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What is wrong with the Royals underachievers?

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Some key cogs to the roster are off to slow starts out of the starting gate.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals are off to a respectable 12-8 start, despite some vital pieces under-performing.  It is still way too early to be pressing any panic buttons on slumping players, but there is enough of a sample that it is a worthwhile exercise to analyze their problems.

There is enough plate appearances from the regulars to gauge walk-rates, as well as pull percentage. For pitchers, like Ian Kennedy for example have enough batters faced for strikeout-rate, fly ball, and ground ball stabilization. In a couple more weeks, we should have enough data to look at stabilization in some other key statistical components: Walk-rates, as well as fly ball/ground ball rates for hitters.

Let's take a look at the underachievers looking through conjectured lenses.  In a few weeks, I will take a deeper look with a couple more weeks of data.

Lorenzo Cain

It appears as if Cain has shifted his focus into being a middle-of-the-order slugger by taking more pitches, and looking for the right one to do damage. Cain is averaging 4.3 pitches-per-plate appearance, a slight uptick from last years 3.8. Perhaps, swinging early should be his plate approach? Even though he did display an ability to produce with a two-strike count last year, he simply does not look as comfortable deeper in the count this year.  Being able to shorten his swing to control the strike zone better could keep the strikeouts in check.

Cain’s strikeout rate currently sits at 25%, five percentage points higher than his career average. Selling out for more power is fine, but he needs to cut his strikeouts down significantly to sniff anywhere close to the 129 wRC+ he posted from a year ago.  His hard hit percentage is down 12 percentage points according to Fangraphs, but his exit velocity is only a couple ticks below last year at 89 mph. I’m expecting him to start squaring it up more frequently soon. I love the 11% walk-rate, and I am okay with hacking more frequently if he can maintain a healthy BABIP in the proximity of his .342 career mark. It appears as if he’s lost a step or two this year, perhaps due to age as well as his bigger physique.

My ideal Lo-Cain would be an approach somewhere in between last season and 2016, resulting in a batting average in the .280-290 range, 8-9% walk-rate and 20 bombs.  If the elite speed is gone for good, perhaps selling out for power and a higher on-base percentage is the way to go. I am curious to watch him over the next few weeks to better gauge what the ideal approach would be for him.

Kendrys Morales

I was not originally fond of the Morales signing, but I have happily been eating crow ever since. He was vital to the championship run last year, leading the club with a 131 wRC+. While I wasn’t expecting him to repeat last year’s numbers in 2016, I was expecting much more than the .233/.284/.384 he has displayed thus far. No alarm bells are ringing as I take a look into the metrics, and there is actually more to like than dislike.

Let’s start with the negatives.  The Cuban slugger is chasing out of the zone more often, while swinging at pitches in the zone less. I am expecting him to fine-tune his approach with more at-bats, or at the very least start hacking at more pitches in the zone. He is well aware this his job is to drive in as many runs as possible.  His swinging strike rate is right at par with his previous couple of seasons, so his current 21% K-rate seems like a bit of bad luck so far.

I love the metrics that are working in his favor. His fly ball rate is up slightly, which could lead to an extra dinger or two. His average home run/fly ball distance is 319 feet, good second in the AL,  just ahead of Chris "Crush" Davis of the Orioles. Another plus is that his  average exit velocity is 92 MPH, right in line with another Oriole slugger, Manny Machado a.k.a. "Baby Face Assassin."

I am not here to tell you he’s up to par with the elite sluggers in the game, but don’t be surprised if he pops more than 22 homers from a season ago. He wouldbe my pick to finish second in homers on the club behind the surging Mike Moustakas.

Joakim Soria

A part of me was excited to see Joakim back in Royal blue, as he was one of the few bright spots on the futile teams from 2007-2011. See the Royals dish out a three year, $25 million contract did not give me the warm fuzzies inside, though. I didn’t rip the signing, only because I was in the mood of giving Dayton Moore and scouting staff the benefit of the doubt after the success with building bullpens in recent years. Coming off two consecutive World Series berths makes me being less critical of the front office.

The twitterverse has not been so kind to Soria from the get-go among Royals analysts, but the discussions have blown up even more with the wretched start he is off to. In his first 11 appearances, he has compiled a 6.35 ERA in 10 innings pitched. As a reliever it’s more difficult to dig your way out of a slow start, with such a small sample of innings, but I’m going to give the veteran more rope before I’m eager to throw him under the buss.

Soria’s 52% first-strike rate is a problem, and with a starters-esque aresnal he must get ahead with good command of his fastball. Everyone and their mother knows a fastball is coming first pitch, and with 92 mph velocity there isn’t as much room for error as some of the other fireballer's in the pen. Since his command is off point right now, he should occasionally pitch backwards to keep hitters off balance.  The problem with that strategy is his slider is getting tattooed.

Soria’s Slider Zone Profile

Soria’s hung quite a few in the happy zone. While the horizontal movement is four inches more than your average slider, it lacks the drop from a year ago.  His change up can be useful when sprinkled in, but the fade is sub-par. Even the 6-7 MPH velocity gap isn’t fantastic. Only thing working in its favor there is a 5 ½ inch vertical gap from his fastball.

If he does decide to pitch backwards he’ll need to use his curve ball more frequently. Hitters will probably just spit on it until they see the trends of the higher usage. Since he is such a heavy fastball guy, he needs to use the curve more frequently to change eye levels. It is a looping 70 mph curve, so don't expect many whiffs once they start swinging, instead expect oodles of grounders with the extra five inches of drop compared to your typical breaker.

Soria would be most valuable as a bridge to the eighth inning in four-to-six out stints. I am just skeptical he’s durable enough to withstand a slightly higher workload for multiple years when he’s endured two Tommy John surgeries. However with a starter’s arsenal and lack of a true dominant pitch would love to see him utilized more like Dillon Gee, but in a higher leverage role once his command is back up to snuff.

Kris Medlen

I was ecstatic about Medlen’s debut against the Houston Astros on April 12, despite giving up 10 base runners in five innings. It was encouraging that he battled his way to victory, making crucial pitches when his back was pinned against the wall. The biggest takeaway though, was adding a cutter to his arsenal toolbox. He tossed 29% cutters, but has used it a little more sparingly in his previous two starts, only 14%. I stated in my season preview, that he really needed a cutter or slider to take a step forward.

I also stated he should use his two-seam fastball more, which he has. The cutter and two-seam fastball play very well off each other since they move in opposite directions without a huge gap in velocity. The changes in pitch mix is all fine and dandy, but that is all moot if he can’t control his pitches. He’s handed out 11 free passes in 15 innings of work. I can’t envision any pitcher having sustainable success with a 43% first strike-rate, when the league average is 60%. When he’s not missing, he is grooving too many pitches over the heart of the plate. A plus is that that Medlen’s velocity is on the uptick, almost gaining a full mile per hour on his fastball from his first few starts, without upsetting his release points.

Perhaps his arm is fine, but I’m waving red flags. As a former victim of two Tommy John surgeries,  we should expect his control to improve the second year season removed from surgery. Is there an underlying injury that he’s pitching through? His lack of command is rough enough, but it also doesn’t help that his two fastballs are much flatter from a season ago with a couple inches less run.  I thought he could produce like a solid #3-4 starter with only 150+ innings. Now I’m skeptical he can compile the innings or even pitch well enough to maintain a spot in the rotation all year.  A disabled list stint  could be in the near future.

It is still early, and the Royals are still off to a good start. These are professionals who have been here before and battled adversity with success in the past. There is room for concern of course, but it is better to work out issues in April than in September or October.