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Lesky’s Notes: Never say it can’t get worse

Buddy Bell wasn’t a very good manager, but boy was he right about how low things can go.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Chicago White Sox Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Watching the Royals day in and day out just constantly reminds me of Buddy Bell’s famous quote. Any time you think they’ve hit rock bottom, I just can’t let myself believe it because you never know what mess is coming around next. That sounds a lot more doom and gloom than I honestly meant for it to sound, but this week has been rough. And I thought it was rough a couple of weeks ago! Which I guess proves that point that it can always get worse. I mentioned on Twitter a couple nights ago on a day that I wrote my version of the clean house newsletter that what’s almost more frustrating is there actually is talent in this organization. I’ve heard some of the same things Alec Lewis wrote about a bit ago that other scouts would love to get their hands on the Royals young pitching. Many of the bats are at the big leagues or close. They need the help to figure out how to turn them into a good team, but I just don’t trust this current group to get there. And that’s pretty disappointing.

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Playoff magic?

I always appreciate when Jeffery Flanagan shares his thoughts on Twitter, and Tuesday night, he did that. I don’t agree with a lot of what he said, which is more than okay of course, but I wanted to dive in to one of the topics he hit on a few times which was the fact that the Royals have won the World Series and other lower revenue clubs have not. I personally don’t think there’s a magical elixir the Royals have figured out that allowed them to win in the playoffs where other teams just can’t do it. And moreso, if they were able to figure that out, why wouldn’t they simply find the magic to make it more often? Here’s a quick look at some other lower revenue clubs and what they’ve done in terms of winning seasons and playoff appearances between 2012 and 2021:

Low-Revenue Teams

Team Winning Seasons Playoff Appearances
Team Winning Seasons Playoff Appearances
Milwaukee Brewers 6 4
Cincinnati Reds 4 4
Pittsburgh Pirates 4 3
Oakland A's 7 6
Minnesota Twins 4 3
Tampa Bay Rays 6 4
Kansas City Royals 3 2

The Marlins are maybe the most comparable to the Royals in that they have just one winning season and one playoff appearance since 2012, but also that they tend to win when they get to the postseason. They just don’t get there very often. The argument that I see a lot is if you’d rather a team make the playoffs and never win or a team make it rarely but win when they do and I just think that’s such a bad argument. Why can’t the team that makes it regularly win? The Royals and Dodgers have the same World Series title since 2012 (and since 1989), but you wouldn’t say they’re on par, would you? Give me a team that actually has a shot year in and year out because the reality is that you can’t count on the once in a lifetime playoff run to end in a World Series. A seven-game series is a generally poor way to determine the best team in baseball. Sometimes the best team wins, sometimes it doesn’t. There isn’t a single team in the world I feel confident can win four series in any given year, so I would much rather have a many opportunities as possible. Give me the chances to win more of those series all day long.

Pitching ineptitude for years

I know I’m not broaching any new ground here and I like to think of myself as one of the early adopters of the idea that Cal Eldred has no clue what he’s doing, but I dug into the Royals numbers a little deeper since his hire and it’s honestly worse than I thought. Since 2018 (and heading into play yesterday though there’s almost no way it changed from one game in four and a quarter years), the Royals rank 28th in ERA as a staff. They’re 27th in FIP, 29th in xFIP, 29th in fWAR, 29th in strikeout rate, 24th in walk rate (that’s actually a surprise) 28th in first pitch strike rate and 29th in swinging strike rate. It would be one thing if they were getting better because those first couple of years were full of some terrible pitchers. But it’s not. Here’s where they ranked in those stats through Wednesday’s action this year:

ERA - 27th
FIP - 29th
xFIP - 30th
fWAR - 30th
K Rate - 30th
BB Rate - 28th
First Pitch Strike - 30th
Swinging Strike - 25th

There’s talent on the staff. Zack Greinke should still be a solid pitcher, though he is bringing down a bunch of the swinging strike and strikeout numbers and now he’s hurt. Brad Keller has never gotten strikeouts, but for all the hate he gets he’s been a pretty darn solid pitcher for years, though has regressed in the last two. Daniel Lynch is a first round pick. Kris Bubic is a first round pick. Brady Singer is a first round pick (and looks good after spending time in AAA). Jackson Kowar is a first round pick. It’s a bunch of talented arms and they’re NOT GETTING IT DONE. Dayton Moore can give all the speeches he wants about fake accountability, but even if Eldred was a wizard who everyone in the world thought was the best pitching coach in the world, he simply has to go because these numbers are insane in their ineptitude in the fifth year of his tenure.

