Saturday, August 30, 2008

Have To Quit Your Mess And Straighten Out

(from "Slow Train," Slow Train Coming)

The disaster continues unabated. Your Kansas City Royals (take my baseball team, please!) have put together an August for the record books. Not in a good way, either. KC is 6-19 so far this month. "Fun" facts about the Royals' August:
  1. That is a 39-win pace for a whole season. That's 1962 Mets (40-120) territory.
  2. Back in May, the Royals had a 12-game losing streak. They finished that month 10-19. So this will be a worse month than that one.
  3. The Royals actually won three in a row Aug. 2-4, scoring 27 runs in those games. It took them the next 11 games to score 27 runs. For the month, they have been outscored 149-88.
  4. Of the 149 runs, 22 have been unearned. In the previous four months, KC allowed 31 unearned runs.
  5. After beating Boston 4-3 on Aug. 4, the Royals were 9.5 games out of first. They were in fourth place, three games behind Detroit and three ahead of Cleveland. They are now an even 20 games out of first, nine behind Detroit and 9.5 behind Cleveland, who passed the Tigers for third.

Perhaps this helps explain my more infrequent posting lately. As Mom always said, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all*.

*I really don't remember Mom saying this very often. I guess I was cliche-deprived.

The thing is, this recent stretch is more disapponting than just about anything in recent Royals history. This was supposed to be a franchise on the upswing, but now it seems to be a franchise that can't do anything right or catch any sort of break. The pitching has stunk, the hitters seem to be in a hurry to swing at every pitch they see and get home for the 10:00 news, and the fielders can't catch or throw. The training staff can't keep anyone healthy (six players have been put on the DL in August). MLB has told the Royals' top draft pick, Eric Hosmer, he can't play until the contract of the freaking Pittsburgh Pirates' draft pick is sorted out. The backup catcher is publicly complaining about playing time, a rant that might carry more weight if he hadn't let loose a day after his throwing error let the winning run score. The right fielder and highest-paid player is ready to go into the stands and fight the fans.

I don't generally believe managers make a lot of difference to a team's won-loss record. Pick any manager in baseball history, give them this roster, and perhaps the best ones win 70-75 games. But to me, this situation is where a manager can make a difference. He can set the tone, encourage the players, let them know that sloppy baseball will not be tolerated. As far as I can tell, Trey Hillman has not done any of that. The Royals still make the same dumb mistakes they have made all season; they are pretty much the same dumb mistakes they have made my entire adult life. I don't expect Hillman will be fired; Dayton Moore is not a knee-jerk reactionary, so Hillman will certainly get another year at least. But Moore should think about whether he wants the promising youngsters in the farm system to be exposed to this manager when they get to the bigs.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Ain't No Use Jiving, Ain't No Use Joking

...everything is broken.
(From "Everything Is Broken," Oh Mercy)

I don't really intend for this blog to pay much attention to the Chiefs. But I am a Chiefs fan as well as a Royals fan, so I am interested in the doings across the parking lot from Kauffman Stadium.

Nights like tonight make me question rooting for both teams. The Royals put up no fight whatsoever in losing 4-0 to Detroit, while the Chiefs looked pitiful in a 24-0 loss to the Dolphins. That's right, Kansas City's two main teams both failed to score even a single point. Excellent work, fellas!

At least the Chiefs can say, "It was just a preseason game." Of course, it's still not a good sign to lose by 24 points and be shut out by a team that was 1-15 last year. The Royals have obviously given up on the season, perhaps disheartened by the four players who were put on the disabled list in the last five days.

At any rate, this is not a fun time to be a sports fan in KC right now. At least a week from tonight, college football will be underway, which should help us KU fans feel better. It should help Mizzou fans, too. Not so fast, K-Staters.

And on the bright side, the Wizards managed to get on the scoreboard tonight. They even got a draw. Too bad they are also in last place...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

I'm Back, We Can Start It All Over (Part I)

...get it back on the track.
(From "What Was It You Wanted," Oh Mercy)

I can't believe it's been so long since I posted anything. Unfortunately, real life intervened in the last couple of weeks and made it difficult to find time to write. Also, this hasn't been the most inspiring stretch of baseball lately. KC getting outscored 22-2 and scoring in only one of 27 innings in Chicago makes me want to punch things, not write about baseball.

Since I picked on Ross Gload a while back, I got to thinking about the first basemen the Royals have run out there over the years. I've come to the conclusion that Gload is an OK player, a valuable guy to have on the bench. I've also concluded that the Royals have some weird organizational fetish for his type of player, the first baseman who hits lots of singles, a handful of home runs, doesn't walk much and basically doesn't provide the offensive oomph you need from that position.

