|Thursday, March 13
Disciplined Baird focused on improving Royals
By Rob Neyer
A couple of things about meeting Royals general manager Allard Baird:
First, it was something that I'd been anticipating with both excitement and dread for a few years. Excitement, because since 1975 I've spent many, many thousands of hours watching the Royals, listening to the Royals and thinking about the Royals. Dread, because since roughly 1990 I've spent many hundreds of hours complaining about the Royals. Sometimes publicly, and sometimes specifically about Baird himself.
And second, if Allard Baird has any inkling that I've ever written a discouraging word about his stewardship of my favorite team, he didn't let on. In fact, the first thing he did was offer me a bottle of water; I met a number of baseball executives last week and nearly all of them were friendlier than I expected, but Baird was the only one of whom stopped whatever he was doing to fetch me a beverage.
A few minutes before I was summoned to Baird's office last Thursday, I'd been handed a news release by Aaron Babcock, the Royals' precocious director of media relations. The club had just completed a trade with Cincinnati, sending pitchers Jeff Austin and Brian Shackelford to the Reds in exchange for third baseman Damaso Espino and outfielder Alan Moye.
"We really like Moye," Baird told me. "If he improves his plate discipline, we think he's got a chance to be an All-Star."
This played right into my hands, because that was going to be my first question. In 91 games as a professional, Moye has drawn exactly 17 walks. Baird has talked about plate discipline quite a bit the past couple of years, but it's easier to talk about than to actually do (just ask Billy Beane). So how, I asked Baird, do you get that done?
"I think now it's where we want it to be, but it's taken two years to get there," Baird says. "Your staff has to understand that it's not asking your players to walk, it's asking them to get themselves into good hitting counts. I think if you tell your instructors, 'Look, I want our players to walk,' they're going to say, 'What are you talking about? If a player gets a first pitch right down the middle of the plate, or just off the middle of the plate, a pitch he feels like he can drive, and you don't let him swing at it, you're taking away that aggressiveness.' So selective aggressiveness for us is getting into good hitting counts. And utilizing the stats, the objective evaluation, and saying walks are a by-product of getting yourself into good offensive counts."
"We've got some guys that have taken to it," Baird continues, "that are not actually prospects. But we've got guys like Ruben Gotay, the second baseman, and if you look at his numbers you'll see that he's got a real understanding. I like to tell hitters, 'You need to control the at-bat.' Gotay got into a 'B' game yesterday and he controlled the at-bat. He got in there and, even though he's just a kid in A-ball, he took the first pitch and wound up walking on six pitches."
Obviously, every general manager would like to see his players control their at-bats. But how do you teach them to do that? The A's focus on this more than anybody, and yet they've had a devil of a time teaching their minor leaguers to control at-bats.
"Well, there's a lot that goes into teaching that," Baird said. "In our mini-camp down here, early on, we had our minor leaguers in the cage, and we had an instructor standing behind the catcher and calling the location of the pitches. So whether they swung or didn't swing, we wanted them to know where it actually was. So we did that with our mini-camp guys, and it worked really well. We start our curveball program tomorrow. We do a curveball drill for A-ball clubs on one day, and then the Double- and Triple-A clubs the next day. Just recognizing the pitch. Because if it's a high breaking ball, that's a pitch that we can hit. But if the breaking ball starts out low in the strike zone, we have to spit on it, because it's not going to finish up as a strike. It's a lot easier said than done, but I think from where we were when I took over as the general manager, there's a better understanding of the value of that, to determine good hitters."
All of that sounds pretty good, but I have the sneaking suspicion that a few days in mini-camp and a few hours working on a curveball drill probably aren't quite enough. The Royals have been working with Angel Berroa for two years, and last season he drew 22 walks in 97 games. Baird does recognize this.
