I’d been sipping Boulevard in the dungeon-like bar at what used to be called the Adam’s Mark when I noticed Sally the Bartender looking at me and tapping her watch. Holy caramba – ten minutes till the first pitch.
I pushed on my sunglasses and flipped a folded sawbuck at Sally. After cutting through the sterile green haze of the lobby, I stepped out into the gray afternoon only to find a bone-chilling wind whipping up out of the west.
“This is no way to begin the season.” I thought, “Especially one so completely devoid of hope.”
The Truman Sports Complex seemed as far away as the last time the Royals made the playoffs.
“It’s the AL Central,” I told myself. “Anything is possible.”
I even sort of believed myself so I leaned into the wind and headed for “The K”.
About halfway across the George Brett Bridge, I encountered a middle-aged man wearing a tattered, powder blue Amos Otis jersey. He was pear-shaped and looked not unlike Alfred Hitchcock. He was wearing jean shorts and his legs were very skinny and very white. “It’s Mr. Potato Head,” I thought. For a moment, I thought it might be Royals assistant trainer Frank Kyte but realized the idea was ludicrous.
Strangely, the man was nestled right up to the railing as the eastbound traffic on I-70 roared underneath us. His hand rested on a large, dark metallic object which was balanced precariously on top of the railing. I noticed a chain was attached to the object, which I now recognized to be an anvil, and I followed the path of the chain to the ground and saw that it was fastened around the man’s ankle. Until that moment, I had not noticed that the man was weeping.
My eyes went towards the stadium across the way. Some ear-annihilating, country music screecher was howling out the national anthem. The dark blue of the seats in the upper deck was almost entirely obscured by patrons – not a sight I expected to see again any time soon. I glanced at my watch. Seven minutes till first pitch.
“Oh well,” I thought, “It’s none of my business.”
I started to move again but the man began to lift a leg over the rail. Damn me, the bugger was actually going to jump. My conscience got the better of me and I raced over to him.
“Excuse me, sir.” I shouted. “Is there a problem?”
I didn’t realize how stupid the question was until later.
The man turned and looked at me with glazed, haggard eyes. He searched my face, found nothing, and started to climb again. I grabbed him by the shoulder.
“You can’t do it, man,” I shouted.
“Why not?” he said in a shrill, lispy voice. “Give me one good reason.”
Damn. I knew he was going to ask me something like that. I stood with my hand on his shoulder, pondering the question.
The man started to wriggle away from me so I shouted, “It’s Opening Day, for godssakes. Nobody kills themselves on Opening Day. What kind of a fool are you?”
The man put his leg on the ground and turned to me. His face became red and his eyes glowed with rage.
“I said ‘give me one good reason’ you twerp. I can’t bear another season like last year. There is no hope. The Yankees have all the money and the Royals have Chris Truby and Ken Harvey. I don’t understand it. I can’t. No hope…”
The man started for the railing again and I jumped on his back.
“Listen you feeble-minded fool,” I yelled, “don’t you realize that it’s all coming together? The pieces are almost in place. If you jump off this bridge, the George Brett Bridge, I’m going to take a picture of your spattered blood and dance a jig around it when the Royals make the playoffs!”
The word ‘playoffs’ seemed to spark something in his plump head. He stopped struggling and I climbed off his back and brushed myself off. The Amos Otis jersey was basted in old spider webs.
“I’ll tell you what,” the man said, “if you can give me good answers to ten questions about the Royals, I won’t jump.”
I glanced at my watch.
“Better make it five,” I said.
The man thought this over for a moment, then began nodding.
“It’s a deal.”
I then set about the task of saving the man’s life.
