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Deconstructing The Process

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The Royals – yes, the Kansas City Royals – survived a slugfest in St. Louis and vanquished the Cardinals by a 8-7 score on Tuesday. The game capped a successful road trip that saw the Royals take four of six from the Blue Jays and then the Cardinals. Call it the Running of the 1985 Gauntlet.

Bookending a mini-slump where the Royals scored two runs in the final two games in Toronto were games where Kansas City scored eight and six runs. Add everything together and since May 29, the Royals have scored 30 runs in six games and pocketed the aforementioned four wins.

Dale Sveum, hitting whisperer, indeed.

On Tuesday, James Shields wasn’t exactly Big Game as he walked four and allowed nine hits while striking out a single hitter. He allowed two home runs for good measure. Not to be alarmist following a solid stretch of baseball, but Shields just hasn’t been himself of late. In his last 18.1 innings, he’s allowed 17 runs. That’s courtesy of seven (seven!) home runs.

I suppose at this point, I should point east and laugh. Suck it, St. Louis and all that. Maybe it’s misguided on my part, but beating the Cardinals doesn’t move me any more than beating the Marlins. A win is a win. It’s good when the Royals can shutout a team one night and turn around and score eight and win by a single run the next. I mean, St. Louis is still a wannabe east coast city that I avoid at all costs, but they just don’t matter so much to me. I’m aware their fans are spectacular or whatever. Best fans EVAR!!!!!1! Eh. I tend to ignore the self-absorbed. It’s a character flaw.

I read much hand-wringing of the ESPN treatment on Monday night. “How disrespectful they don’t know this team!” “Why can’t they talk about something other than 1985?” “It’s like they’ve never seen the Royals play!” Uh, hello. This is the Kansas City Royals ESPN is talking about. Is there really any reason for ESPN – or any other national sports outlet – to discuss this team over the last 25 years? Three decades of losing will render your favorite team irrelevant. It happens. But the 1985 is our World Series and when the Royals and Cardinals meet, it’s as good a reason as any to revisit some history. It gives the national guys a news peg. Fortunes have kind of diverged since those late October nights in 1985.

Did you read the Bob Nightengale article in USA Today about the Royals? It contained some wonderful quotes from Dayton Moore As I do from time to time, I’ll do a little translation. Moore is a wonderful quote machine. He speaks like the guy who writes those inspirational posters you find in sterile corporations who haven’t updated their decor from 1993. I can’t resist.

“It’s been a frustrating year,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “But the frustration I feel is no greater than the players, or (manager) Ned (Yost) or the coaching staff. We’re all in it together.

“Yeah, we expected more out of our players, but they expect even more out of themselves. We’re making some very honest evaluations.”

Oh, spare me. Notice he didn’t mention the owner. I wonder if David Glass is frustrated? Out of sight, out of mind. Maybe Glass hasn’t brought up the fact his team and their record payroll is underachieving. Maybe a better quote would be something along the lines of, “I thought everyone would get better. Isn’t that what happens?”

And the “honest evaluation” line is pretty funny. I imagine him saying it the way Neidermeyer put Delta house on “double secret probation.”

“You wonder how we can underachieve offensively the second year in a row,” Yost says, “with the talent we have. The pitchers are giving us chances to win, but we have to score runs.”

No, it’s really not that puzzling. When you do something more than once, it’s a trend. And when it’s a trend, you’re not underachieving. You are what you are. Now there’s interpretation that can be done as to why your team has turned into an offensive pumpkin. (Perhaps the revolving door of hitting coaches has been counterproductive and perhaps you had a good one on your staff but turned him loose.) Why is Billy Butler’s ground ball rate above 50 percent for the second consecutive season and rising? Why has Eric Hosmer returned all his gains he realized from last season and hit just one home run? Why has Mike Moustakas regressed every season since his debut? Why has Salvador Perez suffered the same fate? Read through those names again. That was supposed to form the nucleus of this team. That’s the way the master plan was drawn up when Dayton Moore circled 2014 on his ten-year day planner. The only guy who is worth a damn is Alex Gordon. Moore loses points because Gordon is an Allard Baird refugee. But he gains points for moving him off the hot corner and to left field. And inspired last-ditch move that saved a career and should be worth some goodwill.

How about this for a wonderful tidbit: Since 2011, Alex Gordon has collected 18.1 fWAR. That’s the highest total among regular left fielders in all of baseball. Yeah, that’s right. Awesome. This guy is criminally underrated because he’s surrounded by so much damn offensive dead weight. Do you want to think about this team without Alex Gordon? I answer for you: No. No, you don’t.

Back to the USA Today article. Did you catch this:

Certainly, there’s enough blame to be shared throughout an organization that has run through several failed regimes.

If anyone deserves the most blame, Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog said, it’s owner David Glass.

He was the one who was offered by Commissioner Bud Selig to move the franchise to the National League in 1998. Glass declined. The Milwaukee Brewers accepted. The rest is history.

“That’s one of the most major mistakes in the history of ownership,” said Herzog, who managed the St.Louis Cardinals and the Royals. “It was natural to go to the National League. They would have had a natural rivalry with the Cardinals. The Cubs would be sellouts. People would come from Denver. And they wouldn’t have to worry about their offense.

“When I talked to David about it, he said, ‘Everybody wanted to see the Yankees.’ I said, ‘Was there anyone complaining if you went to the NL?’ He said, ‘We got about a hundred letters.’

