Royals Rotten Decade (2009)


During the 2000s, no major league team lost more games than the Kansas City Royals.  It was a decade where the negatives far outweighed the positives.  This is the tenth installment of the 11 part Royals Rotten Decade series.  I will briefly examine each season in the last decade before wrapping up the decade in the 11th and final part.

Part 10, the 2009 Royals (65-97) 686 RS / 842 RA

Payroll:  $70.5 million (21st) / Attendance: 1,797,891

Draft:  RHP-Aaron Crow (1st), C-William Myers (3rd), LHP-Chris Dwyer (4th), RHP-Harold Coleman (5th)

Top Prospect:  3B-Mike Moustakas

Major League Debuts:
LHP-Dusty Hughes (27)
RHP-Victor Marte (28)

Above 110 OPS+ (Minimum 50 AB)
124  1B-Billy Butler (23): 0.301/.362/.492 in 608 AB
114  2B-Alberto Callaspo (26):  0.300/.356/.457 in 576 AB

Above 110 ERA+ (Minimum 50.0 IP)
205  RHP-Zack Greinke (25):  2.16 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 9.5 SO/9 in 229.1 IP
200  RHP-Joakim Soria (25):  2.21 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 11.7 SO/9 in 53.0 IP
125  RHP-Robinson Tejeda (27):  3.54 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 10.6 SO/9 in 73.2 IP

The Kansas City Royals entered the 2009 season with a renovated stadium and a payroll north of $70 million for the first time in the decade.  A lot of fans and a fair share of media members believed that the opening day roster was good enough to compete for the division title.  I was not one of those people, but even I sipped enough of the kool-aid to believe they would finish 3rd with a record of 77-85.  We all know how the season played out since it is so fresh in our minds, but for posterity I will press on.

The first thing that struck me in preparing this was that only two players made their major league debuts with the Royals in 2009.  As bad as things got last summer, the organization never turned to the minors.  In 2005, nine players made their major league debuts in a Royals uniform.  In each of the next three seasons (2006, 2007, and 2008) six players made their debuts.  In those years, the talent level at Double-A and Triple-A was just as lackluster but we still got to enjoy watching 27 players break into the big leagues.  In 2009, we got the debuts of two late-20s relief pitchers and nothing else.

In addition to not seeing any young guys take the first steps in their major league careers, the 2009 Royals offense produced at an anemic level.  Their 686 runs scored was the lowest team total since the strike-shortened 1995 season.  Their 629 runs in 144 games that year projects to 708 runs over a full season.  We have to go back to the 1993 season to get to a year where they scored fewer runs in a full 162-game season.  It wasn’t all doom and gloom at the plate however.  We witnessed the emergence of Billy Butler as an offensive force.  After hitting a very respectable 0.290/.340/.449 in the first half, Billy took his game to another level by hitting 0.314/.385/.540 in the second half.  With 51 doubles he became just the second player in Royals history to eclipse 50 doubles in a season.  His total of 51 just missed breaking Hal McRae’s team record of 54 set in 1977.  By hitting more than 50 doubles and 20 home runs in a season at just 23 years old, Billy joined some elite and historic company.

Bright spot number two came from the bat of Alberto Callaspo.  There was never any doubt about his ability to hit, but what was surprising was the fact he hit 41 doubles and 11 home runs in 576 at bats in 2009 after hitting 17 doubles and zero home runs in his previous 499 major league ABs.  In the minors he hit 151 doubles and 34 home runs in the equivalent of six minor league seasons.  This gives an average of about 25 doubles and 6 home runs a year, so saying the emergence of his power came as a bit of a surprise would be an understatement.

Outside of Bert and Billy, only four other players on the roster finished with an OPS+ of 100 or better and three of them were catchers (Miguel Olivo, John Buck, and Brayan Pena).  The other player to crack the league average OPS+ barrier was David DeJesus who recovered from the “Coco Crisp is our leadoff hitter” shenanigans to hit 0.316/.390/.462 in the second half and finished the year with a line of 0.281/.347/.434.  Six players hit more than 10 home runs, led by Miguel Olivo with 23 and Butler with 21.  The other players joining this group include Mike Jacobs (19), DeJesus (13), Mark Teahen (12), and Callaspo (11).  Willie Bloomquist led the team in SB with 25.  Crisp and Josh Anderson were the only other two players to finish in double digits with 13 and 12 respectively.

As a whole the team wasn’t very good at getting on-base and their 0.318 OBP ranked second to last in the American League.  This was a far cry from the league average mark of 0.336.  When they did manage to get on-base and appeared to be a threat to score, all too often they gave away outs due to poor baserunning and equally poor judgment on the part of third base coach Dave Owen.

You could look past the offensive shortcomings of the team if they flashed some serious leather on defense, but only DeJesus could claim any sort of defensive proficiency.  Billy Butler fared pretty well considering his lack of experience and playing time.  He’s not instinctive around the bag, but he appeared to improve during the season and slowly grow more comfortable.  He’s never going to win any defensive awards but he seems willing to work and perhaps someday he can become close to average.  On the other side of the equation, Jose Guillen played perhaps the worst defense I have ever seen out in RF.  When a player makes you yearn for the defensive stylings of Emil Brown and Chip Ambres, there is a major problem in the field.  The rest of the team ranged from below average to well below average.

