Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
It had to end eventually, didn’t it? The Royals lost for the first time in 9 games last night, and they got their money’s worth, giving up 20 hits and 11 runs. Luckily for the boys in blue, that still only counts as one loss, and thanks to the Tigers’ loss, the Royals’ playoff odds actually went up yet again. So that’s fun.
The Royals are still in a good position to make the playoffs, but as I talked about yesterday, they can’t be content to sit still if improvements can be made. They already added Josh Willingham to the mix as an upgrade to Raul Ibanez at designated hitter, and if an opportunity is out there for the Royals to gain an extra win, or even a few extra runs, they absolutely need to go for it.
I’m sure you’re wondering what player they should be trying to add to the roster, considering they don’t have any holes in the lineup that the organization is actively looking to fill. Or maybe you’re not wondering that, considering the title of this article that you presumably clicked on under your own free will.
This team struggles to score runs at times. That’s no secret. There are only 4 hitters producing at an above average level, and only 4 hitters getting on base at least 32% of the time. It’s tough to be successful with that kind of production, and because this lineup doesn’t have much power, they must rely on sequencing to score runs. It’s not impossible to win games that way, of course, but some slight tweaking to the lineup order could have a marginal impact on the offense in the next 44 games.
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I should preface the following by saying that I completely understand that lineup order, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t matter all that much. But in the last month and a half of a season, there is a magnifying glass on every game, and each run scored is incredibly important. The Royals could look to alter some things in order to squeeze every last drop of value out of the current roster.
Omar Infante has been batting second, which is typically considered to be the most important spot in the batting order. Had Infante been hitting like he did in 2013, when he posted a 116 wRC+, his batting second would be a fine choice. However, Infante is currently in a terrible funk, hitting .172/.207/.207 in his last 94 plate appearances. His season-long wRC+ is now at 78, the worst mark among the regulars – worse than the much-maligned Mike Moustakas. Infante’s scuffling badly, and he’s getting more plate appearances than every Royals hitter not named Nori Aoki. That’s not a good thing.
Salvador Perez is also slumping, hitting .223/.243/.330 in his last 107 plate appearances. He’s been hitting third, which tends to be another valuable spot in the lineup. He’ll probably bounce back, but it may not hurt to drop him lower in the order. Meanwhile, guys like Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Lorenzo Cain have been on fire, yet they are hanging out in the middle or bottom third of the order.
I fully realize the Royals have been winning games, but I think they need to look at mixing the order around a bit, to try and maximize their run-scoring opportunities.
I entered the nine regular hitters into a lineup optimizer at Baseball Musings, and you can find those results at this hyperlink. You can see the best run-scoring lineups listed, but I’ll go ahead and display what the optimizer considers to be the best lineup possible, at 4.36 runs per game.
There’s another lineup that projects to score the same number of runs per game, but the only change is putting Gordon at 1, Cain at 2, and Willingham at 5. The full list of the best possible lineups share a few things in common: Gordon, Willingham, and Cain are near the top of the order, and Infante and Aoki are at the bottom.
That obviously isn’t the way the Royals have been doing things.
Now, I’m not expecting the team to make any major changes like putting Willingham at leadoff or Aoki at the ninth spot in the order. I’m actually fine with Aoki leading off, considering how frequently he’s been getting on base lately. But continuing to bat Infante second is limiting the offensive potential of the team.
Infante is probably a better hitter than he’s shown, but his offensive success depends on batted ball luck, and he simply doesn’t have that this year. He’s hitting far too many popups, and his fly balls haven’t been hit with enough authority to cause significant damage. It could turn around, but the longer the Royals wait for that to happen, the thinner their margin for error becomes. They need to consider dropping him in the order and moving other players up so the best hitters are at the plate more often.
You wouldn’t think such a concept would be so difficult to grasp, and yet, many baseball teams and managers don’t always seem to do so. It’s quite puzzling.
If I had an opportunity to fill out the lineup card, I’d use something similar to the above lineup, with a few slight alterations.
It isn’t the typical left-right-left lineup, but it still works. Aoki and Infante have reverse splits, and Willingham can handle righties, as can Cain. Those features would theoretically prevent opponents from using a relief specialist for multiple batters.
I know many fans would like to see Gordon at leadoff, and he does get on base a lot. But Aoki is getting on pretty frequently as well, and Gordon has the ability to drive him in at any time. Plus, Gordon isn’t a huge double play risk, so Butler would likely have more plate appearances with men on base. The bottom of the order is likely going to struggle unless and until Infante bounces back, but there’s only so much you can do with a lineup that has performed so poorly for much of this season.
This isn’t meant to imply the Royals have no chance to win if they continue to use the same lineup they’ve been using, of course. What it is meant to imply, is the Royals need to use whatever resources and strategies possible to score as many runs as possible in the remaining 44 games.
Adjusting the lineup slightly could give the Royals more run-scoring opportunities, and typically, more run-scoring opportunities will result in more runs scored. That’s the goal. If the Royals can maximize their offensive output, they’ll increase their odds of outlasting the competition as they race toward October.