Five Questions: Kansas City Royals

Kansas City wasn’t given much of a chance last year, but made noise early by winning sixteen of their first nineteen games. They were in first place as late as August, until the Twins and White Sox passed the Royals by season’s end. It was still a positive season for the Royals, who responded very well to Tony Pena, and saw the best attendance at Kauffman Stadium in years.

With Carlos Beltran a free agent at year’s end, the time is now in Kansas City. Allard Baird was very aggressive in the free agent market, improving the Royals in every facet of the game. Ownership has given permission to gradually increase the payroll, and Kansas City is looking to take the AL Central. This is the Royals’ best chance to win the division in nearly twenty years, but with Beltran likely headed out, expect the Royals to have a now or never attitude in 2004.

1) Will moving the fences out at Kauffman Stadium help the Royals?

In short, yes. Last season, the Royals had a 43-39 record on the road, but were merely .500 (40-40) in Kansas City. The blame for this points to Kauffman Stadium, a ballpark that increased runs by 31% in 2003. Royals pitchers had a 6.02 ERA in their own stadium, compared to a 4.08 ERA away from home.

The team appears to be set in four out of the five rotation slots for 2004, with Brian Anderson, Kevin Appier, Jimmy Gobble, and Darrell May all but guaranteed slots. A look at the foursome’s GB/FB ratios a year ago is quite telling:

           GB/FB
Anderson    1.13
Appier      0.65
Gobble      0.58
May         0.71

Of qualifying pitchers, May had the second lowest GB/FB ratio in the bigs, but Appier and Gobble are still far beneath May. Anderson is a flyball pitcher as well – he is under the league average of 1.30, and managed to give up the 18th most flyballs in the Majors during 2003. The Royals allowed 113 of their cumulative 190 HR at home, a figure good for first in the American League. But that number should decrease with larger power alleys, giving the aforementioned flyball pitchers a little more room to work with.

While the move will surely help a once-anemic pitching staff, will a decrease in offensive production offset the pitching? Well, it shouldn’t. Below is a list of Royals returnees that will play consistently in 2004, and their accompanying home/away GPA splits:

            Home     Road      Diff
Sweeney     .324     .265     +.059
Randa       .280     .261     +.019
Beltran     .312     .299     +.013
Berroa      .270     .260     +.010
Relaford    .241     .231     +.010
Guiel       .254     .302     -.048
Harvey      .203     .275     -.072

Overall, the Royals hit .282/.346/.428 at home, against .267/.327/.426 on the road. That’s a minute slugging percentage difference, but the argument is made in batting average. The question is, does a .015 difference in batting average offset the potentially substantial decrease from a 6.02 ERA?

And that answer, Royals fans, is no. The Royals will improve their home record next season, you have my guarantee.

2) Will the worst bullpen in baseball jump into the top 10 in one year?

Last season, the Royals bullpen was bad. And by bad, I mean horrendous, disgraceful, and pitiful all rolled into one. Overall, their relief ERA was worst in the Major Leagues, and by a good margin. At 5.55, the next closest team, Texas, was still .067 away at 4.88.

The question is asking if the Royals bullpen can go from last in the Major Leagues a year ago, to top 10 next season. Last season the ‘bar’ to be a top 10 bullpen was about 4.00 (Atlanta was at 3.98), meaning the Royals will need a 28% decrease in ERA next season. My belief is that Allard Baird has made enough moves for that to happen, and that the Royals can enter the top ten threshold. A barrage of acquisitions and subtractions have led me to this decision, so I’ll attack each point by point:

- First and foremost is the addition by subtraction gained by not having any part of Albie Lopez or Graeme Lloyd. Albie made the team out of Spring Training, while Lloyd was a mid-season acquisition. Combined, the combo managed to give up 47 ER in 35 IP, for an ERA of 12.09. While the two only completed 6.8% of the bullpen’s innings, without them the ERA would only be 5.08.

- Curt Leskanic and Jeremy Affeldt succeeded in stints in the Kansas City bullpen, and both should return in 2004. Affeldt may get a chance at a starting job, but this pair is likely to compete for the closing role. Combined, they allowed only 14 earned runs in 57.2 innings, for an ERA of 2.18. Their projected to have about 100 more innings in 2004, which will help.

