A month into the 2019 baseball season and one word sums up how it has gone so far for the Kansas City Royals: crazy. Crazy in that if you watch this team on a semi-regular basis, they don’t appear to be a team worthy of sharing baseball’s basement with the Marlins. But as we sit here on the doorstep of May, that is exactly where we are at.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been positives so far in the campaign. Hunter Dozier is putting up MVP type numbers, as he is hitting .349/.447/.686 with 7 home runs and 17 RBIs, a total that is already creeping up on what he did in 2018.
Alex Gordon has been the phoenix, rising from years of below average production to hit .301/.395/.544 and an OPS+ of 149. Gordon has always been a streaky hitter, but a focus on patience and hitting the ball to the opposite field has made for a banner April so far in 2019.
In fact, both are posting leader board type numbers, especially when it comes to WAR for position players (the Baseball Reference variety) and Adjusted Batting Wins:
Offensively this Royals team is holding their own so far this year, taking up residence in the middle of the pack in most vital offensive categories, showing some offensive punch that many of us didn’t picture once the season began.
Adalberto Mondesi is pretty much doing exactly what we all expected including leading the league in triples, Whit Merrifield has been a steady bat at the top of the lineup (and giving us Royals fans some excitement early this year with his hitting streak) and Jorge Soler is hitting dongs. Essentially, while the Royals offense isn’t perfect (Hello, Chris Owings), it has been a bit more consistent than I was expecting when the season began.
…and then there is the pitching. As much as we’ve been pleasantly surprised with the Royals hitters, there has been equal disappointment with the pitching. Overall, Kansas City is 13th in fWAR for the entire staff. The starters have been slightly better, as they are 9th in FIP, and…well, almost everything else is in the bottom section of the league.
While the relievers numbers aren’t much better (and early in the season showed a unique ability to blow the lead in almost any situation), there has been a noticeable improvement over the last couple of weeks. Over the last 14 days, Royals relievers have the 5th best fWAR, 3rd best FIP, 5th best ERA, 3rd highest LOB%, 2nd highest ground ball rate, and the 2nd lowest hard hit rate.
Maybe the most obvious reason for this turnaround is the ability by the Royals coaching staff in defining roles for the relievers. Early in the season, it was obvious that Royals manager Ned Yost was feeling out who was best suited for what role in this pen. With new guys like Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman and longtime starter Ian Kennedy being moved to a new role, there was a lot of uncertainty with this squad. Now, the team has an idea who can do what and a lot of the early struggles have gone away. This isn’t to say there are no issues, just less than what we were seeing those first couple weeks of the season.
So here are the current standings in the American League Central:
The Royals are way out of the race at this point, 9.5 games back in a division that some consider the weakest in baseball. Maybe the good news is that no one team is running away with the division, so there is a lot of room for upward mobility, especially with five months left in the season.
This is not to say the Royals can still be contenders. We all know what this team is. We all know the rebuild is in full effect. But is this team better than their performance in their first 29 games? I believe so. Luckily, more and more youngsters are going to get a chance to prove their worth in 2019. We’ve already seen Richard Lovelady and Kelvin Gutierrez. Before we know it, Nicky Lopez will be taking the trip from Omaha to Kansas City. While things look bleak now, if you squint just right in your royal blue colored glasses, it’s not hard to see this team occupying fourth or even third place before the season is done.
When 2018 ended, the Kansas City Royals wrapped up one of the worst seasons in team history. The team coasted to a 104 loss season, allowing almost 200 more runs than they scored and compiling the worst bullpen in baseball.
But something happened those last two months. The team compiled a 25-31 record in August and September and while on the surface it IS still a losing record, compared to the team’s 13-31 record in June and July, the latter months made them look like world beater’s.
So the team was actually riding a high those last two months and they were doing it with a simple philosophy: pitching and speed. For the first time all season, they looked more like the aggressive team we saw during their championship runs in 2014 and 2015 than the team’s that appeared to be scraping by the previous two seasons.
Whatever the reason, that philosophy trickled into the offseason and the Royals you are getting ready to see in 2019 appear to be a team ready to run. Management realized this was a team with very little power and the possibility of competing with other teams stocked with that extra ‘pop’ wasn’t going to get them very far. So instead, they have decided to take a page from Forrest Gump and just run.
The Royals already had the American League stolen base leader (Whit Merrifield) from last year and coupled with rising star Adalberto Mondesi (32 steals in 75 games), it appeared the team had an excellent one-two punch that would keep the opposing defense busy.
But then they signed super-speedy outfielder Billy Hamilton. Then they reunited with baseball’s version of Barry Allen, Terrance Gore. The Royals decided to double-down on speed and make sure that the catchers and pitchers around the league are going to have to stay on their toes when facing Kansas City this season.
But will this plan of attack work? The biggest roadblock to the Royals offense this season isn’t the lack of power or even the uncertainty of a number of younger players. The biggest fly in the ointment could very well be their ability to get on base, or lackthereof.
While Merrifield or even Ryan O’Hearn showed an ability last year to consistently find their way on base, bu t others did not. Hamilton is the biggest concern, as he posted a .299 OBP in 2018 with a rising strikeout rate. While he did see an uptick in his walk rate last year, he struck out more and saw an increase in his flyball rate. For a guy who’s sole purpose it is to get on base and cause havoc, it would appear less strike outs and putting the ball in the air less would be a healthier way to get the most desired results.
In fact, outside of Whit and Alex Gordon, no other Royals hitter had a walk total above 30. This is a team that needs to be on base as much as possible to score runs, since relying on a longball to help them doesn’t appear to be much of an option. The Royals were near the bottom portion in almost every power category last year for all of baseball and there doesn’t appear to be much help on the way. That being said, there could be some interesting developments to follow this year when it comes to the offense.
O’Hearn saw 170 plate appearances in his rookie year and showed that he could hit major league pitching, posting a solid OBP and an OPS+ of 155. But most of his damage was against righties, so the goal in 2019 is to see what he can do against lefties. The good news is that he produced some solid numbers in the minors against lefties in his career, so there is a chance that last year was an outlier.
Hunter Dozier struggled during most of his rookie campaign, but showed some steady progress as the year wore on. He has looked good this spring and his continued development would be huge for the Royals success this year.
Brett Phillips is starting the year in AAA, but he has a chance to be a regular if he can tone down his strike outs this year. Phillips has some major pop in his bat and combined with his above-average defense, could be a foundation piece for Kansas City if he battle some of his flaws this year.
Most eyes are on Mondesi to see what he does this year. He started seeing regular playing time in July of last year and once that happened he appeared to take off. He hit .276/.306/.498 last year with 14 home runs and an OPS+ of 116. Mondesi’s combination of speed and power illicits a lot of comparisons and if he can continue to hit with authority while showing a bit of patience, he could be an elite player in no time at all.
Then start the questions. Will Jorge Soler stay healthy? It felt like Soler had turned a corner last year and one wonders what would have been if he hadn’t fouled a ball off his foot in Oakland. For the Royals to show some improvement this year, they need a healthy Soler to steer the middle of the batting order.
