July 22, 2009
Checking the Numbers
Some Royal Perspective
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.