I’d only been writing about the Royals for a few months when I happened to get on a stadium elevator with one of the team’s front-office executives. I recognized him but didn’t think he recognized me. Then he said, “I’m a big fan of what you do.”
“Are you talking about the cartoons or the web site?”
“Both, but right now I’m talking about the web site.”
I’d just written a piece about Brian Bannister’s 1-0 win over the Nationals and Stephen Strasburg. I pointed out that Jason Kendall had blocked six pitches in the dirt that day. Two kept a double play in order that was later turned. One kept a runner on second who was later thrown out at the plate trying to score on a single. Three came with runners standing on third base.
Bannister pitched great, but without Kendall’s efforts, no win.
The executive appreciated someone noticing what Kendall had done, then added, “And I really like that you don’t play GM.” It hadn’t occurred to me to try. I had my hands full attempting to understand how the game was played and how these particular guys were playing it. Commenting on trades, contracts and players on other teams seemed well beyond me.
But that comment stuck with me. It made me think not only about what I should be doing on the website, but also what I shouldn’t be doing. And that brings me to Jonathan Broxton and the three simple words that people are often reluctant to say: “I don’t know.”
When people learn that I write about baseball, they’ll ask questions that I’m not qualified to answer. “Should the Royals have signed Broxton?” is one of those questions. It’s not that it’s wrong to speculate on how he’ll fit in or what that means for Aaron Crow’s chances of starting or any of the other topics that keeps a baseball junkie busy during the winter. But it’s good to keep in mind that I really don’t know what it all means.
After the 2010 season, Alex Gordon appeared to be playing his way out of the big leagues. I didn’t know he was going to change his game, be a legitimate contender for a spot on the All-Star team, win a Gold Glove and hit .303.
I also didn’t know that Melky Cabrera was going to hit .305 and play some of the best baseball of his career. I didn’t know that Jeff Francoeur was going to lose weight and have a terrific comeback season. I didn’t know that Greg Holland was going to figure things out, Joakim Soria was going to be inconsistent or Mike Aviles was going to struggle to make the switch to second base. Not only did I not know those things were going to happen, the players involved didn’t know they were going to happen.
And if I didn’t know what was going to happen in 2011, how can I be sure about what’s going happen in 2012?
If Jonathan Sanchez blows out an elbow and Cabrera puts up an even better year, that’s going to look like a bad trade. If Sanchez begins to find the strike zone on a regular basis and Cabrera decides to have seconds on dessert all winter, Dayton Moore will look like a genius. If you try to figure out what will happen to these players in 2012, the best anyone can do is make an educated guess. Moore once told me that you could make a case to fire any general manager if you only looked at his failures. And he’s right.
Predicting the future performance of an athlete is complicated. And I haven’t even talked about money, or how a player’s signing affects another player, or clubhouse chemistry, or how one trade is really a prelude to another trade down the road. Moore has a complicated puzzle to put together, and I think it’s safe to assume he knows a few more things about that puzzle than I do.
Like I said, I’m trying to understand one thing: How the players the Royals put on the field play the game. I can tell you that Francoeur is great at playing the wall, that Gordon charges the ball really well, that Chris Getz is a smart baserunner, that Eric Hosmer is making the rest of the Royals infield better, that other teams were pitching Mike Moustakas up in the zone and getting him to fly out, that if Alcides Escobar hits the ball to right field he has a chance to be a good offensive player, that Brayan Pena’s throws to second tail toward right field and that Luke Hochevar has trouble throwing strikes out of a slide step.
But I can’t tell you if any of them should be traded.
The factors that go into acquiring, trading or letting a player go are complex and the public rarely knows everything that goes into a transaction. So I’ll stick with my main job: watching these guys play and sharing what I’ve learned.
Because if I tried to play GM, I’d only be playing.
The Star’s Sam Mellinger recently posted some predictions about the 2012 Royals. These projections of individual performance were made by Bill James and can be found on Sam’s blog, “Don’t Kill the Mellinger.” (Man, we love the cute names, don’t we?)