“I said, ‘Jesus, you’re running Wal-Mart and you let 100 letters change your mind? What a screw-up.’

I remember that time well. I was still a season ticket holder and the Royals polled us about the potential move. Myself? I wasn’t for it. I thought it was foolish to move from the American League. Kansas City had always been an AL city. The World Series title – at that point, not so much a distant memory – was won in the AL. I guess the irony is, the Yankees will visit Kansas City between three and four times a year now thanks to the unbalanced schedule. Instead of the bandwagon Yankee and Red Sox fans for six to eight dates at The K, you would have 20 dates with the Cardinals and Cubs. Equally obnoxious fan bases.

Maybe it was a mistake not to move, but a bad offense is a bad offense. Just spitballing here, but since National League pitching has been superior, wouldn’t that render our tepid attack even more impotent? We’d be wallowing in the muck with the Padres. Carry a negative run differential and it’s difficult to contend.

As much as I enjoy Herzog and as much as I enjoy Herzog ripping on Glass, it’s revisionist history at this point. Besides, if Tampa can hang with the Yankees and Red Sox (although not so much this year) the Royals should be able to find a way to get past the Twins and the Tigers.

Nightengale mentions free agent Kendrys Morales as a potential match. Let’s play a little game of internet telephone. I bet Nightengale picked up this nugget from a certain Tweet.

And I wonder where Heyman heard this? Hmmmm. Morales has a certain agent who has been known to feed info to Heyman in the past… Hmmmmm.

Anyway, does it make sense for the Royals to sign a guy like Morales at this point in the season? After he’s missed two-plus months. Stephen Drew signed a couple weeks ago with the Red Sox and spent 10 days in the minors to get game ready. That would put a potential Morales arrival a little after mid-June. That’s great and he would certainly represent an upgrade, but what do you do with Billy Butler? He’s making $8 million this year, so the Royals aren’t going to keep him around as a right-handed bat off the bench. Besides, you think he would accept any kind of demotion? So you have to trade him, but to whom and for what? His market is limited as a designated hitter. His contract is on the high side for a one dimensional player and you’d be selling at his absolute low point.

No, it looks like the Royals are stuck with Butler. If anything, it should be fun watching them decide what to do with that $12.5 million option for next year.

And by next year, the narrow window of opportunity may be closing.

The move had the inevitably of the Sonny Corleone hit, yet the subtlety of that time Jerry bashed Tom over the head with a sledgehammer. Or an axe.. The Royals finally closed their eyes and did what was long overdue. They sent Mike Moustakas to Omaha.

There is much rejoicing amongst Royals fans. Finally. Finally, they are doing the right thing. Maybe this is the opportunity for Moustakas to rebuild his career the same way Alex Gordon and Billy Butler did theirs.

I’m not so sure about that. Three things stand out in my mind. First, while both Gordon and Butler struggled mightily at times early in their careers, neither player hit the depths where Moustakas currently resides. In 2008 when Butler was farmed out, he was hitting .263/.330/.339. Not so much power – just one home run and 11 doubles in 206 plate appearances – but he wasn’t an automatic out. Gordon, who you could argue had his development hampered by injury, was hitting .194/.342/.323 after returning from a thumb fracture suffered in spring training when he was sent down. Again, not an automatic out.

The difference is Moustakas is a career .236/.290/.379 hitter. That covers over 1,600 plate appearances. And he’s getting worse. Going back to the start of 2013 he’s hitting .216/.273/.355. That’s in 653 plate appearances. Gross.

Second, both Gordon and Butler are mentally strong. Gordon is a workout animal and I don’t think Butler has ever doubted his ability to hit the baseball. Yeah, it’s a bummer getting demoted and you never know how anyone will react. Ahead of his demotion, Gordon looked absolutely lost. Like he wanted to be anywhere but the diamond. The demotion and subsequent position change seemed a true last-ditch effort on the part of the team and the player. It doesn’t feel all that dissimilar to what’s happening now with Moustakas. But one thing we’ve learned over time is Gordon works tirelessly at his craft. Butler just seems irritated whenever he doesn’t barrel the ball. He’s always taken a ton of pride from his hitting. (I know I’m going all “body language” on you here, but it goes to mental state. Which is important in a player who has the tools but is struggling.) Fortunately, Gordon and Butler responded.

Will Moustakas? I’m not sure. We know he doesn’t watch video and while I haven’t heard anything negative about his work ethic, I haven’t heard raves either.

And third, Gordon and Butler possessed a more rounded hit tool than Moustakas. Both players were hitters, if that makes sense. Moustakas came through the organization as a power hitting prospect. The projections were always along the line of he won’t give you a high average and the OBP will be on the lower side of acceptable, but he could challenge the Steve Balboni Record. As I showed above, when Butler and Gordon went down, both were contributing offensively by getting on base. Moustakas isn’t contributing at all offensively.

Now what? I assume the Royals gave Moustakas some sort of idea of how long he will be in Triple-A. Now it’s up to him to pull his head out and perform. My reservation is even if he does well in Omaha, it won’t stick. We’ve been down this road before in spring training and Venezuela. He’ll hit great against lesser competition, but when it comes time to put it together in The Show he hits a rough patch and all the good quickly becomes undone. I hope that’s not the case. Because the Royals need a power bat in the lineup. They need Mike Moustakas to reach his potential.

I’m just afraid we’ve already seen his ceiling.

