Can the Royals Sustain Their Success?

The Royals are in sole possession of second place in the AL Central, and coming off a series split against the Indians they have to be feeling pretty good about how they stack up against the rest of their division…at this point.  However, can the Royals possibly sustain this success?  There are those out there completely buying in and saying the Royals can stick around and compete and there are those around that are saying the Royals have been more than fortunate and are waiting for the other shoe to drop.

We all know how Alex Gordon seems to be turning things around, Jeff Francoeur is playing like it’s 2005 all over again and Billy Butler is being even better than you would expect for Billy Butler.  It’s no shock to say that these three won’t end the season all batting over .333 but the question is how viable is it that they can sustain close to the level their at for an extended period of time, to which the answer probably isn’t what you would want to hear. 

Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is a statistic that is derived to factor out “luck” from a players offensive stats.  It is exactly what it says it is: the metric takes away home runs and strikeouts and gives you the batting average for a player when they put the ball “in play.”  Generally, this statistic falls around .300 over the course of a season no matter who the hitter is (variations are negligible at best).  A high BABIP tells you that a player is on a real hot streak and has been unusually lucky, so one should expect a “cooling down” period to take place.  In contrast, an unusually low BABIP shows that the player has been very unlucky and can expect that number to rise along with their average.

Currently, Alex Gordon is sitting at a monstrously high BABIP of .429.  His career average is .301 which is right where the average should be, which is an unfortunate indicator that we should expect Gordon to come back down to Earth soon.  If his BABIP-AVG currently is an indicator of the spread we can expect then a -.128 correction to BABIP (to get him to his career average) puts him at roughly .225.  I do think Gordon has fixed some of his flaws so I don’t imagine a drop to a .225 avg but we all need to prepare for a pretty decent drop and Gordon will most likely even out around .280 which is where I imagine Gordon will be at for the majority of the rest of his career, which I am fine with. 

Along those same lines Francoeur and Butler have found themselves knocking the ball around to the tune of a .345 and .362 BABIPs, respectively.  While there is not quite as big of a disparity in the BABIP-AVG numbers, those BABIPs can still be expected to come down and their averages with it.

Now, on the flip side, you can expect the opposite when you look at the same numbers for the Royals that are struggling.  There has been much noise made about the struggles of Kila Ka’aihue and when you post a line of .183/.296/.283, as much is to be expected.  The same can be said for Mike Aviles when he is posting a slightly-better-but-still-not-great line of .200/.241/.400.  When you look at the BABIP of these two players and see Kila with a .237 and Aviles with a .231, it starts to look as though they are in a pretty decent sized slump.  Even if both of them are below average major league hitters (which we know that Aviles isn’t at the very least), you would expect those numbers to jump to the .280 range which would increase their averages as well.  The only issue being that the improvement we would expect from Aviles or Kila probably won’t make up for the normalizing of Gordon, Francoeur, and Butler. 

This brings us to the same question about pitching of whether they can sustain what they have going for an extended period of time.  Similar to BABIP, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is a stat designed to give a better idea about how a pitcher is pitching.  FIP takes out all things a pitcher can’t control such as the team defense behind them, the difference in size of the ball parks, etc.  It’s on the same scale as ERA and basically shows how well a pitcher is pitching versus how his entire team is doing as a whole.

Luke Hochevar is about as perplexing of a pitcher as you will find.  He has shown up dominating at times (Wednesday’s 5 perfect innings) and he has shown up, or rather hasn’t shown up, at other times (2 bawlks and 4 runs given up in the 6thinning on Wednesday).  All the indicators of a good pitcher are there, his WHIP is a Greinke-like 1.07, his GB% is at 50.5%, his K/9:BB/9 ratio is 2.85:1 and his BABIP is .214.  These are strong numbers until you look at his ERA of 5.12, and HR/9 of 1.71.  Even with that you could say that his homeruns were given up in his first three starts and he has settled down his last two.  What’s encouraging about Hochevar so far is his 5.06 FIP.  While that is extremely high for a FIP it also means that number will most likely come down quite a bit and his ERA with it.  The fact that his WHIP is low shows that he’s not putting many men on base and that is always a good sign.  This leads one to believe that his numbers are sustainable for the long haul.