Can Chris Owings rebound? Owings is the new ‘Alcides Escobar’ (ie. super utilityman, not player who will never leave) and it would appear he is going to be a semi-regular moving forward. But Owings hit a paltry .206/.272/.302 but he also posted an extremely low BABIP of .265 which could be a sign of bad luck. Owings has never posted an above-average offensive season, so his value at this point might be tied into how he produces on defense.
How about the catchers? With Salvador Perez gone for the year, the catcher’s spot will be helmed by Cam Gallagher and Martin Maldonado. While you shouldn’t expect much from these two on offense, defensively the Royals might actually see an improvement in 2019. I’m not saying either of these two are superior to Perez as much as I’m saying that what they excel at are the areas that Salvy struggles with. It will be interesting to see how these two mesh with the pitching staff.
Finally for the offense, Alex Gordon returns to man left field. Gordon hasn’t been the same since his collision with Mike Moustakas back in 2016, but he did show a few signs of offensive glory last year and defensively is an elite defender. This very well could be the end of the road for Gordon, as his contract is up at the end of the season and he has talked about going home and spending more time with his family.
As an Alex Gordon fan, this is going to be a hard season for me and this spring has already left me dreading what is close at hand. Gordon has been the lifeblood of this organization for a long time and it’s going to be strange if this is it. At some point this year, I will discuss a bit more in detail, but for me, Gordon has been the closest thing to George Brett the Royals have had since #5 retired. For those of us that have been around for the last 30+ years, 2019 will be an end of an era.
All this talk about the offense and no mention of the pitching? No worries, as the rotation for Kansas City actually looks like a pretty solid group. Brad Keller looks to front the rotation this arm, as he looks to duplicate a great rookie season. Keller started the year as a Rule 5 pick that the Royals could stow away in the bullpen and by the end of the year he had locked down a starting job and become Kansas City’s most reliable pitcher.
Jake Junis and Jorge Lopez return and both look to improve in 2019. Junis was an innings eater last year but ran into some issues with the longball (32 home runs given up last year) and is hoping to cut that total down to a more livable number.
Lopez was acquired mid-season from Milwaukee and showed signs of being a stud as the season progressed. His most notable achievement last year was the perfect game he took into the 9th inning against the Twins in September. For the Royals to see some success this season, these two need to show some improvement in their game.
The back-end of the rotation looks to be filled by Homer Bailey and Danny Duffy. Bailey is looking to resurrect his career and showed glimpses of a solid starter throughout the spring. The biggest issue for Bailey has always been his consistency and for him to stay employed in Kansas City he is going to have to show some steadiness in his performance.
Duffy is coming back from an injury-riddled 2018 and is hoping to be ready once April rolls around next week. There are a lot of questions of whether Duffy can be an elite starter again or whether he can just stay healthy for a full season, and the Royals are going to give him every opportunity to show he can return to his past stellar glory. There was some talk of moving Duffy to the bullpen, but as of now he is slated for the rotation.
Speaking of, Ian Kennedy appears to be starting the season in the bullpen, a move that the coaches hope can keep him off the injured list. The Royals hope to use him as a guy who can throw a few innings at a time out of the pen while possibly filling in as a starter should an injury arise. There is some belief that Kennedy’s stuff will play better out of the pen, much like former Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar. Kennedy is locked in for another two seasons (counting this one), so Kansas City is going to give him one last chance to show his worth.
When talking about the bullpen, the honest truth is that one has to believe this year’s group can’t be any worse than the pen the Royals assembled in 2018. In fact, when I talked to Max Rieper of Royals Review earlier in the month, that was exactly his sentiments. It’s essentially addition by subtraction and with Maurer, Boyer and Grimm sent off to sea, the pen would appear to be improved from last year.
The Royals have added Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman to fill the veteran quota of the pen, while also giving them some late inning experience that was sorely lacking for most of last year. Wily Peralta returns to fill a late inning role while Kevin McCarthy and Tim Hill also appear to be returning, and both were solid during their time in Kansas City last year.
That being said, it has sounded like there might not be defined roles in the pen for these relievers, at least early on. Boxberger, Diekman and Peralta will all be called upon to fill not only the late innings, but will be the primary candidates for any high-leverage situation. It will be interesting to see if anyone breaks away from the rest and ends up as the de facto closer in 2019.
But the real story out of the pen this spring has been the emergence of former first round draft pick Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer did not pitch at all in 2018, as Kansas City sent him to Driveline to build up his strength and see if they could help him stay healthy, which has been a longstanding issue with him.
After a solid stint there, Zimmer was signed by Kansas City to a major league contract and thrown onto the 40-man roster. All he did this spring is produce a 0.71 ERA in 12+ innings, striking out 8 and walking 4. His velocity is up a few MPH and appears to finally be ready to make his major league debut. If he continues to excel, he will easily be the best story to come out of Kansas City in what appears to be a year focused on rebuilding.
Yes, the Royals are rebuilding. I’m not declaring anything you don’t already know, but Dayton Moore has refused to use that ‘R’ word over the last 4 or 5 months, always implying that the team is still going to go out there and “compete”. As a veteran Royals fan, let me try my best to interpret “Dayton Speak”, which isn’t always as clear as one might think.
What I believe Moore is trying to relay is that Kansas City isn’t tanking this year, but rather trying to stay a bit competitive while also allowing a number of younger players the time to develop at the big league level. Now what this means they still want fans to come out to the stadium and not feel like this isn’t a team worth paying your hard earned money for. They also have a television contract to think about, and the higher the ratings, the higher the dollars will be once it is signed.
But in layman’s terms, yes, it is a rebuild. While the team has brought in veterans like Lucas Duda, Owings and Bailey to fill roles to start the year, it doesn’t mean those vets are the focus. The focus will be on not only the Lopez’s, Phillips’ and O’Hearn’s, but also guys like Nicky Lopez and Richard Lovelady, who will probably both make their big league debuts this year. It will be about finding out if a minor league vet like Frank Schwindel can take advantage of his opportunity in the big leagues. It will be about seeing who can fill what role and who is worth keeping around once this team starts winning again.
So if I am being fair and unbiased, this is probably a team who is going to win 70-75 games this year, a healthy improvement over last year. At times this team will look like they have turned a corner and other times they will look like a boxer who has fallen back into the ropes. Part of the joy of a rebuild is watching the youngsters learn and grow and a lot of times that includes more struggling than succeeding.
So hopefully you come along for the ride. It’s going to get bumpy from time to time, but 162 games will do that to a person. What I can say with quite a bit of certainty is that no matter what, it’s hard to imagine this version of the Royals being as woeful as they were in 2018. This version will at least give you reasons to stay in your seat. Whether you want to see Mondesi or Merrifield, or Keller or Lovelady, it’s going to be an interesting development. Just call it what it is: it’s a rebuild, Kansas City style.
