Can the Royals Surprise the AL Central? (Even if they right now are in last)

The Kansas City Royals, are 12-23 after their 5-2 walk-off loss to the Detroit Tigers on Sunday. To say expectations were low for this team going into 2019 may be an understatement: after all…this is a club that was coming off a 104-loss season, a far cry from their World Series championship run four years ago, and also lost their franchise player (Salvador Perez) to Tommy John surgery before the season even started. Safe to say, it’s not out of the question to think that most Kansas Citians were looking more forward to the NFL Draft and the Chiefs offseason rather than the Royals 2019 campaign.

Which is a shame, because even though this team hasn’t really performed record-wise, you can’t help but get that feeling that this is spunky Royals bunch who may be able to compete and surprise in the AL Central division. The 2018 Royals were a “no man’s land” bunch that was stuck in a time warp, thinking that it was 2016 and they still could compete for a playoff spot. That is not the case anymore: the Royals are in full rebuild mode, shedding veterans like Jason Hammel, Alcides Escobar, and Paulo Orlando for younger guys within the farm system like Ryan O’Hearn and Kelvin Gutierrez to name a few. And in the transition, we have seen the positive and negatives of Dayton Moore’s approach in 2019.

At the very least, it’s easy to think that this Royals team will entertain more than last year’s bunch. Let’s take a look at why there is room for optimism, even after a crushing series loss to the division rival Tigers over the past weekend.


The offense is already better than last year…

Last season, the Royals were pretty punchless at the plate. They ranked 24th in the league in wRC+ with 88, which is 12 runs below average, and also ranked 25th in wOBA at .303. While they were entertaining on the basepaths (they ranked 6th in the league in stolen bases with 117), it didn’t necessarily lead to more runs on the basepaths, as they ranked 26th in BsR (baserunning runs above average) at negative-7.4. Combine this with lousy pitching (they ranked second-to-last in pitching WAR), and it makes sense why the Royals topped the 100-loss mark in 2018.

Now, the pitching for the Royals is still an Achilles heel in 2019, as they rank 25th in pitching WAR (1.4) and 23rd in team FIP (4.60). But, the offense has actually been better than expected, even though they lost All-Stars Perez and Mike Moustakas from a season ago. They rank 16th in wRC+ at 99, just one run below average, and 11 points better than a season ago. Their .320 wOBA is also an improvement from last year, as it is 17 points better than last year, and ranks 17th currently in the league. When it comes down to understanding what Dayton Moore needs to fix, the offense is actually low on that priority list.

And what has carried the Royals offense this year thus far? Career renaissances from outfielder Alex Gordon, shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, and utility extraordinaire Hunter Dozier. Gordon has displayed an incredible approach at the plate so far in 2019 (9.2 BB% and 10.6 K%) which has resulted in a .390 wOBA and 146 wRC+ to go along with six home runs and 27 RBI in what may be his last season in Royals blue and maybe as a Major Leaguer in general. Mondesi still is a free swinger (27 K%), but he hasn’t let it hurt him too much, as he has a .346 wOBA and 116 wRC+ to go along with four home runs and a team-high 10 stolen bases.

However, Dozier is the biggest revelation of them all. Dozier’s numbers are insane: .455 wOBA, 189 wRC+, .346 batting average, .308 ISO, and seven home runs. And he is doing this while playing without a true position: he has rotated between third, first, outfield and DH this season. Dozier has always been a top prospect in the Royals system in the past, and injuries certainly have slowed down his development in the past. However, there were many fans that felt that Dozier would be better off in another organization and that he was done after another “disappointing” season in 2018. Well, Dozier has not only proven them wrong, but he is actually giving the Royals and the “loyal” fanbase hope that they have another franchise player on their hands in the mold of Eric Hosmer, Gordon, and Moustakas. Only the difference now is that they will have him for at least a few more seasons.


