This may be hard to believe now, but there was a time not that long about when the Royals had the best record in baseball. It’s true! You can look it up! The Royals rushed out to a 16-9 record and were flying sky high. Their playoff odds at Fangraphs went as high as 26 percent. Articles were written about those plucky Royals and how smart they had been to be aggressive this past off-season.
Then the Royals met up with their longstanding rival - the month of May. They had a winless homestand to begin the month and have now lost eight games in a row. And the games haven’t been close. They have been outscored 58-21 over the streak. They have averaged just 2.6 runs per game and have hit just .226/.263/.346. Their pitchers have an ERA over 6.72 over the losing streak. Those Fangraphs playoff odds have sunk to below 10 percent.
There were some warning signs before the losing, namely the run differential. Before the losing streak, they only had a +6 run differential, despite their league-best record. That run differential now stands at -36, worse than any team other than the pitiful Detroit Tigers. They had gone 7-2 against the Tigers, Pirates, and Rangers, three teams expected to be among the worst in baseball.
But to paraphrase Whit Merrifield, fans should not have expected it to “be peaches and roses all year.” The Royals probably weren’t as good as they looked in April, but they’re also likely not as bad as they have looked the last week. I believe it was Winston Churchill who once remarked, “you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of life.....the facts of life.”
With 80 percent of the schedule still remaining, and the Royals still just one game under .500, there is still plenty of time to right the ship. Let’s take stock of where things stand.
The Royals have certainly seemed unlucky in the last week, hitting some balls hard but right at defenders. In the last week, the Royals were actually fourth in baseball in percentage of hard-hit balls. Hunter Dozier in particular has been a victim of poor luck - he has the 14th-biggest difference between his batting average and expected batting average based on Statcast data. Eventually, those hard-hit balls are going to find gaps in the defense.
Among all qualified hitters in MLB, Hunter Dozier's BABIP (.175) is second-lowest. Simultaneously, his average exit velocity (91.6 mph) and barrel % (13.2%) are the highest of his career and in the 82nd-83rd percentile, respectively, of all hitters in MLB. Talk about bad luck.— Alec Lewis (@alec_lewis) May 10, 2021
But this stretch has also exposed that what we thought might be a long lineup might be thinner than we thought. The Royals are getting an All-Star season from Salvador Perez, a very good performance from Carlos Santana, and Andrew Benintendi has come on lately to become a league-average hitter. Whit Merrifield has slumped lately, but is still a league-average hitter overall.
The rest of the lineup has been pretty punchless. Dozier has showed flashes of breaking out, but seems to run into outs a lot. Michael Taylor is what he has been his whole career - a well below-average hitter who strikes out way too much for a player that doesn’t smack that many home runs. Nicky Lopez has one of the lowest hard-hit rates in baseball and is mired in a 2-for-32 slump. And we really need to talk about Jorge Soler, who is hitting .214/.304/.398 since the beginning of 2020, striking out a third of the time. Yes, they’re missing Adalbert Mondesi, but lots of teams are missing hitters, and it seems unlikely a hitter with a career 84 OPS+ could awaken this lineup from their slumber.
No one expected this lineup to be the ‘95 Indians, but they seemed capable of being an average lineup that could be feisty, like they were in April. They are showing some more plate discipline this year - their walk rate has spiked from 7.8 percent last year to 8.6 percent this year, and their swinging strike rate has dropped even as their swing rate has increased. Perhaps they can get right with more of these hard-hit balls falling for hits, particularly from Dozier. But this is an old lineup - the fourth-oldest in baseball - and we just may be seeing a lot of guys in their decline phase.
The Royals made defense their bread and butter in their run in 2014-15, but they have had trouble with the leather since their core group moved on. This year, the loss of Mondesi has caused them to scramble a bit to cover the shortstop position, and so far they have had the worst infield defense in baseball. When he returns, he will upgrade not only that position, but possibly also second base a bit with Lopez moving to the position where he was a Gold Glove finalist last year.
But there are still some concerns. Hunter Dozier has had some inconsistencies, and while a thumb injury is likely a factor, he has a history of subpar defense at third. Carlos Santana has had some glaring errors and missed throws. Whit Merrifield has had some uncharacteristic miscues that he has apologized for.
In the outfield, Michael Taylor has been outstanding most of the time, but he has been susceptible to the occasional miscue. Andrew Benintendi has had some odd plays that have made us miss Alex Gordon. Jorge Soler in right has actually not been as bad as you might think, although he did make this throw.
