The first full month of the season is over and while there are some surprises with the Royals, there’s still not a whole lot that has changed about this team from a season ago, despite what some may have you think.
It does seem like the Royals are playing better though, right? The 15-13 record suggests that while the Royals aren’t necessarily the class of the American League, there’s still a reasonable chance that the makeup of this team – whatever makeup that is – will allow them to stay at least somewhat in the hunt for the AL Central title for most of the year. Maybe.
No one could have predicted the Cleveland Indians to get off to such a great (shocking) start, so there’s reason to believe, or hope, that because the other three teams in the division have looked so terrible through the season’s first month, that the Royals could conceivable be in this for the long haul. Of course the same could also be said from the other direction that the Royals and Indians, two teams that are probably playing over their potential thus far, will eventually come back to earth and the other more high-profile teams in the division, will take their normal place at the top of the standings. Small sample sizes, after all.
The Royals have been the beneficiary of an, if not easy, generous schedule to start the season catching some teams, like the Angels, at a great time when they weren’t playing well, and catching others like the Twins that probably just aren’t that good. As much as it is blasphemous to even think such a thing about the mighty Minnesota Twins.
As much as Royals fans may want to believe that the first month is an indicator of the true talent of this season’s team, the next month will do more to prove what the talent level really is.
Of the next 11 opponents the Royals will face, eight of them have a .500 or better record after the close of April. Away series in New York and Texas will bookend a week that has the Royals playing the Indians, the Rangers, and the Cardinals back-to-back-to-back. Keith Law has said it on the Baseball Today podcast that he doesn’t believe you can get a true assessment of a team until the 50 game mark. He may be right and there may be a different feeling about the Royals after game 50, than there is after game 28.
But is there reason for some optimism? Yes. And it all lies with the pitching staff. No seriously.
As much as the offense has carried the Royals through April, and it has, there doesn’t seem to be that much potential drop-off in production on the horizon. While Jeff Francoeur and Wilson Betemit and Mike Aviles may be outperforming themselves to this point, there’s a reasonable expectation that any drop in their production will be offset by Kila Ka’aihue and Billy Butler filling in. Though you could make the argument that Butler has been great so far this year, and some even saw it coming. A .399 wOBA is nothing to sneeze at even if it is the quietest .399 wOBA you’ve ever seen in your life. Not bad for a guy that doesn’t have any power.
It all starts with pitching and we’ve all been told this time and again. Pitching and Defense ® is the name of the game, and it’s the game the Royals under Dayton Moore have been telling us they’re trying to play. Except the Pitching part. And the Defense.
After Sunday’s game the Royals rank second-to-last in all of baseball (only to the Twins, heh) with a 4.31 xFIP. They’re second-to-last in strikeouts per nine innings, and they’re in the bottom 10 in all of baseball in walks allowed per nine innings. That’s real bad.
The surprising, unexpected start for the Royals record-wise is accompanied by an atrocious start for the pitching staff as a whole. Yes the bullpen has been good, and has possibly overachieved thanks to Aaron Crow and company, but the overall performance of the staff has been awful. It can’t possibly get much worse. At least you would hope not.
Although Royals fans can look at the starts for Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies and be eager for them to be removed from the rotation, their performances thus far haven’t been matched with the production that their advanced numbers would suggest, especially Hochevar’s.
Luke Hochevar has been all kinds of Luke Hochevar this year from a perfect game-turned-blowout in one start, to Sunday where he allowed nine baserunners in 6 1/3, only struck out one batter, and was praised for pitching well. This is what Royals fans have come to expect.
However the talent level of Hochevar still suggests that better pitching days lie ahead, and that at some point very soon the light will come on much the same way it has for Alex Gordon.
The Royals are in a unique position. Their April start suggests that while the 2011 season may have been a throw-away when it began, the team may actually have a chance to stick around and make this year interesting after all. This was supposed to be a year that the prospects got the opportunity to come to the big leagues, get their feet wet, take their lumps, and be ready to go for 2012. But because of the start, and the lack of performance of the teams around them, the month of May becomes huge for this year’s version of the Royals because they may actually get better when the younger players start to arrive. The young pitchers, especially.
A May record of 12-15 may just be enough to keep the Royals within striking distance of the Indians. If they’re able to pull that off, June call-ups for Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery may mean more to 2011 than the Royals originally thought.