Friday, June 17, 2005

Greinke Revisited and a Sweep

Zack Greinke - The Good
First and foremost, the difference in pace in Zack's delivery between fastball and breaking ball that was so noticeable (in my tortured mind anyway) in Arizona was not noticeable tonight. At times, especially as he got up there in pitch count, I thought I could pick up some minor differences, but not on a consistent basis.
Fastballs...and more fastballs. Greinke relied heavily on his fastball last night, and not the lazy one either. He was hefting the rock up there in the 92-94 mph range consistently all night. Additionally, at least 70% of his pitches had to be fastballs. As I have often criticized Greinke for being 'too cute', that was also good to see. A lot of 92 mph heat all of sudden makes that 76 mph change and the 66 mph curve all the more effective.

Zack Greinke - The Bad
While he was not tipping his pitches and throwing more hard fastballs, Greinke was far from dominating. He walked two batters, hit two more and allowed 8 hits. To his credit at least three of those hits were not stroked very solidly, particularly the two to open the game. It also took Greinke 111 pitches to labor through just five innings. Now, the Royals did not have their best night defensively behind him and bottom line, Greinke made it through five and kept us in the game, but we all set the standards a little higher with Zack. As mentioned in the KC Star this morning, 'Zack is a work in progress right now'.

The Sweep - The Good
What's not good about sweeping the Dodgers? I really do not think Kansas City played all that well last night and still won...easily. When a team is on a roll, all the little things break your way: double play balls turn into errors or just a force out, your errors never come back to bite you, all the shots down the line are doubles instead of 5-3 groundouts,...basically you are just on a roll, enjoy it.
The Royals did pound out 15 hits last night, once again got some nice two out hitting and ran the bases aggressively but not stupidly (okay, Castillo got thrown out at home late in the game on a fly ball that Willie Wilson could not have scored on, but I think he just wanted to get it over with by then). Interesting little stat here: the Royals struck out twice and walked three times. When was the last time THAT happened?

The Sweep - The Bad
The defense, although charged with just one error, was not up to its recent standards. Teahen did not have a good night, which we can excuse as he has all of 40 games experience, and the ball just kept seeming to find him (we've all been there haven't we?). Still, the Royals gave up three, maybe as many as five outs. Let's hope it was just one of those nights and we get back to the borderline great defense that has been played for the last couple of weeks.
Home plate umpire Joe Brinkman had a ridiculously inconsistent strike zone last night, so we can blame him for some of this (before walking Kent in the first inning, Greinke threw at least two pitches that were strikes, but called balls), but the pitching was truthfully not great. Greinke's issues are dealt with above, but Mike Wood, although getting the job done, pretty much slopped his way through two innings. Jeremy Affeldt was worse. Although betrayed by Gotay leaving second early on a force out (it was not as bad on replay as it looked live, but live I could see why the umpire made the call), Affeldt took 27 pitches to give up 3 runs and make the game interesting enough that Buddy Bell had to get MacDougal up in the bullpen. I have watched Affeldt his entire career and have no idea why batters can hit him, but they do. He is rapidly on his way to becoming the Op-Ed whipping boy.

And Finally
RSTN had Brian Anderson miked in the dugout last night and brought him in during the game four times for commentary. You can tell Anderson knows the game and he speaks well, but I generally dislike that sort of crap during the game. The most interesting quote was with Burgos pitching, when Anderson commented that everyone wished he would just throw his fastball more: "When you come in throwing 97 or 98, that's a devastating weapon to have." I was never a pitcher, and it is obvious most of them don't think like the rest of us, because if I could throw 98 (Burgos) or even 94 (Greinke), you would have to beat me to get me to throw something else.

Tonight, rookie J.P. Howell goes against Roger Clemens. My expectations are low, is Clemens and J.P. is a rookie, but we will definitely get a glimpse as to the mental makeup of young Mr. Howell.

For those of you with split screen capability or just really fast clicking fingers, Alex Gordon and the Nebraska Cornhuskers play in the College World Series at 6:00 CDT on ESPN2. I will be on the golf course with one VCR set to RSTN and the other to the CWS. You have to love this time of year.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Greinke Pitches Tonight - Hold Your Breath

Not very long ago, Royals fans looked forward to Zack Greinke's turn in the rotation. This is one we can win, was the conventional thinking. Tonight, however, does not feel 'like one we can win' - other than this team all of sudden seems to win all the time - and that feeling is simply one of watching everyone hit the absolute crap out of most everything Zack has offered up in the last month.

