In 2007 we said hello to Gil Meche and Brian Bannister and goodbye to Buddy Bell and Angel Berroa. For the third straight season fans on the internet clamored for Justin Huber. We fought vicious battles for Grass Creek, Wyoming with our hated rivals, the Mariners. We saw Emil Brown do his best Dick Cheney. We turned the page on the Mike Sweeney Era, and we began a new chapter with Trey Hillman. As it would turn out, the 2007 Royals featured one of the team's better pitching staffs since the mid-90s, while the offense produced the fewest home runs by an AL team in over a decade. Now, at least three months two late, and spurred on by the free time that only a blizzard can provide, I give you, The 2007 Season Review.
For the second straight season, the Royals gamefully disguised multiple months of good play inside an overall less-than-impressive season record. The Royals actually came damn close to posting three winning months during the '07 season (not actually awesome, and somewhat artificial, but roll with it) since 2003.
KC Record by Month
Overall, the Royals posted a run differential of -72 runs, good for a Pythagorean record of 74-88, an 11 game improvement over 2006's pythag, and their highest mythical win total since 2003. (Highest real win total since '03 as well.) The Royals offense actually got worse in 2007, losing 51 total runs, but the pitching improved dramatically. The 2006 Royals were one of the worst pitching staffs of all-time, a historically bad collection that allowed 971 runs, which as I pointed out in the 2006 Season Recap was the 21st highest runs allowed total of all-time. Granted, teams score more runs nowadays, but considering the thousands of team seasons that have now been played, 21st worst is still, 21st worst. So while the offense lost 51 runs, the pitching and defense side gained a stunning 193 runs. This is a considerable achievement for the Moore regime, and one that deserves whatever small note of acclaim this blog can give it.
2007 will also be remembered for the extreme lineup and batting order variation the Royals pulled off. Tee Ball, no-keeping-score-level, teams have had more stable roles. The Royals fielded 121 total lineups - the most common appearing only six times - and trotted out an astounding 141 unique batting orders. (And no, for the 100th time, I should reiterate that I don't actually have a problem with this, I just find it cool and somewhat insane.) Perhaps all that shuffling kept the team fresh or focused or hungry or suitably non-bored, I don't know. Throughout my research for this post, the 2007 Royals seemed surprisingly "clutch" in all the ways that monster typically gets talked about, including a 21-22 record in one-run games.
The Royals went 29-43 in the AL Central, only managing a 9-9 record against the Twins on the positive side. They went 10-8 against the NL, and were completely owned by the Orioles, losing all seven games to Paul Bako's new team. (Watch Your Bako!) They went 3-3 against the Red Sox, but were crushed by the Yankees, going 1-9. Somehow, despite having a really bad offense, they scored 17 runs three times in 2007.
Alas, enough frivolities...
The Royals scored just 706 runs in 2007, second worst in the American League (thanks Kenny Williams!). and well behind the AL average of 794. By way of comparison, AL Central aspirational peers Detroit and Cleveland both considerably lapped the Royals in '07, scoring 887 and 811 runs respectively. On the other hand, the Royals were within striking distance of Minnesota (718), and, of course, actually ahead of the White Sox, somehow. At the All-Star Break the Royals were actually 11th in the league in runs scored, but slumped to 13th after that glorious weekend in... well, wherever it was. For what its worth, the Royals scored 757 runs in 2006, up from 701 in 2005.
Still, it's somewhat remarkable that they managed even 706 runs, considering the Royals hit just 102 home runs. I haven't seen this mentioned anywhere else, but in researching this piece I discovered that this is the lowest team HR total in the AL ('94 excepted) since 1992.
Think about that again. Imagine every horrible Devil Rays team from the last decade, every bad Tiger team, every bad Twins team, hell, even every bad Royals team. They all managed more than 102 home runs. Even in 1995, when teams only played 144 games, everyone managed more than 102 taters. In 1994, when there were only 115 games played, most teams had already blown by 102 team HRs, only the Royals (100) and Brewers (99) were short at that time. Incidentally, the Royals have finished last in the AL in HRs each of the last three seasons (aka, the Royals Review Era).