Still, I’m not too concerned about the defense, at least not yet. It takes more than a month for defensive metrics to really flesh out, but for what it’s worth, the Royals have been in the middle of the pack in Defense Runs Above Average. A lot of the gaffes can be written off as small sample size errors for now, and there certainly seems to be talent for the defense to be better. But it may be something to watch for as the season progresses.
The starting pitching
If pitching is the currency of baseball, it looked like the Royals might have some hot cryptocurrency that could go up in value. With Brady Singer and Kris Bubic holding their own in 2020, and Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar knocking on the door, the rotation had some serious upside, with a high floor due to some solid veterans like Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, and Mike Minor.
Singer has been as advertised, and Duffy has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, and yet Royals starters have a 4.71 ERA, seventh-worst in baseball. Some of that is bad luck - their BABIP is .308 with a FIP of 3.83. You can probably expect Brad Keller to regress back towards the mean, although his improvement will probably be counteracted by Danny Duffy regressing the other way.
Mike Minor has been a bit enigmatic in that he always seems to be a pitch or two from finishing the night with a great line, only to watch it all fall apart. This year he has cruised the first time through a lineup, experienced some difficulties the second time through, then gets hammered the third time through. That also gets to another issue for the rotation - the ability to go deep in games. Royals starters have thrown the fifth-fewest innings in baseball, even as starters are throwing shorter stints around the game. And while you might think that may be because the Royals are looking to ease their starters back to a full workload after the shortened season, Matheny refuted that notion back in spring training.
The good thing is the Royals do have a talented rotation with depth. They won’t have to turn to an Eduardo Villacis for a start, they have legitimate arms at the Major League and minor league level. If Brad Keller can’t turn things around, they can go to Jakob Junis or Kris Bubic or Jackson Kowar, who is pitching well in Omaha. Not all of these pitchers will pan out, but the best way to find a good five-man rotation is to start out with ten starting pitchers.
The Royals bullpen went from a strength to a weakness quicker than the Super League collapsed. The losses of Jesse Hahn and Kyle Zimmer hurt, but that, coupled with the short outings by starters has forced the Royals to dig deep into their bullpen, exposing the pen a bit.
Josh Staumont, Scott Barlow, and Jake Brentz have been pretty solid, although the walks have been a bit high. Tyler Zuber shows some promise and Kris Bubic had a clutch long relief performance on Saturday that will probably get him promoted to the rotation soon. But the club has three relievers over the age of 35 - Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Ervin Santana - who have a combined ERA of 5.25 in 36 mostly lower-leverage innings.
Mike Matheny has shown a lot of flexibility in how he uses relievers, and he may still be getting accustomed to his personnel, trying to figure out how to best maximize their performances. The bullpen won’t be elite this year, but it has a chance to be a pretty average pen, particularly as they shuttle in some younger, better arms and cut ties with some of their veterans.
The Royals have made a few moves that were a bit head-scratching, but were waved away because the team was winning. And look, I’m not certain that the team would be better off if Kyle Isbel were still on the roster right now. There were times he made good adjustments and times he looked a bit overwhelmed. He hit .265 but was also striking out 41 percent of the time without any real power. But he also got all of 12 games to show what he could do, and moving him down meant seeing more of Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier in right field. Ryan O’Hearn has been decent replacing Isbel in the lineup, so perhaps this move worked out, but the losing holds it to a bit more scrutiny.
What doesn’t look good right now is taking a perfectly fine Jakob Junis and moving him to the bullpen to get Daniel Lynch up. I am a big believer in Daniel Lynch and in giving minor leaguers chances, but Lynch hasn’t pitched in a real game since 2019, a season that was shortened due to injury. Rushing him to the big leagues before he had a chance to pitch for Omaha when there wasn’t an immediate need in the rotation seemed puzzling, and now that Lynch was lit up in his second start, seems rash. Compounding the problem is that Jakob Junis has been hammered out of the pen. Maybe there is a long game here that will all work out in the end, but the pitching management has room to be second-guessed right now.
Overall though, Matheny has provided pretty steady leadership. While fans may want managers to throw things and shake things up, the reality is baseball is a long season with mountains and valleys. A manager that is making big changes in May is a manager that is panicking already. And once you press those buttons in May, it reduces their effectiveness when the team goes through another inevitable slump later in the summer (there are only so many hitting coaches you can fire!)
The adage in baseball is the season doesn’t begin until Memorial Day. Despite one bad week, the Royals are still very much in it. They just need to make sure the next week isn’t as bad as the last one.
How many games do you think the Royals will win this season?
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