Sorting Things Out

brett401
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Is it me, or does it seem like the Royals have been snakebit (it IS the Cactus League, after all…) by injuries this spring?  Alex Gordon’s broken thumb.  Jeff Bianchi’s elbow.  Danny Duffy had stiffness in his elbow before retiring/taking leave.  Rick Ankiel’s still battling an ankle injury.  Wally’s already looked at Gil Meche’s shoulder problems now and dating back to last year.  And now Alberto Callaspo’s dealing with a sudden oblique problem. I’ll just stop talking about it now so as to not jinx any other important players on the roster.

The Royals’ response to the possibility of Meche opening the year on the DL does show their intent regarding the starting rotation. For one, Kyle Davies is a near-lock for the fourth or fifth spot (depending on Meche’s health). If Meche isn’t ready to go, however, the front-runner seems to be Kyle Farnsworth for the final spot. There have also been unofficial tryouts for Anthony Lerew, Brad Thompson, Brian Bullington and rule 5 pick Edgar Osuna.

An interesting omission in the discussion is last September’s buzzsaw, Robinson Tejeda. How do you turn away a pitcher who dominated all of September?

There may be a few things the Royals have seen that go against Tejeda. First, his walk rate has never impressed, as he walks 5.2 batters per 9 innings for his career. He’s fortunate to miss a lot of bats, so he strands a lot of those runners with strikeouts, but being exposed on the mound for a few trips through the order could catch up to him.

For instance:

ISplitGBBSOSO/BBOPSBAbiptOPS+
1st PA in G, as SP5351991.94.682.25088
2nd PA in G, as SP5357711.25.786.295118
3rd PA in G, as SP4839320.82.833.318131
4th+ PA in G, as SP6300.001.917.333425
1st PA in G, as RP70661071.62.600.25367
2nd PA in G, as RP10144.00.673.18284

These are Tejeda’s career splits as a starter and a reliever. Regardless of his role, he’s always walked people, but you’ll notice his K/BB ratio, OPS, OPS+ and BABIP all increase with each turn through the lineup as a starter. He misses less bats the longer he’s in a game, and with his noted lack of control, that adds up to a dangerous situation of adding runners, wasting pitches and extending innings.

It makes sense that a starter will have less success with each trip through the lineup. They tire, maybe lose a couple ticks off their fastball, and the batters have already seen them once or twice and have an idea how to adjust. In Tejeda’s case, he’s better in short stints:

ISplitGBBSOSO/BBOPSBAbiptOPS+
Pitch 1-25123811351.67.679.26888
Pitch 26-508655911.65.661.24483
Pitch 51-755745551.22.796.295120
Pitch 76-1004932260.81.884.316145
Pitch 101+14461.50.687.41792

So Tejeda looks better suited for a middle relief role, and could fill in as an emergency starter if necessary. And for a pitcher with a live arm like his, that’s the best role for him.

Farnsworth, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be a much better fit for the rotation either. At least according to the same measurements from above:

ISplitGBBSOSO/BBOPSBAbiptOPS+
1st PA in G, as SP2620492.45.759.283101
2nd PA in G, as SP2530210.70.919.268144
3rd PA in G, as SP2411151.36.861.281127
4th+ PA in G, as SP9310.331.079.355184
1st PA in G, as RP6262736842.51.729.31095
2nd PA in G, as RP13591.80.488.26335
3rd+ PA in G, as RP101.000.000-100
ISplitGBBSOSO/BBOPSBAbiptOPS+
Pitch 1-256522686702.50.730.30995
Pitch 26-5011739741.90.791.312110
Pitch 51-752923190.83.874.229131
Pitch 76-100239141.56.875.286131
Pitch 101+12331.00.799.286113

As you can see, that OPS+ shows Farnsworth to be just about average the first time through the lineup as a starter for his career, and a little better than average as a reliever the first time facing a batter. So let’s call it a wash and call him just average. Which is fine. Average for a reliever won’t hurt you too much, though it won’t help you much either.

Take a look at that second time through the lineup, though. That’s a pretty ugly spike in every way. And while the third time through the lineup seems to show Farnsworth calming down a little…the damage is done. It seems that 50-pitch threshold for both Tejeda and Farnsworth are where you can expect things to go downhill.

Granted, Farnsworth hasn’t started a game since 2000 with the Cubs, his second year in the majors. But perhaps ten years of experience against major league hitters has taught him a few things. Plus, there are reports of a changeup and improved two-seamer that give the Royals confidence in his abilities as a starter. I’m intrigued…but not optimistic. Farnsworth has a reputation of blowing up in high leverage situations leading to most of his work coming in mop-up duty.

Step one: Hope that Gil Meche’s shoulder is fine to start the season (or at least that he could act as the starting pitcher in the fifth game of the season).
Step two: Hope that Kyle Farnsworth’s changeup is as advertised and that maybe he’s learned a few tricks about getting outs.
Step three: Enjoy the fact that the discussion isn’t “Who’s following Chris Redman in the rotation?” or “Will Zack Greinke come back to baseball?”

I think the Royals are going to give Farnsworth a shot in that fifth rotation spot, but I don’t anticipate great results. It may be a similar experience to Sidney Ponson of last season, where he’d have one or two passable outings, one or two disastrous games, and maybe even sneak in one well-pitched, fool’s gold performance. And if the Kyle Farnsworth experiment turns out to be successful, it may be a blueprint for what some Royals fans have been calling for — Joakim Soria’s conversion to starter.

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