The Royals are about one-quarter into their season, and already it has been a roller coaster ride. If you had asked fans at the outset how they would feel about an 18-22 record by this point, most would be pretty pleased with that outcome. And yet, because of the way the Royals journeyed to this record - a hot April that saw them peak with the best record in baseball, only to go on an 11-game losing streak - fans are perhaps a bit more pessimistic on the team than if the club had simply traded wins for losses much of the year.
It is hard to conclude much out of just 40 games, but some patterns are starting to emerge. What have we learned about the Royals so far this year?
The Royals have two patient hitters, but the rest aren’t that patient
Dayton Moore talked about getting more on-base hitters into the lineup, and by adding Carlos Santana and Andrew Benintendi he has improved the plate discipline of the lineup. The Royals’ walk rate has increased from 7.8 percent to 8.7 percent, giving them a chance to have their best walk rate since 1997. Outside of those two hitters, however, the rest of the club is walking just 6.9 percent of the time, and the Royals are just eleventh in the league in on-base percentage.
Whit Merrifield and Nicky Lopez are walking a bit more, but Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier are walking less, and adding low-walk players like Michael Taylor and Hanser Alberto counteracts the patience of Santana and Benintendi. The Royals still swing at the third-most pitches in baseball, and are fourth at swinging at pitches outside of the zone. Soler and Dozier are both mired in season-long slumps so far, and may be pressing a bit, swinging at pitches they might not ordinarily hit. The Royals will really need those two players to be the selective, mashing hitters they have been in the past to get the offense going.
Salvador Perez has been better than ever since Tommy John surgery
The history of how catchers have performed following Tommy John surgery isn’t great, but then again, Salvador Perez has been exceeding expectations his entire career. Having a year off following surgery may have allowed him to rest his legs, because he is hitting the ball harder than ever, with the ninth-best exit velocity in baseball. Since the beginning of the 2020 season, he is hitting .307/.333/.572 with 20 home runs in 77 games. His 3.0 WAR over that time is 23rd-most in baseball among hitters, despite missing over 20 games.
What is really head-scratching is that he is taking the same “swing at everything” approach he always has, and yet, pitchers can’t seem to get him out. Since the beginning of 2020, Salvy swings at more pitches than anyone in baseball except teammate Hanser Alberto. As teammate Whit Merrifield put it, “He’s got a lot of Vladimir Guerrero in him,” adding, “he gets extended so well. He can hit bad pitches. He can do damage on bad pitches. Well, I guess technically good pitches. It depends on what side you’re looking at it.”
With the ink still fresh on a four-year, $82 million contract extension, the Royals will need Salvy to continue being an offensive force and a Gold Glover behind the plate. At least a quarter of the season through the first year of that deal, he is more than living up to his end.
The defense is sus
The Royals have prided themselves on defense in the past, and with Gold Glove Salvador Perez behind the plate, Gold Glove finalist Nicky Lopez at second, the talented Adalberto Mondesi at shortstop, and the speedy Michael Taylor in centerfield, they probably expected to be strong up the middle this season. But Mondesi got hurt, and cracks quickly emerged in the defense. Lopez seemed stretched at shortstop, but also made some gaffes that had nothing to do with arm strength or range. Whit Merrifield was uncharacterisitcally bad at second. Hunter Dozier and Carlos Santana showed their flaws on the corners. The Royals had the worst infield defense in baseball.
The outfield defense has had some flaws as well. Andrew Benintendi and Michael Taylor have good defensive skills, but looked bad with some early miscues. Jorge Soler was pressed into action in right field, where he showed his defensive limitations. The Royals are -11 in Defensive Runs saved in their outfield, seventh-worst in baseball. Getting Mondesi back will help save runs on defense, but Royals fans didn’t expect his injury to reveal so many flaws with this defense. Defense metrics typically need a lot more games to reveal the true ability of a defense, so perhaps the gloves will step up in the summer months, but there are more concerns than we anticipated.
The starting pitching has been fairly unlucky
No one came into this season thinking the Royals had the best rotation, but with a combination of proven veterans and some rookies coming off a solid 2020 season, the floor looked fairly high. Royals starters have come out of the game with a 4.78 ERA - third-worst in the American League - but there are reasons to think they have been better than that. The BABIP-fairy has been unkind to them for starters. In an era in which batting averages -even batting averages on balls in play - have fallen to the point that the American League has a BABIP of .289, batters are still hitting .323 on balls in play against Royals starting pitchers, the second-highest in the league. Some regression to the mean could mean better results going forward.
Royals starters also have a very low Left On Base rate of 64.8 percent, lowest in the league. The league average is 72 percent, and aside from striking hitters out (which Royals starters are about leave-average at doing) there isn’t much skill to strand rate. So you could see those numbers regress toward the mean leading to Royals starters allowing fewer runners to score.
Brad Keller will likely improve, although Danny Duffy will likely not have a 1.94 ERA. Mike Matheny juggled the rotation a bit more than perhaps he had to, and perhaps there will be more stability going forward. But there are reasons to think this rotation will be better than it has been, and perhaps even a strength for this club.
The bullpen has some studs, but little depth
Josh Staumont, Scott Barlow, and Jake Brentz have combined to strike out 69 hitters in 56 2⁄3 innings with a 2.70 ERA. The rest of the Royals bullpen has struck out 92 hitters in 97 1⁄3 innings with a 5.55 ERA. That includes some impressive long relief performances from Ervin Santana and Kris Bubic. The real problem has been the short innings when the studs aren’t available. Losing Jesse Hahn and Kyle Zimmer has been a major blow, and hopefully they return soon. But it is also clear that Father Time is undefeated, and Greg Holland and Wade Davis may not have much left in the tank. Rather that continuing to audition 35+ year old relievers like the recently signed Anthony Swarzak, hopefully the Royals begin to rely more on younger arms like Tyler Zuber, Richard Lovelady once he returns from injury, and intriguing arms like Grant Gavin and Mike Shawaryn at Omaha.
Bobby Witt, Jr. may not be a savior this season
The second-overall pick in the 2019 draft wowed fans, coaches, and teammates with his performance at the Alternate Site last summer and in spring training this year. But for the umpteenth time, spring training is not the same as regular-season ball. There is no doubt that Bobby Witt, Jr. has all the physical tools, and likely has the mental acuity to make it as a big leaguer. But there are still nuances to the game - learning to recognize the strike zone, making adjustments when hitters get a book on you, dealing with the grind of a six-month season - that the sterile environment of a team facility can’t teach.
Witt is hitting just .178 with one home run and 14 strikeouts in 51 plate appearances so far for Double-A Northwest Arkansas. It is still early - he could very likely go on a tear next week and put up silly numbers. But his slow start should give pause to any hopes that Witt will come up this summer and tear it up at the big league level. Even if he does excel at Double-A this year, baseball is littered with talented players who struggled initially in their first few hundred MLB at-bats. White Sox rookie Andrew Vaughn, a polished hitter who was among the top hitters in college and taken one pick behind Witt, has struggled to hit for power at the big league level. Christian Pache and Jo Adell, both prospects ranked higher than Witt by Baseball America - have struggled with the bat at the big league level so far.
Bobby Witt, Jr. may be the most exciting hitter the Royals have produced since Carlos Beltran. But it may take some time for him to make an impact at the big league level. We need to have patience and allow him to develop.