Saturday, April 23, 2005

Random Cynical Notes

Note Number One
Yes, it was a crappy night. Forty-five degrees and a howling wind are not ideal baseball conditions, but if you were watching Runelvys Hernandez, you would have thought we were playing at Ice Station Zebra. In his defense, it probably is hard to throw strikes when you're hyperventilating from continually blowing on your hand. Runevlys is almost always a competitor and probably as tough as anyone on the team, but last night Runelvys: grow up and pitch. Number of times Freddy Garcia blew on his hand in the 6th inning: ZERO.

Note Number Two
It is getting old and I feel like I am writing the same thing over and over, but what game were the Royals playing in the top of the 6th? Ruben Gotay is late covering 1st base on a Juan Uribe bunt - I played second base when I was a kid, the first thing they tell you it where to stand, the second thing they tell you is to cover first on a bunt. After Podsednik stole second for what I think was the 14th time in the game, Runelvys uncorks a wild pitch to allow a run in. What followed was a walk and then a double play ball on which Berroa botched the throw to first. Although not credited with an error in that entire inning, KC played simply disasterous defense and essentially squashed whatever hope we had of staying in that game.

Note Number Three
If it had not been for the horrid defense and 7 walks issued, I might have been willing to let last night go as 'one of those nights'. The Royals really did have some bad hitting luck. DeJesus and Berroa in particular each stung the ball 3 times a piece only to be retired on all occassions. I am not as discouraged about the offense as one might think, given we had all of four hits. Look at it this way, 40% of our baserunners scored last night.

Note Number Four
Are Mike Sweeney and Eli Marrero so bad at first base that Matt Stairs looked like a gold glover out there last night? I thought Stairs looked agile and smooth around the bag and made a nice catch of a hop off the edge of the grass. I am thinking we may see more of Stairs at first in the short term with Matt Diaz getting the call up yesterday.

Note Number Five
Ah, Matt Diaz up and Cal Pickering down. Given how much I have been speculating on roster moves on the horizon, I was glad to see Diaz get the call up. Slighty suprised Pickering did not get a longer shot, but I am guessing Emil Brown saved himself by a homer in Minnesota two days ago. Twenty-seven at-bats probably is not enough to find out about a hitter like Pickering, but Pena obviously did not want to play him and having Sweeney and Pickering on your team really did limit the manager's ability to maneuver his roster during a game. I would still not be very comfortable if I was Emil Brown - I don't think he can afford another 0-20 stretch.

Question of the Day
Mark Teahen is starting his rehab in Omaha and is apparently due back by the end of next week. Who goes down when Teahen returns? Will it be McEwing, whose ability to play multiple positions is helpful? He has hit well, but also made two errors. Will it be the 12th pitcher? Nate Field or Shawn Camp, I don't care which. Or could it be the aforementioned Mr. Brown? If he went 0-16 this week, could he be the one in the box? My vote is for the 12th pitcher - given that Andy Sisco is hardly the one being carried in the bullpen.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Well....

I watched part of yesterday's game live, listened to the rest on radio, then rewatched the entire game on tape. I was taking down comments as I watched the replay: Sweeney flailing about in the field like a wounded duck, Berroa simply missing a double play ball, Joe Brinkman's inability to umpire this game of baseball...on and on. Things I thought of that were noteworthy, good and bad, only to wad up the paper and throw it away. By the way watching MacDougal and Camp blow the game the second time around was no less painful.

This team does NOT play good baseball. We give away outs on the basepaths (Berroa's attempted steal of third in the top of the 9th is lunacy - with 2 outs and Angel running he'll score on almost any single from second), we play poor defense (KC was credited with 2 errors, that does not include MacDougal's throw into centerfield or Sweeney's botching of a ground ball early in the game - even Paul Splitorff thought that should have beeen an error), and frankly we are not managed very well (Graffanino's attempted sacrifice in the 8th is nicely condemned over at the Daily Lancer).

