Stakeholders - Kansas City Royals
From now through the beginning of the regular season, we will not be posting in-depth round-tables previewing each division like we have in years past. Instead we will feature brief back-and-forths with "stakeholders" from all 30 teams. A collection of bloggers, analysts, mainstream writers and senior front office personnel will join us to discuss a specific team's hopes for 2010. Some will be in-depth, some light, some analytical, some less so but they should all be fun to read and we are thrilled about the lineup of guests we have teed up. Today it's Joe Posnanski on the Kansas City Royals.
Sky: Honestly, how difficult is it to be a Royals fan right now? They've been arguably the least successful franchise over the past 15-20 years, and they aren't showing a ton of upside right now either. Additionally, being someone who appreciates that sabermetric side of the game, how frustrating is it to watch the Royals continue to make moves which seem to run counter to that style of thinking? Of course anything can happen in baseball, but do you see Dayton Moore ever turning this ship around?
Poz: OK, let's see here ... I think it's pretty difficult being a Royals fan right now, but I'm not sure that it's easy to separate how much more or less difficult than it has been the last decade or more. The bad tends to blur together. It has been youth movement followed by veteran leadership followed by youth movement followed by veteran leadership for about as far back as most people in Kansas City care to remember. The Royals are currently in the "veteran leadership" stage of their development, and they hope to follow that in the next couple of years with another "youth movement." So, it at this point it all just feels like it's part of the natural cycle of things.
I think that is disappointing for people -- the hope really was that Dayton Moore would turn things around. And he may. The Dayton Moore plan, unquestionably, revolves around acquiring talent and developing it in the minor leagues. Good scouts. Good instructors. The Royals have spent a lot of money on the draft the last couple of years, and they have been real players in signing top young guys in Latin America. They spent 7 million -- an almost unfathomable amount of money in Kansas City -- to sign Cuban pitcher Noel Arguelles. That speaks most directly to the Dayton Moore plan.
Unfortunately, not one of those young players has emerged quickly ... so people keep HEARING about the plan (or "the process" as people have bitterly started to call it) but they're not SEEING any improvement. While the Royals believe their future is strong with prospects like Eric Hosmer and Mike Montgomery and Aaron Crow and several other young pitchers, the fans are seeing the team sign retreads like Jason Kendall and Scott Podsednik and even Rick Ankiel. It's just hard to convince anyone that you're heading in the right direction when you are spending spring training trying to figure out what Jose Guillen's role is for the team. I think Dayton Moore has proven, pretty convincingly, that he is not overly gifted at the miracle work of building a major league roster with dazzling trades and brilliant free agent pickups. But that's not really his reputation nor his purpose. He's a draft and develop guy. And, a lot of people I talk with like what the Royals have done there, even if it hasn't yet paid off.
I think the sabermetric thing with the Royals is interesting ... it DOES seem, with Rob Neyer and Rany Jazayerli and, of course, Bill James, that the Royals fan base has a higher percentage than its share of saber-inclined fans. I don't know if that's really true, but it seems that way. And the Royals have been rather openly hostile toward some saber ideas such as the idea that defensive value can be quantified. So it does seem like there's a clash there ... I have written about how difficult it is to root for a team, in any sport, that has a philosophy that goes counter toward your own as a fan. But I think, more than anything, the Royals are just treading water and have been for some time now. Prospects, real prospects, do seem to be on the way. The launch dates for those propsects should begin later this season and in earnest at the beginning of next season. Until then, I'm not really sure anything really counts.
Sky: That's a great take. Even if you blow a few free agent signings like Guillen, it's easy to paper over those mistakes if you've got a great drafts and a great farm system. We'll see if those guys develop. One of those guys DID develop, in the form of Cy Young Zack Greinke. Do you see him as a future Hall of Fame-type pitcher? And do you see him wearing a Royals cap? He's signed to a very reasonable deal through 2012, after which he'll be a free agent. If the Royals can't reasonably contend before then, is there any scenario in which you consider dealing him?
Poz: Well, I'm one of the world's leading exporters of Greinke tributes, so I suspect I'm not the most unbiased source on the subject. I predicted he would win the American League Cy Young Award last year, which has to go down as one of my best-ever predictions. By the way, I'm picking Colorado's Ubaldo Jiminez to win the N.L. Cy Young this year -- not as much of a reach, probably, but I see many of the same things.
