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Crown Jewels: Strikeouts, The Off-Season Plan and a Tough Series in Toronto
People are probably going to pay even less attention to the Royals, but there are still things to talk about!
When the Royals are bad, the city’s focus shifts pretty early away from them. Obviously many still pay attention to the Royals, but especially with a Super Bowl champion across the parking lot, it’s easy for them to get lost in the shuffle once the other season begins. The Royals play just 21 more games before we can put this season from hell behind us and while many people already have with the Chiefs getting started last night (as ugly as that was), I think you know Inside the Crown doesn’t stop. I’ve said it to the point of people being sick of it probably, but the Royals are potentially the most resilient bad team I’ve seen. That doesn’t mean they’ll be good next year or anything, but it’s better than simply rolling over.
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I still think they need to get looks at more guys in Omaha, and maybe they’re gearing up for three weeks of an audition. They did just move Daniel Lynch IV to the 60-day IL, opening up a 40-man roster spot. Could that go to Anthony Veneziano for a start tonight? Maybe! Could it go to Tyler Gentry to give him a chance for a few weeks? I hope! Devin Mann, John Rave, Christian Chamberlain and Evan Sisk all could potentially benefit from some big league time as well. I didn’t include Will Klein because he’s on the IL right now in AAA, but if he can get back, him too. But I also want to see continued emphasis on the things they’ve clearly been emphasizing lately and where we’ve seen some improvements.
One of the areas that has seen a noticeable improvement is the strikeout rate of the offense. The Royals really seemed to use the break to reset offensively, which is why I feel a little better about using it as a dividing point than I usually do. As a team, they had the fourth-highest strikeout rate in baseball before the break at 24.7 percent. Since the break, that has dropped to 20.2 percent and ranks as eighth-best in baseball. You can really see it on an individual level.
I count 10 players who have some importance to the future and who have data from both before and after the break. All of them have seen their strikeout rates drop from half to half:
Dairon Blanco - 32.0% to 17.5%
Freddy Fermin - 21.7% to 21.6%
Maikel Garcia - 23.4% to 18.4%
Kyle Isbel - 20.5% to 16.9%
Michael Massey - 28.2% to 14.3%
MJ Melendez - 29.8% to 26.6%
Salvador Perez - 24.4% to 21.0%
Nick Pratto - 37.7% to 35.7%
Bobby Witt Jr. - 20.5% to 14.4%
Okay, so obviously a couple of these stand out as irrelevant. Pratto’s strikeout rate is still absurdly high and Fermin’s has technically dropped, but 0.1 percent is essentially a rounding error. But even so, that’s 10 players with decreased strikeout rates and some are pretty dramatic. The biggest drop percentage-wise is Massey, who has almost cut his strikeout rate in half. But Witt has seen a big drop, Blanco has seen a massive drop while looking like there’s a role for him on a winning club. Garcia, Isbel, Melendez and even Perez have seen sizable drops.
Contact isn’t a guarantee of future success, but putting the ball in play with good quality contact is generally a good thing. Through play Wednesday, the Royals had the seventh-highest hard-hit rate in baseball since the break along with the 14th-highest barrel rate. The barrel rate is more middle of the pack, but if you’re impacting the ball and making more contact with it, that’s a good thing that absolutely will lead to success. The Royals, since the break, rank 10th in batting average and second in xBA while they rank 10th in slugging percentage and fourth in xSLG. It’s no surprise that they’re 11th in runs scored.
If this is an approach these players can carry with them beyond the end of this season, that tends to bode well for the offense. And don’t forget that this is an offense doing it all without Vinnie Pasquantino, who I will continue to remind you is their best overall hitter. This is a bad team, but dropping strikeout rates while continuing to make quality contact is a good sign for the future. It doesn’t mean they couldn’t benefit from adding a bat or two, but there are encouraging signs for both the players and the plan from the coaching staff.
Attacking the Off-Season
How the Royals prepare for next season can range pretty wildly, in my opinion. They can focus on the group they have and say that they’ve made their first round of evaluations and now it’s time for round two. I think some of that will happen for several reasons, but I also will continue to stress that I don’t think they can go into next year without making some external improvements.
And that’s purely a business decision with a vote on a new stadium coming. I don’t know how many losses this team will end up with, but it’ll be more than 100 and maybe (probably?) more than 110. There’s already pushback on this new stadium. I don’t see how you can have a vote in early April on a day that, say, Max Castillo starts.