Sure, we have begun to hit, sometimes our starting pitching is pretty good, and occasionally (when we pitch the right guys) our bullpen can be good, too. So we are not without hope, especially given how young this team is, but here's is something interesting. Look at the comparision of BA/On-Base Pct/Slugging/OPS of three teams:

Kansas City..257/311/390/701 - 62 RUNS
Seattle...........258/318/371/689 - 74 RUNS
Chicago..........259/288/418/706 - 71 RUNS

Yes, Chicago has had absolutely great pitching, but couldn't we use another 10 runs scored? Plus, keep in mind we've scored 14 runs the last two days, so we're lucky to be even this close in runs scored. As an aside, only Oakland has scored less runs (61).

This number does not suprise me, or you probably, as we all know that the Royals just plain give away outs on offense. Curiously, however, the Royals' 6 caught stealings are actually less than Seattle's 7 and Chicago's 8. The White Sox strike out less, but also walk less than the Royals, and in fact the only other categories where they have an edge if Home Runs (20-14) and Sacrifices (18-12).

So, when a quick statistical look does not tell me why they score more runs, I look two places: execution and coaching. KC tries to play 'small ball', but we're are fundamentally inadequate to get it down. Blown sacrifices or sacrificing when you should be trying to put the nail in the coffin (see the bottom of the 8th debacle once more), charitable official scorekeeping that awards hits when defensive plays should have been made (I can think of at least 3 in the last two games)...these things are hard to see in statistics, but have a direct impact on winning and losing ballgames.

Here's the stat:
PERCENTAGE OF BASERUNNERS WHO SCORE
Chicago - 43.29%
Seattle - 39.57%
Kansas City - 33.51%

One in three Royal runners score. One in three on a team that is 11th in the league in On-base Percentage and is supposedly playing 'small ball'. ONE IN THREE.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Minor League Update

If I keep saying it long enough, it might come true: roster moves are on the horizon. Here's a look at the likely candidates as of this morning (BA/OBP/SLG):

Matt Diaz - 373/439/725
Ken Harvey - 354/404/500
Chad Santos - 306/382/633
Justin Huber - 300/472/425 - 12 BB in 52 Plate appearances, 5 doubles.

Huber has 5 hits in his last 10 at-bats and I did hear that Baird was visiting Wichita this week to 'observe and evaluate'. You have to be encouraged about Harvey's on-base percentage and he did homer last night.

Emil Brown has to be about done and carrying 12 pitchers, now that Sisco is effective and not a Rule V liability, is foolish: there's two spots (assuming that Teahen takes the place of McEwing). Also, if we're not playing Pickering then there is not point of having a DH only type on the bench - this isn't the National League. Besides, I'm tired of watching Sweeney and Marrero miss every ball that isn't thrown to them belt high. Harvey, for all his faults, can catch and scoop the short-hops. If he continues to hit and get on base, I bring him up - let Pick get back in a groove playing everyday in Omaha and then get him back in the mix, too.

Three Questions for Tony Pena

Johann Santana is a marvelous pitcher - Jose Lima is not as good as he once was and was never, not even once, marvelous. That said, last night's loss is still hard to swallow, simply because we had managed to get to the Twins' bullpen and past Santana in a tie game. I was prepared for a 6-0 loss with 3 hits and no hope, but 5-4 generates some questions (i.e. indictments) for Manager Pena.

1. Why Nate Field? I was not wild about Shawn Camp, either, and although he allowed the tying run to score, he pitched pretty well over all and the run scored on a sacrifice fly (and a pretty decent piece of hitting, I thought). We already ascertained that Snyder will not pitch on back to back days, but why not Sisco or MacDougal instead of Field after Jaime Cerda faltered in the 8th? I don't believe in saving your closer for a save situation when he could help you out of a jam earlier, but that is exactly what we were doing. Now, I thought the strike zone was elusive all night and certainly not very consistent pitch to pitch, but that doesn't explain the wild pitch and Field's apparent inability to really get anyone out. He is quite frankly, the LAST guy on the staff I would put in the game at a crucial situation.