Then you look at Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen who have been huge surprises so far.  Francis is sitting with a 4.67:1 K/9:BB/9 ratio, a .284 BABIP, a 3.00 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and a 3.27 FIP.  All these numbers are not outlandish and are sustainable through the rest of the season.  They are even more impressive considering Francis has had shoulder surgery and still only gets about 87-89 on his fastball.  Chen is in a similar situation with a 2.2:1 K/9:BB/9 ratio, a .250 BABIP, 2.42 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and a 4.09 FIP.  Those numbers are not outlandish, you would expect the ERA and BABIP numbers to come up based on his FIP but the increase shouldn’t make Chen too much worse of a pitcher overall.

The moral of all of this is that the Royals are most likely not going to be able to continue the way they are and sustain what they have going offensively, but pitching is another story.  We should all be prepared for some drop in stats at the plate.  However, the pitching seems more sustainable than the hitting which is ideal in this scenario, and I don’t believe the drop-offs we can expect would be large enough that the Royals can’t compete.  Right now the Royals are on pace to win 102 games and it’s no stretch to say that this pace will not continue.  However, the start has shown what the Royals can be when at the top of their games and if they can power through the lows and not have any prolonged losing streaks the Royals are going to remain competitive and not be the 100 loss team that many predicted.

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Tags: Alex Gordon Billy Butler Bruce Chen Kansas City Royals Luke Hochevar MLB

  • jim fetterolf

    A couple of questions on BABIP; are all balls in play created equally and do better hitters consistently beat .300 BABIP while worse hitters underachieve? In the case of Butler and Gordon, they are hitting the ball hard, line-drives in the gaps and down the line. Frenchy may be flukey with the number of infield singles he gets, but Gordon and Butler seem to be crushing the ball with Butler protecting Gordon.

    On Francis and Chen, both seem sustainable, as Francis seems healthy and Chen is continuing his second half of last year. Hoch and Davies are capable of putting up a fairly consistent five innings of two runs before the wheels fall off, Hoch may get better, Davies probably not, but both can be managed for with a deep, strong bullpen, Wood and Coleman giving the opportunity to each work two innings twice a week and bridging to Crow, Collins, Jeffress, and Soria. Whole team looks sustainable, major weakness being 3B defense.

    • Jeff Herr

      To answer your questions on BABIP, no not all balls hit in play are created equal. Rather, not all hitters who hit balls in play are created equal. Top level hitters consistently have a solid BABIP with players like Joe Mauer and Ichiro hitting .340+. Poor hitters generally still fall around the .300 mark unless they are not major league caliber hitters in which they will be well below. The idea is that a good hitter can pick his spots and has more control over his hitting and hits more line drives as opposed to pop-ups which allow him to get on base more. The numbers Butler is putting up are more sustainable due to the type of hitter he is, but Gordon and Francoeur probably can’t sustain the level they’re at. How much they’ll dip, who knows.

      I agree on Francis and Chen. I especially think Francis can keep it rolling, but I expect Chen’s numbers to digress a little bit. Not to the point where they’re worse than last year and they’ll probably be better, but I don’t think he is going to carry a below 3.00 ERA all season.

      I agree that the biggest weakness defensively is 3B, even if Moustakas comes up he has the glove to be an average to a slightly above average MLB 3B, however, his plus arm will make up for some of his glove deficiencies. I also think catcher is a weakness, Treanor is decent defensively, but gives very little at the plate and is aging. The system is weak down there as well with Perez being the only major prospect, although all signs are point to him being quite a success defensively. It will be exciting to see how the roster fills out when these young guys start coming up.

  • jim fetterolf

    I guess my question was/is, is it better, BABIP-wise, to hit grounders, line drives, or fly balls? I would think one reason for Gordon and Butler hitting so well is they both have fairly flat swings and square up more pitches than not, so I would assume a better BABIP. Francouer seems to have a lot of seeing-eye grounders, so should be less sustainable. For the pitchers, Chen tends to get pop-ups and weak flies off his pitches, which are easier to field, so his numbers would look relatively good. He gets those from the movement on his pitches and keeping hitters off balance. That should be sustainable. Haven’t actually seen Francis.

    • Michael Engel

      Generally, line drives are about 3 times more likely to become hits than fly balls or grounders.

      • jim fetterolf

        Great site, kind of supports what I would guess and suggests that Butler and Gordon aren’t doing anything unsustainable, with the line drives and ability to take a walk, while Francouer, with fly balls, grounders, and low walks, is probably getting a little lucky and can be expected to revert, hopefully no more than to a .280ba with occasional home runs. Thanks.