But Jose Guillen is ours now, so problem solved.
Honestly, its remarkable that the Royals even glanced at having a functional offense, considering they weren't really good at any aspect of the offensive game. They were 13th in the AL in OBP (.388) and only 11th in BA (.261). Then again, its hard to draw walks when your manager is preaching aggression, and you're always being challenged in the zone anyway. If we must find something positive, look to the team's proficiency in hitting triples (46 total, 2nd most in the AL) and, the bizarre HBP phenomena we saw (89, 1st in the AL).
Usually, unless your team goes on a miracle run ('07 Rockies, '05 White Sox, etc.) most fans think that their team is uniquely horrible with men on base, or with two outs, or in the clutch or whatever. Actually however, with runners in scoring position and two outs, the Royals were fairly mediocre in 2007; in that situation they rated 9th in the league in BA (.375), 11th in OBP (.339) and 9th in SLG (.375). One interesting thing to note: despite endlessly drawing plaudits for how their offensive approach is flexible, resilient, better at sustaining rallies, etc. the 2007 Angels were actually one of the worst teams with runners in sco po w/ two out (11th, 14th, 14th).
Of course, when you give substantial plate appearances to guys who are hitting below replacement level (536 PAs to Pena, 289 to Sweeney, 397 to Brown, 189 to Shealy, to name a few) you can expect an offense to struggle. But the Royals also lacked a single truly dangerous hitter as well, which also meant nothing was counteracting all that horribleness. The team leader in VORP was ... Mark Grudzielanek with a monstrous 18.1, good for 61st best in the league. Thank God the Royals have made a long-term commitment to Grudz! Looking at VORPr, the rate version of the stat, the best Royal hitter was the now-departed Reggie Sanders (.315/.412/.493). Sanders VORPr was .297, good for 28th best in the AL (among hitters with 25 PAs or more). The second best hitter on the team in VORPr, was, again, good ole Grudz.
While the importance of the blessed "little things" truly pales in comparison to the big things, we can also note that the Royals weren't really good there either in 2007. The Royals were 11th in the league in steals (78) and 12th in stolen-base percentage, at 64%. Of course, the precious Angels were 11th in that category, at 72%, and we all know that even the threat to run makes most mortal men run away screaming and that its makes pitchers so damn distracted that they can't focus on the batter. Nay, they can't even focus on breathing, which is why three pitchers died on the mound in 2007 alone. This happened twice against the Angels and once against the Dodgers, the latter tragically occurring when Lefty McElbowtissue saw Juan Pierre out of the corner of his eye.
The Royals sacrificed 41 times in 2007, tied for second most in the league with two other teams (the White Sox and Yankees... just totally bizarre, as neither team should really be bunting at all given their profiles).
In 2007 the Royals featured their first non-horrible pitching staff since the mid-90s, a remarkable achievement for Dayton Moore considering the state of the organization's hurlers as he inherited them. With a team ERA of 4.48, the Royals finished 7th in the AL in ERA, their highest ranking since... 1996, when they finished 3rd. You may remember 1996: Bill Clinton defeated Bob Dole for President, evidence of primitive life forms were discovered on old Martian rocks, Dolly the Sheep was cloned, and we buried George Burns, Tupac, and JonBenet Ramsey. And through it all, Bob Boone guided the Royals to a last place finish in the Central, despite having a pitching staff featuring good seasons from Kevin Appier, Jose Rosado, Tim Belcher and Chris Haney. Unfortunately, the only two staffs in the AL better that season were, uhh, Cleveland and Chicago. Well, AL Central pride never dies, I guess.
