Rethinking Roles: One Reason The Royals Misuse Talent


August 01, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Luis Mendoza (39) signals to the crowd after being relieved in the eighth inning of the game against the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium. Kansas City won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, Craig Brown over at wrote on an interesting question: Why not Luis Mendoza as the fifth starter?

He notes the response the Royals have to that question, that Mendoza will perform best in a long-reliever/swing-man role. We’ve heard similar arguments for keeping Aaron Crow in the bullpen and Jarrod Dyson as a fourth outfielder. The premise for that line of reasoning is that it’s best to give players roles in which they will be most successful.

This logic is flawed. Or rather, this logic is flawed if a team’s primary goal is to win the most games it can.

I know it seems solid. It seems like a no-brainer. Of course the Royals should want players to have roles in which they can be most successful. DUH!

Wrong. The Royals should want players in roles that will make the team most successful, and no they are not the same thing … well, most often they are the same thing … but not always.

Let’s use Mendoza as an example, as he’s one of my favorite Royals because his potential value is underestimated (also because he’s got a killer head of hair and seems like a good dude). Before last season and this season, Ned Yost indicated that he felt Mendoza’s most fitting role was as a swingman. Oddly enough, I agreed*. Mendoza had the potential to be most successful as a swingman in comparison with all the other swingmen in the league. He’s a prototypical swingman. He’s flexible, can eat innings, and can pitch well enough to keep teams in a ball game during spot starts. Plus, the Royals don’t have to worry about his future because he’s maxed out his potential. That’s the textbook definition of swingman.

*If you check out this article I wrote about Mendoza, you’ll see I thought he’d be a great swingman. Of course, this was before I knew how effective he could be as a starter.

But as I stated earlier, in this case, it doesn’t matter what’s best for Mendoza; it matters what’s best for the Royals. And in this case, what is best for Mendoza (in terms of pitching well relative to a role) is not what is best for the Royals. The 2012 Royals rotation was awful, and Mendoza was the best pitcher in it (second best when Jeremy Guthrie came to Kansas City). As anyone who knows anything about baseball is aware, an average starting pitcher is more valuable than an above average swingman, especially when the alternative to that is a below average starting pitcher.

If we imagine the options, we can think of it with this question: Which scenario will help the Royals win more, a starter with a 4.20 ERA and a swingman with a 5.00 ERA OR a starter with a 5.00 ERA and a swingman with a 4.20 ERA? If you’re struggling, the answer is the first scenario will help a team win more because starters pitch more innings. Also, it’s easier to find players who can fill backup roles like swingman and fourth outfielder with average numbers for those roles.

August 28, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals center fielder Jarrod Dyson (1) is congratulated by teammates after scoring in the sixth inning of the game against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

When looked at this way, it seems like common sense, right? A team should want their best players playing in the most valuable roles. But if the rhetoric is to be believed, Yost (and perhaps Dayton Moore) see things differently. That is to say that they’re very concerned with putting players in the most fitting roles perhaps to the detriment of putting the best players in the most valuable roles.

I give you Jeff Francoeur and Dyson. By statistical measure, there is not much of an argument to be made that Francoeur is a better player than Dyson, even before his horrendous 2012. Francoeur’s career OBP is .310; Dyson’s is .320 (and last year was .328). Francoeur hits for more power but is a liability on the bases and not a tremendous outfielder (of his five full seasons since 2008, he’s had negative UZRs in three of them). In all the advanced metrics, and the old-fashion stats as well, Dyson was a MUCH better player than Francoeur in 2012 and also played better than many of Francoeur’s other seasons, arguably better than 2011 too.

And yet, Dyson is probably best suited as a fourth outfielder. But on this team, they don’t have anyone better than him as the third outfielder. Logic dictates that the Royals play Dyson in center to maximize his value to the team and move Cain to right, thus playing their three best outfielders the most and maximizing their value to the team. Of course, they aren’t going to do this. Perhaps, it’s because they mistakenly believe that Francoeur is better than Dyson. I hope this isn’t the case, but I’m guessing that’s part of it. Along with that, though, is this ridiculous notion that Dyson IS a fourth outfielder and Francoeur IS a starter. These identities are fixed in the collective mind of Royals decision makers, unchangeable and forevermore.

This mental rigidity prevents the Royals from maximizing the talent they have. It’s rooted in old notions of what certain players look and act like—backup catchers are defense only guys, knuckleballs are weird, any lefty pitcher can get out any lefty hitter. Antiquated thinking. It will keep them from giving Irving Falu a shot at second base, because how can a guy be successful if he spent so long in the minors? It will keep them from using Mendoza in the rotation, because why would they want a league average starter over Luke Hochevar? It will cost them wins in 2013 as surely as it cost them wins in 2012.