2. Why were Berroa and Gotay playing in, with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the 8th? This is more my preference that standard baseball procedure, but if you're going to intentionally walk the bases full, I truly believe you play for a double play ball up the middle. I am sure Bill James or someone has actual stats on this, but asking our bullpen and our defense to make two very good defensive plays instead of just one is asking a lot. (NOTE: I have always felt this way and my opinion is not based on the fact that a double play ball was hit past the drawn in Berroa last night for the Twins' 5th run).

3. Why, why, why Eli Marrero versus Joe Nathan? Eli Marrero hits lefthanded pitching (or so we've been told). Joe Nathan is right handed. Tony Pena has used pinch hitters liberally this season to take advantage of platoon situations. Yet, there is Marrero flailing away in the 9th against the Minnesota closer (did I mention he throws from the right side?). Are we so afraid of the possiblity of Pickering playing first base that we won't pinch hit him in a crucial situation? If so, then Sweeney HAS to play first all the time, so we have some flexibility to use our roster. Given Marrero's feeble attempt at a short hop scoop of McEwing's throw in the 8th, it's not like we have a Gold Glover out there anyway. Yes, you needed to save someone to bat for Brown, but why not Stairs for Marrero, Berroa swinging away (sometimes he hits the ball), then Pickering for Brown? That is three guys who have at least some home of making contact and keeping us in the game. Yes, Marrero's horrible swing for strike three was no worse than Sweeney's to end the 8th or Berroa's right after him, but we were essentially giving up an out to start the 9th.

These are little things that Pena has done for two and half years. Little things that cost us when we were 83-79 and continue to hurt us today. I like Pena and his enthusiasm and I think he relates pretty well to young players, but I also believes he is stubborn and not very adaptable to different approaches to the game. Last night just added to my frustrastion.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

An Actual Baseball Game

As fans we are always looking for the perfect game. The 6-0 two hit shutout with no errors, no hitting into double plays, no caught stealings, three guys left on base. Those don't come along all that often, even for really good teams and certainly don't or won't be common for Kansas City this year.

A 162 game baseball season, however, is not about how many 'perfect' games you have, but how many BASEBALL games you win. Yesterday, was a baseball game. Neither team was perfect, neither team was close. Cleveland pitchers threw 177 pitches, the Royals 173. KC left 13 men on base, so did the Indians. Denny Bautista once again decided the game was too easy throwing his four seam 97 mph fastball and reverted to breaking stuff, Scott Elaraton gave up 10 hits in 3 2/3 innings. Not pretty, sometimes not even good, but a good baseball game - and one the Royals needed to win.

Bautista's mental problems (maybe we should sit him down and make him watch Bull Durham over and over - tell him John Buck really is Kevin Costner) aside, the pitching was clutch, if not great. Twice the Indians loaded the bases with no one out and did not score - who do they think they are? The Royals? Andy Sisco encountered his first pressure situation (just one day after Pena said he would not through Sisco into the fire yet) and gave up a walk and two fly balls, allowing one inherited runner to score. He will be better next time and the time after that and...well, you get where I'm headed. Kyle Snyder had a perfect 7th and a rocky 8th, although he did strike out Belliard with the bases loaded and no one out. Then Jaime Cerda, not a favorite of this blogger, went 3-0 on Victor Martinez only to strike him out. That is the kind of at-bat that just might get Cerda back on track. By the way, all Mike MacDougal did in the top of the 9th was strike out the side (sandwiched around an infield single). We (i.e. me) sometimes expect absolute perfection from our relievers. What we get, and really all we need, is yesterday. They weren't perfect, sometimes they weren't even good, but the job got done.

Offensively, sure there were some oddities: McEwing and Castillo combined for 5 hits at the bottom of the order while Berroa and Pickering hitting right in front of them were only 2-10 with 8 guys left on base. Yet, the Royals did average 3.93 pitches per at-bat yesterday and rapped out 15 hits, received 4 walks and were hit by two pitches. Considering getting base runners has been a chore, I will be happy to overlook the 13 we stranded. "Better to strand runners than have no runners at all" - Thomas Payne.