Defensive mixed metrics

One of the areas that the Royals were supposed to excel in this year was on defense. Of course, a lot of that was predicated on having three shortstops on the infield, two gold glove winners in the outfield and Salvador Perez behind the plate. I know that some might argue Salvy isn’t exactly worthy of being called an elite defender and there are times I agree, but he’s at least well respected. Regardless, the defensive metrics like the Royals quite a bit. Well…some of them. Others aren’t quite as high on them. I wonder how much of that is impacted by Adalberto Mondesi now out for the year and Bobby Witt Jr. sliding to shortstop. Witt has been very good at shortstop, worth two outs above average on Statcast, but he ranks at -4 defensive runs saved. I find that kind of interesting. Nicky Lopez is +2 in DRS at shortstop, but right at 0 in OAA. As a whole, the Royals have the fourth best defense by Fangraphs ranking, fifth best by outs above average and 22nd best by DRS.

I honestly don’t know what the disconnect is, but I honestly do find it very interesting. You might be somewhat surprised to know that Carlos Santana has four defensive runs saved, which leads the team, just ahead of Michael A. Taylor’s three. But here’s where it gets weird. Nicky Lopez is at -8 DRS at second base. I know he hasn’t been great, but that doesn’t seem right. MJ Melendez is at -6 behind the plate. And Hunter Dozier is at -3 in right field. Okay, that one makes some sense. I don’t exactly know if I have a point here other than the fact that it is just super interesting to me how differently different systems view the Royals defense. I think Kyle Isbel, for example, has looked just fine in center. He’s been worth one out above average on Statcast, but -3 DRS. So I guess what I’m saying is I think the defense looks fine, though not as good as at the start of the year, but the numbers aren’t quite as sure.

The top of the zone

One thing that I really love pitchers doing is using their fastballs at the top of the strike zone. First of all, it works. There’s something so aesthetically pleasing about a 94 MPH fastball just buzzing right around the top of the zone and a hitter swinging through it. But I love it so much because, well, it works. But this is one of those instances when you have to look at results and change your mind a little bit. It doesn’t work for the Royals. Using Baseball Savant’s shadow zone and looking at the top of the zone and right above it, the Royals have allowed the second highest average on four-seam fastballs up there and the second-highest slugging percentage. They come by it honestly too as their expected numbers are right at the top (or bottom, however you want to look at it). They also have the lowest strikeout rate in baseball on those fastballs. Some of it is the actual pitchers not executing, but some of it is that maybe they just don’t have the staff to do that. So they have to adjust. But, for whatever it’s worth, it’s not everyone. Daniel Lynch has been great up there with his fastball. So has Dylan Coleman and Amir Garrett and Joel Payamps and Collin Snider. And Brad Keller has been okay.

But guys like Zack Greinke, Taylor Clarke and Carlos Hernandez have been absolutely rocked by it. Keller has been great on his four-seamer at the bottom of the zone. Ronald Bolaños has been solid there. Jonathan Heasley has done well too. But the issue is that nobody is throwing that many fastballs down in the zone. And there’s good reason for it because the way swings have been geared to lifting makes for a fastball down in the zone easier to get in the air, but I wonder if this isn’t an area where the Royals can zig while others are zagging given the issues with the ball throughout this season. They just don’t have enough margin for error to do anything but try to find success at the margins and this is something that other teams aren’t doing it. The fact is that if they start working more fastballs down in the zone and it doesn’t work, it’s not like it can hurt too much. They’re already giving up more runs per game than most teams. At least it’s worth a shot.