The Royals opened the season with the Texas Rangers, expected to be one of the three worst teams in baseball. And they handled their business just fine winning that series. It’s been a gauntlet since then for them, facing the Indians, White Sox, Angels, Blue Jays and Rays. Four of those five teams went to the postseason last year and the one that didn’t has the best player in the game and Shohei Ohtani as well as what looks like an improved pitching staff. It’s been tough. But they’re 8-6 in those 14 games they’ve played against the five teams and now they have an opportunity to face some teams they’re theoretically better than in the Tigers and Pirates. If the Royals want to find themselves in contention in September, these are the stretches they have to dominate. And really, maybe they don’t even have to dominate. Yes, going 5-1 would be great, but even 4-2 would be fine. Hold your own against the good teams and beat the teams you’re supposed to and you’ll find yourself with a chance at the end.
Let’s talk about the suddenly roaring offense. I wrote about the crazy game (you can still subscribe to Inside the Crown absolutely free!) on Wednesday night as well as Jorge Soler’s fascinating (to me) progression from being in a massive slump to hitting bombs. Okay, the shameless self-promotion is mostly over now. I mentioned in the article that the Royals have never recorded more barrels than they did on Wednesday and their barrel percentage in the game was 23.5 percent, which is just crazy. After struggling to hit much of anything hard for a few games, the bats really came alive against the Rays, and it provides some of the hope moving forward that I think many had after spring training and after that first series against the Rangers. I think the bigger news from Wednesday night was that they swung and missed four times. That’s it. For a team that’s struggled a bit with contact, four swings and misses is huge.
And it sort of seems like even in scoring 16 runs in the final two games of the series, they were still unlucky. There was obviously the crazy seventh inning where they somehow turned nearly 1,200 feet of batted balls into nothing, but they seemed to have a lot of rockets caught. And from a team standpoint, they have been slightly unlucky. On balls hit 100 MPH or harder, they’ve hit .596, but with an xBA of .658. That’s not an insignificant difference. It’s six total hits in 99 instances. Their SLG is 1.222 on those balls with an xSLG of 1.530. A lot of both differences is they do hit the ball very hard on the ground, but some of that is just some bad luck they’ve had. With Soler turning things around and positive signs from Andrew Benintendi and Hunter Dozier along with Carlos Santana already absolutely on fire, the Royals could be poised to go on a nice offensive run.
I also talked about the sloppy play by the Royals on Inside the Crown this week. What’s concerning here is that this isn’t a one-off situation now. The opening game of the homestand against the Angels was a slop-fest. Then the first two game against the Rays were just ugly. I’m not sure this is something we can call a trend because they did play some outstanding defense against the Blue Jays, but I do believe this team is suffering from maybe not being as good as they thought they would be with the gloves. Some of that is the absence of Adalberto Mondesi, but that sounds like it’s going to be another three weeks at least before he’s back, so even if that’s the problem, it’s going to stay the problem.
I wrote on Tuesday that Whit Merrifield has rated poorly at second base in the past. And while he’s been mostly fine there, he’s had some misplays that have cost the team. It might be that his best spot really is in the outfield. I personally think left field is a better fit for him than right, but the Royals traded for Andrew Benintendi, so that spot is currently taken. The nice thing about the length of Mondesi’s absence is that it gives time for things to shake out. Nicky Lopez could very easily stop hitting, which makes it a non-starter. Benintendi may never shake out of this and turn into a bench player (that would be very bad, friends). Maybe we see Hunter Dozier miss some time. He has in the past. But the Royals will need to figure out their best alignment when Mondesi comes back, and it might look quite different than what we see today in an effort to shore up some of the sloppy defense.
I don’t want to spend all that time talking about how bad the defense has looked and not single out the one guy who has been absolutely phenomenal out there, Michael A. Taylor. I was skeptical when the Royals acquired him because he’d kind of been middling defensively for the Nationals in spite of his speed. Of course, the sample was smaller as he wasn’t playing every day and all that and in the seasons prior to him losing playing time, he had 12 defensive runs saved in 2017 and 14 in 2018. So maybe I was a little too hard on him. As it turns out, I definitely was, at least through 17 games of action for him with the Royals. He’s been absolutely everything they’ve wanted him to be in center field.
Defensive metrics are a little iffy at this point in this season (fine, a lot iffy), but he leads everyone in baseball in defensive runs saved with seven. If you think that’s impressive, well, it is. The outfielder with the second most is Adolis Garcia with two. He’s on top of all players, though Isiah Kiner-Falefa is just one behind him. His UZR/150 is 41.0, which is fourth in baseball among qualified outfielders. It’s only three weeks worth of baseball, but Taylor has been worth every bit of the praise effused upon him by the front office when they picked him up. It’d be nice if his teammates could join him in being that great, but that’s an ask for another day, I think.
On Monday, Kiley McDaniel had a big draft article with his rankings for the 2021 draft and a tidbit that was both fascinating and surprising was that Kumar Rocker of Vanderbilt was likely to go to either the Tigers with the third pick or the Royals with the seventh pick. If Rocker falls to the Royals, they need to send a gift to every one of the six teams ahead of them. I know there are some concerns about his velocity drop, but when you have that kind of talent fall into your lap, you take it. I know it would be another pitcher taken and the Royals need prospect bats, but when you add his upside to Asa Lacy, Daniel Lynch and all the other pitchers, that would be an amazing stable of arms.
If Rocker doesn’t fall to them, and I honestly have my doubts that he would, I’d rather they go with someone like Sam Bachman than Gunnar Hoglund personally. I just don’t see Hoglund with the upside to go at seven in this draft and I think Bachman could put it all together. Jackson Jobe is a name getting a lot of run with the Royals, and he’s interesting because of crazy spin rates and some scouts thinking he could be as good as anyone in the draft. He’s a shorter righty, but I think that stigma has kind of been put to bed. I also wouldn’t mind seeing Sal Frelick get the call for the Royals, but I’m souring on that idea just a little bit as I’d love to see a guy with more power upside than that, though he does have a solid approach at the plate, more pop than you might expect from his size and a chance to stick in center field for at least a few years. I’ll have some more thoughts on the draft as it gets a bit closer, but there are some interesting tidbits starting to come out.