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Spreadsheet Baseball: Position Battles Royal (Part Three)

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In this final installment of the `Position Battles Royal' series, we complete the picture (to the best of my abilities) by looking at the candidates for the starting rotation and the bullpen. It's negative one degree up here right now, so if this article appears late in the day it's because my hand froze to my coat this morning and I haven't been able to thaw it out safely.

The old saying "good pitching always beats good hitting" is an extreme oversimplification, and it's not too hard to figure out why; every team needs to score at least one run to win, no matter how well the fire-breathing ace is slingin' the apple on any given day. What a baseball team needs to win--and this is my oversimplification--is balance. It doesn't always have to be a fifty-fifty split between the contributions of the position players and the pitchers, but both sides need to be good enough to contribute. Last year's World Series Champs, the Cardinals, got much more out of the offensive side of the ball, but had just enough pitching to squeak by and win the division. When the White Sox won the WS, it was a case of great pitching backed up by Paul Konerko. To be successful you don't need perfect balance, but you need good contributions from both your run producers and your run preventers.

Having said this, this is the third article that I've done on the Royals roster, and it seems to me that while the Royals have issues at some of the other positions on their roster--shortstop comes to mind, and how the outfield pans out is also a question worth asking--it seems to me that the 2007 line-up for the Royals is actually going to be a pretty solid line-up. Mind you, I don't think we're talking top-of-the-league production, but the young talent that will start the season in or close to Kansas City (ex. Alex Gordon, Mark Teahen, Billy Butler, even Ryan Shealy) seems to be vastly underrated in major league baseball circles. Couple the young guys with some slightly less young guys who could contribute this year (DeJesus, Buck [maybe], German [please]) and some solid veterans (Sweeney, Gload, Brown) and this line-up, even with Angel Berroa, does not look like a weakness. It looks like a solid outfit that will score some runs, and be the subject of several knee-jerk articles from columnists who hadn't even done any research on the Royals until Alex Gordon popped a three-run homer in the ninth off Todd Jones.

Given this appraisal of the hitting situation, which I really believe is a realistic one, we turn to the pitching staff. It seems a given that the Royals will improve on last year's record, but how much seems to hinge heavily on the run prevention crew. Last year, the Royals had the dubious distinction of being led in pitching VORP by righty reliever Todd Wellemeyer, who pitched kind of like the Major League 2 version of Rick Vaughn last year--54:50 K:BB ratio--but got away with it to the tune of a 4.14 ERA overall and a 3.63 mark after coming over from the Marlins. It's bad enough to have your best pitcher be a reliever and have a VORP of 14.0, but then you go down the list and find that the next most valuable Royal pitchers in 2006 were also relievers. Joel Peralta (13.6) and the resurrected Joe Nelson (8.6) finished second and third on the Royals. Finally, My Favorite Hudson Brother (I've always thought Tim was overrated, and that certainly can't be said of Luke!) breaks up the string of  relievers with an 8.0 VORP. Ouch. At least other pitching desperate teams like Baltimore and Tampa Bay had Erik Bedard (that's pronounced BUH-dard. Source: Camden Chat) and Scott Kazmir.

So, okay, the Royals pitching staff was not very good last year. Will it be better this year? Seems very likely. Do we really have any idea of what the hell to expect? Um...not really. I'll give it my best shot, though.

Starting Rotation

Gil Meche
I did not write this section of the article to be the umpteenth person to make fun of the Gil Meche signing (I've already done that on my blog), I wrote it to analyze the production we might expect from the Royals' rotation. Meche-bashing gets a little old after the initial shock of the signing wears off. Yes, the Royals signed a guy who has never been really good to a big contract. Yes, he takes up a lot of space on the payroll. How about we talk about the way the guy actually pitches, hmm?