Although it mostly a product of who was pitching, I did like our lineup yesterday (see my post of yesterday morning), and I think it showed in patience and production at the plate. Even Berroa, who had a wickedly bad day at the plate, at least tried to be patient logging 6, 4, 3, 7 and 3 pitches in his five at-bats (I'm actually not sure we shouldn't just let him swing, but that's for another day).

Tonight, however, we face Johann Santana in the Metrodome. Not only is Santana maybe the best pitcher on the planet right now, but he's left handed. That means, probably and unfortunately, Emil Brown and Eli Marrero will be stuck somewhere in the middle of our lineup. I would be delighted with a split in Minnesota and a 3-3 split on the next homestand (3 vs. Chicago and 3 vs. Minnesota). Although that would not be a dramatic statement, it would give the team a little momentum, an idea that they can compete as we head into the meat of the season.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A Parting Shot

“They seemed to be getting themselves out,” Lee said after the game.

The above is a quote from flu-ridden, slump invested Cliff Lee of the Cleveland Indians after rendering Kansas City offensively impotent last night. A telling comment from the opposing pitcher and not exactly breaking news to loyal Royal fans. However, that it was said, is an indication of how bad the Royals are scuffling at the plate.

Right now, Pena needs to put guys in the lineup (when possible, you have to play Berroa and Buck) who don't get themselves out and you have to do so irregardless of platoon factors and who's hot. For me, that's playing Pickering, Long maybe even Stairs every day, at least for a while. It also means we need to look in the minors for guys who are NOT getting themselves out. I would be tempted to bring in Justin Huber, only because he has a bunch of walks in AA. That may mean Aaron Guiel, too, who has a limited ceiling, but will also work the count.

The lineups over the next week and any roster moves by the end of the week (strictly my guess, I've heard nothing concrete) will be telling.

It's Hard to Stay Positive

Dismal, dismal, dismal l- three hits, two errors, one run. I encourage everyone to read the KC Star article (you can get it online) about the game last night, only for the quotes from Zack Greinke. The kid's a flake, which I like as most good pitchers aren't quite like the rest of us (unless you're a hockey goalie), and flakes have bad games now and then too. For all his pitching saavy, Zack still needs to find a way to be effective even on days 'when he never gets comfortable'. At 21 years of age, I'm willing to give him some time on that one. Especially since he only has outings like last night about 5 times a year (hopefully).

Usually, we can trace our offensive struggles and ability to make mediocre, struggling, stomach flu infected pitchers look like Roger Clemens to one thing: plate dicsipline. The game was not on TV up here, so I have to take Denny and Ryan at their word that we did (Angel Berroa) swing at some bad pitches. However, one positive (yes, I'm reaching for anything remotely positive) is that the Royals did at least attempt to work the count last night: only two Royals swung at (and put in play) the first pitch, and one was DeJesus' single. Before making wretched outs, Angel Berroa at least made the pitcher work, fouling off numerous pitches.

I don't know what to think of the new batting order, but at least it is a change. I don't like Berroa in the two-spot (and I am a Berroa guy) and would much prefer Gotay there everyday. I am also to the point of putting Pickering in cleanup against righties and lefties and give him a month to see if he can hit (thus, giving Sweeney some protection). I am not a 'Sweeney guy', but he is really pressing right now with runners on base - I give him credit for trying to make something happen. Although he's struggling, Buck in the five hole is at least an interesting change of pace. Sometimes a move like that will get a guy going - and Buck has hit the ball decently without any luck. That would put Berroa in the 6 spot in the order, which I think is ideal for a free swinging .280 hitter with some pop.

One ACTUAL positive is the bullpen. Admittedly they have not been in pressure situations, but the last two days they have given up only 1 run in 8 innings of work and really worked pretty efficiently too. Today on the KCRoyals website, Pena is quoted as not being ready to through Andy Sisco into the fire yet. Exactly how many innings does this guy have to dominate before he's ready. He's already more 'ready' than Nate Field.

Speaking of the bullpen AND KCRoyals.com, Burgos got a roughed up in Wichita last night - nobody's perfect - and frankly, that's probably a good thing. If he comes back with 3 or 4 strong outings after this, that tells you he's got something mentally working for him. Also, the website talked about former 1st round pick Colt Griffin not giving up a run in 5 innings of work this year: neglecting to point out that he has also Walked 5 and struck out just 2.

