SweetSpot: Joakim Soria
Remember back in February when Josh Hamilton said, "There are true baseball fans in Texas, but it's not a true baseball town."
Maybe that stung a little at the time, but things really sting now. If pain, suffering and agony are requirements needed to fulfill True Baseball Town status, Dallas-Fort Worth is now eligible to apply. After all, I'm not sure fans of any team have suffered a four-year span like the Rangers have:
--A World Series loss in 2010.
--A crushing World Series loss in 2011.
--An epic final-week collapse in 2012 that cost them the division title.
--A loss to the Orioles in the wild-card game. A game that Joe Saunders started.
--An impending epic September collapse in 2013.
Sorry, Red Sox and Cubs fans, but you have never gone through a four-year stretch like that.
To be fair, the Rangers haven't yet completed this collapse. Yes, they're 5-15 in September -- they began the month two games up on the A's -- but they do have three games against the Astros and four against the Angels to close out their season. The Indians just swept the Astros (who have now lost nine in a row), so if the Rangers can pull of a sweep they'll at least head into the final series against the Angels with a chance. The Indians finish up with two against the White Sox and four against the Twins, a soft schedule that should essentially eliminate the Royals, Yankees and Orioles.
As I watched Sunday's 10th inning unfold, as I watched Maxwell flip his bat and raise his arms in triumph, my immediate thoughts:
1. What a great moment for Royals fans to cherish, even if their playoff chances remain minuscule.
2. How did Ron Washington screw it up again?
3. Doesn't Washington have to be fired?
Let's go through Sunday's game. Alexi Ogando had pitched seven scoreless innings. Tanner Scheppers had retired the next four batters, throwing just 15 pitches. With one out in the ninth, Washington replaced Scheppers with lefty Neal Cotts to face Alex Gordon. You can't argue that move too much, although (A) Scheppers has no platoon split; (B) Gordon has hit .306 against lefties and .245 against righties with more power against left-handers. And Cotts has actually been tougher on right-handed batters (.165, no home runs) than lefties (.202, two home runs). Still, lefty against lefty, and Gordon has historically been much better against right-handers. Still, there wasn't really much of a statistical reason to make the move, however, and you start running the risk of burning through your bullpen too quickly in an extra-inning game and having to use Joe Ortiz at some point (umm, see Wednesday).
Anyway, Cotts got out of the inning and was left in to face Eric Hosmer in the 10th. No issue there. Hosmer punched a ground-ball double over the third-base bag: Good pitch, bad result. Billy Butler and Salvador Perez were the next two hitters, two right-handed batters, Butler without a platoon split, Perez better versus left-handers. You could do two things here: (A) Leave in Cotts (who, mind you, has been as dominant as just about any reliever in baseball this year with a 1.04 ERA and, as mentioned, great platoon splits) or (B) go to the bullpen and bring in Joe Nathan even though it wasn't a save situation. After all, if you don't escape this inning, you won't have a game to save.
Washington immediately made Soria's job a little more difficult by deciding to intentionally walk Butler, setting up a potential double play with Perez, but also making it more imperative that Soria throw strikes since you can't afford to load the bases. Also of note, Soria had walked 10 batters unintentionally in just 20 1/3 innings pitched. Soria almost got his double play, but the ball popped out of the glove of a diving Elvis Andrus and he failed to get pinch-runner Chris Getz at second. Soria almost got out of the inning with a pop out and force at home, but Maxwell worked the count to 3-2 and was sitting dead red -- Soria in a situation where he had to throw a strike or risk walking in the winning run.
Look, you can't blame Washington for the offense's failure to score a run, but it capped a miserable week of decisions for a manager whose in-game strategies have been questioned in the past, particularly in the 2011 World Series. On Thursday, he used Nathan to close out an 8-2 victory -- even though Nathan had pitched the previous two days, including a 29-pitch effort on Wednesday (his second-highest pitch count of the season). That presumably left Nathan unavailable for Friday, when Jason Frasor and Neftali Feliz -- something like his fifth- and sixth-best relievers -- let the go-ahead score in the eighth. In that contest, he brought in Feliz after Frasor had loaded the bases. Feliz had pitched just five games all season since coming back from Tommy John surgery. Even when Feliz was good he always had trouble throwing strikes, walking more than four men per nine innings in 2011 and 2012. Why would you bring him in with the bases loaded? Brutal.
The Rangers lost two games this week in part because of Washington's inability to be flexible and realize you don't manage games in late September with your season on the line the same way you do in May and June. He lost games by pulling his best set-up guy, Cotts, while leaving his closer, Nathan, on the bench.
