Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

I have to be honest, settling on a topic for this morning’s column apparently became an impossible task for this lowly writer.   The reasons are many:  it is Monday, it is August or, gasp, even a lack of talent.   At any rate, some bullet points from the past weekend for lack of a better idea.

  • Excluding Saturday night’s home run derby, the Royals held the Yankees to just eight runs in the other three games of the series.    Even including Saturday, the sixteen runs allowed by Royal pitching was really pretty impressive considering Zack Greinke did not start any of the four games.
  • A lot has been written about Bryan Bullington finally securing his first major league win (and looking very good doing so).   Without question, Bullington deserves more starts down the stretch and frankly I do not care at whose expense those starts come.   Just a cautionary tale, however, Bobby Keppel in his first two starts as a Kansas City Royal allowed just 3 runs in 14.2 innings – the same number as Bullington’s first two Royal starts – and Bobby was gone a month later.
  • Kila Ka’aihue went 3 for 10 with 2 walks in the first three games (that’s a .416 OBP by the by)  of the series and was out of the lineup on Sunday.   As an aside, last Thursday I compared the start of Kila’s career to Travis Hafner.   Rany did the same in his column yesterday.   Now, if we can two more bloggers to do the same and then all click our heels together at the same time, it will come true.
  • Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer were a combined seven for ten yesterday in the minors.   I have cooled on the idea of bringing Moustakas up in September this year, given his struggles in Omaha – particularly his walk to strikeout ratio.  Given the state of the starting rotation, even with some recent solid performances, it is hard to see any reason to rush Moustakas at this point.   A mid-June debut should work out about right.
  • A few weeks back, one of our commentors noted that Blaine Hardy was starting in Omaha.   At the time, I theorized that it was just a way to get Hardy more innings of experience and that his future still was as a reliever.  Now, it appears that the Royals are intending to convert Hardy to a starting role.   In his last two starts, Blaine has gone six innings in each and allowed just two earned runs in both.   Although he struck out a batter per inning in both rookie and A ball, Hardy’s strikeouts have declined in AA and AAA.   Still, he remains effective.   Anyone adverse to seeing a couple of September starts out of him this year?
  • Wilson Betemit’s name was mentioned, however minorly, in a blurb on MLBTradeRumors regarding the Cardinals’ search for a third baseman.   If the Royals received an offer for Betemit, likely no more than a 20-25 ranked prospect in the low minors, would you take it?  Or does it make more sense to continue to give Betemit regular duty and see if he can be a classic late bloomer?
  • The new over/under on number of starts by Luke Hochevar before the end of the season has now been officially set at ONE.

Finally and just for fun, here is my projection for the Royals’ starting rotation on July 1, 2011:

  1. Zack Greinke
  2. Luke Hochevar
  3. Mike Montgomery
  4. Blaine Hardy
  5. Sean O’Sullivan

I’m not saying that’s necessarily good, just what I think it might be.

On Tuesday, I posted the team batting heat charts for the minor league affiliates of the Royals.  Today I am following that up with the team pitching statistics.  The Royals affiliate is highlighted in each chart and each column is color sorted with red being the best and green being the worst in that category.   As I mentioned last week, this is kind of a quick and dirty rundown, but can give some clues to how things are going at each level.  These numbers certainly are subject to park effects, since those have not been taken into account here.  What sticks out to you?  Let me know in the comments.

Pacific Coast League (AAA)

Texas League (AA)

Carolina League (A+)

Midwest League (A)

Appalachian League (Rookie)

Pioneer League (Rookie)

Arizona League (Rookie)

Dominican Summer League (Rookie)

You can contact Nick via email at brokenbatsingle at gmail dot com, via twitter at @brokenbatsingle or on facebook

While it has been and likely will remain tough to watch, I am delighted that the Royals are giving a number of players – you know, guys who might actually be around when this team is ready to contend – a chance to prove themselves the remainder of this season.   It begs the question, with 48 games remaining to go:  is this enough of a sample size to determine who can play and who cannot?

Given the almost certain intrusion of Willie Bloomquist into the lineup on a semi-regular basis,  we can probably expect to see somewhere around 175 more plate appearances this season for Alex Gordon, Kila Ka’aihue, Mike Aviles, Chris Getz, Mitch Maier, Gregor Blanco and Wilson Betemit.   Will that be enough to make decisions on these players that will not only effect 2011, but the seasons beyong that as well?

We can go way back in time and find examples of players that struggled early and became great.   George Brett posted an anemic .646 OPS (82 OPS+) through his first 527 major league plate appearances before beginning his run to the Hall of Fame with a .308/.353/.456 1975 season.      Through his first 483 plate appearances, Mike Schmidt had a dreadful career line of .197/.324/.367 before slugging .546 in 1974.   However, those guys were Hall of Famers for godssake and comparisons to that type of talent is not only unfair, but probably not all that relevant, either.

Taking a step back, the career of Raul Ibanez was a five year – 581 plate appearance journey between Seattle, the bench and AAA, during which he posted an OPS+ of just 73.   As we are all keenly aware, Ibanez came to Kansas City in 2001 at age twenty-nine, received regular playing time and has posted an OPS+ of 110 or above in nine of the last ten seasons.

