The past four years have been high times for the Kansas City Royals. It’s hard enough in baseball’s modern era to make consecutive World Series appearances, much less actually win the whole thing. 2013-2016 also marked the first four year stretch for the Royals in which they did not have a sub-.500 season since 1977-1980. That’s a painfully long time. Sure, a lot of things looked like they would have to break just right for them to sneak back into the playoffs again this year, but they were still expected to be something like a middle-of-the-road also-ran. Sports Illustrated had them 18th overall and 3rd in the AL Central. ESPN said 18th and 4th. CBS thought 3rd with a small smattering of 2nd place divisional finishes. USA Today also thought 3rd place sounded right.
PECOTA said 71-91.
PECOTA has a long history of hating the Royals. Well, as much as an algorithm can actually hate a baseball team. It infamously predicted the 2015 Royals would finish 72-90. We all know that story ended. The happy scrappy sunshine team from the Show Me State showed that cold and merciless computer where it could shove its numbers. There was rejoicing and celebrating and I had to live surrounded by fans saying stuff like “that’s what speed do.” It was awful. The Royals took a tremendous step back in 2016, winning 14 fewer games (despite still outperforming their Pythagorean W-L by 4 games) and missing the postseason entirely. Short of Jarrod Dyson, an aging Kendrys Morales, an increasingly less effective Edinson Volquez, and the unfortunately deceased Yordano Ventura, the core remained more or less intact for this season. A season that’s one month in and has the Royals sitting dead last in all of baseball with a .304 winning percentage.
So what the hell happened? Yeah, it’s an unsustainably rough start and this team is far too talented to remain on pace to finish with triple digit losses but how did things go down the tubes so damn quickly? To oversimplify the answer, they currently have just as many effective starting pitchers as they do league-average or above hitters: three. Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain are the only hitters on the Royals roster with more than 50 PA and an OPS+ above 75. Cain is the only regular with an OBP above .305. The Royals have been playing a dangerous game on offense over the past few seasons, relying heavily on players putting the ball in play to get on base and hoping to feast on the havoc that comes with it because as already mentioned “that’s what speed do.” What speed also do is be very vulnerable to BABIP fluctuations and when your entire team is aging, slowing down, and sporting a collective .244 BABIP, you’re just not going to score any runs. Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon, and Brandon Moss can’t keep hitting as terribly as they have been, but the hole may already be too deep to climb out of.
And that’s without even covering the starting pitching. Danny Duffy remains Danny Duffy. Jason Hammel is pitching like you’d expect a 34-year-old journeyman at the end of the line to pitch. Nate Karns is unfairly forced into existing for crimes we do not know. And that’s where the rotation stops making sense. If not for the lava hot and ultimately baffling starts from Jason Vargas and Ian Kennedy, things would somehow be even worse for the Royals. That’s a sentence no one ever figured would be typed. Kennedy is currently riding a .184 BABIP against and a HR/9 almost half of what he’s had the past two seasons combined with a sterling 85.8% LOB%. Vargas makes even less sense. Jumping into what will be his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015, Vargas has managed to give up only 4 earned runs over 25.2 IP despite hitters currently having a perfectly ordinary .303 BABIP against him. He’s striking out 1.6 times more hitters than he’s averaged over his career while walking essentially none (2 walks so far this year). He’s also gone from being the type of pitcher who managed to give up 35 home runs in a season while pitching for Seattle (admittedly, an outlier) to someone who has only given up one this year. Two of the pitchers managing to keep Kansas City from being legendarily bad are doomed to get hit so hard by regression it will ultimately make Avisail Garcia blush.
The Royals got to enjoy a brief two year run as a championship caliber team, with a couple respectable years on either side. But with the 2017 season all but over before Memorial Day and Hosmer, Cain, Escobar, and Moustakas all set to hit free agency this offseason, it looks like that reign is officially over. The kings are dead.
Photo credit Jay Biggerstaff- USA Today Sports