Mike Ferrin talks with Tim Kniker in a special edition of Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.
Mike Ferrin: Every week we get a chance to talk to one of the folks from Baseball Prospectus. Tim Kniker joining us today to talk a little about the American League Central and specifically the Royals, Tim. I listen, I look at that division, and I go, Detroit’s not a world-beater. Anybody really can win this, so give give Royals fans some hope here for the second half of the season that they can make a miraculous run.
Tim Kniker: Well, I would say first off, you know, I think everything good this year starts with and unfortunately has been ending with Zack Greinke.
TK: So you’ve got definitely a solid number one. Gil Meche has been a solid number two the entire season. Brian Bannister has been looking very well. He’s actually pitching pretty well tonight so far in the first inning. So I think you’ve got a nice one-two-three right there, and you if the Royals’ season is going to be… is either going to make it or break it on their starting pitching and so far the starting pitching’s been holding up… through most of the season. In a couple of weeks, Alex Gordon is going to be back, and everyone has been assuming that this is going to be his breakout year. Maybe we postponed it three months, but that’ll hopefully provide a little bit of punch to the offense, and as I kind of joke with some of my friends, given that, you know, Hank Aaron said that the triple is the most exciting play in baseball and the Royals are leading the team in tri, er leading the league in triples…
TK: They by by nature must be the most exciting team, so at least it’ll be fun to watch.
MF: Well, you as you mentioned, they’ve got great starting pitching, and you know, Luke Hochevar, another name that can be mentioned in that mix has been very good since they brought him back from Triple-A. But you mentioned Alex Gordon. You mentioned that he’s missed but now basically three months at this point. Mike Aviles, out for the last month or so with a forearm problem. Coco Crisp is done for the year. How much do injuries really affect a team like the Royals?
TK: I… you know, I think that there’s the one thing that’s happened with Alex Gordon which I don’t think the Royals have been hurt as much by Alex Gordon’s injury because you actually have had the two people who benefited with the most uh more playing time because of that has been Alberto Callaspo and Mark Teahen, and they’ve actually probably been… two of the most solid contributors this year, so the Gordon injury hasn’t hurt as much. I think the one thing that has happened is you know Aviles, who was gangbusters last year but then just did not ever seem to turn it on at the beginning portion this year. Now the injury you could have completely be saying is that was the result of why, you know, with the slow start and given that the Royals are, you know, thirtieth in the league in production from the shortstop spot, I think, you know, you have to look at that and say ‘Is that the injury?’ and there’s a good shot that that injury was actually killing them, and because that’s really been driving down their offense, I mean, it’s almost like their throwing out a National League lineup when you have.. that you know, [a] .200 hitter at the shortstop spot.
MF: And and that’s, of course, very difficult to do, especially in a division that’s as close as that. Now, you but you did some research as far as the lineups between first and second division teams.
MF: And the way that they tie together based on on on their depth. So how has the Royals’ depth been tested by these injuries, and are they performing like you would expect the Royals to perform?
TK: In terms of their depth, I mean, the one name that probably has, yeah well one that’s happened, is I think that, you know with Teahen, no one was really sure, you know, there’s always the second-base experiment. Uh Teahen experiment that, you know, very quickly uh ended when Gordon went down. And the other one being Willie Bloomquist, whom you’ve gotten from Willie Bloomquist I think what you expected. About a 700 OPS hitter who’s actually provided a little bit of spark, I mean, with also with a lot the stolen bases that he’s been able to swipe. So that’s been ok and you’ve also had some uh pretty good backup with John Buck being down and having Brayan Pena put in, have a little bit of a spark there at the backup catcher’s spot. But I think the problem is that, you know, the Royals have not had the Mike Aviles from last year come this year. I think, a lot of Royals fans were really hoping that maybe down in Triple-A, Kila Ka’aihue may actually see some playing time. He’s been, for now, essentially a year and a half, just been tearing up the minor leagues, and Royals fans just hope that he can come up. The one problem being that there really was not much place for him once the trade for Mike Jacobs happened. You really had two, two fairly solid players, two of these players that you were going to see the bulk of the playing time at first base and DH, and there just was no spot for Ka’aihue to come up.
MF: We’re talking to Tim Kniker from Baseball Prospectus. I want to go back just a minute to what you were talking about with Mike Aviles and and you know, his remarkable season as a rookie at the shortstop position. We’ve seen some some big changes in shortstops over the last thirty years. What’s maybe the biggest difference that we’ve seen?
