Okay, I will be frank here: from Day One of writing these pieces on the Royals, I never really considered them contenders. Opening Day was good fun, and there's been significant progress on the pitching front, personified by Gil Meche and Zack Greinke in particular, but overall my analysis of the team has them finishing in last this season. That's not necessarily bad news, as with all the young players Kansas City has acculmulated on both sides of the ball, I saw--and still do see--this season as a kind of springboard forward towards the next good Royals team. I did not think this team would lose 100 games again, as I thought it was reasonable for them to reach the seventy-win mark. With the White Sox looking like they're past their expiration date in a lot of ways, my optimistic projection had the Royals possibly passing them for fourth place.
A 3-10 start, despite my modest expectations, definitely comes as a bit of a surprise. I wouldn't expect the Boys in Blue to do that well against the Red Sox, the second highest payroll team in the bizz, and the Tigers, the defending AL Champs, but the Orioles? Yes, I know, I pegged the O's as the AL East 3rd place team this year, but that still makes them someone I think KC should be breaking about even in the season series at least. Twice in the series, the Royals let the O's slip off the hook: a 1-0 lead was lost in the seventh of the first game, and Chris Gomez's line-drive Grand Slam propeled the O's to a 6-4 comeback win. These type of games seem almost as inexplicable as they are heartbreaking, no matter who your team is. When you're badly in need of a win on the road against a beatable team (they traded for Jaret Wright, for heaven's sake), it's worse.
Are the Royals really this bad? I don't really think so, but it hasn't been much fun for the fans so far this year. Yes, there have been positives in the line-up, but David DeJesus, John Buck, Germany, and Ross Gload certainly cannot mitigate the damage done by the Royals' supposed cogs in their offensive machine. Let's not sugarcoat it: the heart of the line-up has been awful in the 13 games played thus far, and that's the real problem here. Remember in Spring Training, when almost everyone predicted the Royals line-up would be league average and the pitching would sink them? Well, not taking into account long-term expectations for the pitching staff, the line-up has been the anchor so far, and that's without Angel Berroa on this team. Last week, I did a rundown of all of the players' performances in the first week. Today, I'm going to go more in-depth on the players whose production has been distinctly lacking.
3B Alex Gordon - .125/.205/.225, 1 HR, 2 RBI
When we talk about the negative of the Royals early performance, it all begins and ends with Alex Gordon. If the consensus number one prospect in baseball was OPSing, say, ~800 and the team was still losing, everyone would still have some underlying optimism. However, we face the harsh reality right now that Gordon has not done well at all at the plate, and hasn't been much better in the field. He's 5-for-40 right now, which is rough. I really don't think that this alone should scare people into thinking that Gordon is a bust, or even not going to be a very good player in the long run. There's no doubt he's had immense pressure heaped on him by the KC Faithful, which is understandable; he's supposed to be KC's next great player, and everyone knows it.
Maybe the pressure is a factor, but through my stathead goggles I'm looking for something a little more tangible to pinpoint the problem. I've mentioned already that I think the transition from AA to the Majors, while I think it was the right decision to have Gordon make, has to be a factor here. Someone on this blog mentioned that there are hardly any veterans pitching in AA ball, and jumping two levels means that suddenly Gordon is facing guys who have great stuff, have control of their stuff, and know how to use it. Pitchers who can do even two of these things aren't what I'd call a majority in AA ball. So yeah, this is kind of Alex's growing pains here as he needs to find ways to adjust to pitchers who no doubt have the rookie's scouting report already. Thus far, I don't think he's done that well; my limited observance of him seems to suggest he might have a problem getting his hands inside the ball on inside hard stuff. I don't watch him enough, however, for that to be something I feel confident in concluding, however. I seriously need to get whatever network usually broadcasts the Royals' games for me to draw any extensive conclusions. That's not going to happen, as I don't have the cash to pay for Extra Innings (which is something I guarentee I will have someday).
