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July 22, 2009

Checking the Numbers

Some Royal Perspective

by Eric Seidman

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About an hour into the film Broken Arrow-a trite Travolta action movie from the mid-'90s that happens to be a guilty pleasure of mine-one of the characters remarks that he is not sure whether it disturbs him more that a nuclear weapon had been stolen or that such a scenario had occurred frequently enough to merit the creation of a term to describe it. When news broke that Yuniesky Betancourt had been placed on the trading block, my knee-jerk reaction involved questioning who in the wide, wide world of sports would even desire his services. When it hit the pipeline that the Royals pulled the trigger and had brought him on board, I laughed somewhat cynically, reveling in the predictability of the move, thinking it indicative of Dayton Moore's tenure atop the organization. Much has been written in the wake of Moore's many questionable moves since taking over halfway through the 2006 campaign, critiquing his supposed lack of statistical prowess, and leading to some calling for his immediate dismissal. Relating the aforementioned film to the topic at hand, the fact that Betancourt personifies the type of player Moore has come to treasure in two and a half years on the job is more egregious in the eyes of many than the specific acquisition of a random, low-OBP shortstop from the Mariners.

While trying to process the ramifications of a move that sent Betancourt to the Royals in exchange for more than the privilege of not employing Betancourt anymore, I began to wonder how a front office could look at and properly weight all the relevant information, and yet still arrive at a conclusion truly favoring such an acquisition, and favoring it to the point that departing with a high-upside prospect in Dan Cortes made sense. The merits of Cortes can surely be debated, but that is not the point. Betancourt had a career .279/.302/.393 line that does not drastically stray from the .269/.328/.381 put up by junior circuit shortstops this season. However, Yuni has been trending downward since 2007, seeing his OBP/SLG drop from .308/.418 to .300/.392 to a measly .278/.330 at the time of the trade.

While the offensive numbers this season are unacceptable, period, his prior marks would work well in conjunction to a very solid captaining of the infield. Unfortunately, Betancourt has left much to be desired in that area of his game as well; by Clay Davenport's new-age play-by-play Fielding Runs, he's gone from -1 to -10 to -14 in 2006-08, and by UZR has experienced a decline from 0.7 runs to -1.1 to -12.6, with a current pace of -17.4. Add in that he has gained some weight recently, reportedly shows no desire to get in proper game shape, has been a coaching nightmare, and it is no wonder that plenty of very smart people are baffled by the transaction, especially given Moore's publicly expressing an understanding of the value of not making outs. That Betancourt actually provides more than a marginal upgrade over the Tony Pena Jr./Luis Hernandez duo is just plain depressing.

Unless Bud Selig plans on allowing Betancourt to swing with an aluminum bat and utilize the Back to the Future hoverboard while in the field, well, you know where I'm going with this. Add in that the Mariners' own GM, Jack Zduriencik, stated on the radio that he felt the team needed to upgrade at the position defensively, what on Earth could the Royals see in Betancourt, over perhaps a handful of scouted games that the front office of his former employer missed watching him each and every day? Moore's actions are all too familiar with the baffled responses, as he has routinely acquired free-swinging players seemingly allergic to reaching base. In addition to Betancourt, Moore has sought after the likes of Miguel Olivo, Mike Jacobs, Ryan Freel, Willie Bloomquist, Tony Pena Jr., and Jose Guillen, all guys with limited skill sets, who might help a potential contender if relegated to bench, platoon, or DH duty, but who should not be relied upon as core contributors or players to build around.

The Royals opted to build a nucleus with these guys as well as Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Mark Teahen, one that might just work were the aforementioned Oceanic Six all cost-effective and young. Well, not everyone meets the first criterion, as Jose Guillen earns $12 million per year to add a marginal upgrade at best, and Jacobs' projection did not portend success that far greater than the cheaper and younger internal option in Kila Ka'aihue. The group isn't necessarily spring chickens either: Jacobs turned 28 at the end of last season, Bloomquist is 31 years old, Freel and Guillen each just turned 33, Olivo turned 31 on Wednesday, Pena is 28, and Betancourt is currently 27 years of age. Suffice to say, it isn't as if these guys are all primed to turn a corner and break out. Their primes are on display as we speak, and they are not particularly impressive. Sure, Olivo and Jacobs can hit home runs, but they offer little else in the way of defense, baserunning, or reaching base. Freel and Bloomquist are very versatile, but they should be resigned to Eric Bruntlett-type roles, not starting. Jose Guillen hasn't hit for plenty of power or bested a .350 OBP since 2003-04, yet still gets work as if it were either or both of those seasons.

