Seven Numbers to Help Define the First Half
The Royals expected to be competitive this year. Instead they went into the break 20 games under .500.
This is the sixth season since the Royals last finished a year at .500. I think it’s fair to count 2017 as a competitive season as well given that they were in a playoff spot at the deadline that year. So this is the fifth year of a very clear rebuild that the Royals have been adamant about not calling a rebuild. At the one-third mark of this fifth season, the Royals were on pace for 111 losses. Things have turned around quite a bit in the 38 games since then, and were looking even better prior to playing a road series against a good team without a good chunk of regulars, but they’re still 19-19 since that horrific start.
Is this finally the team that the Royals thought we’d be seeing all season? My gut says no. They believed the pitching would improve. It hasn’t. They thought the offense would be better. It sort of has. This team has actually dealt with quite a bit. Some of it is absolutely self-inflicted. They handed shortstop to Adalberto Mondesi and even after admitting he needed to sit sometimes, they never sat him. Then he got hurt. They’ve been without their 48-home run catcher for a good chunk of the year and will be without him for a good chunk more. They’ve had some injuries to young arms. Their bullpen has crumbled. It’s been a slog.
But after playing decent baseball for more than a month with that stretch culminating with a chance to see some of the young guys play, they have had a lot to reflect on over the break.
Here are seven numbers that help to define the first half to me.
77 and 103
The first number is the team’s wRC+ before they changed hitting coaches on May 16. The second number is the team’s wRC+ after. Some of that is just regression to the mean. This offense wasn’t that bad before. But some of it is that they are doing some different things that I think are greatly benefiting their hitters. That’s just an impressive turnaround. But it isn’t just the wRC+, it’s all the components that go into figuring that out. Take a look at some of the differences pre-change and post-change.
Some of it isn’t drastic. The walk rate, for example, has dropped a bit over the last few games, with the series in Toronto being especially light on walks. I don’t know how much of that was the inexperienced roster or the Blue Jays pitching staff. But either way, they still rank 18th in baseball in walk rate. The last time they were even in the top-20 was in 2002 when they finished 20th. The last time they were higher than 18th was 1997 when they were 14th. This is a pretty big deal. And while the walk rate is gone up just a touch since the change, they were 27th in the league when they made the move and are 17th since. So relative to the rest of the league, it’s a big jump.
We’ve seen individuals make big jumps with these new coaches as well. Some of it, like Bobby Witt Jr. likely would have happened anyway, but he went from a 74 wRC+ to a 125 wRC+. We saw the changes pay off so much for Carlos Santana that he was able to get traded to open up a spot for Vinnie Pasquantino. The Mariners ought to send a thank you note. Michael A. Taylor has jumped with the new coaching. So has Whit Merrifield. It’s pretty clear across the board that the plate appearances are better and the results have followed.
The Royals strength was supposed to be their defense, but they are at -19 defensive runs saved this year. That was their identity. They had three shortstops on the infield and two Gold Glovers in the outfield. It hasn’t worked out. Part of that is injuries. When they had Witt at third, Adalberto Mondesi at shortstop and Nicky Lopez at second base, it was impressive to watch that infield work. But since Witt has moved over to shortstop full time and third base became some combination of Emmanuel Rivera and Lopez, it hasn’t been especially pretty. They do fare better in OAA, the Statcast stat where they’re +5, but even so, that’s not what they expected to be.
Their best defender by DRS is Taylor, which is no surprise. Kyle Isbel has rated well, which is also no surprise. After that, Santana was good at first, but he’s gone. Lopez was good at shortstop, but he’s playing elsewhere. Witt was positive at third in pretty limited action, but he’s now at shortstop. The worst offenders are two young guys - Witt at shortstop (-12) and MJ Melendez behind the plate (-10). Lopez has rated terribly at second, which is kind of odd. And they’ve gotten uneven defensive performances in right field from Hunter Dozier, Edward Olivares and Merrifield. Dozier has also rated poorly at first and Merrifield has rated poorly at second. Their pitchers have rated poorly.
If you look at the typical defensively alignment right now with Melendez behind the plate, Dozier at first, Merrifield at second, Rivera/Lopez at 3rd (I’ll average them), Andrew Benintendi in left, Taylor in center and Olivares in right field, you’re looking at -21 defensive runs saved. If the pitching staff isn’t striking hitters out, and they’re not, that’s a problem.
That’s the percentage of pitches Royals pitchers have thrown for a first-pitch strike. It’s last in the league by a full percentage point. When you emphasize something like that in spring training and then fail at it so miserably, it becomes even more insane to note. If you’re wondering just how important a first pitch strike is, after an 0-1 count, the league is hitting .213/.258/.334. After a 1-0 count, the league is hitting .255/.372/.428. That is a 208 point difference in OPS. Look, throwing a first-pitch strike isn’t without risk because the league is also hitting .335/.346/.563 on first pitches, but only 11 percent of first pitches even end up in a result.
The starters aren’t quite as bad. They still rank last, but their first-pitch strike percentage is 58.9 percent, which is 0.7 percent away from Arizona. Their relievers are at just 56.5 percent, though. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that their bullpen walk rate is 11.4 percent, which is the worst in the league. The walks would be a bit more palatable if their strikeout rate was higher than 20.5 percent, which is fourth-worst in the league. It’s no surprise, though. Of the 23,131 strikeouts in the season’s first half, 68.1 percent came after a first-pitch strike even though just 50.1 percent of all plate appearances started with an 0-1 count.
