After a five game losing streak to close out the first half, the Royals find themselves in a precarious position at the All-Star break.
They’re within eight games of first-place Detroit, which is a good thing. Two hot weeks and some luck can close that gap pretty quickly. But then again, it’s been tough to ask for two hot weeks at a time and for luck to work the Royals way this year.
Still, after a big offseason revamped the starting rotation, the Royals expected their standing to be a bit better at this point.
James Shields and Ervin Santana have been solid all year long for the Royals, and they ought to be, considering what the Royals gave up for them. Santana wasn’t nearly as costly prospect-wise, but did tack on a $12 million salary to the payroll. Shields, of course, was acquired in one of the biggest trades of the offseason and one of the biggest in Royals history. If you trade your top prospect and multiple other meaningful minor leaguers, the guy you get back had better perform as you expect.
Shields has a 3.21 ERA in 134.2 innings pitched with 116 strikeouts, good for ninth in the AL. Santana has thrown 123 innings and struck out 98, but he’s walked less than two batters per nine innings. Both have been as good or better as advertised. The rest of the rotation has shown flashes – Jeremy Guthrie opened the year with a 2.28 ERA in his first seven starts, but he’s started to regress and has given up the second most homers in the league. Luis Mendoza was doing fine as an average fifth starter, but fatigue has set in and he’s giving starts to Bruce Chen now. Wade Davis has been a wild card, with some good starts here, some bad starts there, and no telling about which will be coming on a given day.
The bullpen has been shaky – or it feels that way, at least. Recently, Tim Collins has hit some struggles and his ERA has almost doubled in the last two weeks. Aaron Crow has given up more hits than last year and his strikeout rate has fallen. Kelvin Herrera, who was nearly untouchable last year, has taken two trips to Omaha to work on pitch selection, confidence, and command. One surprise has been Luke Hochevar.
Left for dead by most fans (including myself), Hochevar has carved out a nice spot for himself in the bullpen. The Royals have hinted at perhaps using him in higher leverage situations, but they haven’t pulled the trigger on that yet. The biggest star in the bullpen, though, is Greg Holland, who’s been filthy nearly all year. After rough moments in his first few appearances, Holland has been a force. His fastball has been reaching the upper 90s with regularity and his slider and splitter have been wicked. He’s earned a spot on the All-Star team for good reason. While writing this, he’s struck out five more batters (but seriously, he’s struck out 60 in 35 innings).
But the problem for Kansas City has been the offense. At the break, the Royals have scored just 365 runs, good for 13th in the American League. They’re last in the AL in homers with 60, trailing 14th place Minnesota by 26. Their team slugging percentage is greater than only the rebuilding Houston Astros and Miami Marlins.
The Royals shipped Wil Myers to Tampa with the belief that Jeff Francoeur would be more like his 2011 self than his 2012 self. They bought in on Chris Getz as a league average second baseman. They banked on prospects Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Perez to blossom in to All-Stars.
Perez has made it as an All-Star, but he’s only sitting on four homers and many feel he can at least triple that total year to year.
Eric Hosmer’s had a better year than last year – but last year was rotten, so it’s not a huge breakthrough yet. He’s ridden a hot June to numbers that more closely mirror his 2011 stats, but he’s gone through a few stretches where his hands would get out of whack and he’d be unable to catch up to anything thrown hard inside. Mike Moustakas has been a wreck for most of the year. He was close to being sent down before the Royals made some changes.
George Brett and Pedro Grifol stepped in as new hitting coaches at the end of May. At the time, the Royals were scoring 3.98 runs per game. Since? They’ve averaged 3.95 runs per game. The biggest success since the change has been an increase in power, but it’s been slight. They hit more homers in June (20) than in either of April or May, but the overall slugging percentage change has been slight. In April and May, the Royals slugged .372. In June and through today, they’d slugged .379.
While Hosmer has gotten back to respectability and Perez is hitting well enough to be recognized as an All-Star, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon have been merely better than average rather than great. Gordon had a rough June that depressed his numbers, but before that month, he’d been raking. Butler had some hot stretches, but has hit more grounders this year than in years past and he’s been pitched around often, so his opportunities for a hittable pitch have lessened.
Beyond that, they’ve had a rotation at second base, but nobody’s hit. Chris Getz was optioned to Omaha. Elliot Johnson can only hit against his former team. Johnny Giavotella has, ironically, been earning praise for defensive plays and criticism for his bat. That position’s been a black hole. Shortstop hasn’t been much better. Alcides Escobar hasn’t been hitting like last season and doesn’t walk enough to make up for it. Lorenzo Cain has been streaky at the plate. Jarrod Dyson has been okay in spots. David Lough has been the most impressive, and has surpassed anything Jeff Francoeur had put up before being released.
Still, as it stands now, the Royals have four regulars (if you count Lough, who I think should be counted) who are producing at better than league average rates. That’s alright, but not when others on the team are coming up with OPS+ numbers in the 60s or worse. More than half of the lineup is unreliable.
Thus, the Royals limp into the break.
The Royals find themselves in the unenviable position of contender limbo. They’re close enough to be considered in the hunt, and with their pitching, all it takes is a hot offense to get things moving.
But if they lose more ground than they already have, a season with so many hopes pinned to it will be lost. There’s slight potential that the Royals may go out and seek a bat or two to refuel their offense, but it may not be worth the investment of prospects at this stage.
After wrapping up a series with the Twins to finish off June, the Royals entered a part of their schedule that 610 Sports host Josh Vernier dubbed “the Gauntlet”. The Royals are in a stretch of games against Cleveland (twice), Oakland, New York, Detroit, and Baltimore. All contenders. All above .500. So far, they’re 5-8 in that stretch. They come back to Kansas City after the break hosting Detroit for three games, then Baltimore for four. How they fare after that will determine a lot of the rest of the year. Continue to lose and they probably start selling. Win most of those and they can renew some hope.
It won’t be easy – Buster Olney of ESPN figured that the Royals have the toughest post-All-Star-break schedule among contending (within eight games of their division lead) teams, with 35 games against opponents who are better than .500. They’ll have a stretch of 44 straight games from July 30 to September 1st. By comparison, Detroit will have just 19 games in the second half against teams with a .500 record or better.
Olney adds that the Royals have many series with Detroit and Cleveland, so if they can stay close, those late series may be an opportunity if still within reach.
Even then, though, a terrible month of May probably sunk this team’s hopes early. They’ve clawed back to .500 before this year, but they’ll have to turn it on quickly to get back there again. It’s a better Royals team than most years have seen, but they aren’t quite there yet, barring some breakthroughs.
And if they finish below .500? There may be major changes on the horizon, and they probably won’t be limited to the active roster.