Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Baseball in the TreyTime II: It's All Up Hill, Man

At the conclusion of the St. Louis Cardinals-Kansas City Royals series over the weekend, the "Fire (Royals Manager) Trey (Hillman)" bandwagon was fired up again by many in the metro KC. These people are by and large, in my humble opinion, morons. Old No. 7 wanted to know if Hillman ever explained why he pitched to Pujols as often as he did. I mentioned the June 19 article in The Kansas City Star by Bob Dutton where Hillman was quoted:

"We won't go into this series making the statement that we're not pitching to Albert Pujols...Absolutely not. We didn't do that in St. Louis, and we're not doing it here...I think situations dictate whether or not you choose to pitch to him. I would never go into a three-game series saying we aren't going to pitch to somebody. I might do that in a one-game playoff. But in a three-game series? I can't do that...I have confidence in our pitching staff...that if we locate pitches, and mix our pitches, that we can limit his damage. I say that with a total respect for know how good Albert Pujols is."

I also mentioned to him that many were up in arms about Hillman being in the Cardinals dugout to chat with St. Louis skipper Tony La Russa. Said "many" felt this was a violation of several sorts. In a June 22 Star article by Sam Mellinger, Hillman was again quoted:

"(La Russa)" has been exceptionally kind with his time...I know what a manager's time constraints are during the course of a day...We've talked about some very detailed things over the two years...He's always offered to give any advice, answer any questions, no matter how out of bounds other managers might think they are. He told me early on, 'I'll talk to you about anything.'"

So we had our own brief chat about Trey, and brought in baseball guru Chief Crazy Horse. It's a jumbled, piece-mealed chat, but after the jump, you can read it.

Old No. 7: You mentioned to me yesterday that there's a growing Fire Trey Hillman movement going on in your community, and that blows my mind. I think Trey is a fine skipper and that hiring him last year was a big step in your franchise's crawl toward respectability. Now I know about the complaints concerning his bullpen usage, and I myself noted his ill-fated decision to pitch to Pujols over the weekend (3 HR and 10 RBI in the three-game series). What's got the Royals faithful so bent out of shape about Trey?

Bankmeister: Look, dude. I'm not an expert on SaBrMeTrIcS, or much of anything for that matter, but I do feel like I'm passionate about my teams, and when something's on the brain, in the heart, and wretching the guts, I voice it. I think if I've done anything in our time in Blogtopia, it's that. This fire-the-skip bandwagon is probably pissing me off more than anything in recent memory, and I'm sincere when I say that. Even more so than a 2008 2-14 Chiefs campaign, and I say that because I knew, deep down in side, that Herman's days were numbered.

But this is ridiculous, and I have a lot to say about it. I'd even like to bring in a baseball ringer, a cat of your mental caliber, and if he's willing, he'll only counter my take/points. But the deal is this:

Dayton Moore, was hired in mid-summer 2006 to replace Allard Baird. He wasted no time and had collected some 14 transactions before the season was over. He made it absolutely clear that this was going to be a process, one that involved improving the farm system, scouting better in Latin America, and building a championship team on two things: pitching, and hiring good, intelligent baseball people to do jobs for you. He made some coaching changes, but he let Buddy Bell stick around, and I was fine with that. Our rotation, hell, our entire team, was largely awful that season, so I didn't blame Bell for much at all. But Bell resigned at the end of 2007.

Moore spent much of the off-season looking for his guy, and when it was announced that Hillman was he, I was stoked. The guy has experience in coaching with the Yankees farm system, and had just won a championship in Japan. Those things said, he was a rookie MLB manager in 2008, which, for those of the short-term-memory variety, was last year. The Royals overall record in 2008 was an improvement from '07, which was an improvement from '06. We're not talking massive improvements, but a few games here and there.

But there were already people silently questioning the guy by August. Then the Royals had a hot September, and everyone shut up. No one had a thing to say in April when Kansas City was in first place in the A.L. Central for most of the month. May was a good start, but things started to fizzle. Alex Gordon goes down, a few more injuries ensue, and frankly, other teams started playing better ball. The Royals have had a pretty miserable seven-week stretch, but you simply can't can Hillman now.