It'd be a simple thing, in light of what we've seen from Alex Gordon this season thus far, for me to conclude that "plate discipline" and "the need to adjust" are the problems here, and tell you guys "wait out the storm, he'll be fine." Now probably he will turn out to be fine, but I'm not satisfied with sitting here and feeding you all cryptic platitudes about the transition to the majors. Nor, am I satisfied to take the Nate Silver approach and tell you all that it's some kind of "hyperconfidence" that's a big part of the problem. That's weak. Anyhow, there's two different methods of looking at Alex Gordon's performance that I'd like to try. The first is more my usual approach: looking at the stats.
A common refrain I've heard in reaction to some version of the statement "don't worry, Gordon will be fine" is "well, when should we worry?" That's a question I haven't really answered in an specifics, and I'm going to attempt to do so now. If the question is something like "when do we worry that our super prospect isn't going to be a star?" Then, well, since we don't know the outcome of the Alex Gordon saga yet, the logical thing to do would be to find a comparable player and see how he's doing. Gordon is a thirdbasemen...he's been on everyone's top prospect list...Baseball Prospectus and other statguys loved him...many tabbed him as a potential ROY candidate. This might sound vaguely familar to fans of another AL Central team. Yes, that's right. Nick Punto. No just kidding! Crede and Inge aren't really that comparable, as Inge had years of hitting impotence as a catcher before settling in at third as a low-OBP, great defense, good power guy. Crede is an awfully similar player who looked better last year because of a higher BA, and for what it's worth raked in his first big league action. This leaves...
Andy Marte, 3B, Cleveland Indians. Yes, you may think Marte and Gordon aren't all that alike, but Marte is actually a not very well documented case of a former super prospect struggling with the transition to the majors.
Without scrolling up, can you tell me who's who? I'll ruin the suspense and tell you the top line is Andy Marte's 66 PA first exposure to the major leagues in 2005 with the Atlanta Braves, and the bottom is Gordon thus far. The lines are very similar, with the difference in power being Gordon's lone home run. The higher OBP for Marte is the result of slight BA inflation and also his seven walks. Obviously, neither line is good. Marte "accomplished" his at age 21, and Gordon's is obviously from this season (he's 23, the same age as Marte right now). Marte, that year in AAA ball, had hit a nifty .275/.372/.506, so he seemed like a good bet to adjust to the majors well before he was called up. Up until the 2005 call-up, all of the noise about Marte from BP had been positive. In BP 2004, Marte was listed as the #3 prospect behind only Jeremy Reed (2) and Joe Mauer (1). The line that stands out from Marte's blurb is "[he] has so many ways to develop into a true superstar player." At the time, he had not played above the Carolina League.
In 2005, Marte hit .269/.374/.525 in the hitter-unfriendly AA southern league. BP ranked him as the number one prospect above both Delmon Young and Felix Hernandez, and the Marte comment in the Braves' section said he was "the best prospect in baseball and a future superstar" and said he'd have a few seasons like Adrian Beltre's 2004. Baseball Prospectus is usually a pretty skeptical group, so this was especially high praise for the youngster, who was 20 by the year's end. Marte entered 2006 with obviously big expectations for him in the future, as the number one prospect in all of baseball.
It was in 2006, fast-forwarding another year in this timeline, that Marte finally ran into trouble. After doing well once again in the minors, this time at Richmond, the AAA affiliate of the Braves, Marte was called up to the majors when Chipper Jones was injured. It was then that he put up the utterly unproductive line shown above, and the Braves sent him back down as Wilson Betemit filled in ably for Jones. Understandably, Marte dropped to #7 on BP's Top 50 list, but he was still only 22 and coming off a near-900 OPS in AAA, so he was still regarded as a possible star. The prospect comment on him was no longer glowing, but since he had been traded to the Red Sox in the Renteria deal, Jazayerli and Perry wrote "Marte should give the Sox just about everything you'd want from a thirdbasemen other than a high batting average, and Fenway Park may give him that anyway."
Meanwhile, Alex Gordon was drafted that season by the Kansas City Royals. The player comment in BP 2006 noted that Gordon was universally considered a better player than Ryan Zimmerman, who was taken two picks later. Zimmerman hit .397 in a brief call-up and played Gold Glove defense for the Nationals, and we know he's developed well since. BP 2006 said, given that Gordon is supposed to be even better, "doing the math, that means Gordon is very, very good," and he was compared to Mark Teixeira as his best-case scenario (Teixeira's great year in 2005, not his slight off-year in 2006).