Meche--Mechey if you're Buddy Bell--actually seems to be one of the more predictable pitchers on the Royals' staff. Incontrovertible good news about the guy is that his durability does not really seem in question; he number of games started has gone up in the last three years from 23 to 29 to 32, so it seems reasonable to think that the torn labrum that kept Meche off the major league mound in 2001-2002 has been repaired successfully. True, he only got to 186 2/3 innings last year, a career high by a third of an inning, but that probably has more to do with his walk rate than a lack of durability.
So, about that walk rate. His raw rates are 7.52 strikeout rate(all of these are /per nine innings), walk rate at 4.05, and home run rate at 1.16. His BABIP was, in what has become a tradition for Meche, right around average. There are things to like about these numbers, as well as things to worry about. Check out this list:

Tom Glavine
Josh Beckett
Dontrelle Willis
Bronson Arroyo
Kevin Millwood

What do all of these guys have in common? These guys, who are not all aces but are all being paid pretty handsomely--and would make a pretty darn good rotation--all struck out less hitters per nine than Gil Meche. Is he better than these guys? Well, maybe not, but he had a lower unadjusted ERA than Millwood and Beckett, who are both being paid Meche-like salaries without fielding any criticism at all recently. The main point, though, is that striking out more than seven guys per nine innings is out-and-out good.
The adjusted walk rate of 4.05, not so much. While it's an improvement over his 2005, walking four guys per nine innings is not good. It's been speculated that it's a post-surgery given that Meche has worse control, but he actually has just never been that great at avoiding free passes. The positive argument here is that Meche is not old--he's 28--and pitchers seem to have a greater capacity for breaking out late. Plus, hey, it's an improvement on last year. Bottom line is, Meche is hardly Daniel Cabrera or rotation-mate Jorge De La Rosa, but his control is not good.

And, oh, that home run rate. 1.16 is not good, but it's acceptable in some cases. Curt Schilling last year and Mark Buehrle in any year that wasn't last year are both cases of how a pitcher with an relatively bad HR rate can still succeed. Schilling and Buerhle have been credited at good at finding the balance between challenging hitters with no one on base and nibbling when there are men on, meaning that more of their HRs allowed come with nobody on, and thus do less damage. Meche, with a HR rate that was actually .08 below Schilling's last year, has not had similar success apparently, as indicated by his 4.48 ERA last year in one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball.

Of course, the real worry isn't last year's home run rate, it's what we can expect this year's home run rate to be given Meche's past tendencies. Moving from Safeco to Kauffman Stadium could have adverse affects on that home run rate, and if it gets up into Josh Beckett territory it's going to be a big problem. This is actually my main worry about Meche's 2007, as if he approximates last year's walk rate and his home run rate rises and it is wont to do...well, you can see why BP's PECOTA has him projected with an ERA above five.

However, I don't look for Meche to be that bad this year. Maybe I'm just optimistic, but a slight improvement in control could do a lot for him; if he manages say, point-five less walks per nine and approximates his 2006 HR rate, he can have a decent year. Then, you factor in his improvements last year, and that doesn't seem that unreasonable. Perhaps a change of scenery will help "Mechey" break out a little bit.
This is getting too speculative, so I'll tell you that my bottom line statement on Meche is that I can't see him having an ERA under four, but I think he's got a good chance to be a league average-to-slightly above league average guy, despite what BP says. He'll contribute to the team, might improve a bit, and bring some much-needed innings to a rotation that was a patchwork job last year. Anything above that is gravy; I'm expecting an ERA in the 4.40-4.60 range.

One last thought on Meche: the Royals are paying him to be the best pitcher on the roster. That might seem silly, but with a VORP of 18.0 last year he would have been the best pitcher on KC's roster. Perhaps that was motivation for Moore's much-heckled signing.