But while researching for the original iteration of this piece-which intended to discuss the putrid .310 aggregate OBP as well as how it seemed that Moore pursued guys projected to have low OBPs-it dawned on me that this isn't a stats vs. scouts debate, or even a statistical acceptance vs. dismissal issue. This is an organizational and philosophical issue. As someone who has worked quite hard to learn and understand the descriptive statistics capable of informing us about true player productivity, I tend to put ample amounts of weight on the on-base percentage portion of the triple-slash line. I tend to look past raw stolen bases and focus more on surpassing the break-even point of steals vs. times caught. I gush over the fantastic defenders suggested by various defensive metrics rather than the body types that look like they should be able to field a ball with the best of them. I am certainly not alone in this camp.

If he so chose, Dayton Moore could pack his bags and join the activities already in progress, but the fact that he prefers a camp some distance away speaks more to his baseball upbringing than any statistical misconceptions or misunderstandings. Do you really think that someone who has spent his entire life in baseball, someone like Moore, does not know what on-base percentage is? Or that he has never heard of advanced statistics offered on any of a number of websites? The reality is that he simply places more emphasis on the areas many of us look past. He may look at the triple-slash line and put more weight on the batting average side, as it shows the ability to make decent contact. Maybe he looks at defensive versatility and raw steals as indicators of scrappiness and speed, guys who work hard and are deemed gamers. He sees low strikeout and high contact rates, if also neglecting to notice the supremely low rates of free passes. And when he finds what he wants, paying what we consider to be a steep price does not seem like much of an issue. We might not even joke around about giving up two prospects for Yuniesky Betancourt whereas Moore might not even think twice in the opposite direction.

I am not defending the man in any way and I will continue to slam poor moves if he continues to make poor moves, but the vitriol spewed in his direction would have you think that Moore is some Johnny Fairplay wannabe who won a contrived contest, was handed the keys to shiny new Corvette, and promptly drove the car off of a cliff as a means of garnering more fame. In reality, the team he inherited was anything but a flashy sports car, and he has had the tough job of essentially working to bring the franchise up from beneath to replacement level itself, before even being able to elevate the team to a level at which they can become and remain competitive. Again, I am not defending his transactions in any way, but even though this column is generally reserved for hardcore analysis and intensive research, I feel it is incredibly important from time to time to keep some perspective in mind. Calling names will not accomplish anything.

Things are not all bad on the Moore front, as he has apparently done enough with his three drafts-he did not participate in the 2006 draft after accepting the position at the end of May-to convince Kevin Goldstein that the organization is righting their ship as far as their player development program. Royals fans want their wheeler-dealer to prove he has the know-how to make things happen at the major league level as well, which simply will not happen if he continues to treat advanced analytical reports on the same level as a team interviewing a minority coaching candidate because the rules so stipulate. Our eyes are more likely to tell fibs than the numbers, and it has almost become passé to mention that the stats/scouting fusion will produce the most accurate evaluations. This of course assumes that the right analysts and scouts are in place, which is not always a given, and I would tend to question those who watched Betancourt over the last couple of seasons and legitimately felt that he, with his relatively expensive contract and replacement-level production, would be an asset to anyone, let alone one worth the purging of prospects.

Moneyball brought forth the idea of exploiting market inefficiencies, but as more teams took notice, inefficiencies have been hard to find. Currently, teams like the Royals are likely deemed market inefficiencies all on their own, in that they haven't proven themselves capable of getting past ancient management techniques. Dayton Moore is basically acting no differently than 90 percent or more of the general managers in baseball history have before him, but his transactional resumé looks awful in comparison right now because the baseline has shifted at an almost exponential rate. He is driving a Lincoln Continental in a race against Ford Mustangs. Moore might not need to go out and get a brand new Dodge Viper to remain competitive, but he needs to acknowledge that better options exist regardless of his comfort level. Getting into a routine and creating an echo chamber will only hinder progress. For a local mom-and-pop shop, it is one thing to use the old-fashioned calculators and ledger paper as opposed to an advanced ERP system, but for a professional sports franchise with an annual payroll in excess of $60 million, into which millions of people invest time and dedication, it is simply unacceptable these days.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

30 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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BaseballGod

I'm not sure exactly what you're arguing. I think you're right in that Moore is emphasizing stuff that is both outdated and a function of his "baseball upbringing." But when you have so many people - simple fans - who can understand the value of different players better than a GM, the highest level of strategic thinking in baseball, isn't that just remarkable and really quite shameful of the organization in question? What kind of perspective can you put around that to make it any less remarkable?

