May 9, 2014

Royals mailbag: Trade Billy Butler? Where’s the plate discipline?

To me, it’s not so much the approach as the results. Pretty much every hitting coach you’ll meet espouses the same message: Selective aggression. Hit your pitch. Don’t get yourself out. When you get to two strikes, shorten up and expand.
Welcome to the Pacific Northwest version of our weekly mailbag. Let’s get to it. I will do the cliché thing and pick the third option: The Royals preach plate discipline. The players listen. They just don’t practice it. Are the Royals aggressive? Yes. They rank 10th among big-league clubs in swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. They hack at balls 30.2 percent of the time. Now, is that a bad thing? The Rockies swing at balls more often. It seems to work for them. To me, it’s not so much the approach as the results. Pretty much every hitting coach you’ll meet espouses the same message: Selective aggression. Hit your pitch. Don’t get yourself out. When you get to two strikes, shorten up and expand. This is, more or less, the message from hitting coach Pedro Grifol. What separates is the ability to transfer that message into live action. The Royals have not done that. The team ranks 22nd in the game with a .307 OBP. To me, the bigger issue is the lack of power: They rank last in baseball with .107 ISO. It’s a rough combination. They don’t reach base much. And they can’t hit the ball over the fence. Thus, each day will be a struggle with this lineup. Eric Hosmer is playing better, at least. The opinion of rival evaluators during spring training was pretty unanimous: Valencia isn’t a huge liability there, because he can catch the baseball and his hands are OK. But his range is limited and his ability to turn the double play will always questionable. Dayton, is that you? When did you move to Nevada? With Guthrie, the aesthetics will never be enjoyable. He’ll always give up a ton of hits. He’ll always be victimized by the long ball. He’ll never strike out many batters. But he’s been fine this year. He’s 2-2 with a 3.91 ERA, and you’ll take that from a back-end starter any year. All together now: He’s pitching in complex-league games right now in Surprise, Ariz. The team plans for his full-season debut near the end of May with Class AA Northwest Arkansas. If he achieves consistent success and stays healthy, he has a chance to join the big-league club in September. Sigh. No, Moustakas is not playing well. Somehow, his production at the plate has gotten worse. The alarming thing is it’s not like his approach has completely degraded. He is walking more than ever (a career-best 9.0 percent heading into Thursday) and swinging at fewer pitches out the zone (a career-low 28.9 percent). So he’s not chasing an excessive amount. He just appears unable to do damage on strikes. That is a serious concern. The team hopes a platoon with Valencia could activate his bat. Moustakas has always been a streaky hitter, even when he was laying waste to the upper levels of the minors. The team feels he is better than Class AAA competition, and a demotion would do little for his development. That is, unless his defense begins to suffer because of his offensive cratering. The conversation might change, then. I doubt Ned Yost will "officially" label this is a platoon. But this is a platoon. The real question: Does Starling make it to Lincoln or Omaha first? Before this season began, Dayton Moore stressed the team needed another 800 to 1,000 at-bats, essentially two seasons of playing time, before they could speculate on Starling’s big-league readiness. In the first month of the year, he did very little to accelerate their timetable. Through 29 games, Starling was hitting .157/.276/.287. He struck out 36 times and walked 14 times. And this was in Class A Wilmington. He is 21. To play his hitting in an (unfair) context, shortstop Raul Mondesi was triple-slashing .290/.350/.393 through 26 games. The worries from rival evaluators about Starling are simple but devastating. They don’t think he’ll be able to hit. His lack of pitch recognition, which perhaps resulted from his dearth of experience before pro ball, is a considerable flaw. The Royals believe Starling can learn how to hit in the coming years, and once he does, his athleticism can make him an elite player. Thus far, he isn’t proving them right. Sure. Do the Orix Buffaloes still control the rights to Wily Mo Pena? My point is: You can find plenty of hitters with "more power" than Butler. Moustakas has more power. Justin Maxwell has more power. Carlos Peguero has more power. But they aren’t nearly the hitter Butler is. They don’t possess the plate discipline and bat control and all the other qualities that have made Butler so successful. If you’re looking for a DH who can hit like Butler AND hit the ball over the fence more often than Butler, well, ask yourself this question: Why would another team trade for Butler . . . if they have a hitter better than Butler? 1. He has made nine career starts. 2. His name is not "Kila Ka’aihue." I think they will take Dee Ford. I used to be an Eagles fan, but at some point I realized I can’t let them ruin my life anymore. So I’m happy when they win, but otherwise I’m not too worried about it. Of course he can’t. Always bet against freakish production continuing, unless, of course, Barry Bonds is involved. Tulowitzki has a history of injuries. At some point, he’ll start striking out more often. And his BABIP luck will regress. But to crib a line from my pal Matt Meyers, I’m not sure how the Rockies ever lose at home. I listened to their debut record and "Coexist" this week as research. A delightful assignment. My top three songs, compiled as I listened, and in no way definitive: 1. "Shelter," which combines a few elements to create smoldering tension, which is basically the entire point of the band. 2. "Intro," the millennial generation’s unlikeliest Jock Jam. 3. "Unfold," for the release when Madley-Croft and Sim twin their vocals. Also, this week’s music recommendation is The Weepies’ 2006 album "Say I Am You." This job is fun. 1. "Say It Ain’t So." 2. "My Name Is Jonas." 3. "In The Garage." 4. "The World Has Turned and Left Me Here." 5. "Buddy Holly." 6. "Only In Dreams." 7. "Holiday." 8. "Surf Wax America." 9. "Undone – The Sweater Song." 10. "No One Else."

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