The Prodigal Greinke returns and on paper it’s a mismatch. One Cy Young Award winner against one PCL pitcher of the year. One who was dealt in a blockbuster in exchange for four players against one who was acquired for cash considerations. One who is one of the best starters in the NL against one who is an emergency starter used only because everyone else is hurt.

Yet it was Luis Mendoza who was the starter of the game.

Baseball is funny sometimes.

Mendoza finished with a Game Score of 68. That’s tied with almost every Felipe Paulino start this season for sixth best this season. (Seriously, Paulino has made three starts with a Game Score of 68. He’s awesome. He’s also hurt.) Here’s the top starts by Game Score:

It was a great start from Mendoza. It’s one off his best Game Score ever. Set back in 2008 when he was pitching for the Rangers and struck out eight in six innings. You won’t be surprised to learn that those eight strikeouts are the most he’s ever had in a start.

What may be surprising to you is that Mendoza’s four strikeouts on Tuesday, was tied for second most in a start in his career. Hey, he’s made just 22 starts, but still… Wow.

(By the way, according to Game Score, Greinke had the better start. It was 69-68. Because Greinke strikes batters out.)

So we basically saw the best that Mendoza had to give. Not bad, really. His two seam fastball was really diving on both sides of the plate. He recorded six ground outs to go along with his four whiffs. Perhaps more key was the fact he got three pop-ups. Maybe the Brewers were thinking a dropping two-seamer was on the way and they got under a four-seamer. Whatever, Mendoza’s pitches were working. And working quite well.

These kind of starts are always welcome.

— Yes, you have to include the obligatory, “Greinke doesn’t get any run support at The K, no matter what uniform he’s wearing.”

— If you’re looking for an alternate player of the game, you’d have to give the nod to Alex Gordon.

I mean, how sweet was it for him to lead off the game for the Royals with a bomb? And then the throw to gun down Braun to keep the 1-0 lead? That’s the guy I remember from last year.

In our daily installment of “Fun With Arbitrary Endpoints,” I note that since Yosty stopped shuffling Gordon around and let him be in the leadoff spot, he’s hitting .306/.424/.429 with six doubles, three home runs and nine walks against nine strikeouts. Too damn bad Yosty freaked on Gordon after his slow start. His overall numbers would be a little better than where we are now. Just a suspicion I have.

— On BUNTS… Yosty attempted two sacrifices on Tuesday. The first one was in the fifth inning following a Moose leadoff double. With The Shortstop Jesus at the plate, he bunted foul. Now, long time readers know, this play drives me insane. You have a runner at second with no outs and you give up an out to get him to third. Moving that runner doesn’t appreciably add to your run expectancy enough to justify giving away the out.

Escobar lined out on the next pitch on a bullet up the middle that Greinke speared. Good work, good effort as they say in Miami.

Naturally, the next batter, Jarrod Dyson flies out to center. That would have scored Moustakas. Although I think there’s no way Greinke puts that pitch in a spot where Dyson can get it in the air. You may disagree, though.

Then in the eighth, Gordon doubles to leadoff and Getz moves him to third. That free out was rendered useless by the Billy Butler single up the middle that would have scored Gordon from second.

I hear all the damn time that Getz “plays the game right” and “does all the little things.” Fine. If he’s so hot, why can’t he take a full swing and put the ball on the right side? It could ultimately end with the same result – an out and an advanced runner – but at least in that case there’s the possibility that something like a base hit could happen. Again, moving the runner to third while surrendering one of your final six outs just isn’t a smart percentage play. And it didn’t work because Gordon would have scored anyway.

Oh, one last thing. From Fangraphs, the Royals Win Expectancy before the Getz bunt? 74 percent. The Royals Win Expectancy following the Getz bunt? 74 percent.

Exactly.

— The Jonathan Broxton Highwire Thrill Ride is kinda starting to piss me off. Single, strikeout, single, strikeout and a fielder’s choice. Never mind the cheap hits. Never mind the first pitch balls. It’s the pace that is just maddening. Pitch the ball, Jonathan.

According to the PITCH f/x data at Fangraphs, Broxton is the third slowest reliever in the game this year.

Must be something about having a first name that starts with a “J.”

Anyway, I’m with Denny Mathews when it comes to the pace of the game. I don’t mind the overall three hour contest. It’s the pitchers that just bring the game to an absolute halt that drive me nuts. Whatever. It’s a pet peeve of mine. I’ll live.

But it makes me dislike Broxton even more.

— Great win. Greinke got me nostalgic and A1 snapped me back to the present, while Broxton made me want to fire up my flux capacitor and look at the future where he’s closing games for another team.

From what I understand, there were some great Greinke quotes following the game. I’m sure we’ll have fun with those tomorrow.

The Royals return to The K where they look to build on their league worst 5-17 home record. Just about the most bizarre split I can remember since Brian Bannister dominated the day. In 22 home games, they’ve allowed 122 runs, or 5.5 per game. In 27 road games, they’ve allowed 97 runs, or 3.6 per game.

They’re scoring more on the road (4.3/g vs 3.8) but the spread isn’t as extreme. As always, it’s all about the pitching.

A couple of notes following an off day where we popped the champagne on a winning record in May…

Decisions, Decisions

The Royals will be looking to make a couple of decisions with their 25-man roster in the coming days. Both Yuniesky Betancourt and Jonathan Sanchez are rehabbing in Omaha and look close to being activated.

For Sanchez, there’s no question… He’ll be slotted into the rotation as soon as humanly possible. Not because he’s anything great, but because he’s making $5.6 million and the Royals are still desperate for starting pitching. Like ugly girl in a bar at 2 am desperate. Neither scenario is something worth waking up to in the morning.

