With October upon us, we are all reminded why we became baseball fans. When we were kids playing in the backyard, time would have to be called to let everyone know the magnitude of the situation… “Game Seven of the World Series, bottom of the 9th, bases loaded, down by one with two outs, guess who’s stepping to the plate?” Don’t act like you didn’t, I know you did. Seeing something not done on a big league field in 54 years, like Halladay’s premier postseason performance, escapes words. Instead it’s a feeling. A nirvana coursing through the body for a few moments until returned to Earth.
For many Royals fans, it’s the best ball they have seen all year. It’s also a glimpse into what could have been, or what is still to come. Kansas City wrapped up 2010 by hosting two series with Tampa and Minnesota. The Royals took four of seven games from the playoff contenders, nearly snagging a fifth in extra innings on the last day of play.
I can already hear the skeptics, it’s September, and they were already looking ahead to the playoffs. Longoria didn’t play; they didn’t throw their top pitchers, because they were setting up a playoff rotation.
I don’t play that game. Ask any big league ball player what they focus on, the positives. This is the answer to a man in MLB, I can guarantee it. In a game so ridden with failure, positive reinforcement is a never ending remedy. When guys start looking at the negatives, their careers die and go into the dark never to come back. The same is true with the fans and media surrounding an organization.
I have spoken briefly in previous posts about the organizational success of both Tampa and Minnesota. After the last week of the season, the comparisons have become more valid. With clubs so similar in market size and payroll, the question was posed to me by a guest writer for I-70, John Lofflin – What is the difference?
So I did a little digging and came up with some interesting things to look at in all facets of the game. If either team can survive the first three games, maybe you will notice some of this when watching the Rays or Twins play.
The Royals had the second highest team batting average in all of baseball (.274), hard to believe isn’t it? How can a team so proficient at getting base knocks manage only 67 wins? Despite having the second most hits in MLB, the Royals finished 20th in plating runs. They ranked 24th in walks (471), 19th in slugging (.399), 22nd in extra base-hits (431), 4th most twin killings (152), not to mention 26th in intentional passes, and 28th in hit by pitch. Pretty much the only way the Royals got on-base, was with a single.
Even with the second most hits, both the Rays and Twins produced more base runners throughout the season. The Royals totaled 2,065 base runners on the year (not including players reaching on an error). Out of those runners, they scored 676 runs or 32% of the time. The Rays converted base runners into runs at a 38% pace. 6% doesn’t seem like much. If KC were to score as many runs as the Rays (802) at their 32% conversion rate though, it would take an extra 435 base runners. Nearly three a game.
The Rays offense is the ‘Bizzaro World’ counterpart of the Royals. Tampa ranked 26th in batting average (.247), but third in runs (802). How can a team so bad at making contact score so many runs? They ranked 1st in the MLB in walks (672), 10th in extra base hits (492), first in sac flies (57), least double-plays hit into (92), and 1st in stolen bases (172) at an 80% clip. The numbers are the epitome of small ball. Can you imagine if they made contact like the Royals?
The Twins are usually marked with the ‘small-ball tag’ as well. Looking at the numbers, the truth begins to show through. Minnesota finished just behind KC in batting average (.273), but were 2nd in on-base percentage (.341), 7th in slugging (.442), 7th in extra base hits (501), 8th in walks (559), and 6th in runs (781). The Twins used their power and patience to pepper the ball across their new confines, Target Field. They posted the third highest doubles total and the second highest triples total.
This is where the differences can be seen most significantly. There is really no silver lining in the Royals pitching performance of 2010. The Royals were outscored by 170 runs on the year. One of the biggest reasons why, their 551 walks, the 7th most in MLB. Piled on top of the walks were nearly ten hits a game, along with the second most stolen bags against (137). The most telling stat lies in the percentage of runners left on base, 67% (2nd worst). The Rays and Twins left 75% of their opposing runners stranded.
Tampa and Minnesota’s pitching numbers are extremely similar. Both staff’s allowed few walks and base hits, compiling a 1.28 WHIP. Tampa fanned the 10th most hitters, but it is interesting to note the Royals pitcher’s had more strikeouts than the Twins. Minnesota’s ability to pound the strike zone, combined with a strong defense allows for fewer swings and misses.
