The 1985 World Series trophy was particularly neat.

Let's Get Digital

Dayton Moore can steer a conversation any way he wants to.  Ned Yost at least admits that there’s merit to using a closer in situations other than the ninth inning with a three run lead.  Billy Butler doesn’t read lips and Jeff Francoeur knows exactly what you think about his plate discipline.

These are some of the things I learned Thursday night at the Royals first Digital Digest at Fanfest.

Myself and six other Royals bloggers were invited by Mike Swanson and David Holtzman as part of a shift by the Royals (and Major League Baseball) to recognize and provide access to social media and internet outlets.

According to Swanson, vice president of communications and broadcasting for the Royals, the shift took him a while to get used to.  He’s an old school guy.  That he’s coming around to the contributions of the blogosphere says something about baseball as an industry.

We’re not quite to the point of gaining credentials for bloggers – at least as far as the Royals are concerned – but that’s something that could be in the near future.  Thursday night, to me, seemed like a test.  Can these internet goofballs sit in front of important baseball people and ask real questions?  Are they going to be starstruck?  Will they take it seriously?

I have to say, we answered those questions with a resounding “Yes”.

I had a few concerns going in.  I worried that we’d be allowed only the most sterile of questions.  This was an event initiated by the Royals, under their terms, and it would have been easy for them to give us choices of what to ask or restrict what we could bring in to ask.  They didn’t.  We were assured that we could ask whatever we wanted.

Swanson told us that the difference between us and the mainstream media was access to information.  We have opinions, positive and negative, and this would be an opportunity to get a little more information to formulate and support those opinions.  Still, I was worried we might get a lot of canned answers.  I think that was the prevailing thought among the others, and while we were assured we’d get an honest answer from Dayton Moore, Ned Yost, Billy Butler and Jeff Francoeur, a part of me wasn’t sure we wouldn’t get more than the Nuke Laloosh interview scene from “Bull Durham.”

Maybe it’s the cynical side of me, but I worried that this outreach effort was coming our way as a means to woo us to toe the company line.  I’m not the most critical of the Royals – I’m a doe-eyed optimist compared to a lot of writers out there – but I have my moments where their decisions just baffle me.  Kyle Davies at $3.2 million or designating your only lefty reliever for assignment for instance are recent moves that I just don’t understand.  I hoped that this opportunity wouldn’t gum up the critical thinking area of my brain.

There were a few slip-ups.  Swanson told us before Dayton and company joined us that if we’d brought voice recorders (all of us had which I bet they weren’t fully expecting) we could place them on the table “like real reporters do”.  He later corrected himself and changed “real” to “mainstream”, but I think that underscores the efforts out there to consider blogging more of a legitimate medium than its early standing.

The Royals are getting there, though.  There should be at least one Blogger Night at Kauffman Stadium this season, though it wouldn’t be a premium game, we were assured.  I think that would be very interesting both as a writer and a fan.  Thursday was an intriguing event, but we had a lot of preparation time.  In this hypothetical Blogger Night, those invited/approved would be participating in pre-game media sessions and post-game press conferences.  That’s the kind of in the trenches stuff that I think a lot of bloggers would like to have opened up to them.  I don’t know how aggressively I’d pursue a press credential, but if handed one, I’d use it.

At any rate, we got blocks of time from some key figures with the Royals.  Fifteen minutes with Dayton.  Fifteen with Ned.  Fifteen with Billy Butler and Jeff Francoeur.  Butler had an additional commitment at 5 p.m. so he wasn’t available for very long, though we still got some good questions in.

Dayton Moore Processing

The first thing I noticed about Dayton Moore is that he’s a lot shorter than you’d expect.  I feel like I’ve belabored the point on Twitter already, but I guess it’s indicative of baseball – we expect success from someone with the “look” and are surprised when success comes from other kinds of builds and players.  Billy Beane of the A’s had that classic ballplayer look and wasn’t successful on the field, but off it, he’s accomplished a lot.  In Dayton’s case, it’s clear that thinking is pretty ridiculous.  You don’t have to be 6’1″ 205 to build the game’s best farm system.

