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Three things that are going right for the Royals

Not everything is bad!

Kansas City Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. (7) fields a grounder in the second inning of an MLB game between the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals on May 10, 2023 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO.
Kansas City Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. (7) fields a grounder in the second inning of an MLB game between the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals on May 10, 2023 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO.
Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This season has certainly been more than a little frustrating. After almost losing 100 games last year, the 2023 Royals, as we approach Memorial Day, are pacing for more than 110 losses. The offseason was uneventful, unhelpful players like Hunter Dozier linger on the roster, and injuries have put a damper on more than a few of the most interesting and high-ceiling players in the organization.

As such, it’s pretty easy to be down about the Royals. And, look, if you want to check out, go for it. The Royals don’t deserve anything from you, and if you’re not enjoying their entertainment product, that’s on the team.

At the same time, I think there’s room for a little optimism and enjoyment of some things that are going right—especially when they tend to get drowned out by much-earned pessimism. That’s what we’ll do here today. Let’s get started.

Bobby Witt’s fielding did a 180

One of the most alarming outcomes from 2022 was Bobby Witt Jr.’s fielding ability, or should we say, lack of fielding ability. Witt was the worst defensive shortstop in Major League Baseball last year, and he was better at third base but only somewhat.

To be sure, Witt’s problems at the plate are a bigger deal, as Witt has doubled and tripled down on his “be Salvador Perez but without Salvy’s bat control and hit tool” approach, which. Not good! But his defense was still important. Put it this way: Witt has regressed at the plate but is pacing to be more valuable than last year. That’s because he has been just a way better defender.

If you’ve been here for a while, you know I like to average out multiple defensive stats and prorate them per 1000 innings (a full defensive season at one position). Using Defensive Runs Saved, Ultimate Zone Rating, and Runs Above Average—together or individually—the improvement Witt has shown is astounding.

Bobby Witt’s Fielding Improvements at SS

Stat 2022 2023 Improvement
Stat 2022 2023 Improvement
DRS -18 -1 17
UZR -6.5 -0.3 6.2
RAA -7 4 11
AVGDef -10.5 0.9 11.4
AVGDef/1000 -12.7 2.7 15.4

That last stat is the big one—Witt has improved by 15.4 defensive runs per 1000 innings so far this year. That is...a lot. For context, that is roughly on average what UZR and DRS said Lorenzo Cain was worth defensively in the 2013-2015 years. This is why Witt is pacing for a 3.5 WAR season even though his offense has regressed: the difference between “good shortstop” and “awful, unplayably bad shortstop” is immense. And if he’s this good defensively moving forward, that puts the offensive bar for him to be an All-Star much lower (while also raising his ceiling that much more).

Pitching Staff Strikeout and Walk Rate Improvements

On the surface level, the Royals’ pitching staff is bad; they’re the third-worst team by ERA and the fifth-worst team by FIP. And, yeah, they unquestionably need a lot more talent both in the bullpen and in the starting rotation.

The thing is, the Royals made a big deal in the offseason about how much better they think their coaching is now. Again, when looking at the surface level, it has looked bad.

But for a proper comparison, we should look at metrics that stabilize quickly and are under the near complete control of the pitchers themselves. Additionally, we should look at a group of pitchers that pitched under the previous regime and under the current pitching staff for a one-to-one comparison.

Taking all this into account, it’s clear that K-BB% does an excellent job. It considers both strikeout rate and walk rate and is a really solid snapshot at a pitcher’s dominance. And by comparing pitchers to themselves, we remove outside variables as much as possible. The results? What do you know—just like in the minor leagues, there is a pretty noticeable and intriguing improvement going on largely across the board.

Royals pitcher K-BB% between 2023 and 2022

Name 2023 K% 2023 BB% 2023 K-BB% 2022 K% 2022 BB% 2022 K-BB% Improvement
Name 2023 K% 2023 BB% 2023 K-BB% 2022 K% 2022 BB% 2022 K-BB% Improvement
Josh Staumont 30.90% 10.90% 20.00% 24.40% 16.50% 8.00% 12.00%
Amir Garrett 23.80% 13.80% 10.00% 25.00% 16.30% 8.70% 1.30%
Scott Barlow 33.80% 11.80% 22.10% 26.60% 7.60% 19.00% 3.10%
Kris Bubic 23.50% 2.90% 20.60% 18.70% 10.70% 8.00% 12.60%
Taylor Clarke 32.60% 9.00% 23.60% 23.60% 3.90% 19.70% 3.90%
Brad Keller 15.40% 19.90% -4.50% 16.50% 9.20% 7.30% -11.80%
Carlos Hernandez 28.20% 9.40% 18.80% 13.20% 11.70% 1.50% 17.30%
Jose Cuas 29.10% 6.30% 22.80% 18.90% 13.30% 5.60% 17.20%
Zack Greinke 16.50% 3.60% 12.90% 12.50% 4.60% 7.90% 5.00%
Brady Singer 19.40% 7.80% 11.70% 24.20% 5.60% 18.50% -6.80%
ALL 22.58% 9.87% 12.71% 19.38% 8.81% 10.56% 2.15%

There are 10 Royals pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched in Kansas City both last year and this year. Eight of them have improved their K-BB%, with four of them improving by at least 12.6%. Only one has declined by double digits—Brad Keller. As a whole, the improvement has been 2.2%. Take Keller out, and that jumps to 5.2%.

This improvement may seem modest, but it is clear evidence that the pitching coaching is leagues better than it used to be. I ran the numbers between the 10 Royals pitchers who pitched on the team in both 2022 and 2021 as a comparison and literally laughed out loud from the results. Eight of them saw declines in their K-BB% from 2021 to 2022, with only one player seeing a notable increase—a single-digit increase of 4%.

All across the system, pitchers who had played for the organization previously are now improving when they weren’t before. This, to me, makes the draft particularly fascinating: with better pitching coaching, how will that affect draft decisions, and will that finally result in some pitching prospects who stick?

Bullpen Trade Chips are Building Value

When the Royals signed Aroldis Chapman, there was more than a little grumbling. Chapman had played his way out of New York with declining results and a questionable at best clubhouse tenure marked by multiple off-the-field incidents. It was disappointing to see Kansas City sign someone with his domestic violence allegations.

Personally, I am still disappointed it happened. I would rather the Royals have not signed him at all. However, it is undeniable that the Royals turned back the clock on Chapman, one of the most infamous relievers of his generation. In another nod to the pitching coaching staff, they said they had an idea to fix his delivery.

They were right. Chapman has turned back the clock five years at least, back to his 100 MPH average fastball and disgusting slider. But it’s not just Chapman who has established himself—after a rocky start, Scott Barlow has never done more with less. Despite a fastball velocity that has dipped below 93 MPH for the first time, he’s been vintage Barlow and has still been incredibly effective.

Chapman and Barlow should not be Royals after the July trade deadline. Both are the perfect July trade pieces: premier relievers in a league that is hungry for them, as neither of whom is under an onerous contract. The Royals would be hard-pressed to replicate their production with other relievers. But this season was lost from day one. If the Royals lose a few more games this year but gain some talent that could contribute in the future, so be it.