“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
2020 was rough all the way around. Nothing was normal and nothing really made you feel good. For me, even baseball didn’t make me feel good. The one thing I had loved since I was a kid wasn’t really bringing me the joy it normally did. Sure, I watched games and rooted for my Kansas City Royals, but it wasn’t the same. In all honestly, I really felt like they shouldn’t have been playing, so it was hard to get behind something that I perceived was wrong.
But a new year brought a new outlook and I dove in head-first. In fact the focal point of spring and summer has been baseball. Sure, I’ve been watching my Royals (even if MLB apparently hates the idea of us watching our favorite team), but I’ve also watched about every other team as well. Actually, it’s been a lot of west coast baseball, since I’ve long enjoyed the Angels and the Padres are a fun, young, up and coming team. It also helps that I work nights and get home in time to catch the latter half of games being played out west.
I’ve tuned in when Jacob deGrom is pitching. I flip it over if Max Scherzer is taking the mound. I even partake in games where no-hitters are being spun, because who doesn’t love a little bit of history? To say my love of baseball has been rekindled would be an understatement. Thank goodness my wife enjoys the sport as well, otherwise there would probably be many an argument at our house about all the baseball we are visually digesting.
We even went to our first live game in a year and a half and luckily saw a Kansas City walk-off. I didn’t tear up at the stadium like my wife thought I would, but I did have a giant grin on my face the entire time. I missed just being around the game so it felt comforting to be able to have a bit of normalcy.
But most of my viewing this year has been the Royals and while I’ve had to find different ways to view the games, I’ve made it happen. But if we are being honest, there are days that I wish my favorite team was a contender with consistent hitting and starting pitching that could go deep into the game. Unfortunately, I am a Royals fan and these things are not happening on a regular basis right now.
To be blunt, they were shutout by Matt Harvey this past weekend. In 2021. No one should be shutout by Matt Harvey in 2021 (sorry Matt, just saying). This is a team that is next to last in fWAR, runs and walk %, 13th in wRC+ and slugging, and last in home runs and ISO. Jorge Soler is having an epically bad year (how does -1.5 fWAR sound to you?) and Hunter Dozier has bumped his fWAR up to -0.3, which for most of us Royals fans sounds like a giant improvement if you’ve watched Dozier play this year.
I’m sure it sounds like I am picking on those two guys, but since they were supposed to be “middle of the batting order threats” this year and instead have been an albatross around the neck of the offense, you can understand why I point at those two directly. Add in Adalberto Mondesi’s injuries and a lack of depth in the minors and you could understand why the offense has been punchless (or stagnant. or futile. or barren. or just unproductive).
But we can’t lay all the blame on the hitting. Because if you have taken in a Royals game this year, you are probably aware that the starting pitching has been just as much to blame for Kansas City’s ineptitude. Brad Keller was a godsend in 2020, but this year has the highest ERA for a qualified pitcher. Oh, Mike Minor isn’t too far behind with the 3rd highest ERA. Danny Duffy can’t stay off the IL. Brady Singer struggles to get past the 3rd inning. Meanwhile, youngsters like Kris Bubic, Carlos Hernandez, Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar have not been able to maintain any sense of consistency to warrant a regular turn in the rotation.
As a team, the starters have the second fewest innings pitched in the league, the second highest ERA, the second lowest LOB%, the third most runs allowed and the second highest amount of walks allowed. The starters also have the second lowest Win Probability, which is a stat that is solely supposed to be about how much you are helping your team win.
The starters struggles have led to putting more stress on the bullpen, which has forced them to have their own set of issues. While the Royals pen has the lowest fWAR so far, they do have the third highest LOB% (73.7%)…but that is about it. Walks have killed the Royals relievers this year, as they lead the league in walk % and they also have the second highest HR per 9.
Despite looking at all these awful numbers, I still kind of give the pen a pass, because they are being asked to carry so much of the weight of this team. They have the fourth highest innings pitched for a bullpen in the AL this year and there for awhile this past month, the bullpen was throwing more innings than the starters. This is a recipe for disaster and every time the starters have consistently failed, the cracks in the bullpen start to show more and more.
