By Craig Brown
A Royals Authority exclusive for 810whb.com
We’re less than a week away from pitcher and catchers reporting to Surprise. About time, isn’t it? This off season has seemed to take an eternity… Probably because the Royals have made just a few minor moves to their 40-man roster as they positioned themselves for April.
As soon as the Royals dropped their final game of 2011 (a 1-0 shutout at the hands of the Twins) it was obvious that priority number one was the pitching. The starting pitching, specifically. To that end, the Royals made a pair of moves designed to shore up the squad in this area. Here’s a look at each move and how it impacts the team.
The Bruce Chen signing
We live in a world where Edwin Jackson (14 career fWAR) can only find an acceptable one-year deal and Roy Oswalt (50.2 career fWAR) is still on the open market. Meanwhile, Bruce Chen (5.9 career fWAR) gets a two-year deal. This market is soccer mom at a Twilight premiere insane.
Fun facts: Jackson has more than doubled Chen’s 2011 fWAR total of 1.7 in each of his last three seasons. And Oswalt, even with his back issues, posted a 2.5 fWAR last year.
And now, Chen is a lock to make the Opening Day rotation and will be counted upon to pitch serious innings as a number two or number three starter. Hmmm…
It may sound like I’m down on the Chen signing, so it may surprise you that I don’t necessarily think this is a bad piece of business by Dayton Moore and his crew at One Kauffman Way. Chen is clearly a different pitcher from the one who flamed out with the Orioles and Rangers. The difference can be found in the way he varies his arm angle - he drops down to about a three quarter delivery when he throws his sinking fastball. The sinker is just a couple mph slower than his fastball (which isn’t that fast to start) but the rotation of the ball is what really gives this pitch it’s bite. It looks like a fastball but the slower velocity and the natural sink have hitters off balance and hitting a ton of ground ball outs. It’s hardly a surprise his ground ball rate of 37% was his highest since 2005.
But that’s still not enough. He’s a fly ball pitcher in a tough league (that with the additions of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder just got appreciably more difficult) who lacks a strikeout pitch. Last year his ERA was 3.77, but his xFIP was almost a run higher at 4.68 which says he was probably a little lucky last year.
Some of that luck was on display in the quality of opponents Chen faced. Last year, among all starters, the aggregate OPS of all batters Chen faced was .733. That was the second worst opponent’s OPS. It simply means that by schedule or circumstance, Chen didn’t face what we would call the best opposition in the AL last year. (It’s a fun stat to play around with, because it fluxuates wildly from pitcher to pitcher on the same team. Take Danny Duffy, for example. His opponent’s OPS was .769 - almost 35 points higher than Chen. The worst? CJ Wilson. Adjust your fantasy draft sheets accordingly.)
If the Royals are counting on Chen repeating his 2011 performance, they’re going to be sorely disappointed.
Jonathan Sanchez trade
In November (it never takes Dayton Moore long to fire up the Hot Stove) the Royals sold high on Melky Cabrera, sending him to San Francisco in exchange for Jonathan Sanchez.
This deal had two impacts: First, it opened up a spot for Lorenzo Cain, who hit .312/.380/.487 in roughly 550 plate appearances for Omaha. Second, it supposedly shored up the weakness that is the Royals starting rotation.
But, did it really?
Last year, the Royals starters whiffed 621 batters, third lowest total in the league. With Sanchez in the fold, they should improve their position. He’s struck out more than one batter per inning in each of the last three seasons. But - and you knew there was a qualifier lurking somewhere in this paragraph - with that amazing strikeout rate, comes with the frustrating inability to consistenly locate his pitches. In fact, for each of the last three seasons, he’s had the worst walk rate per nine innings of any National League starter.
2009 - 4.8 BB/9
2010 - 4.5 BB/9
2011 - 5.9 BB/9
(Although to be fair, Sanchez didn’t pitch enough innings last summer to qualify for the leaderboard. But still… that 5.9 BB/9 was in 101 innings. Yuck.)
While Sanchez struggles with the strikezone, on those ocassions where he gets hitters to swing, he can be downright unhittable. In 2010, his hit rate of 6.6 H/9 was the lowest in the National League. It’s an interesting dichotomy that Clark Fosler examined at Royals Authority. The Royals are clearly banking on the idea they can curb his walks while gaining the benefit of the strikeouts and the limited amount of hits. It’s a gamble, for sure.
