Jeff Herr, a finalist in the 2011 Big Gig Contest on 610 Sports Radio, was born and raised in Kansas City. Following the Chiefs, Royals, and Jayhawks all his life has led him to blog about all three extensively at the-jeff-report.blogspot.com. He has also spent time covering the Royals for the blog site kingsofkauffman.com as well as serving for a period as the lead editor of throughthephog.com a blog covering the Kansas Jayhawks. When not writing about the local sports scene, he pays the bills by serving as an accountant.
Looking back to 10 years ago, the Royals were behind the proverbial 8-ball in just about every category that allowed a small market team to compete. The Royals didn’t spend money on free agents, they didn’t spend money in the draft, and they had no presence in Latin America.
This is the reason that Allard Baird was fired and Dayton Moore was hired (in 2006). It’s not clear how much of this was Baird’s fault, but it seemed there were things going on in the world of baseball that the Royals couldn’t grasp.
Moore was installed and he talked about “the process.” This, of course, meant building things from the ground up. It included finding talent, drafting it, getting them to commit, and turning this team into a winner.
Moore increased the Royals presence in Latin America and they are one of the most successful franchises in that realm. Whether he had to convince David Glass to do so or just forced his hand by making the picks, they have opened up their pocket books to sign talented young players in the draft.
Within five years this led Moore and the Royals to having the best farm system in baseball, and possibly even baseball history. Job well done as it seemed the Royals were well on their way to ending their consistently poor performance.
Unfortunately, wholesale changes are not something the Royals were intent on doing. They made easy changes that made sense and should have been made sooner, but when it comes to looking outside the box for new ideas to make this organization competitive they chose to keep the status quo.
The Royals are still run, on a baseball level, just as they always were. While others around them have embraced unique and advanced approaches to varying levels of success, the Royals have stayed the course, trusted “the process,” and find themselves only slightly further along than where they started.
When Billy Beane took over the A’s and started using the “Moneyball” approach of advanced statistical measures to help run his team, it was laughed at. People kept laughing until his team went to the playoffs. While it’s a legitimate argument how much that actually helped versus a confluence of timing of having great players (Miguel Tejada, Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, etc.), the fact that they were willing to embrace this approach shows something the Royals never have (at least to that extent).
If there was a team worse than the Royals from the late 90’s to the early 2000’s it was the Tampa Bay Rays (formerly Devil Rays). As an expansion team that started in 1998, the Rays were only mediocre or worse through their first 10 years. They won 70 or more games only once in that time frame.
Right in the middle of that, the Rays were bought by a couple of new age Financial Industry wizards. They promptly installed former investment banker Andrew Friedman as the team’s General Manager. People weren’t exactly sure what the Rays were doing, but they understood something that many organizations have struggled with and still can’t seem to figure out.
The Rays knew, just as the A’s did a few years before, that the deck was stacked against them. As a small market team with less-than-super-rich owners, they couldn’t compete on the financial level. They had to develop better scouting, better player development, and use different management techniques to turn things around.
Four years after Friedman took over; the Rays were in the World Series. They continue to churn out talent from their farm system year after year. We are currently in the seventh year of Moore’s regime and the Royals haven’t sniffed the playoffs. There are more talented players on the roster now than before he took over, but the Royals still find themselves in need of starting pitching, possibly even more so than we he first arrived.
The Royals continue to have the same developmental problems that they’ve always had. For the Rays to turn things around, they didn’t just change the way they scouted and drafted and called it a day. They made changes that permeated the entire organization. They utilize different techniques to squeeze the most out of trades and the draft, but also out of their current players with new developmental and management techniques.
The Royals have no basis to think that they are doing it right. All the success they’ve had in the draft has been lessened by their inability to develop more than just a couple of players and have success at the major league level.
To make matters worse, change is coming again. With the draft right around the corner the areas where the Royals have been taking advantage are no longer there. They can’t outspend teams in the draft or Latin America anymore. The only thing they’ve done well over the last six years has been, in large part, taken away from them. Now they are going to have to find other ways of leveling the playing field.