The Matt Diaz watch continues as Emil Brown logged another 0-4 last night. Diaz is now hitting a cool .400 for Omaha after slapping his fourth homer yesterday afternoon. Tick, tick, tick, Emil.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Horrible Truth and Possible Remedies

Well, you do not have to be a brainiac to know the Royals are a pathetic offensive team. We had an inkling and now the stats finally confirm it. Frankly, the stats also say we are an awful pitching team: currently 13th in ERA, 13 in Batting Average Against, 13th in strikeouts per 9 innings, 11th in WHIP and it goes on. HOWEVER, I really am not that worried about the pitching. The bullpen has been wretched, but I have faith that Kyle Snyder, Andy Sisco and the next wave of replacements (do you hear footsteps Camp, Field & Cerda?) will eventually stabilize that unit and the starters have really been okay (7 quality starts out of 11). I can see how our pitching will get better.

SO, the problem lies with the offense. The Royals are dead last in runs scored (42), 9th in batting average, 10th in on-base percentage, 11th in slugging and 9th in OPS. Suprisingly, a team off to a very good start, the White Sox, are worse if virtually every statistical category except one: runs scored (50 despite a dreadful .275 team on-base pct). Baseball is absolutely full of stats, the game was practically invented with statisticians in mind, but one the one offensive stat that really matters is scoring runs. I took a quick look at the White Sox' (or is White Sox'sssss) numbers and there is nothing that stand out. They don't suddenly hit .375 with runners on base, but their numbers do get better (although they are still pathetic - it's nice to have Mark Buerhle on your team). The Royals, on the other hand, have become absolutely horrible with runners on base, compiling a .225 batting average, .253 OBP, .346 Slugging and .599 OPS - and you thought Ken Harvey was bad.

The sinsister underlying current of this inept offensive unit is that I don't really see the current group suddenly becoming potent. David DeJesus has been getting on base, Gotay and Berroa have been hitting for a decent average (they are never going to be great OBP guys), Sweeney and Stairs have hit and basically so has Graffanino and Long. So, what are the remedies?

A hot streak by Cal Pickering would certainly help and John Buck getting above .200 wouldn't hurt. Eli Marrero is surely better than he's shown, but exactly how many left-handed pitchers are there for him to hit against? No, the answers (with the exception of Pickering) are not on the active roster. Essentially, there are five viable options in the minors right now:

Matt Diaz, R, OF, 24 - hitting .390 and slugging .732 in Omaha. Three homers, 3 steals and 2 walks. He'll strike out (11 already), but he is right handed and he does have pop...and he plays in the outfield (listening Emil Brown?).

Ken Harvey, R, 1b, 27 - yes, Big Ken is a viable option. He's at .324/.432 in Omaha (unfortuneatly that's slugging pct not on-base pct). He is right handed and does play defense (cartoon like exploits aside). Probably not your first option, if only because there is no real place for him to play (barring a Sweeney injury or a Pickering 0-25 stretch).

Chad Santos, L, 1b, 24 - This kid is really swinging it at .316/.658, 3 homers and SIX walks, but he's a) another first basemen and b) left handed. His only hope in the bigs this year is complete Pickering ineffectiveness AND some injuries.

Aaron Guiel, L, OF, 32 - Who dosen't root for Aaron Guiel? He does something unique for the organization - get on base (7 BB in 43 at-bats in Omaha). Although Guiel is hitting just .256, he is slugging at a decent .442 clip. Again, being a lefty doesn't help his chances, especially with Long in his way (who I like, if only because he's our best defensive outfielder).

Justin Huber, R, 1b, 22 - He's in Wichita only because this organization has something like 52 first basemen in the system. After a quick start, Justin's numbers are not impressive (.233 average, .333 slugging). HOWEVER, he has already drawn 12 (twelve) walks and has a .452 on-base percentage. There is not a lot of offensive talent around him in Wichita right now, so it is likely that he may be in a Mike Sweeney like situation down there. You have to like all the walks and he is definitely going to be on the team in 2006, so it is quite possible he's one hot-streak away from a callup.