I agree name-calling is not an answer, but there's no two ways about it - KC is an extreme outlier in the modern baseball business. And extreme outliers tend to provoke extreme reactions.

Jul 22, 2009 11:00 AM
rating: 6
 
Edwincnelson

I think what happened in the offseason has made this play out longer than it should have. KC was the pick to be this year's Rays due to the improved (supposedly) defense and the seemingly good pitching. What was overlooked by those overly optimistic fans was what this article discusses. On the surface, viewed through a particular lens, it looked like this team could win. However, objectively, it should have been clear from the beginning that this team was far too flawed to compete. The staff's short lived dominance only obscured the inevitable for a month or two.


Now the question is how long will this be allowed to continue? Will the KC fanbase ever come back, or will this be a football city like Pittsburgh forever? With a minimal fanbase will they ever be able to recover?

Jul 22, 2009 11:35 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Many on TV predicting the Royals to be fantastic this year fell prey to exactly what you mentioned. They saw the good and not the bad, and mistook an active offseason for a productive offseason. I remember writing at the time how I couldn't believe that people legitimately thought this team had a fighting chance, and that they were in no way comparable to the Rays at all, but when you actively seek something you tend to ignore the downfalls.

Just like Moore looks at Yuniesky and sees "good hands" or something like that, he neglects to see poor range.

Jul 22, 2009 12:52 PM
 
mikebuetow

I read in anticipation that you were leading up to this line -- "Moneyball brought forth the idea of exploiting market inefficiencies" -- but have some trouble with the rest of the sentence -- "but as more teams took notice, inefficiencies have been hard to find."

I would argue that inefficiencies are no harder to find than they were pre-Moneyball. Rather, the inefficiencies that existed pre-Moneyball are not necessarily the same inefficiencies that can be found today. (In the book, Beane himself alluded to that inevitability.) I would liken it to a factory, where engineers pore over yield data in order to refine each process. In baseball, like in production, every time you raise the quality bar, something that was once "in spec" eventually will be found to be below par.

Jul 22, 2009 11:38 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

I don't disagree with you at all... actually, I'll flat out agree with you since it is a pet peeve of mine when people use the reverse instead of what they mean.. "I didn't hate the movie," instead of "I liked it."

I feel like the type of inefficiencies are different now than before, certainly, and that it isn't a matter of digging deep in one area to find them, but rather the knowing where to look might not be as cut and dried anymore. For instance, around the time of Moneyball, newer generations were introduced to the virtues of OBP and other stats they had glossed over because they never knew to look for them, not because they actively despised them. Now it's kind of strange to think of a specific way of thinking as a market inefficiency.

Jul 22, 2009 12:50 PM
 
blynch

"Calling names will not accomplish anything."

Calling names may be rude, but it's not necessarily true that it will not accomplish anything. It probably won't accomplish a changing of Moore's perspective - people tend not to learn/hear well when they're being insulted - but maybe that's not the goal. If Moore is subjected to heaps of ridicule, maybe that will cause others in the KC media/Royals hierarchy to take a closer look at the reasons for that ridicule, and maybe Moore gets the boot sooner.

Of course, it could also backfire and make the Royals dig in their heels just to prove that no basement-dwelling stat heads are gonna tell them what to do, no sir. In which case, it would have accomplished something - just a negative thing, the opposite of what was intended. Happens all the time.

Jul 22, 2009 11:41 AM
rating: 3
 
Lou Doench

I just want to chime in that "Broken Arrow" is one of my guilty pleasures as well. I believe it marks the last time anybody cast Christian Slater as anything resembling an action hero.

Jul 22, 2009 12:43 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

When Howie Long is the second bad guy in command, you know you have a hit!

Jul 22, 2009 12:46 PM
 
kcboomer

This confusing article (what were you really arguing??) tactfully goes right by the point of Royals fans anger with GMDM. The guy has had three years to do something and has failed miserably. He continues to bring in slow, non-OBP hackers, who can't run or defend. And he pays a premium to do it.

He hires a manager who simply has no idea what to do with a pitching staff or younger players. Buddy Bell redux, if you will.

He has not brought in a single player that has reached AA ball with any kind of prospect status.

What kind of GM would trade a high quality reliever for a starting CF and then replace the the reliever with an expensive low quality reliever?? basically GMDM thought that he would rather have Crisp and Farsworth when most of us would have kept Ramirez and $11M.