In the off-season following the 2005 season, Marte was again traded to the Cleveland Indians in the deal that brought Covelli Crisp to Boston. If there's a winner so far, it's probably the Red Sox by centimeters, but it's hard for me to doubt that Cleveland will be the long-term winner. Still, I report the statline:
Andy Marte 2006: .226/.287/.421, 5 HRs, 178 PAs
Marte, 22 last season, had trouble getting playing time do to the annoying presence of Aaron Boone on the Tribe's roster, and some of his struggles can probably be attributed to that. His K:BB ratio was almost 3, not good considering his plate discipline in the minors had always been one of his major assets. Still, it's relatively small sample size, and Cleveland gave him the starting job for 2007 based on his still-considerable promise. However, there was no doubt, thee years after his #1 BP ranking, that the projections for his superstardom were disappearing. BP 2007 suggested that he would be "just" a "star," without the "super prefix." What exactly that means is left to the reader, but to me it's acknowledgement that Marte was not quite as good as originally projected. He should still have a good career, I think, but he's looking more like a solid plus at his position than any kind of Rolen-esque impact bat at third.
Gordon, meanwhile, took AA ball by storm, hitting a ridiculous .325/.427/.588 at Wichita, and gaining...surprise! The #1 prospect ranking by Baseball Prospectus. Does this remind you of anyone in particular? Naturally, given that great line, the ranking had a perfectly good justification. In my mind, a better justification than Marte's 2004 #1 ranking. So far in 2007, the similarities between Gordon when first came up and Marte's first exposure are clear. Despite PECOTA's .282/.363/.509 projection for Gordon this year, he's struggled mightily at the plate. Meanwhile, Marte's off to a slow start at .179/.233/.357, which is bad but is in all of 29 PAs and displays the secondary skills that should make him a good player when his BA comes up to more reasonable levels. PECOTA's projection for Marte has him OPSing around 800, if you're curious, in his age 23 season. Again, it's important to note that these guys are the same age.
All right, so you guys wanted to know "when can I worry?" Well, it took about 240 PAs in the majors before people really acknowledged that Marte was not really going to be a superstar. Gordon has had a grand total of 40. Where this leaves us, I'm not exactly sure and I don't know how anyone can be either. The skillsets of Marte and Gordon differ only in that Marte hit for a lower average in the minors and has been the superior defender thus far, and while the treatment received by both of them differs vastly given the different organizational philosophies of the Braves and Royals, as well as the trades of Marte, the similarities remain clear: these are two 23-year-old third basemen in the Major Leagues. Both of them came up with huge expectations and great minor league numbers. Only Marte has shown some semblance of promise in the bigs, but it's clear that he is not the next Scott Rolen, unless he's the next Melvin Mora (sudden development after 30).
What I'm starting to realize here is that the conclusion of this comparison is that Marte is pretty much a finished project and should do reasonably well in the Majors this year, and the wild card is how Gordon's differing development path and allegedly quicker bat will impact his production. Marte and Gordon have had similar experiences and tools in common, but there's a big question in terms of how much more upside Gordon has; his minor league experience was much more limited, and so at 23 he appears to be less of a finished project than Marte despite similar IsoP and patience in the minor leagues AND the similar ML debuts. It would be interesting to see a stats study on how fast-tracked players do versus guys who are promoted step-by-step like Marte, as different organizations treat their prospects in vastly different ways when it comes to promotion.
The answer? Well of course we don't have it yet. 240 PAs for Marte in the majors provided a clear indication of his future ceiling for most people, and Gordon's had one-sixth of that time, and might have more development left in him than Marte depending on who you believe. Either way, it's certainly an interesting question in general: how long does it take to figure out if a prospect is going to make the transition and/or live up to expectations? Different players have different development and career patterns, and Royals fans should hope that Gordon has a different one than Marte's if Alex is really going to be the player everyone thought he was going to be. One thing is certain: the way the young hitters have performed this far this year, I am extremely skeptical of Buddy Bell and company's ability to help young players iron out the kinks. Dayton Moore is expressing patience for now, so it seems likely Gordon and his friends will have time to work through their current struggles. This is situation that bears close watching, and so...
