Three games is essentially nothing in the grand scheme of baseball. This year, no matter how great or terrible the squad, every single MLB team will win three consecutive games and lose three consecutive games. Every single MLB team will look like champions and total failures.
Still: actual baseball is something different. One of the beauties of baseball is that, while you can predict and crunch numbers and prognosticate all you want, there is a visceral difference between that and the actual thing. We have finally moved into that Real Thing, where the Kansas City Royals are playing baseball that counts in the record books.
There’s not a whole lot to learn from only three games on a micro level. But we can start to wrap our heads around the Royals on a more macro level, especially after watching these players with our own eyes and coming to grips with the specifics of what this roster construction means in a real setting.
So let’s take a look at three things that we learned about the Royals from opening weekend—or at least started to comprehend.
The bullpen is gonna be so bad, you guys
Ned Yost’s hesitation to proclaim a closer out of camp should have been the canary in the coal mine. Yost has shown a proclivity for experimentation in recent years, an honest open-mindedness that would have felt completely unbelievable a decade ago. Still, most teams have a closer, even if their manager and roster construction is more adventurous.
But, uh, not the Royals. Let’s go over our bullpen options here:
- Ian Kennedy. Age 34. 5.04 ERA between 2017-2018. First year as a reliever.
- Jake Diekman. Age 32. 4.36 ERA between 2017-2018. Threw 10.2 innings in 2017.
- Brad Boxberger. Age 30. 4.21 ERA between 2016-2018 with a BB/9 over 5.
- Tim Hill. Age 29. 4.53 ERA in rookie season 2018.
- Wily Peralta. Age 29. 6.79 career ERA as a reliever.
- Kyle Zimmer. Age 27. Rookie. Long injury history.
- Chris Ellis. Age 26. Rookie. Selected in Rule 5 draft.
There’s a situation where the Royals are mediocre with these guys. But there is no situation in which this is a good bullpen. Indeed, through three games the bullpen ERA of 7.71 ranks sixth-worst in the league, the bullpen K/9 of 5.79 ranks fourth-worst in the league, and the bullpen BB/9 of 7.71 is tied for second-worst in the league.
It’s easy to squint and think that the bullpen could be a strength. Not so much so when they’re playing actual ballgames and bleeding runs like they’re on blood thinners. Get used to some blown contests thanks to the pen.
Can the bullpen eventually be good? Yes. It requires Zimmer to quickly become a stud and for Josh Staumont and Richard Lovelady to force their way into the big leagues and again into high-leverage situations. Is that likely? Should you ever try to win a land war in Asia?
The offense is going to be feast or famine
The top part of the Royals lineup is a talented one. Whit Merrifield is the platonic ideal of a leadoff man, with strong on base skills and elite speed on the basepaths. Adalberto Mondesi might just turn out to be one of the most exciting two-way players in the league with his speed and power. Alex Gordon is an aging vet but is mostly a league average bat. Jorge Soler still has immense potential based on his skills. Ryan O’Hearn has done nothing but impress since his callup last year.
The rest, though...that bottom half ain’t good, chief.
Frank Schwindel is unproven and lacks a strong prospect pedigree, and Lucas Duda is serviceable against righties. They are the good ones of the group. Chris Owings, Martin Maldonado, Terrance Gore, Hunter Dozier, Cam Gallagher, and Billy Hamilton all have a career OBP of way under .300.
In other words, the Royals have a bunch of bad hitters. Schwindel and Dozier still have a modicum of upside, but that group overall is going to struuuuuuugggggllllle. How well the Royals do depends on the top half of the lineup, and if they don’t produce, they’re not going to score many runs. When everything is clicking, the Royals are going to be fun to watch. But when it’s not clicking, their margin for error is nonexistent, and then you get no-hit through six innings.
Don’t watch this team if you expect modern baseball
We’re far enough into the Moneyball era now that we can paint a picture of what a good team looks like and how it plays in this era—at least offensively. The main tenants seem to be thus:
- On base percentage and plate discipline are the core building blocks of offense
- Home runs and power aren’t optional, but required
Recent World Series teams embody this type of play. The 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs squad ranked second in the league in OBP. The 2017 World Series-winning Houston Astros ranked first in OBP and second in home runs. The 2018 World Series-winning Boston Red Sox ranked first in OBP and ninth in home runs. Boston’s opponents in the 2018 series, the Los Angeles Dodgers, ranked fifth in OBP and second in home runs. Other styles exist, but the hallmark teams of this era get on base and hit for power.
Kansas City does none of that.
What they Royals will do is be fast. Very fast. Like, steal-200-bases-for-the-second-time-this-millennium fast. That’s their mantra and how they’ve built the club. We’ve seen it already, like when Merrifield swiped two bags in the same inning. Mondesi wasn’t in position much to steal because he was on third all the time. Gore hasn’t made an appearance. It’s gonna be lit, fam.
The defense should also be a strength, especially in the outfield when the Royals can clamp down with a hilarious Gordon/Hamilton/Gore set that will just get every ball possible.
So if you’re a fan of home runs, don’t watch Kansas City, the only team in the league without a dinger so far (#onbrand, amirite). But, that’s not necessarily bad. Singles and fast dudes flying around the bases is arguably more fun than long at bats, some walks, and a homer. It just might not end up the way we hope.