’t have a track record of success with the bat at this level that would warrant a meaningful extension. Plus, I’m doubtful he can repeat his offensive output next year. Or in the next three.

Having said that, I could see the Royals, in an attempt to control costs over the next three years, try to sign Cain to a long-term deal to lock in his arbitration years. Of course, if they were going to do that, they would have to tack on at least a year of free agency at what could be a premium (for them) cost. It sounds good, but as much as I love watching Cain play, I think the Royals should at least see how this season goes before they commit big money long term. Sure, if he’s successful the cost will go up and may move the Royals out of their comfort zone. But that injury history scares the hell out of me. Yes, the frequency is a concern, but his legs have too often been what’s failed him. For a guy who relies on his speed in the outfield, that’s a massive concern.

Cain is an exciting, yet offensively flawed, player. His 2014 season was a delight to watch. I’m skeptical that he can keep his offensive performance at the level he found last year, but his defense and speed will keep me coming back for more.

Mike Moustakas is not a good hitter.

Sorry to be so blunt. But come on, you’ve seen him play. That’s just a fact.

Over parts of four seasons, Moustakas has accumulated 1,992 plate appearances. His career slash line is .236/.290/.379. No matter how many plate appearances Ned Yost and Dayton Moore need to evaluate talent, I think we’ve seen enough. The results are… incredibly underwhelming.

In the history of baseball, only two third basemen have had more plate appearances and a worse slash line than Moustakas. One, Lee Tanneyhill, played in the deadball era and slashed .220/.269/.273 in over 4,100 plate appearances for the White Sox. The other is John Kennedy, a journeyman third baseman who played for the Senators, Dodgers, Yankees, Pilots/Brewers, and Red Sox. In a 12 year career, he had 2,324 plate appearances and hit .225/.281/.323.

The point isn’t to compare these three players. Crossing eras and using a slash line isn’t really the best way to draw distinction. The point here is to underscore how the Royals have been relentless in their propping up of Moustakas as an acceptable everyday third baseman, continually listing him in the lineup only to watch him underperform at a now near historic level.

How about we simplify the search? How about a list of third basemen who have more than 1,990 plate appearances in their career and have an OPS+ less than 85? And let’s narrow it further to the dawn of the expansion era.

Here’s the list:

Player OPS+ PA G R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
David Bell 85 5380 1403 587 1239 267 18 123 589 428 687 .257 .320 .396 .716
Dave Chalk 85 3330 903 292 733 107 9 15 243 295 327 .252 .325 .310 .636
Charley Smith 85 2619 753 226 584 82 17 69 276 129 550 .241 .281 .374 .656
Dave Roberts 84 2191 709 194 483 77 7 49 208 128 361 .239 .286 .357 .644
Tom Brookens 83 4258 1336 477 950 175 40 71 431 281 605 .246 .296 .367 .663
Mike Moustakas 82 1993 514 182 432 99 3 52 199 128 332 .236 .290 .379 .668
Brandon Inge 82 5617 1532 563 1166 228 38 152 648 443 1306 .233 .301 .384 .685
Pedro Feliz 80 4544 1302 487 1065 209 25 140 598 230 663 .250 .288 .410 .698
Tim Hulett 80 2317 720 245 529 90 13 48 220 145 438 .249 .298 .371 .669
Ken Reitz 79 5079 1344 366 1243 243 12 68 548 184 518 .260 .290 .359 .649
Craig Paquette 77 2766 814 304 620 128 10 99 377 120 620 .239 .274 .411 .685
Aurelio Rodriguez 76 7085 2017 612 1570 287 46 124 648 324 943 .237 .275 .351 .626
Garth Iorg 72 2615 931 251 633 125 16 20 238 114 298 .258 .292 .347 .639
John Kennedy 70 2324 856 237 475 77 17 32 185 142 461 .225 .281 .323 .604
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/25/2015.

Poor John Kennedy.

And wow. Mike Moustakas is the new Pedro Feliz. Think about it. That’s… less than ideal. The above list has some familiar names. There have been a few third basemen who haven’t been adequate at the dish. Brandon Inge, David Bell, Tom Brookens and Feliz all got far too many plate appearances with a less than average bat.

We are getting to the point where the frustration level should be building that the Royals continue to employ Mike Moustakas as a full-time third baseman. Yet, aside from a brief sojourn to Omaha last summer, he has been THE GUY for the Royals. It’s understanding they want (and need) their high draft pick to succeed. As a fan, I want him to succeed, too. But there is simply too much evidence to ignore.

Let’s focus on a couple of things Moustakas did right in 2014. For starters, he increased his walk rate. He had been around 6.2 percent for his career and last summer he walked about seven percent of the time. A modest increase to be sure, but this is Moustakas we’re discussing. There aren’t any giant leaps forward in his game. You take what you can get. So I’m going to place his increase in walk rate on the “positive” side of the ledger. Another rate positive was his decrease in strikeout rate. In 2014, Moustakas whiffed 14.8 percent of the time, slicing more than a percentage point off his rate from the previous summer.

More walks and fewer strikeouts is generally a good thing. Moustakas also increased his contact rate for the second consecutive year. In fact, it’s kind of impressive how he’s shown improvement in this area.

