The Royals are 13-12: Offensive Concerns and a Different Leadoff Option

It’s May, and things are…fine.

April started great, with the Royals splitting with the Mets, sweeping the Twins, and wining 3 of 4 at Minute Maid Park in Houston. After dropping 2 of 3 in Oakland, the Royals came home to win 4 of 6 against the Tigers and Orioles. Through 18 games, they sat at 12-6. This is a good start.

But April ended poorly. The Royals won only 1 game the rest of the way after getting swept by the Angels and losing 2 of 3 to the Mariners. The offense sputtered. The defense struggled. The pitching stumbled. The West Coast has not been friendly thus far.

So here we are, on May 2, and the Royals are 13-12. Things are fine. The first 3 weeks were, for the most part, strong. This past week has been, almost entirely, terrible. If that trend continues throughout the season, this team is a playoff team. The baseball season is long, and there are going to be times when the team is thriving and there are going to be times when the team is regressing. That’s baseball.

So that’s what we’re looking for: Trends. What are the current areas of concern that we ought to be worried about turning into trends?

Consider the case of Joakim Soria.

If I had written this post two weeks ago, Soria would’ve highlighted the argument. On Opening Night, Soria made his triumphant return out of the bullpen to take the bump for the Royals. He pitched the 8th inning, inheriting a 4-0 ballgame. He got 2 outs. He gave up 3 runs on 3 hits and 2 walks. He left the game with runners on 1st and 2nd and needed Luke Hochevar to get him out of it.

Between April 3 and April 19, Soria had a 7.71 ERA. He had given up 6 runs on 10 hits and walked 5 in 7 innings over 8 games. Opponents were hitting .333/.417/.567 off him. Not great.

But while the rest of the team has been floundering on the west coast, Joakim Soria has looked more like himself. From April 20 to May 1, his ERA is 2.21, and the only blemish is a home run to some guy named Mike Trout. The temporary concern did not become a trend, and the pumpkin turned back into a carriage. Or something.

So what are the concerns? And which of them are trends?

Save for a few poor outings, the pitching has been strong, and while the defense hasn’t been as tight as we are accustomed to it being, it’s not like the 9 guys who make up one of the best defenses in baseball suddenly got the yips and can’t play. They’ve had a few slow turns on double plays and couple plays by Escobar and Cain that we know they usually make. Those will come around.

No, the concern is on the offensive side of the ball. We know this. And it’s not just a couple guys either, it’s basically everyone not named Eric or Michael. Eric Hosmer has reached base in every game this season but one. He is hitting .337. Mike Moustakas is has 7 home runs. He is slugging .548. He can seemingly go to the opposite field at will.

The rest of the team is hitting .233/.283/.324. Basically, the rest of the team is hitting like 2015 Omar Infante. Infante, interestingly enough, is bringing up those numbers hitting a .256/.289/.346 this season. Take out his .256/.289/.346 from those numbers, and the rest of the team sits at a .230/282/.321.

The Royals have been shut out 3 times in the last 4 days at the hands of Felix Hernandez, Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez. Two lefties and one of the best pitchers in baseball? Sure. But those numbers above aren’t just over the past week. It’s over an entire month of the season. And that’s concerning.

Who are we really talking about here? The biggest culprits are Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Kendrys Morales. Let’s throw Alcides Escobar into the mix too, although, when you don’t expect a lot of offensive production from a guy it’s tough to point to him as the problem. But he’s still a problem…just a different kind of problem. We’ll get to that at the end. The major issues are Gordon, Morales and Cain.

The Alex Gordon Concern

Alex Gordon’s issue is strikeouts. He’s already fanned 32 times in 2016 which means he’s on pace for 207. Last season, Chris Davis led all of baseball with 208 Ks. No one else had over 200. Last year Alex Gordon struck out 92 times. He averages 144 per 162 games. This is a problem, but is it a trend? There’s no way this strikeout rate will continue. It’s simply not consistent with Gordon’s career body of work. His .205 batting average is the lowest among our 9 starters.

I don’t know what the explanation is – it’s like he’s not picking the ball up or his timing is off or something. Last night, while facing Jonathan Papelbon in the 9th, Gordon couldn’t catch up to a 91 MPH fastball up in the zone. He got multiple pitches he typically feasts on, but he couldn’t barrel them. Something is off with Gordon, but I’m not totally sure what it is.

I can tell you this though: it’s Alex Friggin Gordon. He’ll work harder than any of us at finding out what his issue is. He has a body of work that over the course of a season is among the most consistent in baseball. There is about as much chance that Alex Gordon strikes out 200 times as there is the Chicago White Sox win the 122 games they’re currently on pace for. It’s early, and numbers do weird things in small sample sizes.