This is his ninth regular-season month skipping, and he was the new GM's first hire. You just don't fire that guy, no matter who he is at this point in time. Everyone and their mother wants to point to inconsistency in his managing style. I say he's still trying to figure out exactly what his style is. The critics destroy him when it comes to the bullpen decisions. I say the entire pitching staff has been questionable since training camp. You bring in Horacio Ramirez, who had an atrocious camp, so you sign Sidney Ponson and shove Ramirez into the 'pen. Ramirez doesn't work there, so you cut him and eat his million-dollar-plus contract. Ponson gets sent down, and your closer is hurt, so you wind up having to rely a little much on the arm of one Kyle Farnsworth. Folks will say that it started before that, like opening day against the White Sox when Hillman brought in Farnsworth, and Farnsworth pitched to Jim Thome, who cranks a game-winning jack. Big deal.

There are other calls to the bullpen that they question. They'll talk Ron Mahay and mention that he's not -- according to Hillman -- a left-handed specialist, etc. They talk about defensive replacements being questionable when this team is really not very sound defensively as a unit.

Now, after this weekend's brutal sweep at the hands of the Cardinals, everyone's talking about pitching to Albert Pujols and what a lame-brain move that was over and over again. And everyone's really fired up about the fact that Hillman went into the St. Louis dugout to chat with Tony LaRussa. Who freaking cares, says I.

A local sports TalkRadio dude said yesterday morning, "So, is there anybody out there that still thinks Trey Hillman shouldn't be fired?"

I mentioned to this cat that he's a dude that stood behind Herman Edwards after three complete seasons, and stood firm on the notion that he should be brought back for a fourth. How could he possibly think that firing Hillman now is the right move?

Here are some other responses to the DJ's question:

"He's got to go, he's a nice guy but, not gettin the results. Bobby Valentine is gonna be available, i'm just sayin."

“Here is the list of people that think trey hillman should NOT be fired--
1. Trey Hillman
2. Dayton Moore
3. Idiots who know nothing about baseball.

By the way... What has dayton moore done for the royals??? I give him a D- in his time here.”

"Yes. I thought he was going to be a good "baseball guy", but the decisions he makes are absolutely terrible... Dayton Moore said that if he didn’t feel he could have total autonomy to put the Royals on the right track, I wouldn’t have been the general manager at Kansas City... Well, he has it, and their not on track... At this rate by 2012 we'll have 9 first basemen, 4 center fielders, 6 third basemen, and oh Mark Teahen."

"Um, you can't fire him now ... but only because he's coaching in the all-star game. That would be a PR nightmare to fire him before the break. Hell, you have to wait until two weeks after before you can seriously start talking about it again. Thx, Joe Madden. Kansas City thanks you."

"I quit paying attention to the royals. The only way to build a small market team is around pitching and speed, and they have no speed, so I pay no mind. But I think Seitzer should have been fired first and a long time ago. He is obviously not a hitting instructor and he was himself only a punch and judy hitter. But Trey can follow him out the door."

I guess they just don't think he's cut out for the job. Said radio host points to Colorado's turnaround since the Hurdle firing. I say that's apples and oranges, and it won't last. I certainly feel alone in my opinion, though. I've said from day one that Moore is building the organization and that some of these players are just what we have to deal with in the interim. National experts said a fifth, fourth-at-best, place finish for KC in the Central this year. Because they're now doing that, folks done lost their minds.

Chief Crazy Horse: Here’s the thing. It’s not like these are the same old Royals, where we’d simply get out-pitched, out-hit, and generally out-classed. It’s not like we’re trotting out Mark Redman, Scott Elarton, Brian Anderson, Darrell May and Mac Suzuki, with Ricky Bottalico at the back of the bullpen. It’s not like our best position player on this team is former mandatory All-Star and T-Bones reject Ken Harvey. On paper, we should be better than a 90-loss team. Period. Injuries or not. We saw glimpses of the team’s potential in April, despite some of Hillman’s puzzling managerial decisions. I’m not even talking about his bullpen management, which deserves its own Sports Century episode.

Farnsworth vs. Thome about sums it up. It’s basic mis-management on all levels. I remember the time when he inserted Willie Bloomquist, a natural middle infielder, as a late game defensive replacement in right field, rather than have him swap positions with a natural right-fielder, Mark Teahen, who was playing second base at the time. Really?