Sanchez threw 5.2 innings (of course he did) and struck out five while walking one in his first rehab start. He’s likely to get one more start before rejoining the team. Sanchez’s return still leaves the Royals with just four “definites” in the starting rotation: Chen, Hochevar, Paulino and Sanchez… That means your option for the fifth starter is either Will Smith, Luis Mendoza or Vin Mazzaro. Or they can add another starter from the minors.

Either way, this rotation is a hot mess.

Yosty seemed to be keeping his options wide open when he said Sanchez will “probably” make one more rehab start. If he stays in Omaha, it looks like Mazzaro will get the start on Sunday.

I’m not sure either option is a good one.

Then there’s Betancourt. He has progressed to Omaha after a brief stint in Northwest Arkansas and went 2-4 with a home run in his lone appearance for the Storm Chasers. According to Ned Yost, he could be activated this weekend.

This is where things will get interesting.

Do the Royals keep Johnny Giavotella with the big club? Or do they ship Irving Falu back to Triple-A? Since the Royals have need eight pitchers in the bullpen, they have a three man bench. It’s possible they ship a pitcher out and keep all three, but that seems really unlikely. In my heart, I’d like them to keep Giavotella and just let him play second. Yeah, he’s unimpressive with the glove, but just give him a couple of months and see what the kid can do. Betancourt isn’t a long-term solution. (God help us all if the Royals seem him that way.) Neither is Falu. Is Gio? Maybe… Maybe not. But while we’re certain about the futures of the other two players, the jury is still out on Giavotella. At least it should be.

I’d keep Falu, too. He has proven his value as a utility player. And he could provide the Royals with a late inning defensive replacement for Gio.

Of course, I never would have signed The Yunigma is the first place. So maybe I’m biased. Biased against bad ballplayers.

We’ve covered this topic at length. And after all the bandwidth we’ve filled, I still haven’t a clue as to what the Royals will do. I know what I hope they’ll do. This situation is beginning to feel like Christmas morning when I was 10… Full of hope and anticipation, but ultimately a day of disappointment when I opened a gift from Radio Shack.

Numbers

The Royals have used 20 pitchers through the first two months of the season. Nine of them have started a game. By comparison, last year the Royals used 23 pitchers and 10 starters.

Here are the top five teams ranked by bullpen innings:

Royals – 190
Orioles – 174.2
Twins – 172.1
Rockies – 165.2
Brewers – 163.1

It’s a damn good thing this bullpen is a strength of the team. Their collective 3.13 ERA is tied for the seventh best mark in baseball. Right now, if you asked me to name the Royals Pitcher of the Year, I would vote for “Bullpen.” Quantity and quality.

A1 Back On Top

According to Dutton’s notes column, Alex Gordon feels like the leadoff spot in the lineup is a “fit.” That’s cool. I don’t think lineup position matters at all, but I do understand that some players have a certain approach and state of mind when it comes to hitting leadoff. Hey, if Gordon is able to focus a little better because he’s feeling it in the leadoff spot… More power to him.

In the last four games since Yosty returned him to the top spot, A1 has added 10 points to his average and eight points to his OBP.

Works for me.

Winning The Month

About that winning month of May. The Royals finished two games above .500 at 15-13 despite scoring and allowing the exact number of runs. The offense crossed the plate 117 times while the pitchers surrendered the same amount. We don’t need an advanced degree in sabermetrics to know that the Royals Pythag record in May was 14-14.

Their overall Pythagorean record stands at 22-27, just a game off their actual record of 21-28. Remember during their losing streak how they were something like five games off their Pythag record? Over the course of a long season, these things have a way of finding a balance.

Time To Win

The Royals next six home games are against Minnesota and Oakland. You can’t find two worse run scoring offenses in the American League. (They follow this homestand with three against the Pirates. Their offense is dreadful. Like deadball era bad.) This is a chance to pick up some wins. Success will be defined as six wins in their next nine, including four out of six on the homestand.

I’m still not a believer in contention. I am a believer in development. And development, like contention, means winning ballgames. This is a real chance for the Royals to inch closer back to the ever elusive .500 mark. If they’re going to make a move at any time this season, it has to be over the next week and a half.

Play ball.

Last Friday, I went around the infield and looked at how the Royals offensive production at each position compared to league average. Today, it’s time for the outfield (and DH) to get the similar treatment.

Left Field
League Average – .243/.320/.412
Royals – .230/.324/.364, sOPS+ 85

Alex Gordon’s numbers look very much like the ’09-’10 version of Alex Gordon. That’s the version we thought we’d left behind. At least, we had hoped that version had been left behind after the Royals penned him to a contract extension just ahead of the season opener.

If you’re into arbitrary end points, Gordon did have a fine stretch of 19 games where he hit .321/.398/.487 from April 25 to May 16. That was when we collectively exhaled. Great. Except in the 11 games since then, he’s hit .146/.255/.220.

Although Gordon won’t admit it, I wonder if he’s been unsettled by Yosty’s Revolving Lineup Card. Gordon opened the year as the leadoff hitter (where he had most of his success last year), but when he was slow out of the gate, he was dropped to second, then third, then cleanup and even spent a few games in the sixth spot. In the last three games, he’s returned to the leadoff spot and has picked up four hits in 13 plate appearances. There’s still time for him to salvage his season, but it’s been much more of a grind.

