September 20, 2011; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Luis Mendoza (39) throws a pitch in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE

Luis Mendoza: Smoke and Mirrors

The Royals have been saying all spring that they want 2012 to be a shift from developing players at the big league level (like last year with the influx of Eric Hosmer and company) to winning. Every team says they want to play to win, and somewhere, I’m sure every team means it, but in the Royals case (and that of many other basement dwellers of recent memory), they have to know that the odds are long against them.

That’s tough as a fan and tough as an organization, but every team has to rebuild from time to time. Even the Yankees (though it’s been more than two decades).

Dayton Moore has said that the Royals are in a position this year to “pick 25″ players for the major league roster, rather than “find 25″ as in years past. The Royals have enough players in big league camp to fill a roster, so now they can be selective as to who makes the final cut. The idea that they can win more games than any season in recent memory has the Royals approaching their personnel a bit differently. For example, last year Alcides Escobar was allowed to hit in key situations to see if he could do it. Ned Yost wanted him to have experience in those situations. This year, that may not be the case if a pinch-hitting option can improve the chances of winning. Things like that.

 

So the rumblings out of Surprise that Luis Mendoza might a) make the club and b) make the club in the starting rotation baffles me for a team that says they want to win.

Mendoza had a great 2011 in Omaha. Over 144.1 innings in Triple A, he had a 2.18 ERA. He came to Kansas City after the Pacific Coast League championship and won two starts, giving up just two earned runs in 14.2 innings. Big win for the Royals, right? After trading for him at the end of spring training in 2010, the Royals may have found a late bloomer.

Maybe, but I don’t know how excited I would get.

Here are some figures:

84.1 innings pitched. 79 earned runs.

Take out the two starts from 2011 and that’s Luis Mendoza’s resume in the big leagues.

If you omit his 2011 season in Triple A, he has 966.2 innings under his belt to the tune of a 4.52 ERA. That’s not awful, but it’s not good either.

In 2011, Mendoza benefited from a .273 batting average on balls in play in Omaha. He also gave up a homer on just 2% of flyballs hit. Both of those measurements are well below what tends to be the average (around .300 for BABIP and 10% for HR/FB). Because of that, his minor league xFIP (which aims to figure what a pitcher’s ERA “should” have been, given typical luck) was 4.38 – just more than twice his actual ERA.

These are figures that aren’t sustainable for a pitcher with his track record. Call me crazy, but I’ll opt to trust the 1051 innings Mendoza logged as a pro from 2002 to 2010 rather than the 159 he reached in 2011. Here’s a rhetorical question – how often does a pitcher in this era carry a 4.8 K/9 in the minor leagues into major league success? Last year Mendoza struck out 5.1 batters per nine innings but walked 3.4 per nine. Walks are okay if you’re getting strikeouts, but Mendoza was walking people and relying on his defense to record outs when the ball was put in play. To their credit, they did that, but that’s a recipe for disaster. Mendoza’s performance in that area is similar to a handful of pitchers who were either too old for their level of competition (and who still struggled) or players who had very low walkrates (and had some success, though nobody of notable prospect distinction). Mendoza was putting batters on base then allowing batters to put the ball in play. That’s how runs develop. Jeff Parker at Royally Speaking has a list of pitchers who’ve had similar walk and strikeout numbers in a season and the performances are subpar.

The principle of regression to the mean comes into play. When a player vastly overperforms relative to their career production to that point, they usually snap back to that level. For Mendoza, that’s a decent starter or long reliever in the minors and maybe – maybe – a barely rosterable player at the end of the bullpen or a swingman as depth.

If Mendoza were to make the rotation, it would be at the expense of Danny Duffy, who still has options left. There’s a chance it could be at the expense of Felipe Paulino, who might shift to the bullpen if that were to happen. Mendoza is out of options, so the Royals would have to put him on waivers and have him go unclaimed before they could put him in Omaha. Some have pointed to players like Phillip Humber who were waived by the Royals and went on to success (Humber had a 3.75 ERA in 163 innings for the White Sox last year.) Yes, having Humber do that on this staff last year would have been beneficial, but, as Robert Ford suggested, the loss was more apparent because the 2011 staff was so unreliable. If the Royals do well this year (just a slight improvement by the incumbents plus Jonathan Sanchez would make them above average for the American League), nobody will care that they lost Mendoza and he did anything somewhere else. I think that’s an important distinction to keep in mind.

I can understand if they want to manipulate Duffy’s service time some, as he might sneak into Super Two status, but I don’t see that as a good enough reason to swap Mendoza for Duffy. Once they called up Duffy and left him on the big league roster, his clock was started, but their level of team control wouldn’t be affected. He’s a Royal until the conclusion 2017 barring injury, release or trade. If they kept him in Omaha long enough, sure, he could sneak in another year (similar to how Gordon’s exploits up and down from the minors have him becoming a free agent after next year because he won’t accrue his six or more years of service time until then).

But what does that do for Duffy?

A player can’t learn to get major league hitters out by pitching to Pacific Coast League batters and the Royals need to know if Duffy can get major league hitters out. As Kevin Scobee stated, he’s got the combination of minor league track record and “stuff” to be the best pitcher on the Royals this year. Duffy is drawing praise for his work in camp so far and among all the Royals, he’s the most fired up to get the season started. It seems odd to douse that flame by shifting him to the minors. Both Duffy and Paulino have the “stuff” to strike out batters and go stretches with success. Mendoza did in 2011, but at no other point in his career did he show that promise. If the Royals felt that they absolutely had to send Duffy to Omaha, Everett Teaford has shown promise in the last couple of years and would give the Royals a better chance to win than Mendoza.

For a team that wants to win and has the luxury of picking their best 25 players to make that happen, picking Mendoza seems to be an option they’d want to avoid.

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