My Favorite Hudson Brother (Luke)

Luke Hudson, on the basis of his semi-solid campaign last year, also appears to be a lock for the rotation in 2007. Hudson has been talked about a lot on these boards, and if you take away that awful outing versus Cleveland last year he was pretty okay. Even if you don't, he was still the best starter in the horror-show rotation of the Royals last year. To paraphrase "slayor," who had a nice pro-Luke diary promoted to the main page, Hudson was an atypical Royals' pitcher last year in that he's got good stuff. I think this is true, due to both the opinions on this site and my own personal opinion, having seen him pitch well against the Red Sox. Now, the question is how well his "good stuff" will translate into actual results this year?

Hudson, like Meche, has a bit of an injury record. Unlike Meche, he did a good job of avoiding the long ball last year (50% groundball rate) while playing for a team that plays at least half its games in a pretty good hitter's park. Hudson's HR rate was .62 per nine, or almost half Meche's HR rate last year with half his starts in Safeco. That bodes well for an improvement in performance this year, as does Hudson semi-high BABIP of .315. The latter indicates that he may have been slightly unlucky in allowing as many hits as he did in 2006. A decrease in hits allowed would be nice, obviously, especially since Hudson's walk rate of 3.35 is nothing special.

I don't know if we can expect that much improvement on Hudson's control at this point in his career, but it's kind of encouraging for Luke's prospects to see both of this rates are lower than Gil Meche's. He didn't strike out that many hitters last year, striking out a rather average 5.65 per nine, but all-in-all it seems like these numbers would be associated with a somewhat better ERA than the 5.12 Hudson ended it with last year.

And wow, does BP ever agree.

While Hudson's projected ERA for 2007--I'm told (I can't wait for my annual to arrive)--is not all that great, his Peripheral ERA (PERA) which calculates the ERA pitcher would be expected to have given his adjusted rates, has Hudson at 3.98. Yes, three point nine eight. This is a great sign that Hudson has a bit of a correction coming in 2007--assuming his rates stay about the same--and it give Royals fans something more stats-tangible to back up add to the "he's got good stuff" argument. Add to this that Hudson is still pretty cheap at this stage of his career, and you've got a great chance to see the Royals get bang for their buck in terms of Luke's 2007 performance.

My prediction for Hudson is that he'll be the Royals' most effective starter, beating out Meche by posting an ERA in the low fours. Yes, I know I probably come off as biased towards Luke doing well, but that PERA stat is an illuminating one. Luke seems to have been pretty unlucky last year--I doubt he'll have another outing like the one in Cleveland--and if he gets things a little his way, I think he'll break out a bit for the Royals in 2007. Unlike with the possibility of Meche breaking out, I am confident in this assertion.

(Feel free to call me out if Luke posts a 7.00 ERA, and I'll eat crow. In Luke I trust.)

Odalis Perez

The first thing that comes to mind when I hear this guy's name is that my best pal from high school had a rotation in the last EA Sports baseball videogame, and for some reason Odalis--historically a pretty good pitcher--was the worst pitcher in his rotation by two and a half runs. A year and a half later and in, you know, reality, the Los Angeles Dodgers were faced with a similar problem.

In fifty-nine innings pitched in 2006, Perez had racked up an unsightly 6.83 ERA in twenty appearances--eight starts--including a 7.18 ERA outside the friendly confines of Chavez Ravine. Reversing their somewhat questionable decision to re-sign the flaky pitcher, the Dodgers shopped him around and found a willing taker in...the Kansas City Royals?

As you may have guessed, I'm not really a fan of the Royals' acquisition of Perez. It seems to fly in the face of rebuilding the Kansas City franchise. Perez likely will not be around the next time the Royals win the central division (or compete for it), and even if he is he doesn't look like a good bet to be a big reason for it. After the trade to KC last year, Perez posted a definitely-better-but-still-shit-on-your-shoe-ugly 5.64 ERA. His PERA was significantly lower, but there's a problem with saying that this means the same thing as Hudson's in that Perez was twice as homer-prone as Hudson was, and that includes his time in the pitching's haven of Dodgers Stadium. His BABIP was also high, and it seems he was probably hit-unlucky last year, but at the same time there has always been an element of luck involved when Perez put on his really good years; in 2002 and 2004, his two years with 3.something ERAs, his peripheral numbers (Ks, BBs, HRs per nine) did not really back that performance up. Then you account for the fact that, once again, the Royals are taking a pitcher out of a pitcher's park and putting him at the K for half his starts.