2012 – 77.9%
2013 – 81.2%
2014 – 84.3%

But we’ve all watched Sal Perez. We know that more contact doesn’t exactly equate better contact. In fact, his contact on pitches outside the strike zone went up to a whopping 79.7 percent, well above the league average of 68 percent. I know the Royals preach their hitters putting the bat on the ball, but this strikes me as the batting equivalent of the “pitch to contact” revolution that was incredibly unsuccessful a decade ago. Absolutely, you have to put the bat on the ball. There has to be a method… An approach at the plate. Have a plan. Work the count. Be selective. Gain the advantage before you step up and start taking your hacks. Moustakas is a prime example of a guy needing a plan to be successful. When he got ahead in the count in 2014, he owned pitchers. Check his splits broken out by when he’s ahead in the count, even and behind.

MooseCount

OH MY GOD, I FOUND A STAT WHERE MOUSTAKAS IS LEAGUE AVERAGE.

Sorry. Didn’t mean to yell. Although I consider my discovery to be on par with when Bell invented the telephone or when Rutherford split the atom.

Of course, it’s natural to assume that when a hitter is ahead in the count, he’s going to be more successful. That’s why we say he’s “ahead,” after all. The amazing thing is Moustakas is actually a better than league average hitter when he’s ahead. Mind blown. His sOPS+ (the split relative to the league) when he’s ahead in the count is a healthy 126.

Unfortunately, when he’s behind – or even in the count – he’s a miserable hitter. God awful. Like he’s never swung the bat in his life. He owned a 34 sOPS+ when even in the count and a 33 sOPS+ when he was behind in 2014. So that above average hitter when he’s ahead in the count? He gives it all back and then some the rest of the time.

How about another positive development in his offensive game? Moustakas increased his average distance of fly balls and home runs in 2014 by about 15 feet. That may not sound like a big deal, but his increase was the 11th best among major league regulars last year. Adding length to the batted ball is a nice explanation for improved performance for that season. That season. Studies have shown most players experience a one year blip and give roughly half their distance back the following season. The sad thing is Moustakas didn’t realize an improvement that’s often related to increasing distance.

Probably one reason his fly ball distance increased was his decrease on number of infield fly balls. His IFFB rate in 2014 was 15.1 percent, down from the previous year’s 16.6 percent. Had he garnered enough plate appearances to qualify, he still would have ranked sixth in the AL in IFFB rate. (First place went to Sal Perez at 17.3 percent. Boy, his profile is going to be fun.) Unrelated, his HR/FB rate was a career-best 9.4 percent. Still too low for someone with his power potential, but it’s a nice place to be, and an improvement upon his previous season.

Moustakas hit five home runs in the postseason, so you know the Royals are going to promote the hell out of that next month when he starts teeing off in the desert. But let’s be real. In October, Moustakas slashed .231/.259/.558. That’s a 127 wRC+, which is nice, but it’s not like Moustakas hasn’t done this before. He hit five home runs in July of 2014. And in May and June of 2012. Moustakas is a streaky hitter. But even his hot streaks aren’t all that impressive.

Moustakas is one of the more heavily shifted hitters in baseball. For good reason. Here is his spray chart on batted balls.

MooseBattedBalls

When you have a cluster like that around the second base area on ground balls, you’re going to get shifted. Now despite what the new commissioner says, I believe the shift is here to stay. And it’s going to continue to confound one-dimensional hitters like Moustakas. He was never going to hit for a high average anyway, so I’m not certain what’s the big deal about the shift. The way you beat it is either to go the other way or stop hitting so many ground balls.

I haven’t even touched on Moustakas’s mechanics at the plate. Let’s just say they’re a hot mess. I’ve seen him roll over his front foot, open up way too soon, stand too far off the plate, stand too close to the plate, fail to get his arms extended… you get the picture. He must be a hitting coach’s nightmare. He’s tinkering so much – yet allegedly refusing to watch video – that he just seems to be a lost cause at this point.

Defensively, Moustakas is fine. He could be better. Although his glove most definitely does not make up for his weak bat.

According to Inside Edge, Moustakas made roughly 95 percent of “routine” plays at third last year. That puts him in the middle of the pack for the hot corner. However, he made only 66 percent of the plays classified as “likely.” That puts him in the lower quarter of regular third basemen. Here’s his heat chart from Fangraphs and Inside Edge.

MooseField

From the charts above, it looks like Moustakas has most of his issues ranging to his left. The data from The Fielding Bible backs this up, which has him at -2 on the +/- scale when ranging toward the shortstop. His strength would be coming in and charging the ball on short fielding plays. Again, he’s solid defensively. Not a Gold Glover.

Moustakas is eligible for arbitration for the first time and is looking for a contract of $3.1 million. The Royals countered with $1.85 million. Fangraphs had Moustakas at 0.9 fWAR last year (ranking 21st out of 25 third basemen with at least 500 plate appearances) which meant his dollar value was around $4.6 million to the Royals. He’s going to get a raise and whatever he earns won’t be absurd in the game’s current economic climate.

Still, the sooner the Royals realize he’s not an everyday third baseman, the better. If he’s not good enough to play everyday, is he a viable platoon candidate? Eh. Here are his career splits:

vs LHP – .211/.267/.328  63 wRC+
vs RHP – .245/.297/.396 89 wRC+

Underwhelming, no matter who is on the mound. At least he’s still relatively affordable, so you could at least partially understand keeping him around as a platoon. That’s what the Royals attempted to do last year with Danny Valencia, but they pretty much bailed on that deal.

Moustakas is here to stay. At least for 2015. He will continue to roll over and pull grounders to second, hit mile-high pop-ups that don’t leave the infield, and will be stunningly average in the field. He will be serenaded by “Mooooose” calls and will continue to be a fan favorite. Hopefully, the 2015 Royals can – like the 2014 Royals – overcome his presence in the lineup.

