Before we begin the “unboxing,” if you will, I’d like to mention the two major personnel changes the Royals have made this offseason. Essentially, they have replaced Billy Butler with Kendrys Morales and replaced Nori Aoki with Alex Rios. Let’s make a quick comparison:
Both Steamer and PECOTA grade Butler to Morales as a downgrade, which is not entirely surprising; although Butler was at replacement level in 2014, Morales was somewhere between below replacement and FAR below replacement. Do remember his 2014 rates are based on only 401 plate appearances. There is also agreement from both systems that Rios will be having a bounce-back year, as Nori either declines or provides much of the same. Rios’ adjustment to being the solution in Kansas City is most likely something to keep an eye on, as it will also be a key to this team’s success. Now, Run Production In A Box:
How do they score runs? Are they notably home-run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth, or on huge production from a few stars?
Ha! Funny you asked. Even the casual postseason observer knows the Royals have a significant deficiency in the power department – finishing 2014 dead last in ISO and HR. This extreme lack of power really cost them offensively, ranking around the bottom five in offensive value. Their calling card, as you probably very well know, is their ability to generate runs on the base-paths. Every system ranked their base-running value at the top of the league; sometimes head-and-shoulders above the rest. Expect much of the same: relatively high swing and contact rates, very little power, and added value found on the bases.
In terms of depth, this team possess a handful of surely talented players, a handful of players with great upside, and remaining corps of average players with varying, but low, degrees of liability. The first group — Alex Gordon, Sal Perez, and Lorenzo Cain — can pretty much be expected to be produce at an All-Star clip. All three are either very close to or on the right of 30-years-old and, despite two surgeries in 2012, have clean bills of health otherwise.
Upside candidates include the dynamic duo of Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. The former-big-name-prospects showed the world what they were capable during the 2014 postseason run and will be looking for more sustained success to start this year. Both have years of arbitration ahead of them and would love to build value in their pre-free agency years. Having a big year from these two is nearly a must-have if the Royals want success.
It’s easy to expect little value from the rest of the offensive core. Less Jarrod Dyson, the remaining players — Alcides Escobar, Omar Infante, Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios — are either aging, aged, or have shown signs of inconsistency. Escobar has flip-flopped for nearly 5 straight years deciding whether or not to be a league-average shortstop; Omar Infante fell off the table in 2014; and newcomers Rios and Morales have much to prove after finishing 2014 with much to be desired. Do note: Many fans and experts concluded Morales’ absence from Spring Training played a major role in his ineptitude. As a fan of the team I sure hope that is the case. And on Jarrod Dyson: He is obviously very talented in many areas of the game, but I fear he won’t be used in an effective manner to have maximum impact. More on this later.
Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances?
Are you sure these questions are generic? Ned Yost called for the fewest amount of pitch-hitters in all baseball in 2014; he’s finished in the bottom-five every year since 2010. Partly due to philosophical endeavors, but probably also from a lack of bench talent. The great guys over at RosterResource.com project the Royals to use a straight lineup with no platoons. In my opinion, this is truly a shame as Alex Rios and Jarrod Dyson are perfect platoon partners:
The graphic practically says it all: Rios’ and Dyson’s 2014 combined TAv split of .129 is the equivalent of the difference between Mike Trout and Jose Lobaton (yeesh!!). This is before considering that placing Dyson in the field with Cain and Gordon creates perhaps the best defensive outfield in the history of the game (just ask Sam Miller). Instead, my hunch is that Ned will defer to the money invested in Rios and play him full-time in right; allowing Dyson to fill in defensively in late innings after Rios has faced his last at-bat. Honestly, my hope is that Rios struggles early and forces Ned’s hand to use a platoon.
What is the team’s collective approach? Do they look to take a large number of pitches? Does the manager put on the 3-0 green light very often? Are players benched or criticized by management for striking out too much? Are they more than usually given to fouling pitches off?
Anecdotally this team seems to have problems getting late in counts, but that might just the collective Twitter-outrage clouding my judgement. The statistics mostly argue: They have high-rate of swings outside of the zone, specifically, and a high-rate of swings overall as well. In the zone is league-average, for what it’s worth. This leads to the lowest BB% in the league; however, they have a high rate of contact when swinging at balls out of the zone, which leads to the league’s lowest K%. Combine the two and you find yourself with a league-average BB/K rate (Author’s note: my 8th grade Algebra students would not be surprised by this result. They are well-versed in baseball metrics). I have no idea on the fouling pitches bit, if there is data out there, please someone direct me to it.
Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?
Ahh, Kansas City’s bread-and-butter. Reports have indicated that Ned Yost allows runners the green-light at all times. That is, if they see an opportunity to steal they are allowed (perhaps even encouraged) to take it. This lead to league-leading 189 base-stealing attempts in 2014. Incidentally they also lead the league in stealing success rate, advancing the extra base on the pitcher 81.5% of the time. I can safely assume this success in stolen bases translated to other aspects of base-running. The hit-and-run was executed 344 times last season, just 5 behind league-leader Texas. Sacrifices were called for 55 times, just on the high side of league average.
Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?
As mentioned before, Alex Rios could possibly be walking a thin line with Jarrod Dyson eyeing a more full-time role. Christian Colon, who had a breakout performance (144 wRC+, 0.7 fWAR) in a small-sample of only 49 plate appearances near the end of the season could contend for the 2B role if Omar Infante starts idle out of the gate (which very well could be the case). Unfortunately there really isn’t a fail-safe for if Kendrys Morales produces below-replacement again this year, but I suppose we’ll just cross that bridge if it comes.
In terms of optimizing the lineup I referred to research conducted in “The Book” by Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin; a must read for anyone who hasn’t already. (There is a good breakdown of their conclusions here: http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2009/3/17/795946/optimizing-your-lineup-by). Here is my “optimized” lineup compared to the Ned’s projected line up:
The main difference you will notice is the move of Alcides Escobar from the leadoff position down to the 6 spot. Fangraphs projects a wOBA for Escobar of .285, last among Royals regulars. Strictly looking at OBP, Escobar still ranks last at .295. Despite being the most valuable player on the base-paths, this just does not justify receiving the most at-bats on the team. In fact, the #6 hole is optimized for base-stealers without a bat (in other words: Escobar). Morales gets a relatively large amount of his value from the long-ball, so that slots in him in the 3rd spot. No major complaints other than batting Escobar leadoff, in my opinion.
Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness? Will the schedule or overall level of competition they face vary widely from the league average?
Time for less words, more numbers. Here’s a table of Kauffman’s Park Factors over the past 3 seasons:
Singles, doubles, triples, and runs all up a little bit compared to the league, home runs being the only thing depressed. For the uninitiated: Kauffman is symmetrical all around the outfield, and perhaps has the most square-footage of any stadium not named Coors. Now, despite the symmetry you may have noticed the big discrepancy between handedness: triples. Here is my theory: in most ballparks, fast left-handed batters are going to triple on a ball to the gap in right, so the gain from Kauffman’s deep wall is significant; but not as significant as the advantage a fast right-handed batter gets when hitting a ball to the left-field gap. It would seem the deep left-center gap has more of a significant impact than the right-center gap; even though they are symmetrical. That’s interesting to me, at least; probably not to you, but perhaps that’s just one more small thing you can look out for this year when your favorite team plays in Kansas City.
What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned?
Very little turnover defensively combined with no turnover in the pen and only one major change in the rotation should make the 2014 outlook very similar to what we can expect in 2015. It’s been well documented that the Royals have the best defense in baseball, highlighted especially by their outfield. Combine this with the AL’s 4th most valuable pitching staff according to fWAR and it’s no wonder the Royals were able to make their first playoff appearance since 1985. So with this in mind I think it’s safe to say that the Royals acquire a relatively high amount of run prevention from their defense, but a most definitely good if not approaching great pitching staff helps negate the defense’s control of the runs-prevented ratio.
Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?
After the departure of James Shields to sunny San Diego, the Royals’ starting rotation is left without a dominant ace to lead the staff. Yordano Ventura is obviously the top candidate after a breakthrough 2014 performance, but young age mixed with injury concerns lead to some hesitation when measuring expectations. Ventura, along with Jason Vargas, Danny Duffy, Edinson Volquez, and Jeremy Guthrie, are all capable starting pitchers, but don’t really project to be capable of a significant upgrade in performance.