For those that know me, I’ve lately become an advocate of long-toss as an organizational pitching philosophy. While my personal opinion is that the virtues are many, that’s not the point. The point here is that the Royals have been stubborn in their ability to find and implement new philosophies. Long-toss pitchers are more and more common at every level and the Royals refuse to embrace it. The issue being that they are not allowing players to do what they need to be successful.
This is just a microcosm of the fact that the Royals are stuck with a mentality that grit wins baseball games, statistics don’t matter, and there’s nothing wrong with the way they do things. When Nolan Ryan took over the Texas Rangers in late 2008 he asked the questions of what they were doing wrong. He wondered why they couldn’t develop or even keep pitchers healthy at the minor league level. He didn’t necessarily like the answer but he made changes that put them in the World Series two years in a row.
The Royals are in a similar position. There is something fundamentally wrong with how they do things. If there wasn’t, they would be on the verge of their 17th losing season in their last 18 years. The Royals need to step back and ask the questions. They may not like all the answers but they need to be asked. Once they do, they can realize that there are other avenues they can go down to be successful. The Royal way doesn’t’ have to be the only way.
They can embrace things like long-toss. It won’t destroy their organization and it may just help some of their players be successful. They can realize that they don’t have to change the lineup every single day. They can try different philosophies with how they handle pitchers, how they coach them, and how they play defense. They can change to better work with what they have instead of trying to force what they have to work with their philosophy.
Until the Royals get past this, there won’t be winning baseball in Kansas City.
Royals baseball history has more than its fair share of players who showed up to much fanfare and potential only to not live up to the hype. Angel Berroa, the shortstop from the Domincan Republic came up and was a sensation with the Royals. For the best Royals team since the strike shortened season of 1994, Berroa was a spark of youth and skill. He hit .287/.338/.457* (BA/OBP/SLG) with 17 HRs and 73 RBIs and won the Rookie of the Year award. What seemed like just the tip of the potential filled iceberg of Berroa turned out to be the apex of a follied career that would end in the majors amidst age questions and diminishing skills.
Bob “The Hammer” Hamlin was the player that preceded Berroa with this dubious honor. Coming up at the tail end of George Brett’s career in the strike shortened season of 1994, Hamlin hit .282/.388/.599 with 24 Hrs. and 65 RBIs. He also won the Rookie of the Year award and gave fans hope that there could be another elite player in Kansas City after the retirement of George Brett. Instead, Hamlin, as Berroa would do years later, never reached those heights again.
Now we have Eric Hosmer. While he didn’t share the curse of winning Rookie of Year as Hamlin and Berroa did, he gave Royals fans the same feelings. Hosmer is a player that scouts and “baseball people” like. He possesses a skill set that is rare and was on full display in his rookie season. He also had to deal with high expectations coming in to his first full year in the big leagues.
From his first ever major league baseball game it was apparent that this town was ready to embrace a future star. With a standing ovation for his first ever at bat he garnered a walk. He would go on to end the day 0-2 but with another walk to his credit, showing the trademark plate discipline we had heard so much about from his time in the minor leagues.
What followed over the next 127 games was Hosmer hitting a very good .293/.334/.465 with 19 HRs and 78 RBIs. While he didn’t win Rookie of the Year, he did finish third and provided quite the argument as to whether it was given to the correct person. It was clear that Hosmer was the future of the Kansas City Royals.
Now here we sit, 40 games in to the 2012 season (although Hosmer has only played in 38), and the face of this franchise has a dismal line of .172/.238/.311 that is only partially saved by his 5 HRs and 19 RBIs. It doesn’t take a scout or a statistician to tell you Hosmer is struggling.
Most around Hosmer will tell you that he’s trying to get his batting average up to .300 with just one swing. Besides one small blip in the minors, it’s fair to say that Hosmer is probably in the worst slump that he has ever experienced. Based on his potential it’s also fair to say we might just be witnessing the worst slump of his career, and he’s only in his first full year.