The other question is what they believe the American League Central can be. For any team, there are four playoff spots available to them. A team can win their division or can claim any of the three Wild Card spots. I don’t think there’s any world where the Royals can build a team that has any shot to compete with the Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles, Red Sox, Yankees, Mariners, Astros and Rangers, but I’ve always believed a team can be +/- 10 on their true talent level in wins.
So if they can build a 75-win team, could they believe the AL Central could be had with 85 wins? For as much flack as the division gets, this is the weird year. The last time the Central was won with fewer than 90 wins (other than 2020) was 2012. I think playoffs are a pipe dream anyway for a team like this a year later, but it all goes into the calculation for the front office. Just because they are highly unlikely to compete for a playoff spot doesn’t mean they can’t make improvements.
The question to me is what kind of improvements they make. They could go into the winter and splash around for Aaron Nola, Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery. They won’t, but they could. I think it’s pretty clear to anyone who has watched a Royals game this year or even anyone who has looked at a box score that if the Royals are going to improve, they need to drastically improve their pitching staff. On the bright side, bullpens can be so volatile from year to year that there is an opportunity to fix that aspect of the team.
There’s also a fine line between depth and redundancy. Firstly, I don’t think it’s possible to have redundancy on a pitching staff, so they need as many arms as they can get. But I do think the difference with position players is that redundancy is fine, but usable depth is better. For example, they have three true corner outfielders on the 40-man roster right now with Gentry about to be part of that mix. Do you really need that when you also have a handful of center fielders who can work as corner depth? Of course not. A guy like Nick Loftin, though, is usable depth. He can play five or six different positions. So that’s where some trades can come in to turn the redundancy into something usable.
But ultimately, I’d bank on a big win improvement if they load up on pitching. Keep in mind that a 20-win improvement puts them at like 73 wins next year, so don’t get too worked up that I’m already talking about them being way better. I just think it’s clear where the issues are and they need to work to mold the roster to be more usable, but simply bring in more arms. Whether it’s the three I listed above or even taking flyers on guys coming back from injury like Tyler Mahle and Frankie Montas, they just need to keep adding pitching. And when they think they’ve added enough, add more. I don’t think this team will be good next year, but there’s a pretty clear path to them being simply below average.
The Royals have a pretty tough go of things the rest of the way. They head to Toronto for three this weekend and while the Blue Jays aren’t as good as expected, they are currently clinging to the final Wild Card spot by half a game. Their offense is fine, but it was expected to be good. Instead, they’ve seen Alejandro Kirk take a step back, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. be okay but not great, George Springer decline to pretty average and Daulton Varsho struggle after acquiring him. Bo Bichette has been out but looks like he’ll be back this weekend. The upside is still there on any given night, but it’s just not consistent.
Where they do well is pitching. Even with Alek Manoah struggling this year, they have five starters throwing the ball well. The Royals will see Yusei Kikuchi, Kevin Gausman and Jose Berrios and will counter with someone tonight (maybe Veneziano?), Zack Greinke and Cole Ragans. I do think there’s a chance we see Veneziano start this series as it lines up with his day to pitch and there’s really nobody else unless they decide to go with a bullpen day. But then, I have some very real worries about Greinke against this lineup even if they aren’t having a great year. And Ragans is always a must-watch the way he’s throwing, but he’ll face a test against a lineup that handles lefties. It’s a tough series.
And it is a tough finish too. They get the White Sox after the Blue Jays, so that’s not a big deal, but then they come home to face Houston for the first time and catch them at the worst time if you want a Royals win. The Astros just finished a three-game series in Texas where they scored 39 runs and hit 16 homers. They’re averaging 6.2 runs per game since the break. It’s 7.6 since August 21. They’re just clicking right now and the Royals will see them two weekends in a row with Cleveland sandwiched in the middle. The Guardians are pretty much toast in the playoff race, but they acquired some talent and are still theoretically a much better team than the Royals.
The Royals sit at 97 losses now and need to go 9-12 to avoid 110. That’s a tough road with their schedule. There’s something about round numbers that are nice to avoid when it comes to losses and 110 seems like a good one. You avoid that and you’re not one of the 10 worst teams in the 162-game schedule. Sadly, the goal has become that, but here we are, I guess.