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The need for speed: 2019 Royals season preview

Will the speed experiment work or will it be gone in a flash?

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The modern world is all about speed. Fast food, faster downloads, and the fastest news possible, no matter the accuracy! But in baseball, speed has become obsolete. The game has slowed down to a crawl. Hitters draw walks or trot around the bases after home runs. Speed in baseball has disappeared faster than a Willie Wilson bunt single.

The Royals are looking to change all that. While speed on the bases has been devalued thanks to the unprecedented rise of home runs, the Royals figure they may as well be good at something, so why not be good at something no one else is focusing on right now? The Royals have doubled down on speed, adding Billy Hamilton and reuniting with Terrance Gore to form a roster that already had speedsters Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi.

Some might argue looking for ineffiencies in the market - valuing speed when no one else does - is the true “Moneyball” approach. As Ned Yost told Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star, “Nobody does this...We’re the only team going into this year with this much speed focusing on that type of game.”

The stolen base has come in and out of fashion throughout baseball history. It was a popular strategy at the turn of the 20th century with players like Max Carey and Ty Cobb stealing 60, 70, sometimes nearly 100 bases a season. The stolen base was popular because scoring was at a premium and home runs were rare. In 1909 there were 11.8 stolen bases for every home run hit.

But Babe Ruth ended the “Deadball Era” and ushered in a new age of home runs. Stolen base rates fell precipitously, bottoming out just after World War II. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when offense fell again in another low-scoring era, that stolen bases became fashionable again, aided by Astroturf-covered fields, and the apex of African-American participation in Major League Baseball.


But in the 1990s, the “slide-step” was developed to cut down on the time a pitcher delivered the ball, thwarting stolen bases. Before long it was in widespread use. Home run rates also began to rise, making stolen bases less necessary. Of the top 120 stolen base teams since 1900, none of have been in the last 25 years. Over that time, just two teams have topped 200 stolen bases. Three teams topped that mark in 1976 alone (Reds, Athletics, and Royals).

The stolen base also became a point of derision by an emerging crowd of fans analyzing the game, dubbed “sabermetricians.” One of the earliest and foremost figures was Bill James, who wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1982:

“Contrary to popular belief, stolen bases don’t create very many runs. Nor do they have very much to do with determining who wins and who loses. Good teams don’t steal very many more bases than bad teams. Stolen bases have come and gone throughout baseball history because they are a sort of trendy item, an offensive trinket that has attracted managers at times but has been blithely ignored by them at others.”


As the field developed, sabermetricians refined that to argue that the stolen base could be an effective weapon when used strategically. James was later employed by the Boston Red Sox, who won the 2004 championship, their first in over eight decades, in large part due to a critical stolen base by Dave Roberts in the American League Championship Series. As long as a base-stealer had around a 75% success rate, the benefits would at least outweigh the risk of getting caught.

But even then, sabermetricians warned that as a macro-strategy, the stolen base couldn’t move the needle much. As Joe Sheehan wrote in Baseball Prospectus in 2004:

While you can use stealing bases to assist in run scoring, you can’t run your way into a good offense. The core elements of offense are getting on base and advancing runners on hits. Teams–more often managers–that announce plans to create more runs by stealing bases are usually saying, “we can’t hit, and we hope that if we move around a lot, no one will notice.”

Well the Royals probably won’t hit much this year. They were third-worst in the American League in runs scored last year. The Royals will be relying on a lot of unproven players in 2019. No one projected to be on this year’s Opening Day roster hit as many as 15 home runs at the big league level last year.

But with youth and inexperience, comes potential upside. The Royals improved significantly last year once they relied more on younger players like Adalberto Mondesi, Ryan O’Hearn, and Brett Phillips, averaging 4.5 runs-per-game after July, compared to 3.7 runs-per-game when the lineup was full of stop-gap veterans like Jon Jay, Lucas Duda, and Mike Moustakas. It is also probably not an accident that they went from stealing 0.5 bases-per-game over the first four months of the season, and increased that to over one stolen base-per-game over the final two months.

Royals 2019 projected starting lineup (2018 statistics)

2B Whit Merrifield (R) .304 .367 .438 120 707 12 45 5.2
SS Adalberto Mondesi (S) .276 .306 .498 114 291 14 32 2.8
LF Alex Gordon (L) .245 .324 .370 89 568 13 12 1.7
RF Jorge Soler (R) .265 .354 .466 123 257 9 3 1.0
DH Lucas Duda (L) .241 .313 .418 97 367 14 0 0.0
3B Hunter Dozier (R) .229 .278 .395 80 388 11 2 -0.8
1B Ryan O'Hearn (L) .262 .353 .597 153 170 12 0 0.8
C Martin Maldonado (R) .225 .276 .351 74 404 9 0 1.7
CF Billy Hamilton (S) .236 .299 .327 69 556 4 34 1.3
C Cam Gallagher (R) .206 .250 .302 47 69 1 0 0.1
OF Terrance Gore (R) .200 .200 .200 3 5 0 6 0.1
IF Chris Owings (R) .206 .272 .302 51 309 4 11 -0.8
DH Frank Schwindel (R)* .286 .336 .506 N/A 556 24 2 N/A

*-Frank Schwindel’s numbers came in AAA Omaha

The Royals already boasted the league’s stolen base champ in Whit Merrifield, but he might be overshadowed by new centerfielder Billy Hamilton. Hamilton was signed to a one-year deal after stealing 264 bases over the last five seasons in Cincinnati, the most in baseball. But both of them will be challenged for the stolen base title by young Adalberto Mondesi, who stole 32 bases in just 75 games last season, which if you pro-rate over a full season, would have led the Majors by a good margin. And none of those three are even the fastest player on the team, an honor that belongs to pinch-runner extraordinaire Terrance Gore.

