In this week's Hok Talk, we discuss the Royals' apparent decision to return all willing coaches for the 2022 staff despite some pretty significant problems in 2021.
The Royals announced earlier this week that long-time Royals first-base and outfield coach Rusty Kuntz would be taking a role in the front office. At the same time, Royals beat writers suggested that this would be the most significant difference in the Royals' coaching staff we should expect to see between 2021 and 2022.
Rusty Kuntz is moving out of a coaching role in 2022. #Royals officially promoted him to Special Assistant to the President & GM/Quality Control today.— Anne Rogers (@anne__rogers) November 3, 2021
KC hopes to have his position filled within the next few weeks. There isn’t expected to be major changes to the staff.
Rusty Kuntz will no longer be coaching first base in this new role. The Royals will fill the position soon. As far as the big-league staff goes, don’t expect many major changes beyond an addition or two.— Alec Lewis (@alec_lewis) November 3, 2021
This isn't the first time Rusty has tried to move away from a Major League coaching role, so it remains to be seen how well it will stick. Still, at age 66, you can't blame the guy for wanting to do a bit less traveling, and I think most people would agree he's earned a cushy desk job for the excellent coaching he provided during the Royals short run of relevance in the AL.
On the other hand, most Royals fans expected - if not demanded - more changes to the coaching staff which saw the Royals end April with the best record in the AL and allowed a collapse to only one game out of the AL Central cellar. While multiple coaches could have been let go without causing a stir, one coach, in particular, seemed doomed from before the All-Star Break.
Cal Eldred has now been the Royals pitching coach for four years. During those four seasons, the Royals have finished 29th, 27th, 12th, and 21st in team ERA. They have finished below average in walks (giving up more than most teams) and strikeouts (getting fewer than most teams) in every season Eldred has been a coach. That's not a good combination.
Pitching, specifically young pitching, is the most significant factor for how well the Royals will do in the future following their 2018 draft. That draft saw them go all-in on college pitchers using the multitude of high draft picks that were their only recompense for allowing most of their best players from the World Series teams to leave in free agency. The young pitchers all regressed in 2021 on Eldred's watch. There was some rebound in the second half which seems to have saved his job, but I'm not sure that it should have. Brad Keller spoke during an interview about how Eldred had no idea how to help him. Brady Singer continued to insist to the media that he didn't see any reason to throw his changeup even after it was obvious to the coaching staff and fans. Assuming for a moment that the Royals couldn't or shouldn't have "forced" the issue, Eldred's job would still have been to convince Singer to get it together. Daniel Lynch and Carlos Hernandez both had severe struggles in their first stints with the major league team this season and only improved after extended stays in AAA.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Cal Eldred is a mediocre pitching coach who ran into some bad luck this season. That's not enough reason to keep him. There are only 30 major league pitching coach jobs in the entire world. If a guy isn't the absolute best to ever do it, go out and see if you can find someone better. There is no payoff for sticking with a coach who isn't exactly bad at the MLB level, you need the very best, and you should not settle for any less. Speaking of being less than the very best...
Terry Bradshaw, Nick Kenney, and Mike Matheny
The Royals pitchers weren't the only ones to struggle this season; the hitters also had their fair share of troubles. Of particular note were Hunter Dozier, Jorge Soler, and Carlos Santana. Hitting coach Terry Bradshaw does get some credit here for Salvador Perez's career-best season after years of not hitting quite as well as his reputation. He probably deserves some credit for Nicky Lopez turning into a viable major league hitter, too. However, Dozier, Soler, and Santana were all relied upon to be big boppers in the Royals lineup and failed to produce. The most frustrating part is that Santana started the year well while Dozier and Soler finished well. Should Bradshaw take the blame for that?
Dozier and Santana both gave some context for their struggles after the fact. It seems Dozier's early-season injuries were worse than fans realized and that Santana was playing injured for the second half of the season. That information raises some critical questions. Why were Santana and Dozier playing hurt? Were the Royals and Head Athletic Trainer Nick Kenney unaware of the severity of their injuries? Or did manager Mike Matheny choose to allow them or even require them to play through those injuries? Either way, the end result seems to be that the coaching staff failed these two players. Particularly in Santana's case, the Royals were no longer in contention, and forcing him to play hurt benefited no one. Additionally, the Royals had credible options to play in their stead. Ryan O'Hearn spent most of the year on the big league roster and could play first or outfield. Hanser Alberto and Emmanuel Rivera could have filled in at third. Edward Olivares and Kyle Isbel were other outfield options. Ryan McBroom also could have played at first.
Are any of those guys you want starting for the long term? Probably not, except for potentially Isbel. But as bad as Dozier and Santana were while they were playing hurt, none of those options would have been noticeably worse - not even O'Hearn. Still, the Royals - through ignorance or obstinance - kept sending Dozier and Santana out there day after day despite them being too hurt to do their jobs.
I think this also has to bring into question how the Royals handled Soler. He suffered a minor injury early in the season, and the Royals didn't put him on the Injured List, either. He was an absolute albatross for the Royals right up until he got very hot the last few days before the trade deadline. He was then a completely different batter for Atlanta and won the World Series MVP award on the back of his excellent hitting. The Royals never said that these players were playing hurt; we only found out from the players themselves after the fact. Given that fact, we cannot trust that Soler was fully healthy while he struggled for KC.
This also raises some issues around Adalberto Mondesi. The team has made no bones that Mondesi won't play through injuries that they think he should play through. They never come out and directly say it, but you don't have to be remotely skilled at reading between the lines to see it. This has led fans to accuse Mondesi of being soft or weak or any of a dozen other insults about his physical and mental fitness to play the sport. It sure seems like the Royals are asking guys like Dozier and Santana to play hurt even when it's crashing their numbers, making the team worse, and generally not making anything better for anyone. In that case, you have to wonder if Mondesi's injuries are more serious than the team is willing to admit, and he's simply better at advocating for his own health than those other guys.
One of the ways the 2014 and 2015 teams were able to find such success was because they had relatively few injuries. The next competitive Royals team does not have to be quite so lucky. They've got more than enough players at every position - even shortstop! - to cover for a short-term injury or two. If they insist on continuing to play guys who are at far less than their best when they have viable options to cover while their preferred player gets closer to fully healthy, then that next competitive Royals team will probably be further away than it has to be.
The Royals have decided to return the same coaching staff that was clearly not ideal and either fostered or at least allowed a toxic culture around player health. It's possible that Cal Eldred somehow got better in the second half and that the team is addressing the cultural issues behind the scenes and believes the team will do better about it in 2022. That would be a lot easier to believe if anyone could explain why Brady Singer didn't also improve in the second half or if anyone but the players were talking about how playing through injuries derailed things.