The Royals stumbled badly in the month of July, and with less than two months remaining in the season they look hopelessly out of contention. Royals fans cannot feel too badly, coming fresh off a championship, but the fall from grace still hurts. The Royals are far from the first championship team to have a rude awakening in their attempt to repeat. The San Francisco Giants are notorious for only winning championships in even years, while missing the playoffs in odd years. Even George Brett's championship Royals in 1985 had a very troubled season to follow, losing manager Dick Howser to brain cancer, and losing 86 games.
The Royals disappointing season is a bit puzzling considering they returned much of the core of the team that got off to such a great start in 2015. The have players in the primes of their careers, in a division that didn't seem to be stacked with talent to begin the year. Yet here the Royals are, 53-58, ten games back. Why are the Royals bad this year? There are a few culprits.
The starting pitching wasn’t exactly great last year, when the Royals finished with the fourth-worst ERA in the league for starters at 4.34, but it was only about 5% worse than the American League average at 4.14. This year the starters have been a half-run worse at 4.82, still fourth-worst in the league, but about 10% worse than the league-average of 4.44.
The big culprit, of course, is home runs. Royals starters were about league-average in allowing home runs last year, while this year they lead the league. The Royals starting pitchers are only allowing slightly more fly balls this year - a 38.8% rate this year compared to 36.1% last year. However the percentage of flyballs leaving the stadium for those starters has gone up significantly, from 10.3% in 2015 to 15.7% in 2016.
Of course, the Royals still play in spacious Kauffman Stadium, where even Royals pitcher have done a good job suppressing home runs. But they still play half their games in other stadiums, where the Royals lap the league in home runs allowed. Home runs are up about 11% in the American League, so whether it is a juiced ball, juiced players, or just home-run friendly weather, it seems Dayton Moore’s strategy of assembling fly-ball pitchers has run into unfortunate circumstances.
The Royals have lost 12 players for a total of 716 days on the disabled list, pretty close to league-average. It may perhaps seem like much more than that because the Royals have been extraordinarily healthy the last few seasons. From 2013 through 2015, only three teams in baseball have had fewer days lost to the disabled list than the Kansas City Royals, according to research by Jeff Zimmerman.
Royals fans might argue that this year is different because the players they lost have been more significant. Let's take a look at the projected WAR of the players lost to the disabled list so far, by ZIPS, pro-rate it for this point in the season, then multiply that by the percent of days missed to the disabled list.
|zWAR||zWAR now||Days out||% of season||Lost WAR|
So the Royals are losing only about 2.85 WAR this year due to injury, and that's with a projection of Alex Gordon and Chris Young being useful players, which they have clearly not been this year. How does that compare to say, the first place Cleveland Indians?
|zWAR||zWAR now||Days out||% of season||Lost WAR|
This is a crude and simple way to measure the loss, but as you can see, other contenders have had significant injuries as well. Just last year, the Royals lost Jason Vargas for half the year, Alex Gordon for a month, Alex Rios for two months, and All-Star closer Greg Holland for their pennant run and didn't break a sweat losing those guys. The injuries have hurt this year, but it is not the main culprit.
There have been worse hitters in the Royals lineup. Alcides Escobar has been the worst hitter in baseball that qualifies for a batting title, but he was pretty bad offensively last year and the Royals won a World Series with him leading off.
Alex Gordon, on the other hand, was a bat the Royals were counting on this year. To say Alex has been a huge disappointment since signing his four year, $72 million deal last winter would be an understatement. Here is how Royals hitters have fared, by position, in 2015 and 2016, by OPS.
Now here are the six returning starters.
Gordon has suffered the worst decline by far, but the Royals have also been hurt badly by some regression by Lorenzo Cain and by an awful start by Kendrys Morales. Even worse, only Salvador Perez and Paulo Orlando are having better seasons than last year. Gordon is still drawing walks - he is third on the team despite missing a month, and his defense is still decent, although it has declined. But at age 32, Royals fans should be very concerned about his performance this year going forward.