When I was a kid and the Royals were good, my favorite player was Steve Balboni. I mostly identified with him because he was a fat guy who struck out a lot. Sadly, I had nowhere the power he did. Of course, Balboni still owns the Royals' single-season home run record, with 36. Of all the damning statistics the Royals have amassed over the last 20 years are so, that may be the worst--they got through the entire Steroids Era without anyone passing a home run mark set during the Reagan administration.

Balboni was KC's regular first baseman for four years, 1984-1987. He was never much of a hitter, but when he did connect he usually hit the ball a long ways. In those four seasons, he hit .230 but slammed 119 homers, often the Royals' only source for power besides George Brett.

When Balboni's career fell off the cliff, Brett took over at first, moving across the diamond to make room for Kevin Seitzer at third. Of course, George was a tremendous hitter, even in the latter stages of his career, so the Royals were still getting good production out of an important offensive position.

When Brett was ready to move to DH full-time, the Royals acquired Carmelo Martinez and Todd Benzinger to play first. You can see in Part II how that went in 1991. Not bad, but not very good, either.

After the 1991 season, the Royals signed free agent Wally Joyner, who put up pretty good numbers for four seasons, despite not having as much power as you would hope for at first base.

After the strike in 1994, the Royals were a little more cost-conscious, so they traded Joyner away and got Jose Offerman to play first. Offerman had come to the majors as an error-prone shortstop, and the Royals showed some abnormal out-of-the-box thinking, moving him to a position where his defensive shortcomings would not be as damaging. But Offerman only hit five homers, so he was moved to second base the next year. That paved the way for Jeff King.

King didn't hit for much of an average, but he did hit 52 homers in his two years as KC's first baseman. Unfortunately, this was the late '90s, so hitting 25 or so home runs was barely enough to get one noticed in the AL.

When King retired rather suddenly in May of 1999, the Royals were left without a regular first baseman. So they took a young catcher who had shown a little promise with the bat and put him at first. Thus began the star-crossed career of Mike Sweeney.

I could do a whole series of posts on how much I like Sweeney, how unfairly some of the media treated him, and how badly some fans treated him at the end of his time here. But this post is already too long, so just look at Part II for his numbers for 1999-2002, the time he was the starter at first. Admire them the way you would a painting at the Nelson-Atkins Museum...

This was the oasis in a desert of single-digit home run and 100 OPS+ numbers Royals first basemen have put up since 1990.

Sweeney moved to DH in 2003, opening the door for Ken Harvey. Even though he was the Royals' token all-star in 2004 (he probably deserved it; he was leading the league in hitting at the break), Harvey put up OPS+ marks of 84 and 95 in his two seasons, with a total of 26 homers.

As the franchise bottomed out in 2005 and 2006, they struggled to find a decent first baseman. Matt Stairs held the job in 2005, actually having a good year with 13 homers but a 118+ OPS. Then in 2006 came Doug Mientiewicz, who could only hit 4 homers in 91 games. 2007 saw Ross Gload ascend to the starter spot.

Balboni hit 119 homers in his four years as the starter. It took the next nine seasons for Royals' first basemen to pass that mark. Sweeney, for all the great numbers he put up, only hit 104 homers in his four years. Since 2002, KC's starting first basemen have hit 52.

Don't believe a slugging first baseman is vital? The last World Series winner to have their primary first baseman hit fewer than 15 homers that season was the 2002 Anaheim Angels. Before that, you have to go back to the 1990 Cincinnati Reds, who platooned...Todd Benzinger and Hal Morris, another no-power first baseman the Royals employed in 1998 (he backed up King, and played some outfield and DH).

Of course, late last night the Royals made a move that may end this string of first base futility, signing first-round draft pick Eric Hosmer right at the deadline. Now, we won't know for a few years, but Hosmer was said to be the best power prospect in the draft. In the meantime, here's hoping Kila Kaaihue gets a look in September and a chance to prove himself next spring.

I'm Back, We Can Start It All Over (Part II)

I thought it might be easier for you if I presented the Royals' first basemen's stats in a separate post. Here they are, from 1991 to 2008. Remember that an OPS+ of 100 is average.


*Strike-shortened season; Royals played 115 games
**Through Aug. 15

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The T.V. God

...and all the pain that it invokes.
(From "T.V. Talkin' Song," Under the Red Sky)

A rare treat today, as the Royals played before the FOX network cameras for the first time all season (treating FOX as separate from Fox Sports). This was an actual, honest-to-God appearance on broadcast television. Sure, it probably had more to do with the opponent (the dreaded and despised White Sox), but it was nice to see the powder blues, even if it was just a regional telecast.

Ever since today's game was picked a few weeks ago to be televised for FOX's Saturday coverage, I had been excited. It is another little sign that things are getting better.