I decided to find out what James said last year at this time to see how accurate those projections were. I found some of what I was looking for on the web site, “Royals Review.” (Thanks, guys.) Assuming I transcribed these numbers correctly (and I screw up my checkbook on a regular basis, so beware) here’s what Bill James thought some of the Royals would do in 2011 followed by what they actually did while with the Royals in 2011.
The first set of numbers are projected 2011 batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage followed by actual 2011 batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage [the numbers in the brackets].
•Mike Aviles: .287/.320/.414 [.222/.261/.395]
•Wilson Betemit: .261/.333/.442 [.281/.329/.476]
•Billy Butler: .307/.377/.476 [.291/.361/.461]
•Melky Cabrera: .267/.332/.386 [.305/.339/.470]
•Eric Hosmer: .283/.333/.474 [.293/.334/.465]
•Kila Ka’aihue: .254/.357/.451 [.195/.295/.317]
•Mitch Maier: .267/.331/.383 [.232/.345/.337]
•Mike Moustakas: .297/.334/.510 [.263/.309/.367]
Some of the projections were fairly accurate and some were way off. Some may have been thrown off by sample size: the player in question didn’t get the number of at-bats that James thought he would. Although in some cases, take Aviles or Ka’aihue, if the projections had been accurate, they might have gotten those at-bats.
Admittedly, I’m looking at a very small sample of James’ work, but the pattern seems to be that if the player performed very close to his career averages, the predictions were fairly accurate. If the player did something out of the norm, much better or much worse, the predictions weren’t so hot.
Which is kind of like saying I’m a terrific weather forecaster as long as the weather doesn’t change, but if something extreme happens, a hurricane or Melky Cabrera hitting 30 points above his career average, I’m likely to miss it. Here’s another example of a James 2011 projection from “Royals Review” that makes that point:
Adam Dunn: .247/.373/.511/39 HR
Now here’s what he actually did:
Predicting that Cabrera, Jeff Francoeur and Alex Gordon are likely to fall off in 2012 makes sense…mathematically. They played better than normal in 2011 and statistically, it’s likely that they’ll have some regression toward their career averages, but that ignores the fact that players do change. George Brett spent one All-Star break working with Charlie Lau and was a different hitter from then on.
Like I said about playing GM, predicting the future performance of athletes is hard. No wait, I’ve got that wrong — predicting the future performance of athletes is easy. Doing it accurately is the hard part.
The science of scorekeeping
My wife once told me that one of her biggest disappointments in life was meeting me and finding out how the Kansas City Star’s editorial board actually worked. (I’m not sure how big a role meeting me played in her disappointment, but I’m guessing it was significant.)
People assume professionalism and competence on the part of any organization they know nothing about. I’ve worked in the food industry and can tell you that one trip to a restaurant’s kitchen during the dinner rush will quickly kill that notion.
According to the new player’s agreement, team officials and players can no longer ask the official scorekeeper to reconsider a decision. Clubs now have to send video to Major League Baseball to appeal calls. Having spent a couple of years in the press box, I can tell you that scorekeeping is not an exact science.
The scorekeeper makes a call and a team representative who thinks his guy got screwed will go over to complain. An argument ensues, and sometimes a decision gets changed. Sometimes the complaining party is just putting up a fight for his guy. Sometimes the call was clearly wrong and they’ve got a justifiable complaint.
All I know for sure is the press box is now going to be a lot less entertaining. I really enjoyed watching someone be mad at anybody that wasn’t me.
More new rules
Players are now banned from getting tattoos with corporate logos. Because Major League Baseball does not want commercialism to ruin the image of this great game while it’s being played at Progressive Field, Citizen’s Bank Park, Safeco Field, Busch Stadium, Coors Field, O.co Coliseum, Chase Field, AT&T Park, Citi Field, Minute Maid Park, Miller Park, Comerica Park, Wrigley Field, Petco Park, Target Field, Sun Life Stadium, PNC Park, Tropicana Field, Rogers Centre or U.S. Cellular Field.