The defense and base-running on this team has been absolutely atrocious, if not historically atrocious, and isn’t that what Hillman advertised on his coat of arms coming in? Fundamentals? Granted, we have personnel problems. Our starting catcher is deficient in ball-catching skills for godsakes. And don’t get me started on the post-PED Jose Guillen, who has become almost indistinguishable in physical stature from light-hitting Alberto Callaspo, and has shown less slug. But isn’t it the job of the manager to put his team in the best position to win? This includes DH’ing Guillen against heavy pitch-to-contact starters (or benching him altogether). This does not include using situational lefty Jimmy Gobble against right handed hitters even though Jimmy has one of the highest platoon splits in baseball history, ruining Jimmy’s confidence and marketability, and dismissing the need for a lefty specialist (and platoon splits in general) despite an avalanche of evidence to the contrary -— which ultimately led to Farnsworth v. Thome, and ruined what was one of the most anticipated opening days in recent Royals history.

As for Guillen, I'm not sure if there's a mandate on the table -— overt or covert -—but there seems to be some kind of de facto agreement that Hillman wheel Guillen’s tired Special Olympics act into right field even though he would be the fourth fastest outfielder on a beer-league softball team at a retirement home for survivors of southeast-Asian mine maimings. I understand that we've invested a lot of money in the guy, but that's exactly why we need to cut our losses and use him only at DH (and against LHP's older than 35, which he’s very effective against). It’s done. He’s a sunk cost. He’s a lemon. And instead of calling him a lemon and putting him up on blocks in the front yard to sun himself with the other turds, we keep pumping more resources into him (i.e. by continuing to play him) in hopes that we can get him running again for long enough to con somebody into taking him off our hands. So, is that a Hillman offense, or a Moore offense?

I also think one of the reasons long-time Royals fans are so irate is that they’ve been spoiled by the likes of Howser, Herzog, Frey, and even the vodka bottle-brandishing McRae. They expect better. Yes, the game was different during the era of the powder blues. The game still felt like a game. Not a sales cycle. Winning was important in its own right. Maybe it was simply easier to manage a baseball team back then, without having to worry about maximizing ROI on a capital expenditure (let’s face it, players are assets. They shouldn’t even call the money they make a “salary.”). Maybe that’s what’s going on with Hillman. Maybe he’s hamstrung, subconsciously or not, by wanting to make his boss look good. We all do it. It’s the way the world works. Make the boss happy by making him look good. Make the questionable Farnsworth, Bloomquist, and Jacobs signings look un-questionable, right from the starting gates. Continue putting lipstick on the dead horse that is JG. Keep trotting out those Braves castaways as if they’re unmined gold. Continue trying to squeeze blood from rocks and Bruce Chen/Sidney Ponson/Bret Tomko/Brandon Duckworth. Persist on rocking an entire starting lineup of light-hitting outfielders and should be DH’s.

Boss issues or not, the bottom line is… the season’s over… well before the break… yet again. Sure there were a lot of people tagging the Royals to finish fourth or last, but there were also several notable publications that predicted them to be at the top of the rubbish heap that is this year’s AL Central. The truth should be somewhere in between. The worst part is, Hillman’s shown no signs of getting better. A year and half isn’t a lot of time, but it’s enough time to do just that – get better. At this point, anybody who thinks he can be salvaged is a Polyanna wearing Herm-colored glasses. Remember that Simpsons episode where Lisa becomes a vegetarian, and she tows away Homer’s pig and runs it off a cliff, and Homer and Bart keep saying “It’s still good, it’s still good,” even as the pig falls into a river and is subsequently blasted into the sky by the pressure of a dam spillway?... To quote your boy, I’m just sayin’.

If I’m right, I’m right. And if I’m wrong, and Hillman turns the ship around, and the Boys in Blue play at the K come this October or next, I'll be the first to call all this naysaying what it truly is –- a reverse jinx of the highest order.

B: While you bring up a lot of good points, I can't help but call bullshit on the fact that you go from Whitey and Dick straight to Trey. Where was all of this Be Guillotined when Tony Muser, Bob Boone, and even Buddy Bell were calling the shots? Give me a break, dude...I won't argue with you regarding Guillen or Jacobs, but Bloomquist is likely one of the best position assets this team has seen all season. You put him in right because he's a far better fielder than Guillen, and you hope, if he comes to the plate, his bat his better than Mitch Maier's. And Teahen grew up playing shortstop, bro. He's still on the outfield learning curve.

I'll give you the Braves castaways point, but to say that Trey won't become better by learning from all of these so-called mistakes is ignorance. Like the South Park episode where all of the hard-working white cops feel like they have to plant "evidence" on Mr. Jefferson because he surely can't be wealthy and black. You're dying to be right about a guy who hasn't even been given a chance to prove himself capable of growth.