Anyway, Greinke -- with his stuff and his pitching mind, I think he can be a big star year after year after year. He has a flawless delivery, a mid-90s fastball, an assortment of great secondary pitches and spectacular command. A lot of people around the country seem to misunderstand him ... they think, because of the issues he has had with social anxiety, that he is somehow unconfident or unmotivated or something. Nothing could be further from the truth -- I think of the great line Richard Ben Cramer line on Ted Williams, something to the effect of: "The roar with which he speaks has nothing to do with his hearing. It's your hearing he's worried about." So it is with Greinke; he doesn't have any doubts about his own ability; it's other people who irk him. He's extremely confident, extremely competitive and extremely driven. His change-up showed new life at the end of last year; with a good change-up, Greinke is just scary good.
The question about him staying with the Royals is an interesting one ... here's my take. I think Greinke would be perfectly content to stay with the Royals his whole career if the team was winning. I think he's comfortable with Kansas City, comfortable with the media setup, comfortable with the people in town. He signed an extension with Kansas City -- and at what now looks like a very reasonably price-- because if he has his choice, he would prefer to stay in town. I suspect he has no real interest in pitching for the Yankees no matter how much money they offer.
But he absolutely will not stay if the Royals don't show some real, tangible signs of improvement. I know that's true. Losing wears on him. I know there were some people around the country who thought that he should have been docked Cy Young points because he didn't pitch in meaningful games. But I think if he HAD pitched in meaningful games, he would have been even better. I think he craves pressure and enjoys the big moments. So, if the Royals are looking hopeless in 2011 and 2012, then yeah, I would expect him to leave. The Royals have to prove to him that they're on the right track.
If it becomes clear that the plan has failed and that Greinke is leaving then, sure, a trade might be the only viable option. But the Royals have not done well in those trades. What they really need is for their young talent to start performing, for their old talent to move on, and for this team to start looking like a blossoming young team like the Rays a couple of years ago. If that happens, I think Greinke would stay.
Sky: You bring up a great point about Greinke's past and how that would make him likely unwilling to pitch for a big market, media-intense team like the Yankees. Statheads sometimes tend to ignore the mental aspect of the game, be it dealing with the media, "chemistry" with the other players, pressure from fans, etc. I do think that stuff is often overused by the media as to explain away variation in player performances, but in a case like Greinke's it can be a real factor. As someone who's been in and around MLB clubhouses for years, but also appreciates the statistical angle of the game, what's your take on how strongly the mental aspects of the game can affect player performance?
Poz: My basic take on it is that for so long -- for SOOOO long -- baseball fans have been hammered with a whole lot of the mental stories from sports. And I suspect a lot of them were pretty specious. Of course, there's a whole lot to the importance of a players mental approach, but for years and years all you ever seemed to read was that players were successful because they were somehow superior human beings, teams were successful because they were marvels of chemistry and so on. I mean, that was pretty much you read about baseball anywhere for about 80 years.
So, I think it was revolutionary -- and a great thing for baseball fans -- when Bill James and others came along to ask what now appear to be obvious questions. Who says pitching is 75% of baseball? How do we come up with that number? Is it really possible for hitters consistently to be better in clutch situations than they are in non-clutch situations? And, if so, what does that say about them? (It was actually John Updike who asked this question first, I believe). Do the players on the best teams really get along better than the worst teams? And if they do, is that why they are successful? Why does batting average exclude walks? Why are starting pitchers credited with entire team victories? Do they really win the games? If they don't win, is it because of their own failings? And so on and so on and so on. And I think that as the answers came back -- and many the answers seemed pretty lacking -- that more questions came in and more unconvincing answers came out and so on.
Now, people do wonder if it has swung too far the other way ... have people started to discount entirely the mental aspect of baseball, the chemistry aspect of a clubhouse, the importance of a players approach, and so on. In some ways, I think it's probably true. You can't say the word "leadership" without making a whole segment of baseball fans laugh -- and I fall for this myself from time to time -- and yet I think we all believe that there IS something to leadership. These obviously are human beings involved with the various strengths, frailties, overconfidence, doubts that we all have. I have seen that in the clubhouses, I know it's true. And I think the mental aspect of baseball is extremely important and fascinating ...
I guess I think the problem for me is that people tend to oversimplify things -- tour search for easy answers. This guy failed because he couldn't handle the pressure. That guy succeeded because he's got great intestinal fortitude. This other guy couldn't handle the pressures of New York. That other guy hits better when there's no pressure. And all the vice versas. I just think it's a lot more involved than that.
