Sam Mellinger

Brace yourself: The Royals’ offense may actually be worse than you think

High on the Royals’ list of problems is a startling lack of production from designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who won a Silver Slugger award last season.
High on the Royals’ list of problems is a startling lack of production from designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who won a Silver Slugger award last season. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Just two members of the Royals’ original starting rotation this season have ERAs under 5.32. As a group, they rank 13th in ERA and 13th in innings pitched, meaning what they lack in effectiveness is balanced by taxing the bullpen. Only the Angels have given up more home runs, quite a feat for the Royals since they play in the league’s biggest outfield.

This is all true, but so is the next sentence, which is more damning than anything in the previous paragraph:

The Royals’ feeble offense is a bigger problem than their can-of-gasoline starting rotation.

Some of that is because the Royals still have one of baseball’s best bullpens, which can help cover some of the rotation’s failings.

But much of it is the enormous scope of the Royals’ current ineptitude.

They are a team trying to buck the time-tested trend of World Series winners struggling the next year, but at the moment they are facing more than enough problems to see why four of the last five defending world champions did not make it back to the playoffs.

You may know the Royals are the first team in five years to lose six straight games while scoring no more than one run in each. If you expand similar searches to go further back in history, the examples tend to be 95-loss teams and, in one case, the 1963 Houston Colt .45’s.

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You don’t need to be a baseball historian to know that if your peer group is the Houston Colt 45’s, you are in trouble.

What makes the Royals’ situation worse is their lack of options. They are unlikely to pull off a major trade, for a lot of reasons, and even if you take the optimist’s stance that Paulo Orlando will continue to hit .333, the Royals are facing problems for which they have no good solutions.

For instance, Alcides Escobar is among the worst everyday hitters in the league. Nobody has made more outs, and entering Thursday’s games he ranked 173rd among 176 qualified hitters in on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Escobar should not be the club’s leadoff hitter, but even with those numbers he remains the Royals’ best (and only) realistic option to play shortstop in the major leagues.

Kendrys Morales, who last year won a Silver Slugger Award and may have been the team’s most important hitter, ranks 170th in OPS and against right-handed pitching may as well be swinging a rolled-up newspaper.

When those two are in the lineup, the opposing team knows it has what amounts to an easy out once every four or five batters.

Add Cheslor Cuthbert, who may have a bright future, and one-third of the Royals’ regular lineup is taken up by a player whose adjusted OPS is at least 25 percent worse than the league average.

It’s no wonder the Royals ranked next-to-last in the league in runs entering Thursday. The wonder is how they’d scored more than the Twins.

If anything, they’ve been propped up by better-than-expected contributions from Orlando, Drew Butera and Whit Merrifield.

The Royals are doing what they can. Merrifield has replaced Omar Infante, and the batting order has been tweaked.

They just have a lot working against them. Mike Moustakas was the team’s second-best hitter, and purest power threat, and is out for the year. Alex Gordon is in the middle of what’s expected to be a four- or five-week absence with a wrist injury. Sal Perez is hitting well, but in the last two seasons his numbers have been significantly worse in the second half than the first.

Eric Hosmer is pacing for the franchise’s best offensive season in years — you have to go back to at least Billy Butler’s season in 2012 — but there’s not enough around him.

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The Royals’ way out of this, then, must come from within. Gordon’s wrist injury is among the worst for a hitter to suffer, but it’s hard to imagine the Royals approaching even average production without him returning to the form of one of the game’s most productive left fielders over the last five years. Same with Morales.

Neither of those outcomes is a given.

The problems are beneath the surface, too. The last few years, the Royals have earned a reputation for crushing fastballs and putting the ball in play. So far this season, they are struggling against fastballs and their strikeout rate has jumped from 15.9 percent to 19.3 percent.

That’s particularly true lately — the team that loves to put the ball in play has struck out in 23.5 percent of its plate appearances in the last week, a rate higher than every team in the league but one.

There are a lot of problems here, some of them self-perpetuating, and all of them without obvious solutions other than Guys Need To Do Better.

When the Royals are at their best, they are attacking in the way that former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen once said was like “a pack of piranhas” and more recently has become known as “keep the line moving.”

But this is a prideful group, for better and for worse, which could be why the Royals have tended to get both hot and cold together. When the machine’s calibration is off, or the line stalls, there can be a tendency for guys to try to overcompensate. This is something the Royals’ coaches often talk about, opposing scouts have noticed, and that shows up in the following fact:

This year, the Royals are swinging more often and making less contact than any season this century, according to FanGraphs.

Amid all of these obstacles, the Royals have two significant factors in their favor. The first is that the American League Central is full of flaws. The White Sox are 6-20 in the last month, the Tigers’ bullpen is a mess most nights, and the Indians are giving regular at-bats to Juan Uribe while Michael Brantley remains out with a shoulder injury. Ninety wins would likely take the division. Maybe fewer.

The other thing is that, at least in theory, this should be as bad as it gets for the Royals’ hitters. Gordon will be back shortly. Same with Brett Eibner, who in four games before his injury showed some of the talent the Royals’ scouts have long valued.

If Morales doesn’t improve, his plate appearances will diminish, which would at least mean more production from the DH spot and the ability for important hitters like Perez, Gordon, and Lorenzo Cain to remain in the lineup while resting their bodies.

The Royals have always been streaky. The old joke among some coaches in times like this is that the guys are so close they slump together. Aside from the injuries, that’s absolutely happening right now and will soon go the other way. A week ago, this was the hottest team in the American League and leading the division.

Whether it’s enough to make it back to the playoffs is an entirely different debate, and one that becomes murkier by the day.

What's going on with the Royals' offense? 

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