Also, Moore is long-winded.  I’m sure that’s partly by design.  As Nick Scott of Broken Bat Single called it, he filibustered us a little bit.  He still answered our questions, but deflected a little bit.  Four years ago, Moore took over a Royals organization that was “broken” but took a plan to ownership and got support for it.

He’s pleased with the flexibility the team has with its payroll but also with the depth of the farm system – though he won’t necessarily invest record numbers into draft bonuses.  The issue, he says, is risk.

“You never want to overpay in the draft.  If you’re going to overpay, you do it at the big league level since you get return right now.”

He says that last point punctuating the words by tapping the table.  The draft is unpredictable, it’s risky.  Many picks don’t make it and some that do don’t reach the expectations set out for them.  Look at the Royals picks from five to ten years ago.  Very few made it, and those like Alex Gordon still haven’t reached the potential we thought they’d have.

Free agency is a “failed way to build a team,” he says when asked about stating a desire to get high on-base percentage guys in, but having his actual acquisitions contradict that stated goal.  That’s a challenge of the market.  Everyone wants guys with a good OBP so you get the players that you can get.  In many cases, you know what you’re getting.

“Jeff Francoeur’s not an on-base guy.”

They knew that with the signing, but Moore says Francoeur is going to give effort every day and won’t shut down.  On base skills usually have to be drafted – that is, the players either have it or they don’t and it’s difficult to teach.  That’s how Moore sees it.

I can understand that, to an extent.  There are players that are more patient and who will be more selective.  Others are very aggressive.  To work on that, in offseason workouts and spring training, those free-swingers get restrictions to take pitches – Dayton knows the numbers, or the idea behind them, that if you swing at the first pitch “you’re hitting about .100″ so it’s refreshing to learn that he at least sees the numbers.  It seems like sometimes he doesn’t.

A lineup can generally be filled in once you’ve drafted strong primary pieces.  The example Moore gave was plugging in players the Royals start into a lineup with an established leadoff hitter, a legit #3 and #4 hitter.  “Mike Aviles fits well, Chris Getz fits fine, Alex Gordon fits great” in a lineup like that of the Twins.  In that sense, I get the idea that he’s not concerned greatly by getting a specific kind of player when the Royals start to contend.  More likely is that he’ll see what we have and what can fit to complement those other hitters.

Moore was so verbose that we didn’t get to everyone and there were some unanswered questions.  We wanted to ask what happens in 2013 if the Royals are contending and are one arm or one bat away?  What goes into scouting amateur talent for the draft that doesn’t end up translating when constructing the big league team?  Just how did you pitch The Process to David Glass four years ago anyway?

Dayton’s time was up and in his place we got Ned Yost.

In some ways, Yost surprised myself and the rest of us by his honesty and admission of a few ideas that are usually embraced by the more sabermetric of baseball writers.

Ned Yost is a smooth operator

Still, like a lot of baseball figures, he’s a bit stuck in his ways.

I started off by asking him to compare the Royals pipeline of prospects to the Brewers system when he took over in Milwaukee.  He’d mentioned in an article in the past that the Brewers were good enough to get to the playoffs, but when “these guys” (Royals prospects) were up, they’d be good enough to win a World Series.

The main reason is depth and pitching.  The Brewers had a ton of talent in the field and in the lineup with Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and others, but there wasn’t pitching available to match that.

He recounted part of the process in Atlanta (there was a lot of Braves talk on this day) where from 1986 to 1990 the team just kept losing and was usually in last place, but then with David Justice and Tom Glavine and Jeff Blauser and others, their farm system kept populating the organization with a balanced level of strong talent.