Let’s leave Zack Greinke, Taylor Clarke and Scott Barlow out of this conversation because they all have thrown enough first-pitch strikes. The rest of the staff, though, needs to report to the principal’s office. Guys like Gabe Speier and Collin Snider have been sent to Omaha. They’re at the bottom. Jackson Kowar’s throwing first-pitch strikes just 50.6 percent of the time. Dylan Coleman is at 55.1 percent. Brad Keller is at 55.3 percent. Josh Staumont is at 55.5 percent. Jon Heasley is at 56.8 percent. Brady Singer is at 58 percent. Daniel Lynch is at 58.5 percent. Kris Bubic is at 58.9 percent. Bet you didn’t expect him at the top of that list.
The Royals are worse than the league in general, but also no different. After an 0-1 count, they allow a .236/.283/.360 average. After a 1-0 count, it’s .291/.415/.464. While both numbers are worse than the league average, the difference is 236 OPS points. And they get 65.1 percent of their strikeouts after the count is 0-1 in spite of just 46.5 percent of plate appearances starting that way. It’s not rocket science. Throw strike one and you’re good. Throw ball one and you’re bad. The problem is they throw ball one WAY too often, so…well you can come to your own conclusion there.
That’s the number of players who entered this season with less than a year of service time who have stepped to the plate or thrown a pitch for the Royals this season. I don’t know if that’s the most in baseball because I decided against spending the time trying to figure that out, but that’s an awful lot. Some of that was because of the Toronto series where we got to see five of them, but the Royals are a young team. They have the 10th youngest offense in baseball and that includes most of the year with Carlos Santana over Vinnie Pasquantino and a lot of Salvador Perez over MJ Melendez. They have the fourth youngest pitching staff in baseball and that includes 77.2 innings from Zack Greinke.
Gabe Speier, who turned 27 in April, is the second-oldest pitcher to start a game for the Royals this year and he was an opener. The third-oldest is Brad Keller, who turns 27 next week. I’m as critical as anyone of the Royals pitching and the idea that young pitchers can’t be good that Dayton Moore has thrown around is a terrible one, but Greinke, Keller, Amir Garrett and Daniel Mengden are the only pitchers to throw a pitch this year for the Royals who entered the year with at least 200 big league innings. There is something to be said for losing with youth over losing with veterans.
The lineup isn’t quite as young, or at least it hasn’t been, but it seems to skew younger just about every day. They will be trading Benintendi soon enough, but he doesn’t impact the age much. If they can move on from Merrifield, Taylor and even Dozier, we’re about to see this lineup go into hyperspeed of a youth movement. And they’ve been impressive. Only Arizona has gotten more plate appearances from rookies. Only Pittsburgh rookies have hit more home runs. The Royals have the seventh-best rookie ISO and the ninth-best rookie wRC+. There’s something cooking with these young bats and I’m excited to see more of them, likely after the trade deadline.
That’s the number of times the Royals have been thrown out on the bases. This doesn’t include caught stealing but just times a runner is out while making a “baserunning” play. This isn’t an inherently bad number without context. For example, the three teams with more outs on the bases are the Rays, Dodgers and White Sox. Two of those three would be playoff teams if the playoffs started today and one has been way worse than expected but is right in the thick of things. This is a number that generally indicates at least some level of aggression, which a team without the ability to hit the ball over the fence very much probably needs to have at times.
The problem is it feels like they pick the wrong times far too often. They’re tied for third in the league with 14 of those 34 outs coming at home. The Rays are ahead of them. They’re tied with the White Sox and then the Nationals pop up tied with the Rays. The next closest team to those four has 11 outs at home. We’ve seen Vance Wilson send players just way too often and then it becomes up to the player to decide if it’s wise or not. Far too often, it has not been wise. Giving up the opportunity to keep a runner on third for the next hitter is just too risky for my tastes.
So while they’re fifth in outs at second base, that bothers me a lot less. That’s a player trying to get into scoring position for a team that hits an awful lot of singles. I get it. The out at the plate is discouraging, especially with the improvements we’ve seen from this offense. The worst offenders are Dozier, Olivares (seems like all in Toronto), Merrifield, Benintendi and Witt.
To their credit, they push it on the bases and they have taken the extra base 45 percent of the time, which ranks seventh in all of baseball, so while they get thrown out a lot, they’re also successful a lot.
So close to the magical 1738, but not quite there! What is this number, you might be asking? If you follow @UmpScorecards on Twitter, you know that they put out a daily report card for each home plate umpire for each game. It shows the most egregious missed calls, the umpire’s overall accuracy and consistency plus how many balls they called strikes and how many strikes they called balls. If you follow them and think, ‘man the Royals get hosed a lot,’ you’re right. That -17.28 is the number of total runs the Royals have lost based on this site’s algorithm.
Here is the worst one I’ve ever seen.
Yep, that goes as hard as ever against the Royals. You might think it’s meaningless, but I don’t believe it to be. I’ve railed against the strike zone all season long. Royals hitters have actually been hurt worse by bad umpiring than their pitching, which…I don’t know why. But I think it’s interesting and in a year where I feel like bad umpires have been the story far too often, I think this number defines some of the first half.
Starting tomorrow, we begin the home stretch of what has already been an aggressively long season. Last year, the Royals went 38-35 after the break. Since their last competitive season in 2017, the Royals have improved their winning percentage by an average of 125 points after the break with the biggest coming in 2018 where they jumped from .284 to .463. Will this be another year of big jumps? Have they already started that with their solid play over the last 38 games? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.