May 2. Snowing. All sporting events have been cancelled. I can either go outside and build a snowman, or I can write a column analyzing the performance of the Kansas City Royals so far this season. What to do… what to do….
Well…Sorry, readers. Much as I know you’d prefer to look at a picture of a snowman I built in MAY, I’m afraid you’re going to have to look at my assessment of how the Royals have done so far, approximately one month into the season.
Now, keep in mind here that my report card is based on what the Royals need to do if they are going to be a championship caliber team, or at least contend to be one. If I were assigning grades simply on the basis of improvement or entertainment value, they’d have a shot at the honor roll. But my intention is to determine how well they are doing at fulfilling the expectations of long-suffering fans who are dying to “see the Royals play meaningful games in September.”
Therefore, a grade of “A” means “championship caliber”, not simply “a heckuva lot better than they were.” “C“ indicates they are on pace to finish about where I expect, in the middle of the pack. And “F” means they are destined for another season as a cellar-dweller.
PITCHING: The pitching has been as good as advertised. The Royals top 3 starters, James Shields, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie have been stellar. Effective, tenacious and durable are good descriptions of the Royals’ top of the rotation so far. There have been hiccups from the #4 and #5 starters, Wade Davis and Luis Mendoza, but the top 3 have been outstanding. The bullpen has ironed out some early issues and has become pretty reliable, 3rd in the AL in both saves (9) and holds (17). Overall, the staff is tied for 2nd place in the American League with a 3.49 ERA. GRADE: A
DEFENSE: Ryan and Hud (the Royals TV announcers) need to quit touting the Royals defense, because the Royals defense has been nothing to brag about to date. They have committed 17 errors on the season, 5th worst in the AL. In contrast, Detroit has only 6 boots so far. Of course, with stationary objects (Cabrera, Fielder, Peralta) manning most of their infield positions, Detroit doesn’t get to many balls. Hard to boot a ball you don’t get to.
A stat called Defensive Efficiency Ratio basically measures how many balls a defense gets to. Detroit is 12th in the AL in DER. They only have 6 errors because unless a ball is hit right at them, they don’t get a glove on it. The Royals DER is not much better, however. They rank 10th in the AL. In other words, they’re not getting to as many balls as a lot of teams, and when they do get there, they’re booting it at an alarming rate. Their defense has been a disappointment to this point. The only reason their grade isn’t worse is because defense hasn’t glaringly cost them numerous defeats to this point. GRADE: C-
Page 2 of 3 - OFFENSE: The good news: The Royals are currently 3rd in the AL with a .271 batting average. The bad news: They rank 10th in the league in runs scored with 113. Leading the AL with 162 runs is Oakland. “Oakland?” you say. Yes, Oakland. Although not laden with a plethora of big-name bashers, the A’s do far-and-away lead the league in bases-on-balls with 138, more than twice the number of walks the Royals have drawn to date (67). The Royals do rank #1 in batting average with runners in scoring position (RISP), but unless they become more patient and stop swinging at pitchers’ pitches, their runs-scored stats are not likely to improve, because without some more walks, they won’t be getting as many runners INTO scoring position as teams do who walk a lot.
Another huge area of concern is the Royals lack of punch, especially from the middle of the order. They are currently tied for last place in the AL with a mere 16 round-trippers on the season. This is another stat that has to improve for the Royals to be able to contend. Yes, they play half their games in spacious Kauffman Stadium, but they play half their games away from the friendly confines as well. And the opposition has somehow managed to swat balls out of Kauffman—13 big flies against KC’s 7.
Individually, LF Alex Gordon (.321), CF Lorenzo Cain (.329) and SS Alcides Escobar (.291) are hitting well. DH Billy Butler (.278) seems to be coming around recently and Salvador Perez (.278) is hitting well enough for a catcher, whose main job is to manage the pitchers.
However, RFJeff Francoeur (.264) seems to still be mired in mediocrity— for a corner outfielder who is expected to provide some pop. He also whiffs way too often, making too many unproductive outs. 1B Eric Hosmer (.250, no HR) has not been dangerous enough at clean-up to provide any protection for Butler in the 3 hole. And the biggest disappointment has been the Moose, 3B Mike Moustakas—who as of a few weeks ago wasn’t even hitting room temperature. A recent surge has brought Moose up to .203, and there are signs he may finally be breaking out of his month-long funk.
One systemic issue seems to be the Royals’ batting order. There is a problem when your lead-off hitter is leading the team in RBIs. Either your lead-off hitter should be hitting somewhere else in the line-up, or the middle of your order has been catastrophically unproductive. In the Royals case, it’s both.
Manager Ned Yost is hamstrung by the lack of a true lead-off hitter. He is forced to put Gordon in that role, even though Gordon would be a perfect #3 hitter. Then Butler could bat clean-up, for which he seems well-suited. Teams have been pitching around Butler to get to Hosmer. They are not going to pitch around Gordon to get to Butler, and if Moose or Hosmer or Frenchy or SOMEone would get hot behind Butler, they could have a Murderers Row. A lot of the Royals offensive woes would evaporate if someone, like 4th outfielder Jarrod Dyson, would develop into a bona fide leadoff hitter. GRADE: C-
Page 3 of 3 - INTANGIBLES: The Royals seem to have a lot of chemistry and positive energy surrounding the team this season. Currently at 15-10 (as of this writing), the Royals are on top of the AL Central, ½ game ahead of Detroit. It’s hard to argue with being in first place in your division. They must be doing SOMETHING right. However, they are playing in what is commonly acknowledged to be the weakest division in the AL. There are 5 teams in the AL with more wins than the Royals. If the Royals don’t win their division, it’s unlikely they will be able to secure a wild-card slot at this rate. Manager Ned Yost has played his cards right most of the time this season. Sometimes I think he leaves pitchers in a little too long. But he has been putting his bench to fairly good use and his batting orders are ok for who he has. GRADE: B.
In summary, The Royals pitching gets an A; their defense and offense C-; and their intangibles a B. Averages out to about a B-or a C+. In other words, they have done fairly well, but improvement is needed in some areas before they are ready to challenge for an AL title.