Sam Mellinger

The Royals’ frustration is building, one mark of Ned Yost’s blue pen at a time

Ned Yost on bullpen struggles following 8-3 loss to Boston

Royals manager Ned Yost discusses his team's bullpen struggles following an 8-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox on June 4, 2019. The Royals fell to 19-41.
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Royals manager Ned Yost discusses his team's bullpen struggles following an 8-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox on June 4, 2019. The Royals fell to 19-41.

A lifetime in a game of failure has taught Ned Yost the value of self-correcting, so as one of the most perplexing of his 46 years in baseball has turned to one of the most frustrating, the Royals manager found himself screaming cuss words in the dugout.

Which is fine! To a point. The language in Major League Baseball will never be appropriate for playgrounds. But Yost knew repeated outbursts helped nobody. To help limit himself, he took to marking them down on his scorecard.

We can measure the Royals’ frustration in many ways. They have just 19 wins and are already 22 1/2 games out of first place. Their pitching stinks. The bottom of the order is a graveyard, and some at the top are starting to press. The best minor-leaguers are in the lower levels of the organization’s farm system, years away at best.

Or, we can just look at the bottom of Yost’s scorecard from Thursday’s loss: 15 marks with a blue pen, one for each cuss word screamed by the manager in the dugout.

“So you can see how much that’s helping,” Yost said.

Rarely, if ever, have the Royals had more young and high-end talent on their big-league roster.

Never — as in ain’t ever happened — have the Royals lost as many games as this group is tracking toward. The current pace is for 112 losses, which would be by far the worst season in club history and one of the worst in recent baseball history.

The Royals have 100 games left. Only once before have they had a worse record. That was 2006, a clown-show season in which owner David Glass crisscrossed the country looking for a new general manager long before telling existing GM Allard Baird he would be fired. Emil Brown led that team with 81 RBIs, and none of the 14 pitchers to start at least three games that season produced an ERA better than 5.12.

That team lost exactly 100 games, which is significantly better than this team has so far proven to be.

That’s despite Adalberto Mondesi’s pace for just over 5 Wins Above Replacement, a mark that has not been achieved by a Royal in his age-23 season since Willie Wilson in 1979. The list of men to do it elsewhere recently is essentially a list of the game’s brightest stars: Francisco Lindor, Mookie Betts, Manny Machado, Kris Bryant, Mike Trout and others.

Hunter Dozier has been even better. His current .987 OPS would be the fourth-best mark in franchise history, behind Danny Tartabull in 1991 and the best two seasons of George Brett’s Hall of Fame career.

Alex Gordon is experiencing a career renaissance. Whit Merrifield has established an All-Star-level baseline. Jorge Soler is on pace for 42 home runs. Nicky Lopez forced his way to the big leagues earlier than expected. Brad Keller is firmly part of the team’s future. Danny Duffy has been mostly good.

And yet, the Royals’ record stinks. The team stinks. The highlight of the season so far might be the selection of Bobby Witt Jr. in this week’s draft, providing the superstar prospect that has been lacking in a farm system stocked with young arms.

They have lost six in a row, 12 of 14, and have not won a series since the middle of April.

“What’s in your mind is in our mind,” Yost said. “’How do we stop it? How the hell do we stop it?’”

It’s pitching, mostly. The Royals are 10th in runs but next-to-last in ERA. Yost and his coaches search for solutions. They know spin rates and velocity trends and location charts by memory.

One pitcher is throwing fewer than half his fastballs for strikes. Another is aiming down and away to right-handed hitters but far too often missing in or up, or both. Another is great for two or three outings, earning a larger role, and then promptly pukes it up. Covering one hole is the surest way to find another.

The problems are amplified against a good team like the Boston Red Sox. Each mistake turns into a highlight for the other side.

These are tense times. Duffy pitched well the first two innings on Thursday, took a 109 mph line drive off the side of his right kneecap and then retired just one of the next six hitters he faced. He gave up the lead and the Royals never recovered, their 24th loss with a blown lead. No other team is close. Heck, five teams haven’t lost 24 games total.

Merrifield, the Royals’ best situational hitter, called his current performance in that area “embarrassing.” He’s 2 for 12 this season with a runner on third and less than two outs. Mondesi struck out three times on Thursday, on a total of 10 pitches.

Depending on the day, the Royals’ lineup has a dead zone of three or four hitters. Choosing a reliever is a bit like roulette and the starters have a collective 5.61 ERA.

The Royals are in an awkward spot. The front office never truly expected to compete this year, but club officials put a proud face forward in an attempt to generate confidence in the clubhouse and among fans.

Any hope of competing is now a plain farce, but baseball’s grind stops for nobody, no matter how bad. This group, then, has the feel of a minor-league team.

Mondesi, Dozier, Merrifield, Soler and Keller are firmly in the team’s future. One way or another, each is part of the franchise’s best self. Nicky Lopez and Scott Barlow are good bets, too.

Others, like Jakob Junis, Jorge Lopez and Glenn Sparkman, are trying to get there. The result is an organization focused primarily on the development of a core while waiting for the rest to fill out.

From the front office through the clubhouse, there is an understanding that the current stage is about figuring out who should still be around when Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and the other top pitching prospects arrive.

One club source called the current struggles “mind blowing.” The Royals’ in-house analytic projections saw around 70 wins this year, a mark that would now require a 51-49 finish.

An enormous gap exists between what the Royals believe is happening with development and what reality shows in the record.

One obvious move would be replacing Yost or some of the coaches, and the possibility has at least been discussed at some points in the last year. But, generally speaking, effort has not wavered and the players remain respectful and supportive.

Shakeups are often done in the name of “a fresh voice,” but risk exists there, too. Look at the Nationals and Mets, for instance.

Optimism requires some degree of stubbornness, but it exists on at least two planes. The first is that if this group bulls through its current struggles, it will be better prepared and more confident in the face of future obstacles.

Maybe that sounds a bit too much like a hopeful version of that which does not kill me makes me stronger, and maybe it is. But it’s also what happened with the last group, which bombed the 2012 “Our Time” season and dealt with demotions and injuries and many people calling for the whole thing to be blown up in July 2014 before the success came.

The second is that this build-up may happen faster than most. This is the fourth rebuild Yost has worked through as a coach or manager, following Atlanta, Milwaukee and the first one here. He’s always believed it takes 2 1/2 years from the time a group reaches the big leagues to being ready to win a world championship.

But he also knows it happened a little quicker in Atlanta, where a young group joined veterans Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, Rafael Belliard and others. That’s the template here, now, with minor-league graduates joining Merrifield, Sal Perez, and (depending on a few factors) Gordon.

All of this depends on a certain truth that at least right now nobody can be certain of. Yost can talk about patience and the front office can talk about player development and the players can talk about competing.

But none of that matters if there isn’t enough talent. And right now, clearly, there is not enough talent. Maybe it’s on the way. Maybe the losses will pile too high too quickly for it to take. The answer is coming, one way or the other.

In the meantime, Yost will be literally counting out the frustration, one scratch with his pen at a time.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.

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