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Stanton's busy; better call Ray King

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Step One: Sign veteran LOOGY.
Step Two: ?????
Step Three: Profit!

I apologize for succumbing to that annoying little internets cliche, but it is profitable, this LOOGY-hoarding. Or at least it has been---increasingly so---and I see no reason for that profitability to cease. Back in '05, we got two guys in return, although I'm not sure anyone remembers their names. This past season, we acquired another guy, Shairon Martis, and on the plus side we'll probably remember him a year from now. In fact, this thing got too good: Wayne Krivsky caught wind of this Mike Stanton guy, and Krivsky is as determined to exert dominion over the middle reliever kingdom as an off-kilter Monopoly player is intent on making dough off those purple properties.

Although the Stanton game has ceased, don't fear. Just move on down the LOOGY line, which the Nats did today, reportedly signing the rotund Ray King to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. According to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com, King will make $850,000 if he makes it out of Viera, which I expect he would. King joins Micah Bowie to form the Nats' lefty-reliever contingent; I would imagine King will be the situationalist, freeing Bowie to make more extended appearances, as he did after getting the call from New Orleans in July (all but four of Bowie's 15 appearances lasted at least an inning, and three lasted two innings). Crasnick's article, which notes King found the Nats attractive because of the lefty specialist opening, serves to corroborate this suspicion.

King, who has averaged about 80 appearances a year over the past six seasons, has been an uncommonly consistent pitcher, given the constraints his role place on innings pitched totals. During this time, King has posted four seasons of ERAs in the threes, one in the twos, and one in the fours---and that was last season, playing for the Colorado Rockies, with Coors Field and all that. Of course, ERA isn't an especially great way to measure a reliever, and it's certainly perceived that King is in a decline; hence, he went to Colorado last season and is settling for a minor league deal for the upcoming season.

This MLB.com article from last December provides some context for King's departure from St. Louis to Colorado last offseason:

In 2004, King pitched in 14 postseason games as the Cardinals' essential lefty, posting a 2.35 overall ERA and not giving up any runs in the National League Division Series or the World Series. However, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa did not use King in the postseason in 2005, and King expected to turn the page on St. Louis. King, who turns 32 on Sept. 15, struggled against right-handed hitters, but had to deal with personal issues such as the death of his father.

He said La Russa told him the club was looking to trade him, and he is happy that it was to an NL West squad. King's home is in Arizona.

"When I first heard about it, I got a phone call from Tony," King said. "Everybody was joking that it was kind of like the guy in the movie who gives you a kiss before [bad news].

Tony LaRussa, mob boss? At any rate, King then said he enjoyed his time in St. Louis.

King had a superficially decent season in Colorado. What's a 4.43 ERA at Coors Field represent in real life? According to ERA+, it's 108, which is fairly decent. But, again, that's ERA---an incomplete picture, perhaps. In 67 appearances spanning 44.2 innings, King surrendered 76 baserunners (56 hits and 20 walks; I didn't count the two hit-by-pitches) while striking out 23 batters. So King pitched less than before and not as well; it is little wonder Purple Row considered King half of the Rox's "diabolical duo" (along with Jose Mesa).

I'm going to spend the next minute looking at some numbers, but I want to stipulate one thing before I do, just to lay it out in the open: We're talking about small sample sizes here. We might as well dance a dozen angels on the head of a pin before we make too much out of a LOOGY's road split. That said, here's some stats:

The Trends

Season IP K/9IP BB/9IP HR/9IP
2004 62 6.2 3.7 0.16
2005 40 5.0 3.5 0.87
2006 44.2 4.5 3.9 1.17

[Thanks, Hardball Times.]

Those trends aren't altogether encouraging; to be more blunt about it, they're rather unencouraging. To be yet more blunt about it, he's working on a recipe for suckiness: King's pitching less, just about as erratically, with less aplomb and more wallop from the foes.

As troubling as they seem, let's set aside the strikeouts for a moment, because if you're like me you'll want to see whether Coors Field contributed to, say, the elevated 2006 home run rate:

The Home/Road Splits

:

Where? IP H/BB/SO HR OOPS BABIP
Home 19 30/8/9 3 1.033 .409
Road 25.2 26/12/14 3 .791 .303

["OOPS" = Opponents' OPS; "BABIP" = Batting Average on Balls in Play. Thanks, Baseball Reference.]

Two things here:

First, King's 2006 home run rate did rise a bit at home---one long ball every six-something innings at home, as opposed to one every eight-something on the road. I don't know how much you can really read into that. Is it Coors Field (which, at least for half of the season, was playing more neutrally last season), or is it just the reality that a player's stats will tend to show some differential in divergent situations (home/road, lefty/righty, etc.) in a given season? Who knows? Isolating his road split---and again, it's uncertain how much usefulness such a thing is in a single season---we see his homer rate rose above his career rates. Forget the ridiculous 2004 rate (one homer allowed in 62 IP) for a moment; from '01-05, he surrendered at most one homer per 10 IP, and that was basically his average in the 1999-2000 partial seasons, too. Maybe he's losing his touch, but it's hard to say based on this one season.