The defense is no longer dominant
The Royals still have some good gloves out there, and are tied with the Cubs at the top of baseball in Defensive Runs Above Average, but are just seventh in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved. Compare that to last year where they lapped the field in Defensive Runs Above Average, and were second in Defensive Runs Saved.
By the metrics, Alcides Escobar has had the biggest decline, going from 13.9 Defensive Runs Above Average to 2.4. He can still make a highlight reel play now and then, but his routine flubs have become more commonplace. Eric Hosmer has also had a significant decline, according to the metrics, although many are still skeptical on how the metrics judge Hosmer.
The Royals have also been hurt by some regression from Lorenzo Cain from "otherworldly" to merely "very good". Alex Gordon has lost a step, and the Royals have also been hurt defensively by going from Mike Moustakas to Cheslor Cuthbert. Even Paulo Orlando, by the metrics, has been a downgrade defensively from Alex Rios.
The bullpen is no longer dominant
Last year the Royals were 66-4 (.940 win percentage) when leading after six innings, unleashing their dominant "HDH" - Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland - on opponents to close games out. Greg Holland was non-tendered due to Tommy John surgery, replaced by free agent Joakim Soria. The result has been the Royals have a record of 35-7 (.833 win percentage) when leading after six innings this season.
Soria has been an unmitigated disaster in the first year of a three-year deal. The Royals vaunted bullpen, which led the American League in reliever ERA with last year at 2.72, has fallen to a mediocre 3.42 this year. The loss of Ryan Madson has hurt, and Dayton Moore was unable to find a solid reliever on the scrap heap to replace his numbers. Injuries to Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar have hurt as well, although the Royals were falling out of contention by the time they lost that pair. The bullpen decline has certainly cost the Royals a few wins, although it cannot account for the long fall from contention on its own.
The Royals are tired
The Royals have played back-to-back seven-month seasons with their deep run into October. They have suggested they are tired after two World Series appearances and they certainly look tired with the way they have played at times.
Here are the teams with the most regular season and post-season games played in 2014-2015:
Kansas City Royals - 355
San Francisco Giants - 341
New York Mets - 338
St. Louis Cardinals - 337
Toronto Blue Jays - 335
I have never played professional baseball or played 355 games in a two-year period, so I’ll defer to the Royals’ judgment quite a bit. However, I will say that the Royals are far from the first team to make two deep post-season runs. The St. Louis Cardinals reached the NLCS in every year from 2011-2014, and still won 100 games in 2015 (only to lose in the NLDS). The Yankees reached four consecutive World Series from 1998 to 2001, and every one of those teams averaged over 30 years of age, older than the Royals of the last few seasons.
Still, adding an extra few weeks to the season can wear out any team. If you work in manual labor for twelve months of the year, you likely don't have much sympathy for tired ballplayers. But playing a seven-month season at an elite level could likely have some sort of hangover effect on a team.
Last year the Royals had #RoyalsDevilMagic to fuel comebacks, topped off by their amazing comeback in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Astros. has the luck run dry for the Royals in 2016? Last year they were 23-17 in one run games, this year they are just 15-15 in the same situation. The Royals actually have the same number of comebacks in the ninth innings - four - as they did last year, although many came at the expense of the Chicago White Sox. The Royals have actually outperformed their pythagorean expectation by four wins.
The Royals may have seemed luckier last year because they were talented enough to put themselves in more situations where luck mattered. You don't notice when you get a few lucky bounces in a game you already trail 7-0 because your pitcher gave up three first inning home runs. Maybe the Royals need to stock up on four-leaf clovers, but luck is probably not much of a factor in their performance this year.
In reality, it is probably a combination of all of these things that have caused the Royals to stumble. Fortunately, they still have the core of this team returning for 2017. If they can correct some of these flaws, they may be able to gear up for another run. However it may prove to be more difficult than it seems to recapture the magic of a once-in-a-lifetime season.