The Royals had one of the worst run differentials in baseball during the months of March and April at -64. This contributed heavily to the team going 7-22 over that span. The only bit of good news is that their .233 winning percentage suggested they were a bit unlucky and should have won a couple more games.
However, two weeks into May things couldn’t be more different. As of this writing, before Friday’s action, the Royals actually have a +12 run differential and are 5-5 this month. The only thing that remains the same is that they are still underperforming their Pythagorean record which suggests they should have gone 6-4 over that span.
The runs scored are really the only difference. Both iterations of the team saw their pitchers allowing about 5.5 runs per game while the offense went from 3.3 runs scored per game to 6.7. Before anyone gets too excited about this team making a miracle comeback for the playoffs, those 5.5 runs per game allowed place them firmly as the third-worst pitching team in the sport. It’s unlikely their offense will be able to maintain their current pace, which would easily be the best if it were over the course of the full season.
Still, the biggest frustration regarding what happened in April wasn’t even necessarily the number of the losses but the severity of them. The Royals regularly lost those games in the early innings and didn’t even make them competitive. If the offensive improvements can be maintained at even two-thirds of their current pace, the team could be a lot more watchable for the rest of the season.
That still leaves the question of how things got better. Of course, everyone and their sibling with an ounce of statistical awareness was pointing out during the early part of April that the team’s hitters were having some extraordinarily bad luck. Some of it is seeing that reverted. But that doesn’t explain all of it. Fortunately, Anne Rogers has the explanation for some of the rest.
In that article, Rogers points out that MJ Melendez has made a batting stance adjustment. Melendez categorizes it as a minor adjustment but I’m always curious so I went looking to see if I could find the difference. One of the really cool things is that, if you can figure out how to navigate it, you can find video feed of almost every single pitch from the past few years. My biggest complaint about Melendez, and the one that he himself cited as a problem, was that he was slow getting around on high fastballs. So I located a swing from early in the season against a high and tight fastball and one from more recently.
If you follow those links you should be able to see Melendez’s approach to two very similar pitches. In the latter video his knees appear to be bent a bit more and he keeps the bat closer to the plate at all times. This appears to allow him to have greater leverage and whip the bat through the zone faster. Even though both pitches result in foul balls, he appears to make better contact with the latter pitch and to be more in control of his follow-through. If he has solved his problem with high fastballs - something I previously had considered impossible given the length of his swing - he could go back to being a force at the dish.
One remaining concern for MJ is that his walks are still way down compared to last year, but his strikeouts are also down in the month of May and we aren’t talking about walk levels equal to Alcides Escobar or Mark Quinn, either. So it might work out OK, but you’d also expect those numbers to both regress some, too.
What I found most interesting when I went to look at the team hitting stats on FanGraphs was that Melendez is far from the best hitter in the lineup, currently. That honor goes to Michael Massey. Royals fans were ready to give up and move on from Massey not that long ago, but through a couple of hot-hitting weeks added to his good running and defense, he’s been worth 0.7 fWAR. The other huge addition to the lineup has been a productive Nick Pratto. Meanwhile, Salvador Perez and Vinnie Pasquantino just keep hitting and other guys have contributed in smaller roles.
The worst everyday hitter right now is probably Maikel Garcia. However, he’s contributing a ton on the basepaths and as a defensive player; plus even his wRC+ is 78 - not good, but a lot better than some of the wRC+s we saw dominating even the middle of the lineup in April.
Like I said earlier, the Royals offense won’t be able to keep this torrid pace forever. Massey’s BABIP is .500, for goodness’ sake. But if they can find a more reasonable middle ground they still might be a bit more fun to watch. And even if guys like Massey fall off again, there are still guys like Edward Olivares currently hitting poorly but with a .091 BABIP. In baseball, no one player can carry a team for an entire season. Massey and Pratto don’t have to do it either, as long as the team can avoid every player slumping simultaneously as we saw in April.