For the last two seasons, Ive been watching every pitch of every Royals game. (And I know youre making jokes right now, so let me say that Ive done this willingly, enjoyed it immensely and am not suicidal.)
Each game, I keep track of the players performances using Ron Polks MVP Chart. Polks system awards points for contributions to a team and subtracts points for actions that hinder a teams success. For a more detailed description of the system, see D10 or go to Judging the Royals at royals.kansascity.com.
You can disagree with the points awarded, and some have, but the patterns of play that are revealed help a fan understand what each player is bringing to the 2011 campaign.
Point totals are through Fridays game.
Melky Cabrera: 481 points
STRENGTHS: There are five things to do on a baseball field: run, throw, catch, hit and hit with power. Cabrera has done all five, and Polks system rewards versatility. Cabrera is the one guy in the lineup who I dont remember having some kind of slump. He steals bases, takes extra bases, leads the outfield in outstanding plays, has 10 outfield assists, leads the team in runs scored, is second in RBIs and, along with Alex Gordon, is as good an all-round player as the Royals have.
LIMITATIONS: Doesnt walk much but doesnt strike out looking much, either. He swings the bat.
Alcides Escobar: 427 points
STRENGTHS: Defense. Has 60 outstanding defensive plays. Thats 60 times he robbed someone of a hit or saved a base by keeping the ball on the infield. Errors have been recorded forever, but paying attention to the opposite, outstanding glove work, is revealing. If Escobar makes a great play to end an inning with the bases loaded, thats the same as driving in two runs. Many fans dont pay much attention to this, but keeping runs off the board counts as much as putting runs on the board. Hes taken part in 70 double plays and stolen 14 bases. Doesnt strike out much, and his offense is coming around.
LIMITATIONS: When he makes an error, its often on a routine play. Its almost as if he takes making that play for granted and doesnt put in the same effort as he does on the spectacular ones. Doesnt walk much.
Jeff Francoeur: 427 points
STRENGTHS: We dont have a category that reflects leadership or humor, so Ill go with RBIs. Francoeur leads the team. Hes on pace to drive in just shy of 100 runs. Cannon for an arm. Lost weight and is now stealing bases. Heres a surprise: He leads the team in 8-plus-pitch at-bats, which means hes not hacking all the time, but he still doesnt walk a lot. Second on the team in hard-hit outs.
LIMITATIONS: The same thing that makes him good all-out effort, all the time. His mistakes are mistakes of enthusiasm, like overthrowing the cutoff man because he believes he can nail the runner at third. Or striking out because he believes he can hit one out. But Francoeur often can throw out the runner or hit one out, so the all-out effort is often rewarded. Gets pull-happy and needs to get a pitch out over the plate.
Alex Gordon: 404 points
STRENGTHS: Like Cabrera, Gordon does a little bit of everything. He hits, hits for power (tops on the team in slugging percentage), plays outstanding defense, leads the team in outfield assists and can take the extra base or steal it (although not at the same rate as Cabrera and Getz). Gordon completes the best outfield Kansas City has seen in years. They play D, throw people out and drive in runs (all three are on pace for approximately 90 RBIs or better).
LIMITATIONS: Gordon leads the team in strikeouts and strikeouts looking.
Chris Getz: 368 points
STRENGTHS: Getz should be the poster boy for Ron Polks system: It was designed to reveal the worth of players like him. Tell a sabermetrics guy that Getz is a better all-round ballplayer than Billy Butler and hell have an asthma attack and ask his mom to bring him a fresh box of Pop Tarts. Getz does well in this system because he does so many things: takes extra bases, steals bases, bunts, moves runners, plays solid defense and doesnt make mental mistakes unless hes having an overheated discussion with an umpire. Getz does not have to do anything great, as long as he does a lot of things well.
LIMITATIONS: No power. When he really gets into one, Getz usually drives it all the way to an outfielder. Hes much better when he keeps the ball on the ground. If Getz could get jammed on every pitch, hed hit .400.