I speculated last week on Greinke tipping his pitches and I will be very interested to see if I can see the same delivery differences (fastball v. breaking ball) that were evident in the Arizona game, however there is another factor that is definitely in play: Zack Greinke is a YOUNG pitcher.

Right now, Greinke has 37 major league starts under his belt, totalling 215 innings and a yielding a 4.64 career earned run average. Here are some similar numbers for a few guys you may have heard of:

Greg Maddux - In his first 36 games (32 starts), Maddux had logged 187 innings and sported an ERA of 5.59. All he did the next season (1987) was throw 249 innings and compile a 3.18 ERA. Now, Maddux IS A FREAK, and he had the benefit of 6 games in 1985, a full season in 1986 and an off-season to get his head together, but the numbers do show that he was not very good early on.

Tom Glavine - Like Maddux, Glavine pitched a little in 1987 (9 games) and then had a full season of 34 starts in 1988. Over those 43 starts, spanning 246 innings, Tom had an ERA of 4.76. He followed up in 198 with 186 innings and a 3.68 ERA. Again, he had the benefit of an off-season, but he too was not setting the world on fire early in his career.

Brad Radke - The Twins number two guy (remember when he was their ace?) came up in 1995 and started 28 games with a 5.32 ERA (181 innings). He came back in 1996 and had an ERA 4.46 over 232 innings and then in 1997 went 239 more innings with a 3.87 ERA.

Tim Hudson - This comparision is interesting because Hudson had success, like Zack, his first season. In 1999, Tim started 21 games, pitched 136 innings and had an ERA of 3.24 - better than Greinke's 2004 but similar. He followed up with 32 starts in 2000 spanning 202 innings with an ERA of 4.14. In that season, Hudson surrendered 24 home runs. He rebounded in 2001 to post an ERA of 3.37 in 235 innings and pretty much has been one of the ten best pitchers in baseball since. Keeping in mind that Zack just got pounded for 11 runs in 5 innings, which did a number on his ERA, he is not far off where Hudson was in season two.

Jake Peavy - One last look, this time at the Padre ace. In 2002, Peavy started 17 games (98 innings) and compiled a 4.52 ERA. He started 32 games in 2003, pitched 195 innings and allowed 33 homers on his way to 4.12 ERA. Peavy then blossomed in 2004, with a 2.27 ERA over 166 innings.

Now, earned run average is not the be all and end all of pitching statistics. In fact, you could make a case that it is considerably down the list of important numbers, but it is useful to illustrate my point that Zack Greinke is a very young pitcher, very early in his career and that there is a precedence that a two year development curve is quite common. Sure, there are also a similar number of great pitchers who were good as rookies and got better immediately (Mark Mulder comes to mind), but given Zack's age and relative lack of minor league experience it would be logical to think he would develop at the slower pace.

You worry about Greinke's disdain for instruction from Guy Hansen, his flaky demeanor (George Brett has been quoted as saying 'The works Zack sees is not the same one you and I see'), his almost disinterest in the game at times...basically you worry that Greinke may be one gigantic head case. You worry about his inability to retire left handed hitters (currently hitting 336/387/572/959 against him - righties are just hitting 255 with a 719 OPS). There is plenty of variables to consider with a young pitcher like Greinke, but the truth is we really won't know if this kid is the ace of our staff, a solid upper middle part of the rotation, or an end of the rotation guy (or worse) until late 2006.

Here's hoping that we see signs of improvement, and occasional moments of brilliance, through the rest of 2005.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Runelvys Hernandez Packs a Lunch

Last night was what is becoming typical Hernandez: 6 IP, 8 hits, 2 runs. The only thing atypical was zero walks as opposed to 7 over his previous two starts. Runelvys is quite simply the workhorse of a very inconsistent rotation (albeit getting help from suprising D.J. Carrasco).

