Sunday, May 2, 2010

Conventional Wisdom Could Be the Problem

There's an interesting section of The Kansas City Star's website that has kind of gone under my radar for the first month of the season. It's called 'Judging the Royals', and it's based on a somewhat unorthodox system used to judge the Royals, mostly individually, over the course of the season.

The system is based off the 'Most Valuable Player' chart created some three decades ago by Coach Ron Polk, a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame and the winningest coach in SEC history. After tweaking the system a bit with the help of Polk, Star contributor Lee Judge launched the updated system and site before the start of the current Royals season.

You can check it out for yourself, but basically, as Polk explains, "the system is designed to reward good baseball, hustle, and effort while punishing giving away free bases through walks and errors."

It seems pretty obvious, to me at least, that most coaches in baseball would already be preaching this type of attitude and philosophy on a daily basis, anyway. But not so fast.

The system's biggest influence, for pitchers anyway, is to throw strikes. The system does not punish hits. It punishes walks, especially lead-off walks to start an inning, worse than, say, a pitcher who gives up four runs or more in an appearance. Polk's opinion is that he can live with whatever happens when a pitcher throws strikes. He knows that with that, his pitchers will give up hits, and he can live with that.

"He's focused on effort and approach, not results, because he knows if the effort is correct, over time, the results will be there," Judge says.

The system also recognizes things that would go unnoticed in a box score. It rewards a catcher for not allowing a runner to advance by blocking a pitch in the dirt. There are also point categories for making a tough play look easy and mental mistakes - Billy Butler are you listening - that may have caused another teammate to commit an error.

I guess my point is that it's a shame that this isn't considered conventional wisdom in baseball, or at least with the Royals. It's a shame any of us could get this impressed by a system that seems so simple and obvious. Having watched the Royals lose the way they have (because of the bullpen) for the first month of this season, and really, for the last two decades, you just have to wonder what's really going on with this team.

How many lead-off walks does it take? How many failed sacrifices or unproductive outs or missed cut-off men does it take? Is it not time to buy into unconventional wisdom, or should we wait for another ten years of losing before considering alternatives?

Manager Trey Hillman cannot afford to wait. This is the last year of Hillman's contract and it's decision time for General Manager Dayton Moore. If Moore decides to offer Hillman a contract extension, it could ultimately end up costing both of them their jobs. If Moore decides to fire Hillman, then, well, Coach Polk, are you available?

Anyway, on to the game..

The Royals found a way to waste ANOTHER great start by pitcher Zack Greinke today, losing 1-0 to the Tampa Bay Rays. It's really come to the point where I would seriously not be surprised if we woke up tomorrow to hear that Greinke has quit baseball again.

I only had one beef with the way Hillman managed this one. First though, it's worth noting that he didn't have much to work with as the Royals only managed three hits off Rays rookie starting pitcher Wade Davis.*

*Why does it seem like the Royals always make rookie starting pitchers look like Cy Young Award winners? Since I can remember, it has always been a sign of bad things to come when I hear the Royals are facing a rookie, or even just facing a guy for the first time. On the other hand, it never seems to bode well for the Royals when they run out an unprepared rookie pitcher for the first time. Hmm.

Still, in the second inning, with two on, and nobody out, Hillman chose to bunt with Jason Kendall to advance the runners. Kendall popped the bunt up for an out, though, and the runners stayed put. The Royals, obviously given the final score, didn't score in the inning.

You may remember my blog about playing for the big inning versus small ball. The general point there was that, over the course of a season, trying to sacrifice runners ends up costing a team runs (and wins) over the long haul because the chances of getting a big inning are lowered after handing the opponent an out.

Now, let's fast forward to the seventh inning. At this point, the Rays are up 1-0, but the Royals have a runner at second with nobody out, and Mitch Maier is at the plate. My overall opinion about playing small ball is that, if you're going to use it, it should only be used in the seventh inning or later, in a one-run or tie game.

Let's not worry about my opinion, though. Regardless of what I think, Hillman has already played small ball once in the game, and most managers would tell you that if you're ever going to use it, now is the time. Mitch Maier has good bat control and the Royals desperately need a run. This is when you forgo the big inning to make sure and tie the game.

Hillman, instead, opted this time to let the hitter swing away. As we know, it did not end well, as the next three Royal hitters failed to come through. The Royals lost the game. Zack Greinke lost the game, and is now 0-3 with a 2.27 ERA. What's worse is the Royals are now 1-5 in his starts.* Ugh.

*I could go on about the Royals absolute WASTE of the best pitcher in baseball, but that has already been well documented by Joe Posnanski in the Star and on his blog. You really have to check it out, it's stunning.

Back to the point. The Royals offense today, while struggling, still had an opportunity to get a run or two if they could have just made the most of their opportunities. Managers in baseball absolutely love putting their stamp on the game, though some would argue that baseball is the sport where coaching has the least to do with the outcome. Actually, that's probably why most baseball managers jump at the chance to make an impact in the game.

Anyway, today, when presented with the opportunity on two different occasions, Hillman made the wrong decision in both instances. I'm not saying the Royals lost because of Hillman. The Royals lost for many reasons, and when you get three hits and lose 1-0, it's hard to blame the loss on the manager. But with the talent disadvantage the Royals seem to be at, it will be absolutely impossible for them to win with Hillman's odd and inconsistent decision-making, like we saw today.

1 comment:

  1. GREAT article, Eli. I laughed unabashedly when I got to your take on the Royals' inability to beat rookies and unproven pitchers-- I still recall Jon Lester throwing that no-no against KC and thinking: "Are you kidding me?!"

    Lee Judge-- the same guy who does the political cartoons in the "Local" section? You will have to post me up on this.

    I went to the 3rd game of the season with Drew, and we saw Mendooza come into the game and throw strikes; Alas, these strikes ended up leaving the yard, hit well-into the DryDuck seats. I guess that based upon this rationale, Mendoza graded out at an A-.