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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Despite two-year fog, light shines at end of losing streak

***
Two-time losers
At their 2005 pace, the Royals will have the 11th-most losses in modern baseball history by a franchise over two seasons.

TeamYear2YRPost
Mets19632311969
Athletics19162261929
Tigers2003225---
Mets19652211969
Mets19642201969
Phillies19422201950
Pirates19532161960
Athletics19172151929
Browns19112141944
Phillies19412141950
Royals2005213*---

KEY: 2YR - two year loss total; Post - the next year that the team reached postseason; * projected total

***
Hope is a funny thing. It's like a trick candle - elusive yet enduring.

During the Royals' incredible 19-game losing streak, many fans probably felt as if Kansas City baseball had entered an impenetrable abyss, up the river, like Col. Kurtz, the wrong way on a one-way trip. Contraction. Dissolution. Relocation. These all seemed like more plausible outcomes to the Royals' story than terms like winning, pennants and championships.

Other teams have been worse than the Royals have the last two seasons. But not many.

In the long annals of baseball history, only 10 teams have lost as many games as the Royals will have over the last two seasons, if they maintain their pace. At their current winning percentage, the Royals will lose 109 games this season. Add that to the 104 losses by last year's edition, and you have a team of historical ineptitude.

But there is no reason to sadistically point out the obvious. Instead, let's focus on hope.

All during the skid, the one thought Stat Guy kept having was: "Where do we go from here?"

All through the history of this column, helpful little suggestions have peppered the analysis - suggestions about the course of the team, of a player's career, etc. But during the slide, quite honestly, Stat Guy was at a loss for words. Where do we go from here?

For evidence of hope, one needs to look no further than the teams "ahead" of the Royals on the list of two-season losers. Here is what became of some of these motley crews.

The early incarnations of the New York Mets account for three of the five worst two-season teams of all time. The Mets were born in an era in which expansion teams were exposed to a much more hostile environment than the last few newcomers. But as they continued their losing ways, the Mets were stockpiling young pitching talent.

By 1969, much to the chagrin of Cubs fans everywhere, the Mets rode the mound performances of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Tug McGraw and Nolan Ryan to a come-from-behind NL East title and an eventual world championship over the highly favored Baltimore Orioles.

The Phillies of the early 1940s limped through the war years with some of the worst teams ever built. After the war, however, they gradually began producing young talent such as Richie Ashburn, Del Ennis and Robin Roberts. They were winners by 1949 and, in 1950, faced Casey Stengel's Yankees in the World Series.

The Pirates of the early 1950s were a sad-sack bunch, a one-trick pony that featured Ralph Kiner, Buddy Bell's dad, Gus, and nothing else. By 1958, an entirely new cast, led by Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski, was in place. In 1960, the Pirates shocked the Yankees and won the World Series.

The other teams on the list aren't nearly as hope-inspiring but, then again, they don't really serve as examples of what the Royals are trying to do.

The Athletics of the late 1910s were a shell of a franchise. After the miracle Braves shocked Philadelphia in the 1914 World Series, A's henchman Connie Mack sold off all his top talent. Winning on the cheap worked about as well then as it does now. Mack didn't sniff the postseason again until 1929.

The most recent team on the list, Detroit, has drawn many comparisons to this year's Royals. There is a difference. The Tigers were a bad team that has bought their way back to mediocrity. Now they are stuck there. They do have some young arms that might help them to take the next step; but if the arms don't pan out, the only way the Tigers will step forward is to jump into the payroll stratosphere.

The model for moving out of the abyss is clearly the one that the Royals have chosen: Go young. Stick with it.

In youth, there is hope. History tells us so.
Tuesday, August 16, 2005

These five are boys of bummer

Operatic. That's the scope of the Royals' demise this season - it's achieved the breadth of a grand, tragic opera.

It's like the movie "Requiem for a Dream." As things begin to unravel, each scene uglier than the previous one, you reach a state of visceral overload. A wave of nausea rises in your belly. You want to look away but can't.

In a season of disappointments, here are five key players in the Royals' spiral:

Zack Greinke
Young pitchers will break your heart. We've heard it over and over. Maybe we're still spoiled around here because of the remarkable success of the Royals' young pitchers 20 years ago, but we thought it would be different with Greinke. It hasn't been.

