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Crown Jewels: Improving Offense, Going Young, Important Weekend
The Royals still aren't winning, but they're more fun because they're hitting and they're doing it with the lineup they should be.
This week against the Baltimore Orioles, it was sort of like looking in a funhouse mirror. The two teams were on similar paths for awhile. Baltimore was good before the Royals got good in the 2010s, but both teams faced a rebuild when their successful run was winding down. While the Orioles missed the playoffs in 2015 but made them in 2016, both teams fell below .500 in 2017. The next year was an unmitigated disaster for both, but particularly the Orioles. The difference was that the Royals were no longer made up of their World Series core. Sure they were able to sign Mike Moustakas late in spring and Alcides Escobar came back, but Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and so many others were already gone. The 2018 Orioles featured Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop and whatever shell Chris Davis became along with Adam Jones, Kevin Gausman, Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner and pieces of a once-great bullpen.
I think people believe having Machado is what jump-started their rebuild, but if you look at the return for him, only Dean Kremer is contributing for them. He had a solid year last year, but has a 6.67 ERA this year. Schoop brought back very little too. Jones was never traded. You might be able to argue the return for Dylan Bundy, Kyle Bradish, was better than anything they got for the others. The Orioles have built this team on good development and hitting on some flyers they’ve taken.
Of course, they unashamedly tanked to get where they are. They lost 115 games in 2018, 108 in 2019 and 110 in 2021 before they broke through last year, though it appeared last year was another 95-loss season. The Royals, of all teams, thoroughly dominated them on June 10. Jonathan Heasley was outstanding. It was an 8-1 final. The Orioles fell to their season-low 11 games under .500 and were on pace for a 65-97 season. They were also 8-16 at one point. But things started turning. And here they are. They’re competing in the best division in baseball.
I think they’re probably a bit over their heads because their pitching isn’t good enough, in my opinion, but they’ve completed their rebuild. And you wonder if the Royals would be where they are if they hadn’t even bothered with guys like Carlos Santana and Mike Minor or if they had just unceremoniously traded every single player who made any money. I don’t know that they would or wouldn’t, but I can tell you unequivocally that they are not yet. It was interesting to see them on the same field. I also don’t think the Royals are worlds worse than the Orioles, for whatever it’s worth. I just think they have work to do.
It might be a little difficult to notice since the wins still aren’t coming, but the Royals offense may have found their stride. We saw what they did yesterday in an improbable comeback that got torpedoed by Aroldis Chapman in the eighth inning, but they scored 10 runs for the second time this season. They also scored 23 runs in the series. And it goes back to the game they faced Shohei Ohtani. I wrote then about teams getting on track after facing star pitchers. As a team, they’re hitting .274/.335/.468 with five runs per game over the last 12. They’ve scored six or more in three straight games for the first time since July of last year.
But what might be most impressive is that they’re doing it with a balanced attack. Take yesterday’s game, for example. The six through nine hitters combined to 8 for 16 with five runs scored and five runs batted in. That’s the second straight game they’ve gotten eight hits from the bottom of the lineup. I’ll get to this, but adding Maikel Garcia and getting some guys going at the bottom makes this lineup appear so much deeper than when we saw Hunter Dozier on the regular and Michael Massey was struggling SO badly (he walked twice yesterday and three times in the series).
By wRC+, the Royals actually have the eighth best offense in baseball since April 22. And yes, that’s totally a random date that could have been picked out of thin air, but I’m always intrigued by the idea of what happens after facing elite pitching. There isn’t really a secret to the success either. Prior to that date, they had a 6.5 percent walk rate and 26.7 percent strikeout rate. The walk rate was second-lowest and the strikeout rate second-highest. Since then, it’s a 7.1 percent walk rate (still sixth-lowest) and 21 percent strikeout rate (eight-lowest). Is it as simple as just facing fewer elite pitchers? Maybe it really is. They got shut down by Zac Gallen and Sonny Gray in that stretch, but both have been elite pitchers this year.
Whatever it is, they’re making way more contact, probably because they’re not going out of the zone nearly as much. Their O-swing% prior to the 22nd was 37.1 percent. It’s at 33 percent since, which is still worse than average, but considerably better. While it’s obvious that laying off bad pitches and success go hand in hand, there’s even more nuance than that. If a team is hitting well, pitchers are less likely to want to go after them, so they might nibble more. If a pitcher nibbles more and the team doesn’t go after the pitches they shouldn’t, they work walks. If they’re working walks, a pitcher has to come back in the zone and then the team hitting well can do damage. We all know this because this is what happens to Royals pitching.
I think that Alec Zumwalt, Keoni DeRenne and the rest of the Royals hitting crew has likely taken more flack than they should have for the start this season, but I think there’s some reason for praise when you see Massey hitting .286/.359/.314 since April 22 (though where’s the pop?) and MJ Melendez at .265/.289/.529 (though where’s the patience?) and Bobby Witt Jr. at .271/.307/.479 since April 10.