I heard on ESPN radio yesterday (can't remember which 'expert') that he had never heard of some many fans/general managers panicky so early in a season. And yes, it probably is too soon to gut the opening day roster. I would ride this unit one more week and if there was not improvement from Emil Brown by the off day on April 25th, I think the switch to Matt Diaz should be made. Plus, as soon as Teahen is back with the team, I would dump one of the ineffective relievers (you pick, I don't care) and pull up another right handed bat: Harvey or Huber, I don't care. This would give us another option against left-handed pitching, where we currently are playing Stairs or Long.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is simply this: there is no point on playing veterans (Stairs, Long, Marrero, Brown) and not scoring any runs. If we have a 2-5 week, the time to make changes has come.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Weekend in Review

My post after the Friday night come from behind victory beamed with the promise that such a win could be a momemtum builder. Turns out it was just a win, building to nothing (except perhaps better pitching from Jose Lima).

Brian Anderson turned in a strong Saturday afternoon performance only to be betrayed by an offensive that appeared to have no hope and no clue against Jeremy Bonderman and a dual implosion of Shawn Camp and Nate Field. Anderson is about two more good starts away from being Guy Hansen's poster child and a marketable commodity to a playoff contending team come June. Brian is by all accounts a good guy and, at times, a pretty decent arm, but if the Royals continue to be this anemic on offense and find themselves 15 games or so under .500 by June, they would be foolish not to move Anderson for any reasonable offer. Even if Anderson has 10 out of 12 quality starts by then, he's probably not good enough to bring the corner outfielder we all dream about - not one that's ready to play right now, anyway. However, an effective left handed veteran starter carries decent value.

Sunday started out well, with Runelvys striking out the first 2 hitters he faced, but that was pretty much the day's highlight. Shaky defense in the top of the 3rd led to a Hernandez meltdown that buried the Royals early. The Royals were not blatantly bad on defense in that inning, but made three 'iffy' plays that good teams probably don't make. Sweeney had a very tough play on the leadoff bunt as did Gotay on the bunt that followed that. Then Marrero threw home on a sacrifice fly after Logan bluffed from third base - allowing Inge to advance to second a shallow fly ball. My gut feeling: above average teams make two of the above three plays and avoid a big inning. After those three hitters, Runelvys was not himself (not the 'good' self, anyway) and was only able to get the second out a line drive and the third on a throw to the plate by Marrero - all of which occured far too late for KC. Typically, the Royals, down 4-0 pressed at the plate, and Maroth retired KC in order on 11 pitches in 3rd, 8 in the 4th. Upside, Andy Sisco another great outing (2 IP, 1 hit, 0 runs) and Shawn Camp had a nice 1-2-3 8th. Field, however, surrendered a homer in the 9th and has to be thinking Omaha may be in his future.

Speaking of the pen, we all know Jeremy Affeldt is on the 15 day disabled list and Kyle Snyder was recalled to replace him. The down side: this is Affeldt's 4th trip to the DL in 3 years, which in combination with changing roles from relief to starter to relief to starter to relief, has never allowed him to settle into a role and realize his potential. He may be one of those guys who never settles in. The up side: Snyder gets a chance to provide some stability to the pen (although Pena will not pitch him on consecutive days) and it also forces the Royals and Mike MacDougal to find out if he's really a closer or not. This is Mac's chance to come all the way back and hopefully be better and more consistent than he was in his heyday of early 2003. I am skeptical that he has the mental fortitude to be an effective closer, but we need to find out and this is the year to do it.

Hopefully in the coming weeks, we can work Snyder and Sisco into crucial hold situations (they can't do worse than Cerda, Camp & Field) and find out about MacDougal. If those three guys can be successful, it will at least give the starters one less thing to worry about. It is asking a lot of a young rotation to overcome a poor offense AND a shaky bullpen AND not press or lose confidence. At 4-8, the season is not over - hopefully we can say the same this time next week.