KC and the little things
OK, well, I know what comes next. If you have been around the Kansas City Royals for any extended period of time, you do too. The Royals have lost 14 of their last 18 games. But more, much more, 11 of those 14 losses are by two runs or less. Oh yeah, we know what comes next.
Lots and lots and lots of talk about … the little things.
Get ready for it. There will be closed door meetings. There will be public proclamations. There will be quotes galore. People from the Royals organization will be lining up to tell us how they’ve got to start doing the little things, they can’t keep messing up the little things, they must concentrate on the little things. Those little things will become an obsession, at least for a little while. At some point manager Ned Yost will say he will not put up with players who don’t do the little things. General manager Dayton Moore will say that the team can’t panic, that it’s simply about getting those little things right. Team leaders will emerge to publicly challenge teammates to do those little things.
In a way, I agree with the Royals. Unfortunately, we have very different views of what little things actually matter most. The Royals -- and, really, almost every baseball team -- think of the little things as getting the bunt down, moving runners over, getting them home from third, hitting the cutoff man, getting the sure out and so on. Don’t get me wrong, I believe these are all good things for a team to do, important in their own way. I tend to think of them like I think of the little twisty air blower above your seat on an airplane. It matters. If the plane is hot, that thing feels like an important device. But, you know, even when it’s hot, that little twisty blower doesn’t really power the plane.
The Royals are always terrible at close games. Always. They have won just 44% of their one- and two-run games since the 1994 strike, by far the worst percentage in the American League.* They have also lost by far the most blowout games of any team since 1994, but let’s focus on one problem at a time. I believe those close games DO often come down to little things, but I just happen to think those little things have little to do with bunting, productive outs or saving/gaining the extra base.
*The Yankees have won 57% of their one- and two-run games sine 1995, by far the best percentage in the AL, which could lead to a long post about about mystique and aura and more hosannas for Mariano. But not right now.
Here’s what I believe are the little things that matter. in no particular order:
1. Construct a sensible lineup. There have been countless studies that show lineup construction in baseball makes very, very little difference … the difference between the best possible lineup and the worst is minuscule. I believe that. But I also believe that when you do something obviously self destructive, you must accept destruction as your fate.
The last three games, the Royals have had Chris Getz and Alcides Escobar at the top of their lineup. You are not trying to win when you put Chris Getz and Alcides Escobar at the top of your lineup. You’re just not. Chris Getz has a .311 career on-base percentage and a lifetime OPS+ of 70. Alcides Escobar has a .304 career on-base percentage and a lifetime OPS+ of 79. You hit those two guys 1-2 when you are trying to lose games for a better draft pick.
The Royals have lost all three of those games … and I’m not saying that the lineup is the reason. Hey, Getz has actually gotten on base (three hits, three walks) which, undoubtedly, will prompt Royals manager Ned Yost to stick with him long after his average and on-base percentage return to normal. Escobar meanwhile has gone two for 12 with one walk, zero runs scored, zero RBIs. But, again, I’m not saying that’s the reason because I don’t believe a smarter lineup would make that much difference. I’m saying that the Royals deserve to lose with a lineup that stupid.
2. Walk! For crying out loud, WALK! I spared you a whole post on just this topic. I overvalue the worth of a walk. I’m preachy and obnoxious about walks, just the way baseball people are about getting the bunt down. I’m know this and am sorry about that. I do know, deep down, that walking more is not a panacea, that there are limitations to the walk as an run-scoring strategy.
But, damn it, I think the walk is STILL the most underrated weapon in baseball.
And the Royals don’t walk. The Royals never walk. They have not finished in the top half of the American League in walks -- just the TOP HALF -- in 24 years (1989, which, coincidentally or not, was the last time they won 90 games). They have finished dead last in walks five times over that span, and they are dead last in walks so far this year as well. Ever since Dayton Moore took over as Royals GM in 2006, we have had many, many conversations about walks, and in them he always makes it sound like he values the walk. Then he goes out and gets Jose Guillen or Yuni Betancourt or Jeff Francoeur.