All the players on the roster that you mentioned are who Moore's in fact trotting out there while he still builds the team. Of course he'll never say so, but it's the truth and it's a smart move. Make "moves" while you're making moves. Give the fans something.

7: I'm of the opinion that baseball managers don't do much of anything. They don't craft game plans or draw up plays, and their few strategic decisions are generally overblown in terms of importance. A move Trey makes to use a certain reliever or pitch to a certain hitting monster has very little bearing on the Royals' record at the end of the season. I think that stuff tends to average out, unless there's a pattern of clear mismanagement that perpetuates long-term. You can criticize any particular Farnsworth implosion and blame it on Trey for using him, but what about the times Farnsworth actually does his job? It has happened, I've seen it.

And as for the devastation Pujols inflicted upon your city over the weekend, you yourself talked about how well the guys behind him in the lineup hit. Me, personally, I would not pitch to Albert Pujols and I would in fact walk him with the bases loaded in a one-run game. If Ryan Ludwick burns me I tip my cap. That's not saying that in the long run a general decision to pitch to guys like Pujols isn't good strategy, it just needs to be evaluated with a larger sample size than a three-game series.

Where I think managers do earn their keep is in getting their clubs through the grind of a seven- or eight-month season. The modern athlete needs a certain amount of encouragement, motivation, ass-kissing, what have you to produce at a high level every day. Joe Torre is not, in my opinion, a great X's & O's manager -- I'm not sure there is such a beast outside Tony La Russa. But where Torre always excelled with the Yankees and where he excels with the Dodgers is in getting his guys on the field ready to play hard every night.

This, to me, is where the switch the Rockies made makes sense. Clint Hurdle had allowed his club to lose focus and take a cavalier attitude toward the details that are needed to play winning baseball. Colorado fired Hurdle and instilled Jim Tracy, who has run the club pretty much exactly as Hurdle did. The lineup is the same, the rotation is the same, the bullpen hierarchy is the same. They don't bunt or hit-and-run or pull the infield in or intentionally walk in noticeably different patterns than they did under Hurdle. And yet they're winning damn near every game they play.

I think this is because the players feel guilty about getting their boss fired. They know they've half-assed the last year and a half and that they're capable of more. They're more focused and finding more ways to win. Jim Tracy is nothing more than a reminder of past failure.

In your opinion, has Trey Hillman lost this team? Are they not doing the little things that they did during April of this year or September of last? If that's the case, and another manager could squeeze out more wins, a change might be justified.

If this team's struggles are a result of its composition and bum luck, however, Trey deserves to see it through. You've thoroughly documented what you see as a major issue with these Royals -- their inability to sustain rallies and convert baserunners into scores. How much culpability does the manager deserve for this weakness? Are his lineups at fault at all? Are the players not executing? Or is this team still two or three real hitters away from fielding a legitimate American League offense?

Also, for the record, I think Dayton Moore deserves a pat on the back for what he's assembled. I've always been a fan of his having the balls to go get Jose Guillen's bat, I love the Coco Crisp addition, and most of what's come in to the bullpen has been useful. I'll even give him a pass on Farnsworth, because The Professor makes me laugh a lot when he's not pitching for my team. I think he's still handicapped by Baird's awful drafting -- how do you pick Top-5 for a decade and end up with virtually no impact players? Now if Mike Moustakas is a bust, Moore's a bum.

CCH: First, I wasn't criticizing Bloomquist's play. He's been a solid addition. I was merely pointing out that the impetus for his PT at the beginning of the year may have been to please Hillman's boss by rationalizing the well-above-market price signing of a mediocre utility infielder when in fact the minors (including our own farm system and 40-man at the time) are littered with these guys and can be had for a fraction of the cost. Kudos to him. He may even be our most useful player, which is a little like being the best actor in a Fast and the Furious movie. Second, believe you me when I say I gave plenty of thought to mentioning the antics of Muser through Bell in my first point, but I was saving those names for my second. And when I say fans have been spoiled, I meant (and wrote) “long-time fans,” who never really embraced Muser, Boone, TPS or Bell either. Remember how quickly we turned on the Dirty Stache, even after he delivered the best season we had in 20 years? None of those guys had the level of talent on their roster that we have on the current ball club, so sane Royals fans cut them a little more slack before calling for their heads. And we also didn’t live in an era of numeric masturbation and six sigma process efficiencies, so things were allowed to develop a little more organically. Trust me, if we had platoon splits and OPS and VORP and ERA+ back in Muser’s day, he may not have lasted a single season, despite his love for rainbows, sunshine, baby unicorns, and smiling.