Second, take another look at that BABIP column. It was about league-average on the road, but it rose another hundred points at home. That increase, plus the somewhat elevated home dinger rate, accounted for the sharp difference in opponents' OPS---for comparison, the difference between challenging Lance Berkman for third in the NL (1.041 vs. 1.033) and something close to Preston Wilson's performance with the '05 Nats (.772 vs. .791). Let's explore King's BABIP graphically for a moment.

This graph demonstrates the 2006 BABIP home/run split. And this graph demonstrates a broader trend: steady ('01-02) ---> down ('03) ---> way down ('04) ---> way up ('05) ---> farther up ('06). King's gone from essentially league average, to well below league average, to above league average. Does that also mean "normal," to "lucky," to "unlucky"? I suppose. One final graph for your viewing pleasure, more of a curiosity from our standpoint. Take a look at this one and focus on 2004. King's groundball rate dropped sharply, yet he surrendered only that one homer in 62 innings. Talk about a double-whammy benefit: A fly ball has a greater out percentage than a ground ball, but a fly ball hit has a greater run value than a ground ball hit (owing to a much greater likelihood of extra base hits). In that 2004 season, King produced more greater-out percentage outcomes yet, despite all those fly balls, allowed only one homer. No wonder it stands out as his career year!

What does all this mean for King, going forward? Well, look at King's 2006 stat line and tell me whether you think the hits allowed column is especially meaningful. If you think it is, then there's a chance he's shot; if you think it isn't, then he's a decent bet to rebound some. (To the extent it matters, the Rockies' 2006 defensive efficiency rating didn't seem so hot, and that could have contributed to the high BABIP. And for what it's worth, that last graph demonstrates King's "line drive percentage" was about where it was in 2002.)

The Other Stuff

When? LOB% WXRL
2004 74.3 3.1
2005 80.8 -1.1
2006 74.7 0.009

["LOB%" = Left On Base Percentage; "WXRL" = FM Hits Win Expectation Above Replacement, Lineup-adjusted. Thanks, Hardball Times, Baseball Prospectus.]

An interesting divergence there, isn't it? LOB% is obviously a "strand percentage." WXRL is designed to assess how relievers have changed the outcome of games. In 2005, King's best year out of the three at stranding opposing baserunners, his performance pursuant to WXRL was worse than replacement-level. Oh well. Lower LOB% or not, King was obviously more valuable in 2004.

* * * *

My gratitude to you for indulging all of that. My gut-level reaction to this: I'm not complaining. King's not a wonderful pitcher, and his strikeout rate seems to indicate he is indeed in decline. But RFK will help him get back to his keeping-the-ball-in-the-park ways, and if he swings a lucky three or four months on balls in play, he could look just fine to a team looking to pick up veteran bullpen depth. King ain't Stanton, but then Stanton didn't look all that good last year or in 2005. Between Krivsky and Brian Sabean, I'm sure someone will give the Nats something for King's services. And, at $850,000---hey, it's not my money!

My pick in the when-will-King-be-dealt pool: August 23.

* * * *

Update [2006-12-18 22:19:17 by Basil]: It's a Cardinal Christmas Miracle! Not only will King compete for a spot with the Nats, but so will former St. Louis teammate Jason Simontacchi. So reports Nats.com.

Simontacchi, who turned 33 in November and is from lovely Mountain View, Ca., is . . . well, he's alive. That's news to me. (Yes, welcome news.) He burst on the scene with the Cards as your typical 28-year-old-rookie-starter-coming-off-a-7-13-season-at-Triple-A-who-starts-his-big-league-career-6-1-before-anyone-even-knows-how-to-pronounce-his-name. Happens all the time. Simontacchi finished the season 11-5, 4.02 (and, despite a 2-0 September, didn't pitch in the postseason). Despite his rookie success, Simontacchi didn't necessarily figure for future greatness; even living high on the hog, he only fanned 4.5 batters per nine innings, which isn't a great harbinger of things to come. And, despite finishing '03 with a 9-5 mark, the league caught up with Simontacchi (5.56 ERA, 75 ERA+). He pitched mostly at Triple-A Memphis the following season, sneaking in 13 big league relief appearances, and that's where he fell off my map.

The reason, reports Nats.com, makes a bunch of sense: Simontacchi tore his right labrum. Uh oh. Simontacchi found the on-ramp to the comeback trail last season, pitching well in 10-something innings in the Atlantic League. And now Simontacchi is expected to compete for a spot in the Nats' rotation. Well, good luck with that.

Because, with luck on his side, he might just make it.

As for King, the Nats.com adds some predictable nuggets:

  • familiar with Kasten;
  • familiar with Bowden;
  • blames 2006 on Coors Field;
  • feels disrespected, underpaid, and consequently driven.
King's happy to be a Nat but unhappy to be a Nat, if you know what I mean. He'll be motivated. I don't know if that means he'll report to Viera in particularly good shape, but he'll certainly be fighting for something better.

Washington Nationals 2007: Digging to Get Out!