Monday, April 23, 2012

We Might Work Too Hard have it too fast and too much/And anyone can fill his life up/With things he can see but he just cannot touch
(from "Dear Landlord," John Wesley Harding)

Eleven. Freaking. Losses. In a row.

The obvious question is, are the Royals really this bad? Short answer: no. Long answer: as presently constructed, no, but they really are not very good.

I base the short answer on the fact that no team can play .200 baseball for very long. Over a full season, that is a 32-130 record, or 10 games worse than the '62 Mets, the gold standard for awful baseball teams. While it is possible that some team someday will be worse than that, this Royals team isn't close to that bad, talent-wise. That Mets team was a collection of castoffs, has-beens and never-would-bes. Unless the entire industry has been wrong about several members of the Royals, KC looks to have more talent than that. When your team is caught in a long losing streak, it certainly can feel like they will never win again, but this team is going to win a lot more than 32 games. Really. I promise.

However. With all the injuries, and with some questionable personnel decisions (yes, I'm beating the Giavotella drum again here), the current roster really isn't that great. If anything, this streak has shown just how razor-thin the margin is for the Royals. I would argue that while they haven't exactly played well this season, they have really had a chance in every game except maybe two or three. Yet it just hasn't worked out.

I've wondered several times already this season how much this team misses Salvador Perez. Not just offensively (Humberto Quintero has contributed enough offensively to offset Salvador's absence, but that's not going to last), but defensively and especially when a pitcher gets in trouble (see the Cleveland series, where each starter gave up one monster inning). In Perez' debut last year, Tampa Bay scored five runs in the 9th to pull out a win (you might remember that game). Almost a week later, the Yankees put up a 5-spot against the Royals with Perez behind the plate. The rest of the season, no team scored that many in one inning against the Royals when Salvador was catching. There is no stat to quantify it, but pitchers seem to love throwing to Perez, and he seems to have an ability to calm them down in tough situations. But without him, Royals pitchers gave up more 5-run (or more) innings in one weekend against Cleveland than they did in 39 games with him.

Elsewhere, not having Lorenzo Cain in the lineup hurts, too. I like Mitch Maier, but I don't think he hits well enough to play every day. Unfortunately, I am definitely not sold on Jason Bourgeois as anything more than a slightly better hitting version of Jarrod Dyson. I'm pretty sure Cain is better offensively than both of them, and definitely sure he's better defensively.

Meanwhile, having Johnny Giavotella at Omaha is just silly. I don't buy for a minute that he can vastly improve defensively there but somehow can't do that in the majors. To be fair, Yuniesky Betancourt really has hit pretty well so far, and he even has three walks! But you can't convince me he's any better defensively than Gio, and both of them would be better offensive options than Chris Getz.

One more injury that has hurt is Felipe Paulino's forearm strain, which opened a rotation spot for Luis Mendoza. I have no problem with them giving Mendoza a chance, based on his strong year for Omaha last year and his excellent spring training this year. But three strikeouts in 13 innings isn't going to cut it (small sample size alert, of course).

So what can the Royals do? Paulino and Cain should be back in the next couple of weeks; that will help. Also, and it's not really an answer, but at some point the Royals' luck will turn around. They came into Monday's game ranked 8th in the AL in on-base percentage and 7th in slugging, yet 13th in runs. That can last for two weeks, but not for a whole season. Eventually some of those baserunners and some of those extra-base hits will happen in the same inning. Also in the bad-luck category: how about 17 double plays in 13 games? Last year, the Royals hit into 121 double plays, or .75 per game. The 1.31 double plays per game so far this year is probably also not going to last.

While they wait, they can actually do some things to help themselves. This team is working too hard to score runs. By that I mean, they need to quit giving away outs on the bases and with sacrifice bunts. So far, the Royals have been caught stealing eight times and picked off another five. Throw in four sacrifice bunts and that's over half a game's worth of outs! I understand the Royals want to be aggressive, and they still are not a team that will hit lots of home runs, so they're inclined to run. But for crying out loud, could they be a little smarter or more selective? Everyone in the league knows they're going to run, it seems like. Even though many of them are struggling, the Royals do have good hitters. Maybe they could just see if a rally develops through line drives once in a while.

Another thing that might help is picking a lineup and sticking with it. A manager's natural tendency is to tinker when things aren't going well, but I think most players would prefer to know where they will be batting every night. Some of the problem here is due to the best candidates for the number two spot being hurt (Cain) or in Omaha (Giavotella). But that's no reason to run Getz or Yuni out there in that spot, or worse, the leadoff spot. I wouldn't mind seeing Maier (fairly patient hitter) or even Alcides Escobar (quietly putting together a good season so far) there behind Alex Gordon. So far it seems like Ned Yost has been putting his lineups together based on what he's afraid the other team will do in the 8th inning, rather than just trying to go out and score some runs.