Entering the season, the only real concern regarding Greinke was his home-run rate. His strikeout rate was average and, at his age, should have grown. His walk rate was outstanding, and there is no reason that should change.

Instead, Greinke's strikeout rate has fallen from 6.21 per nine innings to 5.61. His walks have risen from 1.61 to 2.77. As for the home runs? They've gone from 1.61 to 1.18. Yippee - improvement.

Greinke's ERA is 6.09. His career record is 11-25. Very disappointing.

Mark Teahen
For all of you lamenting Angel Berroa's numbers, here's a scary thought: They're better than Teahen's. Compare the percentages. Teahen has a batting line of .243/.304/.363 (that's batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). Berroa's is .267/.307/.375.

We knew it might be a while before Teahen found his power stroke. His rate of one home run per 100 at-bats indicates that he is still looking.

What's really troubling about Teahen's season has been the loss of the plate discipline that marked his too-brief minor-league career.

Before reaching the majors, Teahen walked in 12.1 percent of his at-bats. This season, he has walked 25 times in 300 at-bats (8.3 percent).

John Buck
We didn't expect Mike Piazza at the plate, but we also didn't expect another Berroa.

Buck's offensive game consists of swinging hard and often. He has 18 walks and 70 strikeouts. He has power but doesn't connect often enough to make a difference - seven home runs in 284 at-bats.

Of course, Buck has a reputation as a good defensive catcher, and for good reason: He is in the upper third in throwing out opposing base stealers. He has only three passed balls this season.

Still, on a team with so many holes in the lineup, Buck is going to have to make more of a contribution with the bat.

Ruben Gotay
We knew Gotay would struggle with the glove. He did. His zone rating was the third worst among qualifying second basemen - he simply didn't get to enough balls.

At the same time, Gotay displayed a tantalizing combination of power and patience in the minor leagues. Then he obliterated opposing pitchers during spring training. It seemed as if Gotay would be a plus with the bat.

What happened? A batting line of .227/.288/.344. He walked 22 times, struck out 51 and hit five home runs.

The last we saw of Gotay, he was headed for Wichita, where he is four for 25.

Angel Berroa
Berroa pops up in this column a lot, and never for a positive reason.

A couple of weeks ago, it was suggested that Berroa has been one of the worst players in baseball this season. He's moved up some since then with a .410/.429/.538 batting line this month.

All Berroa's hot streak accomplishes is to make his 2005 numbers almost identical to his 2004 totals. They weren't good either.

Given Berroa's age, his regression with the glove and lack of development with the bat, he has been the biggest disappointment because, in his case, it might be time to raise the white flag.

Fortunately, time is still on the side of Greinke, Teahen, Buck and Gotay. They are still at ages when you can hope for and even expect development.

Whether they've developed this season is a matter for conjecture. As the curtain drops on the ugliness of the 2005 season, the only thing we know is that the 2006 season will be a pivotal season for each of these players - and for the Royals' organization in general.
Tuesday, August 09, 2005

'85 Royals were a sum greater than their parts

"Destiny grants us our wishes, but in its own way, in order to give us something beyond our wishes." - Goethe

If ever baseball fans in Kansas City needed a celebration of happier times, it is now.

It's been 20 years since the Royals reached the peak of the franchise's success curve. Since then, it's been a slow and steady decline, with no apparent limit to the depths to which this franchise can sink. Last season, 104 losses. This season, maybe more.

Back in 1985, the discipline of baseball statistical analysis was just beginning to blossom. Bill James had published the ninth edition of the seminal Baseball Abstract. The previous year, John Thorn and Pete Palmer co-wrote The Hidden Game of Baseball.

In the mainstream, these new concepts were largely ignored. Batters were judged by batting average. Pitchers were judged by wins.

When the Royals sneaked into the postseason and overcame incredible odds to come back from two 3-1 deficits to win the World Series, there was no cynical stat geek besmirching the pages of The Kansas City Star, saying that the team was lucky, that it had no business winning the flag that season.

It's a good thing, too. No one would have wanted to hear it. Besides, what does it matter? That flag is flying over Kauffman Stadium, and that is something no one can take away.

But what would cold, objective analysis have to say about the 1985 Royals?