In the Royals case, many rankings say we have the top first baseman prospect, top third baseman prospect, the #2 catching prospect and tenth best second base prospect.  (Yost was referring to the MLB.com rankings from this past week.)  This team will have infield, outfield, catching, starting pitching, bullpen and left-handed and right-handed depth.  Which … is pretty much everything.  So he’s pretty optimistic about the coming years.

The most interesting anecdote came from Yost’s recounting of his interactions with Zack Greinke.  When asked if Zack’s attitude had a negative effect on last season’s team, he answered that it hadn’t.  Zack’s just one of those players, he started to tell us.  It seemed like a canned answer was on the way, but instead, he gave us a peek at how he manages and the balance between a manager and a player.

[In spring training] I saw him every day and I didn’t even say hello to him.  Not one time.  Because I knew it was uncomfortable for him to communicate – even to the point of saying hello to someone he didn’t know.

When I got the job [replacing Trey Hillman], the first day I said to Zack, “Look, I purposely saw you everyday in spring and didn’t say hello to you.  I just want you to know that I’m gonna say Hi to you now and this’ll probably be the last time I say hello to you the rest of the year.”

And he looked at me and goes “Whew, thanks!”

Yost came close to admitting that he likes a few sabermetric theories.  A living, breathing “baseball man” who almost (but not quite) advocated such things as using your closer early in high-leverage situations, or not caring about the batting order?

Almost, but not quite.

Yost is still a baseball guy, and there’s a way things are done in baseball and a way to not do things.  Innovation isn’t a popular idea.  Using Joakim Soria in an early situation might make sense by the numbers “but you won’t catch me doing it.”  Yost agrees the idea behind it has merit, that sometimes the sixth inning is a “black hole” but that if the team gets through that sixth inning, they’re set up the rest of the way.

The idea behind Yost’s adherence to baseball convention is that “if I get past eight innings, I want a guy I know is gonna lock that game up.”

“When I tell Bob McClure ‘Jack’s in the game,’ that’s it for me.  My day’s done.”

We didn’t get a chance to follow up much more on that, but I’d have liked to point out that with guys like Louis Coleman, Tim Collins, Jeremy Jeffress and possibly even Patrick Keating or Aaron Crow down the line, the Royals are going to have plenty of options in the bullpen who could work behind Soria in a hypothetical “fireman” situation.  Earlier in the day, Dayton had said that when the Royals win the division, it’ll be by about one to three games.  I’d hate to see the Royals lose a couple of leads in the sixth inning waiting for a ninth inning appearance by Soria that never happens – especially if it means we lose a playoff spot.

Traditionally, Yost isn’t the type to use his closer in more than one inning situations.  That’s one thing I’ll credit Trey Hillman with – he wasn’t afraid to bring in Soria a bit early if necessary.

Part of that traditional mindset carries over to the construction of a batting order.  Yost agrees that it may be the most overrated part of his job.  He said he’s even read studies that you can “pull your lineup out of a hat and you’re not getting more or less production.”

Studies!

As a former catcher, and with a wealth of catching depth coming up the ladder, we wanted to know what Yost looks for in a backstop.

“I’d love it if they can swing the bat but that’s not a necessity.”

Most important, he says, is working with the pitcher.  To build a rapport with him, call a good game, and take the pitcher from the first pitch through the rest of the game.  When the opportunity arises (that is, when the pitcher delivers to the plate fast enough), he’d like them to throw some runners out too.  On that catching note, Jason Kendall is ahead of schedule in recovering from extensive rotator cuff surgery and should start a throwing program in February.  It sounds like he’ll play a lot once he’s back – at least three to four times a week.

So.  There’s that.

As far as playing time, the outfield is crowded and Yost doesn’t know what he’s going to do yet.  The Royals, apparently, weren’t sure they were going to get a trade done involving Zack Greinke, prompting the Melky Cabrera signing.  With a left-handed heavy outfield, they needed a right-handed bat.  So the Cabrera signing helped that, as did the Francoeur deal.  Then Greinke was traded and brought Lorenzo Cain into the mix.