On January 29, 2060, former Bleeding Royal Blue writer Sean Thornton passed away at the age of 81. Light snow fell from the sky as the lifelong Royals fan said his goodbyes.
After his passing, family members would dig through his possessions and find a number of unwritten musings about his favorite team and baseball in general.
Maybe the most interesting archive that was uncovered was a diary with daily posts from the 2018 season. In it was stories, thoughts and premonitions of the worst season in club history. It wasn’t just a straight telling of the events of that year. Instead it was a personal account dripped in sarcasm as a fan tries to balance cheering on his team while realizing the grim reality of how bad they are.
Enclosed are some of Sean’s posts from the final five weeks of that season. What follows is a mixture of love, masochism and acceptance to the Royals and the plight they walked throughout the 2018 campaign. Enjoy and know you were warned beforehand.
August 31, 2018
The Royals kicked off a series with the Baltimore Orioles tonight. Yes, the one team that can stake claim to being worse than Kansas City. I was expecting this to be the definition of bad baseball and I wasn’t let down.
Runners stranded on base. Pitchers lacking control. Lack of awareness on the basepaths. Brandon Maurer coughing up a lead. It was all there and more as the game stretched through 14 innings.
Neither team appeared to want to win and if it wasn’t for a Tim Beckham miscue on an Alex Gordon grounder in the bottom of the 14th the two teams might still be battling on Saturday afternoon. 3-2 was the final score, but it was very apparent none of us won. This was bad baseball. Hopefully you didn’t sit through all 14 innings like I did. Yikes.
September 4th, 2018
The Royals and Indians went back at it tonight and once again the Royals lost, 6-4. Kansas City is still on pace for 114 losses this year. But the good news is that there was some positives in the game. Ryan O’Hearn went 2 for 4 with a double and a home run. Adalberto Mondesi stole two bases and made a dazzling play at shortstop. Heath Fillmyer went six strong, giving up five hits and three runs and Richard Lovelady would come in and pitch a scoreless 8th inning.
I’m always a sucker for September, as it’s nice to see the young talent and think ahead of what they can do for a full season. There are some definite bright spots on this team and it should be fun to watch the development as the month progresses.
That being said, Alcides Escobar made his first start in right field tonight. I have no idea what Ned is doing. I’m worried that Escobar could be brought back next year as a backup and to add veteran presence. God help us all.
September 9th, 2018
Somehow the Royals pulled out a series win against Minnesota today, winning 7-6. The first 3 innings were a dumpster fire as Ian Kennedy showed us he could still give up home runs and put Kansas City into a 4-0 hole.
Luckily, the Royals bats would wake up and the bullpen would hold the Twins at bay. Hunter Dozier went 2 for 3 and hit a big 3-run homer in the 7th inning. Mondesi continues to impress, hitting a triple to start a rally in the 8th. The arms of Lovelady, Kevin McCarthy and Josh Staumont would hold the Twins to just one run over 4 innings.
If you need a reason to get excited for the future of this team, this game had more than a few. It really makes you wonder what would have happened if the “youth movement” had started a little bit earlier this season. These youngsters are injecting life into the rest of the team.
Oh, and Escobar started the game at first base. No position will be left untouched for Esky. March on, Ned.
September 10, 2018
Just yesterday I was praising the Royals and the youngsters. Today was proof there is still a large hill to climb for this organization. 11-2, White Sox. Yuck. The pitching looked bad, the bats were cold and even the defense made a few costly errors.
There were a number of moments in the game that aggravated me, but none more than the free-swinging that was going on almost all night. There was very little patience which explains the 12 strike outs from Kansas City batters. If it was tossed up, the Royals swung at it.
Funny-painful moment in the 6th inning: Glenn Sparkman balked, moving a runner from second base to third. Next pitch, Royals catcher Drew Butera allowed a passed ball. 9-1, White Sox as Yolmer Sanchez crossed the plate. At this point I went and watched an episode of “Brockmire”. At least I could laugh at his ineptitude.
September 14, 2018
The Royals were shut out by Jose Berrios. Twins 4, Royals 0. Literally nothing happened in this game, unless you count a section of the right field lights going out for about 15 minutes in the 3rd inning. Oh, and some guy danced in the crowd for no real apparent reason other than for attention. Fifteen games left. Then the pain will stop. Right? Right???
I almost forgot…Alcides saw time in left field tonight. Pretty sure Ned is going to have him be a super utility guy next year. Escobar will be a Royal forever. His statue is being commissioned as we speak, I’m sure. There is no love like the Royals love of Alcides Escobar.
September 19, 2018
The bats came out in droves as the Royals beat the Pirates 8-3. Salvy went deep, Brett Phillips had a two-hit day and Whit Merrifield compiled three hits and two stolen bases.
Speaking of Whit, what we have seen from him these last few years is really amazing. The guy made his major league debut at the age of 27 and just continues to improve. It really feels like the Royals are going to keep him and build this team around him. Don’t be shocked if he gets an extension soon.
As a sidenote, Ned announced before the game that he will be back next year. Let the ‘meh’ times roll.
September 21, 2018
Jakob Junis loves the Tigers. Seven shutout innings and the Royals win 3-0. Watch out folks, as Kansas City has won two games in a row. It really feels like uncharted territory this year. It would be nice to see a few more wins with a little over a week left in the season and end it all on a positive note. That’s the wish.
In fact, they need to win five out of the last eight to not hit the 110 loss mark. They’ll still finish with the worst season in club history, but it would be nice to keep the bleeding to a minimum.
That being said, it appears Tony Pena and Buddy Bell have a monkey off their back. A fruit basket will be sent to the Royals clubhouse within the next week. Mark my words.
September 26, 2018
Another day, another loss. To the Reds, nonetheless. 9-2, Cincinnati. It was like the Reds bats were using a heat-seeking missile and the Royals offense decided on a whim to use a wooden pop gun.
Chalk up loss #107. Four games left to go and they can wash all our brains and we can forget this ever happened. I wish I had taken the blue pill.
September 30, 2018
It all ends today and nothing like the Royals ending the season with a victory, 5-3 over Cleveland. If you are an optimist, this game left you with some hope. Quality start for Danny Duffy. O’Hearn, Dozier, Mondesi and Phillips all got two hits apiece. Even the bullpen was able to hold a lead.
There was a bit of insanity though, as Ned attempted to play Alcides Escobar at every position in game 162. He plowed through the infield early in the game and even played catcher for one batter in the 6th inning. I won’t lie: it was strange watching Yost continue this charade as the Royals were actually winning.
Late in the game they moved Esky around the outfield and by the 9th inning all he had left was to take the mound and pitch to a batter. Luckily, common sense kicked in and he let Wily Peralta close out the win. So Escobar fell short of playing all nine positions in one game. Don’t worry; Esky will be back next year to try again.
