You might of heard that the Kansas City Royals made some sweeping changes across their coaching staff this past winter. Matt Quatraro is the new manager. Paul Hoover is his right hand man in the role of bench coach. Brian Sweeney is the new pitching coach while Zach Bove is the assistant pitching coach. The team even added Jose Alguacil as the infield coach and Mitch Stetter was bumped up to bullpen coach. As David Bowie use to sing about, it’s all about ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.
It’s hard not to be on board with a complete restructure for this organization. Last season started out with hope that the Royals could start making some big steps forward with all their drafted young talent and instead their season took a giant nosedive into a new level of ineptitude. The few times I wrote last year, it was about how bad this team was and how they needed to move in a new direction. To be honest with you, for the first team in a very, very long time, I checked out.
Why did I check out? For many reasons but the main one was that it was painfully obvious the team needed to try something different and Mike Matheny, Cal Eldred and even Dayton Moore weren’t getting the job done. So what did the front office do to fix things? Nothing. Sure, they shuffled the hitting coach out of town but that wasn’t even the biggest area of worry for the team and felt like a change to appease fans like me into thinking they were doing something, anything. But their lack of action to fix the other areas of the team pushed me away. If they didn’t care to be better, I didn’t care whether I gave the team my time. Simple as that.
But a new day is now here and yes, I am back in the fold. I was never going to fully go away; did you forget I bleed royal blue? I even broke down and give Bally Sports money every month despite the fact I think the price for their app is ridiculous (another article for another time, am I right?). So just like many other Royals fans I have been watching the team and many people around me have said ‘The Royals are 4-9. It’s the same ol’ team. Shuffle the deck, but they always lose’. And while yes, they technically do have a losing record and will more than likely have a losing record when all 162 games have been played this season, this is not the same old Royals. In fact I would argue that we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Let’s start with the hitting. On the surface, the offense has been grim. Next to last in the league in runs scored, wOBA, wRC+ and on-base percentage and 13th in home runs. None of that is a positive that can be spun any other way than just the Royals aren’t getting on base enough and aren’t scoring enough runs. Add in a paltry walk rate and a high strike out percentage and you can see why they are 4-9. But as I’m sure you have seen, there are some positives with the Royals hitters.
Their line drive rate and hard hit rate are in the middle of the pack and their ground ball rate is in the bottom fifth of the league. But they are 4th in fly ball rate which means they are putting the ball in the air much more than on the ground, and in today’s world of baseball that is a positive. Just to give you an idea, the Tampa Bay Rays are the hottest team in baseball and are leading the AL in hard hit rate and fly ball rate while posting the lowest ground ball rate in the league. The Rays are the model that Kansas City’s coaching staff is following, so it only makes sense that they are doing things very similar to them.
Want some more? The Royals have the 4th highest exit velocity in the league, 6th in barrel percentage and second in hard hit percentage according to Statcast. So when the Royals hit the ball, they are hitting the ball hard and squaring up the ball. They’ve obviously run into some bad luck, as evidence by the lowest BABIP in the league. If you know anything about batting average on balls in play, you know that the likelihood that those numbers continue to stay at the bottom are slim. If you are doing everything right when it comes to barrels and hitting the ball hard, the ball WILL eventually find a hole and WILL get you on base. What I’m saying is that the futility we have seen so far won’t last all season.
One more little nugget I want to add to the offense. This is a very young team and it’s very evident with the lineup. On a nightly basis, there is a good chance that at least five or more members of the lineup are in their first or second year in the majors. With a young team, you are going to see struggles, especially as they adjust to being a big leaguer and dealing with stressful situations. To say this will probably be a streaky offense throughout 2023 is probably a safe assumption. Yes, there is a ton of upside with the Royals bats, but realize with that comes the normal struggles and slumps that almost every young player has dealt with. Just ask George Brett.