Ernie Banks grew up in Dallas where he played on his high school softball team. They didn’t have a baseball team. But Bill Blair, Banks’s neighbor and Negro leagues veteran, saw Ernie crushing those big softballs and recruited 17 year-old Banks to play semi-pro hardball. There he was noticed by the legendary Cool Papa Bell, then managing the Kansas City Monarchs B team and keeping an eye out for young talent to recommend. Banks saw Blair and Bell “compare notes” many times about his potential, and after two seasons with the Colts, the Monarchs sent two men, secretary Dizzy Dismukes and second baseman and Dallas native Bonnie Serrell, to the Banks household in hopes of signing Ernie. That’s how Ernie remembered it anyway. Monarchs manager Buck O’Neil remembered driving down to Dallas himself to sign Banks on nothing more than Cool Papa’s recommendation. However it happened, it probably didn’t take too much convincing after Ernie’s parents heard the starting salary: $300 a month. Banks later wrote, “This was big, big money to two people who had worked all their lives and never even come close to earning $300 a month.” Banks still had a year of high school to complete, but the day after graduation he boarded a bus KC-bound.

The 19 year-old stepped off the bus and into a banquet honoring that 1950 squad. Each player was asked to say a few words, and Banks uttered his thanks and that he hoped to make the team. The next day he found himself at Blues (later Municipal) Stadium playing shortstop against the Indianapolis Clowns. 10,000 fans packed the park, and Ernie had “the kind of jitters that are hard to describe.” He’d never even seen a park that big. His keystone partner Curtis Roberts shouted, “relax!” but Ernie found it impossible, though he did “eat up” the Clowns shadow ball routine before the game. His nerves throwing off his timing, Banks remembered that he flew out to right field each time up that first game. He also remembered Buck telling him, “Young man, you made a fine start. You hit the ball well three different times. Just speed up your swing a little bit and the ball will start falling in. Stay loose, forget the tension and you’ll be all right.” Ernie admired Buck tremendously, recalling, “(Buck) always had the right answers to cure everything from homesickness to hitting slumps.” From KC, he headed out on the team bus to cover huge swaths of the south, east, and midwest. “I learned a lot of geography on those trips and I learned a lot more about major league baseball by reading the newspapers in the larger cities,” he later recalled. He often sat with Elston Howard on the bus, whose “theories about baseball where the most interesting I had heard.”

Ernie was not a break-out star that first season. Buck remembered that he didn’t demonstrate much power in 1950. What game summaries were written didn’t give him much attention. The Negro Leagues Book by Larry Lester and Dick Clark show him playing 53 games and hitting .255 with only one homer. But some keen-eyed observer noticed something and at the end of the year he was invited to play on a month-long exhibition tour pitting Jackie Robinson’s Major League All-Stars vs. the Indianapolis Clowns. Banks, switching back and forth between the teams, suddenly found himself playing alongside Robinson, Don Newcombe, and Larry Doby. During the tour, Jackie thrilled Ernie by complimenting his hitting and coached him to turn the double play better by getting rid of the ball quicker and throwing to the second baseman at the perfect height so there would be no wasted motion on the throw to first.

Uncle Sam came calling and required Ernie’s services for two years. Ernie received a couple of letters from MLB teams inviting him to tryout upon his release, but when that time came in early 1953, Ernie’s “thoughts centered around just one thing: returning to the Monarchs and Buck.”

I wasn’t home in Dallas more than a day or two when I put in a call to Buck O’Neil. I finally reached him in Atlanta, and before I had an opportunity to ask if I still had a job with the Monarchs, he said, “We’re training here in Atlanta. I have a new uniform out and hanging in a locker. When can I expect you to report?”

Good old Buck hadn’t forgotten me! I reached the Monarchs camp two days later.

22 year-old Ernie returned in 1953 almost magically transformed into a fully formed, Hall of Fame level ballplayer. Those famously skinny, fast wrists were whipping the ball tenaciously, and the scouts were on him in no time. Buck just had to point out all the scouts in the stands to motivate his players. Former Monarchs great John Donaldson tried to convince the White Sox to sign Banks but was overruled. But over on the north side, the Cubs were interested and started trailing the Monarchs. Multiple Cubs scouts raved about Banks. “Good chance he is major leaguer right now” read one report. The Monarchs were in Chicago in early September one night, and Ernie was watching TV at the hotel when Buck told him and pitcher Bill Dickey to meet him in the lobby early the next morning. The trio headed to Wrigley Field and GM Wid Matthews’s office where Dickey signed a minor league deal and Banks signed with a shaky hand to the big leagues. Banks spent one more week with the Monarchs, during which time, “that old-time fellowship among the Monarchs really blossomed. Every man came up and shook our hands and offered congratulations…It wasn’t easy leaving those fellows. They were good friends.” And when the week was up, “I don’t mind saying I made a moist-eyed trip to the airport.”

sources and quotes:
Mr. Cub by Ernie Banks
I Was Right On Time by Buck O’Neil

I hope you’ve had a moment to read one or two of the player profiles we published this week. It’s something we’ve done in the past to help us get through the winter, usually on Mondays through Thursdays. Since today is Friday, I thought I’d take a little break and look at a former Royal.