When you’ve got a team that can’t get on base, run the bases effectively, or play decent defense, it puts a hell of a lot of stress on the pitchers, and trading for Yuniesky Betancourt didn’t help the team in any of those areas.

The lack of offense and defense didn’t seem to phase Zack Greinke, who turned in one of the finest seasons in major league history, and Joakim Soria, who battled shoulder tendinitis for part of the year.  Also partially immune to the defense behind him was Robinson Tejeda who allowed only 43 hits in 73.2 innings pitched while striking out 87.  It pains me to think what their seasons would have looked like with even mediocre defensive play.  Trey Hillman apparently set out to destroy the arm of Gil Meche and managed to end his season prematurely.  After all of this, I will never question the heart and desire of Gil Meche.  He fought back problems, overuse, and a dead arm, yet kept taking the ball when his spot in the rotation came up.  The Royals spent the second half trying to spin it at least a dozen ways, but it was clear that Gil wasn’t the same guy after throwing his 132-pitch complete game shutout on June 16th.  It was his fourth straight outing over 100 pitches and when he left the mound after throwing his last pitch that night, his ERA stood at 3.31.  He would go on to make another nine starts, throw 44.2 innings, and allow 42 earned runs good for an 8.55 ERA during that span.  Meche wasn’t the only pitcher subject to managerial abuse however.

Brian Bannister appeared to have things back on track after a forgettable 2008 season.  On August 2nd, BB tossed 7.0 shutout innings and left the game after 117 pitches.  It was his fifth straight outing over 100 pitches.  After that game he had a 3.59 ERA.  He lasted just six more starts and threw his last pitch of the 2009 season on September 2nd.  In those six starts, he allowed 32 earned runs in 31 innings pitched.

There was a third subject of abuse in the rotation last season that gets overlooked.  Kyle Davies struggled for most of the season largely in part because he spent most of his time trying to be too fine with his pitches and clearly didn’t trust the defense behind him.  Trey didn’t do Kyle any favors however.  From May 16th to June 13th Davies started six games and went over 100 pitches in five of them.  In the other game he threw 91 pitches and at the end of the stretch his ERA was 5.14.  In his next start he gave up 9 H and 7 ER in 2.2 IP and wouldn’t be back in the majors until August 5th.

Fairness in conversation, Zack Greinke went over 100 pitches in 26 of his 33 starts and for the most part seemed immune to the effects of the workload.  However it should be clear to everyone by this point that Zack is cut from a different cloth than 99% of the pitchers in MLB.  His effortless delivery and flawless mechanics help mitigate Trey’s usage of him, and he appears to be a genetic freak from the Nolan Ryan/Bob Gibson mold that can handle an excessive workload without wearing down.

The rest of the pitching staff was pretty bad and shall be passed over with a few exceptions.  Luke Hochevar showed some flashes of greatness but they were too few and far between.  On the bright side, we know he’s got it in him to be a quality major league starter.  Hopefully all he needs is more starts to round into form and learn to trust his stuff.  Hopefully this offseason, the organization can also figure out if he truly was tipping his pitches and get that flaw corrected before the season.  Jamey Wright was the only reliever outside of Soria and Tejeda to finish with an ERA+ above 100, but most of his success came in April and May.  In fact on May 16th, after his 15 appearance, his ERA was a stellar 1.66.  He’d spend the rest of the season with an ERA in the high 4s and low 5s before a strong finish that got his ERA back down to 4.33 on the year.  The rest of the staff doesn’t merit much discussion* but the late season performance of Carlos Rosa was a very positive sign.  Of course, as is the case with most things involving the 2009 Royals, Rosa’s 10.2 innings with a 3.38 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 131 ERA+  left me wondering why he didn’t make his first appearance before September 10th.

When all was said and done, despite all the pie-in-the-sky dreams of a competitive team in a “winnable” AL Central, the 65-97 Royals finished tied for last with the Cleveland Indians who incidentally traded away over 20% of their major league roster, including Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez, during the month of July.  Both clubs finished 21.5 games back of the division champion Minnesota Twins who were 87-76.  The Royals front office spent most of the season pointing to injuries as the reason they weren’t competitive, but apparently missed the obvious fact that the team that did win the division suffered very significant injuries to just as many, if not more, key players.

The season was a massive disappointment, but the performances of Butler, Greinke, Soria, Callaspo, and Tejeda managed to make it worthwhile to watch them every day.  Hopefully Trey Hillman and his staff have taken some time this offseason to reassess their usage of pitchers and will open the 2010 having learned from the mistakes of 2009.  If not, the new training staff will get to know the pitching staff far better than they should.

(Wally Fish is the lead blogger for Kings of Kauffman and FanSided’s MLB Director.  Subscribe to his RSS feed and add him on Twitter to follow him daily.)