The Royals Spending Poorly Wisely

The main good thing about reaching the World Series is that it means you won your league. When you win your league, people like you a lot, and it’s a good feeling. Builds community. Another, bigger-picture good thing about reaching the World Series is that it brings in revenue, especially if you haven’t been real good for a while. New streams of money begin to flow, and preexisting streams of money flood their banks, as more people express interest in the product and other people express more interest in the product. Basically, if you get to the World Series, it’s a good thing for more than just the day or week of.

When the Royals came out of nowhere to come within a few runs of the championship, it stood to reason they’d reap an enormous benefit. An area love affair was re-kindled, as Kauffman Stadium became one of the loudest and most popular environments in the game. Estimates varied, but there was no question the World Series appearance would mean, for the team, some additional tens of millions of dollars. How much could that money mean, if re-invested in the roster? What would Dayton Moore be able to pull off, given greater financial flexibility?

The Royals re-signed Luke Hochevar for a couple of years, which seems like a good deal even given Hochevar’s operation. But lately the Royals have spent bigger money. They committed $17 million to Kendrys Morales. They committed $11 million to Alex Rios. And, most recently, they committed $20 million to Edinson Volquez. This is what the World Series has meant, in a way. It’s rather underwhelming.

You have to fight the urge to snark. It’s so, so impossibly easy to snark. That’s forty-eight million dollars. That’s a starting pitcher, a starting outfielder, and a starting DH. Last season, Morales, Rios, and Volquez were worth a combined -0.8 WAR. So, $48 million, toward guys who, combined, were slightly worse than replacement-level. The blogposts write themselves. In that sense Moore’s acting like a caricature of an irresponsible GM.

You don’t even need the fancy stats to make the case. Morales was a DH who slugged .338. Rios was a corner outfielder who hit four home runs in a hitter-friendly environment. Volquez was among the 20 worst starting pitchers in K-BB%, and while K-BB% is something of an unfamiliar statistic, all it is is walk rate subtracted from strikeout rate, and those are basic numbers. Morales was bad. Rios was bad. Volquez was not real good, ERA aside. So what gives?

In two cases, Moore’s paying for a bounceback. You could argue he’s spending on projections. Morales was a good hitter until 2014, and his 2014 timeline was unusual. For years before, he’d been a steady, productive bat. Rios, too, was pretty good in 2013, and even better in 2012. Before hitting four home runs, he’d hit 18. Volquez is tougher or easier to explain. He hasn’t been an actual good pitcher since 2008, but last year he had a low ERA and seemingly induced weak contact. The Pirates liked Volquez’s turnaround, although obviously not enough to give him $20 million.

Last year, Morales, Rios, and Volquez combined to be worth -0.8 WAR. But for 2015, Steamer projects a combined 2.1 WAR. It’s something. By definition, it’s better than nothing. It clearly still looks like too much money, and I’m not going to argue that point. It seems to me like inefficient spending. But there are some mitigating points here, so that Moore doesn’t get overwhelmed by an avalanche of internet mockery.

Look at some of the comparable deals signed on the free-agent market. Jason Hammel signed for $20 million and two years. Michael Cuddyer signed for $21 million and two years. Billy Butler, $30 million and three. Adam LaRoche, $25 million and two. Michael Morse, $16 million and two. A.J. Burnett, $8.5 million and one. Torii Hunter, $10.5 million and one. Justin Masterson, $9.5 million and one. There’s an assumption that it isn’t too hard to go out and find a one-win player. Teams have been paying real money for one-win players. The Royals aren’t out here on an island; while in retrospect maybe they could’ve just kept Butler at his 2015 option, it would’ve been hard to make even slight upgrades cheaply. Everything costs millions now. Even Kendrys Morales.

And the upside here is that the commitments are small. Two years to one guy, two years to another, and one year to the third. In free agency, there’s been obvious salary inflation, but there’s also been year-length inflation. Daniel Descalso just got two years guaranteed. In order to get a guy to settle for one year, he needs to either be old, or be coming off an injury. There aren’t many short-term deals available for good players. For the Royals, these contracts expire soon, and that makes the players easy to dump or bench if they don’t perform.

To Moore’s credit, he understands that free agency isn’t a good place to modify a roster if you’re looking to make a splash. Free agency is where you find the most inefficient contracts, and while the Royals reaped some extra revenue from the run in October, they’re still not going to be a big-spending operation. Moore made some tweaks, and I don’t much care for any of them, but now holes are plugged, and no one’s blocking anyone. The team core’s intact. The system’s intact. Jarrod Dyson is there to take over for Rios in case Rios can’t do anything.

The Royals needed a DH, so they paid a standard DH price for a decent one coming off a year he’d like to forget. The Royals wanted an outfielder with some speed and contact skills, so they got one with a proven track record. He’ll stand in no one’s way. And the Royals wanted a starting pitcher to fill James Shields‘ void, serving as a bridge until Brandon Finnegan or Sean Manaea or Kyle Zimmer or Miguel Almonte or even John Lamb. I would’ve liked the Royals to do better than Volquez, but he isn’t totally without value, and even Brandon McCarthy got four years guaranteed. Gavin Floyd would’ve been interesting. Brett Anderson or Brandon Morrow would’ve been interesting. The Royals have gone with Volquez. He won’t be on the books in 2017, and he doesn’t actually have to be that good to be worth something in the neighborhood of his terms.

