Morning Coffee: Fifth Starter Battle Offers No Winners
A quick look at yesterday’s box score tells you that it wasn’t exactly a pitcher’s duel. While the weather wasn’t exactly what you think of in Phoenix with the super hot temperatures, the air was dry, the breeze was pointed out of the yard and the pitchers were leaving the ball up, which led to six homers in the game with four by the Angels. The game was a pretty sloppy one as well with the Angels committing six errors that led to four unearned runs for the Royals. It was fun to watch the Royals cross the plate so often, but at the same time, it was a bit maddening as a baseball fan to watch such poor baseball being played.
The Royals went with a piggyback of Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen as they continue in their battle for the fifth starter job while Luis Mendoza is at the WBC for Mexico and Will Smith is in witness protection or something. Let’s begin with Hochevar who went 3.1 innings, gave up four runs on five hits, walked two and struck out three while allowing two of the four Angels home runs. The good of his outing was that his fastball was consistently sitting in the 93-95 range (though the Surprise gun may be hot) and hitters were behind it, which is good because we all remember outings with his fastball a tick or two slower just getting clobbered. Now, the fact is that it was also a shorter outing so he was able to reach back for a little more, but it was still good to see.
Now for the bad. Everything else. He left pitches up, he struggled with the strike zone and he was just generally not good. Even when he was getting hitters out, he was going deep into counts and looked like he wasn’t really sure where the ball was going. It was pretty much the quintessential Hochevar outing as he showed flashes of brilliance for three or four pitches at a time, but then collapsed and gave up a couple long home runs. One thing I noticed that we’ve seen a lot of over the past few years is his inability to put hitters away. Hochevar would get to two strikes and we’d see a bunch of chopping foul balls while extending the at bat. It’s a big reason why he threw 68 pitches in 3.1 innings along with going so deep into counts.
Bruce Chen relieved Hochevar in the middle of the fourth (which is odd for a piggyback start) and he was actually worse than Hochevar. His ine was 3.2 innings allowing five runs on five hits, walking two and striking out four while allowing the other two Angels homers. You can make a pretty convincing argument that Bruce Chen against the powerful Angels in Arizona is a recipe for disaster. Add in that he was getting squeezed a little on the corners, and it certainly wasn’t his day. Still, he left way too many pitches up and hittable and the Angels made some very solid contact against him. I think at this point, Chen is who he is and that’s a guy who will have days like this. I’m not sure that’s an improvement over Hochevar, but I can’t really say there was any one thing that stuck out to me about Chen. He just seemed to be missing up more than usual, which is a problem when you only throw in the upper 80s at best.
Watching both of these pitchers yesterday tells me what I long suspected, and that’s that neither of them deserve to be the fifth starter for a team that has aspirations to contend. We’ll have to see what comes of the injury to Wade Davis, but assuming (hoping?) he’s fine means there’s still one spot and the best candidate for that one spot remains Luis Mendoza. If Luke Hochevar is the fifth starter out of spring training, it will highlight two of the biggest weaknesses of this front office. The first is that they allow contracts to dictate their decisions far more than winning teams should. A winning team plays the best players whether they make $5 million or $500k. The Royals appear to be leaning toward Hochevar and Chen because they have contracts that will cost them money. Stop trying to get bang for your buck by pitching guys like them more often. It’s time to win.
The other weakness it shows me is that this front office is afraid. We’ve seen it time and time again with them where they’re afraid to move on from a player for fear that they’ll succeed elsewhere. They have to accept that if Hochevar goes on to be a solid pitcher with another team they’ll have to deal with it. I just don’t think he’s going to be successful with this organization. They need to get over their attachments with certain players and, like I said before, go with the best players for a position. That goes for everywhere around the diamond, but it’s not highlighted anywhere as clearly as this fifth starter competition.
Some other thoughts from yesterday:
- Tommy Hanson might be done. He was sitting in the upper 80s, missing his spots and getting rocked by the Royals lineup yesterday. He’s a guy who I really had hoped the Royals would go after, but after seeing him yesterday, I’m sure glad they didn’t. The Angels pitching is a big reason why I don’t think they’ll win the division no matter how much offense they have in that lineup.¬†
- A day after Johnny Giavotella went three for four against the Giants, Chris Getz did the same thing against the Angels and mixed in a stolen base as well. You all know I’m rooting for Johnny Giavotella, but if the Royals are insisting on using spring training to make their decisions, it’s hard to figure out who is ahead in this battle. The two have been pretty equal offensively thus far. Giavotella has actually been better defensively, but this race may go down to the end of spring.
- Jeff Francoeur looked really good yesterday, so his line of three for four with 3/4 of the cycle (only missing the single) told the story. To me he just looked more free with his swing. Last season, he looked tight every time at the plate, but his swing just seemed quicker and more relaxed than at any time last season. I’m pretty skeptical about Francoeur, but the way he looked yesterday was pretty much what we saw throughout the 2011 season. I wouldn’t predict it, but him having a similar year to that while being counted on as the six or seven hitter instead of the fifth place hitter would go a long way toward the Royals being a great offense.
- Max Ramirez continued his torrid spring yesterday with another homer and two more walks. I think he’s a AAAA player and a bit of a spring training here, but he could be a guy who might be able to help the Royals down the stretch if they are, in fact, in contention, especially in September. He’s got all sorts of power in the bat and has some positional versatility even though he’s not especially good anywhere but as the DH. The Royals could bring him up at the end of August and be able to use him as a bat off the bench in September and (hopefully) in the playoffs. It’s a bit of a pipe dream, but Max Ramirez could have some serious value to the Royals or another team in contention.
- I’m not even close to being worried about Crow, but he looked pretty rough around the edges in his performance. He left pitches up, he was hit hard and he struggled with control as well as command as he walked one and gave up a run on three hits in his inning of work. This happens to Crow sometimes, and he hasn’t really pitched much in the spring, so I don’t want to put much stock if any into this, but I wanted to pass the news along.
- I fly back home today, so no more spring training for me, but it was a great trip in spite of two games I was supposed to see getting rained out. What’s amazing about this Royals offense this spring is that I saw a game they lost 12-2 and they still outscored their opponents 32-25 in the three games I saw. The 23 runs allowed in two of the games were a bit of a concern, but funky things happen offensively in Arizona, and a lot of the 12 runs on Thursday were given up by pitchers who won’t be making an impact on the roster come April. Yesterday’s pitching was a little disconcerting because of who it was, but I was just glad to see a couple wins. Clint and I will talk about my trip on this week’s podcast, so check that out for more information.
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