Series Preview: Kansas City Royals

After a recovery for the offense in Texas — Rangers Ballpark cures what ails your hitters — the Yankees will spend some time at home this week. The Kansas City Royals come into town, but don’t let them fool you. This isn’t the team that finished 67-95, last in the AL Central last year. They’re currently 18-16, second in the Central, and while that might not represent their actual talent level, it does indicate that they’re a tick better than before. At least they’re playing that way, which is all that matters as the two teams match up this week.

The future, Eric Hosmer. (Ed Zurga/AP)

What Have the Royals Done Lately?

In late April it appeared as though they were quickly reverting to the same old Royals, as they lost six straight to Texas and Cleveland. But sometimes facing the worst team in the league can pick you back up. That’s what happened when the Royals faced Minnesota last week. They swept through that series and then took two of three from Baltimore. Dropping two of three to the A’s has left them 6-3 in their last nine, though the competition, at least on the offensive side of the ball, wasn’t best-in-league.

Royals on Offense

Frenchy's poppin' 'em. (Orlin Wagner/AP)

One of the reasons the Royals have played so well this season is by hitting the ball well. Their .338 wOBA ranks fourth in the majors, just a single point behind Texas. Last year they were known as a team that could string together some singles and make some runs, but this year they’re actually hitting with some power, ranking fourth in the league with a .155 ISO. Unlike last year, they post a threat to put up a crooked number this year.

The leader of the offense is, to everyone’s surprise, Jeff Francoeur. Through his first 142 PA he is hitting .302/.345/.581, including a team-leading eight home runs. We’ve seen Francoeur get off to hot starts before — last year he started off with a .378 wOBA in April before slipping later in the year — but something seems different about this year. It always does, until things come crashing down. You’ll pardon me for not buying into the Francoeur hype. The only thing that has changed for him is his swinging strike rate, and I don’t think cutting that down is enough to turn an undisciplined hitter, who still doesn’t draw walks, into a powerhouse. Better, maybe, but not bum-to-superstar.

Complementing Francoeur in the middle of the order is Alex Gordon, who, after wearing the bust label, has resurged in the early portion of this season. It’s easier to buy Gordon’s turnaround than Francoeur’s, because there didn’t seem to be any reason why he couldn’t succeed previously. Injuries derailed him to a degree, and he never really got into a groove. This year he’s hitting .309/.367/.500 while playing, statistically at least, a solid left field. He could cause some issues at Yankee Stadium.

There’s always Billy Butler, too, who has again established himself as a solid hitter with gap power. The full home run package will probably never come, but he can still draw a walk and make solid contact. Maybe those skills will go for waste in the cavern that is left-center at Yankee Stadium, but it’s not as though he’s a straight pull hitter. With Butler, Francoeur, and Gordon in the middle of the lineup the Royals certainly pose a threat.

Can't find a Betemit. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Of the eight Royals with 100 or more PA, six of them have a wRC+ above 100, and five of them are above 125. The latter group includes former Yankee Wilson Betemit, who has done nothing but hit since he signed on with Kansas City. In the last two seasons he has hit .300/.374/.497 in 422 PA, which is almost certainly the best 400-PA stretch of his career. It’s doubtful that he continues doing this for the next few years, but he certainly has become a threat at the moment. In the former group, but not the latter, is Melky Cabrera, who has shown great improvement since his disappointing 2010.

And I’ll close by mentioning Eric Hosmer, rookie and Baseball America’s No. 8 overall prospect. He’ll be taking the reps at first base.

Royals on the Mound

(Carlos Osorio/AP)

Tuesday, RHP Kyle Davies. By this point Davies is pretty well known as one of the worst regular starters in the majors. Last year he made 32 starts and allowed a 5.34 ERA against a 4.46 FIP. This year he has been especially prone to the longball, which plays right into the Yankees’ hands. Then again, we’ve seen matchups previously where the opponent plays to the team’s strengths, only to see them flail and falter. Still, it’s easy to conjure memories of the Yankees lighting up Davies in the past — A-Rod‘s 500th homer stands out most prominently. But whatever the case, he’s simply not a good pitcher, and probably shouldn’t have his job much longer. The Yanks should get their licks in while he’s still employed.

Wednesday, LHP Bruce Chen. He is, to quote an under-used meme, the premier leftballer of our time. Of course, in reality Chen isn’t the premier anything. He has, however, pitched very well this season, a 3.59 ERA in seven starts. They have been of the hit or mss variety, though, with the determining factor being home runs. In four of his starts he has allowed no longballs and has combined to allow four runs, three earned, during them. But he has allowed three homers in a game twice, and allowed one homer in a game once. The Yankees, it appears, should jump all over him. The only caveat is that all seven of his homers this year have come off righties. I think that is going to change on Wednesday evening.