If you haven’t noticed, we are now down to a single, Big-Name free agent. The guy who led the Royals rotation the last two years and culminated his tenure in Kansas City as an integral part of a pennant winner, can’t find work.

It’s difficult being James Shields.

We are less than 30 days away from pitchers and catchers reporting and Big Game James is still looking for a team. I’m pretty certain this wasn’t supposed to happen. We knew the market for starting pitching would be slow to develop, but when Jon Lester signed with the Cubs, I figured Shields would be the next to go. It just seemed like smart business to get his money while Max Scherzer (and Scott Boras) took his time. To hell with Scherzer setting the market. Let Lester get paid and then Shields could jump on the same train.

Not happening that way.

For those thinking of a short-term impact, at Fangraphs, Jeff Sullivan ran some numbers and figured out how much Shields would improve each team. Dan Szymborski did the same at ESPN. I urge you to visit both sites (although you’ll need Insider for Dan’s post at ESPN) because the results are interesting.

Sullivan has Shields improving the Royals rotation by about 2.1 fWAR which places the Royals in the lower third of teams who would benefit from signing Shields.  Szymborski says ZiPS has the Royals as currently constructed in the low 80s for wins and figures adding Shields would throw them back into contention for the Wild Card.

Looking at the Royals payroll – which will be around $112 million – it’s difficult to find the wiggle room to add Shields. Especially when you figure the arm he would be pushing out of the rotation in Jeremy Guthrie, is due to earn $9 million next year, making him the highest paid pitcher on the roster. Kind of difficult to shove a guy making that much cabbage into a long-relief role. (Obviously the $9 million Guthrie will earn isn’t enough to land Shields. It’s not a straight-up proposition. But we are talking about a payroll structured so a number five starter is the top earner. That was always going to cause budgetary issues. Remember things like this when GMDM signs his next mediocre player to a three or four year deal.)

Moore was on MLB Network radio on Thursday and the subject of Shields naturally was discussed.

We can parse this several different ways. I would assume that if Shields is open to returning to Kansas City, his agent and the Royals have been in touch at various times throughout his free agent process. But still… I would put the Royals chances at less than 10 percent at this point. Although we can dream, can’t we? A couple of weeks ago, it was mentioned that Shields had received an offer of five years at $110 million, but turned it down. What? Maybe it’s not always about the money.

If you’re going to turn down $110 million for a team you don’t want to play for, you are still feeling confident you can at least come within $10 million of that offer. Right?

If you read the articles at Fangraphs and ESPN, the teams that would benefit the most from adding Shields are teams that aren’t in the best shape to contend. Although the Tigers could get a significant bounce now they’ve lost Scherzer. The consensus is the White Sox, Giants and Marlins would all benefit from a Shields signing in that it would solidify their October aspirations. Those are teams who are close to contention and Shields would seemingly put them right in the pack.

Shields isn’t an ace, but he is good enough that he can make a positive difference for a team looking for postseason baseball. Let’s look at some of the teams Shields has been linked with during the winter:

— He was considered a “fall-back option” in October if the Cubs failed to land their top target Lester.

— In early November, Joel Sherman of the New York Post speculated Shields was a fit for the White Sox, who were lurking under the radar and ready to spend. Instead, they signed Jeff Smardjia.

— Don’t forget the Fish.

— At the Winter Meetings, Shields was linked to the Diamondbacks, Red Sox, Dodgers and Rangers, with the Giants thought to be the frontrunners.

The Diamondbacks denied their interest. The Red Sox acquired Wade Miley, Rick Porcello and Justin Masterson for their rotation. The Marlins got Mat Latos. And the Dodgers paid big bucks for the high risk of Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson. The Rangers rumor just kind of fizzled.

— By the new year, the Giants were out of the Shields market.

— Oh, hey… The Rockies have his agent’s phone number.

Boston checks back early in the new year, but they’re playing the waiting game.

— Don’t forget about Toronto. But the price needs to drop.

Marlins. Again.

— The Padres have been busy on the trade front and have upped their payroll, so the chances they could spend on Shields is “very remote.”

— Maybe the Marlins could do something, but they would have to trade Dan Haren. Who wants to be traded anyway.

— As late as last week, Diamondbacks were still “in the mix.”

— The Tigers popped up on the Shields radar around the same time Scherzer jumped to the Nationals.

— Once the Brewers unloaded Yovani Gallardo, they emerged as a potential candidate.

— There have also been random rumblings the Astros and the Cardinals have interest.

Whew.

By my count, 16 teams (including the Royals) have been linked to Shields in varying degrees of interest. Over half of baseball. And we are still no closer to resolution that we were when you began reading this post.

So what happened? Were teams scared off at a price tag of $100 million. Was it a 33 year old pitcher asking for five years. Was it all the innings he’s pitched in his career? Was it his less than stellar postseason performance? Was it all of the above?

At any rate, I don’t think anyone expected we would be late in January without Shields on a team. That hurts his market as a number of clubs have budgeted for their arbitration players and have pretty much set their payrolls going forward. That’s not to say someone who thought (or said) they were done can’t jump in at this point. As time ticks, the price drops which has the effect of allowing more teams to enter. But supply and demand has its limits. He’s not going to get $100 million. And he’s not going to get five years.

I’ll take a stab and guess Shields ends up with a four-year deal around $80 million. And I’ll go one step further and say it’s the Tigers who land Shields, with the Red Sox lurking around the periphery should they get wind of the negotiations that could take him north of the border. You don’t want to hear that (hell, I don’t want to write that) but it just makes too much sense for Detroit. They have Price for one more year. Shields gives them extended depth with Verlander and Sanchez. Plus, the Tigers have been known to make the stealth free agent signing. They have the means and it appears adding Shields would make them the prohibitive favorites in the Central once again.