1. Will these tossers ever be league average in runs prevention again?
Hmmm. Good question. Thinking back….1996. Ah, 1996. Bill Clinton sent Bob Dole into a Viagra-peddling retirement. Monica Lewinsky‘s blue dress still hung unsuspectingly on a Nieman Marcus rack. The largely homegrown Yankees won their first World Series in 18 years. “ER” was just hitting its stride led by developing hunk George Clooney. I was living in a cramped one bedroom apartment three blocks away from Wrigley Field with a beautiful young law student. We could sit on the back porch during night games and listen to Harry sing…
Back in Kansas City, a new era of ineptitude had dawned. True, the Royals post-season drought had already stretched to a full decade. But six times during that span, the team finished over .500. As late as 1995, the Royals were in postseason contention. Few remember that the Royals were in contention for the junior circuit’s first wild-card berth before losing 11 of 13 to finish the season. Back then, each spring, we entered the season with October dreams dancing in our heads.
The 1996 Royals, mismanaged by Bob Boone, finished with a league-worst 746 runs scored yet still managed to win a not-horrible 75 games because of pitching staff that compiled the third-best ERA in the American League (4.55).
After 1996, the Royals morphed into the bumbling bunch of bottom-feeding boys in blue that we’ve come to know and loathe. The Royals have had some good hitting teams, such as the 2000 squad and during the Great Mirage of 2003. But the pitching has been poor in each of the last eight seasons:
RUNS ALLOWED VS. LEAGUE
Year nRA Lge +/- 1997 812 798 13 1998 902 811 91 1999 916 847 70 2000 944 854 90 2001 819 787 33 2002 869 776 93 2003 837 790 47 2004 905 808 97 Avg 876 809 67
The enigmatic nRA in this sense refers to neutral runs allowed. The runs hemorrhage continued unimpeded last season and, in fact, reached its nadir.
At root of the pitching woes is a systematic organizational failure – the total inability to develop young pitchers. The Royals have drafted young pitchers by the legion. Some were taken from the roulette wheel of the high school talent pool, some were lower risk college types, some were international acquisitions. All have failed. Jim Pittsley, Jose Rosado, Chris Durbin, Dan Reichert, Orber Moreno, Chris George, Kyle Snyder, Mike MacDougal, Jeff Austin, Colt Griffin, Jeremy Hill, Ryan Bukvich, Runelvys Hernandez and even Jeremy Affeldt have all flamed out because of injuries or ineffectiveness or, usually, both. Think about it – all of these pitchers, even at the age they are now, if developed successfully, could comprise the best pitching staff in baseball.
Entering 2004, the Royals decided it would be a good idea to acquire every soft-tossing, flyball-inducing, left-handed pitcher in baseball and throw them out there as the starting rotation. Jimmy Gobble, Brian Anderson, Darrell May and Jeremy Affeldt all started the season in the rotation, allowing ball after ball to be hit into play, usually a flyball which often went over the fence. When Affeldt went to the bullpen, he was replaced by Chris George who did all of the wrong things even more often.
The lefty plan didn’t work out so well. By the end of May, Anderson was on pace to break the all-time record for runs allowed in a season, Affeldt had been dispatched to the back end of the bullpen, Gobble was threatening Nate Cornejo’s status as the worst strikeout starting pitcher of the 21st Century, May was on pace to lose 20 games and wunderkind Zack Greinke (a right-hander) was summoned from the bushes to save the season. Of course, it was already too late for that.
Greinke, though, pitched well for the most part. Twelve pitchers started a game for the Royals last season and only Greinke beat the league average in ERA. Alas, Greinke’s ERA was a tad misleading – a product of pitching well with runners on base and limiting most of the 26 home runs he allowed to the solo and two-run variety. Still, Greinke displayed remarkable command for a pitcher so young and did manage to strike out 100 batters, which isn’t great but, hey, this is the Royals we’re talking about.
Moving forward, there is hope but not a lot of it. There are some young but extremely fragile arms in camp that project well but have certain rough spots to iron out if they are given the opportunity to handle important roles:
- Zack Greinke – his strikeout rate should continue to grow but it’s hard to see how his walk rate could improve much. The key for Greinke will be keeping the ball in the park but his 0.83 GB:FB rate from last season doesn’t bode well. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Greinke and, when he pitches, it is a genuine event. But if he doesn’t improve that home run rate, he won’t turn in another sub-4.00 ERA.