Thursday, RHP Sean O’Sullivan. Last year O’Sullivan went from frustration to laughingstock in no time flat. The first time he pitched against the Yanks last year was the first of his career, and we all know how that story goes. The Yankees flailed and faltered, getting just two runs in six innings. Less than a month later the two met again, this time when O’Sullivan was on the Royals. They blasted him for four runs in 5.1 innings, including a pair of homers by Alex Rodriguez. So far this season he has done a good job keeping the ball in the park — his only homer came in his first start — but he has had some rough times otherwise. Even in his last start, when he allowed three runs in eight innings, he didn’t strike out anyone. His season K/BB sits at 14:14, and while he makes up for some of that with ground balls, it’s not enough to overcome the lack of swings and misses — and control.

Bullpen. We all know about Joakim Soria, who is one of the league’s premier closers. He has had a rough start to 2011, but there’s no reason to think he’s on the decline or anything like that. He is joined by a new cast of relievers who throw hard and, for the most part, throw strikes. Aaron Crow has been absolutely lights out, while Blake Wood hasn’t been too shabby himself. Lefty Tim Collins will generate plenty of comments for his shortness and his odd motion, though his results haven’t been all there. Nathan Adcock will get flak for his name, but the dude can pitch. The Yankees had better get in their shots against the starters, because this is no pushover bullpen.

Recommended Royals Reading: Royals Review and Royals Authority.

Strength Up The Middle

The late-1990’s Yankees dynasty was built on strong up-the-middle players. Bernie Williams was a center fielder that hit like a corner outfielder. Derek Jeter was so far better than the league average shortstop it wasn’t even funny. Chuck Knoblauch had his throwing issues, sure, but he got on base 37.4% of time from 1998-2000 while manning second. A young and sprightly Jorge Posada posted an on-base percentage similar to Knoblauch’s (.376, to be exact) while chipping in double-digit homers on an annual basis from behind the plate. That’s the kind of production team’s dream of getting from those spots.

Given the nature of those positions, the offensive expectations are much lower relative to the corner spots. The increased awareness of the value of defense has lowered those expectations even more in recent years. The Yankees have gotten tremendous production from those four positions so far this season, which is part of the season why they’re in first place and have been for the better part of a month.

It all starts with Curtis Granderson, who’s been the best hitter on the team this year and one of the best in the game. Yankees’ center fielders have produced 11.2 batting runs this season (Brett Gardner did have some spot starts, so he gets some credit), 11.1 runs better than the AL average. They’ve also been more than a run-and-a-half better than average defensively. To be a combined 12.7 runs better than average at one position at this point of the season is insane. The catchers (8.5 batting runs better than the AL avg) and second basemen (7.8) have been far above-average as well, with most of the credit going to Russell Martin and Robinson Cano, respectively. Derek Jeter’s been bad overall, but he’s helped Yankees’ shortstops contribute 1.5 more batting runs that the average AL shortstop. I wish I knew what that was before Sunday, but oh well.

Although the Yankees have been slightly below-average defensively at short, second, and behind the plate, the difference is more than made up by the offense. Combine the offensive and defensive contributions across the four positions, and the Yankees have been 28.2 runs better than the league average at the all-important up-the-middle spots. That’s essentially three wins, just 32 games into the season. Almost a run a game. Crazy. The graph above shows the individual breakdowns, so make sure you click it for a larger view. Now the Yankees just need to work on improving the other up-the-middle position, and that’s the guys on the mound.

The RAB Radio Show: May 10, 2011

The Royals come to town this week, and it won’t be just another Royals series. They’ve actually been good in the early going, and they have a crop of young players who are helping fuel the run. Mike and I talk about how they’re playing and how they’ll play the Yankees.

Podcast run time 26:51

Here’s how you can listen to podcast:

  • Download the RAB Radio Show by right clicking on that link and choosing Save As.
  • Listen in your browser by left clicking the above link or using the embedded player below.
  • Subscribe in iTunes. If you want to rate us that would be great. If you leave a nice review I’ll buy you a beer at a meet-up.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

Not too many homers, too many double plays

(Bill Kostroun/AP)

Home runs produce runs. Double plays prevent them. This the story of the Yankees first 32 games this season. They have hit 54 home runs, 13 more than the next closest team, despite having played only 32 games, fewest in the league. At the same time they have grounded into 41 double plays, which is second most in the league. The only team ahead of them, the Cardinals, have played three more games (and have grounded into three more double plays). Anyone can see that cutting the latter will do wonders for the offense, but I’m far more interested in the why. Why are the Yankees grounding into so many double plays?

The most obvious explanation is that they simply find themselves in more double play situations than other teams. We know the Yankees as a team that gets on base at a healthy clip; they have led the league in OBP the last two seasons. This year they’re second, and first in the AL. Their 265 hits and 130 walks (leading the league) in 1210 PA make it more likely that they’ll have have a man on first with zero or one outs. But we can rule out this explanation right away. If you go to Baseball Prospectus and check out their Balls In Play data, you can see that the Yankees are fourth in the league with a double play in 17.6% of their situations. That is, the Yankees might get into more of those situations, but they still ground into double plays more often than the others, too.