But speed is only a factor if the hitters can get on base. Hamilton has a career on-base percentage of .298. Adalberto Mondesi had the ninth-lowest walk rate in baseball for anyone with at least 250 plate appearances. Merrifield provides a solid on-base percentage as do big bats like Jorge Soler, who showed glimpses of stardom last year but couldn’t stay on the field due to injury, and Ryan O’Hearn, who impressed with 12 home runs in just 44 games after his promotion. The Royals will also look for production from Lucas Duda, signed to a deal last week, who should spend a lot of time at DH, pushing Soler to right field where he will likely split time with Merrifield and utility player Chris Owings.

We will see how much all this speed can improve the offense, but it almost certainly will have a big impact on defense. The Royals fielded the best defense in baseball from 2014-2015 (by a lot!), but in recent years have gotten away from reliance on the glove. They should be returning to those roots this year, with big upgrades at shortstop with Adalberto Mondesi and in center with Billy Hamilton.

In fact, the Royals project to have the best defense in baseball. If Brett Phillips finds his way back to the big leagues in right field, the Royals could very well field the best oufield defense in baseball, between him, Hamilton, and Gold Glover Alex Gordon. Even the loss of Gold Glover Salvador Perez shouldn’t hurt the team much defensively, as replacement Martin Maldonado is a significant improvement in pitch-framing and a Gold Glover in his own right.

The Royals will need an improved defense because the pitching staff will need all the help they can get. The club finished with the second-worst ERA in all of baseball last year. Simply getting rid of some of the terrible veterans from last year could improve those numbers this year, but many question marks still surround the staff.

The team will likely begin the year with a three-man rotation of Brad Keller, Jakob Junis, and Jorge Lopez, the three young arms fans hope will reach some of the potential they flashed in 2018. Veteran Homer Bailey, who last had a decent season when Obama was president, will join the rotation when a fourth starter is needed. Heath Fillmyer seems like the most likely option when a fifth starter is needed, with the club holding out hope that Danny Duffy will recover from shoulder stiffness and join the rotation by late April.

The bullpen will be a far cry from the days of “HDH”, but it should be significantly improved from the mess last year. Dayton Moore waited out the market and found a few veteran relievers on cheap deals who have had some success in recent years like Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman. Manager Ned Yost won’t commit to solid bullpen roles this year, but expect Boxberger to split closing duties with Wily Peralta, who went 14-for-14 in save opportunities last year. Perhaps the most intriguing reliever in the bullpen, however, is Kyle Zimmer. The former first round pick seems to finally be healthy and was throwing darts in spring training with a big bender to boot.

2019 Royals pitching staff (2018 statistics)

Rotation ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 fWAR
Rotation ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 fWAR
Danny Duffy (L) 4.88 4.70 155.0 8.19 4.06 1.34 1.2
Brad Keller (R) 3.08 3.55 140.1 6.16 3.21 0.45 2.6
Jakob Junis (R) 4.37 4.64 177.0 8.34 2.19 1.63 1.4
Jorge Lopez (R) 5.03 4.48 53.2 6.37 3.69 1.01 0.2
Homer Bailey (R) 6.09 5.55 106.1 6.35 2.79 1.95 -0.1
Heath Fillmyer (R) 4.26 4.75 82.1 6.23 3.50 1.20 0.5
Bullpen ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 fWAR
Scott Barlow (R) 3.60 3.49 15.0 9.00 1.80 1.20 0.2
Brad Boxberger (R) 4.39 4.55 53.1 11.98 5.40 1.52 -0.3
Jake Diekman (L) 4.73 3.74 53.1 11.14 5.23 0.68 0.6
Brian Flynn (L) 4.04 4.28 75.2 5.59 4.16 0.59 0.1
Tim Hill (L) 4.53 3.51 45.2 8.28 2.76 0.79 0.5
Ian Kennedy (R) 4.66 4.61 119.2 7.90 3.01 1.50 1.0
Kevin McCarthy (R) 3.25 4.06 72.0 5.75 2.50 0.88 0.2
Wily Peralta (R) 3.67 4.73 34.1 9.17 6.03 1.05 -0.1
Kyle Zimmer (R) N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A

Dayton Moore may have banished the word “rebuild” from the organizational lexicon, but the Royals are still clearly in a rebuild, with an emphasis on getting improvement from the younger players. That doesn’t mean the team won’t try to win this year, but clearly success will be measured by how the young core performs. A 72-win season built on the performance of Mondesi, O’Hearn, and Keller would be a much better success than a 78-win season built on the performance of Gordon, Hamilton, and Bailey.

Can the Royals succeed by building an identity around speed and defense? Having speed certainly doesn’t hurt. Contrary to some assertions, modern analytics doesn’t completely dismiss speed, and it certainly values defense. It is only when speed is valued over other skills like the ability to hit for power or get on-base that it becomes problematic. But perhaps that is the next step for The Process 2.0.

The speed will be fun to watch, and it may help the Royals steal a game or two. But even Ned Yost gets that it is just one part of the equation, as he put it eloquently to Sam Mellinger:

“There’s a lot of things we gotta do. Speed ain’t worth a damn if you don’t get on base.”