There are a lot of moving parts in baseball, which is part of what makes it so infuriatingly addictive. For instance, if Josh Donaldson was positioned just two inches to his right in the deciding play of the 2014 American League Wild Card Game, the Kansas City Royals might have lost that game, and only the Baseball Gods know what would have happened to the upstart Royals if Donaldson threw out Salvador Perez.
When trying to diagnose and repair a team’s problems, then, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement, scouting, and analytics of it all. Maybe Matt Strahm is throwing too many fastballs! Maybe Eric Hosmer needs to generate some lift on his swing! Maybe if the statcast launch rotation of Whit Merrifield’s calves was greater than the sum of the tangent of a hypotenuse squared, the Royals could find the perfect lineup!
Well, that got away from me. Anyway, roster construction, bullpen usage, launch angles, defensive positioning, and a host of other, less interesting factors can affect a team.
But sometimes it’s just a lot simpler than that. Though the Royals have been on a bit of a tear in June, they’ve struggled in the aggregate (as their struggle to stay above .500 would attest). The biggest reason for this is almost painfully simple, and can be explained through just two charts.
Chart One - A List of All MLB Teams by Runs Per Game
So, a team’s offense can fluctuate a fair amount due to boring ol’ variance and streakiness. Because of that, it’s always helpful to look at more data.
In this case, looking at the whole year’s worth of offense is more helpful than looking at one month’s worth and, man, it doesn’t get much clearer than this. The league average in runs per game is 4.68. The Royals are the worst team in the entire American League, at 3.95 runs per game. They are last by quite a margin; the next-worst AL team, the Toronto Blue Jays, is scoring 0.37 runs per game more than the Royals, which is about the same gap between the 14th-place Blue Jays and the eighth-place Boston Red Sox.
The Royals have been so successful in June entirely because they’ve scored oodles of runs (just over five per game), not because they’ve pitched or played defense particularly well; their June run prevention has hovered at about their average for them this year.
So, this established, let’s move on:
Chart Two - The Worst 20 Hitters in Baseball by wRC+ (Minimum 170 Plate Appearances)
With the powerful picture editing software Microsoft Paint at my disposal, I have helped draw some highlights to guide your attention. And your attention should be on this: the Royals are regularly throwing three of the worst 20 batters in all of baseball in the lineup every single night, where they are hitting 7-8-9.
No further explanation to why this ties with the first chart is really needed, but I’ll say it anyway. The Royals are being weighed down by a full third of their lineup. Some Royals have actually had really nice offensive years--Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Salvador Perez are actually a really nice quartet of hitters with power and average capabilities to their names.
Now, you might insist that offense isn’t why the Royals became champions, but that’s not really fully accurate. The 2015 World Champion Kansas City Royals talking points are rote memory by now: they won primarily through an elite bullpen and elite defense, with a supplementary rotation and offense that didn’t try to carry the team. But the offense that year was actually sixth-best in the American League, seventh-best overall in runs per game. They had good hitters up and down the lineup.
The good news for the 2017 Royals is that their offense is so stratified: there are the good producers (Hosmer, Moose, Perez, Cain), the average guys (Whit Merrifield and Jorge Bonifacio), and the terrible (Gordon, Escobar, and Moss). It’s not like there are a bunch of guys just ‘kinda’ underachieving all at once; the culprits are conspicuous and everybody knows it.
If the Royals want to be real contenders and not pretenders, they need to drastically reduce the plate appearances the latter trio are getting and/or make moves to replace them with better ones. They might need to eat some money in the process, but it’s an easy way forward in a game where progress is almost never easy.