The Kendrys Morales Concern

But Kendrys Morales isn’t much better at .217. Big Ken had a slow start, hitting just .160 over the first 7 games of the season. But then he hit .324 from games 8 to 17. But over the past 8 games he’s hit a paltry .136 – just 3 hits in 22 ABs.

But Morales’s most recent struggles seem to be due to bad luck more than anything else. According to Fangraphs, Morales is making harder contact (38%) in 2016 than he has in any season in his career. He has hit the ball HARD over the past week or so. He blistered a deep ball to RF just foul in Seattle and had at least one line drive land barely foul down the LF line. Two nights ago he hit a line drive directly to the second baseman. Just last night he squared up a ball that the left fielder caught a foot shy of the wall.

Granted, his 19.2% soft contact rate is also his highest since 2008. Makes sense his numbers would be a bit polarized with the start he’s had, but all in all I don’t think there’s anything to be concerned about when it comes to Morales’s bat. Slow start, sure, but over the middle chunk of April he was excellent, and he’s had a ton of bad luck over the past few games. Look of him to take off in May.

The Lorenzo Cain Concern

Cain has gotten better and better every season over the past three years. Every year we expect him to regress, and every year he impresses us more than the year before. He’s an All Star, should be a Gold Glover, he finished 3rd in the AL MVP race last year. He’s on the verge of being a star. And at some point over the past few years – maybe it was winning it all, or maybe it was just missing out on the MVP – but at some point I think he bought into the hype himself and started trying to be more than he his.

Cain’s issue this season is that he’s trying to hit for too much power. He’s leaning back and ending up having terrible plate appearances. It looks like he’s guessing at the plate, hoping to connect with one. Rather than maintaining his balance and spraying pitches all over the park, he’s sitting back and hoping to guess right on a fastball.

Since this is a list of concerns, you know it hasn’t gone well. He’s hitting .231/.300/.297. He has 2 home runs, but otherwise doesn’t have any extra base hits. Zero doubles. Zero triples. His K% is up from 16.2% in 2015 to 27.0% in 2016 – not as bad as Gordon’s 32.7%, but it’s bad.

However, over the past 5 games or so, Lorenzo has begun hitting to right field again. In fact, all of his hits in the past week have been to CF or RF. He’s been pretty consistently bad over the season, scattering 2 or 3 hits over each series, but he seems to have identified what the issue is and addressed it.

I’m the most worried about Cain though because he doesn’t have the body of work present to point to and say, “See, that’s who he really is, he’ll turn it around.” No, Cain’s career success has really only been limited to the past two years, so I’m less optimistic that he’ll turn it around like I am with Gordon and Morales. But he’s already showing glimpses of his old self. I’m not ready to call this a trend yet though. I’m hopeful.

The Leadoff Hitter Concern

And finally, you get the one legitimate concern in the lineup. Our leadoff hitter, Alcides Escobar.

This has been well chronicled by many, but still: no team in baseball got less production out of the leadoff spot last year than the Kansas City Royals. Yet they won the World Series…in large part due to the overwhelmingly hot bat of Alcides Escobar. He was the ALCS MVP. He hit a leadoff inside the park homerun in Game 1 of the World Series. He was on fire.

But cmon. He has a career .261 AVG and .291 OBP. If we learned one thing from Moneyball it’s that you want the guys at the top of your lineup to get on base so that your sluggers can hit them in. But I understand, OBP isn’t the Royals gameplan – it’s ambush hitting, it’s putting the ball in play, it’s forcing the defense to make a play, and in that sense, I suppose he fits the Royals formula for success.

But the best argument against Escobar as the leadoff hitter is the one laid out by Craig Brown at Baseball Prospectus: over the course of a full season, do you really want Alcides Escobar to get 150 more at bats than, say, Alex Gordon? (Not on the streak he’s on right now, no, but you get the point.) Because that’s what is happening. A poor hitter is getting 150 more plate appearances than a good one. Doesn’t compute.

That said, I question whether there’s a better option. The only options I’ve heard are Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain or Jarrod Dyson. But regardless of how you structure it, those guys all present problems too. Gordon and Dyson both create a lineup that’s too lefty heavy at the top, and Dyson has never proven he can hit over a full season and Gordon basically sucks right now anyway. Cain creates a hole in the 3 spot, which would need to be plugged by…who? Hosmer? Morales? Gordon? Again, lefty heavy.