Center Field
League Average – .268/.333/.432
Royals – .236/.312/.322, sOPS+ 70

Aside from the DH spot, the most productive position in the American League so far this year has been center field. And it’s where the Royals have struggled to get any production at all. Jerrod Dyson has seen the most appearances in center, with Mitch Maier with the second most. Lorenzo Cain and Jason Bourgeois have also seen time at the position.

Dyson’s production has been solid as far as reaching base. With a .252/.328/.331 line, he’s proven himself adept at working the count and drawing the base on balls. He still doesn’t hit enough to justify the leadoff spot in the lineup, but like I said… He’s pretty close to league average when it comes to OBP. That makes him a decent fourth outfielder to have on your roster. Look out, Mitch.

Still, this feels like a lost season for Cain. He was supposed to get most of the reps in center, but the injury bug bit him hard. Cain is in extended spring training rehabbing from a torn hip flexor. He’s probably a good three to four weeks away from returning. At which time, the Royals will have a decision to make: Will they hand him back his everyday job in center, or will they write off this season and rotate him with Dyson and/or Maier? Maier is buried so far on Yosty’s bench, he could be the odd man out.

Oh… At this point, I’m supposed to ask, “Got Melk?”

Right Field
League Average – .258/.326/.434
Royals – .276/.320/.443, sOPS+ 96

We know from watching the Royals several certainties: Ned Yost will call for myriad sac bunts in situations where they won’t help his team. The Royals will give the opposition at least one free out per game. And Jeff Francoeur will hit fifth.

Like most of the Royals, The Frenchman got off to a slow start, but picked up the pace of late. In May, he’s hit .327/.371/.582. Most impressive have been his seven walks this month. Currently, he’s walking in 6.2 percent of his plate appearances, which is the highest rate of his career. I think it has something to do with the Mayans. Or a Kardashian. And with five home runs this month, he’s knocking one out of the yard about every 36 at bats, which is very close to his career mark of 32 AB/HR. And this for a guy who didn’t hit his first bomb until May 13 and didn’t hit his second until May 21.

Nice road trip.

Designated Hitter
League Average – .259/.333/.450
Royals – .290/.345/.505, sOPS+ 118

The Royals have utilized two designated hitters all year: Billy Butler and… Johnny Giavotella. Ummm, OK.

We all know about Country Breakfast. And long time readers will know about my affection for the man. Dude can rake. And he’s the only thing – the only thing – that you can count on in the Royals lineup. He will show up every year, drill line drives to the gaps and put up a line around .300/.370/.470.

Except this year, he’s hit a few more home runs.

The party line from the Royals is Butler is finally hitting for more loft. Sounds great, except he’s not. His fly ball percentage is 32.2 percent which is the lowest of his career. The lowest. Yet, the ball is flying out of the part and he’s become the number one threat to wipe Steve Balboni from the Royals record book. How? Maybe it’s because he’s stronger. It doesn’t look like he’s changed his approach as the Royals would like you to believe. He’s swinging at pitches at roughly the same rate. It’s just that the fly balls have a little more charge in them this year.

It’s a nice development.

And as I Tweeted a few weeks ago, if you don’t like Billy Butler, I don’t have a lot of time for you. Sorry. I think he’s a great hitter. And the kind of guy you need on your team.

Country Breakfast is awesome.

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

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

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

What’s going on with these two guys?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And how it broke down in 2011:

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

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

How about Hosmer?   Here is the breakdown for 2012:

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

And 2011:

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

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

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

xxx

 

A minor Twitter kerfuffle erupted on Tuesday when Deadspin published excerpts from each of the 30 team chapters of the latest Baseball Prospectus Annual. Publishing excerpts isn’t exactly noteworthy. Except in this case, they were accompanied by a projected win/loss record.

And the Royals were projected to finish with a 68-94 record.

Ouch.

That’s three wins less than last year’s total. And the lowest projected total in the American League.

PECOTA hates the Royals. And PECOTA probably hates you.

Full disclosure: You may know, I’ve written off and on at Baseball Prospectus for the last two years. This year, I wrote the player profiles and the team essay for the Royals. Undoubtedly the highlight of my blogging career.

Many Tweets encapsulated anger and a feeling of injustice. (As much as you can in 140 characters, counting hashtags.) It was like watching someone mourn a lost loved one. All the stages of grief were there:

Denial – Oh, no… Baseball Prospectus released some projections. They hate the Royals… I’m not going to click that link. If I don’t click, maybe it will go away.

Anger – 68 wins? Who the hell do these geeks think they are? I will kick their collective, scrawny ass. Then, I will trash them anonymously on Twitter. Screw Baseball Prospectus.

Bargaining – Maybe the projections are wrong. I mean, they’re not always right, are they? I’ll give someone my All-Star Game ticket if we could just finish at .500.

Depression – Players are hurt, Chris Getz is starting and we still have no starting pitching… we’re going to suuuuuuuck.

Acceptance – If the Royals only win 68 games, there’s no way Ned Yost returns in 2013. Maybe that’s no so bad.

Really, there are gajillion different variables that go into the PECOTA projections. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I kind of doubt it. Even though I’ve written at BP, I’m not allowed in the secret room with the formula. If I nudge a decimal, the Earth shifts off it’s axis and becomes one of Saturn’s moons.

Here’s a brief explanation as to why PECOTA hates the Royals.