In fourteen starts, Hernandez has gone 5 innings or more thirteen times and only twice has allowed more than 4 earned runs. Since allowing 7 runs in 5 innings in Anaheim, Hernandez has allowed just 4 runs over 18 innings in the three starts since then. His 84.2 innings easily leads the staff, followed by Greinke at 70.1 innings and Lima at 64 innings (how, by the way, has Jose managed to stay in for that many innings?). Despite the additional innings pitched, Hernandez has allowed only two more hits than Greinke and 7 more than Lima. Sure, I am not comparing him to Clemens and Mussina, but still not bad numbers at all.

Sure, Runelvys walks too many hitters. Yes, he will worry about the shape of the mound, the wind, the cold (pretty soon it will be too hot, I'm sure), the strike name it, but Hernandez will stick in there and battle. Like Carrasco, Runelvys appears to be settling into a nice comfort zone and providing this team exactly what it needs: steady pitching for six innings every fifth day. With four power arms in the back of the bullpen, the Royals do not need anything more out of their starters.

Other Musings....
Would you trade for Austin Kearns now? Each year we get farther and farther away from that 315/407/500 rookie season and the string of injuries gets longer and longer. Still, Kearnes is just 25 years old and makes under $1 million per year. A month ago, I would have traded Affeldt for Kearns in a heartbeat, now I think the Royals would have to get more. Further, do we even NEED to trade for Kearns (or anyone else?). With DeJesus a fixture in center and Emil Brown appearing to be a quite capable stopgap through this season and maybe next are we not better off seeing what Shane Costa and/or Matt Diaz can do while we wait for Butler/Maier/Gordon to be ready?

How about this, would you trade for Jason Schmidt? There are rumors circulating that the Giants have had enough of their ace, particularly with a $10 million option for 2006 coming up. Schmidt, who has been one of the better pitchers in the league the last three years, currently sports a Lima-like 6.12 ERA. At thirty-two it is possible that he is on the backside of the mountain, but someone with his past success is always interesting to look at. He is really not a viable option for the Royals - I'd rather pay Sweeney $11 mil than a pitcher $10mil - and I don't think they need to take a salary gamble on a pitcher having a off year, but I thought it was interesting nonetheless.

And finally, Billy Butler is set to come back from his bruised hand this week and will most likely make his debut as a leftfielder. Assuming he is adequate there, I will be interested to see just how long the Royals allow him to beat up on High-A ball pitching. Going a step further, if Butler is moved up to Wichita, will the Royals make some move with Huber and/or Maier? I would think that the organization might want to stagger the debuts of all three players first for salary clock reasons and second so as to not be relying on three rookies when they think they can contend (2007). Huber is surely a lock for the 2006 roster, with Maier starting in Omaha and perhaps Butler (and Alex Gordon) in Wichita. That sort of stagger envisions Maier getting a half season in or so with KC in 2006 and Butler opening with the big club in 2007. I would not be suprised if Butler still ends up at DH by then, not so much because of his defense, but because I have a hunch that Shane Costa may be too good not to leave in left for the next five or six years.

Anybody else having fun being a Royals fan right now?!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Odd and Ends

Check out Warning Track Power today for a more in-depth review of how the Royals' offense has come alive, not just in June but since the resignation of Tony Pena.

Word is that Kyle Snyder will begin a rehab assignment in Omaha shortly. He will be limited to 45 pitches in his first START. Yes, Snyder is in the process of shifting back to starter. I think this is the correct move, even if the results are not seen in the majors until 2006. Given Kyle's injury history, expect the Royals to move very slowly through this transition.

Brian Anderson is on pace to return sometime after the All-Star Break (another reason the Royals won't rush Snyder), hopefully in time to make two good starts and get traded for something worthwhile. I do think Anderson is a standup guy and probably a far better pitcher than he was last season, but there is no reason to keep him with this team for the remainder of the year. If he can be packaged with another player or players in a meaningful trade, fine, but otherwise trade him for a mid-level prospect and take your chances.

From the land of journeymen minor leaguers (i.e. Omaha) Justin Gemoll, a second/third basemen is hitting 316/386/451 with five home runs. At 27 years of age, Gemoll finds himself stuck behind Teahen and Gotay, with Murphy and many others pushing from below. The prospect of him getting a call to KC are remote, but Justin is fashioning himself a solid AAA season.
Ken Harvey is slugging away at 346/373/490 in Omaha. His rehab assignment has to be close to expiring and my assumption would be that the Royals will keep him in Omaha (I believe he still has an option left). In the alternative, given the outstanding play of late of both Terrance Long and Emil Brown, they may elect to activate Harvey and send Shane Costa back to the minors so he can play regularly. There is no point in having a prospect like Costa sitting on the bench.

