Coming into the season, we knew one thing about the Royals. We knew that they were going to run around the diamond like crazy. Team speed was the only bankable commodity the Royals had, with the likes of Adalberto Mondesi, Terrance Gore, Billy Hamilton, and 2018 stolen bases king Whit Merrifield on the roster.
However, many were skeptical that this strategy would work. In what was dubbed The Process 2.0, Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star spent time discussing the philosophy of an organization trying to rebuild a championship club and specifically highlighting a return to speed and athleticism.
The Royals got away from this for a few years, most notably when they chased power with Brandon Moss. But here they are, back to speed and athleticism, with a few important updates.
Much was made about this column, including posts from Royals Review, and most could quickly identify the discrepancies. The Royals were wildly athletic in 2014-2015, yes, but they also had career years from many of their core pieces at the plate. They also employed a guy named Kendrys Morales.
Fast forward just a little over a month, and the Royals are sitting at 7-12 through 19 games, including a brutal 10-game losing streak. However, the bullpen has been the problem in the early going, not the offense. The Royals offense is actually in the top half of the American League in runs and, as expected, is tied for the league lead in stolen bases.
So that begs the question. Were we wrong about The Process 2.0? Well, I don’t think so. Let’s talk about the offense.
Hitting For Power
Through 19 games, Kansas City has hit 23 home runs. That projects out to 196 over a 162 game season. Now, those 23 home runs are only good for 17th in all of baseball, but juiced ball or not, home runs still produce a lot of runs. And to give context, 196 homers would surpass the 2017 Royals for the all-time franchise high for a single season.
Let’s compare that to team speed. I am going to use a super unscientific metric to start. Seven Royals have scored at least seven runs this season. Among those seven players are Ryan O’Hearn, Hunter Dozier, Alex Gordon, and Jorge Soler, who have combined for zero stolen bases in 2019.
The other three players are Whit Merrifield, Adalberto Mondesi, and Billy Hamilton. Merrifield and Mondesi have been well above league average hitters in 2019, each with a SLG% hovering around .500. They are scoring most of their runs by hitting the ball into gaps and over the fence. And for all intents and purposes, that is a much more valuable use of speed than stolen bases. Merrifield and Mondesi’s ability to stretch doubles into triples has resulted in six triples this season, which is more than 28 teams have hit cumulatively.
The Royals are stealing a lot of bases, but those stolen bases haven’t exactly led to a ton of runs, and that shouldn’t surprise us. We have known for years that stolen bases aren’t very valuable. Shaun Newkirk provided some helpful run value figures in March.
Run value if some events:— Shaun Newkirk (@Shauncore) March 12, 2019
SB: .200 runs
BB: .690 runs
HBP: .720 runs
1B: .880 runs
HR: 2.031 runs
You need to steal ten bases to equal one home run. One hit by pitch is equal to almost two stolen bases.
Stolen bases just aren't that valuable. https://t.co/D7ZuqebFmW
As noted, you need ten steals to equal one home run. The Royals currently have 23 home runs and 21 stolen bases, so you can go ahead and do the math. If Kansas City finishes in the top half of the league in home runs, it will be a much more significant success than leading the league in steals.
The formula for 2019 has been entirely antithetical to their team philosophy and process. They are hitting home runs, but more surprisingly, they are also walking quite a bit. The Royals are 14th in all of baseball this season in walks and are on pace to finish with 554 free passes. Since 2011, the Royals have never finished higher than 25th and have been dead last for three of the previous five seasons. Their highest total during that span was 442.
Many of those walks have come from Ryan O’Hearn, who is walking at a higher percentage than all but six players in baseball right now. Others have come from Alex Gordon, whose new approach has led to a late-career surge, and Hunter Dozier. Then, sprinkle in Lucas Duda, Chris Owings, and Hamilton, and you have a team that is taking far more free passes than past teams.
And those numbers could get higher. One notably absent name on that list is Soler, who has walked in at least 10.9% of his plate appearances each of his last three seasons but is below 8% so far this season. That should change. Even Merrifield, a guy who hasn’t walked a lot in his career and is near the bottom of the league in BB%, eclipsed the 8% mark last season.
The Royals came into this season looking to win on team speed and athleticism. Most of us laughed at the idea. Instead, the Royals have been hitting home runs, taking free bases, hitting balls into the gap, and scoring runs. Consequently, they have won five of their last seven games.
Kansas City will almost certainly lead the league in stolen bases or at least be very close to doing so. But if they continue winning games the way they are winning them, we won’t be talking about the stolen bases.