The Royals 4.48 ERA was also better than the efforts put forth by the Yankees (4.49) and the Tigers (4.57), which means nothing, but is nevertheless worth reveling in. For whatever reasons (park effects, randomness?) the Royals were particularly dominant mound-men on the road, posting a 4.35 ERA away from the K, 4th best in the American League. At home, the Royals posted a 4.61 ERA, which was 10th best. This in spite of the fact that the K seems to have been a pretty neutral park last season.
When I began this recap I expected to find that the pitching staff really drove the team's extended good play in June-July-August (41-37 record over that span) but that really isn't precisely the case. The team ERA during the awesome June (15-12 record) was a flat 4.00 (3rd in the AL that month), but in July and August the team ranking was right were the team ended up in aggregate, 7th overall. As it turns out, the pitching did the work in June, while the bats picked up the slack in July, when the Royals threw down with the 6th highest team OPS in the league. As for August, it was all grit, moxie and veteran presence, as the pitching was just OK, and the hitting was actually typically terrible; the team posted the worst OPS in the league that month. Still, they went 13-15. As we speak, I am composing a sestina in honor of Buddisimo, which I will be mailing to his agent upon completion, thanking him for this magical month.
Beyond the competent overall performance, the most notable thing about the 2007 Royals pitching staff was the surprisingly good bullpen. While Dayton's received adoration and acclaim for the performances by Meche and Banny, overall, the starters actually, were pretty bad. The ERA of the starting staff was 4.88 overall, only 11th in the AL. No, no, my friend, it was the bullpen that made this engine run, posting a 3.85 ERA, which was the 6th highest in the AL.
Thus, if Dayton deserves any real back-slapping, its for what he was able to do with the bullpen, which improved from a league worst 5.36 ERA in 2006. And all this without having to employ National Innocence Destroying Scum like Rafael Betancourt! All hail Joakim Soria, the man who Buddy just knew was tough enough (Tougher Than the Rest, Springsteen might say) to post the 7th highest WXRL in baseball. Not to be overlooked is the work of Zach/k Greinke (14th best WXRL in the AL), Jimmy Gobble (32nd), or David Riske (42nd).
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the bullpen, and what it made it so extraordinarily fresh and non-Royal, was the fact that these guys actually struck people out. The bully posted a 7.63 K/9 number, which was 3rd best in the AL and up from an 11th place ranking in 2006. In terms of raw numbers, the Royals bullpen actually led the AL in total strikeouts, with 466! At the same time, they kept it mostly under control, finishing 6th in the league in K/BB. Nevertheless, it was a good thing the bullpen guys were striking people out, because the starters actually, umm, weren't. Not at all. Royals starters posted an overall K/9 of 5.35, last in the AL.
In this way, it was only because of the relievers that the Royals were able to avoid finishing dead last in the AL in strikeouts, instead finishing 13th, beating out only Texas. Hardcore followers of this team will note that this has been a long-standing bugaboo with the boys in blue. Remember, this is the same team that, just last season, saw Jimmy Gobble lead the team in Ks with a pathetically low total of 80. Its amazing to think about how many pitchers we've seen shuffle through KC over the last decade, and yet they've all produced the same result in this area. Here's the team rank in strikeouts recently:
Strikeouts? Never Heard of `Em. KC Team Ranks
(Egg cracks and hits frying pan, immediately sizzling. Narrator intones: "Any Questions?")
OK. I'm going to stop now. I'm not even looking up the 1994 data, because, frankly, it doesn't even matter. This is completely stunning.
But enough about strikeouts, looking a little further at the team numbers, the Royals were a little homer-prone, surrendering 168 round-trippers, the 5th worst total in the AL. But thanks to being 7th stingiest in allowing walks they weren't stung too badly. As with the offense, the Royals appear to have been mildly clutch moundsmen in 2007: they had the 3rd best ERA with men on base, the 3rd best with runners in scoring position and the 5th best with runners in scoring position w/two out. The Royals also posted the best ERA in the league with the bases loaded (7.75), which is very odd considering they actually allowed the 9th highest BA with the sacks packed.