This past Friday and Saturday the Royals gave Hosmer both days off. They wanted him to clear his head. Royals brass didn’t even want him in the batting cages. He just needed to step back, decompress, and return ready to take things one at-bat at a time. Those two days off have yielded a 1-7 streak in the two days that followed. Bringing Hosmer’s total to 1-14 in his last 3 games. Everyone in Kansas City has started to wonder, where is Eric Hosmer?
Truth be told, he’s right here where he’s always been. Just as any scout will tell you, Hosmer is going to be fine. His current struggles might be perplexing and it’s not clear when he’ll come out of them, but he will. The scouts and the Royals assure us of this.
After all, it’s not as though Hosmer looks lost. He’s not striking out every other time at the plate and hitting weak dribblers back to the pitcher. Hosmer is only striking out 11.6% of the time and walking 7.9% of the time. While not great numbers, they are both improves from the previous year.
Hosmer is hitting fly balls at 31.3%, which is actually a decrease from his prior year number of 31.7% and is well below the 2011 league average (36%). He is also hitting line drives at a 17.6% clip which, although below his 2011 numbers of 18.7%, it’s not so low that he would be tipping the scales well below the Mendoza line.
Historically, fly balls are far more likely to turn into outs and, according to the Hardball Times (http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/statpages/glossary/#ld%), line drives turn into hits about 75% of the time. This suggests there is something else at play here causing his average to be so far below what we see.
One possible issue might be his ground ball rate which currently sits at 51% compared to the 2011 league average of 44.4%. Even so, that’s still only slightly higher than his groundball rate of 49% from 2011.
If we are to assume that his decrease in fly balls, and decrease in line drives from 2011 all fed into his increase in ground balls, one still wouldn’t expect the dip we’re seeing. Ground balls aren’t as likely to be outs as fly balls and aren’t as likely to be hits as line drives, but land somewhere in the middle. This type of fluctuation shouldn’t manifest itself in a .100+ point drop in batting average.
The only other factor is “luck.” While not precisely defined, luck can be monitored by the Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) statistic. This measures how many balls put in play by the hitter (so all hits excluding strikeouts and homeruns) actually fall for hits.
It is very hard for a player to have a BABIP that is well below .300. Historically, league averages for BABIP remain consistently near the .300 plateau. Even in the steroid heightened apex of 2001 BABIP remained a steady .296.
Hosmer currently sits at a BABIP of .165. It’s the lowest in the league and would create a historical anomaly if he were to finish the season anywhere close to that number. While nobody knows for sure, this would lead us to believe that “luck” almost certainly has to be the predominant factor for Hosmer’s struggles.
What we do know for sure, and what should put the mind of many Royals fans at ease, is that he is not Hamlin or Berroa. Hamlin was 26 when he won Rookie of the Year. Hosmer is 22 and won’t even turn 23 until after the season is over. Berroa came at a time when the Royals were able to catch lightning in a bottle for one season and everything went right. The indicators were there to suggest that he might not be able to sustain.
While this is worrisome for Hosmer, it’s not all gloom and doom yet. League stalwarts such as Jose Bautista and even the great Albert Pujols find themselves struggling nearly as much as Hosmer so far in 2012. While Hosmer may be pressing a little bit, he’s not stepping too far outside his game. I won’t worry about Hosmer until his starts striking much more than he does and looking like he shouldn’t be going up against major league pitchers. To me, he still looks like he belongs and I won’t worry about him too much until that goes away. Even with his struggles he’s still not Berroa or Hamlin. Not even close.
The Royals came out this season touting something new and different that the fans could be proud of. With the All-Star game coming to town, we had a team we could call our own that was supposed to be different that the past iterations that did things like lose 19 games in a row. A team loaded with young talent only meant that any promise we had seen was just the tip of the iceberg. There would be more to come.
