The Royals are off to a good start! This is exciting! It’s the best start they’ve had since 2016. Of course, we all remember how disappointed we were with how 2016 finished. The promising season was derailed by injuries to Alex Gordon - who was never himself after that - and Mike Moustakas, who missed almost the entire season. The team was just unlucky. Or were they?
If you were disappointed in the 2016 Royals, I have good news for you! This team is unlikely to share that team’s fate. I’m not promising they’ll win, but if they lose it won’t be for the same reason. They’ve already seen one of their key contributors get injured and not play a single inning. They’ve had another battle through injuries that have kept him out of the lineup and contributed to him hitting poorly when he does play. Still, the Royals have a winning record. Many expect the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Angels to be good this year. The Royals have won more games than they’ve lost against that group. What makes this team so different?
They’ve got more than nine major league hitters
The biggest problem in 2016 wasn’t that Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon got hurt. It’s that the Royals did not have competent, major-league-ready players with which to replace them. And I don’t mean equivalent players, either. I mean guys who can at least fill in for a short while without embarrassing themselves or dragging the team down too much. Cheslor Cuthbert replaced Mike Moustakas that year and was worth a measly 0.3 bWAR/0.5 fWAR in 128 games. That’s not good enough. To put it in perspective, Mike Moustakas was worth more than that in a mere 27 games, and his 111 wRC+ wasn’t exactly destroying the league.
On the other hand, Adalberto Mondesi hasn’t played at all this year. However, he’s been replaced with Nicky Lopez, who has been a nearly competent player in Mondesi’s absence despite his trials and tribulations. Lopez is, by no means, challenging to keep the job when Mondesi returns, but he has done enough to keep things from falling apart until then. Similarly, despite Hunter Dozier’s problems so far this year, Hanser Alberto has stepped into the gap admirably.
Again, the Royals would definitely rather have Dozier and Mondesi. But Alberto and Lopez represent the kind of organizational depth the Royals have lacked for a very long time. They’re both playing at a much higher level than Chris Owings, Matt Reynolds, Humberto Arteaga, or even guys like Pedro Ciriaco, Elliot Johnson, and Omar Infante from back when the Royals were most recently good. That kind of depth helps in more ways than one.
The lineup is “longer”
In 2019 the Royals’ offense was bad. Some might even say “horrible” or “unwatchable.” Weirdly, though, it didn’t entirely lack quality hitters. According to Baseball-Reference, the 1-2 batters had a combined .735 OPS, and the 3-6 hitters had a .781 OPS. I mean, you can hope for flashier numbers, but those are workable. The problem was that the bottom three in the order had a .590 OPS. This is where advanced stats can help us understand just how important that difference was. BRef has a stat called sOPS+, which attempts to measure the entire offensive output and determine what percentage of the league average it represents in a single, easy-to-understand number. You can find it for individuals or teams for specific fielding positions or batting order spots. As with most aggregate offensive stats, the number represents a percentage of the league average; a sOPS+ of 100 would mean the given position exactly meets the league average. If you check the sOPS+ for the 2019 Royals 1-2 spots, 3-6 spots, and 7-9 spots in the batting order, you get 84, 98, and 68, respectively. The top two weren’t quite getting it done, the middle third was about average, and the bottom third was tanking everything. If you remember watching games that year, this probably feels about right, too. The lineup was terrible all the way through, but it felt like every time the top or middle of the order got into a hot streak, the bottom third would inevitably find a way to tank it all with a series of easy outs that allowed pitchers to escape jams and bounce back.
The 2015 Royals had similar splits, just bumped a few notches for having better talent. In the same positions, they had 93, 114, and 87 percent of the average production compared to the rest of baseball. The bottom of the order wasn’t a complete black hole, and the middle of the lineup was doing some serious work. That was good enough as long as the team stayed healthy. As we discovered in 2016, the problem was that if/when the guys who could hit got hurt, no one else could carry even part of the load. Not having competent replacements meant that if more than one guy had a simultaneous lousy day, the lineup would not score.
In 2021 the Royals finally seem to be addressing that problem. Mondesi and Dozier can’t play? That’s OK; Kyle Isbel, Nicky Lopez, Jarrod Dyson, or Hanser Alberto can step in and hold things together for a while. Since the start of the 2021 season, the Royals splits in those same three lineup order categories are 103, 81, and 116. It’s important to realize that the bottom third of the order still isn’t hitting great; they have a combined .680 OPS. But they’re not automatic outs, either which means rallies have a chance to continue.
The great thing about lengthening the lineup is that it keeps you in games even when some guys are struggling. The 2021 Royals are in the top half of all of baseball in runs scored despite their 2, 4, and 5 hitters struggling something fierce. If any two out of the three of Carlos Santana, Jorge Soler, and Andrew Benintendi can find their way out of their present slumps, the Royals would suddenly become a very dangerous team. And that’s before you even add a healthy Mondesi or Dozier back into the mix.
Lengthening the lineup also means you can give guys days off to rest or heal without worrying that you’ve wholly sapped your team’s ability to score runs. If Whit Merrifield needs a day off, Hanser Alberto can step in, and he probably won’t single-handedly cause a loss. If Andrew Benintendi is slumping or pressing, you can give him a couple of days off, and Dyson can take over without guaranteeing an out every time his spot in the lineup comes up.
Winning a competitive sport against the best in the world will always require an element of luck. The 2015 team had a lot of talent among their starters but also relied on a lot of luck to keep all of those guys on the field for the majority of the season. The 2021 Royals may not have the stars that that team did, but they’ll still probably require less luck to make a run at the playoffs. That second part is the bit that gets me excited about the remainder of this season.