- Runelvys Hernandez – he doesn’t strike out as many hitters as you’d like but he’s no Brian Anderson in this area, either. He has good command and a good GB:FB rate that has led to some acceptable home run ratios. He’s also coming off Tommy John surgery and missed all of last year. Runelvys circa 2003 would be a nice companion piece to Greinke at the head of the rotation. But to expect that so soon after major surgery…
- Mike Wood – while he’s not Nolan Ryan, Wood strikes out more batters than he’s given credit for, posts excellent walk numbers and sterling groundball ratios. He doesn’t have the ceiling of Greinke and some others, but could be a more-than-adequate three or four starter. However, he has a history of tiring out over the course of the season and in the latter stages of 2004, he was cannon fodder.
- Kyle Snyder – Snyder does all of the things that Wood does only better and with a greater potential for strikeouts. But his arm is about as stable as peanut brittle.
- Denny Bautista – There is an episode in the original Star Trek, later copied by The Next Generation crew, where a mysterious viral contagion causes the crew to act drunk. Spock gets emotional, Data sleeps with Tasha Yar and Capt. Kirk – well, you can only imagine. Anyway, it’s my theory that this contagion made its way into the offices of Orioles’ management the day they shipped Bautista to the Royals for Jason Grimsley. (For that matter, it must have been present the day the Mets traded for Kris Benson and said, “You know, the Royals have nothing to do with this deal but they seem like nice people. What the hell, send’em Justin Huber.” ) Not only does Bautista possess the rare ability (for this organization) to strike people out, he throws a heavy ball that induces lots of lovely groundballs. If you haven’t noticed, the next groundball that goes over the fence will be the first. Sounds wonderful. Of course, sometimes (too often) Bautista has no idea where the ball is going and he weighs less than one of Dom DeLuise’s legs. Bautista has been dominant this spring which will probably spur the Royals to inject him into the rotation even though they would be well served to begin him off in middle relief – just as Sir Earl would do.
Now, I’ve chosen these five pitchers because, I feel, that if they stay healthy and pitch up to their capabilities under the tutelage of new (and old) pitching coach Guy Hansen, that each of these pitchers has the ability to match or exceed the league average in earned run average.
Alas, the Royals have already earmarked rotation slots for Jose Lima and Brian Anderson. In fact, Lima has been named as the starter for Opening Day. Hernandez, Greinke and Bautista will probably win rotation slots while Snyder and Wood may start off in long relief, which is a sensible place for them. If Lima and Anderson pitch reasonably well, then both could be easily flipped in midseason trades. Still, realistically, the Royals will probably threaten 900 runs allowed once again.
2. Harvey vs. Pickering: Just who is running this show anyway?
It seems like such an easy choice. You have one player who can’t hit and can’t field who is still in his prime years. You have another player who can hit, perhaps really well, can’t field and is also in his prime years. Using B-Pro’s PECOTA system, here is a comparison of what Ken Harvey and Calvin Pickering project to do in 2005:
PLAYER HR AVG/ ONB/ SLG Pickering 23 .246/.367/.493 Ken Harvey 22 .309/.369/.499
Seems pretty close until you consider that this is Pickering’s 25th percentile projection and Harvey’s 90th percentile forecast. Egad.
Some have said that it really doesn’t matter who wins the job. The team isn’t going to win anytime soon. By the time they do, younger and cheaper options will be at hand. I don’t buy it.
At the core of this position battle are some fundamental questions. What does this organization value? If they stumble across gold hidden in a trash can, will they be able to dig past the refuse and retrieve it?
Royals fans better hope that Ken Harvey finds himself in Omaha to start this season. That will, as much as anything else that could happen this spring, show that this organization is headed in the right direction.