So the Royals finish 53-109 and the second worst record in baseball. This team will go down as the worst in Kansas City history and maybe the most confusing. We knew they were going to be bad, but the possibility of 70 wins seemed doable. Instead, we got some of the most uninspired baseball that any longtime fan can ever remember seeing.
So the ghosts of Emil Brown, Angel Berroa and Runelvys Hernandez can disappear into the ether. The 2005 Royals, while still a bad squad, have been removed from their throne. Long live the ghosts of Alcides Escobar, Brandon Maurer and Jason Hammel. Yes, they have left a mark. Let’s hope to see less losing in 2019. For our sanity, it can’t get worse than this. Right?
If you are taking stock of the first half of the Kansas City Royals 2018 season, most of your return would be a muddled mess. The Royals were in shambles, whether it was the offense, the rotation or the bullpen. Essentially the only reliability sat in their defense, which is leading the American League in UZR while coming in 8th in defensive runs saved.
But this isn’t a piece to prop up the defense or even bash the ineptitude we have seen for the first three and a half months of the season. Instead, this is that nugget of positivity you keep hoping for. This is the dream scenario where the blocks fall into place like on a Tetris grid.
What we’ve compiled is a wish list of sorts. It’s a few items of interest that if swayed the proper direction could benefit the Royals for the rest of this season into next. By no means should you take this as ‘This is how the Royals win the American League Central’, as that is just crazy talk. No, this is a view of ‘what could be’ if Kansas City plays their cards right these next few months.
With the trade deadline looming in less than a week (July 31 to be exact), the Royals are in a good position to make some moves and add some depth to the organization. Mike Moustakas appears to be the main chip that Dayton Moore has to deal and a number of teams (Boston and Atlanta among them) have shown interest in the power-hitting slugger.
But after Moose there aren’t any certainties. Whit Merrifield would be a great acquisition for a team looking to pick up a versatile fielder with the ability to get on base, but Kansas City is in a position where they don’t have to deal him if they don’t like the offers they are receiving. At this point the likelihood of a Whit trade feels like a 50/50 chance…at best.
Two other names to keep an eye on would be Lucas Duda and Jason Hammel. Duda has been hitting .310/.394/.414 over his last nine games coming into Tuesday with a BABIP of .421. While on the surface Hammel’s shift to the bullpen has been a mixed bag, his velocity has gone up (as expected) and he appears to be assimilating to his new role.
Duda could possibly be dealt in August after clearing waivers to a team looking for a power bat but Hammel feels less likely. The combination of a poor season coupled with a high salary(that Kansas City is probably unwilling to eat) makes the likelihood of a trade probably slim. But if the Royals are given the opportunity, they should take it.
With the talk of veterans being dealt, that should open up more opportunities for some of the younger talent in the Kansas City farm system. One of the advantages of a rebuild is players getting a chance to prove themselves on a fairly regular basis. That opportunity appears to be looming.
We’ve already seen extended tryouts for guys like Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier. The pitching staff has been littered with youth, from Brad Keller and Burch Smith (two Rule 5 draftees) to Tim Hill and now Heath Fillmyer. Maybe I’m being selfish, but I would love to see a larger youth movement implemented these last two months.
At this point, I am game to hand out opportunities like pieces of PEZ. Would you like to see another youngster in the rotation? Let’s see what Trevor Oaks can do on an extended basis. How about the bullpen? We’ve heard about Richard Lovelady for a while, but it’s not too far-fetched to give Kevin Lenik an opportunity as well.
Offensively there aren’t as many options, but names like Ryan O’Hearn and Frank Schwindel could be interesting come September (despite their performances so far this season). Even guys we have seen already, like Cam Gallagher and Ramon Torres, could see some playing time as the season wears on.
Obviously not all of these names are going to produce and some will even show that they are not worth keeping around. But if a team is truly rebuilding, you owe it to yourself to hand out these opportunities and let the players run with it. Good or bad, it’s simply a matter of going out and proving their worth…and luckily, the Royals have the time to allow that to happen.
The Rotation we were Expecting
Before the season started, a number of us felt like the Royals rotation could be a major plus for the team. In fact, I was one of those proponents:
While on the surface this is an underwhelming group of arms, there is potential here that could be reached if circumstances go the right way.
Most of the high expectations came from thinking the starters could outperform their 2017 numbers. Unfortunately, Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel have not while Jakob Junis appeared to be on a fast-track to success early in the season and he has since fallen on hard times. There was also that Nate Karns guy, but who even knows if we will see him this season, as he rebounds from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery.
But there is some hope. Danny Duffy has looked superb over his last 11 starts, posting a 2.58 ERA while holding batters to a line of .217/.303/.296. Heath Fillmyer has been nothing short of sensational since being put in the rotation. Then there is Brad Keller, who has possibly been the biggest bright spot for Kansas City in a season full of dim bulbs.
If the Royals can get Junis back to his early season self (and his start over the weekend was encouraging) and audition either Burch Smith or Trevor Oaks for an extended period, this could be a rotation similar to what was originally expected. It won’t challenge the Atlanta Braves rotations of the early 90’s, but it doesn’t have far to go to top how the rotation performed in the first half.
While the other wishes were part of a grander scale, there are a few more items to keep your eye on in the second half that would drastically improve the ballclub.
Keep an eye on Whit Merrifield (if he isn’t traded) as he is on pace to topple most of his stats from 2017. Whit is currently hitting .299/.370/.420 with a wRC+ of 118 and 3.0 fWAR. While his power numbers have seen a slight decline (slugging percentage and ISO have seen the biggest dip) his overall numbers have been an improvement.
The rest of his numbers appear to have improved ( in fact his WAR is already better than 2017), as his walk rate has seen an increase and his BABIP has risen to .356. While his strike out rate has gone up, we have also seen an uptick in the hard hit rate. If you are purely a fan of Whit’s power you might be disappointed, but otherwise it will be fun to watch him wrap up what appears to be his new peak this season.
Another interesting player to watch is Salvador Perez. A few weeks ago I took a look at Perez and his struggles. In that piece, I mentioned how it might not take much to turn around his season:
I’ll go a step further and say that if he combined that with his hard hit rate and maybe (just maybe) a dash of better luck on the balls he hits into play, Salvy could go from being the ‘disappearing hitter’ he was in June to helping ignite what little offense the Royals can muster on a consistent basis.
That luck has finally come around, as Salvy is hitting .269/.286/.481 over his last 13 games with 3 home runs and 12 RBI’s. But the improvement shows up in his BABIP, where he is hitting .314 in that span and contributing on almost a daily basis.
To break that down even further, Perez is hitting .273/.286/.576 in the last eight games with an OPS of .861. While it may be just a small sample size, Salvy has been seeing more pitches per at bat while looking for a pitch to drive. It’s not hard to imagine him turning things around the next couple months and ending up with numbers comparable to year’s past.
Obviously we would all like to see the Royals turn themselves back into contenders during the second half, but that just isn’t realistic. The good news is that their performance in the first half has set the bar very low for the last half of the season. It gives Kansas City a chance to show they aren’t quite as bad as they’ve played to this point.