Billy Butler took a little longer to get his footing in the majors.   At age 21, he posted a nice partial season in 2007 (OPS+ 108), fell back in 2008 (.275/.324/.400, OPS+ 93) and was an uncertain commodity with 838 major league plate appearances entering last season.  Of course, Billy was terrific in 2009 and actually has a better OPS+ this season. 

A couple of other guys did not take so long to emerge as legitimate hitters.   Paul Konerko had 247 pretty awful plate appearances (OPS+ 60) spread over two seasons at the start of his career.   After a trade to Chicago, Konerko hit 24 home runs in 1999 and has been a fixture at first base for the Sox ever since.    

Travis Hafner did not get his first major league at-bat until he was 25 and in 70 plate appearances that season posted an unimpressive line .242/.329/.387.   The following year, he got off to an even worse start, posting a .195/.267/.378 line in his first 90 plate appearances.   So, what would you have thought of Hafner after 160 plate appearances?   Well, he came back in July of that second season and took off.    The very next year, his first full major league season, Hafner led the league in OPS+.

We could spend all day pouring through Baseball Reference and analyzing who many plate appearances it took for guys who really have made it in the majors to show what kind of player they would become.   There are other variables, too:  time in the minors, drafted out of high school or college, where they hit in the order, how good the teams were that they played on…..   Shockingly, the raw numbers do not tell the entire story!    At any rate, using the very rudimentary research above, let’s look at this group of current Royals.

ALEX GORDON – The Royals have always seemed to be in hurry when it comes to Alex.   They rushed him to the majors in 2007 after just one minor league season, they rushed him back into the lineup in 2009 after hip surgery and then shoved him down to the minors over service time/performance issues.   They rushed him back from a broken thumb this year and then were in a hurry to decide that he couldn’t hit AND needed to change positions.   All that said, how many remember/realize that in 2008, Gordon posted an OPS+ of 109 – enough above average to be considered ‘above average’?  

Given that Gordon, despite an injury plagued-demotion riddled- position changing season and half since 2008, still boasts a career OPS+ of 97 (basically average) and will end this season with around 1,600 plate appearances, I will be inclined to believe that what the Royals see out of Alex these final forty-eight games is likely to be a true indicator of what they can expect in the future.  

Wilson Betemit – Doesn’t it seem like Betemit is 35 years old or something?   In reality, he will not turn 29 until November and will end this season with roughly the same amount of plate appearances as Gordon.   Right now, Wilson is a dead average 100 OPS+ for his career.    Betemit played in 143 games (for 2 teams) in 2006, which was his only real shot at an everyday job and posted, not surprisingly, an almost dead average 101 OPS+.   Early on, he has hit a ton for the Royals, but is slowing cooling down.    There is a touch of the ‘Ibanez factor’ in Wilson’s career to date, so a good 48 games down the stretch might make me lean towards seeing if the Royals could catch lightning, or more accurately Ibanez 2.0, in a bottle in 2011.

Mike Aviles – If a player’s first 400 or so plate appearances is not the true indicator of a player’s future, then Mike still has plenty to prove.   He was in the discussion for Rookie of the Year in 2008 when he posted an OPS+ of 121 and the highest WAR of any Royal since Beltran over 441 plate appearances.   2009 was lost to injury and Mike has not been the same player in 2010 with an OPS+ of just 89.   Depending on how much Ned Yost decides to play him, Aviles will end the year with around 1,000 plate appearances.    Although they did it at different ages and are far different players, Aviles first 900 plate appearances compare somewhat to Billy Butler’s.    He is a tough one to figure at this point as to whether we will reach October and know what to think of Mike Aviles.

Chris Getz – I was all for the Teahen-Getz trade, so seeing him in the lineup virtually everyday is okay from here on out.   By the end of the year, Chris will have close to 800 plate appearances and currently sports a career OPS+ of 69.   The big difference between the 800 plate appearances of Getz and the 800 of Butler and Aviles is that Chris really has not had a good stretch of performance in there – it has really been a pretty consistent run (his July numbers were identical to that posted last season).   If he starts hitting and getting on-base, I would be inclined to believe in Getz.  If he doesn’t, I might believe that, too.

Mitch Maier – Mitch has a career OPS+ of 84, but a 2010 mark of 98, which doesn’t surprise me.   He is an average player, when given a chance to perform everyday, but has not shown much to make me think he will ever be more than that.   Maier will end 2010 with 900 or so plate appearances and, right or wrong, will likely be judged by what he does between now and the end of the season.   Again, he does not have that magical season on his resume like Aviles or the giant minor league resume that Butler came to the majors with, so his rope is shorter.  

Gregor Blanco – I loved Willie Wilson back in the day and apparently so did Dayton Moore.  He has traded for virtually every player who is fast and plays centerfield and drafted about ten more.   Blanco is another in that mold.   Like many of the other players in our discussion, he will end the year somewhere between 800 and 900 career plate appearances.    He got an everyday shot with Atlanta in 2008 and posted a .251/.366/.309 line, but has tread water ever since.  I’m not sure that the Royals will have a great read on Blanco by the end of the year and they probably don’t need to have one, either.   He will be cheap and under team control and blocking no one in centerfield.    Heck, if Gordon can hit and DeJesus returns healthy, there would be worse outfields than Gordon-Blanco/Maier-DeJesus.