When deciding whether or not you like the fact Sanchez is joining the rotation, don’t forget that he’s spent his entire career in the pitchers paradise known as AT&T Park just off the bay in San Francisco. Plus, he’s played in a weak division with two other parks that are friendly to pitchers in San Diego and Los Angeles. The smart money thinks Sanchez will struggle making the move to the American League.
So the Royals answer to their rotation question is to bring back Bruce Chen on a deal that could be considered over market value and to trade for a starting pitcher in Sanchez who will frustrate you with walks.
The Royals also made a couple of moves to strenghten their bullpen and to shore up their bench. We’ll look at those moves in part two.
By Nick Scott
A Royals Authority exclusive for 810whb.com
Today is the deadline for players from the June Amateur Major League Baseball draft to sign their contracts. This is also the day that Bubba Starling will officially become a Kansas City Royal. There is no real threat that the talented athlete from Gardner, Kansas will choose to play football for free at Nebraska rather than take millions of dollars to play baseball. The fact that the decision won't be made until the final day and likely the final hour is neither surprising nor important.
Since Starling will unquestionably get a higher than "slot" bonus for signing with the Royals, the commissioner’s office would have sat on their hands if they had received the contract earlier. See, the commissioner of baseball feels like teams shouldn't pay amateur talent what they’re worth so he gives teams recommendations on what each position in the draft is "worth". These slot recommendations are ignored by a large number of teams because having a guy like Bubba Starling is much better than not having him.
The commissioner has no real teeth, since the teams paying these bonuses also pay his salary. So he makes a mock show of anger by using the small bit of power in his disposal. He refuses to sign over-slot bonuses until the final day of the signing period. The result is that the best players don't get to play professional baseball this year and yet they still get the bonuses.
This ignorant approach by the commissioner compounds the already high-stakes negotiating game being done by the Royals and Starling's representation. However, nobody benefits from a contract not being signed. Starling’s agent is Scott Boras, who represents baseball talent, not football talent. While Boras may make a big deal out of Starling possibly going to play football, it’s merely posturing.
The bottom line is that between now and 11pm tonight, Bubba Starling will become a Kansas City Royal. The pipeline of talent that has contributed to a resurgent Royals team will be re-stocked. It’s a shame that Starling’s professional debut will be delayed by Bud Selig’s attempts at thwarting economics, but it will be over soon.
By Clark Fosler
A Royals Authority exclusive for 810whb.com
Kansas City’s starting outfield of Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur have combined to throw out 40 runners on the bases thus far in 2011; 11 more than the second-place Washington Nationals. In fact, only 13 outfield units this century have surpassed the Royals’ current total for an entire season and the Royals are within range of surpassing the 2003 Detroit Tigers’ 21st century high of 50 assists.
The outfield assist is quite possibly the most exciting defensive play that occurs routinely in a game. The impact of a runner being thrown out is dramatic, immediate and visible to even the most casual of fan that sees it. Everyone notices when the leftfielder guns down a runner trying to score from second on a single, but a fair portion might not even raise an eyebrow when the centerfielder runs down a drive in the gap for the third out with a runner on first.
While I do not dismiss the contributions of the Royals’ outfield when it comes to outfield assists, I wonder if maybe the bulk of the fan base might have an overvalued sense of the defensive abilities the group brings to the field. The question is relevant given that Kansas City’s outfielder in waiting, Lorenzo Cain, is widely reported as having excellent range.
With both Cabrera and Francoeur exceeding the expectations of pretty much everyone except Dayton Moore, the urgency to promote Cain to the majors is not great. Come the off-season, however, hard decisions will need to be made and whether a cannon arm trumps fleet feet is going to become exceptionally relevant.
Certainly, there is great debate over the validity of defensive statistical measures, but they have greatly improved over the past decade. Foremost among those working in this area has been John Dewan of Fielding Bible fame. His work appears at the Fangraphs website and provides us with some insight into the arms versus legs equation.