There is a number of things you can wish for, but your best bet is to wish for improvement. Moving forward wins and losses shouldn’t matter as much as how the development is coming along for this team. It should be about finding out what they have and what they should keep moving forward. That is what should be at the top of any Royals fan’s wish list.
That and to never see Brandon Maurer in a high-leverage situation ever again.
(Writers Note: The intention of this article is to see the effect that Yordano Ventura’s death had on the Kansas City Royals organization and the building of the roster. In no way, shape or form, is it trying to trivialize his passing. Hopefully you, the reader, see that he was a vital part of the Royals future and a beloved player within the Kansas City fanbase. This is purely a ‘What If’ article.)
January 22, 2017 is a date that will always be a painful reminder of how fragile life can be, as that was the day that former Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura passed away. Ventura’s death was only four months after the passing of Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez and the similarities between the two pitchers was remarkable.
But maybe the biggest similarity was the effect both deaths had on their respective organizations. Both left a giant hole in not only their rotations but also the locker rooms. The loss of each not only forced their organizations to take a second look at their future, but also to reassess what path they were already on for 2017.
We’ve seen what it did for the Marlins. Miami finished 77-85 last year and they spent the winter dismantling their roster, as key players like Giancarlo Stanton and Christin Yelich were sent to greener pastures. The Marlins threw up the white flag and decided to begin what feels like the umpteenth million rebuild during their 25 year history.
But despite being told that Kansas City is in a “rebuild”, it sure doesn’t feel like it at times. The Royals have a very veteran heavy roster and while that could (should) very well change by August, as of now it feels like they are straddling a fence. Because of that I have to wonder: did Yordano Ventura’s passing slow down the Kansas City rebuild?
Before we head down this path I feel the need to clarify a couple of things. First, I won’t dabble in any possible deals the team could have made or should have made. Instead we will look at the pitching moves made since his passing and determine whether or not they would have still taken place.
Second, there is no way to determine how the Royals would have done with Ventura still on the team so that won’t be discussed as well. The honesty of this is that there is no surefire way to know how things would have developed with Yo'(unless you know something about time travel I don’t. If that’s the case, quit holding out on us!) so this is just an estimated guess based off of how the front office has acted over the last couple of years.
Let’s start with the three moves made not that long after Ventura’s death last year. Brandon Moss was signed on February 1st, Jason Hammel on February 5th, and Travis Wood on February 13. It’s hard to tell if Moss’ signing was directly connected to Ventura, especially since the team had been looking for another bat throughout the winter. More than likely the Moss signing would have still happened, even without Ventura’s loss.
Hammel and Wood totally felt like a reaction to losing Yordano. The Royals rotation at that point looked set with Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Ventura, newly acquired Nate Karns and Jason Vargas. The team even had Chris Young, Matt Strahm and Jake Junis as backup options for the rotation, so there wasn’t any real need for Hammel or Wood at that time.
One could make the argument that the Royals might have had interest in Wood as a reliever, which is very possible considering that had been his role for the majority of the previous two seasons. But if not, then Kansas City would have never signed them and we could take their contracts off the books, not only for 2017 but 2018 as well.
Let’s move to the winter and the Royals deal with the White Sox and Dodgers. In that trade, Scott Alexander would go to Los Angeles while Soria would eventually end up in Chicago. One has to wonder if Kansas City would have been compelled to deal either reliever if the team had never signed Hammel or Wood.
The crux of this trade was moving Soria’s contract, which might not have been as important without those signings. If that is the case, then the trade might have never happened and Alexander and Soria would have stayed in Kansas City.
We could easily see a scenario where Soria would have still been shopped, but even if that is the case I doubt they would have felt moving him was important enough to lose the club control that Alexander would have (which runs through the 2022 season). This would mean the Royals would have kept two big cogs in their bullpen and we might have not seen the likes of Tim Hill, Brad Keller and Burch Smith when the season began (which would have meant some tough decisions, considering Keller and Smith were Rule 5 draft picks).
Then at the end of January, the Royals traded Moss and Ryan Buchter to Oakland for pitchers Jesse Hahn and Heath Fillmyer. This is a trade that feels like it would have happened no matter what. Moss had an awful season in 2017 (.207/.279/.428, -1.0 bWAR) and trading him would probably allow the Royals to move a portion of his salary commitment.
The interesting part of this becomes whether or not Buchter would have actually been a Royal. We all remember the ill-fated trade with San Diego but that trade happened for two reasons. One, the Royals needed pitching. Two, the Royals were still in the hunt for a playoff spot, 1.5 games out in the AL Central while holding down the second Wild Card.
I could see the Royals needing pitching, even with Yordano still in the picture. It’s very possible the deal could have gone down, but that is also trying to determine where Kansas City would have been in the standings. This is probably a good place to mention that Ventura finished 2016 with an ERA+ of 97 and a bWAR of 1.6. While some felt he was going to turn the corner in 2017, there was no guarantee that would happen.
So with that in mind, we’ll go with the San Diego trade still going down. Almost every team can use more pitching and it’s easy to see the Royals in a situation where they would need more arms. In other words, this is a deal that just reeks of fate.
So with all these moves out-of-the-way, we can start assessing whether or not the rebuild was slowed down by the passing of Ventura. With what we saw in 2017, it was very apparent the Royals were going to stick with the core group (Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, etc.) and give them every opportunity to clinch a playoff spot. So any idea that they would be dealt was probably slim and none from the very beginning.
It’s probably also safe to say that if Kansas City had somehow found their way to the playoffs last year with Ventura, that would be one more reason to not completely tear the whole thing down and start over. The Royals would have still had a nice nucleus together (Perez, Whit, Duffy, Ventura, etc.) and with the way the free agent market collapsed this winter it’s possible Dayton might have been even more aggressive than he was.
It also appears Moore has never been down with a real “rebuild”. Back in March Dayton had this to say about how competitive the team would be this season:
“I believe that we can put a strong, competitive team on the field each and every night and also develop in the minor leagues,” he said. “I believe we can build our farm system back to the level it was in 2010 and 2011, and maybe even do it better and still win games at the major-league level.
“You can’t just turn it on and turn it off. If you want a winning culture, you’ve got to do everything in your power each day to win.”
It just doesn’t feel like the front office has ever been behind a full rebuild with this club. In fact, it has sounded like they would be content with piecing together the roster as needed, letting the younger talent filter in when they were ready and letting them get comfortable at their own pace.
So with all that in mind, my guess is that Yordano Ventura’s untimely passing didn’t slow down a Kansas City rebuild. As much as moves made after his passing felt like a knee-jerk reaction to his death, the team had already committed to being “all in” for 2017 and even taking on less payroll wouldn’t have deterred that frame of mind.
