Whenever you’re trying to become good at something, regardless of what that something is, you will likely hear the phrase, “Consistency is key.” And that’s because... well... consistency is important for almost any skill. Pretend for a moment that you work as an on-demand hot dog manufacturer at Kauffman Stadium, a job I just invented. You are tasked with manufacturing enough hot dogs to feed everyone who shows up. Let’s say that the daily Kauffman stadium hot dog consumption is 10,000 hot dogs. You and your coworker alternate daily shifts and you both average making 10,000 hot dogs. However, you always make between 9,990-10,010 hot dogs. Your co-worker makes anywhere from 5,000-15,000 hot dogs. Which of you is better at your job?
Your co-worker is averaging the appropriate number of hot dogs, but they are so inconsistent that the only thing they consistently provide is the wrong number of hot dogs which leads to lost sales or wasted product. Which brings us to the Royals’ lineup.
In 2016 a LinkedIn article was written which showed a strong correlation between the percentage of total runs a team scores (Runs Scored / (Runs Scored + Runs Allowed)) and their winning percentage. And, honestly, that makes sense, right? If you score more runs and allow fewer runs you should win more games. Indeed, this is the logic behind Bill James’ Pythagorean Winning Percentage stat. However, if we look at the Royals, they are tied for nineteenth place in Baseball Reference’s Rdiff stat - which provides a different way of looking at the same numbers from the LinkedIn article - but are the third-worst team in baseball in winning percentage. They are the unluckiest team in baseball with two fewer wins through fourteen games before Friday night’s action than they would be expected to have won just looking at their total runs scored and runs allowed. Last year they were the third unluckiest team and in 2018 they were the sixth unluckiest team in terms of fewer games won than Pythag record.
Of course, luck is just one way to describe the phenomenon. Another way to describe it might be “inconsistency.” The Royals have scored 58 runs and given up 69 runs, again before Friday night’s action. Those numbers aren’t that far apart. What IS far apart is the number of runs scored in wins and losses. The Royals have scored 35 runs in their four wins. That means they have scored an average of 8.75 runs in wins and 2.3 runs scored in losses. This is a small sample size, of course, but that’s a massive difference. If you change all of their scores to their average - 4.14 - without changing what the other team scored the Royals would suddenly be 7-7.
Our own Stephen Suffron took an opportunity before the start of the season to track down the Royals’ best and worst 60 game stretches from last season to try to get an idea of the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the team, this year. And well, it shows a pretty stunning pattern. A pattern of inconsistency. The Royals had essentially three hitters they could count on - Whit Merrifield, Hunter Dozier, and Jorge Soler. Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler were still above average hitters even when they were “slumping” and Whit Merrifield wasn’t far removed from being a productive hitter. Among the rest, four of the hitters were above average when they were hot, and useless when they were not. The remaining two - Ryan O’Hearn and Nicky Lopez - were black holes even when they were playing their very best.
This all matches the eye test, too. At no point last year or this year have any of us been excited about Nicky Lopez coming to the plate. For the most part, when Dozier or Soler came to the plate, we have expected there was a fair chance they’d come through. As good a chance as possible in a game built on failure, at least.
The problem the Royals have had for the past few years has been repeatedly described as bad luck. “Look at the Pythag!” someone will cry and we will see that, indeed, the Royals were expected to win more games than they did. But the problem is that when everything is clicking for the Royals’ lineup, they’ve got a great one. And when it isn’t, they have a horrible one.
OBP became a valued stat because of its consistency. If a guy could take a lot of walks advanced metrics determined that he wasn’t likely to lose that ability and that a high-OBP player was a source of consistent baserunners. The Royals in 2014 and 2015 bucked that trend a bit because while they didn’t walk a ton, they were still fairly consistent. However, while those teams couldn’t walk what they did do was consistently put the ball in play. By putting the ball in play so often they were able to counter the inconsistency of positive results for batted balls with the sheer volume of them. Unfortunately, the Royals’ squads from the past few years don’t walk but they make up for it by striking out a lot. That’s a combination that all but guarantees the inconsistency we’ve seen from them.
Royals fans and media members keep asking if or when the “hitters can put it all together.” What they really want to know is, “Can the players find consistency in creating positive results?” I don’t want you to think that’s a stupid question or that there is no room for inconsistent players in a lineup. Many of these guys are still young and/or inexperienced and Whit Merrifield and Jorge Soler are both examples of players who weren’t immediately consistent but eventually found it. But if the Royals’ only hope of success in the near future relies on the guys we’ve been watching the past few years all figuring out how to walk more and/or strike out less we can probably expect the only consistent thing about the Royals to be large numbers of frustrating losses.