The primary defining metric is Total Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) which indicates how many runs a player saved or cost his team at a given position. Inside of DRS is rARM, which evaluates an outfielder’s throwing arm based on how often runners advance or are out trying to take base, and rPM, which evaluates a fielder’s range. All of these are converted into a runs saved number, with zero being league average. While these may not be perfect measures, these measurements are useful in valuing range versus throwing arm.
In 2010, two outfielders saved a double digit amount of runs with their arms: Shin-Soo Choo (+12) and Jeff Francoeur (+10). In the same season, eight outfielders saved double digit runs via their range, led by Austin Jackson (+18). When it came to overall DRS (which also includes a component for robbing a hitter of a home run at the wall), Choo and Marlon Byrd were the only two outfielders out of the 15 who reached double figures in runs saved that did so with a higher rARM than rPM. Francoeur, by the way, finished with a DRS of +7 (+10 arm, -3 range).
Flash forward to 2011 and we find that Alex Gordon leads all major league outfielders with 10 runs saved via his arm, Jeff Francoeur is third with 6 runs saved and Melky Cabrera is above average with a +2. While Gordon is the only one in double figures with his arm, nine outfielders have reached that number via range, led by Peter Bourjos with 15 runs saved. In overall DRS, Gordon is tied for 14th and Francoeur for 18th among 64 qualifying outfielders.
A big arm is generally considered more important in the corners than in centerfield, so let’s look only at qualifying centerfielders in 2011. Of the 20 players that have logged enough innings at the position to qualify, our man Melky is currently 16th in DRS with a just below average mark of -1. The top nine centerfielders in DRS all saved far more runs with their range than with their arm. In fact, the most arm runs saved is just 4 (Drew Stubbs and Adam Jones). Eight of the centerfielders have saved more runs than that with their range.
Perhaps more telling is that poor range can cost a team many more runs than a poor arm. Going back to all qualifying outfielders in 2011, Ryan Braun has cost the Brewers 5 runs with his arm – the worst mark in baseball. Curtis Granderson has cost the Yankees 13 runs and Raul Ibanez has cost the Phillies 12 runs with their poor range.
While outfield assists are valuable an outfielder, particularly a centerfielder, has the potential to help his team more with range. That brings us back to Lorenzo Cain and the off season.
If you had asked me a week ago, I would have advocated the Royals opening 2012 with an outfield of Gordon, Cain and Cabrera in right. When factoring in defense, however, I am not so sure that an alignment of Gordon, Cain and Francoeur might not be the better defensive unit. Would Melky Cabrera’s arm play up in right? Some, probably, but not to Francoeur’s level.
If Lorenzo Cain’s minor league batting numbers convert to major league performance (and we have 150 major league plate appearances in 2010 with Milwaukee that say they might) AND he brings improved defense via range, then the move to Cain in center is a necessity come 2012. Sure, we as fans might miss out on a little excitement as Cain throws out fewer base runners, but I will happily take my share of ho-hum doubles robbing catches in the alley instead.
Follow Clark on Twitter @cfosroyalsauth
By Craig Brown
A Royals Authority exclusive for 810whb.com
If you were expecting trade fireworks at the deadline, Sunday was a dud. The biggest Royal deal this year turned out to be Mike Aviles shipping out to Boston a day after complaining about his utility role on the club. Not exactly a replay of last year’s deadline.
Let’s look at the most likely trade candidates and the reasons they weren’t moved.
The Frenchman is a Clubhouse Presence and is a Leader. Yes, the caps are intentional because those are attributes valued by the Royals brain trust. (Apparently, more than OBP.) As such, there was almost zero chance of him getting dealt at the deadline.
There’s also the fact that Francoeur is on an affordable contract that will pay him $2.5 million this season with a mutual option for $4 million next season. While most mutual options have zero chance of being exercised, there’s a great chance that both parties will continue their relationship into 2012. (Although it may cost the Royals a little bit more, given that The Frenchman has clubbed a team high 13 home runs and 61 RBI and 18 steals. The steals! That could be more valuable than his leadership.
Plus, Francoeur to Kansas City was viewed as a fait accompli almost from the moment Dayton Moore took the Royals GM job. Those two have a history and if we know one thing about Moore, it’s that he values his relationships above almost everything else in the game. He signed Francoeur as a 19 year old for the Braves and The Frenchman has always been one of Moore’s favorites.