Unless…the Royals decided to deal Yordano. While in some circles that might sound crazy, it might not be as far-fetched as you think. In fact, in the winter before the 2017 campaign, the Houston Astros were rumored to have shown interest in Ventura:
Now, showing interest isn’t the same thing as on the trading block. But if you are any team, you should probably be willing to listen to any offers on any player, just in case a team is willing to go way overboard just to acquire a player. While Ventura could have been under club control until 2021(with the help of club options), that might have been a selling point for Kansas City:
Their willingness to least listen to other clubs’ offers could be due to doubts about his personality, or it could just be due diligence, as Ventura’s years of control could net K.C. a nice return in a trade.
If a team was willing to offer a nice package of talent for Yordano, Moore would have to at least listen. One would think if a deal actually went down and the Royals were able to acquire young talent, it’s possible the rebuild could have sped up a bit.
In fact, that might have been one of the few scenarios where guys like Hosmer and Cain would be dealt before the trade deadline. While it feels like a long shot, it could have very well happened considering in the last year the Astros have picked up both Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole to improve their starting rotation.
While I highly doubt Kansas City would have dealt Ventura, it does show how one or two moves can sway a team in different directions. Ventura very well could have gone from a building block for the team to an asset to fill multiple holes on the roster.
So while his death probably didn’t slow down the Royals rebuild, it definitely changed the fabric of the team and the organization. Ventura is that hole that hasn’t been filled and it could be generations before they have another pitcher with his potential.
While it would be nice to say losing one player was the cause for the lack of youth on this Royals roster, the answer is far deeper than that. Trades, injuries, bad judgment and bad luck all play a part in why the Royals aren’t rebuilding more than they are right now.
Maybe in a different dimension or a different universe (Earth 2 or even Earth 81) this is all different and the Royals are still a potent contender in the American League. But in this reality, they are a team trying to build themselves back up without many pieces. While Yordano’s death was tragic, it is not the cause of their current situation. It’s just not that simple.
Over the weekend history was made as Sergio Romo, a reliever who had never started a game in the Major Leagues over 588 appearances, started back-to-back days for the Tampa Bay Rays as an “Opener“, starting him in very short appearances before giving way to other pitchers–normally youngsters who had been starters down in the minors–for use in extra inning spurts throughout the rest of the game.
The reasoning makes sense:
But the most challenging inning for any staff isn’t the ninth, or the eighth, or the middle innings when a starter approaches his pitch count limit. It’s the first inning, when teams hit better than any other because it’s the only frame in which a lineup’s top hitters are guaranteed to bat. Batters have hit 10 percent better than league average in the first this season, which is the best mark in any inning.
The Rays had a couple of young pitchers scheduled to start over the weekend and knew they probably weren’t going to pitch deep into the game. So with that in mind, they started Romo to face the Angels plethora of right-handed batters at the top of the lineup, as Romo has had success against righties throughout his career (ranking second in opposing OBP with a .232 rate for active pitchers).
So you can see why Tampa was willing to experiment and at the very least give this a shot. But this got me to thinking ‘What if the Royals tried this on occasion?’ and maybe even the more important question ‘Should the Royals try this on occasion?’
If we are talking different options, Kansas City has a number of relievers this might work well with. Brad Keller has been phenomenal this year and there has even been discussion of moving him to the rotation. Trying him as an ‘Opener’ first might be a good way to get his feet wet and the Royals could even stretch out his starts this way, starting him with just an inning or two at first before eventually increasing his innings per outing.
Burch Smith is also an intriguing option, especially since he was primarily a starter throughout his minor league career. Smith has a 25% strike out rate to go with batters hitting .269 against him on balls in play. The one concern with Smith is his walk rate, which as of Tuesday sits at 13.5%. The last thing you want early in the game is extra baserunners, as that would soil the whole purpose of this experiment.
There is also Tim Hill, who would be a trip for batters to see early in the contest. The idea of hitters trying to figure out Hill funky delivery for an inning or two and then adjusting to someone like Jason Hammel, who relies on his slider quite a bit more would be an interesting situation.
So should the Royals consider using an ‘Opener’, at least occasionally? Considering how the starting pitching has been the last month it wouldn’t be an awful idea. Over the last 30 days, the Royals starting pitchers are last in the American League in ERA and fWAR, while giving up the most hits, runs and home runs. In other words, whatever the starters are doing isn’t working and trying almost anything else at this point isn’t a bad idea.
In fact, it might actually help some of the pitchers like Hammel or Ian Kennedy. Let’s say a reliever “opens” the game and throws two innings or less. You can then bring in whomever would normally start that day and let them pitch a couple times through the order. Most of us are aware of the numbers that point out how pitchers fare the third time through a batting order and this might make it to where someone like Hammel never has to see a batter a third time.
A number of people are going to hate this idea and disregard it before it even happens. In fact, I can’t imagine Ned Yost would ever be on board with this, as it has taken him years to warm-up to the idea of defensive shifts and he is still questioning it. But I also feel the Royals are in the perfect spot to try something “out of the box” without any major repercussions.
There is no way to tell whether or not it will work either, as apparent by the results for Tampa Bay over the weekend. On Saturday, things went as hoped:
Yarbrough followed Romo, throwing six innings while giving up only one run. But Sunday didn’t go as smoothly:
The rest of Tampa’s pitchers couldn’t maintain the pace and they ended up losing the game. That’s the thing with trying something like this; it might work as planned but it could also blow up in your face. The bigger question is whether or not it is worth it in the long run.
If we are being honest, I am fully on board with Kansas City trying an “Opener” at some point but I’m not going to hold my breath while waiting. Kudos to the Rays for attempting it and if we are being honest baseball is better and more interesting when teams are changing up the status quo. The game has been around for over 170 years and it has evolved quite a bit since that first game in Hoboken, New Jersey back in 1846. Now it might be time for the game to evolve a bit more when it comes to pitching strategies.
Coming into this 2018 season, if you would ask Kansas City Royals fans what they would like to see from Ian Kennedy most would answer something along the lines of what he did for Kansas City back in 2016. Kennedy spent most of last year dealing with a right hamstring strain and never got quite back on track after putting together a solid April.
Now Kennedy is healthy and once again putting up strong April numbers. So far in seven starts, Kennedy has thrown 37 innings, producing a 2.92 ERA, 3.47 FIP and 0.8 fWAR (which is halfway to his 2016 total). But when we dive deeper into the numbers, they show he has actually been more than just a solid performer.
Let’s start with some of the statistics he can actually control, like walks and strike outs. Kennedy’s strike outs are about on par with what he has done in the past, sitting at 21.7%. Over the last five seasons, his K rate has been in the 20-24.5% range.
His walk rate actually shows some improvement, at 6.8%. If he was able to maintain this rate moving forward, that would put him above average on his walks for the first time since 2015. In fact, most of Kennedy’s better seasons have been when he’s been able to keep his walk rate in the 6-7% range.
His pitch selection is about the same as in the past, with a few modifications. Kennedy is throwing his fastball, cutter and sinker about the same amount, but so far this year he is throwing the curveball a bit less (13.7%) and throwing his change-up a bit more (12.2%). In fact his usage this season has been very similar to what he did in 2016 but one does wonder how he would do if he would not only throw his change-up more but also throw it a bit slower.