It's amazing how far the Rangers have fallen in just 12 months. One year ago they were about to win their third straight AL West title and were praised as perhaps the best organization in baseball, right up there with the Cardinals. They had a young and successful general manager in Jon Daniels, they appeared to have a stacked major league roster with a deep farm system. Hey, some things went wrong this year -- Matt Harrison made just two starts, Colby Lewis never returned, Alexi Ogando missed about half the season -- but this was also a team counting on Lance Berkman to remain healthy and David Murphy and Mitch Moreland to be the big left-handed bats.
It was a team with flaws. And a team with flaws can't win if its manager is making decisions that hurt its chances of winning. The Rangers have seven games remaining. I suspect they'll be the final seven games Washington manages for the Rangers.
1. KLaw discusses what he saw from Texas Rangers right-hander Neftali Feliz on Tuesday. Feliz lasted three innings before shoulder soreness forced his exit.
2. Meanwhile, I was able to observe Boston Red Sox right-hander Daniel Bard trying to avoid walks on Tuesday. Another converted reliever, KLaw shares thoughts on how this situation will end up.
3. Ryan Braun isn’t hitting this spring, and obviously the rumor mongers can’t get enough. Of course, Keith and I tell you the truth about Braun.
4. Big trade for the Royals! Big trade! OK, so acquiring Humberto Quintero and Jason Bourgeois doesn’t guarantee the pennant, but we discuss their impact, and the Royals' closing situation.
5. Emails and tweets galore! Among the topics are Mike Matheny’s living arrangements, the awful Houston Astros, sixth starters and Dusty versus Walt in Cincy.
So download and listen to Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast, which includes a funny rant by Mr. Law. Don’t miss it.
1. Should the Tigers have expected Cabrera to get injured playing third base? Our opinions differ slightly, but certainly Detroit dodged a bullet.
2. However, the Royals are likely to lose closer Joakim Soria for a while. The Royals have pitchers that seem capable of closing games, but which one?
3. In yet another long-term contract that seems to benefit both team and player, Derek Holland and the Rangers committed to one another. Is Holland on the verge of stardom?
4. We take your emails, as among the topics are top players to start a franchise with, White Sox catchers, Braves shortstops and more!
5. Is Triple-A baseball what is used to be, or do more prospects skip that level on the way to the big leagues? KLaw offers thoughts.
So download and listen to Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast, and send emails to email@example.com for Wednesday’s show!
The primary location of sliders thrown by Greg Holland in 2011.
His fastball/slider/splitter combo was among the most effective in baseball.
Click here to create your own Holland heat maps
With Joakim Soria going down with an elbow injury, it’s likely the Kansas City Royals will give the first opportunity at their closing role to former Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton, who was signed as a free agent.
But there is another candidate in the Kansas City bullpen worthy of consideration.
Righty Greg Holland may not get much attention outside of those who follow the American League Central closely, but in 2011 he was that division’s version of what David Robertson provided the Yankees.
Holland had a 1.80 ERA and an 0.93 WHIP in 60 innings for the Royals last season. Opponents had a .521 OPS against him, second-best in the AL to Robertson among those who threw at least 50 innings.
What made Holland comparable to some of baseball's best relievers was his ability to strike out left-handed hitters.
Holland struck out 38 of the 106 left-handed hitters he faced. The only AL right-handed reliever to have a higher percentage of strikeouts against lefties was Robertson. The average left-hander hit .185 against a right-handed pitcher in a two-strike count last season. Against Holland, they were 4-for-60 (.067).
How did he do it?
Holland’s effectiveness comes from the combination of his 95-mph fastball, a slider and a split-fingered fastball. His delivery is deliberate, but his pitches are nasty. Check out this string of highlights from mid-2011 when he struck out six Rays in three innings.
Holland threw 102 splitters in 2011 (about half coming with two strikes), spotting it most frequently just below the lowest part of the strike zone. As ESPN analyst Orel Hershiser said in Wednesday’s spring telecast, "The key for a pitcher is throwing a ball that looks like a strike." The splitter netted Holland 26 outs, with only two hits allowed.
The slider served as Holland’s strikeout pitch. He threw 108 of them with two strikes, which resulted in 38 strikeouts.
His 35 percent putaway rate with that pitch (strikeouts divided by two-strike pitches thrown) trailed only four other pitchers who threw at least 100 two-strike sliders –- Jonny Venters, Sergio Santos, Al Alburquerque and Craig Kimbrel.
Holland’s last outing of 2011, a final-week appearance against the White Sox, may have served as a foreshadowing of what was to come for 2012. After allowing a two-out double to Paul Konerko and issuing an intentional walk to A.J. Pierzynski, Holland struck out the final four hitters he faced to preserve a one-run lead. He blew away Adam Dunn with a 97 mph fastball and froze the other three hitters with nasty sliders.
It was one of four saves that Holland earned over the final two months of the season. He may get a few more chances in the near future.
We're back with more divisional position rankings for 2012. You can scream, you can holler, you can protest and call me names. But just because I rated your player lower than you think he deserves doesn't mean I hate your team.