With Wil Myers a year (or two) away from taking over the right field job, don’t bet against Francoeur and his leadership returning to Kansas City for at least one more season.
After a dismal 2010 season where he ate his way to a .255/.317/.354, The Melk Man wasn’t exactly a sought after free agent when the Braves cut ties. Needing outfield help, Dayton Moore took a chance (before he dealt for Lorenzo Cain) and has been repaid with a line of .302/.337/.463. So far, it’s shaping up to be Cabrera’s best season of his six year major league career.
While Cabrera was a free agent signing for the Royals and penned a one year deal, due to his service time, he’s not eligible to return to the free agent pool until after the 2012 season. That likely made him the Royals most valuable trade chip at the deadline. Apparently, it was also incentive for the Royals to hang on to Cabrera, Cain’s performance in Omaha be damned.
Surprisingly, there was a bigger trade market for outfielders than starting pitchers. The Royals made a mistake not getting out into the market and moving their most valuable commodity in Cabrera. While he’s having his best season of his career, the Royals need to see what they have in Cain, who is under club control for the next six years.
Francis was a reclamation project for the Royals, attempting to return to a starting rotation for a full season for the first time since 2007. It was the perfect off-season signing for the Royals in that he provided low risk and low to moderate reward. Looking at the transaction that way, Francis hasn’t disappointed.
With his health a question mark entering the season, Francis has proved he’s throwing at 100 percent. He’s averaging 98 pitches per start and just over six innings in those outings. Maybe teams didn’t call because his velocity - never his strong suit given that his average fastball prior to this season was clocked at 87 mph - has dropped a couple of mph. While that may seem like a dealbreaker, Francis has survived this season by relying on his change-up and what has become his out pitch - an outstanding curve. Opposing hitters are batting just .203 when a plate appearance is resolved with a curve. Ultimately, he is enticing swings on pitches outside of the strike zone 31 percent of the time, which is an above average rate. Hitters are chasing and failing to make solid contact. Francis has emerged as a solid back of the rotation starter.
Like Francis, Chen is on an affordable contract in that will earn a $2 million base salary with the potential to cash $1.5 million in performance bonuses.
Chen lacks the industry buzz that could encourage a general manager to pull the trigger on a deal. Ozzie Guillen summed up his reputation when he lamented his club was beaten by, “Bruce F****n’ Chen.” Plus, he’s not having that great of a season for the Royals. His strikeout rate of 5.5 SO/9 is down from last year and his home run rate of 1.4 HR/9 is up almost 30 percent from the prior season. Accordingly, his 4.56 xFIP is the worst of all pitchers currently in the rotation.
It’s conceivable that Dayton Moore looked to move Chen, but found no takers.
Two things can be inferred from the failure to move a starting pitcher. First, the Royals still have a stubborn belief that Kyle Davies has some value. He was scratched from his start on Sunday with shoulder soreness. It’s possible that he could make a return trip to the disabled list, and although the Royals were spinning a six man rotation, the absence of Davies returns them to a more traditional five man rotation. It’s possible the plan was to spin either Francis or Chen at the deadline and then move forward with five starters. The Davies injury possibly thwarted that plan. Also, the fact that neither Francis nor Chen were dealt can be seen as a “no confidence” vote for Sean O’Sullivan and Vin Mazzaro. Both are currently toiling in Omaha and would have been in line for a replacement spot in the rotation had a trade been made. The fact that it’s August 1, and they’re still in the minors, speaks volumes as to how the Royals view them in light of the future. In other words, they don’t have one on this club.
By Craig Brown
Royals Insider Special for 810WHB.com
It’s been a bumpy road for Danny Duffy since joining the Royals rotation last May. With a 1.76 WHIP, he’s been allowing far too many base runners. And with a 5.09 ERA, he’s been allowing far too many of those runners to score.
It’s not difficult to find the reasons Duffy has been struggling. It boils down to three areas. While his results have left a lot to be desired, there’s still reason to have hope that Duffy can develop into a solid front-line starter.
Start with the issues...