TK: I think it’s… the number one difference is just how much the shortstop has changed from the defensive position, which I think hit its peak in the 1970s with your players like Mark Belanger, Larry Bowa, Bucky Dent, and my personal favorite, Freddie Patek. And that it’s you know, you starting, definitely starting with Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, you started seeing that teams were realizing they could actually make significant contributions to, you know, the win totals and especially the run scored by focusing a little bit more on offensive shortstops. And obviously that continued with the, with the heyday of Rodriguez, Tejada, Jeter and Garciaparra in the late ’90s.
MF: Well, er, now we’re seeing, now we’re seeing that change a little bit though from from what it was. Right? I mean we’re seeing, we’re seeing less offensive production from the shortstop position than we were ten years ago?
TK: Oh, actually no, it’s actually been continuing on. Now I would say in the last year, I think we’ve seen some stuff with, say, Jason Bartlett of Tampa Bay, and I think definitely one big point in this direction was the Rangers this year with Elvis Andrus. That you know, you took a fairly solid offensive shortstop in Michael Young and moved him over to third base to make room for a much more defensive position. But I would say that’s only happened the last, you know, two years. One of the things that’s really interesting that we found, that I found, in some research was that typically, if you go back through history, all the way back to about 1900, typically the shortstop made about eighteen percent of the plays in the field every single decade through 1990 but then in the 2000, we saw that number actually drop down to about 15 percent. So it may not seem like a lot but in general, a lot more of the shortstop just keeps to not be making the plays, as many of the plays as he has in the past, And some of that, I think is that, these teams, as they saw the great benefit you got from your Jeters and your Garciaparras, they were willing to kind of lower the bar defensively on the type of shortstop, and say hey, we don’t need a shortstop quite as good defensively as we thougt we’d need in the past because we think we’d rather have the the offense coming from someone like, say, a Jimmy Rollins or a Jose Reyes or a Hanley Ramirez.
MF: So do you see, maybe last season in the American League, we’re we’re looking at a point a year ago and trying to find an All-Star-caliber shortstop, and it wasn’t easy, and you look at it outside of Hanley Ramirez in the National League, you you can kind of see that it’s difficult to find a backup shortstop in the National League for the All-Star team. Are these seasons really outliers then, or… or do you think that that the move by Texas to add a guy like Andrus is is going to be part of a trend?
TK: I actually think that, you know, and baseball being a copycat sport that it is, I think we are actually going to start to see a comeback to a little bit more of a defensive shortstop and teams willing to sacrifice a little bit more offense and not lower the bar quite so dramatically.
MF: Why do you think that is?
TK: Well I think, you know, number one is the success. I mean, you can look at, you know Tampa Bay last year it feels like the number one points that people were talking about, the two points about Tampa Bay were, they had great pitching and they had great defense, and I think one of the things I know is coming out of the sabermetric community is just maybe we haven’t been valuing defense quite as much as we should have. And I think, as those metrics are start getting better, and those are getting implemented by some of the front offices, that says defense may actually be a little more important than we’ve been thinking in the 2000s and in the late 1990s.
MF: It’s interesting you say that because we watched the sabermetric shift in the A’s organization over the last couple of years when when on-base percentage became overvalued for them, to to start to look more at guys who were strong defensive players. Of course, that hasn’t translated for them on the field, and surprisingly, not for a lack of good pitching.
TK: Right, it’s you know, I think that, you one of the things, you know, coming out of the whole Moneyball is not so much, oh, OBP is, you know, on-base percentage is king or not, But it was trying to find where places in the marketplace and not being, say, the draft in the free agency market where other teams were undervaluing something else, undervaluing an attribute. And I think the A’s were onto something that, hey people were undervaluing defense and you know, that that is something to focus on now, You know, they’ve definitely seemed to have had either bad luck or just simply not had the offensive at least continue to at least to the point of where it should be. You know, they’re down number thirtieth for offensive production in the league.
MF: Yeah, I think that’s one of those great points you make when it comes down to the book Moneyball. It’s one that’s missed on a great number of people. That the book wasn’t about an A’s philosophy built on-base percentage so much as it was finding inequities in an overstocked market for a chance for a team without high revenue streams to be able to compete.
TK: Exactly, yes.
MF: Tim, I appreciate the time. Tim Kniker from Baseball Prospectus, joining us on our weekly chat here Back with more here on “On Deck” after this on Sirius XM.
Mike talks with Tim in this special edition of BP Radio:
Click to download mp3