But I also started thinking about baseball on TV. Even before this blog existed, it was a long-held belief here at Tangled Up In Blue headquarters that baseball needs a better TV policy. Specifically, it needs a better policy in regards to the crown jewel of baseball on TV, ESPN's Sunday night game.

Baseball only has two real regular national TV windows: TBS on Sunday afternoons and ESPN on Sunday nights; FOX normally shows regional coverage on Saturdays. The TBS telecasts just started this year; the ESPN telecasts have been on for almost 20 years (which makes me feel old, but that's another story). There is no question ESPN Sunday Night Baseball is the biggest regular-season game broadcast of the week.

It has always seemed to me that baseball should take advantage of that platform to market the game. It's true that the Sunday night game is not an event on the order of Monday Night Football in the '70s. But it is a great vehicle to market the game and old and new stars. If only baseball would pressure ESPN to show all of those stars.

In the first four months of the season, we have seen the Red Sox five times, the Yankees, Mets, Angels, White Sox and Cubs four times. That's 25 of the 38 spots so far. The Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers, Phillies and Tigers have all been on twice each. Then there's the Rockies, Twins and Nationals, who have all been on once. And the Nationals were only on because they opened a new ballpark. One wonders if the renovated Kauffman Stadium will be featured on SNB. But one doesn't wonder that very long.

We have been treated to consecutive weeks of Cubs-White Sox games. We have seen the defending NL champs once, while teams who missed the playoffs in 2007 have been on 18 times. We haven't seen the best story of the season, the Tampa Bay Rays, although that could change when ESPN decides what games they would like to show in September (ESPN can pick games three weeks in advance in the second two months of the season and two weeks in advance during the final two months). We haven't seen the Diamondbacks, even though they have led the NL West since Opening Day. We haven't seen Milwaukee or Florida, two contenders this year who feature some of the game's best young players. Even worse, the Brewers were in the playoff hunt until the last week last season, so it's not like they came out of nowhere.

Of course, ESPN is concerned about their ratings. And yes, the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Angels, Cubs and Dodgers are the most popular teams. They should be--they're on ESPN every other Sunday night. It's time for MLB to insist that all teams have a chance to be showcased. There are 26 Sunday night games a year. That gives ESPN plenty of chances to show everyone. I'm not saying they have to show the Pirates playing the Nationals; they could show a Pirates-Cardinals game and a Nationals-Mets game.

The best way for MLB to ensure continued success is to let fans meet the new generation of stars. The best way to do that is to get them as much exposure as possible. Showing games from the same pool of 12 teams every week on baseball's best showcase game is not helping.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Got Nothing For You

...I had nothing before
(from "Mississippi," Love and Theft)

Trade deadline came and went, and the Royals chose to stand pat. I must confess I have mixed emotions. On one hand, the main trade chips the Royals had to offer are valuable contributors (of course, since they probably wouldn't be trade chips otherwise). But it would have been nice if there had been some resolution to the organizational logjams at first base (Gload, Butler, Shealy, Stodolka, and Kaaihue) or in the middle infield (Pena, Aviles, Grudzielanek, Callaspo). And let's face it: the Royals still need improvement. A 50-59 record is not where you want to be at the beginning of August.

It would have been especially nice to trade Mr. True Grit, Ross Gload. The Royals have stubbornly started him at first for 43 straight games now. Gload seems like a good guy, and he certainly has some value. But his value is more as a spare part, a reserve 1B/OF who can be a good pinch-hitter. This is essentially how the White Sox used him in 2005, and he did help them win a World Series. The problem with the Royals using Gload everyday is twofold: he is blocking the development of a first baseman for the future, and he just does not have enough offense to play first base in the American League.

Billy Butler is 22 and is apparently a full-time DH. The average age of the other 13 DHs in the AL is 33.9. Also, Billy is hitting .274/.361/.384 as a 1B this year (in only 21 games) and .244/.295/.363 as a DH. It would be nice if the Royals showed even a little curiosity as to whether Billy can play first.

Ryan Shealy has thrown a .286/.371./488 line on the board for Omaha this season. He will also turn 29 this month. It would be nice to find out if he can play like he did in 2006, or if he really is as bad as he looked last year. And this is the time to do it. There are two months left and the Royals are only playing to stay out of last. Why put this decision off until next year?

AL first basemen this year have put up a .263/.345/.428 line with 192 HRs and 783 RBI this year. Gload's numbers? .262/.313/.333 with 2 homers and 25 RBI. In a sense, the Royals are taking a knife to a gun fight every single night they run Gload out there. There is no way his defense is good enough to offset that poor offense. First base is a premium offensive position; Gload is not a premium offensive player. It is entirely possible that Butler and Shealy aren't either, but the odds are that they are much closer than True Grit.

Almost any deal that got Gload off the roster would have been a good move for the Royals. Failing that, the Royals need to get him to the bench and find out what they have in Butler and Shealy.