This year’s Royals team was supposed to have some players who walk. Alex Gordon looked like the kind of guy who could control the strike zone, who might walk 80 or 90 times in a season once he established himself. This year, his strikeout-to-walk is 39-12 … so, I guess, no. Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain showed signs in the minor leagues that they might develop into disciplined hitters -- combined they have struck out 62 times and walked just 29. So, again, so far, no.
Then there are the Royals standbys, like Jeff Francoeur, still out there, still hacking away with his 36-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Mike Moustakas is a free swinger. Alcides Escobar is a free swinger. Young Salvador Perez is a terrific young player but swinging at only strikes will never be his strong suit. He has three walks all year.
It isn’t just the value of walks, though. The Royals swing at a lot of pitches outside the strike zone -- and they put more of them in play than any team in baseball. That’s not a good thing. When you put bad pitches in play, you make lots and lots of outs, something the Royals are expert at.
3. A little power? Just a little? The Royals have no power at all. Of course they are dead last in the league in home runs. But, it’s much worse than that. They have hit two home runs since May 15. That’s as a team. TWO HOME RUNS. Only it gets even worse, both of the home runs were by 438-year-old Miguel Tejada. Yes, we chose a bad year to give up smoking. The Royals have not gotten a home run from a left-handed batter in two weeks -- which is really, really sad because the Royals came into the year worried they had TOO MUCH left-handed hitting.
Power is not a little thing, of course, but I include it here because it often feels like the Royals are anti-home run. You know in the early 1900s, before Babe Ruth emerged, the home run was looked upon as a cheap thrill, unworthy of the real ballplayer, and this is exactly the sense you get from the Royals. You hear them all the time talking about not pulling the ball, not going for the home run, always hitting to the middle of the field, going the other way, taking what the pitcher gives you. Let’s be clear: All of that is excellent advice based in sound hitting principles.
BUT … the Royals’ team home run record is 36 -- and even THAT was set almost 30 years ago. The Royals have not developed a pure power hitter since, well, um, Bo?
Complete list of Royals hitters who have hit more than 30 home runs in a season:
1975: John Mayberry, 34 (acquired from Houston)
1985: Steve Baltboni, 36 (team record -- acquired from Yankees)
1987: Danny Tartabull, 34 (acquired from Seattle)
1989: Bo Jackson, 32 (developed!)
1991: Tartabull, 31
1995: Gary Gaetti, 35 (free agent)
1998: Dean Palmer, 34 (free agent)
2000: Jermaine Dye, 33 (acquired from Atlanta
Seriously, have you ever seen a more depressing chart? Not only does it show you that the Royals developed exactly one power hitter for themselves through the years, and it was Bo Freaking Jackson, who really was developed by Greek Gods on Olympus using fire, stone and a Nintendo machine … it also shows you that the Royals have not had ANY PLAYER with more than 30 home runs since the year 2000.
There are complicating factors, of course. The Royals play in a huge ballpark, one of the toughest home run ballparks in baseball. And power, at least on the free agent market, costs money, and the Royals have embarrassed themselves too much through the years chasing after it. Once you’ve signed Juan Gonzalez and Jose Guillen, you are best off just getting out of the power game.
Even so, the Royals have had young players who were supposed to have terrific power potential. It’s not like they haven’t tried. Two players on this year’s team, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, were both supposed to have titanic power.
Moustaksas: “Lightpole power.” -- Unnamed scout 2008.
Hosmer: “Outstanding raw power.” -- 2010 Baseball America Handbook.
Moustakas: “Exceptional hand speed and a vicious stroke.” -- 2009 BA Handbook
Hosmer: “The strength to drive the ball out of the park while going the other way.” - 2011 BA Handbook.
Moustakas: “Plus-plus power.” 2011 BA Handbook.
Moustakas and Hosmer have combined for five home runs this year, four by Moustakas who is hitting .174. They are both still very young (Moustakas is 24, Hosmer 23) and the weather has not even heated up yet, so you can’t say they won’t develop big home run power. Carlos Beltran, for instance, did after he left Kansas City. But with the Royals’ track record in developing young power hitters*, you can’t really bet on good things happening.
