Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I Got The Fever Down In My Pockets

(from "Absolutely Sweet Marie," Blonde on Blonde)

Keep your robins and crocuses (crocii?). For me, the surest sign of spring is walking into a grocery store and seeing a box of Official Royals Pocket Schedules. It's one of my favorite rituals: folding the schedule just so, checking out the promotions, seeing who the Royals play on my birthday, picking out which games I'd like to see.

The Amazing Michelle likes to tease me about my Monkish personality (the TV show, not men who have taken a vow of silence), and I must confess, the look of a pocket schedule is ideal for a perfectionist like me. A rectangle for each month, divided into perfect little squares. Opponents and times centered perfectly.

And of course, looking at all those games at once is a great vehicle for the imagination. Will those games in September mean something? Can the Royals get off to a 2003-like start? I've been looking at my pocket schedule for a couple of weeks now and have come to some conclusions.

With a 162-game season, complaints about the schedule are not nearly as prevalent as they might be in, say, the NFL. Playing everyone multiple times tends to even out the effects of luck. Still, I like that the Royals get to play the Yankees early, while A-Rod is still hurt and guys like CC Sabathia may still be rounding (Ha!) into shape. I like that the Royals' road games in July and August look to be almost exclusively in non-heatstroke-inducing places like Detroit, Boston and Seattle. Only a four-game series in Baltimore, where says the average high temperature is 91° on the days in question, could be bad. I don't know of any sabrmetric breakdown of gametime temperatures affecting team performance, but perhaps it will keep the team fresher for the stretch run. Hey, if the division race is going to be as close as most think, any advantage could help.

I think the schedule sets up pretty well for the Royals. Luckily, I think they are as good or almost as good as the rest of the AL Central, so I believe there aren't too many stretches where they will be playing teams who are obviously better. As any Royals fan knows, long losing streaks have been a KC specialty throughout this decade. It only takes one of those double-digit streaks to remove a team from contention, even in a division where 88 wins might be enough for a title. Just look at last year, when a 12-game slide in late May took the team from 1.5 games out to 9 games out.

Of course, losing streaks are more a function of how you play than who you play, but obviously a road trip to Boston, New York and Tampa Bay is going to be tougher than one to Detroit, Minnesota and Chicago, even though those are good teams too. I see two stretches that worry me: June 2-11 (three games each at Tampa Bay, Toronto and Cleveland) and July 27-August 3 (four-game series in Baltimore and Tampa Bay). I also see two stretches that intrigue me: August 11-19 (three-game series in Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago) and September 11-20 (three-game series in Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago). These last two groups could be pivotal in a close race. The first two worry me because the Royals have really struggled in recent years against Baltimore and Tampa Bay, and a four-game series in Toronto was the meat of that 12-game skid last year. A big key for the Royals this year will be avoiding long losing streaks, and I think these are the potential trouble spots.

On the other hand, one area where the Royals have done well in recent years is interleague play. In this regard, I think the Royals have a chance to succeed again. KC gets Cincinnati, Arizona and St. Louis at home and goes to St. Louis, Houston and Pittsburgh. So they get the (presumably) tougher teams at home. They may not be 13-5 against the NL like in 2008, but they should be able to pick up several interleague wins in 2009.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go look for my pocket schedules from previous seasons. I didn't know this, but I should have realized it: there are people out there who collect these. And plenty of eBay auctions, although it doesn't look like anyone's getting rich off them. But hey, if someone is willing to bid on a 2009 Royals pocket schedule you can pick up for free at Hy-Vee, maybe it's time to dig through the basement in search of treasure.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Summer Days

...summer nights are gone.
(From "Summer Days," Love and Theft)

The Royals released Jimmy Gobble today. And as I type this, I'm watching the Royals' spring training game against the Mariners and Mike Sweeney.

It's hard to believe the magical, bittersweet 2003 season was six years ago. These two players had such a big role in the most enjoyable year I've had as a sports fan*, the juxtaposition has made me nostalgic.

*If I may indulge in a Pozterisk, 2003 featured the KU basketball team going to a second straight Final Four, the KU football team going to a bowl game for the first time in 11 years (we'll just ignore The Philip Rivers Show in the Tangerine Bowl, the Chiefs going 13-3 and winning the AFC West (we'll just ignore the playoff loss). With the Royals starting off 16-3 and staying in contention all summer, it was an all-around great sports year.

It's funny how fast things can change. The only current Royal who played for KC in 2003 is David DeJesus, who only played in 12 games (10 plate appearances) as a September call-up. And in 2003, it looked like Mike Sweeney would be a Royals star for years to come.

If you don't know, the Royals signed Sweeney to a unique contract extension after the 2001 season. If KC could finish with a winning record in 2002 or 2003, a clause would kick in to make him a Royal at $11 million per year through 2007. The idea was to give Sweeney an assurance that the Royals would try to build a winning team around him and to keep KC's best hitter under team control at a price below market value for what he had done in say, 2000 (.333/.407/.523, 29 HR, 144 RBI in 159 games). At the time, it seemed like a great deal for the Royals and their fans. Johnny Damon didn't want to stay in KC, Carlos Beltran was making it clear he didn't want to stay, Jermaine Dye didn't seem excited about staying, but here was Sweeney making a statement that he was willing to stay.

