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How did the Royals lose so many games when they had so many good performances?

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It’s an easy question to answer.

Jorge Soler #12 of the Kansas City Royals hits a home run in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium on September 29, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Jorge Soler #12 of the Kansas City Royals hits a home run in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium on September 29, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

There are a few things that everyone will remember about the 2019 Kansas City Royals season. It will be remembered as Ned Yost’s last season in a Royals uniform, the beloved manager retiring after his 10th season with Kansas City. If Alex Gordon also hangs up his cleats, 2019 will be remembered as the last season for one of the best Royals of all time.

But as far as on-field performances go, everyone will remember Jorge Soler’s monster year. With 48 home runs, Soler’s absolute demolishment of the previous single-season home run record, held by Mike Moustakas, also set other records. Soler set the record for most homers hit by a Cuban-born player in a single year, and thanks to his efforts, a Royal stood atop the American League home run leaderboard for the first time.

Meanwhile, the Royals also had the AL hit leader in Whit Merrifield and would have had the AL steals leader in Adalberto Mondesi if he had played in more than 102 games. In his first season as a reliever, Ian Kennedy notched 30 saves, tied for ninth-most in baseball despite pitching for a team that only won 59. For long stretches, Hunter Dozier was one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball.

So what gives? Why did the Royals lose 103 games? The answer is simple: depth.

The easiest way to show this is through team Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Due to the differences in the calculations between Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference, it’s sometimes best to take averages of the two, which is what I’ll do here. The Royals’ position players accrued a total of 9.9 WAR. Meanwhile, the pitchers accrued a total of 6.7 WAR. You’ll be unsurprised to hear that both are bottom-five figures in all of Major League Baseball.

However, unlike some of the truly sad years in the mid-2000s, Kansas City had some really good performers in 2019. Here are the six best Royals players by WAR this year, and they are names that make sense:

  • Jorge Soler, 3.6 WAR
  • Whit Merrifield, 3.5 WAR
  • Hunter Dozier, 2.5 WAR
  • Brad Keller, 2.5 WAR
  • Adalberto Mondesi, 2.5 WAR

Soler, Merrifield, Dozier, Keller, and Mondesi totaled 14.6 WAR for the team. That’s a really solid group. However, at this point, your mind may be whirring into gear. If the Royals only had 9.9 position player WAR and 6.7 pitching WAR—which adds to 16.6 WAR—then the rest of the team must have been really bad.

That is true, but the full answer is even more unnerving. Adding in the next tier of players—a tier that includes Danny Duffy (1.6 WAR), Alex Gordon (1.4 WAR), and Ian Kennedy (1.4 WAR), the Royals’ top eight players accrued a total of 19 WAR. That means that the other 43 players on the 2019 Royals combined for a total of -2.4 WAR. That can be further encapsulated into these two stats:

  • Only four of 25 batters with at least 10 plate appearances hit better than league average
  • Only four of 22 pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched had an ERA under 4.00

In theory, you should be able to field a team entirely of replacement level players and not have to endure too many performances worse than replacement level. In practice, filling so many roster spots with replacement level players has more cumulative downside than upside, and bad teams end up with below replacement level performances on aggregate because a higher portion of those guys can’t cut it.

Kansas City will need stars in the future, that much is true. But to get away from 100-loss seasons, they need to simply fill a roster with big league players. Whether the Royals can compete or not in 2021 won’t so much depend on which young minor leaguers can be stars, but on how many of them can make a positive contribution in the first place.