The Royals’ starters in 2014 pitched the 3rd most innings of any American League rotation; led by Shields and Guthrie with 227 and 202.2 innings, respectively. It’s not surprising to learn that the starters also had the 3rd highest average pitch count in the American League; 98.8 pitchers per game. Without the league’s best bullpen, the number of innings pitched by starters probably would have increased. The absence of Shields means less innings eaten by starters and more dependence on the bullpen every 5th day. In the 3 years before Shields’ arrival, the Royals finished in the bottom half of innings pitched by starters; I expect them to return there in 2015.
When the middle and late innings come, does the manager have a long or a quick hook? Does he often make multiple pitching changes during innings? Is he aggressive and aware of matchups? Is the bullpen strictly hierarchical? Is it dominated by a set-up man and closer, or are there a large number of usable, interchangeable arms?
Herrera. Davis. Holland. This quickly became a cornerstone of Royals success late into the year and during the playoff run. If it was often said that if the Royals could manage a lead going into the 7th they would most likely win with this trio locking down the last three innings. Now, if a healthy Luke Hochevar finds himself pitching from the bullpen, I could very easily find Ned Yost assigning him the 6th inning in games where the starter accumulates high pitch totals early. So now make it Hochevar. Herrera. Davis. Holland. That’s deadly enough. Now assume the team calls up Freshman Phenom Brandon Finnegan. Now things are just getting wild.
Does the team deploy a large number of infield, or even outfield, shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Does the outfield control runners on hits into the gaps and on flyouts? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?
Data from the 2013 season indicates the Royals implemented the 6th most infield shifts in the American League, a total of 275 in 162 games. I’d assume that the number of shifts increased in 2014, but I’m unsure how that relates to the rest of the league. I’m also going to assume that the overall quality of the outfield would yield a decreased reliance on the need to shift players; I’d be interested to see data on this if anyone can point me in that direction.
The middle infielders turn a relatively low number of double plays: 122, the 3rd fewest in the American League. The advanced metrics back the hard numbers, Fangraphs’ Team Double Play Runs rated the infield at 5 runs below average, 2nd worst in the league.
The outfield collectively rates at the top of every defensive metric. Their Range Rating doubles the next in line; this supports my theory that the team is less reliant on shifts as their players will make up the difference.This is something I’ll certainly be watching for this coming season.
Jarrod Dyson is almost always used as a defensive replacement late in games. He typically takes over centerfield, forcing Lorenzo Cain into right. This was standard-operating-procedure with Aoki in RF, I expect it to continue now that Rios has replaced him.
Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
Contrary to what I hear from some Royals fans, Salvador Perez is a below-average pitch framer. In fact, he’s one of the worst pitch framers. 2014th he was rated 100 out of 105 catchers in Baseball Prospectus’ Framing Runs Added. In 2013 he was average, 102nd out of 108 in 2012. His large frame allows him to be a quality blocker; finishing in the top 10% when rated on catchers’ ability to prevent wild pitches and passed balls. The eye test will indicate Perez is very good at preventing runs on the base-paths; again, the advanced metrics agree. Fangraph’s Stolen Base Runs Saves has rated Perez highly each of the past 3 seasons, routinely finishing in the top 3 of qualified catchers. Erik Kratz is his backup; Ned Yost has hinted that Kratz may relieve Perez every 5th day in order to help slow down Sal’s inevitable degradation. Kratz is surely capable as a backup, projected for a 88 wRC+ and 0.6 fWAR in 122 plate appearances. The advanced catching metrics indicate an above-average defensive ability in 1134 innings played behind the dish.
Does the team’s home park impact their ability to prevent runs in any unique way? Is the park factor drastic? Is the square footage of the outfield significantly off the MLB norm?
Touched on in the Runs Created section, Kauffman is huge. Fortunately they have the talent in the outfield to cover the space, and cover it well. Watch for more highlight reels coming from this group.
Is the farm system well-stocked? Have any recent performances or additions changed the perceived standing of that system? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?