Sky: I think you put it nicely. Like many things (like clutch hitting, etc.) sabermetrics has shown that the effect of those things is a lot smaller than people used to think, but though the effect is small, I really don't think it's zero.
Moving on to someone who has no problem with the mental aspect of the game, let's talk about one of your favorite players, Brian Bannister. He's probably one of the most sabermetrically inclined players in the majors. Do you see players like him becoming more widespread and how much do you think his style of thinking helps in actually playing the game?
Poz: I do think more and more players will study their own advanced stats because players always have and always will look for an edge. And it's possible that studying your own stats will tell you something about your game that you did not know. There is actually quite a long history of players who studied their own stats closely. Steve Garvey, for instance, had this rather involved formula he used in order to get 200 hits -- which, at the time, was viewed as some sort of holy grail. Pete Rose could always tell you his numbers -- against lefties, righties, night, day, on turf and so on. Baseball is such a mental game and such a confidence game ... I think it's likely that as the advanced stats become more circulated, players will use them to build up their confidence.
With Banny, it's interesting, a lot of people think that his statistical study actually hurts him, that he thinks too much on the mound. He's a tinkerer by nature, and the feeling among those critics is that he needs to think less and throw more -- the Nuke Laloosh style. My own feeling is that there's a balance between thinking and doing -- I do think Brian tied himself up in knots in 2008 -- but I remain convinced that Brian Bannister is pitching in the big leagues because of his mind. He doesn't throw hard and doesn't have great secondary pitches and his arm tends to tire late in the year. But he has some good late-breaking movement on his fastball, and he has good command, and he's constantly breaking down things so he comes into games with a good plan and a good sense of what he's doing. The guy's really smart. He pitched very well his first 20 starts in 2009 before he started to wear down ... he has spent a lot of time in the off-season working on his conditioning. That's what I think he does with his study of advanced stats -- see a problem, attack the problem, see a weakness, develop a counter strength. In the end, you need talent to play baseball at the Major League level -- no doubt about that. But I think studying the numbers the way Brian does can certainly bridge the talent gap.
Sky: This has been great Joe. Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer so thoughtfully. One last question - it may be the most challenging: Is there even one silver lining in having Yuniesky Betancourt in the line-up this season?
Poz: Silver lining with Yuni. No.
Ha ha, I jest. If there's one thing that you can say about Yuniesky, it is that until last season he had been very durable. I know that sounds like faint praise, but I don't mean it that way. He played in 153-plus games three years in a row ... even last year, with his issues, he played in 134 games. That means the last four years, he has played in 599 games at shortstop -- only six shortstops in the game have played in more (believe it or not, Orlando Cabrera has actually played in the most games at shortstop the last four years).
So what does this mean? It means that for all Betancourt's failings -- his statuesque range to his left, his pathological need to swing at anything he sees, his unique ability to put outs in play, and his occasional lapses into daydream land -- history suggests he will be out there playing every day. And because he will be out there playing every day, he will do some good things -- bang 8 to 10 home runs, maybe, make a few dazzling plays, put enough balls in play to hit .275 or .280, come through in the clutch now and then. And because he will do some good things, people will say, "Hey, he's not that bad." And because people will say "Hey, he's not that bad," the Royals will be able to keep him out there without too much grief while they wait for one of their young players to develop.
That's the important thing to remember about the Royals: They are not trying to win this year. Oh, they are trying not to lose -- that's what the Betancourt trade was about, that's what the signing of veterans like Podesdnik, Ankiel and Kendall was about -- but trying not to lose is not the same thing as trying to win. The Royals future is tied up in a wave of prospects that should be hitting Class AA this year. They Royals would like to believe that with the veteran experience they've brought in -- and Betancourt is part of that -- they can win 75-81 games and take a step forward. Well, 75 wins is on the high end of my projection scale, but the larger point remains: This year is a holding pattern year. Yuniesky Betancourt is a holding pattern player. I was (quite demonstrably) peeved when the Royals traded for him because he was possibly/probably the worst every day player in the American League in 2009. But my feeling now is that the Royals just need to GET THROUGH the 2010 season, and Betancourt should help them do that.
I wonder if that comes across sounding like a silver lining argument.
Sky: Thanks again Joe. Best of luck to you and the Royals in the 2010 season.
Joe Posnanski is a Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated. He was sports columnist at The Kansas City Star from 1996 to 2009, and during that time he was twice named the best sports columnist in America by The Associated Press Sports Editors.