The Royals won 75 games last season, their highest total since the glorious 2003 run and up from 69 in '07 and 62 in '06. In two years, with essentially nothing to work with other than Zack Greinke, Dayton Moore has built the foundations of a usable pitching staff. The offense, however, is the inverse of what Moore has done with run prevention: despite being handed a number of assets and useful players, production has stalled, with Moore flopping on a number of moves. Until the offense improves, it's hard to imagine the Royals being a serious contender. A series of questionable changes to the bullpen this off-season only make it more imperative that the Royals make strides to score more runs.
Sam Neal with a ducktail, intense spirituality and questionable baseball tactics.
For the third straight season, the Royals managed to play both horribly and ok for extended periods of time. The Royals went 16-11 in June and 18-8 in September, the only two months in which the offense was competent. Likewise, the Royals also endured two awful months: 10-19 in May and 7-20 in August. September was nice, but on the heels of the team's worst month, it is difficult to truly believe that the team really turned a corner.
Lastly, and most depressingly, the team's core performance, again dragged down by offensive impotence, was hardly better than in 2007. KC's '08 pythag was 72-90, in '07 it was 74-88. Where have you gone Emil Brown?
Runs Scored: 691 (12th in AL)
The Royals were not a good offensive team in 2008. In fact, they were worse (at least according to the raw numbers) than a bad '07 edition (706), worse than a bad '06 edition (757), worse than a bad '05 (701) edition and on and on. As it turned out, the meager 691 output was the lowest in a full season since... ... ... 1992.
Although scoring was down, slightly, last season, the Royals weren't in a position of strength to begin with. The lineup has been weak since 2003. Offensively, the Royals don't do anything well and they are completely horrible at what matters. The team triple slash line was .269/.320/.397: BA rank 6th, OBP rank 12th, SLG rank 12th. No walks, no power. Again. But hey, thanks to their pitching staff and a weak division, the go go Angels make the playoffs a lot, so naturally Dayton Moore is building his lineup according to their model. Very fun. On a regular basis the Royals sent out a lineup that lacked a single impact bat while also employing some of the very worse offensive players on the planet. Gordon was ok, but hardly a revelation (.260/.351/.432) nor was Butler (.275/.324/.400). About the only improvement the Royals made was a modest step forward in not being a historically powerless American League team. In '07 the Royals only hit 102 homers, the lowest AL total in over a decade. In '08 they soared to 120 (13th, thanks Minnesota). This is where they're going to have the parade...
Royals OPS by Month:
Guess what happened in June? Mike Aviles (the team's top hitter) replaced Tony Pena Jr (the worst hitter in the AL) and Jose Guillen had a good month (.345/.364/.611). As for September, those were the days, Ryan Shealy replaced Gload, Guillen had another good month (.337/.380/.485) and a variety of lesser breakouts occured.
Notable Positive Royal VORPs
Aviles, amazingly, performed at a MVP level in 2008, especially if you factor in his underrated defense and the fact that, although this is not quite legitimate, he replaced the worst hitter on the team. Indeed, both Aviles & DeJesus turned in the best offensive seasons according to VORP by a Royal since Mike Sweeney in 2005 (33.9). Incredibly however, in spite of the fact that the Royals got three performances (adding in Gordon) better than anyone on the '07 team (Grudz led with a 17.9) the lineup carried so much dead weight that the net result was a lesser whole. The Royals gave a ton of plate appearances (10.3% of the team total, the most on the team) to beloved RBI man Jose Guillen, who was barely adequate at the plate (and horrible afield), while supposed franchise co-savior Billy Butler was hardly better. Still, they were Ortiz & Manny circa 2006 compared to these guys:
Notable Negative VORPs:
All told, the Royals watched 2348 plate appearances go down the drain thanks to these seven players, an astonishing 36% of the team's total. Granted, this isn't a video game, and because of roster considerations and limitations, every team is going to carry some weak hitters. Moreover, on the whole, Mark Teahen and even John Buck might still be assets to the team when you factor in defense. Nevertheless, it isn't surprising that the Royals were a bad offensive team last season. The good news is that many of these offenders are either already gone (Gathright) or slotted to see greatly reduced playing time in '09 (Gload, Pena). Who knows, things might even get crazy and the Royals could score 750 runs!
Runs Allowed - 781 (10th in the AL)
The 2008 Royals featured the team's best pitching staff since... well, since 2007, when largely the same group allowed 778 runs. Although 781 was a respectable runs allowed total -- the AL average was 758 -- the general perception of the team's pitching, at least amongst the more hardcore fans, has started to outstrip the actual performance. The Royals were ok last year, but not much more than that. Moreover, considering that Moore has since replaced Leo Nunez and Ramon Ramirez with Kyle Fransworth and Horacio Ramirez, barring major steps forward by Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies, the pitching is as good as its going to get for awhile.
The 2008 Starting Rotation:
There were some random appearances by other guys along the way of course, but those six accounted for the vast majority of the starts last season. Davies & Hochevar both hold some promise moving forward, but when you consider that their underlying performances were pretty similar and that Hoch' was a little bit unlucky last season and Davies was lucky, it isn't a given that they are going to become real assets next season. Tomko is gone of course, but it's likely that another replacement level pitcher or worse will be around the rotation next season again and he's a good placeholder for generic, umm, placeholder performance.
Again, the Royals still don't have a really good starting rotation, despite having a great 1-2 foundation with Greinke & Meche. As with the lineup, there's still a ton of dead weight dragging down everything. Roughly, Royal starters totaled something like a ~87.5 VORP last season: fourth best in the AL Central.