The Royals possess 5 players in BP’s Top 101 Prospects of 2015: SS Raul Mondesi, 27; RHP Miguel Almonte, 56; LHP Sean Manaea, 78; LHP Brandon Finnegan, 87, and 3B Hunter Dozier, 95. BP’s organizational rankings have yet to be released, but I suspect the Royals will fall somewhere near the center. There are no prospects that really blow you away with talent that are also low risk. The closet to that description is probably Brandon Finnegan; who you probably know made his ML debut at the end of 2014. The most likely prospect to appear on the big league club this season, he has already proved he has the stuff it takes to mow down Major League hitters in tough situations. Pitcher Kyle Zimmer (formerly #34 on the Top 101 before injury) was nearly ready for his debut before having surgery. Once he’s recovered and back to full form it’s safe to expect him in the rotation at any moment. Former fourth-overall pick Christian Colon is still rookie eligible and is expected to contribute as a bench player. If he can continue making contact with the bat he will surely add value to the club, albeit not at an impact level.
Speaking of injury, who is particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?
Perhaps the most influential story for the early season on the injury front is the return of Luke Hochevar. The former first-overall pick pitched 71 successful innings in relief during the 2013 season before succumbing to Tommy John early in the 2014 campaign. They may be tempted to push him back towards a starting role, but I hope they don’t choose to mess with a formula that has clearly worked.
Towards the end of the year, things will get VERY interesting. Late this year new-acquisition Kris Medlen could possibly be ready to contribute after going through his second Tommy John surgery. Medley had great performances in 2012 and 2013 for Atlanta; if the Royals are competitive at the end of the year they will surely be tempted to fast-forward his return. If not, there is nothing wrong with avoiding risks and waiting until the begin of the 2016 campaign for Medlen to make his Royals debut.
Lorenzo Cain has battled with injuries in the past; he’s backed up by Jarrod Dyson so his loss wouldn’t be completely devastating. As mentioned earlier, some have concerns about Sal Perez’s long-term health after a grueling 2014 season. He could be someone to keep an eye on.
Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign?
I would say yes, the Royals are doing everything within their power to continue their success. Most would agree they are in a different stage of their journey now that the short-lived James Shields era has passed; but do keep in mind that the vast majority of the 2014 core is still intact. I don’t believe they would have dished out money for Volquez, Morales, Rios, and Medlen if they did not think the investments would turn profitable. It would seem that this front office is currently maxed out in terms of spending, their payroll is projected to surpass $100M for the first time in team history. Although owner David Glass has pinched pennies in the past, it seems he is more willing to be flexible after seeing how success has rejuvenated the fan base. This city is truly hooked on this team after the World Series run; it will be interesting to see if that lasts after a low or mediocre start to 2015. Even if the team competes I don’t expect them to make major roster moves towards the deadline, much like last season.
What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)? Make a recommendation.
This one’s tough. I suppose if the team starts leaning towards a losing season I might try to trade bullpen pieces for as much value as I can get. We’ll need to assess if Christian Colon is a full-time solution at 2B; either way I would try to rid myself of Omar Infante’s payroll obligation. The team needs to take a deep look inside themselves and think about the possibility of trading Alex Gordon if they feel he would decline his 2016 option or sign elsewhere after 2016. The Oakland A’s model of selling high on Josh Donaldson has some similarities to the Royal’s situation with Gordon; Gordon of course is a few years older. Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer will be reaching free agency in the next few years which also brings options for the team. I think their actions after the first half of this season if they are not in contention will be very telling of what their long term plans are.
What’s likely to happen? Will the composition of the team change? Will they compete? Will they win anything? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.
PECOTA is super-low on this team, only projecting 71 wins for the club at the time of publishing. That’s the same projection as the Rockies, and one win more the last-place Twins, and the last-place Phillies. And that’s it, tied for the third-worst record in baseball. In my opinion that’s low; although I don’t expect another playoff run, either. Fangraphs calls for a more respectable 81 wins, more near the middle of the pack in the AL.
It’s very difficult for me to make an official prediction for this season. As a Royals fan in my mid-twenties, one successful season doesn’t erase the memory of the endless repeat of dreadful ones. The metrics prove that this team was very talented last year, one of the best in the AL; but despite that I still can’t convince my brain that this won’t be another Royals disappointment of old.
If I had to bite the bullet, I would predict a third place finish in the AL Central, tied with Chicago and behind Detroit and Cleveland. I’m going to say 78 wins. No particular rhyme or reason, but I do think it’s unlikely that so many things go as well as they did in 2014.Next post: A Night on Press Row, Minor League Edition
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