Maybe Perez won't do as badly as a 6.20 ERA (last year's cumulative total), but there doesn't seem like he's got much to improve. He's 30, and his stuff has never been electric. To be frank, he's probably always had about a league-average ability with some good years thanks to Dodger Stadium and a healthy dose of luck.
If he's league average at Kauffman stadium, there IS value in that, but the problem it that it hardly seems necessary to trade for a guy like this--a 30-year-old reclamation project--when the Kansas City franchise is trying to build for the future.

Perez, unlike Meche, has had his numbers decline in the last two years, and it may just be that his stuff is not fooling anybody at this point. Batters slugged approximately .500 off him last year and that, more than the BABIP stat, seems to indicate that hitters really like hitting off the guy at this point in his career. It seems like his stats are kind of like a regular season 2006 Carlos Silva; throws a lot of strikes, but gets hammered a lot as a result. Just because high walk rates are bad, that does not mean a low walk rate is not always a sign of success.

Honestly, given that I think the best-case scenario is a rebound to an ERA in the high fours, the Royals would be better off shopping this guy to pitching desperate teams and then giving a younger pitcher a shot. Problem is, trading for someone and paying their multimillion-dollar salary might be enough to make sure Odalis is in the rotation. I do not expect much out of him. For what it's worth, he also pitched like crap in his first spring training appearance.

Jorge De La Rosa

At this point, Buddy Bell seems ready to hand De La Rosa a job in the rotation, and I suppose if there's one thing I can say about that, it's that the Royals aren't paying very much for De La Rosa to pitch in the rotation. This guy must have a lot of intangibles or something, because has nothing like major league control. Three strikes against him: his walk rate of nearly six per nine innings last year, his home run rate that was higher than Josh Beckett's, and his career K:BB ratio is 114:106. What about that says "major league pitcher"? I mean, he Ks guys at a pretty good rate, but as I said above it can be dangerous to look at one of these peripheral numbers rates without taking into account the other factors. In this case, the other factors are baaaaaaad for Jorge. Of course, since he's left-handed and throws reasonably hard, he probably has another ten years in baseball to look forward to even if he sucks this year.

De La Rosa's ERA last year was worse than Odalis Perez's, and I really can't see much improve occurring unless the Royals and De La Rosa magically find a way to fix the guy's control. If De La Rosa had been pitching full seasons as a starter thus far in his career, he'd been talked about in the same breath as Daniel Cabrera--a guy with good stuff who can't find the strike zone with any consistency.

If Perez and De La Rosa pitch back-to-back in 2007's rotation, it's going to be "up your average day" followed by "up your walk rate day" at Kaufman Stadium. There is no way the Royals should already be committed to starting this guy; he has as much to prove at the ML level as a guy like Brandon Duckworth.

If he's in the rotation, and he pitches like he has in the past, there's no indication that De La Rosa won't have an ERA through the roof (say around six). Pray that he magically finds some control lying around somewhere in the Royals ST complex. And, if he does, that it's not Todd Wellemeyer's control that he finds.

Zack Greinke

The hopes of the Royals rotation being a decent unit this year seem to hinge on how much Kansas City can expect to get out of the once-ROY-candidate-now-question-mark Greinke, and it's really hard to predict what we're going to see him do in 2007. Greinke has incredibly odd-looking  career stats so far:

  1. 3.97 ERA, 145 IP
  2. 5.80 ERA, 183 IP
  3. 4.26 ERA, 6.1 IP
After the 2004 season, the BP annual's comment on the promising Greinke was "we've seen the future of pitching, and his name is Zack Greinke." The writers applauded both his stuff and his ability to mix up his pitches and change speeds, and it looked like the Royals had something very good on their hands. Two years, an apparent problem with the pitching coach in 2005, an apparent anxiety issue, and a 5.80 ERA over his only full season in the bigs later, and comments about Greinke's promise have faded to the background.
Now some people want to know if the guy is even mentally stable, let alone whether he recapture his promise (though the two are certainly related questions).