Rough VORP posted by Starting Rotation:
Sending guys out there who don't suck is half the battle. The Royals lost that battle in 2008. The sad thing is, had there been another lucky season by Banny last season and a true breakout by Hochevar, the Royals may have flirted with contention. Didn't happen.
Without immediately delving into the numbers, the bullpen bore some surface similarities to the rotation, but without the rotation's weaknesses. With the incomparable Joakim Soria and a revelatory Ramon Ramirez, the bullpen offered a tremendous 1-2 punch. Unlike the rotation, aside from Jimmy Gobble's anti-career year/mismanagement by Hillman, the bullpen featured much less dead weight, if not wide swaths of non-mediocrity. The major problem was that the middle of the bullpen: John Bale, Ron Mahay, Leo Nunez and Joel Peralta, all missed time due to injury and for much of the middle of the year Hillman had a hard time getting the ball to Soria at the end of the game. Still, other than Peralta, none of those guys were actually bad, a notable, if somewhat random, achievement.
Primary Bullpen Contributors:
Yes, relievers are fungible, as new-school thinkers have been saying for years. Dayton Moore, as has been made clear, shares this idea. Nevertheless, Ramon Ramirez is going to be hard to replace. Check those innings pitched totals again. We've talked about the Farnsworth debacle enough, but needless to say he's unlikely to be as effective as Leo Nunez was, much less Ram-Ram. The other takeaway from this table is, I would argue, the surprisingly ok performances of Bale & Yabuta, two pitchers who seemed underwhelming to the naked eye.
On the days when Meche & Greinke pitched, the Royals had a chance to beat just about anyone, with Soria and Ram-Ram in the wings. On the days when Brian Bannister started, especially during the extended periods when Mahay/Nunez/Bale were out, the chances weren't so good.
Mirroring the overall state of the pitching staff, the real leap forward for the bullpen came in 2007, with last year something of a holding pattern. The price paid aside, the Ho-Ram pickup is defensible, although not without a large degree of silliness. The larger concern will be simply minimizing the damage done by Farnsworth. A comeback season from Bale and another solid campaign from Mahay will be the keys to making that happen.
Beyond the guys throwing the ball, there's the matter of the team's defense. Generally speaking, the team defense seems to be improving, although overall impressions vary pretty wildly. In 2005 the Royals ranked 30th in BP's quick & dirty defensive efficiency rating. In '08, they had climbed to 16th. Likewise, according to UZR the Royals were 28th in '05, but 10th in '08. These improvements, along with an increase in strikeouts, have done much to transform the team's ability to prevent runs. After years of having one of weakest strikeout staffs in the game, the '07 and '08 Royals have been medicore in terms of missing bats, which has made a huge difference in run prevention. The Royals struck out 1085 batters last season, good for seventh best in the AL. It bears repeating that for over a decade the Royals were a sure bet to finish somewhere between third to last and last in the entire Major Leagues in strikeouts every season. In sum, the Royals seem far away from approaching the '05 White Sox or '08 Rays as teams that used superior defense to fuel a post-season run, but they aren't killing themselves afield either.
The Year That Was
There was, as there is every single year, the massive losing streak, a twelve-gamer this year. There was, again, the domination of the National League (13-5) to go along with a general struggle to compete in the AL (62-82). Despite a pretty mediocre Central, the Royals were only 31-41 against their heartland friends. Had they been in the AL East, they might have lost 100 games, although you could say that about a lot of teams.
In the season preview piece, I tried to talk about the struggle to balance our optimisim with the realistic understanding that the team was still not a contender. What 2008 was about, instead, was about making progress. Essentially, the 2008 Royals were a glorified minor league team: a handful of key players needed to make the final step in their development as opposed to some nebulous "team" development (always shaky in baseball to begin with). I would have to say, in that regard, the '08 campaign was a limited success. Meche proved he was not a fluke, Greinke proved he can lead a staff, Soria proved he was Soria. Regarding Hochevar, there's a blend of hopeful and less hopeful data-points. He isn't going to be Tim Lincecum, but he'll likely be useful. Offensively, Gordon gave lie to the notion that he was going to be an Andy Marte-sized bust, while also leaving open the possibility that he may never be an elite player. Billy Butler looks to be somewhere in the Hochevar zone. He's still young, but any hope that he might emerge, like a Pujolsian Venus as a full formed offensive monster was also dimmed. When you consider the steps back taken by secondary players like Teahen & Bannister, it isn't clear that the Royals are any closer to a surprise pennant run in '09 than they might have been in '08.
One's final evaluation of 2008 then, comes down to whether or not they're preternaturally optimisitic or pessimistic. Any improvements from '07-'08 were much more subtle than the "hey, this team isn't complete garbage" revolution that was the '06-'07 transition. The Royals are not really a young team. In average age, they're actually the oldest team in the division. If you weighted that to reflect playing time and key players, the Royals are still older than at least Cleveland and Minnesota.
You can sum up 2008 happy moments in three words: Greinke, Aviles, Soria. Dayton Moore can consider himself responsible for one of those three. For this observer, what stood out about 2008 was, finally, what didn't happen. Trey Hillman didn't manage in any other way than what you would expect from a generic retread. Gordon and Butler didn't have monster seasons. Brian Bannister didn't beat the odds. Jose Guillen didn't hit enough, nor refrain from acting like a petulant ninny. Dayton Moore didn't establish himself as a no doubt General Manager. And he certainly hasn't wrapped himself in glory since.
Nope, and when you go back to the raw totals of the runs scored and runs allowed, you see just how much of a step in place 2008 was. While the baseball season more largely was defined by the remarkable flowering of the Devil Rays and a number of their young stars, the Royals, and their increasingly retrograde leadership trust kicked it old school and well within the speed limit.
If we ever have that parade, it certainly won't come as a surprise.