- Increased development for Mike MacDougal and D.J. Carrasco. MacDougal, who had a drastic 2.84 GB/FB ratio, improved towards the end of the season, not allowing a run in nine September innings. Carrasco struggled mightily in the final month, likely due to a prolonged season as a Rule V choice. But he was very good during August, and showed real promise.

- Jason Grimsley will improve in 2004, guaranteed. Grimsley’s GB/FB rate of 3.68 was higher than that of even Derek Lowe‘s, yet Grimsley’s hit rate went up drastically last year. This was largely due to bad luck, and I doubt the Royals very good infield defense effected him negatively. Assuming Grimsley maintains high groundball ratios, expect his H/9 and ERA to reduce dramatically in ’04.

- Finally, the acquisition of relief-workhorse Scott Sullivan. Sullivan is definitely a flyball pitcher, but had a great H/9 last year, and was deadline to RH hitters (.187 BA against). If nothing else, Sullivan is a guarantee to work 65 games, a number he has reached in every season since 1998.

My expectations will be high for the Royals bullpen in 2003, as I expect Leskanic, MacDougal, and Affeldt to all have ERAs in the twos, and Sullivan and Grimsley should be in the threes. Carrasco is a question mark, but the previous five will eat most of the innings. With a flimsy rotation, Tony Pena will once again lean on his bullpen often in 2004, but this time they won’t disappoint.

3) Will Darrell May have a good career after starting so late?

Coming out of nowhere seemed to be a popular trend in 2003. Players like Scott Podsednik, Dontrelle Willis, and Aaron Guiel played key roles despite not having been on their team’s radar prior to the season. Esteban Loaiza came back from the dead, resurrecting his career after a non-roster invitation to White Sox camp. But what about a player that’s past his prime and never appeared to have potential?

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Darrell May. After a horrendous first three years (6.31 ERA in 61 IP), May left the Major Leagues after the 1997 season. His path led him to Japan, where May worked hard to get his career on track, and ultimately to Kansas City. He struggled mightily in the 2002 rotation, and just barely landed a spot last year. The southpaw had a breakthrough year, posting a 135 ERA+, and 31 RSAA (Runs Saved Against Average). This was May’s first time with an ERA+ over 100, as well as his first season with positive RSAA.

May joined an elite sixteen-person group of southpaws to break 30 RSAA after thirty years of age. No other player has had the dramatic turns that May has experienced, but both Al Leiter and John Tudor struggled before breaking out. Both those left-handers went on to have long, good careers, and Leiter isn’t done yet. The sixteen person group mentioned above surprisingly does not include Jamie Moyer, although he is a prime example of a southpaw turning his career around.

Name     Year    ERA+    H/9     K/9    BB/9
Moyer    1993    129    9.12    5.33    2.25
May      2003    135    8.44    4.93    2.27

Moyer has aged extremely well, becoming the ace of a Seattle staff after turning thirty-five. No one would have guessed this from a scrawny lefty who had a career 4.56 ERA before 1993. Soft-throwing southpaws age particularly well, and often ignore the peak ages documented by Bill James.

As I said in question one, the fences moving back at Kauffman can only help. May’s 0.71 GB/FB ratio won’t be so frightening with larger power alleys, especially when Carlos Beltran is in center. May started a little late, but Jamie Moyer will be the first to tell you not to sell quite yet.

4) What was Allard Baird’s best move of the winter?

Before the 2001 season, Allard Baird made a minor move, picking up a left-handed bat in Raul Ibanez for dirt-cheap off the free agent market. Ibanez had some nice minor league numbers, but had struggled mightily with the Seattle Mariners. Three years later, this has turned out to be a fantastic move for Baird, as Ibanez hit more than 50 HR, drove in more than 240 runners, and batted no less than .280 in a season.

