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Entries in Kansas City Royals (17)

Wednesday
Mar212012

Greg Holland's Slider

With Joakim Soria and his damaged UCL likely headed for Tommy John surgery, the Royals are holding auditions for a new closer. Sans Soria, Kansas City still boasts a power 'pen including Aaron Crow (whose starting ambitions are at least temporarily on hold), Jonathan Broxton (assuming his elbow is sturdy) and Greg Holland.

Holland, a former tenth-round pick who never cracked top prospect lists in a loaded Royals system, looks like the best choice for high-leverage gun slinging. The 26-year-old righty whiffed 74 batters in 60 innings pitched last year, with a 2.21 Fielding Independent Pitching that sandwiched him between Mariano Rivera and Ryan Madson among relievers. Holland has mid-to-upper-90s heat that he uses to pound the zone (59% of his fastballs were over the plate, versus the 52% average for 'pen arms), but it's his wicked slider that gets the Ks.

Holland threw nearly as many sliders (44%) as fastballs (47%) in 2011. While sliders usually show a big platoon split, Holland's high-80s breaker was actually more effective against left-handed hitters (.108/.132/.135) than righties (.148/.197/.213). He tossed the slider for strikes against lefties, placing 55% of them in the zone...

Holland's slider location to lefty hitters, 2011

...And used it as more of a chase pitch versus righties, throwing just 40% in the zone....  

 Holland's slider location to righty hitters, 2011

Lefty or righty, it didn't matter: the pitch was whiff-tastic. Left-handers rarely connected with those sliders at the knees...

Lefty hitters' contact rate vs. Holland's slider, 2011

...And right-handers swung through those low-and-away sliders...

Righty hitters' contact rate vs. Holland's slider, 2011 

Both lefties (57% miss rate) and righties (55%) came up empty more than half of the time they swung at a Holland slider. The only relievers with a higher miss rate with the pitch were Joel Hanrahan, Al Alburquerque, Jordan Walden, Sergio Santos and Jonny Venters.

We'll have to see if Holland's slider-centric approach continues to keep lefties at bay and keep his own elbow from barking, but the late innings still look to be in good hands with Holland.  

Thursday
Mar152012

Alcides Escobar's Inside Hacking

A few weeks after signing catcher Salvador Perez to a long-term extension, the Royals have locked up another up-the-middle starter through at least his arbitration years. Kansas City and Alcides Escobar agreed on a four-year deal that guarantees the gifted glove man at least $10.5 million and could be worth a total of $21.75 million if the Royals exercise options for the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

Escobar, 25, came to K.C. from Milwaukee in the December 2010 Zack Greinke swap and is the quintessential "all glove, no bat" player. He's sublime at shortstop, rating as between a +2 run (Total Zone) a +6 run (Ultimate Zone Rating) fielder, depending upon your metric of choice. But at the plate? Even by the modest standards of his position, Escobar is a lightweight: he's got a career 72 OPS+, while MLB shortstops have averaged around a 92 OPS+ in recent years.

At a lithe 6-1, 185 pounds and with a career .377 minor league slugging percentage, Escobar is never going to become a power hitter. But if he's going to at least avoid becoming an uber out-maker, he'll have to tighten his strike zone. Escobar has lunged at over 33% of pitches thrown out of the strike zone, compared to the 28% league average over the past four years. He's especially prone to hacking at pitches thrown in on the hands. Take a look at his swing rate by pitch location, and then the league average for righty hitters:

Escobar's swing rate by pitch location, 2008-11

Average swing rate by pitch location for RHBs, 2008-11

It's not like Escobar is succeeding when he tries to turn on pitches tossed near his knuckles, either. Look at his in-play average by pitch location, and then the average for righty batters:

Escobar's in-play average by pitch location, 2008-11

In-play average by pitch location for RHB, 2008-11

Escobar has batted .205 when chasing inside pitches, right around the league average.

