Five questions: Kansas City Royals

Since bottoming out with 56 wins in 2005, the Royals have made slow, but steady, progress. Last year’s win total of 75 was only the third time since 1996 they reached that mark, but it was the third consecutive year they improved their overall record.

In 2009, the Royals will unveil their renovated stadium and with the new digs, fans are hopeful a new-look team will emerge. Since 2000, the Royals have ranked higher than 10th in the AL in OBP just twice. They’ve finished higher than 11th in slugging percentage just once. Little power and plenty of outs…. It’s an offensive epidemic that leaves plenty of questions.

Let’s get to it, then.

1. Is this the year Alex Gordon makes the leap?

Gordon struggled in his rookie campaign in 2007, hitting just .247/.314/.411 with an OPS+ of 87. Last year he again struggled out of the gate, hitting .253/.334/.407 with an OPS+ of 89 in his first 400 plate appearances. He picked up the pace the second half of the season with a line of .277/.392/.496 and an OPS+ of 126. His strong August and September raised hopes that his career is finally on track.

Since first and second half splits suffer from small sample size, it can sometimes be helpful to look at young players in a different way. Here’s Gordon’s career divided into thirds:

4/02/07-5/18/07	391	.245	.324	.383	31	84	29
7/29/07-5/19/08	391	.264	.321	.447	39	90	30
5/20/08-9/28/08	389	.249	.351	.432	37	83	48

When you look at Gordon’s “splits” this way, it’s a little more difficult to spot the improvement. The gain in on-base percentage over his most recent “third” is encouraging, but so was his gain in slugging percentage during his second “third” and look what happened: He gave some of those gains back.

Gordon’s improvement is far from a sure thing. However, there is one area where Gordon has made some positive strides: his plate discipline. Last year he drew 25 more walks in just 30 more plate appearances. According to FanGraphs, in his rookie season he swung at 48.4 percent of all pitches he saw. Last year, that number dropped to 45.9 percent. Accordingly, his contact rate increased from 75.5 percent in ’07 to 76.3 percent last year. These aren’t seismic shifts, but they do serve to illustrate a slight modification in approach. He’s becoming more selective and because of that, he’s making more contact. He reaped the benefits of his improved discipline and could be poised for another “third” of improvement. The Royals are counting on his development.

2. Greinke and Meche and…?

While the Royals have a one-two punch at the top of their rotation that can hang with almost anyone in the league, it’s positions three through five that are giving management fits slightly more than two weeks from Opening Day.

The Royals are banking that Kyle Davies’ final five starts of 2008 are a harbinger of things to come. With a career ERA of 5.63 in exactly 400 innings, he’s been mediocre in the best of times. Then, from Sept. 5 to the end of the year, Davies threw 31.2 innings, striking out 24, walking seven and had an ERA of 2.27.

It’s a helluva gamble to take those September numbers as a sign that he’s put it all together and has become a reliable starting pitcher. Never in his major league career had he strung together five consecutive starts like that. In just his previous five starts to his bang-up September, he threw 23 innings with 17 strikeouts against 13 walks and a 5.79 ERA. The point is, both are extremely small sample sizes. Five starts do not a pitcher make.

The Royals, however, don’t seem to care about the size of the sample and are convinced he’s poised for a breakout season in the rotation. As it currently stands, Davies figures to be the No. 3.

He’ll be backed up by Horacio Ramirez. The last time Ramirez spent time in a rotation was in 2007, when he made 20 starts for the Seattle Mariners and finished with a 7.16 ERA with 40 strikeouts and 42 walks in 98 innings of work. To the joy of numerous baseball fans throughout the Pacific Northwest, Ramirez was cut last spring and caught on with the Royals in May.

Since the season was well under way at that point, the Royals decided to put him in the bullpen, and had surprisingly good results: a 2.59 ERA in 24.1 innings with 11 strikeouts and just a single walk. They were able to flip their find to the White Sox (who have a penchant for taking on Royals middle relief: Andrew Sisco and Mike McDougal. I don’t think Kenny Williams is going to pick up his phone anymore if he spots an 816 area code on his caller ID).

In Chicago, Ramirez was a disaster, throwing 13 low-leverage innings with a 7.62 ERA and eight walks against just two strikeouts. Now, as he returns to Kansas City as a free agent, the Royals are ignoring conventional wisdom and inserting him into the rotation. With a career strikeout rate of 4.1 K/9, Ramirez is a pitch-to-contact pitcher who needs the ground ball to stay out of trouble. Starters of that ilk are rarely successful. Last summer in KC, he induced hitters to put the ball on the ground a whopping 60 percent of the time. In Chicago, his ground ball rate was around 44 percent. If the Royals start Alberto Callaspo and Mike Jacobs on the right side of their infield when Ramirez is pitching, the weak defense will allow the opposing offense to have runners on base all day long.

But the Royals are convinced that they need a left-handed starter, so they threw $1.8 million at Ramirez and have placed him in the rotation. This isn’t going to end well.

3. What does $16.5 million get you these days?

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In the Royals’ case it nets a platooning designated hitter (through trade), a middle reliever with a penchant for the long ball, a washed-out starter, a backup middle infielder and a center fielder who will be miscast as a leadoff hitter.

That’s a fairly downbeat assessment of Dayton Moore’s offseason moves. We’ve already discussed why Ramirez in the rotation is a bad idea. The Kyle Farnsworth signing was borderline insane, given the amount of money ($9.25 million over two years) coupled with his steep walk rate and a ballooning home run rate.