I know, this is not a lot of fun right now for any of us. I don't think we (or the Royals) should panic. Make personnel changes, sure. There are still 146 games left. Despite the "Our Time" slogan that looks increasingly stupid with each loss, this was not a contending team, unless everything went right. That went out the window with Salvador Perez' knee injury and the injuries that followed. Obviously, contention is a pipe dream right now, and even a .500 record is unlikely--they would have to go 78-68 the rest of the way just for that. Heck, my prediction of 78 wins is probably toast already. Let's just get a win and get on with our lives, and let's hope that win comes tomorrow night.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Let's Talk About Rex

I know, some of you are already sick of hearing Rex Hudler. Others are already sick of hearing about Rex Hudler. If that's you, well, thank you for stopping by. If not, let's talk about the hot-button issue with Royals fans right now, more so than Getz-over-Gio, lineups that don't include Alex Gordon or Mike Moustakas, or Ned Yost's bullpen usage.

I am moving into the camp that likes Hudler. Well, maybe "like" isn't the right word. "Tolerate" might be a better choice. The first couple of televised games I saw, I was not a fan at all. But I do think he's getting better.

I can understand why many Royals fans have been up in arms about Hudler. First off, he's not Frank White. I don't know how much this factors in, but I believe it is a part of it. I've already weighed in on how I felt about the Royals firing White. I don't believe White was the best color commentator in the world, but he was familiar to us viewers. Also, it just seems wrong that this franchise looks to be on the verge of contending, and White won't be around to see it, apparently. The fact that he managed some of these players in the minors just adds to that feeling of injustice.

Going from White to Hudler has also been whiplash-inducing. They seem to be complete opposites in personality. This is what bothers me most about Hudler. The beautiful thing about baseball is that there are quiet moments, times to think and reflect (frankly, this is something the Kauffman Stadium operations staff needs to remember, too). So far, Hudler doesn't seem to understand that, instead preferring to talk seemingly non-stop. In fact, during the opening game in Anaheim, I found myself tuning him out, vaguely sensing a droning noise at times rather than a color commentator.

I do think Hudler is getting a bit better in this regard. Or maybe I just notice it less. Either way, this is where Hudler's broadcast partner, be it Ryan Lefebvre or Steve Physioc, comes in. They need to be better at reining Hudler in. Part of this problem is chemistry--Lefebvre seems to have no idea how to work with Hurricane Hudler, while Physioc seems to do better after working with him in Anaheim for so long.

I don't have any broadcast journalism experience (my journalism minor in college was all on the print side), but I'm sure it's a tough job. There is the thinnest line of all, whether to treat your audience like they know nothing or to assume they know a lot. And of course, you can't please everyone. But in general, the best color guys find a way to pass along the little nuances that make baseball great. I feel like we haven't really found out whether Hudler can do that or not. That may be partially obscured by his fondness for weird sayings. I understand that's part of his personality, but I wouldn't mind if he cut back on those a little bit and instead focused a little more on teaching.

I was not a Hudler fan at first, but when I hear him doing interviews or talking on a pre- or post-game show, I can tell he is just an enthusiastic person and a huge baseball fan. Really, there are much worse traits a person could have. He will take some getting used to, and it may take most if not all of this season, but I think eventually Royals fans will like Hudler. The bottom line is, if the Royals are winning, people will want to watch, and people will associate those good memories with Hudler, at least to a point. In the meantime, I hope Hudler will learn to calm down a bit, let the game speak for itself sometimes, and better communicate some insights to us viewers.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The 2012 Royals: The Bullpen

Hard to believe Opening Day is upon us, but it's true. Here's a look at the bullpen for the Royals heading into the season.

Where the Royals' rotation is full of questions, the bullpen looks to be full of answers. This group looks to be the deepest on the team. Want proof? Consider Louis Coleman, who had a 2.87 ERA, 64 Ks, 26 BBs and only allowed 44 hits in 59 2/3 innings pitched. One bad spring, and he's in Omaha to start the season. And this is a group that is without Blake Wood and Joakim Soria.

Speaking of Soria, it looks like his closer job will be handled by Jonathan Broxton most of the time, and Greg Holland the rest of the time. I'm perfectly fine with this arrangement. The Royals are unlikely to push Broxton too hard, as he had an elbow injury last year. While the concept of a closer is overrated, it doesn't hurt to have someone who's been successful at it. Meanwhile, Holland will probably get a few save chances here and there, which I like for three reasons: I have complete confidence he's good enough to handle it, it will be good experience for him down the road in case Soria doesn't come back, and there's a good chance he'll pitch in higher-leverage situations than Broxton a lot.