"The other day we were playing Oakland. (Keith) Foulke was pitching -- you know that changeup he's got -- and Berroa got down one-and-two. I was sitting back there, and I keep this chart of actual strikes and swinging strikes, and I think, 'Here comes the changeup, and he's going to chase it.' Foulke threw the changeup, and it was a quality changeup, out over the plate but sunk out of the strike zone, and Berroa took it. So that was good. The next time up, the first pitch was a breaking ball off the plate, and he fouled it off. So now he's oh-and-one, and he feels like he's gotta protect.
"To answer your question, I do feel that right now we're where we want to be, as far as teaching. And also having scouts with a clear understanding, because it offends scouts. It's hard for them to understand this, but it's something that we just have to do. I was a scout, I was on the field as a coach, and you have to have that in your organization. But to walk away from substance -- and I believe that plate discipline is pure substance -- then you're not being a true scout, because you need to take it one step further and evaluate the numbers, too. Right now, our scouts do that and they believe in it. But it took some time."
For a long time, there wasn't even a place on a scout's evaluation sheet for a judgement on plate discipline. With this organizational influence on plate discipline, do Royals scouts have a place for that on their forms?
"No, we don't," Baird replies. "We ask our guys, especially our pro scouts, to review the numbers. And any extreme one way or the other, we ask the scout, 'Why?'
"Like Moye, for instance. Why? Why is he striking out and not walking? Or maybe somebody is walking a lot. Is it that he just can't hit, and is overly patient in a league that doesn't throw many strikes? I've got a couple of players like that now, who get a lot of walks but have limited ability. So we ask the scouts to explain any extreme, one way or the other. And, of course, any player that we're considering acquiring, we evaluate their plate discipline. I have somebody for statistical analysis who I hired within six months after I got this job."
Really? I believe that I know the identity of this "somebody for statistical analysis," so I didn't ask for confirmation. Instead, I asked Baird what his scouts saw in Alan Moye, he of the 17 walks in 91 games.
"Our scouts saw recognition of the breaking ball, where he kept his hands back and his weight on his back side, and took a pitch. Now, if he recognizes it, we can bring his strike zone in. But if he doesn't recognize it, then that's a long process. He doesn't have to hit the breaking ball -- when Brian McRae first came to the major leagues, he couldn't hit it -- but he has to be able to recognize it. And with Moye, a lot of people feel that the recognition is there, but the strike zone isn't yet."
I could talk about plate discipline all day, but Allard has a baseball team to run and I've got another pet peeve: the development of young pitchers. Or, in the Royals' case, the lack thereof. Jeff Austin, Chad Durbin, Chris George ... all of them have been heralded as future stars, and all have wound up as huge disappointments. So what's been happening to the franchise's young pitchers? And how do you keep the next generation -- Jeremy Affeldt, Runelvys Hernandez and Jimmy Gobble -- healthy and in the rotation?
"I think some of that has been where we've failed as an organization," Baird admits, "especially when it comes to having consistency between our minor-league pitching coordinators and our major-league pitching coaches. In other ways, I think the organization has done a good job. But we haven't polished off guys. We've got them to a certain point and haven't polished them off. And that's why we brought in (pitching coach) John Cumberland. Polishing off, to me, is more mental than physical. With Jeremy Affeldt, for example, the stuff is there. But moving from Triple-A to the majors, what's the approach, what's the mindset, what's the plan of attack? When I first took over as general manager, I probably should have addressed that sooner.
"As far as injuries, I think pitchers are going to have injuries. What you have to have is a system where you evaluate each pitcher: their body type, what they've done in the past, what you're trying to get out on the mound, and I think you have to be overcautious. Have a plan, have an individual curriculum for each guy. In our player-development manual, we've got a limit for the pitchers at each level, and each pitcher has a particular curriculum. Every pitch is put into a computer and evaluated the next day."