Here’s my alternative suggestion…

  • Mike Moustakas
  • Lorenzo Cain
  • Eric Hosmer
  • Kendrys Morales
  • Alex Gordon
  • Salvador Perez
  • Omar Infante
  • Jarrod Dyson
  • Alcides Escobar

Yep. That’s right. Just move Esky to the bottom and move everyone else up.

You can split hairs over who should go where in the 7-8-9 slots, but that’s not the point. The point is that the lineup now has the same turnover as it did before, only those extra 150 plate appearances from Escobar are now being spread out among the rest of your best hitters.

Is Mike Moustakas the prototypical leadoff hitter? Absolutely not. Doesn’t he have too much power to be hitting with no one else on base? Completely agree. But what other option is there? We don’t have a leadoff hitter on this team, so it doesn’t really matter who we go with. The point is that lineup construction generally doesn’t matter outside of which guys you want getting the most swings over a season. Who do I want getting those swings? Moose, Cain, Hosmer, Morales and Gordon.

So, what do we have to be concerned about? Is there an apparent trend we need to be aware of? Honestly, not really. Gordon’s track record suggests he’ll turn it around. Morales has been mostly unlucky. Cain has already shown glimpses of figuring out his stroke, but he’s the biggest worry of those three.

Finally, get Escobar out of the leadoff spot. And since we don’t actually have a legitimate leadoff hitter, why not do the simplest possible adjustment?

I’ll listen off the air, thanks.

-apc.

Photo cred: Fox Sports accessed here.

The Royals are 1-0: lots to get excited about from Opening Day.

Aside from the clouds, a few moments of spitting rain and a 10 minute panic attack after Yordano Ventura grabbed his right wrist, Opening Day went swimmingly.

The Royals won 10-1 and Ventura was the dominant pitcher we need him to be. The bats were hot as Jeff Samardzija was introduced to the Royals high contact bats. Every Royals hitter reached base but Omar Infante, and even he hit the ball hard on Monday and deserved a better line than he ended up with. Mike Moustakas and Alex Rios homered. Morales drew three walks. Ryan Madson threw his first inning of professional baseball in 4 years in the 9th. It was a fun game.

But it’s just one game, and we can’t thump our chest too much. Just like last year’s Opening Day loss to the Tigers, we can’t jump to conclusions about this team based on one game. It’s a 162 game season, and this one game – despite it being a stellar performance – only counts for 1, and the Royals magic number is 162. So, there’s still a lot of work to do.

That said, we can pull a few nuggets of speculation out and celebrate the signs of what may (or may not) be to come. Let’s get to it.

Moose’s first career opposite field home run.

Yes, you’re reading that correctly. Monday’s home run off Samardzija was Moose’s first ever to the opposite field. Here’s his HR chart via ESPN Stats & Information. i Three things stand out here.

The first thing that stands out is that one lone red dot in right field that is way further than all the others. That one came off of Lance Lynn on June 24, 2012. Recorded at 464 feet.

The second thing that stands out is the home run the farthest left, which is the one Moose hit on Monday. It’s obviously a rare scenario for Moose to hit anything to the left side, so to see him hit for power the opposite way is something to celebrate. I think if Moose can get it into his head that he can have success without pulling the ball, we could be in for a decent season from Mike Moustakas. Which would also be rare.

But then the third thing that stands out is that the home run wasn’t to left field at all. “Opposite field” is technically based on splitting the field right down the middle. As you can see, Moose’s homer barely qualifies. If you asked what part of the field that HR went to, you’d say it went to center field, not left. So technically, it was opposite field, but it wasn’t THAT opposite field. So let’s keep our emotions in check here because it wasn’t like he sliced one into the bullpen in right. So lets not get carried away and start talking like Moose now hits with power to all fields.

But still. It’s something.

The newcomers do not disappoint.

Did any Royals hitter walk three times in a game last year? I could probably look it up, but it’s easier to speculate that it never happened in 2014. Somebody prove me wrong.

We’re one game into the 2015 season and it’s already happened. Kendrys Morales walked three times on Monday. One of them was intentional. Last year the Royals finished dead last in all of baseball with 380 walks. Their team OBP still managed to end up middle of the pack aided by their high batting averages, but if we can work the count and get on base more, this team is going to be extremely dangerous on offense. With three yesterday, Morales is currently on pace for 486 walks. Obviously he’s not going to do that, but it’s fun to say. He also doubled. I still like this signing.

Alex Rios was even more impressive. He went 3-4 with a home run and a stolen base. In the 7th inning with the Royals already up 6-1, Rios got the pitch he was looking for on a 3-1 count and deposited it in the right field camera booth. Along with walks, the Royals also lacked power last year finishing dead last in MLB with only 95 big flies. People weren’t happy with the Royals gave Rios is $11M deal for the 2014 season, but if this is a testament of what’s to come, then we’re in for a treat this year.