Twenty eight games into this season and I don’t know if you could find much difference between this organization and the previous versions of the last 10 years. Different teams have had some talent on them, but ultimately, each one has been lacking in starting pitching. Across multiple managers and general managers the one consistency has been mediocre to poor starting pitching at the major league level. It went well past “bad luck” years ago and it’s now and organization paradigm. A black cloud hanging over Kauffman stadium that rains out any chance of this team gaining momentum or becoming a winner.
Luke Hochevar is the prime example. Hindsight is 20/20 and the baseball draft is a crapshoot anyway, but Hochevar was picked in front of Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, and Tim Lincecum, all of whom were top 10 picks. It’s no stretch to say that if the Royals picked Hochevar, they at least had to look at the others.
After drafting Hochevar it was supposed to be the start of a new day. Dayton Moore had taken over as general manager and the Royals were going to start putting more money into talent and development. Their situation as a small market team was no longer going to be an excuse to be exploited; things were going to be different.
Here we are nearly six years later and the Royals are in the bottom three of the league in terms of wins and Luke Hochevar is near the bottom 10 in career ERA of ALL TIME. As I said, we can look back and talk about a mistake in the draft or that Hochevar just didn’t pan out, those things happen in drafts with all sports. This is different though.
Hochevar has had five full seasons at the major league level. He has never had a record above .500, never posted more than 11 wins, and never had an ERA below 4.68. After 613+ innings pitched, Hochevar has a career ERA of 5.46. Whatever ability Hochevar has, it seems we should have seen it by now. The little ray of hope his second half gave us last year is gone. What’s left is a broken pitcher coming from a system that hasn’t produced much of anything over the last 25 years.
We’re not here to dump on Hochevar. It is my personal contention that, while maybe he wasn’t worth the 1st overall pick, the Royals haven’t been able to get as much out of him as they should. Right now, we’re here to point out that the Royals either can’t see or won’t admit to seeing what is so plainly clear to the rest of us.
Hochevar is not a good pitcher. He has an ERA of 9.00 and has given up 16 earned runs in the last two games, which included only 6.1 innings of work. These are things we all know. It wouldn’t take a degree in logic to infer that the former number one overall pick is struggling to put it kindly. Yet, here we are listening to the Royals make excuses for him nearly every start.
Yesterday, on Nick Wright's show he played audio of Ned Yost defending Hochevar. He basically said that Hochevar is a better pitcher than he’s shown, with better stuff, a better track record, and the rest of us just can’t see it (I inferred that last part on my own). Yost compared Hochevar to Hosmer saying that even though Hosmer is struggling they still have faith in him based on his track record. The question is what faith does Hochevar’s track record give you?
This is a classic example of the Royals making excuses when they need to be honest, both with the fans and with themselves. If you want to part ways with Hochevar or keep trying to get something out of him, that’s fine. But don’t try and sit there and tell the fans that what they’re seeing with their own eyes is wrong. Don’t try to tell the fans that he’s still got “good stuff,” or that he’s still throwing “good pitches”. We’ve been down that road before and didn’t end well (Kyle Davies anybody?). Be honest with us and tell us that he and the rest of the staff need to be better.
This isn’t something exclusive to Hochevar either. They make the same excuses for Luis Mendoza and for Jonathan Sanchez. The Royals refuse to be honest with the fans. While I understand that you can’t dump on a player in a press conference, there is nothing wrong with admitting that they need to be better.
Instead of saying that they have faith in Hochevar and he was throwing good pitchers, why not say they think he has ability but he needs to show it and be more consistent. By making excuses they’re not holding these pitchers accountable and making it seem as though the status quo is acceptable. Perhaps it’s possible the Royals are being harder on these players behind the scenes. If that’s the case, it’s almost just as bad because then you are sending an inconsistent message.
This was supposed to be about a new era of Royals baseball. So far this year, it looks an awful lot like the previous go-rounds. For the Royals to truly start establishing themselves as a winning organization with a winning mentality, they need to start holding their players (and themselves) accountable. They need to stop accepting mediocrity.