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The Good, Bad, and Ugly from the first half of the Royals’ season

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Only one more half of Royals baseball left.

Tampa Bay Rays v Kansas City Royals - Game One Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

We have officially reached the halfway point of the season, a season in which the Royals have grossly underperformed even the low expectations set by the team’s analytical department before the year. In fact, it is one of the worst first halves in franchise history.

But hey, it is an improvement over last year’s start, right? PROGRESS!

The truth is though, the Royals have played a bit better than their record indicates. A poor start from this bullpen, and just plain bad luck (5-16 in one-run games!) have taken a bad team and given them a truly horrendous record, the second-worst in baseball. Let’s take a look at the good, bad, and the ugly from the first half.

The Good

If there was a first-half MVP for the Royals it would easily be Hunter Dozier. Despite missing three weeks with a chest muscle injury, Dozier leads all position players on the team with 2.3 WAR, according to Fangraphs. He has become one of the best players in baseball, and is fifth among all American League hitters with at least 200 plate appearances in wRC+. It has been a remarkable turnaround for the former first-round pick whose career seemed to hang in the balance at the outset of the season.

Not far behind Dozier in WAR on the club are Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi. Merrifield has firmly established himself as one of the best second basemen in the game - the only second basemen with more WAR since the start of 2017 season are Jose Altuve and Javier Baez. Mondesi has pretty much picked up where he left off last year, exciting fans with his speed, defense, and occasional power. Over the past year, he has played the equivalent of a full season in the big leagues, hitting .273/.304/.469 with 20 home runs, 59 steals and 5 WAR in 146 games. Even with his 162 strikeouts over that time, I’ll take that.

Merrifield has since moved to the outfield, but as a second baseman, the duo has been the fourth-most valuable double-play combo in the American League.

Top AL double-play combos

Team Second Base Shortstop Total WAR
Team Second Base Shortstop Total WAR
Yankees DJ LeMahieu (3.8) Gleyber Torres (2.5) 6.3
Twins Jonathan Schoop (1.4) Jorge Polanco (3.8) 5.2
Rays Brandon Lowe (2.6) Willie Adames (2.0) 4.6
Royals Whit Merrifield (2.1) Adalberto Mondesi (1.9) 4.0
Red Sox Michael Chavis (1.1) Xander Bogaerts (2.8) 3.9

Jorge Soler has stayed healthy and has finally put up the power numbers the Royals were looking for when they acquired him from the Cubs for Wade Davis. Only Jermaine Dye in 2000 and Mike Moustakas in 2017 in club history have hit more home runs in their first 81 games of the season. While his defensive issues and his unusually low on-base percentage (which may be coming around) may limit his value, Soler has been a good source of power for a power-starved lineup.

Remember when the Royals had a great defense? They may be on their way back to fielding one. Fangraphs ranks their defense as fourth-best in baseball, with strong play up the middle with Maldonado, Mondesi, Merrifield (at second), and Hamilton. If they can keep Soler from spending any time in right, they could have a top-ranked defense before long.

Ian Kennedy has thrived moving to the bullpen, bumping his velocity up to 94 mph and missing bats at a career-best rate of 11.3 per-nine innings with a phenomenally low walk rate. His large contract may still make him difficult to move, but he will at least draw interest at the trade deadline, something unthinkable a few months ago.

While Alex Gordon has struggled recently, his overall numbers are an encouraging bounce back from the disappointing seasons since he signed his lucrative four-year deal. Cheslor Cuthbert has made the most of his callup, hitting .302/.330/.479 in 24 games. The pitchers from the Royals’ 2018 draft class have excelled this year, with many already earning promotions.

The Bad

The starting pitching hasn’t been too ugly, but they haven’t good either. Brad Keller has held his own with a league-average ERA and the best home run rate in baseball, but his walk rate has spiked significantly which could eventually catch up with him. Jakob Junis has an ERA and FIP over 5.00 with one of the highest home run rates in baseball. Danny Duffy got off to a good start once he returned from injury, but has given up 19 earned runs in 27 2/3 innings over his last five starts. The Royals had hopes Jorge Lopez could turn into a young starting pitcher for them, but he posted a 7.07 ERA before they demoted to the bullpen, likely for good. Homer Bailey and Glenn Sparkman have shown glimpses of competence mixed with inconsistency. Overall it looks like the Royals are throwing out Keller and a bunch of #4/#5-type starters.

Ryan O’Hearn showed much promise last year after hitting 12 home runs in 44 games following his promotion, but he couldn’t hit his weight this year and was demoted with just six home runs in 56 games. Nicky Lopez has also struggled a bit after being promoted with some trouble adjusting to the Major League strike zone. Many good players have trouble early in their careers, so these developments shouldn’t be alarming, but it is disappointing to see these players not having more success.

The Royals hyped up their speed, and while they lead the league in steals with 78, it hasn’t exactly translated into a good offense. They have scored the fourth-fewest runs-per-game in the American League. The Royals are 6-44 (.120) when their opponent scores five or more runs (the league as a whole has a .234 winning percentage when their opponents scores five or more). With Dozier and Soler hitting home runs, the Royals are on pace for the third-best home run season in club history, however their 81 home runs are fewer than anyone in the AL except the Tigers.

The Ugly

The bullpen got off to dreadful start with a 5.29 ERA and eight losses in the month of April, and ranks as the ninth-worst pen in baseball by ERA, and fifth-worst in Win Probability Added. The short-term veterans like Brad Boxberger and Wily Peralta have not performed well, and even Jake Diekman, who got off to a good start, has struggled lately with an 11.25 ERA in the month of June.

Royals fans probably didn’t expect much offense from the bottom of the lineup, but Chris Owings (until he was released), Martín Maldonado and Billy Hamilton have served as offensive black holes. The Royals rank third-worst in OPS in the AL from the 7th spot in the lineup, worst at the 8th spot, and fourth-worst in the 9th spot. Royals #9 hitters are batting .213/.279/.276. Mets pitchers are hitting .213/.244/.335 this year. It’s a problem.

Down on the farm, the most promising hitting prospects in Wilmington - Seuly Matias, Nick Pratto, and MJ Melendez - have largely taken a step backwards this year with high strikeout rates and batting averages below the Mendoza line. Wilmington is a notoriously difficult place to hit, but teammates like Michael Gigliotti and Brewer Hicklen have performed well and despite the environment, the strikeout rates are alarming.

Royals prospects in Wilmington

Prospect MLB Pipeline rank BA OBA SLG HR K%
Prospect MLB Pipeline rank BA OBA SLG HR K%
MJ Melendez #4 .160 .250 .321 5 38.7%
Nick Pratto #5 .171 .266 .249 3 35.2%
Seuly Matias #6 .148 .259 .307 4 44.3%

What are your big takeaways from the first half of the season?