I’d like to note that, for the first time in his career, Volquez posted a league-average strike rate. You can see evidence of a more consistent release point between pitch types:

VolquezRelease

Volquez has become more of a contact pitcher, but even if he can’t induce weak contact like he seemingly did last year with the Pirates, there are worse things than being a contact pitcher in front of the Royals’ defense. Volquez might end up mediocre, but the Royals can make mediocre look strong.

The Royals have spent inefficiently, and given where they got to, perhaps that’s a bit anticlimactic. Yet the Royals know free agency isn’t what got them to the World Series. They’ve kept their controlled players, they’ve kept their minor-league players, and they’ll have money available to try to re-sign Alex Gordon around when he decides what to do with his 2016 option. What the Royals have done is easy to mock, but it also would’ve been easy for them to overpay Nelson Cruz, and to their credit they avoided the temptation. Maybe the Royals are actually going to trade a reliever. It’s December 18. Or maybe the Royals are going to stick with what they have. What they have doesn’t look like the strongest roster in the league, but considering what took place only two months ago, and what led to all that, could you blame them?





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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LHPSU
Guest
LHPSU

Gavin Floyd, Brett Anderson and Brandon Morrow might be interesting, but if I were a betting man, I would say that the three of them will COMBINE for less innings in 2015 than Volquez.

jdbolick
Member

You might win that, but my bet is that Volquez throws more disastrous innings than the three of them combined.

Bill Dollars
Guest
Bill Dollars

Brett Anderson at $10-14 million is ludicrous! He doesn’t even pitch! It’s fine and dandy to say that the innings he might pitch will be better than Volquez (40 innings, maybe?), but there are 162 real baseball games to be played. Someone has to pitch. I’d rather have Volquez at $10 mil.

jdbolick
Member

By that logic no relievers should be paid more than a few million dollars per season. Furthermore, you’re not grasping the impact of negative utility. No position has a larger impact on the outcome of a particular inning than the pitcher, correct? The Dodgers are paying an extraordinary amount of money to non-starting pitchers that becomes entirely wasted that day if a Volquez blows up and puts them in an insurmountable hole. That’s the added cost that you’re missing, the possibility of making the rest of their expenditures wasteful for that one day’s win. So for a team that has a high payroll and high expectations, you want to do as much as possible to avoid negative utility on the mound. A guy who is good but gets hurt often is a much better option for the Dodgers than a guy who pitches 150+ innings while sometimes good and sometimes awful.

LHPSU
Guest
LHPSU

Precisely why the Royals went for Volquez rather than the aforementioned group, no?

jdbolick
Member

Volquez makes sense for a team that doesn’t expect to be good and would like to spin the roulette wheel, and even then it would need to be relatively inexpensive to justify choosing him over some other high risk options. By cost per win above replacement, Edinson needs to be better than in any of his last six seasons to justify that contract.

Joshua_C
Guest
Joshua_C

I’m not a huge Volquez fan, but it’s entirely possible FIP is missing something on him, given his ability to induce weak contact.

That’s why the Pirates wanted him–they hugely value contact management and ground balls. The question, in my mind, is whether the Royals can duplicate Searage’s magic.

My inclination is no–it’s telling that the Pirates weren’t interested in retaining Volquez at $10M/yr.

jdbolick
Member

Volquez gave up very hard contact in 2013, so I’m very skeptical that 2014 represents a new normal for him.

Pedro the Sea Lion
Guest
Pedro the Sea Lion

I’m liking the negative utility argument for Volquez to the Royals as well, but for the reason that strikeouts are less valuable with Kansas City’s defense. Volquez shifted in 2013 to an approach where he “attacks the zone.” This reduced both K% and BB%, so more balls are put in play. If he keeps this approach, then he’s essentially allowing Kansas City to not waste PA’s where their defense doesn’t get used. Obviously a strikeout is better than a ball put in play, but a strikeout also costs a lot more than a ball put in play, so in a sense, signing a pitcher like Volquez allows KC to maximize utility/dollar assuming he’s signed to something around market price. (Whether or not that last assumption is true I can’t really speak to).

Joshua_C
Guest
Joshua_C

My comment is based off of Tony Blengino’s article here: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/why-starting-edinson-volquez-isnt-a-bad-idea/

The idea is that Volquez manages ground ball contact pretty well, and the Pirates were able to get some value out of him basically by working their Searage space magic to pump up his ground ball rate.

As I said, I’m skeptical of the Volquez signing, but it’s not as if there are absolutely zero reasons for any optimism about the guy, if he’s coached correctly.

LHPSU
Guest
LHPSU

Whoever is replacing Floyd, Anderson and Morrow, however, is probably even more likely than Volquez to spontaneously combust.

jdbolick
Member

Obviously it depends on who you choose as the replacement player, but no, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one with low risk and low variance. Volquez is a particularly high risk, high variance pitcher that I would never want on my team for that reason.