But what about the pitching? Look, we all are laser focused on the pitching considering how bad it has been for years. Last year, Kansas City’s pitching was last in ERA, FIP, K%, BB%, WHIP, next to last in pitching WAR and 13th in win probability. To say we all wanted Cal Eldred’s head on a stick is an understatement and looking back now it blows my mind that he was given five years to be a pitching coach when it was very obvious he was not qualified for the job. Still not sold on why Dayton Moore was fired? Look at his resistance to let Eldred go as the biggest sign that he was not making good decisions to help the organization move forward.
To watch the Royals pitchers this year, it is the biggest breath of fresh air this organization has had in years. It’s early (and because of that, we’ll throw out the line about small sample size that is a favorite) but so far in 2023, the Royals are 9th in ERA, FIP, K%, WAR, 6th lowest BB%, 8th in WHIP and 7th in win probability. To go from pretty much the worst pitching staff in the league to middle of the pack shows how much of an impact Sweeney and Bove have had on the pitchers in a short amount of time and to me is a sign that they were the right choices for the job.
This is where I point out that this is pretty much the same pitching staff that the Royals had last year and the numbers are trending upward. Brad Keller has a new curveball that has turned him into a moderate strike out pitcher. Kris Bubic is throwing a new slider (which he was actually using in Spring Training back in 2022 but never used it in a regular season game) and looks like a completely different pitcher. Aroldis Chapman’s velocity has skewed down for years now and all of a sudden he is throwing 102-103 MPH again. Outside of Dylan Coleman, almost every Royals pitcher has either improved on last year or are basically where they were last year when it comes to their development.
This is not to say there won’t be bumps in the road. We still haven’t seen Daniel Lynch this season and no one is guaranteed an A+ outing every time they go out there. But it is impressive to see the progress from the pitching staff in such a short amount of time. Once again, it makes you wonder how much farther along this team would be if only the front office had addressed these issues sooner rather than later. But in the here and now, it appears as if the Royals are in an upward trajectory that is bringing a lot of us hope. Speaking of:
I read this tweet on Wednesday night from the great Rany (and when it comes to Royals writers that are on a pedestal for me, Rany & Craig Brown are as good as it gets) and that was exactly how I felt. The entire first week of the season I kept saying to my wife that it felt like a completely different team and organization but I wasn’t for sure if some of that wasn’t because I skipped out on last season. I thought it might be a byproduct of my absence in 2022 that was giving me hope I hadn’t had with this team in years.
But I really do think the team is headed in the right direction. I do feel like the proper decisions are being made and that thought and logic are being used on a daily basis. This isn’t to say things are always going to be rainbows and lollipops; I still think this team won’t reach .500 this year and there will be struggles that will go on longer than we want. But I see so much positive that as long as they keep on this road and adjust when necessary, things will be fine.
I was watching an interview with the new Royals skipper earlier this week and Q’s demeanor to me is one of the biggest changes that was necessary for this team to move forward:
The positives. Quatraro is so laid back and I even heard him the other day make the comment to the effect that “we lost today but we’ll just go out and try to win tomorrow”. When Matheny was in the dugout, it always felt like the team was anxious and that he was too intense for what this younger Kansas City team needed. The relaxed vibe has appeared to do wonders for their psyche and given them the opportunity to put losses in the rearview mirror quicker than they did last year. Q feels like the polar opposite of Matheny and shows he is the right man for where the Royals are at right now.
Still not sold? Let me put it another way for you. Progress for a baseball team isn’t always a win-loss situation. Sometimes, even in losses, the advancement is what you learn and takeaway from a loss and how you adjust from it. Over the last few years, it felt like when the Royals would have big losing streaks, it was because they weren’t learning anything from what they were doing incorrectly. To put it another way, they kept making the same mistakes and expecting different results. That is the definition of insanity.
This year’s team? They are learning and making changes as they go. It sometimes will result in another loss, sometimes they will eke out a win. But learning is the key. The best part is the coaching staff is putting them in the best situation to win and giving them the tools they need. The last few years it felt like there were always more questions than answers. Now, there are answers to most of the questions. Folks, this a different Royals team than what you remember. It might not happen this year, but I firmly believe soon this will be a winning ballclub. And when that happens, I hope you are there for the ride. If anything, they are giving us hope and sometimes that is all we need.