Those interested in vengeance should note: while the Royals were plunked 89 times, they only plank 41 times, 14th. This is to say, curiously enough, they had the most Hit Batsmen in the AL, their pitchers hit the fewest opposing hitters in the AL. And it doesn't seem to be because Buddy was afraid of giving away baserunners: the Royals intentionally walked 54 men, 2nd highest in the league.
Finally, a word about defense, that ohh so hard to locate quality. Like love in a way, it is certainly vital, but we never quite know how much there is or how to find it. According to the Hardball Times, +/- data, the Royals were a tick above average. According to BP's defensive efficiency stat, they were a bit below average, but still better than they'd been in 2006 or 2005.
Moving Forward- 2008 and Beyond
I said at the beginning that we should credit Dayton Moore for the huge turnaround in the team's run prevention in 2007. (Which should also be extended to Bob McClure, the advance scouts, and, the actual players.) The Royals allowed an astounding 193 fewer runs in 2007 than they did in 2006 - I'll have my intern run the numbers on the largest such turnarounds of recent vintage - turning a team weakness into a strength. Better yet, just about everyone from the pitching staff will be coming back, with suitable replacements waiting (Mahay, Tomko) for those who left (Riske, Dotel). Unfortunately, the Royals won't be improving by 193 runs again this season. As these things go, getting from incredibly horrible to adequate is not that difficult, it's the next step, adequate to good, that separates the wheat from the chaff. The Royals allowed 778 runs last season, and I think it would be hard to imagine them improving much further than say, 728 in 2008, which would be a 50-run improvement. This seems generous for a staff that, while suffering no major losses, also isn't bringing in any obvious, major studs. If the Royals can actually get to 728, they'll have won the battle, as that would likely be one of the top five staffs in the league.
That being said, I don't think the Royals can quite get to a total like that in 2008, but even if they did, it won't mean much if the offense isn't any better. Weirdly, the offense is now lining up to be in a similar position as last year's pitching staff was, i.e., just be competent and we're going to see a huge improvement. No one remembers the 2006 Royals as an offensive juggernaught, but they scored 757 runs. If the 2008 Royals could get back to that total, barring any regression with the pitching staff and extreme bad luck, we'd likely see a .500 team in Kansas City. The concern has been raised, by myself, and others on this site, that Dayton hasn't quite proven his bonafides yet in terms of building an offense. While my mind searches for an offensive move on his resume that's really worked out - the man brought us Jason LaRue, Ryan Shealy, Tony Pena Jr., Ross Gload and Joey Gathright in 2007 - he's also been extremely unlucky in this area as well. All the position players of importance are holdovers from another regime, and they all ended up having, in one sense or another, down seasons in 2007, save for perhaps John Buck. Gordon will hit better. Buck, Teahen and DeJesus are solid bets to hit better. Jose Guillen is an upgrade. Billy Butler has the potential to completely mash (although I still think he might have a Gordon-esque blip in him as well, he's really young). The odds are that Miguel Olivio, barring decapitation, will put up better numbers than LaRue did last season. This is all a rather methodical and pseudo dramatic way of saying the offense will be better in 2008, maybe even substantially better. No matter what inevitable Spring Training stories we read about Hillman installing a new attitude or more small-ball or whatever, all the new skipper really needs to do is just fill out the lineup card and get out of the way. We can retro-fit the narrative later, as I'm sure will happen anyway.
This isn't supposed to be a preview, it's supposed to be a retrospective, however. This hasn't been a fun stretch of baseball for Royals fans: there was long-suffering, then a false oasis in 2003, then another run of record-setting failure. 2007, saw the Royals make gains, while also displaying stretches of bad baseball and individually awful performances that rivaled anything from the Baird or Herk regimes. Questions remain as to if this roster core - to use a now fashionable term - is good enough to project as a division winner in a season or two. Hopefully, someday in 2010, when we're all two years older (and of course, happier, richer, better adjusted, etc.) we'll be able to look back at 2007 as when things really began to get good.