Buy low, sell high. Ibanez had arrived on the Kansas City doorstep for next to nothing, but after spending three million dollars on his left fielder in 2003, Baird was willing to let Ibanez walk. Bill Bavasi of the Mariners, in all his wisdom, was intrigued by the left-handed bat of Ibanez, and signed him to a three-year, $13M deal. This cost Seattle a first-round pick, but who cares? They got Ibanez.

In retrospect, the Ibanez deal turned out to be horrible. Reggie Sanders, Carl Everett, Jose Cruz, and Rondell White all signed cheaper deals. Baird got a similar player to Ibanez, Matt Stairs, for one million dollars. But his best deal? One year, $4.5M to Juan Gonzalez.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a risk. Gonzalez hasn’t touched 350 AB since 2001, and his OBP has gone to hell. But to pick up a two-time MVP for just thousands more than Ibanez (not to mention getting an extra draft pick) is a great deal. Gonzalez has a sparkling resume that few free agents could match offseason, but no one seemed to notice. Two home run titles, 429 career HR, a .296 lifetime batting average, a .563 career slugging percentage. Once a scrawny centerfielder for the Texas Rangers, Gonzalez became one of the most feared right-handed bats of the ’90s.

And for just thousands more than Ibanez. I can’t guarantee a lot from Gonzalez, but I will tell you this: the last time Juan Gone had an average below .280? 1994. Only once in the last nine years has his slugging dipped below .500, only once in his career was his OPS+ under 100. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he’s finished in the top ten for MVP voting five times. Thousands more than Ibanez. And, a first round pick.

5) How good of a prospect is Zack Greinke?

The next Bret Saberhagen, or simply another overrated pitching prospect? The number one prospect in baseball (see The Sporting News), or not even in the top ten (see Baseball America)?

In the June 1982 amateur draft, the Royals selected a high school pitcher named Bret Saberhagen in the nineteenth round. They sent the right-hander to their high-A affiliate in the Florida State League to start the 1983 season, and after sixteen starts there, he finished with eleven AA Southern League starts. He was 19 in 1983, and then at 20, broke in as a reliever with the Royals, getting moved into the rotation late in the 1984 season. By 1985, he was the ace.

Zack Greinke was not chosen in the nineteenth round, but instead sixth overall. He pitched a little that year, six games in total. Greinke then went to the Puerto Rican League to refine his stuff. Last year, his age nineteen season, Greinke split time between high-A and AA. He had four fewer total starts than Saberhagen, and forty-seven fewer innings. Here are the numbers:

Name          W   L     ERA     H/9     K/9    K/BB
Saberhagen   16   7    2.55    7.89    6.26    2.71
Greinke      15   4    1.93    7.33    7.20    6.22

Wow, in fact, Greinke is a better prospect than Saberhagen after all. In a recent article, Kansas City Star writer Joe Posnanski quotes a Royals insider as saying, “A 20-game winner today, right now.” But unlike Saberhagen, the Royals have decided not to rush Greinke, who will likely go back to AA to start the season. Rushing pitching prospects in today’s world is a cardinal sin, and Baird is not going to gamble his best arm.

Critics of Greinke point to his seemingly low K/9 total, but in fact, it’s been proven that K/9 is not the most important stat when watching minor league hurlers. Dayn Perry of Baseball Prospectus proved that hit rates matter more than strikeout rates, as it was the former that separated the game’s best from a mediocre group when comparing their minor league statistics. Greinke understands how to change speeds, he throws three different pitches, and he is very confident in his ability.

In the days of Tommy John surgery, it’s too tough to tell whether Greinke will make it or not. But barring injury, Greinke should give Priest Holmes a run for his money as the city’s biggest star.

In Closing…

Is it possible that Allard Baird is becoming a good General Manager right under our noses? Baird has built a very good ballclub, one that has depth at almost every spot. Baird should try to stay out of the trade market, where he’s made some very bad deals (i.e. Neifi Perez).

Tony Pena is the right man to lead this club, and one that understands the value of the pitch count. If the Royals starters can be consistent, than the Royals are the favorite to win the American League Central. It’s probable they will have trouble, though, leaving the Royals narrowly on the outside looking in. That will be enough for owner David Glass; at least he’ll be making money.

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