The Royals’ offense this season has been one of extremes, of historic paces, promising highs and staggering lows.
It scored just 63 runs in April, a principal reason for a 10-20 start. It also remains on pace to smash the franchise’s single-season record for homers (168 in 1987).
The club finished second in the American League with 141 runs scored in July. Yet on Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, it was shut out for a third straight day, setting a franchise record with 34 consecutive scoreless innings.
The performance has fluctuated by the week. And in the aftermath of a lost weekend at Progressive Field, the Royals remained on pace to accomplish another rare yet telling feat. Since World War II, 45 players have finished a season with more than 500 plate appearances and an adjusted OPS (on-base plus slugging) below 55. Never before has one team featured two players that would qualify. Yet with 33 games remaining, the 2017 Royals could be the first.
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Shortstop Alcides Escobar entered Monday with a league-worst adjusted OPS of 50 in 516 plate appearances. Left fielder Alex Gordon ranked right behind him, posting an adjusted OPS of 53 while stepping to the plate 442 times. In Monday’s lineup against Tampa Bay, Escobar was hitting eighth with Gordon in the No. 9 spot.
The metric of adjusted OPS, often displayed as OPS-plus, may still feel obscure. Yet its formula and practicality are fairly simple, as are its ability to be understood. Long a favorite of sabermetricians, the statistic takes traditional OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) and adjusts for ballpark and league effects. It then converts the number into a decipherable scale where 100 is average and each point up or down is one percentage point above or below league average.
In that context, Escobar, who is batting .235 with a .257 on-base percentage, would become the first every-day player to record an OPS-plus below 55 since … Alcides Escobar in 2013. Before that, the last player to do it was Baltimore’s Cesar Izturis in 2010.
A sampling of the worst hitters to receive more than 500 plate appearances during the last three decades is stocked with light-hitting shortstops, catchers and other middle infielders. Gordon, meanwhile, is approaching truly rarefied air. The list of corner outfielders to receive more than 400 plate appearances while posting an OPS-plus of below 60 includes just four names: Brian Hunter for Detroit and Seattle in 1999; Vince Coleman for the Royals in 1994; Bob Bailor for the Blue Jays in 1979; and Gordon, who entered Monday batting .201 with a league-worst .289 slugging percentage.
“It’s just been a battle for him,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
For the moment, neither Escobar nor Gordon appears in significant danger of reduced playing time. The Royals entered Monday at 64-65, falling behind 2 1/2 games out of the second AL wild-card spot after four straight losses. Yet Yost has stressed, one more than one occasion, the importance of the defense at the shortstop position and in the outfield at Kauffman Stadium.
On Sunday, Escobar started his 300th straight game at shortstop, a run that dates back to September 2015. In public comments, Yost has continually brushed aside inquiries about Escobar’s lack of rest.
“There’s more to this game than just the offense,” Yost said. “There’s more value to a player’s position in that lineup than swinging the bat. Do I want him swinging the bat better? Yes. Do I think he can swing the bat better? Yes. Do I think he will swing the bat better? Yes. But I’ll take the defense.”
Gordon, meanwhile, spent two days out of the starting lineup in early August in an attempt to reboot his season. For two afternoons, he retreated to the batting cage with hitting coach Dale Sveum, focusing on getting more upright in his stance. The goal, Yost said, was to find the mechanics that made Gordon a productive threat from 2011 to 2015. Despite a three-hit game on Friday in Cleveland, the reset appears to have had minimal effect. Gordon is batting .234 with a .255 slugging percentage in 50 plate appearances since.
Even as his production has waned, the Royals’ loyalty to Gordon has not. In the second season of a four-year, $72 million contract, Gordon has continued to play premium defense in left field. But his presence in the lineup has meant fewer at-bats for rookie Jorge Bonifacio, who was shoved out of the starting lineup following the acquisition of outfielder Melky Cabrera. Bonifacio has posted an OPS-plus of 95, five percent below league average, while club officials view him as a work in progress in right field.
“Everybody right now values Alex’s defense,” Yost said earlier this month. “He saves pitchers pitches. It just shows you pitching and defense wins ballgames.”
The inclusion of Escobar and Gordon means that, on most days, the Royals are fielding a lineup with two of the least productive hitters in baseball at the bottom of their order. The math suggests an offensive black hole, and the results have followed. For now, the Royals are still in the thick of a postseason race, a strong week from playoff position. And for now, Yost has stood by the defensive contributions of Gordon and Escobar. Yet their offense represents two reasons, among many, that after a scoreless weekend in Cleveland the Royals entered Monday ranked 13th in the American League in runs scored.
“We’re just not producing,” Yost said. “It’s not in the amount of work that we’re doing or in the effort or that they’re pressing. I don’t sense that. We’re just not getting the job done.”