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Polishing Off The Heist


A few weeks ago, I wrote a short commentary on the way teams use spring training to evaluate players who are competing for jobs. I probably went a little bit overboard in my opinion, saying, “teams need to have their minds made up about their rosters before the games start.” I’m partially retracting that statement because even after taking everything into account, trying to understand what a player’s spring training performance means is a fool’s errand at best. Putting too much stock into how well a player competed in camp to earn a job can lead to making a poor decision, because even bad players have good month-long stretches. Conversely, putting too little emphasis on it because of a pre-conceived notion about a player can start anybody down Billy McMillon’s career path. While Michael Wolverton proved that won-loss records in spring training don’t have any relation to won-loss records in the regular season, I’ve yet to find a study that discusses what individual performance means. For the time being, we’ll just have to take it on a case-by-case basis.

All of which leads us to the no-less-than-eight-man battle going on in Surprise, Ari. for the right to be the Royals’ fifth starter straight out of the chute. There’s the veteran – Kevin Appier – who’s so old, he pitched on a staff with Charlie Leibrandt. There’s Ryan Jensen, the other veteran playing the role of Tyler Green, and he’s probably ticketed for Omaha no matter what he does. Stranger things have happened, but I can’t envision any way Jensen would even make this sad excuse for a pitching staff (barring an injury, of course). After that, we get to the six kids who’re vying for the slot, including but not limited to Mike Wood, Dennis Tankersley, Chris George, Jimmy Gobble, Kyle Snyder, and Denny Bautista. While four of the first five guys on that list all have the abilities to be valuable pitchers to varying degrees (George, in my opinion, doesn’t) and will likely see Kansas City at some point this season, it’s Bautista who’s considered to be the leader in the clubhouse. Tony Pena even went as far as saying there’s “no way” he couldn’t put Bautista in the rotation if he keeps throwing lights-out ball.

To an extent, I can see where Pena’s coming from, because there are a ton of things to like about what he did over the winter and the carry-over it’s had to the first week of games. In five innings, Bautista – who added 20 pounds to his frame since October – has allowed less than a baserunner per inning and has already racked up eight strikeouts. Say all you want about sample size, but apparently he’s throwing harder than he ever has before. That’s saying something; prior to 2005, Bautista already threw consistently in the mid-90s with a killer hard-breaking curveball. There’s a great deal of upside with intimidating pitchers like him, and the Royals might want to use what’s sure to be a lost season to shorten his learning curve in the major leagues.

However, trying to shorten a learning curve too often short-circuits a pitcher’s career if he isn’t ready to handle the jump, as the Royals can attest. They can point to any number of reasons for why they’ve been looking to the future in every season since 1995, but none stands out more prominently than their total incompetence when it’s come to developing a live arm into a good pitcher. Bad coaching is as much to blame for the failed potentials of Mike MacDougal and Jeremy Affeldt among others, but also to blame is the Royals pushing their pitchers through the pipeline too fast. Allowing a pitcher to master a level before being forced to pitch against even better hitters is something I view as a necessity even if the majority of Major League teams don’t.

You’re probably asking, “What does ‘master a level’ mean, Kevin?” Well, for me, a pitcher needs to not only display a solid primary performance in his ERA and WHIP, but also support those numbers with good peripheral statistics like K’s and BB’s per nine innings pitched and strikeout-to-walk ratio. As it applies to that pair of Royals pitchers I mentioned above, MacDougal consistently walked more batters than he struck out during his apprenticeship, and Affeldt was allowed to skip Triple-A altogether after everybody saw his legendary strikeout of Jim Thome three years ago this month. My belief is that the careers of both guys’ careers were hurt because of being pushed to the next stop before they even got their feet underneath them at their original level. Dealing with pitching coaches not named Guy Hansen certainly didn’t help either, but the fact remains.

Discounting Bautista’s horrendous 8.49 ERA during his month-long stint in Kansas City a year ago, it’s easy to see why the Royals were thrilled (and probably making sure they weren’t being Punk’d) when the Orioles agreed to surrender him for Ordinary Relief Pitcher Jason Grimsley. Looking at his career performance, level by level:

LVLIPERAK/9BB/9HR/9
R63.02.428.292.430.14
A255.03.837.483.420.35
AA197.03.559.414.560.59

There isn’t much of anything not to like in that career to date. He’s been allowed to complete each level before moving on to the next, and you have to really nitpick to find negatives in his line. His walk rate has doubled since his debut, but he showed massive improvement in his strike-throwing ability last after he came over to Kansas City, hatcheting more than one walk per nine innings while pitching for Wichita. You could also argue that his home run rate’s gone up drastically, but considering where he started, there’s just no way to continue allowing so few bombs at higher levels of the minor leagues. He has the ability to form half of a dominant 1-2 punch with Zack Greinke at the top of the Royals’ rotation for years to come, especially with Hansen there to help him at the highest level.

However, missing from that stellar box o’ numbers are the letters “AAA,” which means that he hasn’t finished his progression yet. Denny’s far from a finished product. His control still needs a lot of work, as does his stamina, mechanics, and mindset. Additionally, putting off service time clocks starting is absolutely necessary for small-market clubs, and I don't think Bautista’s started with his September callup a season ago.

He’ll be pitching for the Royals soon enough, but once he’s here, he needs to be ready to pitch effectively every start. Being on a shuttle between Rosenblatt and Kauffman Stadiums isn’t going to help him any. I really hate to include Bautista in a blanket statement, but too many promising careers have gone awry in Kansas City because of an accelerated developmental program, and a talent like his has no business being ruined. Call it my desire to rather be safe than sorry. The Royals are covered from head-to-toe in guys who can capably pitch at the bottom of a rotation right now, but Bautista shouldn’t be one of them. When he’s a Royal, he should be in the Majors because his track record proved his worth, not because he was effective against a group of backups in spring training. The ability is there, and it's up to the Royals to not ruin it.
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