This should be “the year” for the Kansas City Royals, to at least make it into the playoffs. Last year almost was. And maybe 2014 still will be—the Royals are only 2 ½ games out of the second wild-card spot going into their Saturday night game in Boston. But Kansas City is also only 48-47, they’ve been passed in the AL Central by the Cleveland Indians and both teams are still looking up at the Detroit Tigers. So what’s the deal, why can’t Kansas City get it done?
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The problem with this year’s team is simple—they don’t draw walks and they don’t hit home runs. Kansas City ranks dead last in the American League in both categories. It’s not that they can’t hit—the team is third in the AL in batting average, but it doesn’t leave the yard.
More important, the failure to draw walks means that they’re not consistently putting men on the base paths and their hitters have no cushion against an offensive slump—walks help keep you contributing during these inevitable stretches when the hits won’t come.
A hitter who is really good at being patient will often have an on-base percentage 100 points higher than his batting average. Now that’s a high bar—it’s reserved for offensive superstars and players who have elite batting eyes. So let’s lower that bar to 60 points and see how the Kansas City lineup fares.
The answer is ugly—only three regulars, catcher Salvador Perez, left fielder Alex Gordon and rightfielder Norichika Aoki met the standard. In fairness, Perez does hit the 100-point mark (.330 batting average/.438 OBP). And Aoki did a stint on the disabled list, which certainly didn’t help matters.
I should also note that third baseman Mike Moustakas is close to a 60-point OBP/BA spread, but when your batting average is .189, it’s pushing the OBP idea to an extreme. Walks can make moderately good hitter productive. They can’t help for a terrible hitter.
Why Moustakas, once one of the crown jewels in the Royals’ farm system keeps getting sent out year after year to flop miserably at the plate is beyond me. Eric Hosmer on the other side of the infield at first base, isn’t that bad, but he’s another highly touted player who hasn’t lived up to expectations.
All of this collectively—the failure to execute something as basic as patience at the plate and the disappointment at the plate can cause a reasonable person (at least I hope I’m being reasonable) to question if Royals’ management has any idea what it’s doing.
Questioning the leadership in Kansas City probably isn’t going to raise too many eyebrows to begin with—this is an organization that hasn’t made the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985. The manager Ned Yost, did recently help put a small-market team in the playoffs…sort of. The 2008 Milwaukee Brewers won the wild-card, with Yost managing 150 games. Of course the fact he was fired for the last 12 to try and avert a massive meltdown doesn’t inspire confidence in him either.
Kansas City’s pitching staff is coming through. James Shields is the same horse he always was in Tampa, having already logged 136 innings with a 3.70 ERA. Yordano Ventura is a solid young pitcher and Danny Duffy just needs some run support—he has the best ERA of them all, at 2.76, but with only five wins. Jeremy Guthrie’s best days are well behind him, but he at least takes his turn, has thrown 120 innings and helps keep the pressure off the bullpen.
And speaking of that bullpen—it’s excellent. Greg Holland has been the best closer in the American League over the last year and a half. Wade Davis is pitching lights-out baseball in setup, as is Kelvin Herrera. Aaron Crow and newly acquired Jason Frasor provide outstanding depth.
If you get this pitching staff a lead to work with the Royals are a tough team to beat. But you aren’t going to get too many leads when you completely lack plate discipline and can’t compensate by hitting the ball out of the park.
The problems Kansas City is having can be summed in the person of centerfielder Lorenzo Cain. He’s hitting .301. But his OBP is only .336. Now that’s a terrible OBP, but the stats combined together suggest Cain swings at anything he can see. If he hits even a moderate hitting slump, his offensive
The Royals need turnaround second halves from a range of players, starting with DH Billy Butler and including Hosmer. Maybe if they’re patient, they’ll see better pitches. Which will lead to some long balls. Which will in turn lead to some wins for a franchise that some of us who grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s still remember as having been a model of fundamental play.