Although at this point, it’s anyone’s guess. Which is what makes this kind of fun.

I love Jarrod Dyson’s story.

Fiftieth round draft pick. The 1,475th player selected in the 2006 draft. He opened his career with the Royals Rookie League club in Arizona and hit .273/.358/.373 as a 21 year old in his first taste of pro ball. A raw talent with speed to burn, Dyson glided through the Royals system. A ball in 2007. Double-A in ’08. Triple-A called in 2009 and 2010. He got the call to the majors when rosters expanded in September of 2010. He got a few starts, played decent defense, stole a couple of bases and was largely overmatched at the plate.

He seemed destined, in a best-case scenario, for a role as a fourth outfielder. In fact, I remember arguing he was surplus to requirements on the Royals. He would be better utilized on a team with true outfield depth where he could act as a late inning defensive replacement or a pinch running assignment sprinkled among a few spot starts here or there. The Royals of 2010 (and 2011 and 2012) were not that team.

But the Royals love their athletes and that, ultimately, is what Dyson is. He’s a supreme athlete.

Four years after his debut, Dyson was a key component to the Royals march to the AL title.

Baseball is kind of like that.

As the 2015 looms on the horizon, Dyson again looks to be cast in the role of the fourth outfielder. Alex Gordon is the mainstay in left. Lorenzo Cain has center. And the Royals didn’t give $11 million to Alex Rios so he could sit on the bench. But at this point in his career, Dyson has evolved from a fringy speedster on a second division squad to a legitimate asset on a team with sights on October.

As a hitter, Dyson lacks the discipline at the plate to be a consistent offensive threat. His career walk rate is 8.8 percent (and has declined in each of the last two seasons.) He should be north of 12 percent if he was to be an effective leadoff man where he could use his speed tool with abandon.

When he puts the ball in play, it’s on the ground roughly two-thirds of the time. That’s an excellent ratio for Dyson. Again, it’s all about leveraging his speed. He lacks even gap to gap power, so if the ball is going in the air, odds are strong it will settle in a defender’s glove. On the ground, his legs give him a chance. Over 11 percent of his hits last summer stayed on the infield. That was just a shade under his career infield hit rate of 12 percent. From Texas Leaguers, here is Dyson’s spray chart from 2014:

Dyson2014Spray

A cluster of bunt hits down the third base line, a few “tweeners” on the right side and some grounders up the middle. His game is about singles, so when he’s in the lineup, he’s practically the conductor of the Royals Singles Train.

Here are the top five outcomes of a Dyson plate appearance in 2014:

Groundout – 25.2%
Single – 20.3%
Strikeout – 18.1%
Flyout – 8.7%
Walk – 7.7%

The above totals add up to 80 percent. Meaning four out of five of Dyson’s plate appearances end in one of five ways. I haven’t crunched the numbers, but that seems like a thin cluster outcomes. I’d wager most players are around 70-75 percent on their top five outcomes. (I did a quick check and Alex Gordon is at 75 percent. So is Lorenzo Cain.) This isn’t an indictment of Dyson’s offensive game. Just an observation. These are the most common outcomes for most players. Baseball is a game of failure, right? It just so happens that Dyson’s cluster of outcomes is a little more narrow than the average batter.

Let’s just get one thing out of the way: Dyson’s offense is not good. His slash line of .269/.324/.327 doesn’t profile as a mainstay in any lineup. His wRC+ was 85 in 2014, just a couple of points above his career average. Now we don’t have the same kind of sample size for Dyson as we do a guy like Mike Moustakas, but Dyson has been very consistent offensively over the last three years. He is who he is with the bat. A singles hitter who doesn’t take enough walks to play everyday.

The thing with Dyson is once he gets to first base, if second base is open, he’s going for it. I mean really going for it. Singles and walks can turn into doubles and triples, which can turn into runs. Such is the Royals mantra. This is Jarrod Dyson. And that’s what speed do.

We all know Dyson is a burner. But he truly leverages his speed. Last year, Dyson took advantage of stolen base opportunities more than any runner in baseball. Baseball Reference defines stolen base opportunities as a plate appearance where the runner was on first or second with the next base open. Makes sense, right? Dyson, according to BR, had 116 stolen base opportunities. He ran on 43 of those, a rate of 37 percent. Basically, if he had the chance, he was running a little more than one-third of the time. That’s a massive amount of stolen base attempts given the opportunity. That made him the most likely runner (minimum of 100 opportunities) to attempt to swipe a bag in the AL last summer. By far.

DysonSBA

Wow. Seven percentage points ahead of the runner with the second highest stolen base attempt average. And 14 percentage points ahead of fifth place. That is impressive.

Not only was Dyson running often, he was effective swiping that bag. His success rate on steals last year was 84 percent, swiping 36 bags in 43 attempts. The accepted baseline for stolen base success rate is 75 percent. Below that, you’re hurting your team. Above it and you’re helping. If you’re nearly 10 percentage points above it… That’s exceptional.

There can be no question; the speed is a weapon. And it seemed like Ned Yost figured the most optimal way to deploy this weapon late in the year and throughout the postseason. Dyson appeared in 120 games, made it to the field in 108 of them and started 66 times. That’s about the perfect mix for a player of Dyson’s skill set.