3. Can the Royals catch the ball this year?
Lots of teams make the decision to build around pitching and defense – whatever that means. The Royals probably fall into this category except that they forgot the pitching – and the defense.
Perhaps you could forgive a team whose pitching staff falls short of expectations. Pitching is a volatile commodity. Unexplainable things happen all the time, both the good (Esteban Loaiza, 2003) and the bad (Rick Ankiel, 2000 postseason). Assembling a capable team defense, if that is your priority, ought to be a snap in comparison.
Given the pitchers who comprised the pitching staff entering the season, the Royals had to know that they would be allowing an inordinately large number of balls-in-play. Also, given that the bulk of the innings pitched would be compiled by flyball-laden pitchers, they had to know that outfield defense would be of supreme importance to last year’s squad. While the cast of thousands who manned last year’s outfield posted a respectable composite zone rating, let’s see how the overall strategy worked out:
2004 AL TEAM DER & STRIKEOUTS Team DER Team SO TBD .699 ANA 1164 SEA .699 BOS 1132 OAK .698 MIN 1123 CHW .693 CLE 1115 BOS .693 BAL 1090 TOR .691 NYY 1058 ANA .688 SEA 1036 TEX .686 OAK 1034 BAL .686 CHW 1013 NYY .685 DET 995 MIN .684 TEX 979 CLE .684 TOR 956 DET .681 TBD 923 KCR .674 KCR 887
The fact that the Royals had some guys who couldn’t hit in the lineup would be more acceptable if they could at least catch the ball. After all, if you can’t field and you can’t hit, why are you in the big leagues?
The outfield defense in 2005 should be better. David DeJesus, Terrence Long, Eli Marrero and Abraham Nunez all have posted above-average zone ratings during their time in the bigs, at least at the positions they will be playing this season. In the infield, it doesn’t matter who wins the first base job. Be it Pickering or Sweeney or Harvey, they all might as well go on the field with a mason’s trowel in their hand. Second base projects to be a weak spot as well, whether Tony Graffanino or Ruben Gotay gets the bulk of the time this season. Third base, provided Mark Teahen mans the position, should remain a strong point as Teahen establishes himself as the left-hand-hitting Joe Randa.
The key to the 2005 defense is probably Angel Berroa. Berroa’s zone rating dropped from .861 in 2003 to a woeful .778 last season. That’s a staggering, stunning drop which likely cost the Royals in the neighborhood of six points in DER. The defensive decline by Berroa was exacerbated by his lackluster season with the bat and by the fact that prospect Andres Blanco posted a .889 zone rating in 162 defensive innings at shortstop. The Royals are committed, financially, to Berroa but if he doesn’t rebound to at least a league-average (around .839 for shortstops) zone rating in 2005, a position change may be in order.
In any event, when you consider the bevy of young arms the Royals are trying to develop, it is paramount that the gloves behind them turn in, at minimum, a league-average campaign.
4. Will Guy Hansen quit spewing hyperbole long enough to actually teach Royals’ pitchers a thing or two?
Some have credited me with former pitching coach John Cumberland’s much-deserved departure because of an article I wrote for The Kansas City Star on the subject since Cumberland was summarily dismissed the following week. Since I started the column off with a Danish proverb, it must have seemed very wise. But the fact is, I have a whole book full of proverbs at my elbow, ready to use whenever I can’t think of a catchy lead. Also, I doubt that the Royals’ brain trust reads my work anyway.
Anyway, Guy Hansen is the new pitching coach and he has rejoined the organization full of bravado and glowing words. Here is a sampling:
- “I thought three years ago in Atlanta was the best group of arms I’d ever seen, but this is the best group I’ve personally ever witnessed,” Hansen said. (Yes, it was about the Royals.)
- “Affeldt to me is a bigger, stronger version of Barry Zito,” pitching coach Guy Hansen said. “He could be a Cy Young Award winner as a starter or save 40 games out of the pen.”