I don't know much about body types, and there's plenty of conflicting evidence when it comes to pitch limits. What I do know is that drafting high-school pitchers doesn't make a lot of sense, because only a small percentage of them ever reach the major leagues, let alone become stars. And I know Baird knows the numbers. And yet, in each of the last two drafts he used his first pick -- and millions of dollars -- to sign high-school pitchers: Colt Griffin (for $2.4 million) in 2001, then Zack Greinke (and $2.5 million) in 2002. So I have to ask, "Why?"
"Last year, we wanted to draft a college pitcher," he said. "But we got in the draft room, and the evaluator said to me, 'Allard, we can take a college pitcher who profiles out as a fifth starter in the major leagues. Or, we can take a high-school pitcher that is like a college pitcher. And Allard, he's so advanced that he can finish the year in (fast Class A) Wilmington.'
"Well, I can find a fifth starter. So it really came down to those guys convincing me that Greinke really was like a college pitcher, skills-wise. That's why we took him, and so far he's been very effective. But it's very important for us, with the new revenue-sharing agreement, we are looking for more college players that have upside. And the only high-school guys we'll take are those whose skills -- like a Zack Greinke -- are comparable to college players.
"So next you're going to ask me, 'Then why the hell did you draft Colt Griffin?' "
Well, that question has come to mind a few hundred times since June, 2001.
"I still believe that if you have time, the upside of those guys are worthwhile," Baird said. "But we don't have time. We don't have a bunch of great players with three- or four-year contracts. So we need guys to get there quicker, who are more skilled."
In the meantime, the Royals still have Griffin, who seems to be many, many years from being able to retire major-league hitters. Last season, his second as a pro, Griffin walked 87 hitters in 96 innings ... and he struck out only 69. Has Griffin made any progress this spring?
"I think he's made progress in one area, especially: focus. I've watched him in drills, and when he got here he didn't need anybody around him; he did everything to a T. And he's going to have to do that. He's going to have to repeat his delivery. Because the quality of his stuff ... I told him before we started spring training, 'Your goal in spring training is to have every ball put in play,' and he looked at me like I was crazy. 'Every ball put into play. You want to find the bat, Colt.' Well, he's got good enough stuff, where if he pounds that strike zone and tries to find bats, he'll get his strikeouts. We just need to bring consistency to his delivery and put some balls in play."
Sounds good, but Griffin is still a long shot. I asked Baird if he has seen anybody this spring who's truly impressive, to the point where Royals fans might actually have something to see before 2005.
"Well, everybody knows about Jimmy Gobble," he said. "He's already pitched good enough to make this club. He's completely healthy, he's throwing his breaking ball for strikes, he's got a downward plane on his fastball, which has been up to 93. Not that velocity's that important, but if you make a mistake, that velocity comes in handy. If I left it up to the staff downstairs, they'd take him in a heartbeat. But I will not allow it."
One more question. I've been asking everybody I've talked to, "What keeps you awake at night?" Most of the answers are pretty wishy-washy, generalities about staying healthy, which suggests that either the GM's don't know their clubs very well or (more likely) they don't want to be honest with me (not that I blame them).
Allard Baird, though, apparently does do a lot of thinking in bed and doesn't mind letting people know about it.
"There's a lot of things," he says. "I think it's the approach, more than anything else. Are we running deep counts, and getting in good hitting positions? Are the guys that can do it, doing it? What about the guys that can't? How much of a role are they going to play on this ball club? The pitchers, trying to be more efficient. Why aren't they getting more first-pitch strikes over the plate? Is it their deliveries? Are we not getting our message across? I think those things are constant. With this club, it's more, 'Are we executing the approach?' If we're not, then what do we do to get there? Because there's enough talent, there's enough raw talent, but now we need to get it over the hump, polish it off."
As I left Baird's office, I thanked him for his time and wished him a good season. And I told him what everybody says about him, that he's one of the nicest guys in the game.
His response? "I'd rather they called me a winner."
Me too, Allard. Me too.
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season. His e-mail address is email@example.com.