Kila Ka’aihue – Next to Alex Gordon, here’s the guy you really wanted to talk about, right?  Right now, Kila is struggling mightily, but then so did Konerko and Hafner (you didn’t think I pulled those two guys out of coincidence, did you?).   Currently 54 plate appearances into his career – roughly the same point at which the Royals gave up on Matt Diaz once upon a time – Kila will end up with right at 200 by the end of the season.   To be honest, I have thought all along that a couple months of regular duty was enough to tell what you had in a player, but in writing this column my mind has changed some. 

Certainly it is a stretch to call Ka’aihue the next Konerko or Hafner, but would you want to be the teams that gave up on those guys after a similar stretch of time?   Let’s make this a little more timely and note that Jose Guillen’s OPS+ after 1,953 plate appearances was jsut 82.   It was only at age 27, that Jose went on to be post well above average numbers in four of his next five seasons.   Sadly, that string ended when he signed his three year deal with the Royals, but we don’t need to discuss that again, do we?

So, in the end, I am not sure we have proven anything this morning, other than deciding at what point in time you have ‘seen enough’ of a given player is hardly an exact science.    Do you believe what you see in the next 48 games is what you will get in the future?

There has been a ton of discussion about the offense at this point in the season.  With the team jettisoning dead weight like Rick Ankiel, Scotty Pods and Jose Guillen, this club has experienced a pretty thorough lineup makeover.

But what about the rotation?

I ask because on Tuesday in Anaheim, Bryan Bullington went six innings in his first major league start since 2008 and pitched well.  His final line:

6 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 4 SO

He threw 91 pitches and finished with a Game Score of 53.  Solid, if unspectacular.  In other words, just what the Royals needed from Brian Bannister’s spot in the rotation.

Bullington pitched well as a starter for Omaha this season.  Appearing in 20 games (15 starts) he posted a 2.82 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP – strong numbers for your PCL fantasy team.  In 105 innings, he had a 4.06 FIP and whiffed 6.2 batters per nine innings.  He gets a ground ball 49% of all balls put in play and was probably a little lucky as his BABIP in Omaha was a tidy .268.  However, he walked just 2.4 batters per nine.

Command has always been Bullington’s strong point.  He’s never had a walk rate higher than 3.0 BB/9 in the minors.  The issue with him has always been his hittability.  Bullington works around the plate so much, his mistakes are over the heart of the plate.  However, because he’s a ground ball pitcher, he doesn’t give up an extreme number of home runs, rather his mistakes seem to be big innings where opposing hitters string together a series of singles and doubles.

Bullington turns 30 at the end of the season.  I don’t think I’m understating it when I say he’s no longer a prospect.  However, with the maturity he’s gained and with the proper coaching (to continue to make the right adjustments) there’s no reason to think (hope?) he can’t be a contributor to the back of the rotation.

The same could be said for Philip Humber, who came on in relief of Bullington and threw two scoreless innings on Tuesday.

While Humber has never possessed Bullington’s command, he flashed excellent control in Omaha this year, walking just 20 batters in 118 innings.  That works out to a 1.5 BB/9.  Nice.  The other numbers weren’t so great, though.  His strikeouts are down, from 7.8 K/9 in 25 Triple-A starts in 2007 to 6.1 K/9 in 20 starts this year.  He’s also prone to the home run, allowing 17 this year.  Over the last four years (all time spent in Triple-A, mostly as a starter) he’s coughing up a 1.3 HR/9.  That’s a bit much.

This year for Omaha, Humber posted a 4.47 ERA and 1.27 WHIP.  He had a .302 BABIP, so it would seem his numbers haven’t been touched by luck – either good or bad – and that’s reflected in his 4.62 FIP.

So while the Royals lineup has been overhauled, I advocate slotting these two in the rotation for a couple of turns.  Let’s kick the tires, so to speak.

Bannister has moved to the bullpen, ostensibly to work on his mechanics.  Or maybe he’s just working on not sucking.  That would be nice.  Whatever he’s doing, it’s time he stays out there.

Because Bannister has pretty much been an outright disaster this season.  Next year, he will be eligible for his third year of arbitration and will land a contract in the neighborhood of $2.5 million.  That’s not a horrible amount to pay – if you’re paying that to a serviceable fifth starter.  Bannister seems to be more in the mold of a sixth or seventh starter.  (No, I don’t know what that means.  Except that he’s really not good enough to be in the rotation.)

Davies needs to take a trip to the pen as well.  Whatever it is he thinks he’s doing, it’s not working.  Not working at all.  His control is just miserable.  Then, when he falls behind hitters he just grooves one because he doesn’t want to give up another walk.

He has made 76 starts for the Royals covering parts of the last four seasons.  It’s not working.  It’s not going to work.  He’s going to make around $2 million next year, while giving you nothing.  Seriously, Dayton… Time to punt.

A rotation of Greinke, Chen, O’Sullivan, Bullington and Humber?  Sure, that puts a knot in my stomach, but why not?  It makes as much sense as hitting Kendall second or playing Bloomquist in right.