– The starting pitching will be awful. PECOTA pegs the Royals staff as allowing 855 runs. That’s epically awful. Last year, Baltimore coughed up more runs than any team in baseball with 860. The Twins were second worst at 804 runs allowed. No other team surrendered more than 800 runs. There’s no way the Royals can compete for anything but a high draft pick if they land anywhere near this number.

Among starters, PECOTA feels that only Jonathan Sanchez and Bruce Chen will be above replacement level. They have Chen at a 0.0 WARP and Sanchez at 0.3 WARP. For reference, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander had a 6.0 and 5.8 WARP, respectively. Danny Duffy had a 0.5 WARP.

The starting five rounds out with Duffy at -0.1 WARP, Luke Hochevar at -0.3 WARP and Luis Mendoza at -0.7 WARP. That’s just a really bad starting rotation.

The funny thing is, I don’t agree with any of it.

First of all, PECOTA thinks that Sanchez will be the Royals top starter. No way. In fact, I’d wager of the five listed above, he’s the fourth or fifth best. They expect a steep drop from Chen and virtually no improvement from Duffy. I’m betting that Chen takes a step back in ’12, but I think it’s a small one. And Duffy… Man, I just don’t see how he doesn’t pitch better this season.

This is something that gets all the Lee Judge acylotes in an uproar… Projections don’t account for changes of a mechanical nature. Take Hochevar, for example. Last summer, Hochevar shifted his arm angle on his slider and developed that pitch into something that could be called above average. As I said before, I’m not privvy to the secret sauce of PECOTA, but I’m fairly certain it’s not taking into account his new arm angle, or the fact he upped the percentage he threw his slider. Instead, it’s looking at things like ballpark, age and past performance. I think if a player struggles in the first half, but has a strong second part of the season, but his overall numbers are weak, projections systems have a difficult time with that player.

– Six of the nine Royal regulars are projected to have a sub .325 on base percentage. Last year the league average was .321 OBP. Of the lineup, only Hosmer, Butler, Gordon and Chris Getz will top that mark. (Relax, Getz is the lowest of the four with a .324 projected OBP.) That’s a reversal from last summer, where six regulars topped a .329 OBP.

Gordon is projected to drop 24 points, which isn’t surprising given his past performance. Last year was his breakout, and projection systems have a difficult time buying into a guy who had over 1,600 plate appearances and outperformed his career averages by a large margin.

Meanwhile, Butler is projected for a .360 OBP, just one point below his 2011 mark. The last three seasons, Butler has been Mr. Consistent. His projected slash line of .294/.360/.453 almost exactly matches his career line of .297/.360/.458. While a player like Gordon is difficult to project due to the circumstances surrounding a “breakout” season, a player like Butler is the opposite. He’s so steady, it’s difficult to miss by much.

– Kansas City is going to experience another power outage. No Royal is projected to top 20 home runs. Hosmer and Gordon are the team leaders with 19 bombs and Butler and Moustakas are right behind them with 17. Last year, the Royals had five players top 18 long balls.

That combination of sub-par on base percentage and almost non-existent power means the Royals will struggle to score runs. PECOTA has them for 716 runs scored. That’s actually just off the 730 they scored last season.

Again, I don’t agree with all of the offensive projections. Butler aside, most of them seem very conservative.

Any projection system has hits and it has misses. And if you search hard enough, there are tons of projections available this time of year. If you must, look until you find one that fits your selection bias. In the meantime, take PECOTA for what it is… A projection. It’s something that can be fun to look at, but don’t take it at face value. Investigate. Try to decide if you agree or disagree. Dig around and see how they arrived at their projection. Most of all, be constructive in your criticism. “PECOTA sucks because they say the Royals are only going to win 68 games,” isn’t helpful. But if you say, “I disagree with PECOTA because I think our pitching is going to be better than they project, because…”

Do I think the Royals are better than a 68 win team? Yes. Do I think they’ll win 80? No. I’m still kicking around some win totals in my mind. That post comes on Friday… Opening Day, when we call our shot.

Play ball.

On the off season list of priorities, signing Alex Gordon to a contract extension was probably at the top. You may even say it was A1 on the list. (Groan… I know.)

With the clock counting down on spring training, the Royals and Gordon finally got the extension done last Friday, announcing a four year deal, valued at $37.5 million. There is a player option for a fifth year. Last Friday, on Twitter, I introduced something called #PositiveFriday. It was an attempt to only Tweet the positive as the Royals were striving toward the finish line of spring training.

Positive Friday, indeed.

Overall, this is another deal that is a win for both sides. It’s a win in that Gordon gets guaranteed cash, and it’s a win that the option for the fifth season is his. It’s a win for the Royals in that they signed one of their top three hitters to a deal that won’t break the bank. Or more importantly, prohibit them from pursuing a long term extension for Eric Hosmer at any point in the next three years.

And it’s a win for Dayton Moore. Since he’s become General Manager, Moore has signed Joakim Soria, Zack Greinke, Billy Butler, Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar and now Gordon to a long-term deal. Basically, anyone worthy of a deal has signed one. While the ink has yet to dry on the Perez, Escobar and now Gordon deals, each one of these contracts seems to be a good piece of business on the part of the Royals.

(Yes, Soria is going to miss the entire season, but according to FanGraphs, he’s provided $20.3 million in value for the first three years of his contract. That’s while making $8 million. I’m going to assume the team has insurance on Soria and I’m also going to assume his contract is either renegotiated for next year or not picked up at all.)

