Spreadsheet Baseball: Position Battles Royal (Part One)

For those of you who don't know me, my handle is NHZ or Saberrox,  depending upon which blog I'm posting on, and I write my own blog "The No-Hype Zone" on sports and sports-related stuff. I am a very stats-oriented guy when it comes to evaluating players, and I'm an avid reader of Baseball Prospectus--both the site and the annual--and Football Outsiders. royalsreview asked me to contribute a post for the main page once a week, and my "column" is entitled "Spreadsheet Baseball" in honor of an anti-intellectual comment made by my archenemy, Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe, when he was going on a rant against the Red Sox (I'm a Red Sox fan, and for this I apologize) FO and the use of statisical analysis in baseball FOs in general. I should be able, barring injury or exams, to contribute on a weekly basis. I am thankful for the oppurtunity to write for you all, and I hope you enjoy this column and the future ones!

Even if you're not a fan of the new Royals' GM, Dayton Moore, one thing you'd still be forced to admit is that the successor to Allard Baird has, with less than a full season under his belt, already brought in a level of depth that puts Baird's efforts to shame. Moore seems to be able to get an extra prospect in every trade he makes and, while these guys are not blue-chippers, the more guys you throw at the wall, the better the chance that more of them stick.

Moore has also done a good job of creating a team where there will be legitimate competition for some of the starting jobs. The Royals' line-up is not going to blow anyone away, but with guys like Alex Gordon and Billy Butler coming through the system give them very legitimate hope for the near future. The main question is, who is going to support these guys when they both start mashing at the major league level by 2008. It is important that the Royals organization--who are very unlikely to contend this year--realize that this year should be used to decide which young players to keep to form the base of their next contending team.

In this first section of the article, I'll attempt to shed some light on what the Royals' line-up should look like this season, and what it actually will look like.

I do not know what the general perception of John Buck is, but in the time I've seen him play, he comes off as a heady player. Both traditional and advanced fielding metrics seem to peg Buck as solid, not spectacular, behind the plate, and there's some value in that. Any critiscisms of Buck's game-calling seem ridiculous when you consider the sad sacks who have taken up space on the mound during Buck's tenure. Buck also has a reasonable bit of pop for a guy who squats behind a plate, post Isolated Power (SLG-BA) numbers of  .189, .147, and  .151 in his first three years in the majors. That has value too, especially you consider that Jason Varitek had a .162 IsoP last year.

What? Varitek was injured, and thus that doesn't convince you? Okay, Victor Martinez, lauded as one of the best hitting catchers in the league, had an IsoP of .149. That's right: independent of batting average, John Buck has more power than Victor Martinez. How do you like them apples?!

Still, there's a problem that has kept Buck from becoming an above average wearer of the Tools of Ignorance, and that's his OBPs. Given that you all come off as pretty educated fans, you probably already know this, but Buck's lines in the majors look like this:

  1. .235/.280/.424 (253 PAs)
  2. .242/.287/.389 (427 PAs)
  3. .245/.306/.396 (411 PAs)
Total: .242/.292/.400

The problem is pretty clear, and it's that these OBPs are low enough to almost completely off-set Buck's power contributions. No matter how good you are behind the plate, if you can only get on-base three times out of ten in a good year, you're hurting the team. So far, Buck has been a bit of a millstone in a line-up that has bigger concerns, such as Angel Berroa, and that needs to change one way or another.

Good news? Even if it's miniscule, there's improvement every year in some categories. Yes, Buck had a negative VORP last year, but the encouraging trend is the small rise in his OBP. That's something, at least (Also, it's pretty cool that he's gone from a .241 EQA to a .242, to a .243 in the last three years). It's small, but it suggests that at least there's a possibility of more improvement. Also, BA can be fluky, and it's altogether possible that Buck can quicken his bat a little. Now I'm getting into wish-casting, but the thing is, if Buck can hit .260 and draw ten more walks, he turns into a much more useful player.

This is a telling year for him though, and to my way of thinking, this is the year he has to step and show if he can up his level of play. He's got Jason LaRue on his heels, and that should be plenty motivation, as the threat of losing his job is real. This is the year where we should learn if John Buck is the second coming of Toby Hall, or if he's got a break-out in him.

Royals fans should really hope that Buck gets the majority of the starts so they can figure out if he's the answer, but Jason LaRue poses a threat to Buck's playing time. LaRue was available from Cinncinnati because of his disaster 2006, as his last three years show that he has been a useful player:

  1. .251/.334/.431, VORP 15.7
  2. .260/.355/.452, 22.7
  3. .194/.317/.346, -4.3
Career: .239/.325/.415

The VORP totals are used here to illustrate both the fact that LaRue has been a decent starting catcher in the past, and how bad his 2006 was in comparison. His career numbers are dragged down by his earlier years, and it's reasonable to think that he might bounce back in 2007. BP 2006 noted that LaRue's power comes on "mistake fastballs," so some may argue that pitchers figured him out in 2006. However, his 2006 line comes form only 225 PA. So why not give him the starting job? Well, that's an option if Buck falls off a cliff, but it's not a long term solution. 2006 might be an outlier, but LaRue is turning 33 this march. This pegs him as someone who won't improve anymore, and could well have entered his decline phase. In short, he's not going to be the starting catcher on the next competitive Royals team (and yes, there will be one). Best case scenario for the Royals is that Buck adds thirty points to his OBP, LaRue backs him up solidly a couple days a week, and LaRue is flipped to some desperate contender at the deadline for a prospect and a cheeseburger.