Of those 108 games he made it to the field, he patrolled center in 106 of them. According to the Fielding Bible, Dyson saved 14 runs in center. That’s an amazing number of runs saved for a part-time defender. He ranked fifth among all center fielders in runs saved! Apologies for the exclamation point, but damnit, that deserved one. He was in the field for 678 innings, or less than half of the innings the Royals played defense in 2014 and the guy still was the fifth best defender according to the Runs Saved metric. Let that soak in for a moment.

Dyson does it by making the plays he should make. Here’s data from Inside Edge on Dyson’s range in center field.

DysonRange

Broken down into raw numbers, Dyson made over 99 percent of the “routine” plays and over 93 percent of the “likely” plays. My eye tells me he doesn’t always run the best routes, but his speed makes up for an error in judgement from time to time. The guy is a damn good defender. Also, his arm is above average for a center fielder. I think that took some fans by surprise given his build and makeup as an offensive player. You know, slight, fast guys aren’t supposed to have strong arms. They’re supposed to be more Johnny Damon and less Alex Gordon. Either way, his arm has been an underrated aspect of his defense.

With Lorenzo Cain a better all around player than Dyson, it makes sense to start him ahead of Dyson. I absolutely loved how Yost used Dyson in center in late game situations, moving Cain to right. Loved it. In a single move, he upgraded his defense from really good to freaking amazing. An outfield of Gordon-Dyson-Cain is without a doubt the best defensive outfield in the game.

Dyson is the fourth player I’ve profiled who is eligible for arbitration. He asked for $1.6 million. The Royals countered with $900,000. Major League Trade Rumors estimated he would earn $1.3 million. With a midpoint between asked and offered at $1.25 million, it stands to reason this case won’t go to a hearing the and the sides will be able to settle. Dyson’s defense alone is worth millions, but arbitration hasn’t evolved past the counting stats like home runs. Steals just aren’t as impressive. Neither is his role as a fourth outfielder. Dyson was worth 3.1 fWAR last year, which Fangraphs calculated as worth nearly $17 million dollars. Yeah, that’s not a typo. Nearly all of that value comes from his base running and his glove.

It will be interesting to see how the Royals use Dyson in 2015. I’ve heard rumblings the Royals think enough of Rios in right, they won’t lift him for a defensive replacement late in games. That’s disappointing for a couple of reasons. One, Rios has been worth negative runs saved in right the last two seasons, indicating a loss of range with his age. And two, because when you have a defensive weapon on your team like Dyson, it’s incredibly wasteful if he spends his time on the bench. He won’t provide near as much value if he’s only called upon as a spot starter and occasional pinch runner. He needs to get on the field as often as possible, without exposing his bat. That’s why he’s the ideal fourth outfielder.

For a year, Royals fans heard a refrain: Just wait until Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura are in the starting rotation and contributing. That was when the club would truly turn the corner and contention would finally be reality. The damnedest thing… That actually happened in 2014. Last season Danny Duffy indeed enjoyed his finest season as a major league professional. And the Royals actually played in October.

Mission accomplished.

You have to admit, you were surprised how it all worked out. There’s no way you could have seen this coming.

In spring training in 2014, Duffy insisted he wanted to be in the Royals bullpen. Huh? Aren’t starting pitchers, you know… Supposed to want to start? Apparently, not Duffy. At least not in March, 2014. Duffy lost the competition to be a starter to Ventura and the Royals shipped him to Omaha. Just days later, the Royals obliged Duffy’s wish and he was recalled to throw out of the bullpen. And Duffy was quite good. In his first four relief appearances, he threw 8.1 innings, struck out 11 and walked just two without allowing a run to score.

Then, he hit rock bottom.

In a tie game in Baltimore on April 26, Duffy was summoned in the tenth inning of a 2-2 game. He walked the first batter on four pitches. The next batter bunted on the first pitch (remember in October, how Buck Showalter was a managerial savant of some kind?), Duffy fielded and threw it away. The next batter also bunted. Also to Duffy. And again, Duffy threw the ball away. He exited with the bases loaded and the Royals lost game two batters later on a Markakis single.

Four days later, Duffy relieved Ventura in the sixth inning in a game against Toronto with the Royals leading 2-0. Again, he hit the leadoff batter. Then he walked the next man. Ned Yost pulled him after just six pitches thrown. And one strike.

But with Bruce Chen sidelined, the Royals needed another starter. Relief issues aside for Duffy, he was summoned to the rotation. And for four months, he thrived.

Overall, Duffy appeared in 31 games for the Royals, made 25 starts, threw 149 innings, struck out 113 batters and walked just 53. He finished with a 2.53 ERA, a 4.42 xFIP and an ERA- of 56.

From May 2 to August 31, Duffy threw 133 innings, struck out 97, allowed hitters a .203/.277/.314 line. His ERA was 2.44. He was magnificent.

The underlying positive for Duffy in 2014 was his command. Entering the season, he had a career walk rate of 4.7 BB/9. The falling behind in the count, the failing to put hitters away after hanging two strikes on them, and the walks were a cumulative issue that threatened to hold him back from his potential. Factor in his recovery from Tommy John surgery where the last thing pitchers typically recover is command and you can see how it was a concern.