I'm not here to speculate as to the problems Greinke has had with anxiety, or over the negative impact his pitching coach had. I'm here to tell you that if Zack Greinke can approximate his rates from 2004-2005 (K rate, BB rate, HR rate), and reclaim his ability to mix up his pitches, he can certainly be effective again. Frankly, I don't know how likely it is that how accomplishes this. This is one case where it's hard for me--or anyone else, I would think--to look at stats or even the way Greinke is pitching from a scouting standpoint, and then make any kind of accurate estimation. Zack Greinke certainly had it in him to be a good major league pitcher--his 2004 season and stats in the minors bear show that--but it remains to be seen if he still does.

In terms of a prediction, I really don't know. I certainly will be rooting for him to recover and pitch well, and if he does he gives the Royals a third solid starter and a significantly better rotation. Good luck, Zack.

Brian Bannister

This guy should be given his shot in the rotation, not De La Rosa. I didn't think I'd be saying that, but Bannister--though he's old for a prospect--at least has a record of showing some control in the minors. Okay, yes, it went south on him when he reached the majors with the Mets (K:BB of 19:22, ouch), but he struggled through and managed a 4.26 ERA and a positive VORP. There's not a single Royals pitcher except Wellemeyer who did both last year. That's cherry picking data, yes, but the Royals would be better served to giving Bannister a chance to show what he can do (he only pitched 38.2 innings last year with the Mets) at the major league level, rather than pitch De La Rosa or waste time on Odalis Perez.

For the most part,  Bannister has shown good walk rates in the minors, about average strikeout rates, and spotty home run rates. That profiles as a pretty questionable guy to be starting in the majors, as maybe it will turn that his 2006 wasn't a fluke; maybe he can't strike people out in the majors. But hell, let's find out, eh? We already know that Perez stinks and De La Rosa needs a road map to find the plate. The fact that Scott Elarton is out until around June gives Bannister a shot to make the big club as a long man even if he does not make the rotation.

Some people have been critical of the deal that sent Burgos to the Mets for Bannister, but to my way of thinking, once you account for Burgos's struggles last year, it's a good gamble to trade potentially good young reliever for a potentially good back of the rotation starter. Good, not great, relievers, which is about Burgos's upside, just can't amass that much value compared to someone getting significant average innings as a starter.

Other Possibilities:

Jimmy Gobble has started at the Major League level, but his ability to strike out people only appeared as a reliever. He could still get some starts, however. His K-rate was nice last year, even if his ERA wasn't. That's something.

Brandon Duckworth looked good in his spring training outing. He's an odd case in that his gopher ball tendencies crippled him in Philly and Houston, but it was his walk rate--not his home run rate--that put a damper on his Royal performance last year. As an NRI, he could make the team anyway, and he could see time when Odalis Perez explodes.

Scott Elarton walked more than he struck out last year and gave up too many home runs, but he makes sure that his teammates put in an effort! He's injured apparently, and could return in June.

Bottom Line: the rotation looks to Meche, Hudson, Perez, De La Rosa, and Greinke, with Elarton returning in June to try and get his spot back. I have no confidence in De La Rosa or Perez, and I'd rather see Bannister or even Duckworth replace one of those guys to start out. Overall, however you set it up, it's probably not a good rotation. Still, if Greinke pulls it together you've got three solid-to-good guys and then the question marks. That'd certainly be progress from a year ago. (An undeniable positive: no Runelvys Hernandez!)