It’s natural to frame the Gordon extension as how it affects Hosmer. There’s an interesting alignment happening. On one side, you have super agent Scott Boras who rarely signs a long-term deal before testing the free agent market. On the other side, you have Moore, who has yet to allow any of his quality players to test said market. It’s a good, old-fashioned standoff… Who blinks?

It’s funny how all of this works. Two years ago, Gordon was a bust. A first round pick who couldn’t get healthy and who couldn’t catch a break. There were rumblings of how he was completely lost – both as a hitter and a fielder. And there was talk of him needing a “fresh” start. Perhaps a trade to another organization where he wouldn’t be saddled with so much baggage.

Now, he’s the leadoff hitter, Gold Glove outfielder and one of the cornerstones of the franchise. He may not match the offensive or defensive production from his stellar 2011, but if he can stay healthy, you know he will come close.

Sure, his .358 BABIP points to a correction, but it’s one that shouldn’t be too drastic. Anyway, he’s a high strikeout guy (he whiffed in 20% of his at bats last year) with some power. We know those types of players often have an inflated BABIP. Also, his 22% line drive rate shows how well he can square up on the ball. I would bet if he can maintain his line drive rate, his BABIP will be north of .325. That’s good enough for me.

(If you want an example of how he couldn’t catch a break, look at his rates from 2010. He had a 23% line drive rate, but an insanely low .254 BABIP. That was some rotten luck. And it couldn’t help but translate to his overall stat line.)

The only concern I have going forward is the player option for 2016. He’ll be 32 that season, so it naturally carries a bit of a risk for the club.

I had assumed the deal would break down where Gordon would get around $10 million for his final year of salary arbitration, along with $12 million per for each year of free agency. That meant I figured a four year deal would total around $46 million. What I didn’t expect was that the Royals would tear up his current contract, bump his 2012 salary by about $1.25 million and cover just two years of free agency. So while it looks my guesstimate was off, I’m still calling it a win.

Because I can do that.

Hang on everyone, we are finally, FINALLY in the final week of spring training.  It is a good feeling to know that next Monday I will have actual regular season games to write about!  I am pretty sure that there is not a Royals’ fan out there who isn’t tired of debating roster moves, nicknames, and what spring training really means, so let’s have a little fun today and throw out some over/unders for the coming season.

Eric Hosmer Home Runs

Anyone not think Hosmer is the real deal?  We have all fallen prey to overestimating the potential of more than one prospect over the years, but I am not sure any one player has seemed so destined for stardom in a Royals’ uniform since we saw Carlos Beltran come up.   There has been a lot of talk about Hosmer threatening Steve Balboni’s club record of 36 homers and I think that one year either Hosmer or Mike Moustakas probably will bust through that long standing number.  However, I don’t think 2012 is going to be the year.

The over/under on Hosmer homers is 29.

Alex Gordon’s OPS+

I know some of you are not all that keen on sabermetrics, but it is a tidy way to quantify a player’s offensive contributions relative to the rest of the league.  Last year, Gordon posted a rather impressive OPS+ of 140.   For reference, his OPS+ from his rookie season forward were: 90, 109, 87 and 84.

Was 2011 a freak occurrence or the long awaited realization of Gordon’s potential?  I think the latter, but I also know that Gordon had a little bit of good fortune when it came to the beloved BABIP.   He might regress, but not a lot (at least I sure hope it is not a lot!).

The over/under for Gordon’s 2012 OPS+ is 129.

Luke Hochevar’s Innings Pitched

A couple of things come into play here.  The first is that 2011 was basically the first year Luke managed to go through the entire season without an injury.  The second is that unless you are the late Jose Lima, it is hard to pile up a lot of innings if you are not effective.   In my mind, the number of innings Hochevar throws will be a direct correlation to his effectiveness.

Last season, Luke threw 198 innings, using a strong second half to get his ERA to a marginally tolerable 4.68 by season’s end.  The Royals expect and quite frankly really, really, really need Hochevar to build on the success he enjoyed after the All-Star Break in 2011.  I’m cautiously optimistic.

The over/under on Hochevar’s innings pitched is 208.

Greg Holland’s Saves

Ned Yost has yet to commit to a full-time closer to replace the injured Joakim Soria and looks to be headed towards an early season combination of Holland and Jonathan Broxton.  I don’t mind that, but I think we may see Holland simply take the role over by sheer overpowering effectiveness sooner rather than later.  You have to give Dayton Moore credit on this one:  he drafted Holland in the 10th round with the idea that Greg would get to the majors quickly and be a possible closer.    You have to love it when a plan comes together.

The over/under on Mr. Holland’s saves is 31.

Billy Butler’s Extra Base Hits

I don’t agonize over Butler’s home run total like many do and I quite possibly could be wrong to not do so.  I do, however, monitor Billy’s overall extra base hit total.  Last season, Billy hit 63, the year before 60 and in 2009 he smacked 73 extra base hits.  The Royals could certainly use a big number in this category as Billy should see Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer on base when he comes to the plate with great regularity.  My hunch says that Billy amps it up this year.

The over/under is 71.

The Royals Starting Pitchers

Last season, Kansas City had 11 different pitchers start a game.  Let’s eliminate the September call-up situation to get to the crux of the issue.   How many pitchers will start a game prior to September 1st this year and, quite frankly, is it good or bad to have a higher number? 

There will certainly be an injury or two along the way, so you know Felipe Paulino gets some turns which puts you at six out of the gate.  Do we see Mike Montgomery?   Does Everett Teaford get a start or two or ten? 