Issue #1: Selective Slider
Duffy is primarily a three pitch pitcher: Fastball, curve and change. Occasionally, he’ll mix in a slider, and that’s actually been his most effective pitch since arriving in Kansas City. That’s probably because he’s throwing it so infrequently - just four percent of all his pitches thrown have been sliders. In his last start against the Rockies, he threw his slider just two times out of a total of 91 pitches. The reason we haven’t seen his slider all that much is because he keeps it in his pocket to use as his hammer pitch. It’s his go-to pitch when he holds the advantage in the count and looking for a strikeout. When Duffy jumps ahead in the count 0-2, Duffy will turn to his slider 14% of the time. Overall, when he’s ahead (or even) with two strikes on the batter, he will throw the slider roughly ten percent of the time.
Take last week’s game against the Rockies where he offered a total of two sliders: He threw an 0-2 slider to Mark Ellis in the top of the third that was fouled off and he threw an 0-2 slider to Ty Wigginton later that inning that was also fought off for a foul ball. There’s the problem… The slider has yet to emerge as that killer pitch he can count on to put away major league hitters.
By contrast, Duffy throws the slider roughly three percent of the time when he’s behind in the count.
Issue #2: Diminishing Velocity
In his last start at Colorado, Duffy maxed out at 96 mph with his fastball. Unfortunately, that was in the bottom of the first inning. He was able to maintain his breakneck velocity for an inning or two, but by the third, the power he flashed to open the game was mostly gone. From Brooks Baseball, here’s how his velocity looked in the form of a graph.
Looking at the graph, it may not seem like that big a deal… A pitchers’ velocity will certainly fluctuate from pitch to pitch. But think back to Zack Greinke when he was in the bullpen for the Royals. That time in the bullpen taught Greinke that he could throw hard, and it also taught him he could pace himself and vary his speed once he returned to the rotation. Greinke could pop 95 on the radar gun, but he almost never, ever threw his fastest pitch in the first or second inning. It was part of his evolution as a pitcher.
Duffy needs to experience the same epiphany on the mound. Right now, he is consistently uncorking his fastest pitch in the first or second inning of his starts, leaving next to nothing in the tank for the later innings.
The inability to maintain a consistent velocity with his fastball indicates a lack of stamina. And when a starting pitcher gets tired, he becomes much less effective locating his pitches. Which brings us to the third and final point about Duffy…
Issue #3: Location, location, location
We know all too well about Duffy’s control issues since he’s arrived in KC. As far as the walks have gone, he’s done much better over his last three starts. In his last three starts, he’s pitched 15.2 innings and surrendered just three free passes. That’s progress… (The lack of walks, not the fact he’s averaging only five innings per start.)
Unfortunately, in those 15.2 innings, Duffy has allowed a whopping 24 hits and opponents are hitting XXX against him.
For the season, the opposition is batting .310/.392/.511 against Duffy with a .348 batting average on balls in play. (BABIP) Conventional wisdom holds that most pitchers will have a BABIP within a few points of .300. If the pitcher is well under that mark, we often write him off as being lucky. If he’s over - like Duffy - the thought is that particular pitcher has been unlucky.
If only life (and baseball statistics) were so black and white. In Duffy’s case, the enlarged BABIP isn’t an accident or some freak of nature we can write off as a case of rotten luck. He’s simply leaving too many pitches in the meat of the strike zone. From Bill James’ Baseball IQ, here is the heat map of the location of Duffy’s pitches.
The red (indicating the location of the majority of pitches) on the upper and lower corner is certainly a good sign. That is exactly where a pitcher needs to live to be successful in the major leagues. Unfortunately, the red and yellow in the hitter’s “happy zone” is entirely unacceptable and acts as a roadblock to any kind of success Duffy may experience. As a point of reference, look at the heat map of a left-handed pitcher who consistently enjoys success: Jon Lester:
Note the lack of red or yellow in the middle of the zone. That is exactly the kind of heat map Duffy should aspire to achieve.
Currently, Duffy is surrendering a line drive almost 22 percent of the time the hitter puts the ball in play. Again, that’s a number that is just way too high and it’s almost certainly the result of living in the middle of the strike zone far too often. Go back to his .348 BABIP. Looking at his pitch location heat map, it’s not difficult to see how the opposition is doing so well against Duffy. His above average BABIP is an honest result. It’s not going to shrink until he learns to avoid the middle of the strike zone. By contrast, Lester has a 15% line drive rate and a .300 BABIP… Because he keeps the ball out of the middle of the strike zone.
