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Who’s most to blame for the Royals’ runners in scoring position woes?

They’ve struggled to score recently. Why?

Michael A. Taylor #2 of the Kansas City Royals reacts to a called third strike against the Oakland Athletics in the top of the second inning at RingCentral Coliseum on June 10, 2021 in Oakland, California.
Michael A. Taylor #2 of the Kansas City Royals reacts to a called third strike against the Oakland Athletics in the top of the second inning at RingCentral Coliseum on June 10, 2021 in Oakland, California.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

There have been a lot of problems over the last few weeks for the Kansas City Royals, but one of the most jarring and frustrating has been the performance of the team with runners in scoring position. At one point a few days ago, the Royals had 15 hits in their previous 100 at bats with RISP; as Ryan Lefebvre put it on air, it was as if the entire team was Neifi Perez as soon as a runner touched second base.

Hitting with RISP is important because a hit in those situations will usually score a run. Hit better than expected in those positions, and you’re going to score more runs than expected and win more than expected. When you hit worse than expected, well, you can just look at the Kansas City box scores from about June 5 through June 19.

So, who is ultimately to blame? Let’s take a look and see how Royals hitters are performing with RISP. We’re going to take a look at all players who have had 50 or more plate appearances on the year, which notably disqualifies Adalberto Mondesi, Kyle Isbel, and Edward Olivares.

Incomplete Tier

Jarrod Dyson

  • 11 PA
  • .200/.273/.200
  • 37 wRC+

Cam Gallagher

  • 8 PA
  • .167/.143/.167
  • -27 wRC+

Dyson and Gallagher have accrued more than 50 PA, but they just haven’t accrued enough PA with RISP for any conclusion to be drawn. This is especially true considering they’re bottom-of-the-order guys. We can always re-evaluate later in the season.

Not Their Fault Tier

Carlos Santana

  • 78 PA
  • .267/.385/.417
  • 118 wRC+

Andrew Benintendi

  • 57 PA
  • .292/.368/.458
  • 125 wRC+

Whit Merrifield

  • 67 PA
  • .298/.313/.456
  • 95 wRC+

Nicky Lopez

  • 49 PA
  • .278/.378/.278
  • 91 wRC+

Perhaps the single biggest reason why the Royals are having problems with runners in scoring position is that they have precisely two players who are hitting better than the league average line: Santana and Benintendi. It’s also probably not a coincidence that the Royals started doing particularly poorly with RISP after Benintendi went down with an injury.

The other two players listed in this tier are here for very different reasons. Merrifield has the highest batting average among all Royals with RISP, and though he’s not taking walks in these situations, you arguably want your best pure hitter on the team looking to do damage when there are runners on second or third base. As for Lopez, he is turning in his best plate appearances when it counts. With RISP, Lopez is walking 14.3% of the time and only striking out 6.1% of the time. You know he’s going to buckle down and give you a good PA when runners are ready to score.

Gonna Need Some Improvement Tier

Jorge Soler

  • 64 PA
  • .204/.311/.429
  • 99 wRC+

Salvador Perez

  • 75 PA
  • .258/.333/.364
  • 89 wRC+

It doesn’t seem like it because he’s only hitting .204 with RISP, but Soler has been quietly productive in those situations. He’s walking, and he’s hitting for good power, and he’s not even striking out very much—17.2%, which is pretty good. He just needs to hit more often and he’ll be a true contributor.

Perez isn’t awful with RISP, but his performance is frustrating nonetheless. With no runners on base, Perez is hitting .309 and has a 151 wRC+, but his production plummets when there are runners. Perhaps his aggressiveness is more exploitable when there are runners on, or perhaps it’s a small sample size, but either way Perez is part of the reason why the Royals haven’t been doing as well as they could or should.

These Guys Deserve Blame Tier

Hunter Dozier

  • 50 PA
  • .119/.260/.357
  • 71 wRC+

Kelvin Gutierrez

  • 23 PA
  • .130/.130/.130
  • -35 wRC+

Michael A. Taylor

  • 56 PA
  • .208/.304/.250
  • 60 wRC+

Hanser Alberto

  • 31 PA
  • .214/.207/.393
  • 52 wRC+

Ryan O’Hearn

  • 16 PA
  • .125/.125/.125
  • -38 wRC+,

Whooo boy, where to start? O’Hearn only has 16 plate appearances with RISP, but has managed to strike out in nine of them. Alberto’s OBP with RISP is a putrid .207, and is amazingly lower than his average in those scenarios. Taylor is only hitting .208 with RISP, and his power absolutely evaporates when there are people on base. Gutierrez has made 19 outs in his 23 PA with RISP, hasn’t walked, and none of his three hits went for extra bases. And Dozier, well, his struggles have been well documented—though at the very least, he has been better with RISP than when there are empty bases.

What’s the verdict?

So, what is there to do here? Fortunately, there isn’t really statistical evidence that hitting with runners in scoring position is a real skill. We’re working with pretty small sample sizes that can turn around in a hurry. In other words, that the Royals have stunk recently with RISP isn’t necessarily indicative that they will continue to do so.

However, there is a more basic problem here, and it is a problem that you’ll have to excuse my French here because it is the most succinct and poignant way to get this across: the Royals have a lot of shitty hitters. I’m not talking about shitty hitters this season; rather, their career numbers are shitty.

Put it this way: 16 Royals have accrued 10 or more PAs with the team this year. Do you know how many of them have a career wRC+ of 80 or worse? The answer is eight: Michael A. Taylor, Nicky Lopez, Hanser Alberto, Kelvin Gutierrez, Cam Gallagher, Jarrod Dyson, Kyle Isbel, and Edward Olivares. A ninth, Ryan O’Hearn, has a 67 WRC+ in 167 games over the last three seasons.

Yes, guys like Isbel and Olivares are young and don’t have a lot of big league PAs to their name. And yes, it’s perfectly fine to have a guy like Gallagher on your team, who is never going to be a good hitter but who makes up for it as an excellent defensive backup catcher. Still, you’re not going to hit well when you give a combined 898 plate appearances to the above nine names.

One of the understated reasons why the 2014 and 2015 Royals teams succeeded is because they had a legitimate big league lineup and capable backups. This team does not have that. And when you amass poor hitters like they’re going out of style, you’re going to struggle to score runs. It’s as simple as that.