The over/under is 8.

Alicdes Escobar’s on base percentage

With Salvador Perez out until June or so and not a single second baseman in the organization can seem to, you know, hit the ball, the Royals really need Escobar to improve his offensive game to keep the bottom of the order from becoming the ‘now’s a good time to go to the bathroom and get some nachos’ part of the game.   Escobar is never going to be Troy Tulowitzki at the plate, but he has to do a little more than get on base at a .290 clip.  We saw some signs of improvement over the latter half of the season, although much of that was due to one magical hot streak.

If Escobar focuses at the plate like he does in the field, stays within himself and goes with the pitch, he could emerge as at least a ‘hold your own’ type of guy at the plate.  The Royals really need him to do so.

The on-base percentage over/under for Escobar is .322.

Salvador Perez

Could the Royals have taken an injury hit in a worse area?  With Perez out with knee surgery, Kansas City will struggle at the catching position.  Imagine the boost if the Royals can hang around .500 into the summer and then have Perez return healthy to the lineup.

Nothing is better than being young and in shape, so I am hoping for a quicker than expected return out of Perez.

The over/under on the number of games Salvador Perez will catch in 2012 is 81.

And Finally, The Only Number That Matters

How many games will Kansas City win in 2012?  A lot of projections this spring put that number anywhere in the seventies.   We are all certainly hoping for better, but is that logical?   This is a young team with sketchy starting pitching and one that has already suffered two big injuries.    Almost everyone seems to think the Royals will hit, but truthfully Billy Butler is the only offensive player who is truly proven over time.   We all think the bullpen is lockdown solid, but relievers are just plain unpredictable.

Craig was optimistic on Friday and it has rubbed off on me.

The over/under on 2012 Kansas City wins is set at 82.

xxx

 

For the last couple of seasons, March has been… Well, it’s been a testy month here at Royals Authority. Maybe it’s the change of seasons. Maybe it’s the grind of meaningless spring training baseball. Whatever it is, this has been a month where everyone is on edge.

They say spring is a time for optimism. I’ll freely admit I’m not an optimist. Can’t do it. Not after lo these many years. But I’m not a pessimist either. I consider myself a realist. (Right now, there are people reading this paragraph at 1 Royals Way and coughing, “Bulls#!t.”) It’s true. I’m a realist at heart. You may disagree, but I like to think I call things like I see them. It’s an honest take of the team I love. It’s just that the negative sometimes outweighs the positive.

That’s unfortunate.

We’re so caught up in the Chris Getz Story and the knowledge that somehow the Royals are going to find a way to give Yuniesky Betancourt 500 plate appearances that we tend to overlook a few things. It’s the nature of the beast. We know Eric Hosmer is going to play and play well. What is there to say about him? He’s great. On the other hand, we have someone like Getz. Why? Sadly, the Royals have given us plenty of ammo.

Please don’t get caught up in my previous paragraph. You want to bitch about Getz today. Go someplace else. You want optimism? This is your place for Friday.

Here are some things I’m looking forward to in 2012…

— The continuing development of Eric Hosmer. When was the last time the Royals had a player with a ceiling of MVP?

— The possibility that Luke Hochevar truly turned the corner in the second half of 2011. For some reason, I’m irrationally bullish on Hochevar. By altering his arm angle ever so slightly, he’s added the deception – and movement – necessary to be a quality starter.

— The SS Jesus. Can’t wait for him to range to his left to snare a grounder up the middle, plant, spin and throw to beat the runner by a couple of steps.

— Brayan Pena smiling and giving his teammates high fives. If this was basketball, we would be describing Pena as a “glue guy.”

— The Lorenzo Cain Show. I am thrilled that this guy, who was buried all of last season (justifiably so, given the performance of the Royals outfield), is kicking ass in Surprise. I hope he brings some of those hits north with him next week.

— A1. Domination. The Sequel.

— Johnny Giavotella tearing up Triple-A pitching.

— The continued development of Danny Duffy. I just have this feeling that he’s this close to putting everything together. Needless to say, we can expect improvement over his 4.4 BB/9 and 4.82 FIP. There will be moments where the kid is going to struggle again this summer, but it won’t be as frequent. And the lows won’t be as low.

— The young arms of the bullpen. I thoroughly enjoy watching Aaron Crow, Everett Teaford, Louis Coleman and Kelvin Herrera pitch. It helps that they could be pretty good relievers. (Side note: I’m not upset that Coleman was sent to Omaha. Surprised, but not upset. The bullpen is a fungible beast. He’ll be back. Probably before the end of April.)

— The return of Salvador Perez. I’m counting down the weeks. So is every other Royals fan.

— Our Mitch. Because it wouldn’t feel like the Royals without him.

— Billy Butler’s annual pursuit of 50 doubles. Quite simply, Butler is the most consistent hitter on this team. And it’s not even close.

— Jeff Francoeur punching his teammates in the nuts after a walkoff. Crazy eyes!

— The late game tandem of Jonathan Broxton and Greg Holland. Holland is nails and you know I’m bullish on Broxton. It’s probably just my wide-eyed optimism that I think Broxton can be a servicable closer.

— The development of Mike Moustakas. He’s not the “sure thing” Hosmer is, so there’s a bit of a risk here, but we really need him to be the Moose of September and not the Moose of every other month.

Those are my positive thoughts heading into 2012. Fire away in the comments. Although in the spirit of optimism, I’ll ask that you only leave positive comments. Thanks.

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