He's supposed to be the smart guy in the organization but let last year's record delude him into thinking we were just a player away. He didn't bother to look that last year's record was fueled by three things you can't count on: The Tigers collapse, domination of the NL in interleague play, and most of our September games being against teams more worried about their tee times than game times.

Jul 22, 2009 14:19 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

I'm not "arguing" anything, but rather trying to provide some perspective for those who are so quick to yell at him for being statistically inept or dumb from an evaluative standpoint, when, say, seven or eight years ago there was MUCH more weight placed on scouting than the numbers.

When you say that he continues to bring in slow, non-OBP hackers who can't run or defend, I wholeheartedly agree, but from his point of view they look good, because he is using the ancient techniques passed down by his forefathers. He sees that they don't make errors and ignores that the lack of errors is from a lack of range. He sees the low strikeout totals but bypasses low walk totals, etc.

I agree that he has done a poor job and I repeatedly mentioned that I am not defending him. It is irresponsible to not upgrade your evaluative techniques when all of the other teams in baseball have.

Jul 22, 2009 14:54 PM
 
jmanig

I don't know if that has been said before, but I admit I "get" the Yuniesky Betancourt trade. I'm not saying it's a good trade by any means, but I can see how it came about.

There's quite a bit written on Betancourt at ussmariner.com. In short, he's an immensely talented player that for some reason three years ago decided it wasn't worth it to try anymore. His work ethic and conditioning got progressively worse every year. That's why he's underperforming right now. Almost everybody at USSM agrees that if he tried hard enough, he could easily be an above-average shortstop. The team itself has tried to shadow him with players and coaches alike for years in hope of sparking his motivation, until they finally gave up on him.

My point is, IMO it's not about failing to read the numbers, or even wanting to read them at all. It's about a team desperate enough with no credible shortstop at any level that hopes that if they can just "fix" the guy, he has the talent to become the best shortstop they've had in years. In other words it's a pure upside trade.

Now if that actually happens, the Royals will manage to make all of us look stupid. Then again, I think the chances of that happening when it didn't happen with the Mariners in the last three years are pretty low.

Jul 22, 2009 14:43 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

And that is sort of the point. Yuni is certainly an upgrade over Hernandez/Pena, but that speaks to the ineptitude of the prior starters more than it does to the abilities of Betancourt.

There are certainly players that are worth flyers in order to "fix", but Yuni doesn't fit that bill given that seemingly everything has been tried before... and failed.

Jul 22, 2009 14:51 PM
 
abcjr2

I have looked at a lot of PECOTA "cards" and don't recall seeing one that has 50.0 of "upside" for a player with uniformly negative projections of BRAA and FRAA. 50.0 is a pretty big "upside" number. At the beginning of the year I use the Player Forecast Manager and sort players by upside, and while there are a lot of players over 50.0, it's not as many as you might think initially.

Also the comparable players seem to be relatively decent players. It's not as if the PECOTA card for Betancourt lists a bunch of guys who played only a year or two in the big leagues, or never made it; all but a couple of them played in the league 10 years or more.

So I wonder if the initial assumption -- which I shared until looking at the PECOTA card made me rethink it a little -- that Betancourt is simply a terrible player, is not a little too extreme.

Jul 22, 2009 16:53 PM
rating: 0
 
mark1623

If Moore really did understand basic statistical analysis as the author suggests, he would not put more emphasis on the average piece of the triple slash line because anyone who understands these concepts knows how poorly batting average correlates with run scoring.

Jul 22, 2009 17:51 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Not exactly, and that's basically the point of the article: understanding does not equal automatic implementation. He understands OBP and stats of that nature, most likely of course, but prefers to put more weight on what the scouts see and certain statistical areas that he "grew up" with. Understanding SHOULD result in the proper utilization of information, but in this case there is a fairly vast gap between the two, which is a major issue in KC.

Jul 22, 2009 18:14 PM
 
mhughes

Eric-

Your effort is appreciated. I'm guessing you want to be fair minded and reasonable, give DM the benefit of the doubt, etc., etc....

However, I think you're splitting hairs here. Without calling anyone names, I think it's fair and accurate to say that 90% of committed fantasy players, 98% of BP readers, and 100% of BP writers could do a better job than DM. It is inevitable that he will be fired, most likely having never even sniffed a winning season... the question is, how long should the Glasses wait before deciding DMs "Process" is hopelessly flawed?

Jul 23, 2009 07:12 AM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

I don't know that ES is giving DM the benefit of any doubt per se, but is maybe saying that this deal, on the face of it, may not be as bad as has been blogged. Betancourt, for his flaws, is way better than any available alternative. And with TINSTAAP in mind, and the two arms being seen as inconsequential to the future of the Royals, this is simply an easy way to upgrade at SS. And maybe should be seen as such instead of barking up the ol' OBP tree (Jacobs, Guillen, etc.)