While Holland will be the primary setup man, I expect Aaron Crow to be used in that role sometimes, too. That's All-Star Aaron Crow to you. It's true Crow had a bad second half last year, but he still had a decent year overall: 2.76 ERA, 55 hits, 65 Ks, 31 BBs in 62 innings. My only concern with Crow is that at some point, the Royals need to give him a chance to be a starting pitcher. It's not necessarily easy to find good relievers, but it's easier than finding good starters. I have doubts about Crow's ability to be a good starter based on his minor league struggles, but the Royals really need to find out for sure. This is a first-round pick we're talking about here, and you don't draft those guys to be relievers normally. If it doesn't work out, he can always go back to the bullpen. I'm not holding my breath, but I believe trying Crow in the rotation would be the best thing to do.

Every bullpen needs a good lefty, and the Royals look to have two. Jose Mijares is more of a lefty specialist, but he's been quite good at it. Or he was until last year, anyway, when apparently his control deserted him. Still, you have to think the two solid years before last year are more the norm. If not, Everett Teaford may get more chances in the lefty specialist role. Right now, Teaford looks like more of a long reliever. I would hate for Teaford to get pigeonholed as a lefty specialist because I think he has a chance to be a decent starter.

That leaves Kelvin Herrera and Tim Collins. Herrera only pitched in two games for the Royals last year, but had an outstanding year in the minors, so good that he climbed all the way to the majors after starting the year in Class A. But he is still a rookie, so I wouldn't look for him to get put in too many key situations. That's OK, he can get acclimated to the majors and get some work in low-leverage situations. I imagine he will be the first reliever sent out when Wood or Felipe Paulino are ready to come back from their injuries, though. Collins' biggest issue is control--if he cuts down on his 48 walks from last year, he could have a very good year. He's still young enough (22) that you have to think his control will improve. It's funny, the narrative on Collins is that, although he is a lefty, he struggles against left-handed hitters. Yet if you look at his splits from last year, lefties had a lower batting average (.221 to .210) and much lower slugging percentage (.353 to .305) than righties. Yet Collins walked more left-handers than he struck out (29 to 27). That trend was reversed against right-handed hitters, with 33 strikeouts and 19 walks. I really have no idea what to make of this--it could be small sample size, or just a young pitcher not entirely trusting his stuff. It will be interesting to see if he can continue having some success against lefties this year.

Like I said when discussing the starting rotation, this bullpen is good enough that if the starters can keep the Royals in games for 6-7 innings, the team can be successful. Even without Soria, I have a lot of confidence in this bullpen.

Up next: real, actual baseball. Enjoy it, everyone!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The 2012 Royals: The Starting Rotation

Hard to believe Opening Day is upon us, but it's true. Here's a look at the starting rotation for the Royals heading into the season.

Let's be honest, the starting rotation is the biggest group of question marks on the Royals' roster as we head into the 2012 season. The good news is that I am not convinced they are all that bad.

People seem to forget, last year at this time many expected the Royals to have a historically bad rotation. That group was Luke Hochevar, Jeff Francis, Kyle Davies, Bruce Chen, and Sean O'Sullivan at the start of the year. Now look, only two of those guys are back. I would argue that Jonathan Sanchez, Danny Duffy and Luis Mendoza are all upgrades over the 2011 rotation.

Of course, this is by no means an outstanding group. There are reasons to be concerned about all these guys.

Let's start with Chen, since he has been designated the Opening Day starter. Personally, I would have picked Hochevar, but whatever. Without a true ace, the order probably doesn't matter much, and will matter even less as the season unfolds. Chen basically gets by with smoke and mirrors, except he really doesn't have that much smoke left at age 34. At this point, he is the proverbial crafty lefty. He doesn't strike out many (97 in 155 innings last year), but he doesn't walk many. Rather, he lets them hit it and depends on his defense. Sometimes this backfires and the opponent piles up the hits and runs, but in his last two seasons, it has worked more often than not. The good news for Chen is that he allows fly balls more often than not, and the Royals outfield with Lorenzo Cain should be even better at tracking those down than they were last year. Of course, the best thing a pitcher can do to get outs is pile up strikeouts, but I feel good about Chen's ability to continue being successful with his game plan.

