Last year's Kansas City Royals squad won the World Series, as you may have heard. If you haven't, and stumbled upon Royals Review in an attempt to gather the most up-to-date information about the British royal family, well, last year's Kansas City Royals squad won the World Series. Now you know.
This year's team is inherently different, as it contains different players and different seasons for the same players. So comparisons are tricky, because this is a new year.
Still, there are a sizable amount of similarities between these teams. This year's team returned seven of their starting nine position players from last year, losing only the rental Ben Zobrist and the underperforming Alex Rios. The rotation was very similar as well, as four significant starters from the previous year returned, with another rental, Johnny Cueto, as the only main loss. Finally, the Royals' vaunted bullpen returned almost entirely, with Joakim Soria replacing the injured and ineffective Greg Holland. All told, the 2016 Opening Day roster featured 16 players that were on last year's Opening Day roster, and 24 of the 34 players to appear on the active roster this year were also on it at some point last year.
So when PECOTA released their projections and had the Royals only winning 76 games, and when only eight of 31 ESPN experts predicted the Royals to return to the World Series, well, you can see why the Royals wouldn't exactly be enamored with that.
Cue Eric Hosmer's article in The Player's Tribune. The message was clear: the Royals are still no fluke. He describes why:
But it’s not random. We have a process. We have what we call the Royal Way, and it’s pretty simple: Everybody buys in, and you play with character every day.
That’s the "secret."
It’s one thing to be prepared for a game. Or to have a group of really talented guys. But when you’re on the road in Houston in Game 4 of the ALDS and Colby Rasmus hits a home run in the bottom of the seventh to put the Astros up 6–2 — and you’re six outs from going home — you need more than talent.
Psychology is probably an underrated aspect in baseball analysis today; though it is not an easily measurable quantity, we know its importance in everyday life for all sorts of other things. The human brain is endlessly amazing and powerful. Consider this: fake surgery is as effective as real surgery in pain reduction due to the placebo effect. When the Royals say they feel invincible in close games, you could laugh it off. When the Royals come back four runs in the eighth inning in the Wild Card game to win, you could marvel in amazement and still consider it a bit a of a fluke, an individual performance. When the same team routinely pulls off the impossible in close situations...
#Royals win probability in wins— Josh Vernier (@JoshVernier610) May 29, 2016
9.9% - W.S. Gm 1
8.8% - ALCS Gm 2
4.4% - W.S. Gm 5
2.9% - Wild Card
1.6% - ALDS Gm 4
0.1% - Today
...maybe there's something there.
But as Hosmer alludes to in his piece, there are two components to the Royals success: Royals Devil Magic, yes, but also talent. The Royals have done an awful lot of things well, and their playoff squads have been singularly talented, with a balanced lineup full of good hitters, a terrifying bullpen, and a lockdown defense.
The Royals just suffered a four-game sweep against intradivisional foes, the Cleveland Indians, relinquishing first place to them in the process. This comes after a 6-0 homestand full of miraculous come-from-behind victories and heroic performances by the rookies, Whit Merrifield and Brett Eibner.
Kansas City is still 30-26, merely a game out of the second Wild Card spot. Panic isn't a good word for their play at the moment; the Indians are a good team and the pre-season favorites to win the AL Central, so a poor series against them at their house shouldn't be upsetting. Things happen, especially over only four games in a 162 game season. If anything, this series against the Indians is just a splash of cold reality water on our faces after a ridiculous homestand.
And the result of that reality water tells me this: the Royals' boat probably has too many holes for a repeat sail to playoff victory.
This could be wrong, and that wouldn't really surprise me. After all, this team came back from 7-1 in the ninth inning. Weirder things have happened in baseball than a mediocre team holding it together for long enough to make a deep playoff run--in 2006, the St. Louis Cardinals won only 83 games and then won the Fall Classic, for instance.
But, for the moment, considering all the holes this team has, it's going to be a struggle to get there.
This team has a number of year-long issues. Here are a few of them:
- Run Differential: -9, 10th in AL
- Starter ERA: 4.78, 12th in AL
- Starter FIP: 4.88, 15th in AL
- Starter IP: 295.1, 14th in AL
- Team wRC+: 96, 10th in AL
- Runs/Game: 4.04, 12th in AL
Unfortunately, this team probably won't improve much in many of those categories. Mike Moustakas is out for the year. Alex Gordon is still out with an injury. Omar Infante is bad. The injuries and hubbub has obscured that Alcides Escobar is having the worst season of his professional career (while hitting leadoff, naturally). Whit Merrifield, Reymond Fuentes, and Brett Eibner are non-prospects who have been forced into service. Chris Young is doing his best Jeremy Guthrie impression, Kris Medlen is doing his best Jason Vargas impression, and Yordano Ventura is doing his best to convince people he was never good. Ian Kennedy is not Johnny Cueto or 2013/2014 James Shields.
The minors aren't much better. Bubba Starling has regressed in a repeat of AA. Kyle Zimmer was just put on the disabled list, again, due to shoulder injury. Raul Mondesi was hit with a drug-related suspension for 50 games. The interesting AAA guys have already all been called up. There are no future Eric Hosmers or Mike Moustakases there, and whether by design or by choice, Dayton Moores's passing on James Shields (recently traded to division rival Chicago) signals that there won't be any Ben Zobrists or Johnny Cuetos this year either.
Again, the Royals could make a playoff run. Merrifield could catch the David Lough/Mike Aviles lightning in a bottle and put up one great year, Eibner could be a Scott Van Slyke style late-bloomer, and Cheslor Cuthbert could put together an average-hitting, nicely-defended season at third base. Hunter Dozier or the aforementioned Starling could catch fire enough to get a callup and play like the first-round picks they were expected to be. Certainly, it would be fantastic if they did, lest anybody label us bandwagon fans for daring to consider reality.
But the Royals are walking a razor-thin line with no margin for error. Hosmer has been hitting like Miguel Cabrera, and his breakout brilliance has been propping up the lineup; a return to his norms would be a gigantic blow. In the rotation, Ian Kennedy probably isn't carrying an ERA in the low threes for the whole year, and Danny Duffy was shifted to the bullpen for a reason. Kansas City basically needs Eibner, Merrifield, and Cuthbert to be productive regulars. Top prospects fail all the time, and even top prospects take time to really grow into their game. The Royals can't afford the Rookie Trio to do that, and none of them were ever top prospects.
It's not time to abandon the ship yet. This team still has a lot of talent, and there have been a lot of encouraging things to see this year. But the ship has a bunch of holes in it, and the team has strained to patch them up. They can't afford any new holes to pop up, and they need better patchwork for the ones that already exist. Thankfully, none of the other AL Central teams have great ships either, and they are all dealing with their own issues.
So the Royals could make another run. But ask yourself this: how would this team compare against the Boston Red Sox, the Chicago Cubs, the Texas Rangers, or the Washington Nationals in the playoffs? I won't blame you if you'd rather not think about it yet. But this team might not even get to the point where you can, and it might be time to re-evaluate what this season should be.