Royals manager Ned Yost on strides made by Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier
As of Wednesday evening, the Royals are 15-29 and dead last in the American League Central.
The Baltimore Orioles are the only AL team with a worse record.
If the sentence immediately preceding this one is all you’re interested in, you can stop reading now.
But if you want to know how and why the Royals are a mile under .500 and what needs to improve, you might want a bit more information. It’s helpful to know what the Royals are doing well — or at least OK — and what they’re doing poorly.
You can’t fix a problem unless you know what the problem is.
The Royals rank ninth in the AL in runs scored — roughly the middle of the 15 AL teams. If you only look at runs scored, you’d think the Royals ought to be a .500 team.
But numbers without context are meaningless.
The Royals have had four games in which they scored 10 or more runs, and blowout games can make a team’s scoring look better than it is. If you put all your eggs in one basket, or runs in one game, you can outscore your opponent in a series and still lose that series.
So the real goal isn’t to score runs, it’s to score more runs than your opponent.
The numbers for offense are more complete and compelling than the numbers for defense, but it’s a mistake to get overly fixated on what a player or team does offensively. I’d say fans make this mistake too often, but right now a lot of big-league teams are doing the same thing.
Bottom line: If a player drives in two but lets in three, he’s still a losing player.
The World Series champion Royals of 2015 got away with being sixth in runs scored because they didn’t allow their opponents to score much, either.
When this year’s Royals score six or fewer runs, they have a losing record. Those numbers will even out as the season progresses, but right now the Royals have to score way too many runs to win a ballgame.
This year’s Royals don’t walk much or hit many home runs, and if that’s what floats your boat you’re going to have to get over it or pick another team to root for.
The Royals didn’t walk or hit home runs when they were the best team in baseball, either. And as long as they play in Kauffman Stadium, that’s probably going to be the case.
But here’s a stat that might surprise you. The Royals currently rank fifth in the AL in extra-base hits. The same park dimensions that make it harder to hit home runs make it easier to hit doubles and triples.
In the past, the Royals have shown you don’t have to play Moneyball to win a championship. But those winning Royals teams didn’t strike out much. And right now, the Royals are seventh in the AL when it comes to punching out. They can’t afford that.
All that team speed doesn’t help much if you don’t get the ball in play.
If other teams are going to put lousy defenders on the field because those lousy defenders hit home runs, the Royals need to take advantage by putting the ball in play, running like hell and forcing those lousy defenders to play the game.
So keep an eye on what the Royals do in two-strike counts ... or, better yet, how often they avoid two-strike counts completely.
Back in 2014 and ’15, some fans complained about the Royals’ impatient hitters. But those impatient hitters won a lot of ballgames by avoiding strikeouts, getting the ball in play and forcing the other team to make mistakes.
The Royals are first in the AL in stolen bases, and a base-stealing threat on first base helps the hitter at the plate.
When they have a threat to run on first base, pitchers can’t fully concentrate on the hitter. Catchers have to call more fastballs and can’t focus on receiving the pitch. Middle infielders have to play closer to second base and that limits their range.
The Royals currently steal a little over 70% of the bases they attempt to swipe. They’d like to see that number go up to around 75%, and they believe it will.
For the Royals’ offense, getting runners thrown out is the cost of doing business. You can run the bases cautiously and avoid getting runners thrown out, but that will make things tougher on the hitters.
If you trust advanced metrics like Defensive Runs Saved, go right ahead and enjoy them. But having looked at how those metrics are put together, I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them, if it were possible to throw a metric. And some day, God willing, it will be.
The problems with advanced defensive metrics deserve an article of their own, so that just went on my to-do list.
For now, let’s look at fielding percentage and errors, which tell you something, but not everything ... and we’ve all seen a lot of questionable score-keeping, so I wouldn’t consider what you’re about to read 100% accurate, either.
Nevertheless, the Royals are tied for the fewest errors in the majors, with 15. For comparison’s sake, the Seattle Mariners have made the most, with 47. The Royals are top five in total chances — balls they got to — and have the best fielding percentage in the league.
So while those numbers paint an incomplete picture, it’s pretty clear the Royals have bigger problems than catching the ball. And that leads us to their biggest problem of all.
The Royals rank 11th in quality starts — at least six innings, no more than three earned runs — with 14. Houston leads the league with 26.
You can quibble about the worth of certain numbers — someone always does — but a quality start is a good indication that your starting pitcher gave you a decent chance to win. And that’s not happening often enough for the Royals.
No AL pitching staff has walked more batters, and when you play in a park the size of Outer Mongolia, you need to be throwing strikes and letting your defense — which is pretty damned good — catch the ball for you.
Only four teams have provided their bullpen with fewer save opportunities, only one team has blown more saves, and no team has fewer saves than KC.
Here’s the short version:
So far, the Royals have played very good defense, run the bases well and have a middle-of-the-pack offense. But until the pitching gets better, the first three things won’t matter.
And that’s the Royals breakdown.