(Here are the NL East and NL West rankings.)
1. Alex Avila, Tigers
2. Joe Mauer, Twins
3. Carlos Santana, Indians
4. Salvador Perez, Royals
5. A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox
The AL Central might not be baseball's glamor division, but it may have three of the top five catchers in the game if Mauer bounces back from his injury-plagued campaign. Since we're not certain of his health, I'm going to give top billing to Avila, who had the best hitting numbers of any catcher outside of Mike Napoli and plays solid defense. I wouldn't be surprised if Santana explodes; with his power-and-walks combo, all he has to do is raise his average 30 points and he'll be one of the most valuable players in the game. Considering that his average on balls in play was .263, there is a good chance of that happening. Perez hit .331 in 39 games; OK, he won't do that again, but he doesn't turn 22 until May and puts the ball in play. There's no shame in being fifth in this group but that's where I have to place Pierzynski, who keeps rolling along and is now 36th on the all-time list for games caught.
1. Prince Fielder, Tigers
2. Paul Konerko, White Sox
3. Eric Hosmer, Royals
4. Justin Morneau, Twins
5. Matt LaPorta, Indians
In 2009, when Morneau played 135 games, he hit .274 AVG/.363 OBP/.516 SLG. Even if he replicates that line, he may rank only fourth. Konerko has hit a combined .306 with 70 home runs the past two seasons. He's 104 home runs from 500 but turns 36 in March, so he's probably four seasons away; not sure he'll hang on that long, but who knew he'd be this good at this age. If Hosmer improves his walk rate and defense and Konerko declines, Hosmer could climb past him. If it doesn't happen this year, it will happen next. The most similar batter to him at age 21: Eddie Murray.
1. Jason Kipnis, Indians
2. Gordon Beckham, White Sox
3. Johnny Giavotella, Royals
4. Alexi Casilla, Twins
5. Ramon Santiago, Tigers
Well, this isn't exactly a Robinson Cano/Dustin Pedroia/Ben Zobrist debate, is it? Kipnis' bat is a sure thing, as evidenced by his excellent play after his call-up (.272 average and .507 slugging in 36 games). His glove was once a question mark but now appears solid enough that he looks like a future All-Star to me. Can anybody explain what has happened to Beckham? He's second mostly by default; he's gone downhill since his superb rookie season in 2009 but is only 25, so there's hope that he'll find those skills again. Giavotella has some potential with the bat (.338/.390/.481 at Triple-A), which is more than you can say for Casilla and Santiago.
1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2. Mike Moustakas, Royals
3. Lonnie Chisenhall, Indians
4. Danny Valencia, Twins
5. Brent Morel, White Sox
We'll go with the idea that Cabrera is Detroit's starting third baseman, although I predict he'll end up starting more games at designated hitter. Manager Jim Leyland will end up doing a lot of mixing of his lineups, but for this little exercise we have to choose a starter. Moustakas didn't tear up the league as a rookie and I worry about his ability to hit lefties (.191, homerless in 89 at-bats), but he showed more than fellow rookies Chisenhall and Morel. Valencia doesn't get on base enough and he rated poorly on defense in 2011. I hope he's at least good in the clubhouse. Morel was terrible all season and then exploded for eight of his 10 home runs in September and drew 15 walks after drawing just seven the previous five months. Maybe something clicked.
1. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
2. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
3. Jhonny Peralta, Tigers
4. Alcides Escobar, Royals
5. Jamey Carroll, Twins
Peralta had the best 2011 season, but he's a difficult guy to project. He had an .804 OPS in 2008 but dropped to .691 in 2009. He had a .703 OPS in 2010 and then .823 in 2011. I just don't see a repeat season, at the plate or in the field. Cabrera didn't rate well on the defensive metrics, and after a strong start he wore down in the second half. Ramirez has turned into a nice player, with a good glove and some power, and he even draws a few walks now. Escobar is a true magician with the glove. Carroll is actually a useful player who gets on base (.356 career OBP), but he's pushed as an everyday shortstop and he'll be 38. He'll be issued the honorary Nick Punto locker in the Twins' clubhouse.
1. Alex Gordon, Royals
2. Alejandro De Aza, White Sox
3. Ben Revere, Twins
4. Michael Brantley/Shelley Duncan, Indians
5. Ryan Raburn/Don Kelly, Tigers
I'm not sure what to do here. After Gordon, I just get a headache. We'll pretend to believe in De Aza after his impressive stint in the majors (171 plate appearances, .329/.400/.920). He's hit in Triple-A for three seasons now, and while he's not going to post a .400 OBP again, he should be adequate. Revere is one of the fastest players in the majors, but he's all speed and defense; he hopes to grow up to be Brett Gardner, which isn't a bad thing, but he'll have to learn to get on base at a better clip. Brantley doesn't have one outstanding skill so he'll have to hit better than .266 to be anything more than a fourth outfielder; Duncan provides some right-handed pop as a platoon guy. The Tigers have Delmon Young, but I'll slot him at DH. That leaves supposed lefty masher Raburn and utility man Kelly to soak up at-bats; both had an OBP below .300 in 2011, although Raburn has hit better in the past.