Which brings me to my next point: personality. I think that Hillman’s questionable managerial decisions are augmented by his off-putting personality. He’s got some of the worst attributes of our worst managers: Tony Muser’s constant rain cloud, Bob Boone’s arrogance and incessant tinkering; Buddy Bell’s lack of passion; and Tony Pena’s general cluelessness. As Jules says in Pulp Fiction, "personality goes a long way."

I know what you’re going to say. Who cares about personality. Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa aren’t exactly Siegfried and Roy. And I agree. It shouldn’t matter. But it does. People don’t like the guy.

Most Royals fans believe we have a relatively small window to compete (from ostensibly ’09 to ’11) before losing our key FA’s. Granted we don’t know what kinds of superstars are lurking in the draft coffers, and perhaps we’ll eventually have a steady pipeline of talent that’s a good mix of homegrown vets and rooks, but that’s an unknown commodity. What we have is a team who should be able to compete, and it’s not. So if Hillman’s not the guy, can we afford to wait for him to get a clue just in time for our core roster to turnover? Who knows. Maybe our core roster sucks and that window of competitiveness is merely an illusion, and all of it’s moot. But if not. If another manager can turn that vortex of suck into magic, ala Morris Buttermaker or Kelly Leak’s dad, then don’t we need to pull the lever now as opposed to the end of, say, 2010?

So what should we do? Dig up the corpses of Davey Johnson, Buck Showalter or Bobby V?


Give us Frank White at the very least. Local legend. Already knows more about the subject of WMLBT’s “Winning Major League Baseball Teams” than Hillman could learn in a lifetime, and a guy who blatantly chuckles on the air about a guy getting plowed in the balls by a foul tip from a 100mph fastball. Now that’s change I can believe in. That’s personality.

B: Seven -- I don't think so. I see this team fist-bumping and high-fiving each other after every run scored, and chatting it up in the dugout and on the field after wins every single night. They also are proper with the media, and none of these dramatic shenanigans have, at least to date, leaked out to the presses. So, no. I don't think he's lost it, and as our boy Rany Jazayerli just Tweeted: Zack Greinke's batting eighth tonight (Update: He popped out to the catcher in his first at bat, to right field in his second, and grounded out in his third.) against Russ Ortiz and the Astros, which is (jokingly) what he speculates Hillman and LaRussa spoke about in the dugout: where to bat Greinke, who once homered off of Ortiz when he was a D'back.

I don't think they are doing the little things right, and maybe a change of manager would squeeze a bit more out of them, but I doubt it. I think it really is a result of composition and bum luck. I say if you play this season out, make an improvement here or there for 2010 -- perhaps the bats of which you speak -- then this team is really gelled and ready to contend. This being the five-year mark on the Beltran deal, you hear from De Jesus, Teahen, and Buck that, in not so many words, this is a different team every time you turn around. Hell, this is the third manager in that span.

I honestly don't believe it's a manager-attributable weakness. You give me Kyle Farnsworth and Mike Aviles, and I'll give you a few holds and a season or two in which I minimize my errors and toy with batting .300. Nothing more, and frequently less. I like what he does with the lineup. I wasn't pleased when De Jesus wasn't leading off, but now that he is again -- and his hitting's already improved -- I'm cool. I like keeping Olivo where he is, and Callaspo where he is. You keep Guillen in for seven innings a game, and hope you can at least get an RBI out of him, then yank him and plug in Maier or Bloomquist, someone with some legs and an arm.
I feel like the difference with the Rockies was one in which the success of the '07 run was still cemented with a lot of guys in that clubhouse. They were so close, therefore, they are can-do-ers. Losing baseball has been the norm forever in Kansas City, and so with Trey at the helm of the new regime, the mentality must be something like, We only have to suck less than the 2008 team. For fans, that doesn't cut the mustard, and I doubt it does for the players either. As far as Moustakas, time will of course tell, but I'm having a hard time determining what the acceptable time table is for the guy.

CCH: I think Baird should get a bit of a break since he was always handcuffed by signability issues. That doesn't excuse him completely though -- you still gotta find major league talent, even if they're not superstars, which he consistently did not.

B: And I think, Chief, you're extending your own opinion of not liking Hillman to the general public. And really with the Frank White business? Give me a break. Sure. Hire him. And let's cut Dwayne Bowe from the Chiefs roster to make room for more Will Franklins. But we appreciate you joining us, nonetheless.