The feeling is that Cabrera and Francoeur were brought in and signed with the idea that they’d get playing time because “you have to give guys legit opportunities to bounce back.  You can’t just give them two to three days, a week.”

Despite that statement, he wouldn’t commit to Alex Gordon playing everyday.  “Kinda” he says.  Jarrod Dyson and Gregor Blanco are in the mix as well, he said.

That’s not good news for Mitch Maier fans.

After Yost shuffled out, we got to talk with Billy Butler and Jeff Francoeur.  As I mentioned above, Billy had a commitment at 5 p.m. so we only had him for a while.  We still snuck in a lot of questions.

I’ll say this about Butler – he’s better at dealing with questions than he was before, but he’s still not there.  Swanson and Holtzman joked later that they sometimes keep a count of the “ya knows” and “I means” – and they were aplenty.  It was interesting to see the different ways that we got answers, too.  With Dayton Moore, he has his plan and vision and isn’t straying from it.  Ned Yost is there to implement that idea.  Both were detailed in their responses and shot straight.

Players, it seems, still get stuck in cliche land.  I’m sure that’s a directive from up top – don’t say anything crazy or stupid if you can.  Swanson remarked earlier that it’s like pulling a trigger; once the bullet’s out, it’s not coming back.  So perhaps as players, they’re somewhat pulled away from the “Process” side of things and more the actors in the script and have to stick to their lines.

Or perhaps Butler’s just afraid of saying the wrong thing and sticks with the expected, safe answer.  It’s not a bad approach, just uninteresting from a writing point of view.  I’m glad he took part in the interview regardless.  Just like in science, even a failed test is a result.  A typical response still tells you something.

Butler’s just trying to help the team.  He’s just trying to get the barrel on the ball, he’s still trying to figure it out.  He’s not trying to do anything differently.  He just wants to win games.

There weren’t any “one game at a time” answers, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been.

That’s not to say that Butler didn’t give some insight to how he approaches the game.  He’s a freakishly talented hitter and as such, he might not be able to articulate how his approach is at the plate or if he’s consciously trying to walk more.  He’s just up there reacting.  That’s fine.  He can hit .300 every year for the next 20 years I bet.

I asked if he felt he’d be more of the face of the franchise with the departures of Gil Meche, David DeJesus and Zack Greinke.  After those three, Butler is one of the more experienced players in a Royals uniform (as a Royal, at least) and like it or not, as one of the better hitters, he’ll be one of the leaders in 2011.

Billy seems zoned out. Jeff Francoeur wants to swing at the recorders.

He might be joined by Jeff Francoeur.  We’ve heard so much about how he’s a great clubhouse guy and a great leader.  That’s great, but they don’t put leadership on the scorecard.  You can’t get a +1 winshare from leadership.  It counts in the background, but I don’t know how much on the field.

Francoeur though, is every bit the Southern charmer you’ve heard.  If he hits anywhere near the .275/25/85 range in traditional slash stats, fans in Kansas City will love him.  He’ll still have a .300 OBP but they’ll love him.

He’s self-aware.  Humble.  He knows he has leaks and knows he has things to work on.

The goal now, he said, is to work at getting into better hitter’s counts and if that means walks come from it, great.

“I’ll always be an aggressive hitter, but there’s a way I can be a better aggressive hitter.”

You can tell it’s close to baseball season because he threw out the first “best shape of his life” comment.  After his early success, Francoeur tried to bulk up to add power.  By his own admission he got “pull happy” and now has moved from 245 pounds to 209.  He dropped a subtle hint that he was at 209 in 2005 when he hit .300 as a rookie.

He sounded motivated and ready to work.  With the Royals talent coming up (“that’s how they built up Atlanta when I grew up a Braves fan”) he wants to be a part of the turnaround.  Getting to the World Series last year motivated him to get back, and his role – platooning against left-handed pitching – pushed him further to succeed.  Like most players, he wants to play everyday.