Kennedy put together a career year back in 2011 in Arizona and if you look at his pitch selection back then, he threw the change-up 15.6% of the time. He would continue to throw that pitch more and more the next few years, but his velocity also continued to rise with it, going from averaging 81.8 MPH to 86.4 MPH this year.
I’m not saying him using the pitch more and slowing it down would improve his numbers, but one has to wonder since 2014 is the closest he has come to that mark and even then he was throwing his change-up more than he has the last four seasons.
With that being said, the numbers that really speak to me are his Win Probability numbers. Kennedy currently sits at 0.55 WPA and 6.01 RE24, both numbers that rank him in the top 21 of qualified pitchers in the American League. He is not posting the elite numbers that Justin Verlander or Corey Kluber are putting up, but Jake Junis is the only other Royals pitcher close to these numbers and in fact the two of them are very similar in that regard.
I’m a big proponent of Win Probability and RE24 and tend to believe if you really want to look at the value a player is bringing to his team you look at these two numbers. So far Kennedy has helped put the Royals in situations to win and his performance has helped the team way more than hurt it.
But for all the good he has done, there are some concerns as well:
The main concerns would be the higher hard hit rate, exit velocity and barrel %. All are noticeably up from the last two years and all are signs of batters getting a good read on his pitches. With that being said, there are some positives sprinkled in here as well.
From the chart it looks like the hitters launch angle against him has gone down, which coincides with his HR/FB rate this year. That rate is down to 9.8%, the lowest it has been since 2014. We all know Kennedy gives up home runs but this year it is at a lower rate. One reason could be the weather so far this year; as temperatures rise it only makes sense that he will give up more bombs.
Another reason could be what hitters are doing when making contact against Kennedy. His flyball rate currently sits at 36.3%, , which you have to go back to 2015 to find the last time it was below 40%. Also, the contact rate against him has gone up, currently at 83.3%, up from 80.3% in 2017. Hitters are swinging at more of his pitches this year (48.4%) and more importantly, swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone, as his o-contact rate is at 74%, up from 65% last year and 68% in 2016.
So while Kennedy is allowing more contact, how he is doing it is more interesting. Kennedy is known as a flyball pitcher, but balls hit in the air are down and balls hit on the ground are down as well (33.6%). From the numbers it appears that he has given up more line drives this year, in fact almost doubling his percentage from last year, 16.3 to 30.1%. This would explain the hard hit rate seeing an increase and also why the home run to flyball ratio is down as well.
So is all this sustainable? I still maintain that we will see more home runs hit off of Kennedy as the season progresses. He is what he is and history has shown us that 2014 (where he gave up only 16 home runs all season) feels like an outlier when it comes to dingers hit off of him.
But if hitters continue to swing at pitches outside the strike zone 33% of the time, he has a chance of keeping up most of his current pace. Combine that with the lower walk total and he should be able to minimize the damage when the home runs finally come.
After 12 years in the league it feels like you can get a pretty clear picture of what to expect from a pitcher like Kennedy. But the ability to adjust can be a vital part to any players progression. It’s been nice to see that so far from a pitcher that is entering the latter half of his career.
With the Royals just a few days away from kicking off this 2018 campaign, I thought it would be good to throw out some predictions. But not the normal sort of predictions. No, I traveled down a different road.
So here are your 2018 Royals fake predictions. I’ve done these in the past and they were wildly popular. These are all jokes, so please don’t take any of this too seriously. They are just meant as amusement as we get ready to kick off the new season. So without further ado, here are your ‘Fake Royals Predictions’!
After a near-death experience in the offseason, manager Ned Yost has grown a greater appreciation for the men and women of the media that he interacts with on a regular basis. Rather than snarky sound bites and short, abrupt answers, Ned gives the media answers with heartfelt, thought provoking feeling and life affirming positivity. Then they have a group hug when the session is over.
On Opening Day, Lucas Duda will make his official Royals debut…and will be awarded a 2015 World Championship ring.
With Lorenzo Cain off to Milwaukee, Salvador Perez is in need of a new best friend that he can harass and shoot instagram videos of. Luckily, that honor has been bestowed onto Jon Jay. Unbeknownst to Jay, he agreed to it when he signed his contract, as it was slipped in there thanks to some sneaky maneuvering by Salvy.
Alex Gordon’s offensive struggles continue as the season begins, forcing him to try everything in the book to get out of this two-year funk. Gordon even resorts to eating junk food, which actually does improve his production…at first.
After appearing in all 162 games for three of the last four seasons, Alcides Escobar goes to Ned Yost 25 games into the season and asks for a day off because he is tired. Escobar falls asleep and awakens the last week of September, missing almost the entire season.
After giving up a dozen home runs, Ian Kennedy finally decides to become a different pitcher, one who focuses on ground balls. He then goes from giving up long bombs to inside the park home runs, still leading the league in home runs allowed.
A number of Royals fans attempt to play ‘Rex Bingo’ (a game my family created last year) during a lazy May afternoon game but everyone hits bingo by the second inning. All the mentions of ‘hands’ and ‘sneaking cheese by a hungry rat’ seems to have caused their boards to fill up super fast.
Jason Hammel asks to be moved to the bullpen and puts up good numbers through the first half. Come to find out after the All-Star break that Hammel and Luke Hochevar had a ‘Parent Trap’ moment and it was Luke all along these last two seasons.
In Whit Merrifield’s never-ending quest to ‘beef up’, he increases his protein intake and starts adding even more muscle mass to his frame. Whit sees a spike in his home runs yet again, but on the diamond he becomes a defensive liability. Think Daniel Murphy crossed with Alberto Callaspo at second base.
Steve Physioc realizes that the notes he is given before each game are to be used to help him during the broadcast. Not only does he start sounding like a competent announcer, he also receives less glares from Denny Matthews.
Danny Duffy stays healthy.
The Royals swap out one debonair first base coach for another, as Mitch Maier takes over for Rusty Kuntz. While many will miss Rusty, it doesn’t take long for the fans to warm up to the former Royals outfielder. A petition is started and Maier will get his own bobblehead night in 2019.
While trying to forget a rough 2017, Kelvin Herrera decides to add an eephus pitch to his repertoire. Herrera finds success again, but it kills the Royals time of game. The pace of play Gods are angered.
Richard Lovelady tires of all the talk of his name and little discussion on his actual statistics. This leads him to change his name to something very bland and vanilla. You can now legally call him ‘Tim Collins’.
As the Royals attempt to stay as ‘pure’ as humanly possible, they start attending workshops over the summer discussing the ill effects of watching cartoon animals who don’t wear pants.
Mike Moustakas was only able to land a $6.5 million deal this winter to return to Kansas City. The cut in pay has made it harder on Moose, as he no longer can afford his Stouffer Fit Kitchen Meals.
