The 2015 Kansas City Royals were a good baseball team. They were a great baseball team, even.
The 2016 Kansas City Royals are not a good baseball team, at least at the moment.
That second statement is the one that is hardest to deal with, though it jives with what's happened on the field. After yesterday afternoon's win against the Atlanta Braves, their only winning series out of the last six, the Royals are 18-19. Their -18 run differential suggests that record should be worse. They rank 27th in all of baseball in runs per game, 28th in innings pitched by starters, 26th in starter FIP, 25th in pitcher walk rate, 26th in home runs hit, and 22nd in team OPS. They look like a bad team.
Indeed, on Saturday night, the Royals were shut out by the Braves. If this was any time from, say, the 1994 strike until Dayton Moore's rookie year as General Manager in 2006, that would make sense. But it is not. The 2016 Braves came into Saturday winning at a .235 clip, or a 38-win pace over the full season. It was the fifth time this season that the Royals have been shut out, and they are on pace to put up goose eggs 22 times overall.
Over the weekend, Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger wrote about one of the key things about why this team's slump is so worrisome: no cavalry is on the way in the form of midseason trades:
But, here’s one element that pushes the stress and the blood pressure, the underlying reason for many of those late nights and a truism of the 2016 Royals that club officials have understood since the beginning:
There are no major fixes coming. Not from the outside, anyway. This team is the team, for better or for worse...
...The outlook now, then, is entirely different. With or without hindsight, the Royals made the moves they had to make a year ago. They have World Series rings now. No regrets.
But doing those deals then meant the team had very little to offer approaching this year’s trade deadline.
Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto were impact players that represented gigantic upgrades over the players they replaced. That's not going to happen this year.
And that's a problem. This team is a different team than last year's team. Yes, there are new faces, but even the old ones are different, a year older and a year slower. There are possibilities of new injuries where last year there were none. Indeed, it's May 16 and we've already seen multi-week disabled list stints for four players already: Mike Moustakas, Jarrod Dyson, Chris Young, and Kris Medlen. The Royals have been blessed with extraordinary health over the last five years, and that won't always be the case; it certainly hasn't been this year.
The fact that there's no cavalry is most apparent in the offense. There have been fifteen position players on the 25-man roster at some point this year. It's clear the Royals are having problems scoring. Spoiler: it's not because of a slump. It's due to deliberate roster construction. Grouped are those fifteen hitters by career wRC+, sorted into good (110 or above), average (90-109), and bad (89 or below) categories. Here's what we have:
- Good (3): Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales
- Average (4): Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, Christian Colon
- Bad (8): Drew Butera, Cheslor Cuthbert, Alcides Escobar, Omar Infante, Jarrod Dyson, Paulo Orlando, Rey Fuentes, Terrance Gore
When the majority of your hitters have a (sometimes lengthy) track record of hitting significantly below league average, why are we surprised when the Royals don't score runs?
And so we have the motto for this year's squad: adapt or die. Maximize strengths, minimize weaknesses. Evolve or let the 2013-2015 Royals glory go extinct.
The problem is that Dayton Moore and Ned Yost have been traditionally very conservative with changes. Sometimes this has worked, such as their faith in Moustakas. Sometimes...not so much, as Alex Rios was just as bad in October as he was in June.
But either way, this is a different team than last year. Doing everything the same as last year won't work, sometimes because the things that 'worked' last year were just sort of along for the ride with the things that did actually work. Case in point: Escobar leading off. Frankly, it's a stupid idea. It was stupid last year. It was stupid in the playoffs, but was superseded by the stupidity of pitchers who decided that throwing a first-pitch fastball down the center of the plate was a good idea, and superseded by Yoenis Cespedes' lackadaisical stupidity in a very poor fielding decision to gift Escobar a home run.
There are other ways to improve the team without trades. Switch up the lineup. Call up one of the hot hitters in AAA to reward them and light a fire under the other players on the team. Don't be afraid to bench one of your go-to players when they aren't doing well. Whatever.
Doing things the exact same way won't work, partially because it can't be the exact same as last year. Maybe this isn't the Royals' year. Maybe injuries, underperformance, and bad luck catch the Royals unawares. But Yost and Moore have to adapt. So far, they've opted to use the 2015 playbook. It's not 2015 anymore.