The 1985 Royals were fortunate to win the 91 games that allowed them to edge the Angels by a single game in the AL West. In terms of run differential (687-639), the Royals were more like an 86- or 87-win team.

The Royals were 29-23 in one-run games and 13-12 in two-run encounters. Their hitters hit .255 with runners in scoring position. The pitchers allowed a .255 average with runners in scoring position. The league average in those situations was .263.

The conclusion is that the Royals might have overachieved, but not drastically. Their chief competitors - California and Chicago — also outperformed their run differentials by similar margins. The three teams were close, but the Royals were the best team in the division.

If there was luck involved in the Royals' division championship that season, it was that they were in the West and not the East, where the Blue Jays won 99 games and the Yankees 97.

The Royals were a team with holes (they scored the second-fewest runs in the league) but also were imbued with easily identifiable strengths.

While the pitchers ranked in the middle of the pack in strikeouts, they finished in a virtual tie with the Twins for the fewest walks allowed in the AL and were unbelievably stingy with the home run. The Royals allowed 103 home runs in 1985. The next fewest were the Red Sox with 130.

Since 1950, only one AL team (the 1964 Angels) has been stingier in terms of home runs allowed compared with the league average.

Once in the playoffs, the Royals' pitching was able to neutralize the superior offenses of the Blue Jays and Cardinals. The Blue Jays averaged 4.7 runs during the regular season that year but just 3.5 in the ALCS. In the World Series, the Cardinals' run production dropped from an NL-best 4.6 to 1.9.

There have been better Royals teams than the 1985 squad. The 1977 edition won 102 games and outscored opponents 822-651. The 1976, 1978 and 1980 teams were also probably better.

But it's the 1985 Royals that we will remember most fondly. It was a team that was just good enough to win in the time and league in which it played.
Monday, August 01, 2005

KC NEEDS AVERAGE GUYS

Finding middle ground best way to field .500 team

In Chicago, the Sears Tower looms over the city like a navigational star.

On a clear day, the tower is visible from almost any vantage point in the city where you aren't blocked by a tall building. As long as you know where the tower is, you can find your way around Chicago's grid-like overlay of streets.

In baseball statistics, average is like that - a standard by which measurements can be weighed in context so that you can find your way. A statistical navigational star, if you will.

When looking at baseball statistics, envision a flat line with a vertical tick right in the middle. The tick represents league average. The further to the right you go on this line, the greater is the positive contribution of your roster. You win. All the way to the right means champagne, parades and a tell-all, ghost-written autobiography.

The opposite is true to the left of the tick - the further you move away from the middle, the worse you are for it. All the way to the left means you're in the Max Scherzer sweepstakes and keeping track of Scott Boras' client list.

As a result, for the stronger teams, average is the wrong direction. They want to keep pushing to the right, towards championship level. But for the weaker teams, the tick in the middle is something to strive for. For them, average is a necessary first step.

One of the beautiful things about baseball's orderly universe is the relationship between the component categories (doubles, home runs, walks, etc.) and the category that determines who wins a game: runs.

We can count up all of the component parts and get a pretty good estimate of how many runs they are worth. Even better, when we know how many runs a team has scored and allowed, we can usually come pretty close to calculating that team's winning percentage.

If a team is exactly average, meaning that they've scored and allowed an equal number of runs, then they are a .500 team. Their actual record may vary a few games on the plus or minus side because of some mitigating factors (clutch hitting, record in one-run games, etc.) but the talent level of that team is still .500.

We can (and should) apply this logic to player evaluation. A player who produces runs at a higher rate than an average player in his league is helping his team win with his bat. A shortstop who makes more plays than a league-average shortstop is helping a team win with his glove. In both cases, the inverse is also true.

For the Royals, average is the dividing line between acceptable and not acceptable. Every player is a balance sheet of debits and credits, with a red line down the middle, as Henry Miller might say.

So let's break down the Royals' current roster of positional players into three groups - those who are above average with both the bat and the glove, those who are above average in one area but not the other and those who fall short in both areas. The methodology, corroborating data and additional comments can be found on the Stat Guy blog.

ABOVE AVERAGE IN BOTH: David DeJesus.

ABOVE AVERAGE IN ONE: Mike Sweeney (bat), Emil Brown (bat), Matt Stairs (bat), Alberto Castillo (glove).