He’s fine getting criticism.  Much of it’s earned, like his willingness to swing at all kind of pitches out of the strike zone. He’s working with Kevin Seitzer every morning to be more selective and put the ball up the middle.

As for that power, he’s not concerned with Kauffman Stadium, traditionally less home run happy than most parks.  It’s better than Citi Field, where he played as a Met.

“Citi Field is a damn joke,” he said.  Quote of the day.

“I hit Livan Hernandez 415 feet to right-center and it hits the wall.  That’s frustrating.”

But back to leadership.  He’s a clubhouse guy, and that, he said, comes from the Braves way of doing things.

“The first year and a half, two years, I didn’t touch my wallet.”  John Smoltz, Chipper Jones and other veterans took players under their wing and showed them how to play the game the right way.  Hard work.  Run it out.  All that stuff.  Francoeur mentioned that he was taking Mike Moustakas out for dinner after FanFest.  That’s his kind of leadership, to show that he’s there to advise and set an example.

That’s the stuff that plays well in a clubhouse and in the press.  Some fans will eat it up.  I’m still not sold on him as a Royal and won’t be disappointed if he only sticks the one year he’s guaranteed with Kansas City.

Good guy? Definitely.  Great interview? You bet.

But take a walk now and then, man.

As for FanFest itself, there’s a lot going on.  On the main stage, there are interviews, performances, games.  They tossed out a lot of free stuff.  Bruce Chen and Brian McRae played Family Feud.  Someone in the audience asked Dayton Moore during a Q&A if David Glass is ever going to be visible in Kansas City and how it’ll drive fans away if he isn’t and the team isn’t good (I don’t know about that.  If the team isn’t good they won’t be here anyway, but the owner being around isn’t going to change that).  Many people applauded that guy’s moxie.

We cruised around and looked at displays – notably the Royals Hall of Fame exhibits there.

Mostly, some of us Digest winners just stood around talking Royals baseball, which seems to be in the spirit of FanFest.

Now, what does this entire experience mean for blogs and Twitter and the internet?  I think we represented ourselves well.  We asked detailed questions, listened and followed up, and showed the passion that got us there in the first place.  The Royals seem to be advancing in their outlook of social media in relation to their team, and that’s a good thing.  Writers on sites like Kings of Kauffman or others out there do this out of loyalty to the team and the game.  It’s a hobby that’s put me into situations I never thought I’d be in.

As a fan, that’s great.  Back in March of last year, I joined this site as a contributor.  Nearly a year later, I’ve since been quoted by NBC’s Hardball Talk, thrown out a first pitch (won from an essay I’d based off my application to Kings of Kauffman), talked with a certified agent and one of his clients (that article is coming up this weekend or next week).  Now I’ve met a few Royals PR guys, Dayton Moore and others.  As a baseball fan, that’s just something I’d never thought would happen.

So a big thanks to Mike Swanson and David Holtzman for setting up the Digital Digest.  I think it better than anybody had expected.  I had a great time, I believe my fellow bloggers did too.

But don’t take my word for it, read for yourself!

  • First, check out Nick Scott’s Broken Bat Single podcast from right after Digital Digest.  He has the full audio from the interviews included and it’s a great listen.
  • Minda Haas has a series of posts about the event and some excellent pictures – even some weird ones from inside the Overland Park Convention Center.
  • Matt on Royals Review has a nice writeup, too.
  • Clint at 14 for 77 is grateful for the opportunity.  You’ll want to check back later as he adds more about Digital Digest, too.
  • A couple of pictures from @aroundthehornkc – the Royals official MLB Blog who was there to document it all, too.
  • Finally, a video from Royals.com

Again, a big thanks go out to the Royals for doing this.  I hope it’s not the last time they get bloggers involved.  We know our stuff.  And behaved ourselves, too.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Billy Butler Dayton Moore Jeff Francoeur Joakim Soria Kansas City Royals KC MLB Royals

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