Well, it's funny how things turn out. The Royals of course posted a winning record in 2003, but Sweeney got hurt that year. And the next year. And then the team went in the crapper, losing 310 games from 2004-2006. As the highest-paid Royal, and as a player who couldn't stay healthy, Sweeney became the fall guy for many fans. I never understood this notion, as even with "2000 Mike Sweeney" in the lineup, the Royals still would have stunk out loud. And most of the people bashing him and the Royals for that contract extension were creating a little revisionist history. No one knew or could have known that Sweeney would have so many injuries, or that the Royals would refuse to spend any extra money to take some of the pressure off Sweeney.

When Sweeney's contract was up, the Royals showed little interest in bringing him back. It was the right move, as he struggled with injuries again last year, plus the Royals already had a surplus of 1B/Dh types who needed a shot at playing time. But as a player who helped make the Royals just a little respectable and as a class act off the field, Sweeney will always have a special place in my heart.

As for Gobble, I don't want to get too wrapped up in the past. He was terrible last year, especially against right-handers. Even though he was effective against lefties, I'm not sure the Royals have the luxury or even the need to carry a left-handed specialist. But Gobble will always have my appreciation for the way he stepped into the rotation in 2003 and helped the Royals stay in the race.

You have to remember, the 2003 Royals had a good offense, but a patchwork pitching staff. On a team that won 83 games, only one pitcher amassed 10 wins. That was Darrell May, whose obscurity should tell you a lot about the Royals that season. This was a team that pulled Jose Lima off an independent minor league team and threw him in the rotation (it worked out, somewhat, as he went 8-3 despite an unsightly 4.93 ERA). May had 32 starts, but no one else even reached 20.

When Lima had a groin strain at the end of July, the Royals called up Gobble and started him against Tampa Bay, a team which always seemed to play well against the Royals. With a one-game lead over the White Sox on August 3, the Royals turned their hopes over to a skinny rookie lefty.

In one of the more memorable (to me, anyways) moments of that whole crazy season, Gobble proceeded to shut out the Devil Rays for 6 innings. I was on vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota, frantically trying to get a radio signal from one of the few Royals radio network stations
in the area. What I heard was amazing. Gobble worked out of trouble in the third inning and again in the fifth, and made the only two runs KC was able to muster stand up.

Gobble made eight starts the rest of the season, with mixed results. But he did have four straight solid starts to finish the year. Of course, it wasn't enough as the Twins and White Sox both overtook the Royals. But for one day, Gobble was a Royal hero.

I don't know if 2009 will become only the second Royals pennant race of my adult life. I hope so, but I do have some doubts. If it does, though, I look forward to finding out who might play that one-time Royal hero role, as well as who might be leading the charge.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

May You Build A Ladder To The Stars

...And climb on every rung.
(From "Forever Young," Planet Waves)

The Star had a couple of interesting stories this morning on two of the biggest keys to the Royals' season: Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. As you would expect from spring training stories, they are upbeat and hopeful. As you would expect from a baseball fan, I usually let these stories get me a little too excited for the upcoming season. Spring training is notorious for the stories about how Player X is in the best shape of his life or Player Y is going to have a breakout season and as a result Team Z has started printing playoff tickets.

If the Royals hope to be Team Z in 2009, there needs to be some truth in these stories. KC has a chance to contend, even if it is not a great chance. In the last post I looked at the kind of offensive output the Royals could expect from various lineups this year. Using last year's numbers for the lineup I expect, the Royals projected to score 4.96 runs per game, while a slightly rearranged version projected to score 5.06. But as the articles linked above point out, one of the best-kept secrets of the 2008 season was the second half stats Gordon and Butler compiled.

Although he missed a few weeks with an injury, Gordon increased his numbers from .253/.334/.407 to .277/.392/.496. Even more promising, his K/BB ratio went from 89/39 to 31/27.

Butler's numbers also improved dramatically. After a first half of the season that was so difficult (.249/.310/.330, 2 HR, 19 RBI) he was sent to Omaha, Butler put up a .305/.341/.476 line, with 9 HR and 36 RBI.

If you put Butler's and Gordon's second-half numbers into the Baseball Musings Lineup Analysis tool, you get a lineup that scores 5.194 runs per game (I used a lineup of DeJesus, Aviles, Gordon, Jacobs, Butler, Guillen, Olivo, Callaspo and Crisp). Over a full season, that is 32 runs better than the lineup I used before. The stats people who are way smarter than I am say an improvement of 10 runs equals a win, so that's 3 more wins if Gordon and Butler can produce like they did after the All-Star Break over a full season. In a division that looks to be a tight 5-way race, 3 wins could be huge.