As usual, the Omaha roster has very little to peak anyone's interest - such is the life of a AAA player. However, Wichita sports several players who may yet make the big club this summer.
First and foremost is of course, Justin Huber, still hacking away at 332/425/527 with 16 doubles and 9 home runs. After some rocky defensive outings, Huber has just 1 error in the last three weeks.
Josh Pressley, after serving a substance abuse suspension, picked up where he left off and sports nubmers of 301/409/477. His biggest problem is that he, too, is a first base/DH type (one of 48 in the Royals' system).
Mike Aviles, despite 15 errors at shortstop, still looks like a prospect to us. Hitting 293/336/478 with 8 home runs, it is not hard to see him in a utility role in the future. Should Berroa get dinged, I would also expect that Aviles would likely get the emergency call now that Andres Blanco is working out at second in High Desert.
Should the Royals encounter bullpen trouble, they would likely also look to Wichita and two pitchers: journeyman Shawn Sonnier or prospect Jonah Bayliss. Sonnier has struck out 44 in 31 innings with just 11 walks on his way to 2.32 earned run average. Bayliss, a 2002 7th round draftee, has struck out 48 in 42 innings and issued 21 walks. Given the rather crowded situation in the pen and the rumblings that Scott Sullivan may be eyeing a return in July, it is unlikely that either Sonnier or Bayliss will get a call, but they are positioning themselves to join the fray in spring 2006.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Boys of June

Remember April? When we could not score any runs, when the Royals wasted excellent pitching performances day after day? Well, those days are gone. Sure, June is not even half over, but right now your Kansas City Royals lead the American League in runs scored in the month of June (67).

Check out the team average, OBP, Slugging and OPS by month:

KC Apr: 238/298/368/666
KC May: 256/313/403/716
KC Jne: 313/374/469/844

By the way, for the month of June, Kansas City ranks first in the American League in batting average, on-base percentage and OPS and second in slugging percentage. The Royals are not going to hit 313 the rest of the way, but they have shown the ability to get better. Luckily, they have shown that ability at a time when the pitching has been inconsistent.

One of the primary reasons the Royals have hit so much better has to be the play of Emil Brown, check out RoyalsCorner from this weekend for a nice blurb on Emil, but to summarize here are Brown's numbers by month:

Brown Apr: 161/254/339/593
Brown May: 313/389/506/895
Brown Jne: 385/432/615/1047

Again, Emil Brown is not going to hit 385 the rest of the season. He's not even going to hit 313 the rest of the season, but I am now convinced he will hit. If Brown continues to hit anywhere near his recent numbers through the All-Star break, I firmly believe the Royals should lock him into a contract (moderately priced) for the 2006 season. I have no doubts that a guy who has never once had a secure job in baseball would jump at say a million guaranteed for next season.

Brown's increased production (and hopefully a contract for next year) allows the Royals to be patient with Mitch Maier, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. We no longer have to rush to get their bats in the lineup, thus allowing them to develop skills in AA & AAA as opposed to struggling in the majors.

Plus, should the Royals keep Sweeney (which I hope they do), you now have DeJesus, Sweeney and Brown to build around. Add another bat, via an Affeldt/Long trade for example, and you have four productive hitters, up and comers in Teahen & Gotay, power from your catcher, a young DH in Huber, and Berroa (who, like it or not, IS your shortstop). With a young staff that will only get better, in my opinion, that is the foundation for a competitive 2006 team and you can look forward to three serious hitting prospects pushing for time in the minors in late 2006 and early 2007.

A lot can change between now and 2007. Emil Brown could go 3-55 the rest of the month. Young pitchers get arm trouble and sometimes just don't develop (anyone heard what the deal is with Bautista by the way?). The signs that Gotay and Teahen will be good major league hitters may disappear as quickly as they appeared. All of that could happen, but right now, after enduring a horrific early season, it feels like the Royals are heading in the right direction. And heading there at a high speed.