I know Bullington and Humber really don’t have a future for the Royals.  Still, why sit through another Davies five walk epic or another Bannister night start where he coughs up six runs?  We’ve seen Davies and Bannister and we know what they can’t do.  There is really no reason to start them over the last month and a half of the season and there’s no reason to offer them a contract this winter. Put the new guys in and see how they fare.  See if they can give us a fifth starter at a quarter of the cost for the 2011 season.  We’re really talking placeholders here.  Guys who can slot into the rotation until the young arms in Double-A and Single-A are ready.  Isn’t that what Bannister and Davies are?

The revolving door needs to keep revolving.

There has been lots of talk about the Royals minor league system lately, partly because the Big League club isn’t performing very well, but also because of the plethora of talent and the very real possibility that they might have the best system in all of baseball.  I figured I would take a quick snapshot of how each individual team in the system compared statistically to the other teams in their league.  The Royals affiliate is bold and surrounded by a thick black box.  Each statistical category is ranked via a heat chart with red being the best and green being the worst.   Each chart is sorted by batting average, so you can see the team in the league with the highest batting average is in red, the worst is in green and the colors are shaded in between.

I know that some of this is relatively meaningless.  But I think it can give us a guide as to how deep the system may be and how well the system is doing at producing power, speed or other offensive attributes.  Let me know in the comments if anything sticks out at you.

The Pacific Coast League (AAA)

Texas League (AA)

Carolina League (A+)

Midwest League (A)

Appalachian League (Rookie)

Pioneer League (Rookie)

Arizona League (Rookie)

Dominican Summer League (Rookie)



You can contact Nick via email at brokenbatsingle at gmail dot com, via twitter at @brokenbatsingle or on facebook

Nineteen year old Wil Myers went three for seven over the weekend for High-A Wilmington and saw his on-base percentage go down.  You know you are having a good year when a .428 on-base weekend is a negative.

Through his first 33 games in the Carolina League, Myers has posted a rather amazing line of .393/.493/509.    He has done that playing in the same league and same home ballpark that made Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer look like something less than top prospects.    He has virtually the same OPS (.990) in Wilmington as he does away from it (.997) and while Myers has yet to hit a Carolina League home run, he does have 11 doubles already.

Prior to Wil’s promotion to Wilmington, he also tore up the Low-A Midwest League to the tune of .289/.408/.500 with 19 doubles and 10 home runs.   Not bad for a high school draftee in just his first year of full season baseball.   

For the 2010 season combined, Myers has a batting line of .322/.435/.503 with 30 doubles, 10 home runs and 67 walks versus 74 strikeouts.   He has done so playing in the cold spring of Burlington, Iowa and the cavernous ballpark of Wilmington, Delaware.

To provide a little perspective, a nineteen year old Billy Butler playing in the launching pad that was High Desert put up a line of .348/.419/.636 in his High A debut.   As 18 year old rookies in Idaho Falls, the Butler and Myers each ripped the opposition:

  • Butler – .373/.488/.596
  • Myers – .426/.488/.735

Even without adjusting for ballparks, Myers is at least even with Butler, if not already ahead statistically.      While you might be hoping for more from Wil Myers in the future than a Billy Butler-like career, there is nothing wrong with being compared to a guy who at age 21 posted an OPS+ of 108 in the majors.

If you are not a numbers guy, you don’t have to go very far to find quotes from scouts and minor league pundits alike who rave about Myers at the plate.    The raves about Wil’s quick stroke and good plate discipline are many.  Often those glowing reports also come with the coveted ‘projectable raw power’ quote.  Face it, Wil Myers can hit the baseball.   He can hit it so well, that the Royals cannot afford to waste time developing him as a catcher.

As a catcher (a position that he did not play full-time in high school), Myers is athletic and has a good arm, having thrown out 32% of potential base stealers, but is still a long ways from being even an average defender.  One scout was quoted (and I think I stole this from Kevin Goldstein’s column) as saying ‘balls were bouncing back to the screen all the time’.   In 62 games behind the plate this season, Myers has been charged with 19 passed balls and 4 errors.  In a word: YIKES!

Now, as talented an athelete as Myers is, it is not a stretch to envision him becoming a decent defensive catcher over time.   Heck, as an 18 year old rookie, Joe Mauer had 11 passed balls in 19 games.   The next season, Mauer was charged with just 7 passed balls in 81 games and the following year only 5 in 99 games.   Could Myers, given time, become a good defensive catcher?   There is a decent chance, but it will take real time. 

From where Myers is today defensively to where he would need to be to handle a Joakim Soria cut fastball with a runner on third in Yankee Stadium is probably a three year project.   That means restarting 2011 back in Wilmington, a mid-season promotion to Northwest Arkansas and another mid-season promotion in 2012 to Omaha, plus a full season of handling pitchers in AAA in 2013.   At that point you might have a quality major league defensive catcher.

In the alternative, the organization could give Myers duty as Northwest Arkansas’ designated hitter the last week of August and the first week of September, convert him to right field over the winter and have him restart the year as the Naturals’ everyday rightfielder in 2011.  The way Wil has been hitting, he could be in Omaha by July of 2011 and in the majors as early as 2012:  probably two full seasons ahead of when he would likely be ready if the Royals’ keep him at catcher.