It seems like we Royals fans have been waiting forever for Gordon and Butler to develop into the mashers we were promised. It's hard to remember they are 25 and 22 (turning 23 in April), respectively. They still should have years of improvement ahead of them. If that light goes on over one or both of their heads this spring, it could be a most interesting summer.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

New Morning, New Morning

...on this new morning with you.
(From "New Morning," New Morning)

Well, I didn't intend to take a whole month off, but I ended up doing so. Of course, nothing much was happening in Royal land, and while the start of spring training is exciting to baseball geeks like me, it's not usually filled with newsworthy happenings. But now the calendar has turned to March, and things are starting to get interesting. A few thoughts on spring training so far...

  • I was hoping to post something once the Royals signed Orlando Hudson, but it was such a downer when he ended up with the Dodgers, I couldn't bring myself to write about it. He would have solved the Royals' second base problem, which I believe is the team's biggest concern right now. I don't know if the Mark Teahen Second Base Experiment is over, but the early returns were not encouraging. Two errors in his first game at second, plus another double play he could have turned but didn't. And now he leaves for the World Baseball Classic (Go Team Canada, eh!), where he will probably play third base. The Royals are obviously not sold on Alberto Callaspo, since they never would have tried Teahen at second if they thought they had a starter there. My biggest fear is that Willie Bloomquist's grit and hustle will so impress Trey Hillman that "Bloomie" will be run out there 120 times at 2B this year, and his .234 average won't get him out of the lineup. The Royals are not good enough as a team offensively to be below-average anywhere on the field. You'd think the experience of having Tony Pena Jr. sinking the Royals' offense last year would have taught Hillman something. I don't expect Bloomquist to be TPJ bad, but he will in all likelihood be a drag on KC's offense.
  • Speaking of offense, I spent some time recently playing with the Lineup Analysis tool at ( Using last year's numbers and putting Teahen at 2B, the site predicted this lineup would score 4.98 runs/game: DeJesus, Aviles, Butler, Jacobs, Gordon, Olivo, Guillen, Teahen, Crisp. Since the AL average was 4.78 R/G last year, that's a good sign. It has this lineup scoring 5.06 R/G: DeJesus, Aviles, Crisp, Jacobs, Gordon, Olivo, Guillen, Butler, Bloomquist. Now, you and I both know that a lineup with Jose Guillen batting seventh is a lineup that's going to create an angry, sulking Jose Guillen. Also, Trey Hillman is highly unlikely to bat Butler eighth or Gordon fifth. So I plugged in what I think will be the lineup: Crisp, Aviles, DeJesus, Guillen, Jacobs, Gordon, Butler, Olivo, Bloomquist. That gives the Royals 4.96 R/G.
  • That makes me cautiously optimistic for 2009. Most projections I've seen have the Royals winning about 75 games again. But they also show the AL Central to be a tightly bunched division. Right now, I'd say every team can make a case for why they can win it, even the Royals. Here's my case: that 4.96 R/G on offense and the fact the Royals allowed 4.82 R/G last year. I think Brian Bannister will bounce back from his nightmarish 2008 and that should make KC's pitching a bit better. Say that offensive projection holds up (sure, some of those players' numbers will go down, but younger players like Gordon and Butler should improve). Then say KC's runs allowed goes down to 4.75 per game. That translates to 803 runs scored for the season against 770 allowed. Using the Bill James pythagorean winning percentage, that projects to an 84-78 record. I don't think the Royals will be that good, but the difference between 78-84 and 84-78 is slim. It's not hard to believe that if Gordon and/or Butler come into their own, this could be an interesting summer. Remember, the Royals aren't chasing 95-win juggernauts like Boston and Tampa Bay.
  • I like the Juan Cruz signing. A lot. A guy who throws hard, gets strikeouts and doesn't give up homers. That last part is what distinguishes him from Kyle Farnsworth, who hopefully now will be pitching 6th or 7th innings, not the 8th. This is the kind of move Dayton Moore has excelled at since becoming GM: finding the power arm for the bullpen and signing them to a relatively inexpensive contract. Suddenly a bullpen of Doug Waechter, Farnsworth, Cruz, Ron Mahay, Jimmy Gobble and Joakim Soria looks pretty good. Waechter and the Farns can cover the middle innings, Gobble can face lefties in key spots (and ONLY lefties), Mahay can work the 7th, Cruz the 8th and Soria can slam the door in the 9th.
  • One final thing: this story in today's Star about a survey saying the Royals rank dead last among MLB teams in popularity in their market. I have an opinion on this survey: pure crap. A sample size of 200? Seems rather small to me, although I admittedly am not a marketing person. I really question the survey since it ranks the Chiefs 25th of 32 NFL teams. Despite two solid years of crappy football, the Chiefs still draw a lot of interest (check out their TV ratings sometime). And I believe KC still cares a lot about the Royals. I was around in 2003 when the team's hot start led to a summer-long pennant race. People talked about them all summer. I am waiting and hoping for another summer like that soon.