SAM MELLINGER

Thoughts on the first-place Royals

Updated: 2013-04-22T15:40:10Z

Your first-place Royals are doing it with pitching, which isn’t much of a surprise. They are third among 15 American League teams with a 3.31 ERA. We tend to remember failures more than successes, so I think it’s important to note that the bullpen is performing essentially as well as the rotation in both ERA (3.35 for the relievers, 3.29 for the starters) and the batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage stat line of opposing batters (.200/.293/.359 against the relievers, .245/.294/.393 against the starters)^.

^ Of course, you’d like the bullpen numbers to be better. And they should. Point here is that it’s easy to let Greg Holland’s struggles in Philadelphia or Kelvin Herrera’s three homers in Atlanta stick in the memory. The bullpen overall, highlighted by a ridiculous Sunday from Holland, has been very good.

We are 17 games into the season, so basically 10 percent of the way there. Still too early to make grand pronouncements — May 1 has always been a date for me where stats and performances take on more meaning — but the picture is starting to come into focus.

The Royals are 10-7 and have been in every game they’ve played. They blew out the Phillies once, and haven’t been blown out themselves. There is a lot to like about the slice of the season we’ve seen so far. Seventeen starts from their rotation (obviously), and only one hasn’t made it five innings^. Fourteen of them have gone at least six innings^^.

^ Wade Davis in Philadelphia, pulled for a pinch hitter or he’d probably have gone back out.

^^ Last year, the Royals got their 14th start of at least six innings on May 17.

Anyway, small sample size warnings apply to everything here. There is much more to be pleased with than concerned, but in the interest of math, fair time, and leaning on a tired cliche, we offer three positives and three negatives … you know, three up and three down.

Let’s do the bad stuff first.

Mike Moustakas is hitting .158 with two extra-base hits in 57 at bats. Among 191 AL hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify, Moose is 187th with a .419 OPS. His walk rate is up and his strikeout rate down, but he sure doesn’t look comfortable at the plate. Lots of infield popups (nearly one-third of his at bats, actually), most of them to the left side. I’ve always thought Moose’s swing and plate approach will make for streaks both good and bad, and that his attitude and disposition are well-equipped to handle the wild ride. Yost has moved him down in the order, and it’ll be interesting to see what the Royals do if the struggles continue. This year isn’t about development.

Eric Hosmer has only one extra-base hit with 11 strikeouts, and hasn’t given anyone reason to forget about last year’s struggles. There’s too much talent there and the season still too young to freak out, but it’d be nice if the Royals didn’t have to keep reassuring themselves. Hosmer is only 23 years old, but 1,213 plate appearances mean we should be seeing the talent come through. Yost has said he wants to stick with his latest lineup more consistently, and Hosmer hitting cleanup is the key to making it work.

Sal Perez is on pace to play in all 162 games. Yeah, OK, fine. The Royals have had enough offdays that that’s a bit misleading. Five other catchers have played in 17 games. Two have played in 18. But Yost has said he could see playing Perez 150 games, and so far that looks like the low end. I’m all for Perez being in the game. He is the Royals’ most valuable asset, the pitchers love him, it’s all good. But he’s also 22 years old, under club control through 2019, and coming off a major knee injury that wiped out half of last season. George Kottaras is one of the better backup catchers in baseball. Some discretion here might be prudent.

**And now, the up:

James Shields and Ervin Santana are** terrific. Really, you could include the entire rotation here, but the front two guys have been especially good: eight combined starts, and none worse than six innings and four runs. Santana’s last three starts have gone for 23 innings, four earned runs, four walks and eighteen strikeouts. If the pitching holds up anything close to this, the Royals are going to be in this thing when the weather begins to cool off.

Alcides Escobar is hitting with some power. He has four doubles and two homers in 68 at bats. He hit .293 last year, and there’s a chance that will end up as his career high. But I know a few scouts who think he’ll continue to develop power, and be a guy who can hit .275 or so with 15 homers and 35-40 doubles. Occasional lapses in attention at shortstop aside — if you notice, they never seem to happen in key moments — that’s perennial All-Star production.

Lorenzo Cain is hitting absolutely everything: .368 with a .509 slugging percentage. Cain is a fascinating player for the Royals, because the talent is obvious, he plays a premium defensive position well (when Alex Gordon’s not getting in the way) and can be a productive hitter in the middle of the lineup. It’s just a matter of staying healthy. So far, so good.

Bonus positive No. 1: Gordon is hitting nearly as well as Cain, but by now is good enough that it doesn’t make this list.

Bonus positive No. 2: Billy Butler is struggling, by his and others’ descriptions, but still leads the team in RBIs, has a .375 on-base percentage, and a 119 OPS+.

Bonus positive No. 3: Luke Hochevar hasn’t given up a run in his last three outings, and has a 1.69 ERA in his new career as a reliever. There is some luck involved here, with lineouts and such, but maybe this new role can work.

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