O.K. – let’s space out our trips to the punch bowl a little bit better, Guy.
This will not be, of course, the first time that Hansen has been the Royals’ pitching coach. From 1991 to 1993, the Royals finished with ERA+ figures of 106/107/113. That’s less than definitive, of course, and the fact remains that Hansen hasn’t been a big-league pitching coach since. He has been in charge of Atlanta’s AAA pitchers the last few years. Atlanta. Pitching. The words, put together, makes one’s knees go weak.
I’ve gone on record as saying that hitting and pitching coaches are undervalued properties. I admit, this feeling is just that – a feeling. This season, I will have full media access to the Royals for the first time and this is one of the things I intend to look at because, in theory, it seems to me that these coaches are more essential to a team’s success than managers.
With Hansen, you have to like his penchant for doing drastic things. Nearly every pitcher on the Royals’ staff, Hansen has altered their deliveries, drastically in some cases. Will it work? Who knows? But you have to like the idea of tinkering with something that didn’t work in the first place.
5. Realistically, what do Royals fans have to root for in 2K5?
A grandmother, in a short story I wrote, once said, “Optimism is fertilizer for the weeds of disappointment.”
Well, Grandma Forrest, let’s look at things objectively.
The Royals lost 104 games last season. That’s a lot. More than any other season in franchise history. A twenty-game improvement would yield a paltry 78-84 record.
Let’s not get caught up too much in won-loss records. We did that last season. Let’s root for more reasonable goals:
- Zack Greinke lowers his home run rate (as a percentage of batters faced ) to 2.5%. If he does that, maybe we are looking at the next Bret Saberhagen.
- Ruben Gotay plays well enough defensively to remain in the glow of Allard Baird’s approval. The Royals have an unfortunate tendency to shift young players to defensive positions where their value is greatly diminished. There is no place for Gotay to go.
- Mike Wood and Kyle Snyder overtake Brian Anderson and Jose Lima for rotation slots. ‘Nuff said.
- Calvin Pickering breaks the Royals’ sad single-season home run record of 36, set by the inimitable Steve Balboni.
- Jeremy Affeldt rediscovers the ability to strike batters out.
I felt pretty good about this eruption of Royals-related ramblings, spewed forth over the span of about two minutes. To be sure, I’d heaped a helping of data on this sad soul, but, to be sure, he must have been intrigued.
“Excuse me,” the man said, as he turned towards the railing and began to climb over.
“Wait, don’t you want some answers?”
“You’ve given me no hope that this team can win.”
I was getting angry.
“Listen here, buster,” I said, putting extra emphasis on the word ‘buster’, “You’ve got to look at the big picture.”
The man watched the thundering semi-trailers barreling down I-70, perhaps imagining himself as a blotter pattern beneath one of them.
“I suppose, at the very least, there are some interesting questions about this team,” he said.
“Yesss!!!” I erupted. “That’s what I’m saying, you pinheaded monster.”
“Let’s go to the game,” the man said.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Two minutes to first pitch. I thought for a second about running back to Sally the Bartender for some quick fortification but decided it would be more interesting to see Zack Greinke stare down Ichiro! For the first time this season.
“Let’s go to the game,” I said.
The man stepped forward with me. The anvil was still affixed to his ankle and was perched on the railing. It wobbled, then tipped – in the wrong direction.
The man was sucked over the side so quickly that I really didn’t have time to think about it. First pitch. Royals. Must go.
When I think back to the incident, it occurs to me the man lacked faith. What are twenty seasons out of the running when you’re in the AL Central?
Hope is not a static concept. If the Royals were the Orioles or the Blue Jays or the, egad, Devil Rays then the flame of hope would certainly be extinguished. But, in the AL Central, in any given season, a bulge of success combined with a stretch of underachievement by one’s competitors could turn around a team’s outlook.
Yes, the Royals will probably stink in 2005. But rooting for them will be Big Fun anyway.