1. Austin Jackson, Tigers
2. Denard Span, Twins
3. Grady Sizemore, Indians
4. Lorenzo Cain, Royals
5. Alex Rios, White Sox
I can't rate Sizemore any higher since he's played just 104 games over the past two seasons, and he hasn't had a big year since 2008. Rios was terrible in '09, OK in '10 and worse than terrible in '11. I'm not betting on him.
1. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians
2. Brennan Boesch, Tigers
3. Jeff Francoeur, Royals
4. Josh Willingham, Twins
5. Dayan Viciedo, White Sox
Choo would like to forget 2011, but there's no reason he shouldn't bounce back and play like he did in 2009 and 2010, when he was one of the 10 best position players in the AL. I don't expect Francoeur to deliver 71 extra-base hits again, but maybe he'll surprise us. Viciedo is apparently nicknamed "The Tank," which makes me wonder how much ground he can cover. He did improve his walk rate last season in the minors and turns 23 in March, so there's still room for more growth.
1. Billy Butler, Royals
2. Travis Hafner, Indians
3. Ryan Doumit, Twins
4. Delmon Young, Tigers
5. Adam Dunn, White Sox
Has there been a bigger prospect disappointment than Young in the past decade? I mean, yes, there were complete busts like Brandon Wood and Andy Marte, but those guys had obvious holes in their games, while Young was viewed as a sure thing, a consensus No. 1 overall prospect. But his bat has never lived up to its billing. Other than one decent year in Minnesota, he has low OBPs and he clearly lacked range in the outfield. His career WAR on Baseball-Reference is minus-0.2 (1.6 on FanGraphs), meaning he's been worse than replacement level. He's just not that good, Tigers fans.
No. 1 starter
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers
2. John Danks, White Sox
3. Justin Masterson, Indians
4. Luke Hochevar, Royals
5. Carl Pavano, Twins
Masterson was better than Danks in 2011, and I do believe his improvement was real. He absolutely crushes right-handers -- they slugged an anemic .259 off him. Danks had two bad months but has the longer track record of success. Even in his "off year" he had a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate than Masterson. If you want to argue about Hochevar versus Pavano, be my guest.
No. 2 starter
1. Doug Fister, Tigers
2. Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
3. Gavin Floyd, White Sox
4. Francisco Liriano, Twins
5. Jonathan Sanchez, Royals
Yes, sign me up for the Doug Fister bandwagon club. Jimenez's fastball velocity was down a couple miles per hour last season but the positives are that his strikeout and walk rates were identical to 2010; he'll be better. Floyd isn't flashy but he's now made 30-plus starts four years in a row, and he'll become a very rich man when he becomes a free agent after this season. Sanchez won't have the luxury of pitching in San Francisco (and to eight-man NL lineups).
No. 3 starter
1. Max Scherzer, Tigers
2. Scott Baker, Twins
3. Philip Humber, White Sox
4. Bruce Chen, Royals
5. Josh Tomlin, Indians
I could be underrating Baker, who was excellent last season, but only once in his career has he made 30 starts in a season. Tomlin's fans will disagree with this ranking, but he's a finesse guy who relies on the best control in baseball (21 walks in 26 starts). He's the kind of guy you root for, but the league seemed to figure him out as the season progressed.
No. 4 starter
1. Felipe Paulino, Royals
2. Rick Porcello, Tigers
3. Jake Peavy, White Sox
4. Derek Lowe, Indians
5. Nick Blackburn, Twins
Scouts still love Porcello's arm and I know he's just 23, but he's made 89 big league starts and shown no signs of getting better. His WHIP has increased each season and his strikeout rate remains one of the lowest in baseball. Paulino has an electric arm -- he averaged 95 mph on his fastball -- and is getting better. How could the Rockies give up on him after just 14 innings? How could the Astros trade him for Clint Barmes? Anyway, kudos to the Royals for buying low on the guy who may turn into their best starter. Peavy can't stay healthy. Lowe has led his league in starts three out of the past four seasons, but I'm not sure that's a good thing anymore. Blackburn is a poor man's Lowe, and I don't mean that in a good way.