Of course, playing in a division with Joe Mauer, we would all love to have the Royals develop a top shelf catcher, both with the bat and with the glove, but is realistic to try to do that with Wil Myers?   Is it worth taking the time to do so and, in the process, lose as much of two seasons worth of Myers’ bat in the majors? 

My opinion is no.   I have come to believe that Myers is, probably by far, the best hitting prospect in the organization.   The time to move Wil Myers to the outfield and fast-track his bat to the majors is right now.

Even when something is inevitable, it can still feel great when it actually happens.

The Royals designated Jose Guillen for assignment on Thursday.

Kick ass.  Great news.

Let’s check the carnage:

340 games
1383 plate appearances
.256 batting average
.308 on base percentage
.420 slugging percentage
45 home runs
94 OPS+
-2.0 WAR

The epitome of replacement level.  At a cost of $36 million.

Buh-bye.

Let’s flashback to December of 2007.  Rumors were flying around everywhere about the Royals and their involvement with Guillen.  He was signed.  Then he wasn’t.  Then the Mets were involved.  It seemed to drag forever.  Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part, but I really don’t want to see the Royals sign Guillen.  It flies in the face of everything Dayton Moore has laid out as his vision for the Royals.  GMDM is preparing to commit too much cash to a player who is already in the decline phase of his career.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that something will happen to put a kibosh on this deal.

Score one for the blogger!

About that decline phase?

I chose ISO because Guillen was brought to Kansas City under the assumption he would provide power.  This is just one graph but they all look like that.

Guillen was Dayton Moore’s second big free agent acquisition, but it hasn’t been the only time GMDM has bought high, only to be sold a bag of bricks. He bought high because he viewed Guillen’s 2007 season where he hit .290/.353/.460 to be in the neighborhood of his true production.  I can’t say I know that for a fact.  But if it wasn’t GMDM’s expectation, why would have signed him to such a deal?

To be fair, GMDM wasn’t really throwing money around like a crazy person that winter. Guillen was viewed by many as one of the better bats available.  In August of that year, Dave Cameron at USS Mariner thought the Mariners should re-up Guillen for three years at $30 million.  By the time free agency rolled around, it was thought the best Guillen could do would be a two year contract in the neighborhood of $10 to $12 million per year.  GMDM worked his magic and got him the extra year, just like in the Meche deal.  Signed. Sealed. Delivered.

I had what was probably a typical Royal fan relationship with Guillen.  I was annoyed when he showed up to his first spring training with the team out of shape.  I enjoyed his random outbursts.  I defended him against those who said he didn’t hustle.  Then I got tired of his lack of baseball ability.

While it’s a great thing Dayton Moore recognizes a sunk cost and is willing to cut the cord, we must remember who gave him a three year contract in the first place.  Hopefully, this is a sign he’s learned a lesson from this fiasco – it’s never a good idea to give a multi-year deal to a player whose best days are in the rearview mirror.  Never.

The joy of the Guillen departure means Kila is finally free.  Like I’ve said about Alex Gordon, there is no excuse for Ned to pencil Ka’aihue’s name into the lineup almost every single game from now until the end of the season.

We are now inching closer and closer to the ideal lineup for the rest of the season.

C – Pena
1B – Butler/Ka’aihue
2B – Getz
SS – Aviles
3B – Betemit
LF – Gordon
CF – Blanco
RF – Maier
DH – Ka’aihue/Butler

I know that the whole Brayan Pena should get playing time thing is a lost cause.  I’m not going there.  But I’d like to see it.

However, you’re next, Betancourt.

Of course the Guillen news was eclipsed by Zack Greinke presenting the Royals with his Nuclear Option:

“It’s not real exciting to have to go through it again,” he said. “It’s been six years with me, and most people (who are Royals fans) have been through a lot more than I have. But for me, it’s the third complete re-start/rebuilding phase.”
Would he be happier elsewhere?
“I like Kansas City,” Greinke said. “It’s a town that fits me pretty well. But I don’t know…at least put a team together that has a fighting chance (to win).”

I know there’s going to be a huge uproar over his comments, but did he really say anything we should be surprised about?  Put yourself in his shoes – or any Royal who signs a multi-year deal.  They all want to win (everyone, except for Rick Ankiel) so the only reason – the only reason – they sign with the Royals is because they buy the sales pitch offered by GMDM and the rest of the front office brain trust.  In Greinke’s case, he committed to the team because he thought they were making progress.  Of course, this street runs both ways – in order for the team to be competitive, Greinke has to do his share.  I’d say he’s delivered.  The brain trust?  Not so much.

So I can’t blame the guy for saying what we all figured was on his mind:  Losing sucks, no matter how much money you make.

Besides, we all know how uber-competitive Greinke is.  Apparently, he’ll turn anything into a competition.  He signed a four year deal with the expectation this team would compete.  They aren’t any closer to .500 than the day he signed his contract.

Also, he spoke to the elephant in the room.  Banking on prospects is risky business:

“There’s no reason for me to get real excited about it,” he said, “because the chance of more than one of them making a major impact by the time my contract is up is pretty slim.”

