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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

If you look past batting average, Harvey still needs work

Why did the Royals want Ken Harvey to change?

Harvey, after all, hit .287 last season, tied for best on the Royals.

Sigh. Batting average.

With all we've learned the last three decades, you'd think that the archaic practice of evaluating hitters with batting average would have gone the way of rotary telephones and ritual sacrifice. Sadly, it's still here, haunting us in box scores and sports-writer rhetoric.

Even baseball fans who'd like to stuff a pocket calculator down the Stat Guy's throat instinctively know the difference between an impatient singles hitter and a patient power hitter. Rey Sanchez and Jermaine Dye both hit .294 for the Royals in 1999. Were they equal as hitters? Of course not.

For all intents and purposes, Ken Harvey is the Rey Sanchez of first basemen. In 2004, Harvey's batting average placed third among the 14 AL first basemen with at least 400 plate appearances. Yet he finished 12th in extra-base hits (34), 12th in on-base percentage (.338) and 11th in slugging percentage (.421).

The average American League first baseman, given Harvey's playing time, created 68 runs for his team in 2004. Harvey created 61. If you give runs away at the plate, you have to be able to make up for them with your glove. Harvey doesn't. His .803 zone rating last season was considerably beneath the league average of .843. At least Sanchez has always been a plus defender.

Unfortunately, the Royals have few alternatives in the first base-designated hitter-corner outfield roulette. Calvin Pickering, whose minor-league dossier suggests he can do the job, flopped in the miniscule opportunity of 31 plate appearances he was given at the start of this season. Statistical analysts can afford to be patient. Apparently, big-league teams cannot. So Harvey is back.

The Royals sent Harvey to Class AAA Omaha to work on his approach at the plate.

"Last season, he was chasing a lot of pitches out of the strike zone," manager Tony Peña said. "When the guy hits strikes, he hits the ball a long way."

Is this true? Not particularly.

During his career, Harvey has a paltry .299 slugging percentage with one home run in the 52 games in which he has drawn a walk. In games in which he hasn't walked, Harvey has slugged .440 with 26 home runs.

For a contrast, you can look at a patient hitter such as Philadelphia's Jim Thome. Since 2000, Thome has slugged .629 with 118 home runs in walk games versus .547 with 110 homers in non-walk outings.

Pickering has hit seven home runs and slugged .489 in the 31 big-league games he's drawn a walk versus seven home runs and a .395 slugging percentage in 39 non-walk games. Patience pays off for Pickering. For Harvey, however, it appears to be more of a matter of reading pitches.

Royals hitting coach Jeff Pentland believes the ability to read pitches is more crucial for developing plate discipline than a batter's mind-set while at bat.

"It's the recognition of pitches," Pentland said. "If you look at the best hitters in the game, they see the ball early. They recognize pitches early."

For hitters like Harvey, it's not that they fail to realize that they can't hit that outside pitch. It's that by the time they realize the pitch is outside, it's too late.

Despite the mandate from the organization to work on his approach, Harvey drew walks at a lower rate in Omaha than in his previous two big-league seasons. In his first four games back with the Royals, Harvey has yet to draw a walk.

Harvey hasn't changed. It's not likely that he can.

What did change? The Royals have scored fewer runs per game than any other team in the American League.

What is it that they say about desperate times?

Harvey's hang-up

The Royals sent Ken Harvey to the minor leagues to work on his plate discipline. Here is a look at Harvey's slugging percentage in games that he has drawn a walk versus in which he hasn't. Also listed is a random sampling of players:

Angel Berroa.508.3901.30
Calvin Pickering.489.3951.24
Rey Sanchez.394.3251.21
Neifi Perez.439.3731.18
Barry Bonds.659.5631.17
Mike Sweeney.554.4761.16
Alex Rodriguez.633.5481.16
Jim Thome.629.5471.15
Vladimir Guerrero.653.5681.15
Ken Harvey.299.4400.68

KEY: SlgW - slugging percentage in games in which player drew a walk; SlgNW - slugging percentage in games player did not draw a walk; Ratio - SlgW divided by SlgNW



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