Battle of the Big Men
Pitchers and catchers for the Kansas City Royals report to Surprise, Ari. tomorrow to begin workouts, and the competition for jobs will steadily heat up as the rest of the team filters in to prepare for the new season. I’ve already covered a few of them, namely who’ll flank David DeJesus in the outfield barring an unforeseen trade and which rotation spots are up for grabs. In fact, Allard Baird’s “no job is safe” mandate even stretches down to the spots of least importance like the backup catcher and the utility infielder.
The exercise is directed less at guys who’re the focal points of The Next Good Royals Team (John Buck’s, Zack Greinke’s, and DeJesus’ everyday spots are very secure), and more at players whose performance over the past few seasons has either been shoddy or very inconsistent. Call it “Camp Competition” for Chris George, Mike MacDougal, Jeremy Affeldt, and the topic of this article, Ken Harvey. The Royals know only a few things for sure about Harvey: he has a penchant for getting trapped behind tarps, crumpling to the ground after being drilled in the back by throws from the outfield, and randomly falling down more than Tara Reid at a New Years’ Eve party. Hey, Daniel Smith from Orange and Black Baseball didn’t dub him “The Big Contact” for nothing.
With Harvey, Matt Stairs, Mike Sweeney, and Calvin Pickering on the 40-man roster, the Royals have a logjam of slow, fat, corner infield-types with productive bats. Stairs’ ability to play a decent right field helps ease that glut; he and Sweeney are obviously locks to make the team. That leaves Harvey and Pickering battling for one spot – presumably first base if the team forces Sweeney to DH – with the loser either being traded or sent to Triple-A Omaha. Here’s the bizarre thing about this: for an organization that’s finally become one of the smarter ones in baseball by placing an emphasis on production analysis, the Royals’ pre-season stance on this is incredibly unusual and reminiscent of Kansas City player personnel decisions of yore.
I’m okay with there being a competition for the job, but the vibe I’m getting is that Harvey is being viewed as the favorite to win, meaning Pickering would head back to Omaha to terrorize Pacific Coast League pitchers for the second year in a row. The scary thing here isn’t that the Royals think lowly of Pickering, but rather that they think so highly of Harvey. For some reason, he’s being lumped in with guys like Buck, DeJesus, Greinke, Denny Bautista, and Justin Huber, or the high-upside players who are the reason for KC fans to believe there’s a better tomorrow. It seems obvious to me that Harvey clearly isn’t a good option for a team at first base and/or DH, especially when a masher like Pickering is on the team, just begging for a job. To get a better idea of what I’m talking about, let’s quantify this with the career statistics of both players:
Ken Harvey I Age 27
That isn’t a good trend. As Harvey progressed through the minor leagues and into the majors, his OPS went down at every single level change. Even more discouraging is his total lack of plate discipline as he moved up the chain, which isolates what is probably Harvey’s biggest flaw as a hitter: an unwillingness to adjust. When asked to discuss the first base position in a radio interview a few weeks ago, Baird made it very clear that after Harvey’s stellar first half of 2004 (.305/.353/.452) that got him named to the all-star team, the league’s pitchers made an adjustment to him by not throwing Ken as many strikes as they did the first go-around. An intelligent hitter would’ve recognized what was going on by the end of the first week of the second half at the very latest, and taken the walks that were presented to him. Unfortunately, Ken didn’t do that, and continued hacking away like nothing had changed. The result wasn’t pretty; he hit a paltry .256/.311/.366 the rest of the way, drawing just nine walks in 164 at-bats.
Additionally, the team’s hope that Ken will grow into his power is a blind one, as he’s hit 2.43 ground balls for every fly ball in his career. When a worm dies two out of every three times a hitter puts a ball in play, that hitter's never going to hit for any power. Period.
Calvin Pickering I Age 28
Among the fans I’ve spoken with, the majority perception is that Harvey has the ability to hit for average while Pickering doesn’t. That’s a forgivable misconception because Calvin’s known for his propensity to strike out. However, while Pickering’s career minor league average doesn’t hold a candle to Harvey’s .328, it stands at a more-than-respectable .303. Most impressive about Pickering is his plate discipline, as his isolated discipline (OBP minus AVG) in both the minors and majors has consistently been well over .100, which is the mark of a very intelligent hitter. And don’t forget the Bondsian .314/.451/.712 he put on PCL pitchers last year. Including his time spent with the Royals last year, Pickering blasted 42 home runs in 421 at-bats. Think of that what you will.
What’s most important in this comparison isn’t what the players have done, but rather what they probably will do. Baseball Prospectus’ amazingly-accurate player forecast system PECOTA has projected the following totals for Harvey and Pickering in 2005:
No matter which way you slice it, Calvin Pickering is Ken Harvey’s superior in just about every significant offensive category, and would be worth about 27 additional runs to a team that’s going to struggle to score them in 2005. There isn’t a need for Harvey on this roster, so I’d really like to see him traded while his value’s somewhat high. Chuck LaMar’s cell phone should be ringing right … about … now.