Royals Hitting Woes Continue Despite George Brett

When you’ve lost eight games in a row — and 12 of 13, and 19 of 23 — as the Kansas City Royals had after dropping a game to the St. Louis Cardinals on May 29, changes need to be made. In Kansas City’s case, that meant removing hitting coaches Andre David and Jack Maloof in favor of team legend George Brett, hoping to kick-start a tremendously disappointing offense.

The Royals were 21-29 when Brett came aboard, and they’re 15-11 since. Brett, predictably, has been given a good deal of credit for shaking things up, with general manager Dayton Moore being sure to highlight Brett’s “energy” and “passion” in a conversation with Buster Olney earlier this month. So it seems like the change in the coaching staff to bring in a Hall of Famer must have had an impact, right? Well, not exactly.

When the Royals dismissed David and Maloof, they were hitting a collective .261/.314/.375. In June, under Brett, they’ve turned that all the way up to … .255/.310/.366. The offense hasn’t really improved under Brett at all, and, in fact, is performing slightly worse than they had been before. That the Royals have been winning more games can be readily attributed to solid pitching and defense that has given them a 2.75 ERA over the month, good for third-best in baseball and a marked improvement over their season-long 3.52 mark.

The ineffective Royals attack, which ranks 26th in MLB in wRC+, has been held back by three very clear issues — Moore’s inability to move on from a few underperforming veterans, the odd choices in the batting order made by manager Ned Yost, and the stunning lack of progress made by the supposed young core of the future. Brett seems likely to be able to impact only one of those items.
[+] EnlargeJeff Francouer
Tim Larson/Icon SMIJeff Francouer is hitting just .212/.254/.330 and striking out in 25 percent of his at-bats.

When Moore traded a package of prospects headlined by outfielder Wil Myers to Tampa Bay for Wade Davis and James Shields last winter, the move was largely panned in baseball circles, and it had little to do with whether Shields was a rotation improvement. It was because of this simple equation: Jeff Francoeur versus Myers. Francoeur hit .235/.287/.378 while being a negative on defense last season, and the ensuing -1.4 WAR made him one of the least valuable players in baseball. So far this season, he’s been even worse, hitting .212/.254/.330 while striking out more than a quarter of the time, yet he’s still started 49 times in right field.

Only recently has Yost began to sit Francoeur more often in favor of David Lough, but as Myers has impressed since being recalled by the Rays earlier this month, the same questions that came up last winter are being heard again: Is the improvement that Shields brought to the rotation — and he has been very good — more than could have been gained by simply adding a league-average starter and replacing Francoeur’s special brand of awful with Myers in right field? So far, that’s not looking like an answer that will come out in Moore’s favor.

The situation is similar at second base, where Moore has insisted on sticking with the appallingly ineffective duo of Chris Getz and Elliot Johnson, at least until finally demoting Getz last weekend. Kansas City second basemen are hitting just .233/.279/.318, which is better than only the two struggling Chicago clubs. Meanwhile, 25-year-old Johnny Giavotella, hitting .320/.391/.462 in more than 1,200 Triple-A plate appearances, languishes in Omaha. Unless Brett can force Moore to make some roster moves, the simple talent gap at second base and right field will be difficult for the new hitting coach to overcome.

Yost’s often confounding batting orders aren’t helping matters, either. Though he’s been forward-thinking enough to use the hardly fleet-of-foot Alex Gordon as his leadoff man, he’s given much of that advantage away by using shortstop Alcides Escobar and his atrocious .279 on-base percentage as his No. 2 hitter for much of the year.

Interestingly enough, Yost briefly took the advice of Kansas City’s data analysis team, resetting the lineup to push Escobar to the end and move Eric Hosmer up to second. In 16 games beginning June 5 and ending when Yost restored Escobar to the top on Thursday, the Royals scored 4.12 runs per game. That’s better than the 3.89 mark they’ve had over the entire season, and while the impact of batting order is generally overrated, ensuring that your worst hitters get the most plate appearances isn’t often going to end well.

The final issue, and the one where Brett can have the most impact, is in the inability of their two highly touted corner infielders to develop into reliable big-league hitters. Last season, 22-year-old first baseman Hosmer and 23-year-old third baseman Mike Moustakas each failed to deliver on the optimism that their minor league track records and 2011 debuts had promised. Moustakas at least managed to provide value with good defense and 20 homers around a poor .242/.296/.412 line, though Hosmer fell apart completely at .232/.304/.359. Remember that list from earlier about the least valuable players in baseball last season? Only two other players caused more damage to their teams than Francoeur … and one was Hosmer.

So far this year, Moustakas has fallen completely off the cliff at .214/.274/.314, losing his power while facing even more difficulty in getting on base. Through the first two months, Hosmer was right there with him, hitting only a single homer with a mediocre line of .261/.320/.333. But if there’s a bright spot here, it’s that Hosmer has looked like an improved hitter in June, hitting .290/.337/.473 with three homers through Wednesday.

Is that simply a hot streak or due to Brett’s influence? It remains to be seen, though Hosmer recently told MLB.com that Brett had him focus more on shifting his weight to pull balls to right field, work which has shown up in Hosmer’s spray charts.

There’s only so much that any hitting coach can do to improve an offense, since the single greatest item that affects run production is the amount of talent on the field. Brett can’t do much to solve the questionable decisions made in the front office or on the lineup card. The numbers bear out that the offense, overall, has not improved during his short tenure, even if the win/loss record says otherwise. But if he can do nothing else other than reach Hosmer and turn him back into something like the top prospect the team once expected, it might be worth the effort in making the change in itself.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times site, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

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