The Royals’ suspect defense in 2010 was understandable. With a combination of aging position players and young talent, like Alex Gordon, trying to find new positions, stability was difficult. The midseason loss of David DeJesus cost Kansas City dearly, specifically with the leather. The team’s UZR for the 2010 campaign, -44.2.
Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) tries to quantify how many runs a team or player saves or allows through their defense prowess. UZR takes into account a players arm, the amount of double plays they create, their range, and error frequency. A 0 UZR would indicate a team of league average, replacement defenders.
In other words, if the Royals could have put eight replacement level players in the field for every game, they would have allowed about 40 less runs. A general rule of thumb, ten runs equals one win. With replacement level defense this team becomes a 70 game winner. Obviously playing both sides is part of the game, but this is an interesting way to dissect the defensive deficiencies.
The Rays and Twins posted team UZR of 32.6 and 32.4, respectively. Their pitching staff’s felt the love from the glove, preventing over 30 runs during the course of the campaign. Good for about three more notches in the ‘W’ column. For the Rays, it meant the one game difference of an AL East Championship and home field advantage over the Yankees.
I can put as many numbers up as I want, but in the end there’s only one key component, player evaluation. If I had only two words to answer the question, those would suffice. Instead I’m going to give you about 3,000.
The way the game is played has changed. MLB is a young man’s game once again. The days of 40 year-old physical phenoms left when steroid testing was introduced. Clubs no longer can rely on expensive and aging stars to continually carry their franchise.
The best example I can give lies within the immense influx of 20-something star rookies this year alone. Jason Heyward, Mike Stanton, Carlos Santana, Buster Posey, Tyler Colvin, Austin Jackson, Pedro Alvarez, Starlin Castro, Logan Morrison, the list goes on and on. I didn’t even mention pitchers, and even so those are only a fraction of the rookies making genuine impact on their teams this year.
The teams adapting most quickly, while staying ahead of the curve, will be the one’s reaping the benefits for years to come. Free agency is no longer an option for replacement or stop gap players. There is no need for 3-year, $36 million contracts for the Jose Guillen’s of the world. If your farm system cannot produce replacement level talent to fill holes for 2-4 seasons, your organization is doomed. Simple as that.
Why would you ever pay an aging player millions of dollars, when you could have a young kid off the farm come fill the void for a couple hundred thousand? Are they going to make a comparable contribution to a big name free agency talent? Maybe, maybe not.
In Guillen’s two and a half years in Kansas City he posted a combined WAR of -1.3. The Royals paid this guy $12 million a year, to play below replacement level. Hindsight is 20/20, but plain and simple it’s a horrible business move.
I believe if you survey any of the Royals fans, they would rather see a young guy hustling for a contract down the road. Instead they get guys who are already fat on their paychecks, and dog it once they know the season is gone. Let’s be honest the true fans are the only ones paying attention anymore anyway.
Gil Meche fared better under his monster contract, until injuries of late. He posted a combined WAR of 9 since becoming a Royal, even making an All-Star appearance in 2007. Nine wins above replacement level over four seasons though comes out to just about an average starter in MLB. While they are getting some return, $12 million is a waste for an average starter, let alone an 8th inning guy.
This doesn’t mean all free agent moves are bad moves. Instead of trying to create a competitive roster out of free agents, they should be used as compliments to the core by contending teams. Both the Twins and Rays have shelled out big dollar contracts to free agents. Instead of having to carry the team, they simply slip into their role and succeed by feeding off the nucleus created in the organization.
A quick look at the 2010 payrolls shows the Twins bolster the 11th highest ($97,559,167), while the Royals ($72,267,710) and Rays ($71,923,471) are back-to-back at 20th and 21st. The most interesting thing about the payroll is how the funds are allocated throughout the roster.
With the money the Royals planned on paying Meche and Guillen alone this year ($24.4 million) they could afford the contracts of the Rays entire starting pitching staff (Matt Garza, James Shields, David Price, Jeff Niemann, and Wade Davis for a combined $9.12 million), Carl Crawford ($10 million), Evan Longoria ($950,000), Ben Zobrist ($400,000), and Sean Rodriguez ($400,000). Are you kidding?
Take Meche and Guillen’s contracts, add Yuniesky Betancourt ($3.3 million) and Brian Bannister ($2.3 million) and compare those dollar signs to the Twins. It is the equivalent of Joe Mauer ($12.5 million), Justin Morneau ($15 million), Francisco Liriano ($1.6 million), and Denard Span ($750,000).