In 2011, in 250 plate appearances where Duffy got two strikes batters, he them a .263/.324/.452 line with 20 walks and 84 strikeouts. By comparison, in 2014, Duffy had 304 plate appearances where he had at least two strikes on a hitter. In those instances, he approved to a .149/.211/.206 line with 113 strikeouts and 20 walks. His sOPS+ (split relative to the league’s split) went from an obscene 197 (with 100 league average and a lower number better for pitchers) to 65. Basically, he went from having two strikes on a hitter as a liability to where it should be – a point of strength.

He also finally started to jump ahead of hitters. In 2014, he threw a strike with his first pitch 59 percent of the time. Going back to 2011 and 2012 (before the Tommy John) he was around 52 percent. That improvement of seven percent is massive. To give you some perspective of how awful his first pitch strike rate was, consider that even at 59.1 percent, Duffy was still 1.5 percentage points below league average in the AL. Had he thrown enough innings to qualify, his first strike rate would have been the 31st best in the AL out of 40 starters. So let’s not treat his improvement as though he’s running with the big strike-throwing dogs now. But let’s do acknowledge he needed to improve that rate and he figured out a way to accomplish that.

It all added up to improved command and a career-best walk rate of 3.2 BB/9. I know Duffy has a legion of Royals fans who have always believed in him, but I’m not sure any rational analyst saw that kind of improvement in the cards for his walk rate.

Time to stare at the elephant on the blog and that is Duffy’s health. He exited a start in Yankee Stadium at the start of September after throwing just a single pitch. The Royals medical staff diagnosed it as inflammation in his rotator cuff. I’m not a doctor, but the words “rotator cuff” make me cringe. Duffy missed a couple of starts and returned to throw 96 pitches in six innings in a 2-0 shutout of the Indians. In his final regular season start, Duffy lasted just two innings before exiting with what the Royals initially thought was a strained intercostal muscle.

In October, Duffy made just three appearances for the Royals in their 15 games. He pitched the bottom of the 10th inning for Kansas City in Game One of the ALDS against the Angeles, throwing 19 pitches before sending the game to the 11th where the Royals eventually won. Duffy didn’t make another appearance for 18 days, finally making it to the mound for some mop-up duty in the Game One shellacking in the World Series. Another appearance followed in the fifth inning of Game Four and Duffy was done for the year.

For September and October, Duffy made six appearances, threw 250 pitches in 12.1 innings. After the postseason, it was revealed Duffy’s alleged intercostal muscle strain was actually a stress reaction in his ribcage; a hairline crack on the outside of a rib where the discomfort would limit him to two or three innings per outing. Basically, there was no way he could start. And looking back, Yost was clearly nervous about using him.

As exceptional as Duffy’s turn as a starter was for four months of 2014, there are signs regression is lurking around the corner. He allowed a .239 BABIP, his career-best rate and nearly 60 points lower than league average. Part of that can surely be attributed to the Royals defense. However, know that of the other four Royals starters, none had a BABIP lower than .288. If you’re going to credit the Royals defense for Duffy’s BABIP, why didn’t that carry over to the other starters?

His strikeout rate was down. He whiffed 18.7 percent of all batters, off his career pace of close to 20 percent entering the 2014 season. The Royals will tell you his strikeout rate was down because he was harnessing his command by taking something off his pitches and locating the ball with purpose. They will also tell you strikeouts aren’t a huge deal for the Royals because they have a phenomenal defense behind their pitchers. Don’t believe them. It’s usually not a good development when a 25 year old pitcher sees his strikeout rate decline. Although in this instance we have the caveat of the Tommy John surgery and the fact this was his first full season of pitching since his rehabilitation from that surgery. Perhaps the strikeout rate will bounce back in 2015.

Also, there’s the fact he morphed into an extreme fly ball pitcher. Among starters with at least 130 innings, Duffy had the sixth-highest fly ball rate at 46 percent. His HR/FB rate was a low 6.1 percent. If he keeps allowing so many fly balls and his HR/FB rate normalizes, his ERA is going to increase. The defense can’t make a play on a ball over the fence. The fly ball rate, the HR/FB rate, his decline in strikeouts and BABIP all contribute to his 4.42 xFIP, which was almost two full runs higher than his actual 2.53 ERA.

When I hear talk about James Shields and how great of a leader he was to the Royals pitchers, I inevitably think of Duffy. Leadership gets the shaft in the sabermetric community, but it shouldn’t. Baseball is an incredibly difficult game chock full of ups and downs. Some players need a little guidance from time to time. Not only about how to handle the failures, but the successes, too. That’s where Shields supposedly played a part in the maturation of Duffy. Remember, this was a guy who never tasted failure until he turned pro and then at one point became so frustrated that he walked away. He was also the guy who, as I mentioned, asked to be a reliever. It’s OK to say there were some makeup and maturity issues with Duffy. He’s a young guy. That’s why a mentor like Shields is so valuable. If he can get through to someone like Duffy, he can absolutely make a difference. And by all indications, that’s what happened. Good for Duffy for accepting help. Good for Shields to being the guy in the clubhouse. And good for the Royals for enduring the ridicule that comes with trading a prospect for a “leader” and making a positive difference in a young man’s career.

There were positives. There are warning signs for some regression. And James Shields isn’t around to dispense advise. How will it affect Duffy. That’s a good question. Steamer projects Duffy to finish with a 3.95 ERA while seeing an increase in both his strikeout (7.4 SO/9) and his walk rate (3.7 BB/9). They have him making 25 starts and throwing 144 innings, which would be low obviously, but not so low if he misses time due to injury again.