BELOW AVERAGE IN BOTH: Terrence Long, Mark Teahen, Ruben Gotay, Joe McEwing, John Buck, Angel Berroa.

For Royals fans who have managed to watch most of the games this season, it comes as no surprise to find that DeJesus grades out as the Royals' most well-rounded player. However, keep in mind that Sweeney is so far above average with the bat that his overall contribution is positive to the bottom line regardless of his performance with the glove. He is still the Royals' best player.

As for the others, Stairs and Castillo are right about league average overall, but every other positional player on the roster is a drag in the quest to achieve mediocrity.

It's a little disturbing to see the young positional players who comprise the Royals' future core grade so poorly. However, Teahen, Gotay and Buck are young and their numbers are presumably on an upward trajectory. Whether they'll get to where they need to be remains to be seen, but at least there is hope.

As for Berroa, he's been one of the worst all-round players in baseball this season (-14.4 runs with the bat, -11 runs with the glove). Worse, he's 27 years old - he ought to be right smack in his prime.

Returning to our previous analogy, the Royals are all bunched up on the wrong side of the line. If the Royals are going to challenge the .500 barrier any time soon, they'll have to look toward the middle to find their way.

AVERAGE ADDENDUM

First, here's the table:

Striving for mediocrity

Last

First

AVG

SLG

OBP

XR

OFF

DEF

TOTAL

sweeney

mike

.310

.545

.352

52.90

13.8

-1

12.8

dejesus

david

.297

.445

.361

57.42

4.5

2

6.5

stairs

matt

.256

.439

.358

41.38

4.3

-3

1.3

castillo

albert

.214

.316

.291

9.61

-3.9

4

0.1

brown

emil

.288

.439

.345

48.48

4.4

-7

-2.6

mcewing

joe

.259

.313

.272

8.07

-6.0

0

-6

long

terrence

.285

.402

.321

34.48

-1.8

-7

-8.8

teahen

mark

.252

.372

.309

30.12

-5.0

-4

-9

buck

john

.230

.358

.279

25.17

-8.6

-3

-11.3

gotay

ruben

.231

.348

.290

26.84

-10.3

-6

-16.3

berroa

angel

.254

.360

.295

38.43

-14.4

-11

-25.4

LEAGUE AVERAGES

.270

.428

.333

----

----

----

----

KEY: AVG - batting average; SLG - slugging percentage; OBP - on-base percentage; XR - extrapolated runs; OFF - extrapolated runs above average; DEF - defensive runs above average; TOTAL - the sum of OFF plus

DEF, or the total net contribution of each player.

Some explanations: I only looked at players on the Royals who are currently on the active roster and who have at least 50 plate appearances on the season.

The offensive rating is straightforward. I calculated the extrapolated runs for each player (formula is here: http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/btf/scholars/furtado/articles/IntroducingXR.htm). I adjusted XR for ballpark, then compared the adjusted total for a league-average hitter give the same number of plate appearances to calculate extrapolated runs above average (XRAA).

Alex Rodriguez leads the American League in XRAA with 31.4. At -14.4 XRAA, Angel Berroa has been the very worst hitter in the league this season.

Defensively, I used Baseball Prospectus' runs versus average, which can be found here: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/dt//2005KC_-A.shtml. I added up each players total for each position that he has played.

That's about it - pretty simple.

Some comments:

Sweeney's offensive total is the only truly impressive contribution among position players. The Royals' young regulars other than DeJesus have a sum total of -62 runs combined with the bat and the glove. That's disturbing. It's not time to raise the white flag on these guys but we will need to see some significant strides in 2006.

As for DeJesus, he's a good, solid player - just above average with the bat and the glove. He's 25 and his power should continue to develop over the next few seasons. While his glove may prove to be adequate in center field for this season, his long-term position will be left field. With Chris Lubanski on the eventual horizon, that's not a bad thing.

Look at Terrence Long's batting average. Now look at his overall offensive contribution. The next time a buddy of yours says, "Hey T-Long is hitting .285 - he's not bad.", reach over and slap him.

Finally, personally, I have given up on Angel Berroa. He gets worse with each season and shows no improvement with his core skills at the plate (plate discipline). His bat has some pop but if the only positive contribution you get from player is two home runs a month, he's not helping you win. That contract the Royals gave to Berroa is looking like a big, fat albatross.