Billy Butler: 307 points
LIMITATIONS: Everything else. Butler is great at one thing: Hitting a baseball. If he embraces that role, he could be one of the premier DHs along the lines of Edgar Martinez. He gets criticized for lack of home runs by people who forget what ballpark he plays in. Put him in another setting and some of those hard-hit outs (he leads the team) become dingers. He leads the team in walks, hard-hit outs and quality plate appearances.
But Butler has made it clear that he disagrees with me, manager Ned Yost, his teammates and the rest of the known world about his ability to play defense. Heres something to think about: Last season, when Butler was playing first base quite a bit, he had fewer than 20 points defensively. This season, Eric Hosmer already has 63.
Eric Hosmer: 305 points
STRENGTHS: As one of his teammates said to me, (Forget) his bat, I want his glove. Hosmer is a wizard at first base. He has 37 outstanding plays, and most of those are errors he prevented. Thats why his teammates want him at first. He hit, he slumped, hes hitting again by going the other way more often, which shows his ability to adjust at the plate.
LIMITATIONS: Too many errors, but most of those are throwing errors when he tried to do too much. Im assuming hell figure out which plays are makeable and which plays are not, and well see the errors go down.
Matt Treanor: 252 points
STRENGTHS: Ive been told I overvalue catchers. Hmmm you can actually play a game without a right fielder but try playing one without a catcher. Catchers handle the ball more than anyone. Treanor has 56 outstanding plays, and about two-thirds of those are blocked pitches in the dirt with a runner on third. Thats a lot of runs he has kept off the board. If youve never kept that stat and then start following it, youre going to value catchers more. Offensively, Treanor walks a lot, hes second among the starters in quality plate appearances and is tied for third in hard-hit outs.
LIMITATIONS: Batting average, and hes thrown out just 28 percent of base stealers. Not bad, but it could be better.
Brayan Peña: 225 points
STRENGTHS: Lost weight, and his pitch-blocking and throwing appear improved. Same deal as with Treanor: 40 outstanding plays represent about 30 runs that didnt cross home plate. Has some pop in his bat.
LIMITATIONS: Some concern about his game-calling.
Other position players
Mike Moustakas: Its too soon for anybody to make any judgments about Moustakas, and that includes me. Hes hit everywhere hes been, but hes been in an awful lot of places in a short amount of time. He needs time to adjust to the best baseball league in the world.
Wilson Betemit: He rakes, and a guy who hits that well and spends most of the time on the bench seems like an obvious trade possibility.
Mitch Maier: He is solid in every department and would be starting on a lot of other teams.
STRENGTHS: The bullpen. Tim Collins walks too many people but then has the stuff to power out of the situation he helped create. Aaron Crow, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman and Blake Wood have generally been outstanding, and Joakim Soria appears to be back to being Joakim Soria after a brief moment when he showed that hes mortal.
LIMITATIONS: The starting pitching. Too inconsistent for the Royals to be competitive.
Jeff Francis leads all pitchers with 197 points. He leads the team in quality starts (six innings or more, three earned runs or less). Some people dont like that stat, but the Royals are over .500 when they get one and way under .500 when they dont. It seems like a decent measurement of a pitcher who gave his team a chance to win.
Ive also been keeping track of appearances in which a pitcher gives up more than four earned runs, the opposite of a quality start. I may be wrong, but I dont remember the Royals winning a single game in which a pitcher gave up more than four earned runs.
Francis has given up more than four earned runs five times, Luke Hochevar eight and Kyle Davies four. Overall, the Royals pitchers have provided 36 quality starts and 37 appearances in which someone gave up more than four earned runs (and the Royals offense is not built to score runs in bunches). You can see the problem: Too many games in which the starting pitcher does not give his team the chance to win.
What it all means
So what have I learned after paying attention to every pitch of every game for the last year and a half? That this is a better team than weve seen in a while.
Sure, if you just look at the record, its tempting to say, Same old Royals.
But they no longer make the silly mistakes that made them hard to watch just a few years ago. Their manager, Yost, will tell you that theyre close to being competitive. That most of the time, when the Royals lose, they lose with the tying or winning run on base or at the plate.
Theyre that close to being a winner: A run here or there, not five runs here or there.