Brian Flynn will not fall through a barn…at least not for the first month of the season. All bets off after that.
Jorge Soler will hit the ball so hard this year that he will actually knock the cover off the ball. Also, Soler will swing and miss so hard that he will knock the cover off the ball.
and finally, the Royals will replace hitting coach Terry Bradshaw in May as the offense struggles. He will be replaced with former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Somehow, the offense will become the best in the league.
So there you go, my 2018 fake Royals predictions. Hopefully you took them as they meant to be, which is all in jest. I will seriously crack up laughing if even one of these come true. I’m sure there is one or two I missed. So what fake predictions do you have for the upcoming season? What would amuse you if it happened to the Royals in 2018?
With Opening Day just a hop, skip and a jump away, it is a great time to look back on the 2017 Kansas City Royals squad and see how this season might develop differently. There was some good, bad and ugly with last year’s Royals and very rarely in baseball do things shake out the way they did the previous season. With that said, here are some items of note to keep an eye on as you get ready to make the Royals a part of your daily schedule.
One of the key elements of the 2017 team was the number of down years that appeared to fill up the roster. Alex Gordon, Ian Kennedy, Jorge Soler, Jason Hammel and Kelvin Herrera are just a few names that under-performed last year and are looking to “bounce back” this year and perform closer to the norm.
Most would take a league average hitting season from Gordon while Soler needs to just be the run producer the Royals thought they were acquiring when they traded Wade Davis to the Cubs. Kennedy would do well to keep the ball in the park a bit more (I would love to say keep the ball on the ground, but we just know that won’t happen) while also staying healthy.
Hammel’s ratio of baserunners allowed last year far exceeded the innings he was compiling, as he tossed 180 innings, giving up 209 hits and 48 walks. Limiting runners on base would go a long way toward improvement on his 2017 numbers that were less than desirable.
Herrera would do good to re-discover his curveball and use his cutter a bit less this year. It would also help him to throw more first pitch strikes, as that number took a dip this past year (60.6%, down from 64.7% in 2016). It felt like he was always pitching from behind in 2017 and throwing that first pitch strike could alleviate some of the other issues he dealt with last season, like walks and home runs.
Now the likelihood that all of these players produce like they have in the past is probably slim and none. But if the Royals can get a couple to improve or even put together solid seasons, it could go a long way toward helping some of the lackluster play we are sure to see at points this season.
I don’t know if anyone would have predicted the season that Whit Merrifield had in 2017, maybe not even Whit himself. Merrifield, like many players around the league, started putting the ball in the air more and was rewarded with a 19 home run, 78 RBI season to go along with a .172 ISO and a .332 wOBA.
Now the bigger question remains…can he repeat it? I have my doubts, especially since teams will focus more on him this season than they did last year. The key might just be whether or not he is able to keep the ball in the air. Last year his fly ball rate held at 40.5% (it sat at 29.8% during his stint in KC back in 2016) and throughout his minor league career he was able to hit fly balls in the upper 30’s/lower 40 % range.
Luckily, Whit has already gotten farther than many expected in the first place so it feels weird to doubt him now. It is going to be interesting to see how he adjusts to any changes he sees this year from opposing pitchers. This will go a long way to figuring out whether or not he is able to repeat a stellar 2017.
A Healthy Rotation
The Royals rotation last year felt like a revolving door for a good chunk of the season. Danny Duffy procured two stints on the disabled list, Ian Kennedy spent a portion of the year hurt and Nate Karns didn’t pitch in a game after May 19th. Add in the struggle of keeping a consistent pitcher in the 5th spot in the rotation and you can understand why the team continues to go after guys like Clay Buchholz and Ricky Nolasco to add depth.
While no one is really expecting this team to contend, how they perform will depend a lot on the health of the rotation. If Duffy, Kennedy and Karns are able to stay healthy this year, that would allow guys like Trevor Oaks and Andres Machado to continue to mature down in the minor leagues.
Last year the Royals were forced to use Onelki Garcia, Luke Farrell and even Travis Wood for five starts when all three should have never started a game. A healthy rotation would put less stress on the bullpen while also giving the team a strength that was evident in the early parts of 2017. For the Royals to not be basement dwellers this season, they need their starters to post more time on the mound than in the trainer’s room.
The Kids Are Alright
While the Royals front office has moved away from a complete rebuild, the template for this Kansas City team is still one of beginning the process of evaluating what some of their prospects are capable of at the major league level. In that regard, this season could very well shine a light onto who stays in the organization and who might not be a part of the Royals future.
Whether it is a Richard Lovelady or Kyle Zimmer in the bullpen, a Bubba Starling in the outfield, or a Hunter Dozier or Adalberto Mondesi in the infield, by the end of the season there should be a nice influx of younger talent on the roster. The interesting aspect of this whole process (yeah, I just said it) is not always what the numbers will tell us about their performance. Even if they face some adversity, the best thing for them and the future of this organization is allowing them to go out everyday and try to improve.
Dayton Moore has mentioned numerous times that a big part of the Royals championship team weren’t the players who were highly touted prospects, but the ones who flew under the radar and turned out to be big contributors to Kansas City’s playoff runs. The only way to find out what they have is to let them play. While the veterans will steer the ship to begin the year, it could be the youth movement manning the deck by the time September rolls around.
The Coaching Carousel
Finally, quite possibly the biggest change on this Royals team this year will be the addition of new coaches to help manager Ned Yost throughout the season. Terry Bradshaw, Cal Eldred and Vance Wilson were added to the coaching staff at the end of last season while Mitch Maier will continue his role as the first base coach that he assumed late in the 2017 campaign.
While on the surface the coaches might not be an exciting part of the “New” Royals, it very well could end up being a window into what we should expect from the team past this upcoming year. There is a good chance Ned Yost will retire after 2018 and the changes this coaching staff make this year could give us an idea of what the focus will be on for 2019 and beyond.
During the team’s infamous playoff runs in 2014 and 2015, it was well-known that the Royals were a team who focused on putting the ball in play while forcing the opposing defense to make the plays. The team was also known for their defense and while they didn’t shift as much as some other teams (I’m looking at you, Houston and Tampa Bay), there was a certain pattern to what they were trying to accomplish.
Will Bradshaw change the hitting approach? Does Eldred have some tricks up his sleeve that oppose what former pitching coach Dave Eiland would have done? Will Dale Sveum moving from hitting coach to bench coach effect any tactical decisions?
These are all questions that will be interesting to follow and see if there are noticeable differences from the previous coaching staffs. Baseball is a constantly evolving sport that has modified itself on a consistent basis. There is a high probability that the new Royals coaches could zig where the old regime would have zagged. To me, this will be one of the more intriguing plot lines to follow during this 2018 campaign.
While I’m sure I missed a few, these are the most obvious areas to keep an eye on for this upcoming season. Some will be good, some will be bad while others will just stay the same. The one constant will be the questions that will be added as the season progresses. The most important part will be how everything shapes up starting on March 29th. Change will be inevitable.