I would have picked Hochevar for the top of the rotation based on his success after the All-Star Break last year. We had seen flashes of brilliance from Hochevar before, but that was his longest stretch of sustained success to date. A very mediocre pitcher suddenly turned into a top-of-the-rotation guy (6-3, 3.52 ERA, 66 hits, 68 Ks, 24 BBs and a 1.13 WHIP in 79 1/3 innings). It wasn't Justin Verlander, but it was pretty good. If the light bulb has indeed come on for Luke, the Royals will be in good shape. The biggest concern facing this wave of young talent is that the hitters seem to be way ahead of the pitchers. It would be extremely helpful for one of the previous generation of pitchers to become a rotation anchor.

Speaking of the light bulb coming on, I think the Royals took a flier on Sanchez to see if it would happen for him this year. The problem with Sanchez has always been his control--even in his best major league season (2010), he led the National League in walks. Now, spring training stats are pretty much worthless, but Sanchez did only walk 6 batters in 11 1/3 innings this spring. That's a little more in line with his walk rate from 2010 than his rate from 2011. I'm a little worried about Sanchez switching to the tougher American League and leaving the pitchers haven of San Francisco's AT&T Park, but his upside is quite good--he should get lots of strikeouts, and he is more of a ground ball pitcher, which is good news for someone with Alcides Escobar behind him.

One year ago, Luis Mendoza was merely organizational filler. One altered delivery later, he was the Pacific Coast League's pitcher of the year and part of a major league rotation. I admit, I did not think Mendoza could sustain his success, but he pitched well for the Royals in two September starts and kept right on rolling in spring training. He has definitely earned a chance to see if he can do it for the long-term. I don't know what to expect from Mendoza, but his strikeout rate improved as the season went on last year at Omaha, and he had a very good strikeout ratio in the spring. If that keeps up, he probably will be successful.

Finally, Danny Duffy. One of the joys of last season was watching various young position players reach the majors and succeed to varying degrees. But Duffy was the only starting pitcher we got to experience that with. I'm excited to see him continue developing as a major-leaguer. Like Sanchez, Duffy's big problem is control. Unlike Sanchez, Duffy is only 23 and there is more reason to expect his control to improve.

Yes, this rotation has question marks. I suppose the good news is that, for the most part, we are now hoping pitchers who have more talent and upside will put it together, rather than Davies and O'Sullivan and a retread like Francis. It's not much, but it is a little progress. The other good news, which I will discuss in the next post, is that the bullpen looks really good. And the offense should also be good, so if the starters can just keep the team in games, pitch 6-7 solid innings, the Royals will have a chance to win.

Up next: the bullpen

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The 2012 Royals: The Catchers

Hard to believe Opening Day is this week, but it's true. Here's a look at the catcher situation for the Royals heading into the season.

I already touched on the Salvador Perez injury a little here, but I don't think it can be overstated how much it hurts the Royals and their chances, however slight, to contend this year. It really puts the Royals at a disadvantage, especially compared to the other teams in the AL Central. Detroit (Alex Avila), Minnesota (Joe Mauer), Cleveland (Carlos Santana) and even Chicago (A.J. Pierzynski, no matter how much you despise him) are all ahead of the Royals' current situation, with Brayan Pena and Humberto Quintero splitting time until Perez is healthy again.

I believe if you looked up "indefatigable" in the dictionary, you would find a picture of Brayan Pena. Just in his time with the Royals, he has outlasted John Buck, Miguel Olivo, Jason Kendall, and Matt Treanor. This despite not being particularly gifted defensively, or even offensively. That's not to say he doesn't have his merits. Catcher defense is especially hard to quantify, but I do think his defensive shortcomings have been exaggerated somewhat. He has thrown out would-be base stealers at a better than league average rate all three seasons he's been a Royal. And he's not a great hitter, but he's not a complete embarrassment--he did post a 100 OPS+ in 2009, although that has dropped to 76 and 72 the last two years. So he could be adequate as a backup catcher, but starting him most of the time is a disadvantage for the Royals.

On the other hand, Humberto Quintero has a reputation as an excellent defensive catcher, but cannot hit a lick. Here's a guy who has compiled a lifetime OPS+ of 58, in the National League. That is terrible. For comparison, Jason Kendall's legendary 201o season with the Royals produced a 71 OPS+. And Quintero's 6 walks in 272 plate appearances last year (hitting 8th in an NL lineup, mind you) makes Yuniesky Betancourt look like Ted Williams when it comes to plate discipline. 

The best-case scenario for the Royals here is that the best part of Pena's game and Quintero's game can somehow mesh and form a decent replacement until Perez is back. Essentially, the Royals need to tread water until then.

Up next: the starting rotation