Those comparisons are obviously way out of balance, but the common thread with all of the contracts for the Rays and Twins, those players came up through their farm system. Not all were drafted by the organization, but all spent time in their minor league program. Once breaking into the big leagues, they are under team control for the next six years.
These two clubs have been building baseball factories for the last decade. They found out the formula. Find the right player evaluators, pump talent and team oriented players into the organization. They have put the correct player development, coaching staff, and winning atmosphere in place. The Twins and Rays have been churning out big league ball players consistently. Recently, it’s been non-stop.
These factories grind out big league ready talent on a year to year basis. Have a hole? No problem, just go check down on the farm. Sure enough, there are a few more youngsters getting molded as we speak.
I heard a sports broadcaster make the comment on-air a few days ago if Zach Greinke wasn’t traded this off-season for a boatload of successful prospects, the whole organization is going in the tank. I understand sports media is opinion driven, I can respect that.
As a rule of thumb in journalism, I prefer my opinions to be backed with some facts. Anyone from the street can sit in front of a microphone and shout out whatever they think; it doesn’t make them sports journalist. I despise whoever allows garbage like this to run.
When has one player every mattered in the ultimate team game? Greinke is the backbone of the franchise, not to mention their most valuable commodity. If he leaves though, I’m pretty sure the Royals will survive. Want proof?
The Minnesota Twins perennial MVP candidate Justin Morneau went down on July 7th with a concussion. This guy won the MVP in 2006, placed second in 2008, won two Silver Sluggers, and is a four-time All-Star, how could they ever replace such production? Tapping into the baseball factory.
Rookie third baseman Danny Valencia is right there to pick up the slack. The guy comes out and puts up a line like this, .311, 7HR, 18 2B, 40 RBI, 300 AB, 5.2 UZR, and 2.6 WAR. He owns the highest AL rookie batting average, third in slugging, and fifth in on-base percentage. He was a 19th round pick, no one outside of the Twins organization had heard of this guy four months ago.
The Twins went on to a 49-29 record without their slugger, the best in baseball since the day of the injury. They also hit for a higher batting average and scored more runs per game then when Morneau was healthy.
Find a hole not readily available from your baseball machine? Now it’s time to go out onto the free agency market.
Price is no longer a problem because you have already locked down the core of your team for the next 4-6 years near league minimum. Guys breaking into the big leagues this year won’t be arbitration eligible until 2013 or a free agent until 2016. If teams bring up a wave of talent to the big leagues all at once it allows a pretty large window of opportunity for success.
Bringing up guys who impress in their early twenties gives pretty good incentive to take a reduced rate early in their career. They don’t have to wait six years for free agency and still make some coin (See Evan Longoria’s 6 year, $17.5 million contract).
With money left in the bank both squads have gone to the free agent market to amp up their rosters. The Twins invested $7 million on Carl Pavano. Pavano went 17-11, throwing 221 innings with a 3.75 ERA, good enough for a 4.6 WAR. Not to mention a mustache putting even Tom Selleck, Mr. Baseball himself, to shame. Any man with lip fur like that deserves every penny he is owed.
The Rays dropped some cash on a premium arm of their own, Rafael Soriano. They paid the cool tempered flame thrower $7.25 million for his services out of the pen. He’s posted a 0.8 WHIP, 1.73 ERA, 45 S, and a 2.6 WAR. Not quite as good as return as Pavano, but with a few clutch postseason saves the Rays management will surely forget.
Not having to worry about the bulk of your roster come off-season allows management to more accurately assess their needs. Instead of panicking and overpaying for someone to block talent from below, General Managers like Andrew Friedmen and Bill Smith come off looking like geniuses for making all the right moves during the winter.
When these baseball factories produce their prospects, they stick. Once they hit the big leagues they blossom into stars and quick. Let’s take a quick look at how some of the mainstays in these line-ups made their first impressions on a big league level.