Approach number two (yes, all of that was approach number one) will require some help from the members of this community. In light of the fact that I can't watch the Royals on a regular basis, I'm asking for volunteers to begin "charting" Alex Gordon's plate appearances. I'm aware I could get other sources on this--gameday comes to mind--but I'm looking for multiple perspectives to see if perhaps I can uncover a hole in Gordon's swing or difficulty dealing with a specific pitch as the season continues. I can't really offer you guys anything to take part in this except the knowledge that our prospective study might yield very interesting results once I compile the data. Let me know if you're interested: I am looking for some amount of commentary on the at-bats as well, so it's not as if you'd be a data-collecting drone. As I said, it's about collecting as many perspectives as possible.
Ryan Shealy - .108/.171/.216, 1 HR, 4 RBI
The buzz about Gordon's struggles may have spared Shealy some critiscism, but he also might be the player to worry about more. No, I'm not suggesting Ross Gload should take his starting job, but I am going to point out that Shealy is much too old to be high-upside guy and that he's probably as developed as a hitter as he's ever going to be. Most of us thought that meant a decent power, average OBP guy who could complement the better bats in the line-up, but early reviews of his batspeed have not been good--as documented by members of this blog--and just yesterday he hit his first home run. Hopefully, it's a sign of things to come, because Shealy's actually managing to be out OPSed by the 5-for-40 Gordon right now, being 4-for-37 himself.
A slow start doesn't necessarily mean that Shealy has been exposed at the major league level, but his .280/.338/.451 line last year was in 210 PAs. Could it be there's a scouting report out on him now? It's possible, as if his batspeed is as slow as some say it is, maybe all you need to get Shealy out is to have a good fastball. Unlike Gordon, he's actually take a walk. Like Tony Pena Jr., he's taken two walks. Hooray. There's no question Shealy has power in his bat, but it's hard to tell whether this is a slump or him being exposed as a quad-A player. His AAA numbers at Colorado Springs don't look nearly as good translated, so Shealy's combination of track record, age, and performance this year has me wondering. Here's hoping this is just a slow start, and Shealy will come out of it soon.
Mike Sweeney - .152/.216/.152, 0 HR, 1 RBI
It may be that Sweeney's plate discipline is intact, but it's hard to figure out because he's given pitchers absolutely no reason to think he can hurt them thus far. 5-for-33 with all your hits being singles is pretty ominous for a guy with a history of power-sapping back problems, and once again we're left wondering if this is just a particularly nasty slump or a sign of bad things to come. With Shealy, it's because of his lack of a convincing track record. With Sweeney, it's because his track record includes so many injuries. It's possible his body is older than his 33 years.
That said, Sweeney has been good enough, statisically speaking, that he doesn't really fit the profile of guys whose bats die in their early thirties. I think everyone's rooting for Mike to turn it around, and even well-established players have nasty slumps sometimes.
Tony Pena Jr. - .217/.265/.391, 0 HR, 3 RBI
This is the guy that I'm least optimistic about any kind of significant break-out from his current doldrums. Sure, Pena's average might come up a bit, and he finally got his second walk. Sure he's a nice defensive player who's a breath of fresh air in the field compared Angel Berroa's vortex of suckitude. That said, Pena hit .227/.261/.341 in the bigs last year, which is Berroa-esque and very similar to his current line. Additionally, his track record is awful: 2006 in Richmond (AAA) was his only three in the last three with an OBP above .300. Even then, that was a batting average driven .312. Don't let the triples fool you: his slugging average is inflated by them, as he'll never go through a full year with an IsoP of .174. In this case, his speed is inflating his slugging average in an sustainable way.
Put this all together and what have you got? A very bad hitter who's handy with the glove. That's fine for a utility infielder, but Pena should not have a hold on the SS job if the Royals have any alternatives to explore. Paging Andres Blanco...Mr. Blanco...I mean, jeez, you can do better than this, right?
Honorable Struggling Mention: Emil Brown (.176/.200/.235), Mark Teahen (.179/.313/.282), Mark Grudzielanek (.231/.268/.308)
Pitchers to come later. They're not quite as offensive so the add-on will be short. Hope you enjoy this week's article, and comments are, as always, welcome/encouraged.