No. 5 starter
1. Chris Sale, White Sox
2. Jacob Turner, Tigers
3. Aaron Crow/Danny Duffy, Royals
4. Fausto Carmona/David Huff/Jeanmar Gomez, Indians
5. Brian Duensing/Jason Marquis, Twins
Welcome to the AL Central crapshoot. Turner and Sale have the most upside, but one is a rookie and the other is converting from relief. Crow will also be given a shot at the rotation, but his difficulties against left-handed batters (.311 average allowed) don't bode well for that transition. Even if the artist formerly known as Carmona gets a visa, what do you have? A guy with a 5.01 ERA over the past four seasons. Duensing is another typical Twins pitcher, which means he at least throws strikes. His first full season in the rotation didn't go well, so of course the Twins brought in Marquis, yet another guy who doesn't strike anybody out.
1. Jose Valverde, Tigers
2. Joakim Soria, Royals
3. Matt Thornton, White Sox
4. Chris Perez, Indians
5. Matt Capps, Twins
Four good relievers plus Matt Capps. I do admit I'm a little perplexed by Perez, however. In 2009, he struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings. In 2010, that figure fell to 8.7 but he posted a pretty 1.71 ERA. In 2011, it was all the way down to 5.9, but without much improvement in his control. Perez blew only four saves but he did lose seven games. He survived thanks to a low .240 average on balls in play. He's an extreme fly-ball pitcher but didn't serve up many home runs. Bottom line: I'd be nervous.
1. Indians -- Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith, Nick Hagadone
2. Royals -- Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Tim Collins, Jose Mijares
3. Tigers -- Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth, Al Alburquerque
4. White Sox -- Jesse Crain, Jason Frasor, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod
5. Twins -- Glen Perkins, Alex Burnett, Anthony Swarzak, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros
If you're starting to think I'm not high on the Twins for this season, you would be correct.
4. White Sox
I like the youthful exuberance of the Royals, plus the likelihood of improvement from the young players and the possibility of some midseason reinforcements from the minors. The depth of the bullpen will help bolster a shaky rotation, and this just feels like an organization that is finally starting to believe in itself. The Indians are riding last year's positive results and enter the season knowing they might get better production from Choo and Sizemore and full seasons from Kipnis and Chisenhall. I'm not knocking the Tigers here, but they do lack depth in the pitching staff and the pressure is on them.
The final tally
1. Tigers, 65 points
2. Royals, 55 points
3. Indians, 54 points
4. White Sox, 46 points
5. Twins, 35 points
No surprise here: The Tigers will be heavy favorites to win the division with a lineup that should score a ton of runs. I don't think it's a lock that they'll win -- Verlander, Avila, Peralta and Valverde will all be hard-pressed to repeat their 2011 campaigns, for example. But the Royals and Indians appear to have too many questions in the rotations, the White Sox have serious lineup issues, and the Twins have a beautiful ballpark to play their games in.
1. ESPN contributor and former GM Jim Bowden makes his Baseball Today debut, discussing many topics, including the frailty of closers, Evan Longoria leading off and how the Buster Posey collision should have been avoided. That answer might surprise you!
2. Mark discusses a landmark Memorial Day around the big leagues, and whether weather might adjust statistics from here on out.
3. It's Power Rankings day, and let's just say one of us regrets jumping on the Cleveland Indians bandwagon. I should have known better! We list our top 10 and bottom five.
4. How is a pair of pants like Oliver Perez? I concede this is an odd one, but hang with us and you'll understand.
5. The Tuesday night schedule is full of young hurlers with bright futures, but we also discuss the ESPN battle in St. Louis. Are you taking Ryan Vogelsong or Chris Carpenter. Think about it ...
Plus: Excellent emails, brothers hitting home runs, how the umpires added to the Twins' discontent, today's birthdays, the Royals change closers and Bartolo Colon just keeps on keepin' on. All this and more in a packed Baseball Today podcast for Tuesday!
2. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox: He struggled with location last season, but he seems back on his game with a 21/2 SO/BB ratio in 16 2/3 innings.
3. Craig Kimbrel, Braves: With 34 K's in 20 2/3 innings, his strikeout rate leads closers (even better than Carlos Marmol). The control isn't precise (10 walks), but he's dominating right now.
4. Drew Storen, Nationals: He looks like the real deal with a 0.71 WHIP, 1 HR in 23 innings and a 19/5 SO/BB ratio.
5. Neftali Feliz, Rangers: Injured earlier and a little rusty coming back, but should be fine once he gets in gear.
Worth considering: Brian Wilson, Giants (not as dominant this year, but worked very heavily last season); Heath Bell, Padres (benefits from home park); Joakim Soria, Royals (hasn't been as overpowering so far); Marmol, Cubs (unhittable, but still wild); Ryan Madson, Phillies (looking good so far).
So, presenting the SweetSpot 2011 preseason AL Central All-Stars (horns sounding in background) ...
Catcher -- Joe Mauer, Twins. Mauer had an .871 OPS last year. Carlos Santana had an .868 OPS. Yes, Santana may be that good.