Tampa Bay Rays
B.J. Upton (22) – .300, 24 HR, 22 SB, 82 RBI, 4.6 WAR
Ben Zobrist* (27) – .253, 10 2B, 13 HR, 30 RBI – Two years later, All-Star 8th in MVP voting
Evan Longoria (22) – .272, 31 2B, 27 HR, 85 RBI – Rookie of the Year, All-Star
Reid Brignac (24) – .256, 13 2B, 8 HR, 45 RBI, 2.7 UZR
Wade Davis (24) – 12-10, 1.35 WHIP, 168 IP, 4.07 ERA, 6.1 K/9, 1.8 WAR
Jeff Niemann (24) – 13-6, 3.94 ERA, 2 CG SO, 181 IP, 2.4 WAR – 4th in Rookie of the Year voting
Joe Mauer (22) – .294, 26 2B, 9 HR, 55 RBI, 3.4 WAR – Next season, All-Star, Silver Slugger
Justin Morneau (23) – .271, 17 2B, 19 HR, 58 RBI – Two years later, MVP
Denard Span (24) – .294, 26 2B, 7 3B, 6 HR, 18 SB, 47 RBI, 3.9 WAR – 8th in Rookie of the Year voting
Jason Kubel (25) – .273, 31 2B, 13 HR, 61 RBI
Delmon Young** (21) – .288, 38 2B, 13 HR, 98 RBI, 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting
Scott Baker (24) – 0.8 WAR – Above 2 WAR every season since
Nick Blackburn (26) – 2.2 WAR – 8th in Rookie of the Year voting
Francisco Liriano*** (22) – 12-3, 1.00 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 4 WAR – All-Star, 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting
*Traded from Houston for Aubrey Huff and cash
**Traded with Jason Pridie and Brendan Harris from Rays to Twins for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett
***Traded with Boof Bonser and Joe Nathan from San Francison for A.J. Pierzynski
Kansas City Royals
Billy Butler (21) – .292, 23 2B, 8 HR, 52 RBI
Joakim Soria* (23) – 2.48 ERA, 17 S, 9.8 K/9, 2.9 WAR – 7th in Rookie of the Year voting
Zach Greinke (20) – 3.97 ERA, 1.1 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, 3.8 WAR – 4th in Rookie of the Year voting
*Rule 5 selection from San Diego Padres
The Royals put a small core of homegrown talent together, but it pales in comparison to the other squads. It’s not only evident in the number of players, but the number of wins. Nearly every rookie came in playing at the level of a MLB starter (2 WAR), if not higher. When they hit the scene the players knew they could play and felt comfortable in a system full of guys they had played beside through the minors.
Kansas City lately has been praised on the status of its minor league organizations. The Royals shouldn’t wait until 2012 to begin weeding out who will stay and who will go. 2011 is the time to test the waters. Not necessarily with Eric Hosmer, Mike Montgomery, or even Mike Moustakas.
A guy Kila Ka’aihue (AAA- .319, 24 HR, 16 2B, 78 RBI) must find a roster spot. If the Royals are building from the ground up and promoting from within it needs to start now. Ka’aihue is a perfect example of an organizational guy to fill the void for a few seasons until they find someone they want. If he performs well at the Major League level give him a contract. If not see what you can get for him. Either way it’s still better than spending $3-6 million on a free agent to do the same job, while not playing into the future plans.
The biggest problem with a ground swell of talent in a downtrodden organization like Kansas City is everyone from the front office to the fans expects one or two of these guys to be saviors. Media and fans constantly hype up these kids until at one point they can never reach the expectations set before them.
This is an enduring process. Just because these guys are slated to come in 2012-13 doesn’t mean they are going to compete. Some farmhands will be successful, plenty will not pan out. The most important thing for everyone involved is to respect the process. It works, look at the teams in the playoffs.
The kids are going to have to take their lumps at a Major League level. Not all of those first year numbers are spectacular. If the Royals continue this process and make efficient and effect moves in the off-seasons the pistons will soon be pumping from the Boys in Blue Baseball Factory at the ‘K.’
Until then, watch some baseball factories already constructed.
With no cable at home, or money for the bars, I had a momentary lapse in my frugal minded ways and splurged $9.95 for every play-off inning on Postseason.TV with MLB.com. Who couldn’t? So the next three weeks of my life will be spent sitting on my couch staring into a laptop screen of buffering pixels resembling ballplayers. Waiting until one team celebrates by jumping around like giddy little kids again, I’ll surely be following in unison, my body covered in goose bumps. After, it’s the worst five months of the year, until spring has sprung again. Such is life, when life is baseball.