Duffy has the tools: Velocity, the ability to locate and the killer strikeout pitch to be a successful major league starter. That’s been evident in small dosages since he arrived in Kansas City. However, just because he has the tools, that doesn’t mean success is guaranteed. He needs to take those tools and learn how to use them to get those hitters out. It’s easy to look at the numbers of Duffy and get discouraged about his lack of progress. Instead, look at him as a work in progress. One with enormous upside.
By Clark Fosler
A Royals Authority exclusive for 810whb.com
Kyle Davies finished up his rehab assignment in Omaha on Saturday night, pitching seven innings and allowing only two unearned runs. The man Davies was set to replace in the Royals’ rotation, Danny Duffy, happened to throw seven major league innings the same night and allowed just two runs as well.
While the majority of fans almost certainly favor Duffy over Davies or, for that matter, just about anyone over Davies, the Royals themselves seem more than willing, maybe even eager, to plug Kyle Davies back into their rotation. Despite the best outing of his very young career and with certainly the best pure stuff in the current rotation, Duffy is the likely odd man out.
Luke Hochevar is going nowhere, nor are veterans Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen. Recently acquired Felipe Paulino has a 3.09 ERA in his 35 innings as Royal and allows batters to hit .351 when pitching in relief – 80 points higher than when starting a game. To get Kyle Davies back into the rotation, the Royals almost have to send Danny Duffy down, don’t they?
The problem, of course, is that the only pitcher currently in the rotation that is most certainly part of the future is, in fact, Danny Duffy. The criticisms of him at the major league level come down to using too many pitches and not putting hitters away when he gets ahead in the count. It is hard to envision that either of those problems get solved throwing to AAA hitters who grip the bat tighter and expand the zone when they get two strikes against them.
Again, there is likely a consensus among most that simply cutting Kyle Davies is the better option than regulating Duffy back to AAA or even the major league bullpen. There are $3.2 million reasons the Kansas City Royals will not do that and discussion/hopes/prayers that Davies no longer wears the Royals’ uniform is just wishful thinking.
Let me present another option: the six man rotation.
Now, I know, a six man rotation is the kind of talk that makes baseball purists cringe. Being just old enough to remember the tail end of the transition from four man to five man rotations, a six man rotation seems pretty silly to me as well. Still, it has been done before by several teams (including the Royals) for short periods of time. The Chicago White Sox have employed six starters for the better part of a month, although that may change with the injury to John Danks.
At any rate, here is what a six man rotation could do for the Royals:
· Keep Danny Duffy in the majors, where he could continue to refine his skills and be ready to take a spot near the top of the Royals’ 2012 rotation. At the same time, pitching every sixth day instead of every fifth would aid in keeping Duffy’s innings total to a manageable level after throwing just 62 innings in 2010.
· With 84 games remaining, a five man rotation would give four pitchers 17 more starts and the fifth 16 starts this season. A six man rotation would give each starter 14 more starts. That is three less times Kyle Davies takes the mound in 2011.
· Sarcasm aside, a six man rotation would be three less starts for the recently injured Davies and Bruce Chen. Three less for Luke Hochevar, who spend three months of last season on the disabled list and three less for Jeff Francis, who by his own admission wore down as he pitched deep into the season in 2010.
Do I think the six man rotation is the wave of the future? No. For the Royals, at this moment in time, given where they are in the standings and what they are trying to do over the long term, a six man rotation seems to make a great deal of sense.
Moving to a six man rotation means either going to a six man bullpen or sending Jarrod Dyson back to the minors. I doubt the Royals are willing to go without an extra reliever, so a six man rotation would require the Royals to play the next six games in National League parts with a four man bench. In theory, that is a problem.
In reality, however, Ned Yost might pinch hit for whoever is catching, but he certainly will not pinch hit for Chris Getz, Alcides Escobar or anyone else in the regular lineup. With Billy Butler and Wilson Betemit on the bench the next six games to bat for the pitcher as needed, the Royals’ bench might get a little thin at times, but it should be manageable.
Frankly, who cares if it is not? The goal at this point, sitting with the American League’s worst record, is to get better for 2012 and beyond. One guy who can help the Royals do just that is Danny Duffy. If a six man rotation is what it takes to keep Duffy in the majors honing his craft, then so be it.