Look, I hate that my first post in months is mostly negative. I love this team too much not to mention what I am enjoying about them in this 2021 campaign. First and foremost is Nicky Lopez. This guy originally was slated to start the year in the minors, but was recalled right before the season opener as Mondesi went on the injured list. Lopez slides into shortstop, a position he hasn’t played regularly in years and while he has been solid on defense, the bat has finally started to show up. Look, the guy still has a wRC+ below the league average of 100 (92 to be exact), but he has hit .270/.355/.332 and become one of the most reliable hitters in the Royals lineup when they need a big hit.
Lopez has lowered his strike out rate and increased his walk rate, which means the numbers are moving in the right direction. Lopez is never going to be a power hitter or even one who racks up a ton of extra base hits. But what he does do is get on base, make regular contact and play above average defense. Add in his ability to get timely hits and you have a player I can get behind to be a mainstay in the Kansas City lineup.
I’ve also enjoyed the additions of Carlos Santana and Andrew Benintendi to the lineup. Both have been in the plus category for this team and hopefully both are still around for next season. In fact I wouldn’t be opposed to an extension for Benny if GMDM could make it happen. He’s young enough and could be a steady bat when the Royals are finally able to contend.
But the real reason to watch this Kansas City team is catcher Salvador Perez. Last year Salvy had a monster year in just 30 games, as we saw an increase in his power numbers and offensively looked like an elite hitter. If I’m being honest, I really questioned whether or not this change was going to be permanent, as we have spent years watching him struggle with pitches outside the strike zone. But here is the crazy part: Salvy is swinging at a higher % of pitches outside the zone than ever before this year. But he is also swinging at more pitches inside the zone and doing more damage with those pitches.
Just look at Perez’s numbers when it comes to hard hit rate and barrels:
The numbers flat out speak of how Salvy is hitting the ball harder than at any point in his career and it is turning into career best numbers. I still wish the walk rate was higher and his ‘K’ rate was lower, but at this point I get that Salvy is what he is. If that means we get a hitter who consistently hits the ball hard and is a driving force in the middle of the lineup, then I will take it.
So what can a fan hope for in the second half of this season? I almost don’t even know where to start but getting Mondesi back would be nice. Mondesi has only put up 38 plate appearances but already has 0.7 fWAR in that short amount of time. It really is a glaring window into just how much it has hurt the Royals this year to not have Mondi in the lineup and on defense. In fact Mondesi’s return would actually improve Kansas City’s defense as well, as Lopez could shift to second base (his best position) and Whit Merrifield can go back to RF. No matter what, having Mondesi healthy would be a giant step in the right direction for this club.
Maybe the biggest improvement the team could ask for would be the starters stepping up and stringing together regular quality starts. Getting Keller or Bubic to be consistent would really help the Royals and if anything it would take pressure off of the bullpen. Having either Lynch or Kowar show that they are ready for the big leagues would also help and if anything add some depth to the rotation. Right now (especially with Duffy and Singer on the IL) the team has maybe (maybe?) four starters, with one of them (Hernandez) mainly used as a reliever this year. The fact that the Royals don’t have a fifth starter is concerning and one can only hope someone steps up and is able to fill that role. If not, the last two months could be even rougher for this Royals squad.
Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
This season was supposed to be a season where we saw enough improvement in Kansas City to picture the Royals as contenders in the near future. Instead, it feels like very little has gone right and it almost feels like a big step back. One has to question why the younger players (especially pitchers) are seeing great improvement in the minors but not really seeing any once they reach the big leagues. There has been a lot of talk of what pitching coach Cal Eldred is doing (or not doing) once these players are reaching Kansas City. One really has to question his job security when so much of the Royals success ties into these pitchers and their development.
At seventeen games under .500, it really feels like the only direction to go for this team is up. It’s so frustrating to see the struggles this team has when so much talent is involved. If you are an old enough fan, you remember the bad Royals teams of the early 2000’s. The difference between this team and the Royals of years ago is that there is a high level of talent on this squad. No Chip Ambres or Blake Stein’s are on this team. I think as fans, many of us have a lot of questions for the failures of this year and we aren’t seeing anyone take the fall. At some point, there has to be some accountability for this team.
All I know at this point is that this team should be better than what we have seen up to this point. Luckily, we have two months to rectify the wrongs of this season. Also, Bobby Witt, Jr. has a chance of being recalled in September. So there is still fun to be had for this baseball season. Even for us Royals fans.