The Willie Bloomquist signing was curious as well. The minor leagues are stocked with no-hit, good-field middle infielders. His .377 OPB last year was nice (and would be welcomed on the Royals) but it was a full 56 points higher than his previous career high. Now seems like a good time to mention he tallied one double last year in 192 plate appearances for his lone extra base hit. One double.

Moore’s methodology during his tenure in KC has been fairly straightforward: Identify an issue and address it as quickly as possible. For example, his trade for Mike Jacobs came before Philadelphia had its parade and Moore quickly followed by signing Farnsworth. Even during “normal” economic baseball times, these are questionable signings. Given the tight free agent market that greeted players this winter, these deals look even worse.

Had he waited a few weeks, Moore would have discovered a market that could have been beneficial to the Royals. This time, his aggressive approach led to some questionable moves.

One deal that makes sense for the Royals was the trade that sent reliever Ramon Ramirez to Boston for Coco Crisp. In this trade, Moore moved a reliever whose value was at its peak for an everyday player. Crisp will patrol center, which shifts David DeJesus to left and immediately gives the Royals two-thirds of a quality defensive outfield.

Offensively, Crisp owns a career .331 OBP and is expected to hit leadoff for the Royals. The problem is, while Crisp has some speed, he’s not really a leadoff hitter. The most successful leadoff men walk more than 12 percent of the time, but Crisp is at 7.3 percent in his career. Also, there’s the fact that he hasn’t hit as well at the top of the order. Among his three most common positions in the lineup, he’s been the least productive at the top:

1st	1226	.262	.312
2nd	666	.303	.353
8th	547	.268	.328

He’s not an ideal leadoff man, but on a team bereft of a quality top-of-the-order hitter, Crisp wins the job by default.

4. Do the Royals value on base percentage?

The acquisition of Jacobs (.299 OBP in 2008 and .318 for his career) would lead one to believe they don’t. However, this spring manager Trey Hillman has been preaching the OBP gospel.

“Our thought process,” Hillman said, “is that with our team, especially in our home ballpark, we’ve got to have an on-base percentage approach. I think everyone does to some degree. But we’re trying to turn that up a little bit more, maybe, than other clubs.”

It’s spring. Everyone says the right thing in the spring. Hillman said similar things last spring and the Royals’ team OBP finished at .320, which ranked them 26 out of 30 teams. If Hillman for some reason ever decides to bat Jacobs and Miguel Olivo back to back in the lineup, we’ll know it’s just lip service.

5. Are the Royals this year’s Rays?

We all know the story: A team that never won more than 70 games in a season puts together a winning record, holds off Boston for the AL East title, finishes off the White Sox in the ALDS then triumphs over the Red Sox in a thrilling seven-game ALCS to make its first World Series appearance.

Naturally, the Royals fit the bill in that they, like Tampa entering the 2008 season, have dealt with a long stretch of futility. Since 1995 they’ve finished above .500 only once and they haven’t come close to playing in the postseason since finishing two games behind the Minnesota Twins in 1987.

However, the parallels end there.

Last year, the Rays swung a nifty deal, dealing former first-round draft pick Delmon Young to the Twins for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. Garza blossomed in Tampa and Bartlett began a domino-type shuffling that saw the Rays move Akinori Iwamura to second, where he was a better defender, and allow for the arrival of Evan Longoria at third. One move and the infield was immediately better all around.

The Royals, like the Rays, looked to shore up their infield defense this winter. However their answer was the signing of utility man Willie Bloomquist and to attempt to move underachieving Mark Teahen to second base. Neither one is a long term answer at the position. Meanwhile, the Royals’ third baseman of the future, Gordon, already has two years of service time under his belt and has yet to show he can consistently carry a team.

The Rays hit .268/.336/.433 in 2007 and followed that with a .260/.340/.442 performance on their way to the pennant. In other words, the offensive building blocks were mostly in place. The Royals have yet to position themselves to make a similar push. As a team last summer, they hit .269/.320/.397 lacking both the power and the patience Tampa possessed in the year prior to their success.

Now the Royals figure to include Mike Jacobs, Miguel Olivo and Jose Guillen in their lineup. That will give the Royals more power than they’re used to having, but it certainly won’t help the OBP.

Looking at the pitching, the Rays were amazingly consistent over the course of the year. Their starters had a 3.95 ERA which was the second best in the AL. All five of their starters made at least 27 starts and none had an ERA over 4.42. While the performances of Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine were unexpected (which is usually how surprise teams spring their surprise) the front three of the rotation were excellent. The Garza deal gave Tampa a quality third starter to slot into the rotation behind Scott Kazmir and James Shields.

The Royals, as we saw earlier, haven’t found a quality No. 3 starter to follow their front two. While it’s possible some combination of Luke Hochevar, Brian Bannister, Davies and Ramirez could give the Royals solid production from the back of the rotation, it seems unlikely.

The AL Central is a much weaker division this year and the Royals do seem to have their best shot at a strong finish for the first time in years. This roster is still a ways from Tampa’s, but given how evenly matched the teams in the Central look, the Royals certainly could push for their first postseason appearance since 1985—the second longest drought in the game. For them to be the “new” Rays, they would have to win more than 90 games and make the World Series. That’s a longshot. The best case scenario for this team is probably 85 wins. More likely, they’ll finish at around 76 wins which could be good for third place in the division.

Bonus question
Why in the world would the Royals sign Sidney Ponson?

Some questions have no answer.

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