First base -- Miguel Cabrera, Tigers. Through age 27, Cabrera is 12th all time in home runs and fifth all time in RBIs (behind only Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Alex Rodriguez and Joe DiMaggio). He had his best season in 2010 as pitchers grew weary of facing him (32 intentional walks after just 20 combined his first two years in Detroit). He’s as lethal as any hitter in the game not named Pujols (and may be his equal). We all know his personal demons and hope he avoids those issues.
Second base -- Gordon Beckham, White Sox. After a slow start, hit .310/.380/.497 in the second half. Expect numbers more akin to his rookie season, giving him the nod in a weak group.
Third base -- Mike Aviles, Royals. Ladies and gentleman, your 2011 Royals MVP!
Shortstop – Alexei Ramirez, White Sox. He is what he is, and what he is isn’t so bad. He still hacks at everything in the Central time zone, but he puts the ball, has some pop and plays a pretty good shortstop.
Left field -- Delmon Young, Twins. Unless you like Ryan Raburn, which maybe I do. By the way, Young finished 10th in the AL MVP voting, even though he had a .333 OBP, grounded into 16 double plays and played left field like he was trying out for “Wipeout.”
Center field – Alex Rios, White Sox. I don’t exactly feel good about this selection, as I expect Austin Jackson to regress a bit at the plate and who knows what to expect from Grady Sizemore.
Right field – Shin-Soo Choo, Indians. The easiest selection on the board. Baseball’s most underrated player.
Designated hitter – Adam Dunn, White Sox. The White Sox hit 111 home runs at home last season, 66 on the road. Their pitchers allowed 22 more home runs at home. I think Mr. Dunn will enjoy U.S. Cellular Field. And Royals pitching. (Sorry, too easy.)
Right-handed starter – Justin Verlander, Tigers. A steady diet of heat has worked pretty well through the years. Now I'm going to point out a stat that I want to preface by saying, yes, wins can be overrated for pitchers. Must of us know that by now. But since his rookie season in 2006, Verlander is third in the majors in wins with 83, behind Roy Halladay (90) and CC Sabathia (88).
Left-handed starter – John Danks, White Sox. Francisco Liriano had a terrific season for the Twins, but he’s always a risky proposition. If Choo is the most underrated hitter, I think Danks is the most underrated pitcher: three straight solid years despite being a flyball pitcher working in a home run park.
Closer – Joakim Soria, Royals. Matt Thornton moves into the closer role for Chicago and Joe Nathan is back, but Soria has averaged 38 saves and allowed a .201 average the past three seasons.
Overall, a pretty uninspiring group. The Tigers, White Sox and Twins are all projected to rank in the top 11 in the majors in payroll, so you can’t completely excuse the AL Central for playing cheap with the handouts. The AL Central went 83-103 against the East in 2010 and no team had a winning record. Somebody will have to do better if the Central wants to claim a wild-card spot this season.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.
- “I’m still young,” Soria said, “and I think I’m a piece of what they want to do with this team. I think it’s a good idea to rebuild the team, and they’ve been doing great work with the minor-league system.”
Greinke voiced frustration at times this season at the prospect of working through a rebuilding plan that is only now starting to bear fruit. That stemmed, perhaps in part to his contract status: Greinke is bound to the Royals only through the 2012 season.
In contrast, Soria’s long-term deal, signed in May 2008, contains club-friendly options that extend through 2014. And club officials make it clear: Soria is the closest things the Royals have to an “untouchable” in trade talks.
“I think it’s going to be good,” Soria said. “I’m part of the Royals’ family. I’m glad to be here, and I’m proud to be here.”
As most of you know, I used to love the Kansas City Royals, and be obsessed with them. There's probably still some love, deep within my dark heart. But the obsession ended some years ago. To this day, though, if I'm monitoring the scoreboard and I see the Royals have a small lead heading into the ninth inning, I'll flip to that game just because it's such a pleasure to watch Soria work.
He's also really, really, really good.
With 115 saves over the last three seasons, Soria's one of only seven major leaguers with at least 100. He and Mariano Rivera are the only two with more than 100 saves and an ERA below 2 (Jonathan Papelbon's No. 3 on the ERA list, and he's closer to 3 than 2). Soria's also second in strikeout-to-walk ratio (behind Rivera, who's in a class by himself) and essentially tied with everyone else in terms of home runs allowed.
I think you could make a pretty good chase that Joakim Soria has been the second-best reliever in the majors over the last three seasons. And further, that he might move to No. 1 over the next three seasons, given the possibility that Rivera will actually turn into a normal human being at some point.
Having said all that, I also think it's foolish to not at least explore the possibility of trading him for a young shortstop. Or a second baseman or an outfielder. Soria's fantastic, but he's good for two or three extra wins per season. Meanwhile, there are some hitters in the pipeline but maybe not enough. There are pitchers in the pipeline, too ... and I'll bet at least one of them is fine closer material.