Relief Pitchers

The Royals bullpen was also a revolving door last year, with Wellemeyer, Nelson, Peralta, and Gobble emerging as the guys who could get people out every-so-often. While the bullpen isn't full of big-name guys, that type of thing is a bit overrated anyway. I'm going to be a little more brief here, because I devoted a ton of space to the rotation and, quite frankly, the bullpen will have a lot less influence on what kind of year the Royals have than the rotation or line-up.

Octavio Dotel (Closer)
Dotel, assuming he is fully recovered from surgery, is a guy who can gas practically anyone at the plate, assuming he doesn't walk them or groove his fastball. He's been a little homer-prone in the past, but he's still a pretty good bet to be an effective closer if he's healthy. Also, since everyone knows his name, he could bring the Royals some nice goodies at the trade deadline.

Prediction: closes for the first half of the year, flipped at the deadline

Todd Wellemeyer
I've already mentioned that Wellemeyer was one lucky schnook last year, given his K:BB ratio. If he limit his control problems, he has a live arm.

Prediction: makes team based on strong performance in 2006, teases Royals fans by alternating between great and horrible.

Jimmy Gobble
A lefty whose strikeout rate was his the only real encouraging sign last year, Gobble could see time starting, but probably will be one of the lefties in the pen. Since he can strike people out, there's always a chance some other things will fall into place and he'll have a great year.

Prediction: makes team, Buddy Bell doesn't notice that he actually did better against righties in 2006, and uses him in a LOOGYish fashion.

Joel Peralta
Actually did better than Wellemeyer last year, if you go by the fact that he actually had some peripheral stats that backed up his success.

Prediction: sets-up for Dotel, closes when Dotel gets traded

Joe Nelson
I can't believe this guy actually got ML hitters out after how bad he looked for the Red Sox a couple years ago. With very, mediocre stuff, he seems to be a long shot to repeat his success.

Prediction: yo-yos between the big club and AAA ball, isn't very effective.

Ken Ray
A journeyman who lucked into recording some saves last year, Ray is a generic righty reliever and is about a third as good as Chris Ray, the other Ray who closed games last year.

Prediction: does not make the big club, ends up in AAA somewhere

Leo Nunez
Has one of those `drunk pictures' on mlb.com. Has youth and a fastball on his side, lack of a consistent second pitch against him.

Prediction: ends up in minors, sees ML time later in year

John Bale
Batman (c'mon guys, I want this nickname to catch on) has a shot at being the second lefty out of the pen. Has shown some stuff at minor league level. EDIT: guarenteed moeney = guarenteed spot. Thanks for the correction.

Prediction: he's a lefty, so expect him to be in the majors at some point, if not on opening day roster.

David Riske
A generic righty reliever who has had some good years, but it's very hard to know what to expect out of him due to odd peripheral number changes.

Prediction: he's not a good match for the K. Probably bombs out with the Royals if he makes the team.

Ryan Braun
Don't have much on this guy, but he seems to be a long shot to be in the majors at the start of the year.

Prediction: starts out in minors, as he has not enough name brand value.

Soria Rule 5 pick, he must make the team or be sent back from whence he came.

Prediction: I guess the Royals like him, but I have a hard time seeing how he'll fit the opening day roster.

Angel Berroa
Berroa should be converted to designated brushback pitcher if he needs to be on the roster.

Bottom Line: I'm going to say that the Royals start out with Dotel, Wellemeyer, Peralta, Gobble, Bale, Bannister (long relief), and Nelson if they go with seven pitchers. Subtract a righty if they go with six. It's kind of crapshoot to try and critique this set-up, due to the flukiness of relievers, and I really doubt that I'll be right about of all my predictions because of said flukiness. One thing's for sure; the Royals should trade any veteran bullpen guy they can get value for at the deadline (Dotel, Wellemeyer, Ray, Riske, etc). It's hard to lose in such trades.

This concludes the `Position Battles Royal' articles, though Spreadsheet Baseball will be back next week. Comments and questions are welcomed/encouraged. Hope you enjoyed this week's article and the Position Battles series in general.

And whoops, sorry about bumping down the open thread...