Bottom Line: Buck should start, but if he Toby Halls again this year, the Royals need to go shopping/drafting for a different solution. If LaRue is still on this team in September, either the Royals are going to the World Series or it's a very bad judgement call by the FO. He should not be the starter.


At first base, the Royals are primed to go with Ryan Shealy, acquired from the Rockies last year in a "your completely blocked prospect for my frustrating enigmas" trade. This makes sense, as Shealy could turn out to be a useful power bat. He showed some good stuff in limited playing time last year, hitting .280/.338/.451 in 210 PA.

His acquisition seemed a little strange at first, but given that the Royals don't appears to think much of Justin Huber, it looks Shealy is their first basemen of choice. It looks like Shealy--not a particulary young player, being 27 already--will have plenty of oppurtunity to prove whether the Royals' confidence in him is warranted. If he works out, there's room at 1B/3B/DH for Shealy, Gordon, and Butler, sometime in the future. Yummy.

1B Bottom Line: start Shealy, hope that his prodution in Colorado Springs wasn't a mirage. Happily, the Royals will do this.

It's at second base where things start to get weird. Mark Grudzielanek is penciled in as the starter, and there's really no point to having Mark Grudzielanek as your starter if you're the Kansas City Royals. Grudz is a very average player, someone you'd expect to be starting for contending team that doesn't have a long-term solution at second base. Last year, he hit .297/.331/.409, which is very consistent with his .288/.330/.393 career averages. There is no upside here, and he's another guy who should be shipped out at the deadline.

However, it doesn't really look there's going to be much of a competition here: Grudz is the starter, while Esteban German and his .326/.422/.459 line (complete with a nifty 26.5 VORP) from last year will probably be relegated to a utility role. German is not really young--he's 29 this year--and his defense isn't anything to crow about, but he had a 49:40 K/BB ratio last year. Even if he regresses, he's probably better than Grudz, and cheaper. Free Esteban!

2B Bottom Line: start Esteban German. Realisticly, it ain't going to happen.

Shortstop might be a bit of a sore subject for the Royals, where the human vortex of suck has been entrenched at the position for the last four years. In Berroa's defense, he was good for exactly one of those years, posting a .287/.338/.451 in 2003, taking ROY honors over Hideki Matsui. Bob Hamelin, anybody? For those not hip to Bob, Hamelin won the ROY award in 1994 for the KC nine. He was out of baseball by age thirty. Berroa - and his .234/.259/.333 line year - should be headed down the same path.

Despite how unreliable defensive metrics can be, everybody agrees that Berroa is terrible defensively. Is he as bad at the plate as he was in 2006? Probably not, but his true ability is probably around his 2004-2005 level of player, not anywhere close to his 2003 value. This leaves you with a 680 OPS guy who is horrible defensively at a key defensive position. In other words, bring on Andres Blanco!

As royalsreview mentioned a couple days ago, Blanco has a career line of .252/.290/.314, and management hates the dude. Maybe it's because he can field: Blanco has the kind of glove, according to BP 2006, that scouts believe could contend for multiple Gold Gloves in his career. So, setting aside the stupidity of who the Gold Gloves usually go to, he's a defensive whiz with no bat. But hey! Anyone But Berroa (ABB)!

Seriously though, the Royals have nothing to lose by giving Blanco or...who the hell is Angel Sanchez? Never mind. Anyways, point is, finding out if Blanco can contribute as the shortstop at the ML level is preferable to trotting out Berroa, but the Royals--especially Buddy Bell, who thinks Berroa is a "heck of a player" (we assume Buddy means this in baseball terms)--seem to prefer the proven suckitude over the unproven probably less suckitude. Ye gods.

SS Bottom Line: ABB, but for some reason management likes Berroa. He must be an incredibly friendly guy to overcome his -17.6 VORP.

Finally, there is third base, where after wading through the other three positions, we find an established young hitter with power and patience. Mark Teahen was a Knight Without Teammates In A Savage Land in the Royals' line-up last year, shrugging off a slow start and subsequent demotion to post a  .290/.357/.517 line in 439 PA. No problem, right? Well, there wouldn't be, except for the Royals best prospect is nipping at his heels. Alex Gordon just destroyed AA to the tune of a ridiculous .325/.427/.588, and is about as close to a can't-miss prospect as you can get.

The question is, when does Gordon hit the majors, and where (in the field)? Do they move Teahen off third, placing him in the outfield where his value will be diminished, or do they move Gordon to the outfield? Both possiblities, but there is another one: trade Teahen for much-need pitching, and promote Gordon to start at third. Whether or not the Royals should make this trade really depends on the development of their young pitching, as it would be a shame to trade a player like Teahen. I hate to sound cliche, but really only time will tell if this is a necessity. I'm sure the Royals would be thrilled to be able to fit both players in the line-up provided the defensive hit of moving one to the outfield would be negligible.

3B Bottom Line: There is no bottom line. I would keep Teahen in place for now (on the team, for sure), and see how Gordon does in Spring Training. Whatever happens, Gordon is going to make KC fans smile when he comes up at some point this year. Teahen is the one who should be traded if the need arises.

I apologize for being so extremely long-winded. Next week, I'll take a look at the options the Royals have in the outfield, and probably part of the pitching staff as well (starters or relievers). As I said, I'm anticipating this being a three-part series. I hope you enjoy the articles, and comments and critiscism (YOU SUCK BECAUSE GRUDZIELANEK IS A GOD!!!111) are welcome/encouraged.

This FanPost was written by a member of the Royals Review community. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors and writers of this site.