Anyway, the Royals aren't going to trade Soria. And that's fine, too. It's nice to have someone who's almost a sure thing, and who actually wants to be there. Which makes me wonder if starters tend to take losing harder than reliefers. Sabermetrics or no, the Royals' lousiness makes Zack Greinke look bad; despite a 3.82 career ERA, Greinke's got a losing record. Last year, despite posting one of the more impressive ERAs in recent memory, Greinke won only 16 of his 33 starts.
The closer, though? Soria's saved almost exactly as many games as Rivera and Papelbon. The thing that he's famous for doing, he can do exactly as well with the Royals as he could with any other team, however excellent.
I'm sure that Soria would love to pitch for a great team. I just doubt if the losses rankle him quite so much as they would if he were pitching the first inning instead of the ninth.
In the last game before the All-Star break, with the Royals losing 5-0 to the Red Sox, Soria pitched the eighth inning. And Tuesday night, he pitched the ninth inning of a game the Royals were losing to the Angels, 10-2.
That's it. In the Royals' last nine games, Soria has pitched in two games, both of them already lost when he entered. A few more salient facts:
- The Royals have lost all nine of those games.
- Of the seven losses in which Soria did not pitch, five included eighth-inning bullpen implosions.
- Soria is the best reliever on the staff, by a whole lot.
I want you to think about that for a moment. Here you've got a team that has the worst run differential in the league, has now lost nine straight games and routinely gets hammered before that magical three-out save opportunity has a chance to rear its beautiful head.
Do you think, if you were managing that team, that you might get just a little bit creative? See if you could figure out a way to occasionally get your ace fireman into a close game?
If so, then I'm afraid you've just failed the Kansas City Managerial Quiz. You've failed, which means you are not eligible to join the ranks of an august club whose members include Tony Muser, Buddy Bell, Tony Pena, and the franchise's newest and bestest intellectual powerhouse, Trey Hillman.
You should wear that rejection like a badge of pride.
Update: As a commenter so helpfully points out, Soria finally did pitch in a close game, last night ... and immediately gave up a double that turned 6-6 into 8-6. So, maybe Trey Hillman really can learn from his (many) mistakes, though what happened last night probably wasn't what you would call positive reinforcement. And so it goes.Another Update: As Rany notes, the problem isn't that Hillman runs his bullpen unconventionally. The problem is that he doesn't.
- "I don't think it helps,” Moore said. "We couldn't control his work. If you can't control a pitcher's workload and you can't script their preparation during spring training, it's a problem.”
Soria pitched only two innings for Mexico in the WBC, missing 17 days of spring training. Moore makes the point that the primary reason spring training lasts as long as it does -- close to seven weeks this year -- is to ensure teams can best prepare their pitchers for opening day.
Pitchers who participate in the WBC miss out on that, leaving them open to underperformance or injury. The numbers back that up.
The Star analyzed 45 pitchers who threw at least 20 innings in the big leagues last year, participated in the WBC and have pitched this season.
As a group, their ERA jumped from 3.79 last year to 4.58 so far this season. Across baseball, ERAs are up from an average of 4.32 to 4.51.
Seven WBC pitchers are currently or have been on the disabled list already this season -- including five for arm or shoulder injuries.
USA Today did a similar study on the pitchers from the 2006 WBC. It found that more than one in three spent time on the disabled list and that the group's ERA jumped from an average of 3.69 to 4.37. That's an 18.4 percent increase in a year when ERAs rose 5.6 percent.
What sort of pitchers pitch in the WBC? Pitchers who did particularly well in the previous season.
What do pitchers who did particularly well in the previous season tend to do? Regress toward the mean. We would expect WBC pitchers' ERAs to increase from one season to the next.
Would we expect them to increase by 18 percent, as they did three years ago? We probably would not. But that's just one year and a fairly small group of pitchers.
Would we expect WBC pitchers' ERAs to increase by 21 percent, as they have this year? We would not. But that's just five weeks of a six-month season.
I do believe that Dayton Moore's concerns are legitimate, and I suspect that baseball people are conducting rigorous analyses that go a long way toward quantifying the impact of the WBC. I don't think we've seen those analyses yet, and perhaps we never will. But if you start reading about the clubs exerting some real pressure on Major League Baseball to make real changes, you can guess that it's informed by that internal analysis.
- Well, whoops. And uh-oh. For those who don't want to click, this is about Joakim Soria being out for three to five days, at least, with a sore shoulder.
The other part of this is there are a lot of people that owe Trey Hillman at least a semi-apology, starting with me.
I wrote that Soria was a Ferrari that the Royals (Trey) were driving like a Nova, but it turns out the Ferrari had a transmission problem.
I'd wondered whether Soria was hurt,* but the Royals insisted he was healthy, so, well, you get the rest.
Now, this would all have been avoided if the Royals (Trey) had been honest about the situation.