A bad offense makes people believe a team isn’t trying or doesn’t care. The lack of hitting and scoring looks bad from the outside even though 99.5 percent of these guys care more than people will ever know and are trying harder than they probably even should be (that’s part of the problem sometimes). So it’s nice to see some hitting because it quiets that silly complaint people have. It’s not a big start for these guys, but it’s a start and I’ll get to this a little later, but their next seven games are against two of the worst pitching staffs in baseball. So there’s a good chance this continues.
The other reason this team is at least more interesting is the youth in the lineup. When Nicky Lopez went on the IL and they sent down Franmil Reyes, the Royals brought up Garcia, who has basically hit the ground running. He’s 5 for 12 with some really great swings and just one strikeout in 13 plate appearances. He’s shown off his good glove at third and gives the lineup a different look. I don’t think I’d predict that he’ll hit .417, but I guess you never know. But before they brought him up, they brought back Nick Pratto, who was the only guy without a hit in yesterday’s offensive explosion, but that’s okay because he’s hit .391/.462/.435, albeit with still a ton of strikeouts.
With the Reyes demotion, it appears he’s going to spend most of his time at first base, but I think his versatility and ability to be a decent enough corner outfielder comes in handy with this roster. Salvador Perez is going to catch almost every day, but there are days he will and should DH. You certainly can’t sit Vinnie Pasquantino, so if you want to keep Pratto in the lineup, he needs to be in the outfield, which I’m fine with if it’s only on Salvy DH days. If one of those days falls against a tough lefty, I’m also fine with Pratto sitting. I think he’s part of the secondary offensive core that includes guys like Massey and Garcia. They aren’t “play at all costs” guys, but they should be in there nearly every day.
And with Garcia and Pratto in the big leagues, we’ve seen both Dozier and Jackie Bradley Jr. see their playing time reduced to next to nothing. Bradley has appeared for defense and came in due to Kyle Isbel’s injury yesterday, which you can’t argue with. Dozier ended up coming in yesterday because Bradley had to come in already. If Isbel hadn’t been hurt, the Royals would have put Bradley in left instead of Dozier when Pratto moved to first. So Dozier’s lone at bat of the series, and his first since Sunday, came against Felix Bautista. I know that most people around these parts will never defend the guy, but that’s rough. This is a digression, but I would have taken my chances with Olivares defensively and letting him hit, though I think it tells you how little they think of his defense.
The point is that the lineup the last three days has featured exactly what we’ve all wanted and a lot of what we got the last two months of 2022. The only veteran in there is Perez, and he belongs. I anticipate that the Dozier era is coming to an end soon enough, likely when Lopez comes back from his appendectomy. That could obviously change if Garcia proves to be overmatched or something, but I don’t think I anticipate that. This offense is more fun now and even if they struggle, they’re at least getting an evaluation on everyone they need to be.
It’s weird to think about a weekend series being big when the two teams combined have fewer wins than 20 teams in baseball, but this is a chance to both get some wins against a horrendous A’s team and for the offense to keep up what they’re doing. The A’s have a 7.37 team ERA. They’ve allowed 10 or more runs in 12 of their 32 games and five or more in 22 of them. They may have something in Mason Miller, but the rest of their staff is a disaster. Now, I don’t think some of these guys are really this bad, so that’s why I think it’s kind of an important weekend for the Royals.
They’ll get Kyle Muller tonight and Ken Waldichuk tomorrow. Muller has a 6.28 ERA and comes by it honestly. He’s allowed 40 hits in 28.2 innings and has walked 15. He’s putting two runners on every inning basically. I think Waldichuk is the more likely of the two to turn it around, but he has a 7.26 ERA with 39 hits allowed in 31 innings and 12 walks. Righties have a 1.001 OPS against him. I actually think I might be okay if Dozier plays over Pratto in this one against him even.
They’ve shuffled their bullpen so much that it’s honestly hard to know if they’re terrible or okay, though they did bring up Richard Lovelady recently, so that could be interesting. He has five strikeouts and four walks in 7.2 innings. The only thing the A’s pitching staff isn’t dead last in among American League teams is strikeouts. They’re third-to-last. So this is a test for the Royals offense because they have faced some brutal competition.
They’ve passed their recent tests quite well. The Orioles staff came into the weekend having allowed six or more runs just twice since April 15 and the Royals got them in three straight. Now Oakland comes to town and then Chicago after and it’s a chance to prove that they were just cold at the wrong time and facing some serious star power. If they get through these next seven games with 35-45 runs scored, I’ll feel pretty good about the bats moving forward. If they don’t, we’ll have to examine the why.