He used Alex Gordon as an example.  And it’s a fair one.  No matter how highly ranked these prospects are, ultimately no one has a clue how they will actually fare once they get to the majors.  Greinke also pointed to Delmon Young.  Young was in Gordon’s rookie class.  They were both supposed to compete for the Rookie Of The Year Award.  Neither of them did, and now, four years later, Young is finally beginning to fulfill his promise.  Gordon?  We all know the jury is still out on that one.

Some people are going to complain, and say that Greinke should keep his mouth shut.  He’s paid to pitch, not play GM, they’ll say.  I would counter by saying Greinke, as the leader and longest tenured Royal, has his opinions and has the right – and the obligation – to speak to those opinions. I think Greinke would commit to another extension, but he will need to see some definite progress.  I can’t say that I blame him. The problem for the Royals – his contract is running out which means the window for GMDM to prove this team is making progress  is closing.  No one who plays the game wants to end up like Mike Sweeney – hanging on well past his prime before hooking onto a potential contender in a utility role.

The only thing Greinke did on Wednesday is speak the truth.

Prior to the 2010 season, many of us thought that the starting rotation might one of the Kansas City Royals’ strengths.   With the reigning Cy Young Award winner heading the staff and a healthy Gil Meche returning, it seemed that the Royals would have a one-two punch on par with anyone in the division.

Behind Greinke and Meche, there was a very reasonable chance that Luke Hochevar would take the next step and become a reliable number three starter while Brian Bannister was likely to remain a serviceable number four starter.   Plus, maybe this was the year that it all came together for Kyle Davies.   Even if Davies continued as he had been, he was still just the number five starter, anyway.

Well so much for that…

At our annual Royals Authority winter meetings in Bora Bora, we discussed that Zack Greinke’s ERA could go up an entire run and he still could be the best pitcher in the American League.   At the same time, we doubted that Zack would regress that much.   As it turned out, Zack’s ERA has gone up by just under two runs this year and while he is still a force to be reckoned with, Greinke is not dominating as he did in 2009.

That said, Zack is hardly the major issue with the Royals’ rotation.  Gil Meche started all of nine games and now, if he ever pitches again as a Royal, will do so out of the bullpen.   Luke Hochevar, who had shown signs of progress, was sat down for ‘a start or two’  on June 12th and has not been seen since.   Brian Bannister is currently sporting an ERA of barely under six and Kyle Davies remains Kyle Davies.

How bad has it been for the rotation this year?   Well, Bruce Chen, who found no takers for his services over the winter is arguably…not even arguably..IS the team’s number two starter and recently acquired Sean O’Sullivan, who has been tagged for 11 runs in 16 innings of work seems like an improvement over Bannister and Davies.

Of course, as I have often written, the end result of 2010 is not so important as building this team for the future.   In that respect, the Royals have plenty to look forward to when it comes to the rotation.   The AA level of the system boasts Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Danny Duffy and Chris Dwyer – all potential Top 100 prospects by the time those rankings come out this winter.   Behind them is disappointing, but still talented, Aaron Crow, who is joined by another slew of good young arms in Tim Melville,  Tyler Sample, Brian Paukovits and Will Smith.   The system is positively bubbling with potential major league starters.

Here’s the bad news:  if you throw out Crow’s 119 innings of work at Northwest Arkansas and Will Smith’s bizarre trip through three levels of the Angels’ system this season, the rest of the guys we just named COMBINED, have 60 innings of experience above A ball.      That’s no one’s fault, just a result of some minor injuries, a two month ‘retirement’ and the simple fact that these pitchers are all very young.

Sixty innings of combined AA experience makes it highly unlikely that we see any of these hurlers in Kansas City before September of 2011.    That bodes well for the rotation in 2012 and beyond, but it doesn’t do much for next year’s starting five.

Here is what we know about the 2011 rotation:  Zack Greinke will be the number one starter and Gil Meche won’t be in it.

Long pause….

Chances are, and given the Royals’ recent performance/luck at getting major league starting pitchers healthy, it is just a chance, Luke Hochevar will be in the rotation, too.      Before he went down in June, Luke had shaved over a run and one-half off his 2009 ERA (and yes, I think ERA is still a decent if somewhat crude measurement of the effectiveness of  a starting pitcher) and gone six or more innings in nine of his thirteen starts.   Should Hochevar make it back for even just a handful of starts yet this season, we could once more make a reasonable assumption that he might be able to take that ‘next step’ and settle in as a legitimate number three or number four starter.

After that, the Royals’ options to fill out the rotation are Bruce Chen, Brian Bannister, Sean O’Sullivan and, sigh, Kyle Davies.  

Chen’s a guy that will be interesting to watch the rest of the year.   After moving into the rotation, Bruce allowed 16 earned runs in his first 39 innings, but has been tagged for 20 runs in his last 25 innings.   That is a bad trend, which if not reversed means Chen is not a realistic option in 2011.

Bannister’s performance has degraded to the point that the Royals are skipping his next turn in the rotation.   Getting skipped in a rotation that includes Chen, O’Sullivan and Davies is not exactly a good trend, either.   I don’t know what you do with Bannister, I really don’t.   He is pretty much posting the worst numbers of his career across the board and getting worse as the season goes on.  