And Ryan Madson, the last player to make the Royals 25-man roster, pitched the 9th inning. He gave up a hit and a walk, but induced a double play and ended the final frame with no damage. Madson hasn’t pitched since 2011 with the Phillies but has already managed to comeback and make a MLB roster after being out of the game so long. He has upside as a veteran in the bullpen, and it’s good to get him some work in a stress-free situation like Monday was.

Yordano good.

Ventura looked like an ace on Monday, yes? His stuff was working, he looked comfortable. He only gave up 1 run – an absolute monster home run to suspected robot, Jose Abreu – and he was only at 78 pitches when he left the game with a thumb cramp.

When I saw Yordano slumped on the grass holding is arm and writhing in pain, I panicked. I thought that was it and that the season was already over after just 6 innings of baseball. Kauffman Stadium was silent and suddenly the cheering subsided. Herrera came on to pitch the rest of the 7th.

It looked serious in the moment, but quickly it was speculated and confirmed on twitter that it was just a thumb cramp.

But it highlights this truth: if the Royals are going to succeed in 2015, their two young starters, Ventura and Danny Duffy, are going to have to stay healthy and carry this team. Both have a history of scaring us. Duffy had Tommy John surgery two offseasons ago and was the Royals best starter last year coming back from surgery, and Yordano had multiple moments in 2014 where he left the game early or missed a start with fears about his arm/elbow. We need these guys to throw a combined 380-400 innings.

I cried again.

This is becoming a theme, I suppose, but the AL championship ring ceremony and postseason video montage got the water works flowing again. I couldn’t help it. I’ll probably always cry when I think about that 2014 run. The Wild Card game. All three ALDS games. The ALCS clincher. Game 6 of the World Series. They all brought tears of joy to my eyes.

I’m not even embarrassed about it anymore.

There weren’t any clips from Game 7 in the montage. I expected it to end with some “unfinished business” tag at the end, but it didn’t. It just buried the sadness and highlighted the celebrations. Fair enough.

Bruce Chen was back and got a ring. He may have received the loudest cheers. Billy Butler, James Shields and Nori Aoki were not in attendance because they were playing baseball elsewhere. Louis Coleman, recently placed on waivers, got a ring too and it was awkward. Aaron Brooks got a ring for his single miserable performance. Ned Yost told the team physician not to lose his ring doing rectal exams.

***

I’m supposedly heading back out to the K tonight. We’ll see if the game happens or not with the rain we’re supposed to get. Danny Duffy gets the ball either tonight or for the first part of a double header tomorrow.

Good to have the Roys back in town and off to a good start. I’m still convinced that this team is better than last year’s team. I expect the playoffs…then who knows.

-apc.

The Royals sign DH Kendrys Morales for $17M over 2 years.

Kendrys-Morales_20130830151708371_660_3201

After a patient week at the MLB Winter Meetings in San Diego, the Royals finally made a move to improve their club by signing switch-hitting power DH Kendrys Morales to a two year, $17 million with performance incentives up to $18.5 million. With the addition of Morales the Royals have addressed one of their three major needs.

Morales played with the Angels from 2006-2011, joined the Mariners from 2012-2013, and he chose to turn down his qualifying offer entering free agency prior to the 2014 season. Mistake. No team wanted to surrender the draft pick to add Morales and he remained a free agent until finally Minnesota picked him up in June. He played 39 games with the Twins before being sent back to Seattle to help a Mariners playoff push that never came to fruition.

With such a tumultuous offseason, it’s not surprising that Morales’s 2014 production dipped significantly from his 2012-2013 campaigns. In fact, he was one of the worst hitters in baseball in 2014 hitting .218/.274/.338 and only 8 HRs in 98 games split between two clubs.

Thus, the primary question we’re all asking of Morales is whether 2014 was an anomaly or the start of a legitimate decline in ability.

Personally, I’m willing to look past his 2014 campaign. I don’t know what missing Spring Training and the first 2 months of the season can do to a baseball player physically and mentally, but it certainly isn’t ideal and is an easy explanation for such a decline. Sure, Morales is 31 and probably past his peak athleticism, but a drop that significant seems to be an obvious result of bizarre contract circumstances. He hit .280/.333/.480 from 2006-2013. To me, that outweighs 2014 enough to sign the guy called upon to replace Billy Butler.