Even with his low-power, hack-happy hitting, Escobar managed to be a passable starter last year (around 2 Wins Above Replacement by both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs) because his agility and arm at the diamond's premium defensive spot were that good. That seems to be his floor: A modern-day Mark Belanger whose fielding prowess makes up for his many quick trips back to the dugout. But to achieve more than that, Escobar must lay off the inside stuff.

Wednesday
Mar072012

Should K.C. Extend Alex Gordon Now?

After four frustrating seasons marred by hip and thumb injuries, Alex Gordon moved from third base to left field in 2011 and finally hit like the Royals expected him to when they chose him over the likes of Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki in the 2005 draft. Gordon batted .303/.376/.502 and had a 140 OPS+, improving from his .244/.328/.405 triple-slash and 95 OPS+ from 2007-10.

Now, as Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal notes, the question becomes whether Gordon will be in K.C. past 2013. The Royals hope to negotiate a long-term deal with the 28-year-old, who will earn $4.78 million through arbitration this year. But such a pact could be the largest in club history:

Gordon might not command $100 million – his track record is shorter than those of Zimmerman, Braun and Tulowitzki. But he almost certainly will want more than $55 million, the previous club record shared by Gil Meche and Mike Sweeney.

Negotiations for an extension are in the early stages, but expected to intensify later this spring, major-league sources say.

The Royals might prefer to wait and see if Gordon can repeat his stellar 2011 season. But by next off-season, Gordon will be only one year away from free agency and perhaps more eager to test the open market.

Here's the issue that Royals GM Dayton Moore must ponder: Should he take a patient approach to negotiating a long-term deal with Gordon, waiting to confirm that he's more the player we saw in 2011 than in years past, or should he be blowing up agent Casey Close's cell to get this done before spring training ends? There's risk both ways. Waiting could leave Gordon one year from a mega pay day should he keep raking, and locking him up now could mean giving him a star's salary during those free agent years only to see him settle in as a good, not great player.

Moore's decision may come down to how much weight he puts in Gordon's 2011 breakout at the plate. So, is Gordon the top-10-type hitter of 2011 or the also-ran of 2007-10? The answer is probably, "neither." Most of the projection systems -- ZiPS, Bill James and Oliver among them -- have Gordon hitting near .280, getting on base at a .360 clip and slugging around .460.

That's plenty valuable, particularly from a Gold Glover who figures to save some runs in the outfield, but a step down from this past year. While Gordon began hitting breaking stuff with authority in 2011, he almost assuredly won't get as many hits on bloops and bleeders in 2012.

First, the good. Gordon started driving curveballs and sliders in 2011, boosting his average fly ball distance on breaking stuff from a league average 261 feet from 2008-10 to 291 feet in 2011. Take a look at Gordon's fly ball distance by pitch location against breaking balls in 2008-10, and then last season. He started thumping curves and sliders and the knees:

Alex Gordon's fly ball distance by pitch location vs. breaking stuff, 2008-10

Alex Gordon's fly ball distance by pitch location vs. breaking stuff, 2011

Gordon placed in the top 15 among MLB batters in fly ball distance vs. breaking balls, in the same range as Matt Holliday, Albert Pujols and Joey Votto. That extra distance played a part in his slugging .423 versus curves and sliders, compared to .301 from 2008-10 and the .338 league average.

But While Gordon had more pop in his bat, he also likely got some lucky bounces. His batting average on balls in play was .380 on curves and sliders (90 points above the MLB average) and .358 overall. He had a .260 BABIP on breaking balls from 2008-10, and a .289 BABIP overall.

If Gordon is seeking the sort of franchise record deal that Rosenthal suggests, then Moore might be best off further evaluating his left fielder in 2012 rather than guaranteeing him $10-15 million per year for free agent seasons that cover his early thirties. Could Gordon continue to be the down-ballot MVP player of 2011, batting .300 with power and ranking among the game's best corner outfielders? In a perfect world, yes. But he could also regress to the .260s, suffer another injury and rate as just an average fielder with fewer runners testing his arm (which accounted for much of his defensive value). Waiting a year looks like the best course of action from here.