*Dee Brown, Juan LeBron, Joe Vitiello, Mark Quinn, Jeremy Giambi, Bob Hamelin among them.
4. Do not give away outs. It seems to me that because the Royals hit with no power and draw no walks, they must be particularly careful about giving away outs. My guess is they will do the opposite. There is a theory out there that teams that don’t hit with power must make up for it with speed, you know, take the extra base, steal a lot of bases, run with abandon. For this people often point to Whitey Herzog’s Cardinals of the 1980s, who scored a lot of runs despite hitting few home runs.
It seems to me people get this very, very wrong. Herzog had three great teams with the Cardinals -- 1982, 1985 and 1987. And it is true that none of those teams hit with much power. It is also true that all three of those teams led the league in stolen bases and ran with pretty wild abandon. That’s usually where the examination ends.
But you know what else you can say about all three of those teams? They all -- ALL THREE -- led the National League in on-base percentage. All three of them got on base more than any other team. So, they could AFFORD to be super aggressive on the bases. They could afford to give away a few outs in order to play at the tempo Herzog loved. When his team didn’t get on base, like in 1986 and 1988, they were lousy offensive teams. They led the league in stolen bases those years too -- it didn’t matter one bit. You can’t score runs when you make outs and hit with no power, I don’t care how many bases you steal.
People, it seems to me, learned the wrong lessons from those Cardinals teams. I have a new JoeWord here (one I was sure I introduced earlier but I can’t find it listed anywhere): Belichize, a verb, which means “To take the easy and wrong lesson from a success story.” It is named, of course, for Bill Belichick, whose immense success has inspired countless imitators. Unfortunately, those people imitate the stuff that doesn’t matter at all -- they imitate his surliness toward the media, his vapid secrecy, his senseless hoodie look. I think it’s because it’s a lot easier to imitate that nonsense than it is to emulate his intense work ethic, his creativity for game planning, his organizational skills, his clear vision for winning football games.
If I had to predict -- and I admit I’m guessing here, but I’m basing this on years of observation -- I’d bet on the Royals facing their offensive troubles by getting more aggressive. More stolen bases. More caught stealing. More productive outs. You can begin to see it happening. It seems to be exactly the opposite of the right answer.
5. Do not let small samples guide you. I already mentioned that I would bet on Chris Getz staying in the leadoff spot because he got on base a few times in a three-game sample. Based on, you know, his life, Chris Getz should never have led off a game, never ever, except maybe on Chris Getz Appreciation Day. But he did lead off. He got one hit and drew one walk. Next day, same thing. Now, he might be there in the leadoff spot until 2018.
The Royals do this all the time. They allow themselves to be directed by negligible signs and unlikely trends. In 2008, a pitcher named Kyle Davies had an excellent September -- it got him 67 more starts for the Royals, and he posted a 5.55 ERA in those starts. Jeff Francoeur had two good months in 2011, the Royals promptly signed him to a not inexpensive two-year deal, and he has hit .233/.281/.366 with four times as many strikeouts as walks since. The Royals drafted pitcher Aaron Crow in the first round -- ahead of, among others, Shelby Miller and Mike Trout -- with the hope that he would become a top of the rotation starter. Less than two years later he was pitching middle relief in the big leagues. He was pitching pretty well -- he made the All-Star Team -- and now he’s just a blah 60-inning a year seventh inning guy. How does this help the ball club?
It isn’t that these moves flopped … it’s that it was fairly obvious they probably would flop. They were short-sighted decisions based on limited and unlikely information. A few days ago, the Royals moved Lorenzo Cain to the leadoff spot because he had been hitting well through the first six weeks of the season. In three games there, he failed to get a hit, so they quickly moved him back to the sixth spot when, I’m sure, they will say he’s “more comfortable.” Does that matter? Probably not. It’s probably just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But the Royals seem to be putting deck chairs on top of each other, placing them upside down and using them as hat racks.