Jul 23, 2009 07:23 AM
rating: 0
 
mhughes

Disagree with the "way better than any available alternative" comment. You won't find anyone bugged more by TPjr and Luis Hernandez, but whatever upgrade you get over them must be weighed against the 7 Million the Royals will end up paying YB for the duration of his contract. For a team with limited means, throwing millions of dollars at guys like YM, Farnsworth, Jacobs, etc. amounts to professional malpractice.

Much better in my mind to suffer through another few months of Willy Bloomquist at short and wait for Aviles to get better. 'Course, all the options are pretty reprehensible, so I can't disagree with you too strenuously. The broader point, I think, is that a real GM wouldn't have allowed a situation to happen where YM for 7 million is an upgrade.

Jul 23, 2009 07:35 AM
rating: 0
 
mhughes

jeez... YM = YB. lazy fingers this morning.

Jul 23, 2009 07:38 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

I'm not necessarily giving him the benefit of the doubt but rather trying to provide some insight into why some of these moves are continuously made. I don't know that any of us could do a better job as an MLB GM... it isn't nearly as simple as running a fantasy team. Do we here at BP have a better understanding of what correlates to winning? Seems so, but that and running an MLB organization are not interchangeable.

I'm also not saying the Betancourt deal isn't awful, but again, trying to show how someone in DM's shoes could see the positives and not the negatives. I wholeheartedly agree that paying his salary is a negative, when cheaper options can fill the void for the remainder of the season. Granted, I'm a Phillies fan and have been rewarded with winning seasons this decade, but I remember the pre-Jimmy Rollins era, when they routinely lost 90+ games.. and I honestly didn't care if it was 66-96 or 63-99, they stunk either way. Upgrading from Pena to YB is something a team on the precipice of the post-season might do to increase their odds, not something a 67-95 team does in the hopes of going 69-93.

Jul 23, 2009 07:50 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

The threshold for finding someone better than Pena/Hernandez is so low that there must've been a cheaper alternative that didn't cost a prospect or a multimillion dollar salary.

Jul 23, 2009 09:19 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Precisely... and on the flipside, if they were a playoff contender, when taking on a multimillion dollar salary might make more sense, you go for someone like JJ Hardy and not Yuniesky Betancourt.

Jul 23, 2009 09:44 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Maybe Moore wants the team to do so bad that attendance falls below 800,000 and the team can then break its lease and move to Miami...

Jul 23, 2009 09:17 AM
rating: 0
 
kcboomer

And the Marlins are going to move where??

The worse part of the Betancourt deal was that GMDM paid way more than Seattle would have settled for to get him out of town. And there is no way to sugar coat that by saying Moore values different things. He spent $10 when the seller would gladly have taken $5. Or even $1.

It really grates my hide that the folks in Seattle are just laughing their butts off at us.

Jul 23, 2009 10:52 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Because he values different things is why he would pay more than others would settle for. The best example came through a convo I had with Dave Cameron, where he likened it to a vegetarian walking into a burger joint. The vegetarian will scan the menu and find a $9 tofu patty. Nobody else there would pay that much just to eat fake meat, especially when their burgers might only cost $5, but to the vegetarian, it is what he wants, so the price doesn't seem high in comparison, since he has no use for the regular burgers.

Jul 23, 2009 11:02 AM
 
eighteen

"since he has no use for the regular burgers, and is too stupid to go elsewhere to get his tofu."

Fixed.

Jul 23, 2009 11:21 AM
rating: 1
 
BaseballGod

Or maybe I'm the sucker. I just accidentally flagged eighteen's comment for moderation. (I actually liked the comment.)

Jul 23, 2009 12:23 PM
rating: 0
 
BaseballGod

It's more like GMDM (love that) is fishing around in the trash can out back and asking "hey, will you take $10 for this stuff?"

They say in Rounders that if you can't identify the sucker at the table, you ARE the sucker. Granted, Brian Sabean is still earning his salary, but more and more it looks like the Royals are THE sucker at the table.

Jul 23, 2009 12:19 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Which is exactly what I wrote in the article - THEY are the market inefficiency teams are exploiting.

Jul 23, 2009 12:33 PM
 
mhughes

"hey, will you take $10 for this stuff?"

That's awesome... this is the reason I read BP comment sections.

Jul 23, 2009 18:34 PM
rating: 0
 
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