The Royals Run Into Trouble
KANSAS CITY - They took the bait. The problem for the Royals is that it wasn't their time. As the "Our Time" advertisements continue to grow more and more depressing for Royals' fans, that point becomes even clearer. The Royals saw the worm swimming in the water and bit the hook.
The most important organizational skill is discovering young talent. The Royals have actually done a quality job with that. Their farm system has been ranked in recent seasons as the best in MLB by numerous legitimate publications. But almost as important as assembling talent is knowing when that talent is ready and it is pretty clear that the Royals were not ready.
On Nov. 7, Kansas City traded Melky Cabrera to San Francisco for Jonathan Sanchez, a deal that was supposed to bolster the Royals' pitching and help them make a run to try to contend in 2012. At this point, it is safe to say that Royals' general manager Dayton Moore should reflect upon that Melky trade as one he probably should not have made. That being said, however, Royals' fans should not look at Cabrera's .363 batting average and consider that either sustainable or a possibility if he had stayed in Kansas City.
Cabrera is sitting on career-high numbers across the board right now, adding a .399 on-base percentage and a .532 slugging percentage to that second-in-the-NL batting average. First off, there is the ballpark effect. Cabrera went from Kauffman Stadium, a quality doubles ballpark, to AT&T Park, the most pitcher-friendly stadium and thus, the top doubles ballpark in the league. Because of that, Cabrera's gap-to-gap hitting style is only enhanced. He set a career high with 44 doubles for the Royals in 2011 and added five triples to that total. With San Francisco, he already has 15 doubles and a NL-leading seven triples and is pacing for 117 total bases on doubles and triples, 14 more than he had last season.
Moving from the AL to the NL, of course, Cabrera is seeing different pitchers. Usually that means advantage to the pitcher. What is helping him, however, is that he is seeing now also seeing different types of pitches.
Historically, Cabrera has hit finesse pitchers better than power pitchers. According to Baseball-Reference.com, in his lone season with the Royals, Cabrera hit .271 against power pitchers with a .755 OPS (on-base plus slugging). He got his numbers against finesse guys, however, hitting .334 with an .886 OPS against the guys who do not throw as hard.
It's no surprise that Cabrera hasn't performed as well against power pitchers in his career, considering he has consistently struggled with high fastballs since the Yankees welcomed him into Major League Baseball in 2005.
Most of that was due to his previously long swing, especially from the left side of the plate. Because of that, 59.3 percent of the pitches he has seen in his career have been fastballs. He saw 60.2 percent fastballs last season in Kansas City.
The good news for Cabrera is that he just is not seeing fastballs at the same rate anymore. Since showing up in San Francisco, only 52.5 percent of the pitches he has seen have been fastballs, by far the lowest percentage of his career. Meanwhile, those fastballs have averaged only 90.8 MPH, a full MPH less than what he was seeing last season on average. Part of that is because Cabrera is no longer a bottom-of-the-order or a No. 2 hitter and is now consistently in the No. 3 spot for the Giants. His previous spots in the lineup tend to see more fastballs than any others. Hitting second early in the season, he had a .757 OPS over 23 games, a relatively mundane OPS by Cabrera's standards. However, since moving to third in the lineup, Cabrera's OPS is 1.028 - and includes a .404 batting average - over 43 games. Of course, those numbers are not at all sustainable, but there is a reason they have spiked since the lineup change.
The mistake the Royals made was with talent evaluation on the side of the import and not necessarily the export. Dayton Moore viewed Jonathan Sanchez as if the year were 2010, when Sanchez posted a 3.07 ERA, 205 strikeouts in 193.1 innings and a league-best 6.6 hits per nine innings.
Moore, however, ignored the peripherals. He disregarded Sanchez's league-leading 96 walks. He clearly thought little of his 3.96 xFIP (a defensive-independent ERA that predicts what an ERA should be if all defenses and other factors were equal). That essentially means Sanchez got lucky in a lot of ways. Meanwhile, 2010 was not an average season for Sanchez. These are the peripherals from his best season. His 4.9 career BB/9 rate and 5.9 2011 BB/9 rate are everything to open a general manager's eyes, but Moore kept them closed.
All that Sanchez production came as a member of the Giants in AT&T Park, the most pitcher-friendly park in MLB. Moving from the American League to the National League is difficult enough for most pitchers. The adjustment to the DH and deeper lineups drives up ERAs and drives down strikeout rates like nothing else. However, a move from the offensively anemic NL West, which has two of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in baseball, is most difficult.
Hoping that 2012 will be "Our Time" in Kansas City continues to be a slightly tormenting notion for Royals fans, but blaming Moore for trading Cabrera is wrong. He had a trade chip and he capitalized. Since going to the more cavernous AT&T Park, Melky has actually shortened up his swing - a long swing was one of his biggest weaknesses as a hitter for his first seven seasons - and has actually upped his batting average against power pitchers to .339.
That is an adjustment made because of the San Francisco ballpark. It was not going to happen in Kansas City. So don't excoriate the fact that they traded Cabrera. Instead, criticize the talent evaluation process on the other side because that might be the reason why the Royals generally struggle to find pitching.