In baseball, there’s a tendency to overthink things. Every little part of baseball has its quirks and intricacies, and the compulsion to get lost in those infinite fractals in pursuit of truth and insight is intense. Sometimes, that attention to detail helps, and constant tinkering with the details is part of why the great coaches and players stay great.
But other times, you get paralysis by analysis, as the Fox Sports Kansas City broadcast booth is so fond of saying. And where analysis is the game, searching for something that’s not there can lead you to conclusions where West is East and moons are planets if you’re not careful.
So it is with the Kansas City Royals offense. The Royals are dead last in runs per game in baseball. There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball, and the Royals defiantly nabbed spot number 30 despite not yet sending one pitcher to the plate like every National League team.
Now, it’s early, and the Royals have countered the lack of offense by turning every lefty in their rotation into 2014 Clayton Kershaw and every righty into 2009 Zack Greinke. If this were permanent, it would surely be against the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but nobody has caught onto the ruse yet so Kansas City is in the clear (for now). The Royals, rather hilariously, have a rotation ERA below 2 a little more than halfway through April. But no team last year really had a rotation ERA much below 3 (the Cubs were at 2.96), Also, no team in baseball scored fewer than 3.77 runs per game last year. It’s early. Weird things happen when it’s early, like the Royals’ rotation being better than every rotation last year and their offense worse than every offense last year.
Still, this is all dancing around one of the core factors: why? Why can’t they score?
Our own Max Rieper thinks the Royals need to be patient with runners in scoring position. Craig Brown over at Baseball Prospectus Kansas City pointed out that a couple of players were struggling hard in the early season. I myself hoisted a chunk of the blame on the burning travesty that is Raul Mondesi’s Major League campaign.
Yes, the Royals are clearly in a slump. That’s pretty obvious. Yes, they’re shooting themselves in the foot a bit with personnel decisions. They’ve also been fantastically unlucky. The standard for batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is about .300 year to year; it’s a stat that’s as good a barometer of luck as there is. The Royals currently rank 26th in baseball with a .259 BABIP (the lowest team BABIP last year was .280).
These things are all true, but there is one big reason why the Royals are struggling to score, and that’s because they have a bunch of bad hitters. If they had better hitters they wouldn’t have this problem.
In order to properly visualize this, I decided to look at all 15 American League teams’ starting nine offensive spots. I then pulled each one’s career OPS—on base plus slugging, which gives credit to both power, average, and on base ability—and ranked every position on every team from first to fifteenth. For anybody with fewer than 100 career plate appearances, I counted them as ‘rookie,’ basically a N/A due to lack of MLB track record.
The result, color-coded for ease of use, looks like this:
A few caveats are here. First, looking at career OPS will not quite nail the current value of aging players with good track records. Future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, whose career OPS is obviously first among all designated hitters but who is far from his glory days, is a good example. Likeweise, looking at career OPS will underrate those who have recently undergone or are undergoing a breakout season.
But you’ve got to look at something, and looking at career numbers factors in a given player’s whole body of work. And by looking at ranking within the AL, we can easily compare the players against their peers rather than wading into the rather deep waters of comparing raw numbers.
For Kansas City, you can instantly see some very clear flaws. The Royals employ not one, not two, not three, not four, but five players in the bottom three slots among their respective positions in career offensive production. There are zero Royals in the top three. Every single other team has at least one top-three positional player, and no other team has as wide or deep a net of bottom-ranked players as does Kansas City.
More than any individual factor, including slumps, the Royals’ problem is simple and twofold: there is no elite offensive talent on the team, and there is far too much bottom rung offense. Ultimately, the Royals just don’t have good hitters.
The good news is that the Royals aren’t doomed. Two simple changes can be made: swapping out Paulo Orlando for Jorge Soler when he returns will offer a gigantic offensive upgrade for free, and substituting Whit Merrifield or Christian Colon for Raul Mondesi will upgrade the second space spot exponentially.
But the bad news is obvious, and not something Royals fans want to hear: most of the lineup has a pretty poor offensive pedigree, that’s not going to change, and the Royals don’t have a silver bullet prospect who will step in and make everything better. If this team makes the playoff, it’s probably going to be the way they did in 2014 and 2015, through a great defense and bullpen. Counting on otherwise isn’t a good plan.