Don’t expect Royals to improve

Coming off an 86-win 2013 season, the Kansas City Royals entered this season with a good deal of optimism. In fact, back in February, we even laid out a blueprint for how they could make the postseason. But a horrible start to the season has frittered away much of that optimism, as the Royals were swept in resounding fashion by the lowly Minnesota Twins, who outscored them 21-5 this past weekend. Kansas City’s record is now 4-7, and it has the second-worst run differential in the American League (minus-14).

Although it’s just one swept series and it’s still early, it’s hard to see where the Royals as currently constituted could make enough gains to reach the postseason.

Poor lineup choices
The Royals’ offense was one big key I focused on in February. I pegged Salvador Perez as a breakout player, and he is doing just that. Even after an 0-for-4 showing on Sunday, Perez stands at .333/.455/.472 for the season, good for a 165 wRC+. That’s pretty great, but the rest of the squad isn’t pulling its weight.

The Royals player with the next-best wRC+ is Alex Gordon at 113. That’s about where you would expect to see him, and Lorenzo Cain, Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki are all hitting within their expected spheres of performance. Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler surely will improve, but they are not hitting enough at the moment, and at least some of their gains will cancel out when Perez comes back to earth a little bit. But two of the three problem hitters from a year ago, Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas, are still stinking up the joint.

Shortstop is not an offense-first position, but even by those lax standards, Escobar doesn’t hit well. Through Sunday afternoon’s games, Escobar’s 59 wRC+ ranked 21st out of 25 qualifying shortstops. With Moustakas, though, the team has a partial solution, but manager Ned Yost appears reticent to take advantage of it.

As we mentioned in February, for his career, Danny Valencia has hit .327/.364/.509 (138 wRC+) in 431 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers, while Moustakas has hit .219/.275/.327 (63 wRC+) in 402 PAs against southpaws. Moustakas may hold a defensive edge over Valencia but not a large-enough one to account for the 75 percentage point difference between their performances against lefties. Yet Yost has started Moustakas against two of the first three lefties the Royals have faced.

That sort of thing might be acceptable if the other Royals hitters were firing on all cylinders, but they have scored only 32 runs in their first 11 games. The team can’t afford to have Moustakas’ .111/.220/.167 line weighing down the lineup in every game.

Since 1901, 2,712 MLB players have tallied at least 1,500 career plate appearances. Of them, 737 accrued at least that many by the end of their age-25 seasons. And of them, only 101 posted a worse wRC+ through their age-25 seasons than the 82 wRC+ Moustakas is currently sporting. And of those 101, 72 of them began their careers before 1980, and 63 of them were solely middle infielders. This isn’t to say Moustakas is hopeless, as there are a couple of intriguing names on this list — notably Yadier Molina and Carlos Gomez — but for the moment, Moustakas is a historically bad hitter, and he isn’t a good-enough fielder to warrant playing him every day.

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this sort of misplaced loyalty from Royals management. From 2011 to 2013, it let Jeff Francoeur pile up 1,452 plate appearances of replacement-level play. From 2010 to 2013, it let Chris Getz pile up 1,124 plate appearances of replacement-level play. Escobar is 1,925 plate appearances into a Royals career that has seen him post a 71 wRC+. This is an organization that watched Yuniesky Betancourt post minus-0.9 WAR from 2009 to 2010, then willingly signed him to a free-agent contract two years later.

History has shown that the Royals are slow to cut the cord on underperforming position players, but every day that they hold out hope for Moustakas and Escobar, they are crushing their playoff chances.

Not stranding runners
The pitching has been nearly identical to last season, at least in terms of fielding independent pitching (FIP). There have been a couple of bad breaks, such as Aaron Crow coughing up the just-gained-for-him lead in the eighth inning of Sunday’s game, but overall, the team is pitching nearly the same (3.86 FIP this season compared to 3.83 last season).

The problem is that we can’t expect the bullpen to repeat its incredible success of a year ago. In 2013, Kansas City relievers had an AL-best strand rate of 81.4 percent, which was the best in the circuit going back 10 seasons. This year, that statistic has dropped 54.8 percent to 26.6, which is the worst in the majors.

Strand rates have a high degree of variability from year to year, and the Royals’ strand rate won’t be this bad all season, but it will take a lot of work to get even close to that 2013 rate again. And in the process, they would need their starting pitchers to not drop off one bit.

When we took a look at the team back in February, FanGraphs’ odds gave the Royals a 31.5 percent chance to reach the postseason and a 23.5 percent chance to reach the American League Division Series. After the far-less-than-optimal opening 11 games, those odds have declined to 16.8 percent and 12.1 percent, respectively. Both percentages are higher than those of only four AL teams — the Orioles, White Sox, Twins and Astros.

The O’s are harboring playoff aspirations of their own, but the other three teams can be safely classified in the “rebuilding/purposefully tanking” category. And that 16.8 percent chance of reaching the wild-card game is 9 percent lower than that of the next-highest team, the Blue Jays.

The Royals entered the season with a fair amount of hype, but their play thus far has done little to justify that optimism. Unless they make some changes on offense and get a huge reversal of fortune from the bullpen, their playoff drought will continue.




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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.
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Thomas
Member
Thomas
2 years 5 months ago

Meh.

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