Kyle Davies now has 641 innings on his major league resume and they pretty much all look the same.  He is not horrible – well, not in comparison to Bannister or that guy who was wearing Gil Meche’s jersey earlier this year – but he is not anywhere near good, either.   Frankly, I think you could put Kyle’s game logs for the last couple of seasons next to those of Odalis Perez during his Royals’ career and not be able to tell them apart.  I don’t really view that as a ringing endorsement.

That brings us to Sean O’Sullivan, whose best asset at the moment is that he is just 22 years old.   What we have seen out of Sean to date is in line with what the scouting reports indicated:  a competitor, decent stuff and control, lacks a true out pitch and loses effectiveness the second and third time through a batting order.  As many have pointed out, O’Sullivan is not the picture of physical conditioning, so it may be a case of simply maturing and getting in better shape.     Frankly, I like O’Sullivan and could see him developing into a real number four starter (i.e. better than Bannister or Davies), but that might just be the ‘we always like the new guy syndrome’ at work there.

The options in AAA right now are pretty much Philip Humber, Gaby Hernandez and Edgar Osuna.  Of the three, Osuna is intriguing, having pitched extremely well in AA with a 2.95 ERA and a 1.162 WHIP.   He was pounced on pretty good in his first AAA start, but is worth watching in August.   If Chen or Bannister continue to crumble or Ned Yost just gets as bored with Kyle Davies as I am, it might be worth three or four starts in September to get a feel for what Osuna has to offer.

So, what do you do in 2011 if you are running the Royals?   Do you hold the line, trust the process (no sarcasm intended…for once) and wait for your truly impact arms to reach the bigs in 2012?   Probably that is the smart course of action.

If Greinke rebounds from simply good back to dominant, Hochevar comes back healthy and effective (yikes, that probably jinxed him right there!), O’Sullivan matures and improves and you find two guys who are this side of awful out of Osuna, Chen, Bannister and Davies, then you have an ‘okay’ rotation.   I don’t think the Royals can contend with that rotation, but those thoughts might not be realistic for next season, anyway.

Now, if you cannot tolerate a season of that rotation or you believe contending is a real possibility in 2011, then one has to look to free agency.   The list of free agents this off-season can be found here, and there are a number of interesting names on the list.   That said, how many that are upgrades can the Royals reasonably afford?  

As you can see, projecting the 2012 starting rotation will be a lot more fun than doing so for 2011.   What would you do?

Alex Gordon struck out twice last night.

(He also hit an opposite field bomb and “doubled” leading off the ninth to key the one run rally that carried the Royals to victory.  I put doubled in quotes, because if you were up late enough to see the play, you know the A’s first baseman jumped over the ball like he was running the hurdles.  Double was a generous ruling.)

Don’t worry, I’m not here to bag on Gordon for striking out.  Hopefully, you’ve been reading long enough to know that I view strikeouts like I view any other out.  I want to talk about the treatment Gordon has been getting from the home plate umpires.

Watching the games, it sure seems at times like there are two strike zones.  One for everyone and one for Gordon.  Exaggeration?  Probably.  Still, it often looks like Gordon doesn’t get the borderline calls.  (There’s a ton of talk about his negative body language and all that other kind of voodoo… This seems to be a factor.  Gordon is battling in a key spot, takes a pitch on the outside and it’s called a strike… He gets discouraged and he can’t hide his feelings.  This has been happening ever since he was a rookie.  Can’t hardly blame him.)

Anyway, thanks to Pitch f/x, there are a number of ways to examine Gordon and the calls on balls and strikes in his plate appearances.  I decided to visit Texas Leaguers to pull some graphs to determine if Gordon is truly getting hosed by the home plate umpires.

First, let’s look at the calls Gordon has received since his return from Omaha exile:

OK… Now we need to compare his chart with someone.  Ideally, we’d look at a left handed batter who played in most of the same games as Gordon.  In other words, control the study to the best of our ability.

Searching through box scores, the first name that jumped out was Rick Ankiel.  Here’s how his calls have been going over this same frame of time.

Interesting.  Ankiel seemed to get the benefit of the doubt on several calls that could be considered borderline.  Ankiel has been around longer, so maybe that could explain why he’s getting some calls Gordon is not.

So let’s look at someone who hasn’t played as much, but again hits left handed and played in most of the same games as Gordon during this stretch.

How about Chris Getz?

A little closer, but still… It’s pretty clear that Getz receives more “favorable” calls on balls and strikes than Gordon.

(Interesting, though, that the umpires seem to miss the strike on the inside corner for everyone.  We bemoan the lost art of working the hitter inside and usually blame the pitchers for lacking the “guts” or “nerve” to work on the inner half.  Maybe they’re not doing this because they know they won’t get the call.  That’s an article for another day…)

This isn’t a complete or comprehensive study.  It’s not meant to settle an argument… It’s just a snapshot.  A tiny one at that.  Although I do believe it supports my initial hypothesis that Gordon isn’t getting any favors from the home plate umpire.