The Royals chose to let Butler leave for free agency rather than picking up his $12.5 million option for 2015. Dayton Moore was quoted yesterday as having some regret for not bringing him back. It seems the DH market was thinner than anticipated which is likely why they ultimately seemed to panic and sign Morales to a somewhat pricey contract. That amount – $17M over 2 years – seems a bit high, but the Royals likely didn’t have much choice. With such a thin DH market, they were likely going to have to overpay no matter what. It’s the market they were presented with, unfortunately.

Everyone wants to compare Billy to Kendrys, and I’m no different. Billy gets on base more often (.359 vs .324 OBP), but Kendrys hits more homers (18 vs 25 HR/162 game avg). Billy is three years younger. Morales grounds into almost as many double plays as Billy does. Neither are fast. Both can play first base if called upon.

So, yeah, Billy Butler scores out as the slightly better player, and his contract in Oakland ($30M over 3 years) reflects that as would his contract in Kansas City had they decided to pick up his 2015 option.

Except the primary beef on Billy over the years has been this: for a DH he lacks power. Some of that is due to playing in an expansive Kauffman Stadium, but at this point we all know he’s a singles hitter with the occasional double to the gap. So before we get too far down the “why did we let Billy go, he was this team’s savior” road, let’s not forget that Ned Yost benched Billy down the stretch due to his lack of production, and we were all begging for Dayton Moore to ship him away at the trade deadline. Just because the dude had a few key hits in the postseason and took out a full page “thank you” ad in the KC Star on Thanksgiving, don’t let that cloud our eyes from our past frustrations about Billy. Fans have always had a love/hate relationship with Billy Butler, and I’m sure our relationship with Morales will be the same. I think relationships with DH’s are just like that – they have one specific job (hitting), and when they’re good at it, we love them, and when they’re bad it at, we don’t.

Kendrys Morales can drive the ball – specifically fastballs from the right side of the plate – and he can drive them farther than Billy Butler can. He just doesn’t do it quite as regularly. So it’s a trade off: OBP vs HRs. We needed a power bat and the DH was one of our primary needs. It’s not a sexy pick up, and Morales doesn’t solve all of our problems in a single player, but assuming he has even the slightest bounce back from 2014, he helps this team maintain it’s DH production from a year ago (which, we also can’t forget, wasn’t anything to write home about anyway).

And just because he’s not everything that Billy Butler was, we’re saving $3.5M this season by adding a player in Morales who is very close to Butler in OBP and exceeds him in HR. This seems like a lateral move overall, and that’s what this team needs to do. I’m fine with it.

Which means that $3.5M can be used elsewhere.

Remember that scene at the beginning of Moneyball when Billy Beane and his old school scouts are all trying to figure out how to replace Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen? They didn’t need to replace each one individually, they simply needed to replace their collective value. We need to do the same.

Butler had a WAR of -0.3 in 2014, but averages 1.6 over his career.
Aoki: 1.0 in 2014. 2.5 career.
Shields: 3.3 in 2014. 3.0 career.

Interestingly, they all had down seasons in 2014 (even Shields compared to recent years). For consistency’s sake, that means we need to replace a cumulative 4.0 WAR from 2014, but maybe closer to 7.2 WAR for their careers.

Morales had a WAR of -0.3 in 2014 – same as Billy, amazingly – and has a career average of 1.2 WAR. Added power. Lost OBP. So what we’d like to be able to find is two guys whose cumulative WAR is in the 4.0 to 5.0 range and we’ll come out ahead and we have more power to show for it with more money to invest in it.

Easier said than done? Of course it is. Looking strictly at the numbers makes the whole game seem like cake. But my point isn’t to solve the equation as much as it is to offer the equation itself.

We still need pieces, and it’s possible when all is said and done that the addition of Kendrys Morales will look just fine in conjunction with a right fielder and a starting pitcher (and I might even throw in a utility man who can add value off the bench…or in place of Omar Infante if the Royals happen to find any suitors).

One small caveat here before I wrap this up: I am a bit confused as to how this signing happened after all the conversation about the Royals utilizing a flexible DH spot in 2015 to get Salvy and others a few days off in the field. To me, adding a RF/DH hybrid was what needed to happen to provide that sort of fluidity, but alas, looks like we’re stuck with Salvy’s catching another 150+ games in 2015.

What I’m saying is that Morales is only one piece of the offseason puzzle. Hopefully my optimism in Morales bouncing back is not misplaced. There are still more moves to come, so calm down, Kansas City. The offseason is long – it’s December 11 and we have until early March to make moves – and Dayton Moore is not done adding pieces for 2015.

Stay the course, and let’s all revisit the Morales deal in March when the roster is set and in October when the Royals take the crown.

-apc.

Photo here: It’s All About the Money