Are they hitting the ball on the ground more, then? That would go some way in explaining why they’re hitting into so many double plays. This year they’ve hit the ball on the ground 46.4 percent of the time, which ranks 11th in the majors. This is slightly higher than last year, when they were at 44.9 percent (14th) and 2009, when they were at 43.1 percent (19th). Yet the Yankees hit ground balls less frequently with runners on base. That rate is only 44.7 percent, which ranks 19th in the league. So while their ground ball rate is a bit higher, the increase comes mostly with the bases empty.

At The Yankee Analysts yesterday, William made an interesting observation: perhaps it’s the teams lack of willingness to run that is causing their double play totals to flourish. To quote: “In order to maximize home runs, the team has stopped running, which in turn has led to more double plays that have left fewer chances to hit a home run.” This is certainly plausible, but I’m not sure it works out. The Yankees have attempted 26 steals this season in 32 games, or 131.6 per 162 games. They attempted 133 last year and in 2009 they attempted 149. That’s not to rule out the possibility, since there is more detail to be examined here. But it’s a pretty quick way of showing that it probably isn’t the main reason.

What is it, then? What is causing the Yankees to hit ground balls to infielders in those precise situations when a ground ball hurts the most? Much as I hate to say it, luck has to play a predominant role here. Just as the Yankees are getting lucky in some regards with their 17.3 percent home run to fly ball ratio, they’re getting unlucky with their double play rate. As one evens out I expect the other will, too. Which is perfectly fine. They’re not in 1:1 proportion, but as they slow down creating runs via the homer, so they will create more runs via double play avoidance. That’s good news for a team that leads the league in runs per game.

Once again, Yanks are tops at working the count

(AP Photo/Matt Strasen)

It’s been kind of a weird season for the Yankees offensively, in that they’ve often looked sluggish and still have the best statistical performance around. They’re first in the game with 5.31 runs per game, and they lead baseball in OPS (.800) and wOBA (.352). Their .252 team batting average is being held back by a .266 BABIP, something that should correct itself as the season progresses, but they still lead the league in OBP (.339) thanks to a gaudy 10.7% walk rate, the best in all the land. They’re a power and patience club, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they swing at the fewest pitches out of the zone (23.7%) and have the largest ISO (.209) in the game. Once that BABIP gets back to normal, it’ll be glorious.

As a team, the Yankees have seen 3.92 pitchers per plate appearance, the third most in the AL. Curtis Granderson has seen the second most pitches per plate appearances in the game (4.51, behind only Carlos Santana at 4.53), and Brett Gardner isn’t too far behind him at 4.30. Nick Swisher (4.22) and Mark Teixeira (4.09) are also over four pitches per trip to the plate, then you’ve got Russell Martin (3.93), Alex Rodriguez (3.90), and Jorge Posada (3.90) right behind them. Considering that the league average is 3.83 pitches per plate appearance, that’s pretty good. Robinson Cano is the only real eye sore on the team, he’s seeing just 3.20 P/PA. That ranks 193rd out of the 194 batters that qualify for the batting title (only Orlando Cabrera is worse at 3.07). I believe the word is: Yikes.

The concept of working the count isn’t just about drawing walks or getting the starting pitcher out of the game early. The point of the game is to score runs, and the easiest way to score runs is by getting hits. Batters that take pitches are waiting for a good pitch to hit before pouncing, essentially trying to get themselves into hitter’s count (2-0, 3-1). The more pitches they see, the better the chance of getting their pitch, i.e. a mistake. Walks are just a byproduct, or they should be, anyway. Of the Yankees’ 1,210 team plate appearances this year, 503 of them have ended when the batter was ahead in the count, or 41.6%. The other 13 AL teams average 35.8%. They’ve ended a plate appearance in a pitcher’s count 305 times (25.2%, 31.0% lg avg) and the other 402 times when the count was even (33.2%, exactly lg avg). It’s not a coincidence that the Yankees lead the league in offense and are the best at getting into hitter’s counts.

That graph (click for larger) shows the team’s wOBA by pitch of the plate appearance vs. the league average. The big difference comes on the third pitch of the at-bat, which has a lot to do with the Yankees working themselves into a 2-0 count 4.13% of the time, far greater than the league average (2.87%). They’ve also been surprisingly productive in 0-2 counts, hitting .243 with a .122 ISO compared to .157 and .063 for the AL as a whole, respectively. That will probably even out as we get deeper into the season though. The dips on the third and fourth pitches have to do with players simply taking pitches in 3-0 and 3-1 counts more than anything else. The old saying is that the longer the at-bat, the more it swings into the hitter’s favor, and judging by the performance of the both the Yankees and the league on the 6th+ pitch of the encounter, that certainly holds true.

The last two weeks haven’t always been pretty offensively, but that has more to do with some drastic slumps (Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Jorge Posada in particular) than the team being flawed as a whole. They’re not going to hit .242/.336/.453 with men in scoring position all season (that, by the way, is 18% better than league average) just because a .242 BABIP in those spots is pretty unsustainable. The Yankees just have to stick with their game plan of taking pitches and getting into the good hitter’s counts, and the rest will take care of itself.