Trey's thinking is he doesn't want to tip his hand, so to speak, or say anything that would weaken the team's position, and that's understandable, of course, but misses the point. This is not a post about the media savviness of Trey or anyone else, so we'll stop here.
The point of this post right now is that most of the questions and screams about Trey's use of the bullpen in the last week or so should be taken in a different context now.
It seems pretty silly now that I wrote about wanting the Royals to stretch Soria beyond one inning. My bad.
Trey's been playing short-handed, which explains a lot of the moves he's either made or not made. Even with the context of the Soria injury, Trey's probably taken more grief than warranted about his bullpen use.
Soria did pick up the save in that game, but he was shaky. Was he shaky because he was hurt? Or was he shaky because he hadn't pitched in nine days?
I cannot answer any of these questions precisely. Until I can, I'm not ready to offer Hillman an apology, or even a semi-apology, for all the terrible things I've been writing about him. Yes, he knows things I do not know. While I rarely acknowledge that subtext, it's always there. But at some point we, as outside observers, have little choice but to take managers at their word. When the manager says he didn't use a pitcher because it wasn't the right tactical spot for that pitcher, we have to react as if he's telling us the truth.
If he's lying? I'll defend to the death his right -- nay, his obligation to lie to us, at least occasionally. But I'm not going to apologize until I know that's what he was doing. And that he had a good reason for doing it.
- Lefebvre: Not a bad pitch, there. Now the question is, how does he back it up?
White: Well, he's done a good job. He started him with a fastball, for a ball off the plate, and then came back with a breaking ball for a strike, and then he came back with another fastball for a strike. So that was a second fastball right there, up and in.
Lefebvre: And, when you're not a particularly hard thrower and you don't have a whole lot of deception, it doesn't hurt to knock a guy down every now and then.
White: Well you gotta come in off the plate to clear up a lane on the outside corner. Primarily, I think Brian Bannister's the kind of pitcher who wants to get you out away, so you gotta keep hitters off the whole plate, and take the part of the plate you wanna take.
But what's a lot more interesting than this single at-bat is the notion that throwing high and tight is a good thing. Everyone tells us it's a good thing, and every time it happens the broadcasters absolutely gush. But is it a good thing, really? When a pitcher throws up there, he 1) risks hitting (and perhaps hurting) the batter, and 2) he certainly gives up one ball, and you know how important the count is.
Does that high-and-tight pitch really plant a seed in the hitter's mind? I suppose that depends on the hitter, but I would guess that most hitters are able to quickly forget the previous pitch. It's not like they haven't been knocked down hundreds of times in their baseball lives. Anyway, to some degree this is an empirical question, just another ancient baseball question that might be answered with Pitchf/x data.
Anyway, if that exchange was interesting, this one was awesome:
- Lefebvre: And for the first time in nine days, Trey Hillman calls on Joakim Soria. The Royals haven't had a true Joakim Soria situation in those nine days, but the days really started to mount. We thought we might see Soria on Sunday in Texas; it was six days at that point. Chance we could have seen him last night, which made it eight days. We'll have to see if all that time off affects Soria and his typical pinpoint control.
White: It's a lot different than throwing on the side in the bullpen, but if you're a control guy, you usually hold on to it. You usually don't get that wild.
Lefebvre: The question even came up today, is something wrong with Joakim Soria? Does he have something that's bothering him and the Royals are just being careful? And Trey Hillman said no, he's perfectly healthy. And Trey, smiling ... saying, "Hey, I want to pitch Joakim Soria just as much as you want to see him in the game."
That's just a dumb thing for Trey Hillman to say. I need to make a distinction here ... I'm not saying that Trey Hillman is dumb. It's like when your child is behaving badly. You don't say (for example), "You're selfish." Instead you say, "You're being selfish."
When Trey Hillman lets one of the best relievers on the planet waste away in the bullpen for more than a week while close games are being lost, it doesn't mean Hillman is dumb. It just means he's being dumb. Which is perfectly human behavior, and acceptable in moderation. Hillman, though, is fast approaching immoderation.
P.S. Soria very nearly blew the save.
And then there's this, from Bob Dutton:
- Hillman said he never considered using All-Star closer Joakim Soria instead of Farnsworth to start the ninth inning because it was a tie game.
"Not on the road,” Hillman said. "At home, yes. But not on the road. Just simply because the percentages are against you in that situation.”
The Royals entered the Texas ninth knowing they needed, as the road team, at least six outs to get a victory. Hillman said he wasn't willing to extend Soria beyond "one up and down” because of a lack of work in recent days.
The problem now is Soria hasn't pitched since April 13. And because of Monday's open date in the schedule, he will have at least seven days of rest before his next appearance.
That matches his longest down time logged last season, which is something Hillman has said repeatedly that he hoped to avoid.
Not that we're bitter or anything.