For the season, when Gordon strikes out, he’s going down looking 40% of the time.  If that sounds high, that’s because it is.  Here are the top six hitters in the AL ranked by percentage of looking strikeouts:

Marco Scutaro – 67%
Denard Span – 45%
Brett Gardner – 45%
Daric Barton – 43%
Alberto Callaspo – 40%
Scott Podsednik – 39%

If Gordon had the at bats to qualify, he’d have the fifth highest rate in the league.  I’m intrigued by the inclusion of two Royals in the top six.  Are the Royals as a team getting worked over by the home plate umps?  I wonder.  Callaspo has never had a looking strikeout percentage that high.  And in his 40 plate appearances since moving to the West Coast, he has yet to be called out on strikes.  Pods, on the other hand, usually has a high looking strikeout rate.

(By the way, no clue what the deal is with Scutaro.  67%!?!  I checked and he’s always been over 50% on looking strikeouts.  Weird.)

Anyway… Back to Gordon…

Overall, I’m usually pretty happy with his plate discipline.  Here are his percentage for chasing a pitch out of the strike zone:

2007 – 25.8%
2008 – 24.1%
2009 – 24.7%
2010 – 21.5%

He’s always had a decent idea about the strike zone and he’s certainly improved his knowledge as he’s progressed.  Here are his walk rates:

2007 – 6.8%
2008 – 11.6%
2009 – 11.1%
2010 – 12.2%

Of course, the last two years aren’t really “complete” as he has less than 200 plate appearances in both seasons.  Still, we are seeing a player become more comfortable at the plate.  Someone who is gaining knowledge of the strike zone.  Not to beat the same old drum, but the guy simply needs to play every day.  I wasn’t entirely opposed to his exile to Omaha because I felt he needed to sort some things out and regain some confidence.  Since it appears he will be in the lineup almost every day from now until the end of the season, I expect Gordon to finally make some strides beyond the foundation he’s been building the previous four seasons. He’s also been a victim of some rotten luck this season.  Last night’s double was a rare break for a player who has a .226 BABIP.  That’s crazy low.  Especially for someone with a 19% line drive rate.

I think Gordon is going to have a strong final two months of the season.  His luck is bound to change (maybe last night was a sign it’s already turning) and his average, walks and power numbers are all going to increase.

Now, if he could just catch a break from the umps.

August 2nd, 2010.  In many ways it was just another day in baseball.  The Royals got beat by 6 runs in Oakland.  Brian Bannister wasn’t effective. Chris Getz let a runner score while he was arguing with the umpire.  A perfectly executed hit and run was busted up when the shortstop caught the line drive while moving to cover 2nd base.  Kila Ka’aihue got one pinch hit plate appearance.  However in the bottom of the 8th inning, Greg Holland made his major league debut and as you may or may not know, Holland is the first draft pick by Dayton Moore to play for the Royals.

On the mound he seemed stiff and uncomfortable, which isn’t all that surprising for a 10th round draft pick out of Ball State Western Carolina University facing big league hitters for the first time.  I’d imagine standing on a major league mound is a pretty intense experience the first time you do it.  Things started off well when he got Rajai Davis to ground out.  However, he followed that up by walking Gabe Gross and giving up back to back singles by Cliff Pennington and Coco Crisp which allowed Gross to score.  Holland then loaded the bases by walking Daric Barton.

I would assume that the young mans mind was racing at this point.  His entire baseball career might have been flashing before his eyes.  I am sure he knows all about players who merely got their cup of coffee, got sent back down and never made it back to the majors.  It was impossible not to see it on his face.  Royals manager Ned Yost then emerged from the dugout instead of the pitching coach.  Normally that means a new pitcher is coming into the game.  Again, I’d imagine Holland thought his debut was over just like that.  However, Yost went out there to offer some words of encouragement, not pull him from the game.

Whatever Yost said; it worked.  Holland quickly got the next batter, Kurt Suzuki to ground into an inning ending double play.  Just like that, Greg Holland was out of a bases loaded jam.  The team was still down six to nothing, but things didn’t get much worse.

It’s probably a little bit cheesy to use a single relief pitching appearance as a metaphor for the Dayton Moore regime, but I am going to do it anyway.  Holland entered a game which the Royals had little hope of winning,which isn’t much different from what Dayton Moore inherited when he showed up as General Manager.  He had some early success and made some odd moves which seemed a little like a guy finding his sea legs.  Then things turned sour and the results were not as advertised.  Finally, he got a reminder that he had a plan, just trust what you have and do what got you to where you are.  Finally, something goes right and the current predicament is over.

The story isn’t written on Greg Hollands major league career just yet, and neither is the one on Dayton Moore.  Things haven’t gone as well as anyone had hoped, its been rocky and ugly.  There has been a handful of bright spots, but they’ve been overshadowed by numerous dark ones.  Regardless of how many good individual pitches a pitcher makes, if you load the bases, you load the bases.  However, it can be completely erased by a single double play ball.

Whatever unfolds in the future for Dayton Moore and the Royals, the possible excuses for not building a winning ballclub are dwindling.  Just like a pitcher, it doesn’t matter what kind of stuff you have if you can’t get guys out.  Both Holland and Dayton Moore will be judged by their results on the field.  Personally, I hope both succeed wildly but we will have to keep watching and see.

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