I side with Steamer in thinking his ERA is going to increase, but I’m not so sure it’s going to approach four. A correction is coming, but that’s one rude adjustment. I’ll be happy with an increase in his strikeout rate, if he can induce a few more ground balls and if he can keep his ERA in the 3.50 neighborhood. If you want to be the optimist on the projections, Steamer really only has a few months of Duffy as a starter to work with.

Duffy is eligible for salary arbitration for the first time in his career. He’s asking for $3 million. The Royals countered at $1.75 million. Major League Trade Rumors projected Duffy would play for $2.6 million. If he can build upon last year’s 2.2 fWAR and give the Royals something around 2.5-3.0 fWAR for a full season, he will be quite a bargain and a true number two starter. He’s probably going to be a bargain no matter how much he makes next year.

Yesterday, I opened with Tim Collins. Today, I turn the spotlight on Louis Coleman.

Coleman is the other bullpen arm eligible for arbitration the Royals settled with just prior to the deadline for parties to exchange figures. MLB Trade Rumors figured him to earn $700,000 in 2015. His actual salary will be $725,000.

Coleman made his major league debut in 2011, has made 148 appearances for the Royals, throwing a total of 174 innings, yet has never survived a full year in the majors. Still, he’s been a semi-valuable short man in the bullpen for the Royals.

The best way to show you would be to just throw some raw numbers out there.

ColemanStats

I know, I know… ERA isn’t the best measure. But for a reliever, I don’t mind so much. The small sample size and all of that. What I do like is the left on base percentage that’s represented in the final column. By that number alone, we can see some of the reasons of Coleman’s success in the past. He’s generally been difficult to hit. Except last year, he lost some of that mojo. Like his bullpen mate I profiled yesterday, Coleman missed fewer bats in all situations in 2014 and the averages went up.

Now I’m going to commit the cardinal sin of saber metrics and look at batting average against. Again, this isn’t meant to break any new ground, simply an attempt to understand what happened to Coleman last year.

ColemanGraph

As I alluded to earlier, his whiff rate was down to 10 percent last summer, compared to 17 percent the year before. His contact rate increased from 65 percent in 2013 to 77 percent in 2014. That’s huge. And that’s why his batting average allowed increased. Further, the more hits he allowed means he’s not going to strand those baserunners. What we basically saw was a nasty correction for Coleman. He isn’t as good as his 2013. Jeez, he’s no Wade Davis. But is he as mediocre as his 2014?

Coleman is strictly a fastball/slider pitcher, though he will feature a two-seamer with some solid sink. The right-hander throws with a low arm slot, making his pitches extremely difficult to track for right-handed batters. Against lefties, he’s less effective. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Last year, same-side batters tuned up Coleman with a .315/.400/.571 slash line. Lefties hit him for a line of .233/.327/.302. That goes completely against his career M.O. where he’s tougher on right-handed batters.

What was different? He relied on his sinker a little more, but not really enough to make a difference. His slider was his “go-to” pitch when he was ahead in the count to both lefties and right-handed batters, just the same as he used the pitch in the past. But hitters posted a .422 batting average and a whopping .867 slugging percentage against his four-seamer in 2014. And right-handed batters crushed him to the tune of a .469 batting average and 1.067 slugging percentage on fastballs. Yikes.

Sometimes, regression happens in a manner that will make your head spin like a top. And I’ll be damned if I can’t find an underlying reason why Coleman plummeted to Earth and smashed right through to the inner core.

If I were to speculate (we’re all friends, right? I can speculate) I would say it had something to do with his arm slot. As a pitcher with a crossfire delivery, he’s been inconsistent with his release point throughout his career. From Texas Leaguers, here is how his arm slot looked in his exceptional 2013 season:

ColemanRelease13

Compare that to last summer:

ColemanRelease14

The same cluster exists, but the 2014 release point actually goes off the chart. The difference in mechanics when delivering his four-seamer meant his average pitch drifted further to the outside to the right-handed batter. That gave same-side hitters just a fraction more time to get the barrel out ahead to get the sweetspot of the bat on the ball. If Coleman had been able to keep the ball inside on the hands of right-handed hitters, he wouldn’t have experienced such misery.

Here’s the frustrating thing: The data from Texas Leaguers backs my hypothesis. It looks like Coleman’s fastball ran away from right-handed hitters more in 2014 than it has before. However, the data at Brooks Baseball has the difference as negligible. Damn.

Coleman is a sidearming enigma. He wasn’t good last year and there’s nothing obvious that jumps out as the underlying cause of his struggles. So if you don’t know what’s broken, how do you fix it?

If Coleman has lost his effectiveness against right-handed bats for good, he’s of no use to the Royals. The gamble is to see if he can rediscover his past success. Anyway, with the stacked bullpen, it’s not like he’s going to be counted on in high-leverage situations. Although he could team up with Collins to form some sort of short-man combo (unintended pun using Collins there and Coleman stands 6’4″) in games where the Royals have to go to their bullpen after five innings or Ned Yost needs to keep a deficit manageable in the later innings. Basically, we have a question as to which Coleman will appear this season. The luxury of the current bullpen is, it’s a low-risk, moderate-reward proposition.

As mentioned at the top of this post, Coleman will make $725,000 next summer. Major league minimum will be above $510,000. We’ve seen Coleman be effective before. While it would be a stretch to expect something along his 2013 numbers, it’s worth the extra quarter of a million to see if he can up the strikeout rate, tinker with his arm slot, rediscover the effectiveness of his four-seamer and recover to something along his 2012 performance.

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