If I Didn't Have Bad Luck...
One of the many constants through the Royals’ ten-year run of futility has been a poor track record of developing the organization’s own drafted players. In other words, despite choosing from the same pool of players that successful small-market organizations like Minnesota and Oakland have, too many of the Kansas City draftees have ended up like Roscoe Crosby and Jeff Austin as opposed to Joe Mauer and Dan Johnson.
Most of all, the Royals have had a combination of terrible luck and even more terrible planning when it comes to developing young pitchers. Austin, Colt Griffin, Chad Durbin, and Jeremy Affeldt among others have all proven to be disappointments to varying degrees. All were talented pitchers, and all fell flat on their faces once they left the amateur ranks and started pitching in the Royals’ minor-league system. As much as I’d like to understand why, it’s difficult for an outsider such as myself to even speculate as to what Oakland, Minnesota, and Florida do in their player development programs that the Royals don’t.
All of which leads us to the latest possible talented pitching casualty, Zack Greinke. Since the beginning of summer, it’s been pretty clear that Zack’s problems ran just a tad deeper than being in a funk, and that said problems kept digging the Royals’ grave just a tad (read: miles) deeper with every horrible outing. Last Sunday’s start against the Yankees wasn’t any exception. In 4.2 innings of work, Greinke surrendered seven runs and 10 hits, eight of which staying in the park. His ERA soared to 6.28, which is easily one of the worst figures in Major League Baseball.
My question, of course, is why. How could such a talented pitcher prove he’s more than ready to pitch against Major League hitters one year, and look completely lost the next? Two immediate answers come to mind. First, he could be injured and not telling anyone about it (remember the line drive he took off his pitching elbow in Detroit in April?). The other is that dreaded sophomore slump, in which a second-year player can’t buy a hit or, in Greinke’s case, an out. However, those explanations provide possible circumstances for why Greinke might be running into trouble. And while this subject has been beaten to death by Royals fans trying to drown away their Greinke-induced sorrows like Jose Lima‘s "fountain pitches" at Kauffman Stadium, what I (and if you all still care, we) want to know is how. Here’s how Greinke has performed in 2005 compared to 2004:
IP H/9 SO/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA
2004 145 8.88 6.21 1.61 1.61 3.97
2005 147.2 11.86 5.69 2.81 1.22 6.28
I don’t have to tell you this, but there’s no question that Zack Greinke’s regressed this year in most of the categories that he controls. His walk rate -- something Greinke prides himself on -- is up 75 percent from his rookie season. Additionally, his strikeout rate has fallen by about eight percent and he’s had to throw about 300 more pitches in 2005 in a similar number of innings. The only thing that he’s improved at is keeping the ball in the ballpark, allowing 24 percent fewer homers per nine innings pitched.
However, that hasn’t stopped hitters from teeing off on him anyway. The number that stands out to me is the alarming number of hits that Zack has allowed per nine innings pitched. For the season, he’s given up 34 percent more hits than he did last year, an extremely massive jump for a one-year gap.
There’s little doubt that Greinke, evidenced by his decline in strikeout-to-walk ratio, hasn’t located his pitches nearly as well as he did last year, which, along with “the book” being out on him, helps explain why AL batters are hitting him so hard. However, hope is alive because it doesn’t explain why so many of those hard-hit balls are finding holes in the defense. And while Voros McCracken’s original theory that pitchers have virtually no control over whether a batted ball is turned into an out or lands safely for a hit has been tailored and somewhat dis-proven over the years, the main idea -- that pitchers sometimes have to rely on luck -- still holds some significance.
For the season, Greinke has allowed the sixth-highest batting average on balls in play (.345) among all MLB pitchers who‘ve thrown at least 100 innings. Two of the guys ahead of Greinke in the standings -- Jeff Francis and Chan Ho Park -- pitch (or, in Park’s case, did pitch) in two of baseball’s harrowed launching pads for half of the season. Basically, if a guy isn’t pitching in Ameriquest Field or Coors Field, it’s extremely difficult for 35 percent of the balls put in play against you to turn into hits. Consider this: The only KC starting pitcher who’s been worse than Zack’s been this year, Lima, has “only” allowed a .311 BABIP.
However, a high BABIP isn’t only an indictment of poor luck, it’s also an indicator of a poor defense. According to Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive Efficiency statistic -- the rate at which balls in play are converted into outs -- the Royals have the worst defense in baseball, converting just 66 percent of balls in play into outs. Perhaps the Royals should follow Carl Peterson’s lead and get a Patrick Surtain of their own.
So just how unlucky has Greinke been this year in the runs department? A good way to answer that is by using Fielding Independent Pitching Statistics, or FIP for short. The brainchild of Tangotiger, FIP is pretty self-explanatory. It’s simply an indicator of how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well his fielders fielded. The category on the far right (FIP minus ERA) is a method I like to use to determine which pitchers have been lucky and which should invest a few bucks into a new rabbit’s foot. Check it out:
ERA FIP FIP-ERA
2004 3.97 4.94 0.97
2005 6.28 4.73 -1.55
According to FIP, Greinke's actually pitched better independent of his defense than he did a year ago. We all know that isn't an absolute truth, but it’s amazing how good fortune has a way of turning itself into misfortune anyway, isn’t it? A year ago, Greinke had the damning label of being one of the luckiest pitchers in baseball, meaning he’d likely suffer through a period of regression. I don’t think anybody expected him to be this bad, but looking back on it, the league catching up to him wasn’t a totally random event.
In summation, the Royals need to keep a close eye on Zack because of the declining rates in the things he controls, but need to do so with the understanding that there’s stuff going on that are almost completely out of his hands. Unlike Austin, Griffin, Chris George, and now Jimmy Gobble (to an extent) before him, all isn't lost. I still think he’s going to be a very good pitcher and, as a result, that the Royals need to roll the dice and sign him to a long-term contract.
From The Dugout...
Unfortunately, what the Royals are doing with Bayliss isn't an unusual pattern of behavior for the organization. I'm no expert on player psychology, but I'd guess that a guy being shipped up and down between the minors and the majors would hurt that guy's development and chances of being a productive player. If I had things my way, the Royals' minor-leaguers would stay in the minors until there's a unanimous feeling that they're ready for the show. After being called to Kansas City, the player wouldn't go back to the minors for any other reason than an emergency injury situation.
There is a mental side to baseball, and a player knowing that he doesn't have to worry about making seven- and eight-hour bus trips would probably be a confidence boost. Right now, the Royals can use all the confidence they can get.
- Country truth: When it came to picking an intro song when he comes to bat, infielder Denny Hocking went to a Toby Keith hit about an aging good ol' boy.
I ain't as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was.
"If I'm not having fun, it's going to be a long day," Hocking said, "so I'm not afraid to poke fun at myself."
I appreciate Denny for having a sense of humor, but I think Nine Inch Nails' Suck would've been a more appropriate song choice for him, no matter what the lyrics are about.