The Royals are a terror on the basepaths

It’s kind of the same deal from a year ago if you look at the whole picture: the Royals lead the league in stolen bases (34), but it hasn’t led to much baserunning runs (0.4 above average). But for a team that was so mediocre offensively a year ago, manager Ned Yost’s free-wheeling approach on the basepaths definitely is an advantage that separates the Royals from the rest of the league. The lineup is loaded with speed: Mondesi, Whit Merrifield, and Billy Hamilton are all guys who can swipe 40 or more stolen bases this year (they have 10, 6 and 8 so far, respectively). And on the bench, Terrence Gore, who was strictly pinch running material prior to this year, has actually shown some life with the bat (.416 wOBA in 21 plate appearances). With already four stolen bases, it’s possible to see Gore perhaps get 20-25 stolen bases despite not being a regular player, which is an extraordinary weapon for Yost to have.

The Royals are showing more pop in the lineup than a year ago, which is surprising without Perez, who hit over 20 homers last year and was a regular in the 4-5 hole. Now, while Gordon and Dozier have displayed improvement from a year ago, we are just over a month into the season, and it is possible that both those guys will experience some regression as we hit the dog days of summer. That being said, the Royals can make up for any Gordon and Dozier regression with their depth of speed, and they’ll be in better shape if Hamilton can pick it up at the plate (he has a .250 wOBA and 51 wRC+) as we enter the summer months. That may be hard to imagine (he is coming off a down year in Cincinnati), but considering how much Ned likes to run, Hamilton could help this Royals club (and his own stat line) immensely if he can creep his OBP up another 20-30 points in the next month or so (which isn’t an easy task…but it doesn’t hurt to dream about).


The AL Central still is questionable

The Indians may be in trouble: they’ve underperformed this year (18-14), and now they may not have ace Corey Kluber for most of the season. Though they took 2 out of 3 from the Royals this weekend, the Tigers are a Miguel Cabrera injury/trade away from hitting the skids and bottoming out, as they too are in clear rebuilding mode and emphasizing a youth movement. And the White Sox, though sporting some offensive firepower with Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson (who got in his own dustup with the Royals...gotta love the low-key Royals-White Sox rivalry), have a plethora of pitching issues that will keep them from being seriously competitive this season (they rank 25th in FIP).

As you can see, the AL Central is up for the taking, with the Twins surprising and leading the division at 20-12 entering Sunday. But, the Twins are coming off a down year, have a new, unproven manager in Rocco Baldelli, and are still mediocre when it comes to pitching (they rank 18th in FIP). Now, their offense is legit (6th in WAR), and their lineup is flat out dangerous with Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco, Nelson Cruz, and a rejuvenated Byron Buxton, just to name a few. But unless the Twins make a serious upgrade to their pitching mid-season, they will be vulnerable to the rest of the division.

And that includes the Royals…after all, their Pythagorean win-loss isn’t all that far off from the other teams in the division.


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Hunter Dozier is having a career year; and he could be the spark the Royals need this summer (Photo credit: MLB Daily Dish)

Realistically, the Royals will be a long shot to do anything in the division or make a run at the Wild Card. Their pitching is bad. And if you don’t believe me, think about this: Homer Bailey, who went 1-14 a year ago, is their best starting pitcher so far this year according to WAR (0.7) and FIP (3.77). The bullpen is a mess, as Yost has failed to find much stability in the late innings, and the Ian Kennedy “trying to be Wade Davis” experiment has gone through its fair share of ups and downs this year (he has a 0.84 FIP, though that will probably go up after giving up the game-winning homer today). Unless Danny Duffy regains his stuff after missing most of the year so far due to injury, this pitching staff has a bleak outlook for 2019. And as we know…it’s hard for a team to compete without much pitching.

But the Royals have a shot. This is more of a “glass half-full” club compared to a year ago, and it will be interesting to see how the Royals faithful get behind them. They won’t lose 100 plus games this year (as long as they stay healthy), but they are still a couple of years from seriously competing, which may deflate Royals fans who were spoiled from the 2013-2016 run of success. But if this team can get their pitching to inch toward average, and if the offense can continue to produce, it’s conceivable to see a “hot” May or June from this club, and if that happens, then it’s possible to see the fans get behind this team and push them toward unexpected success, just like in 2013 when the Royals surprised and won 86 games out of nowhere.

And we all know what 2013 set up for the next two seasons…wishful thinking, I know, but it’s worth dreaming about, right?

Can Danny Duffy Not Pitch at Kauffman? (A look at Duffy’s 1st Half)

In many ways, as a Royals fan, I feel like I have been hard on starting pitcher Danny Duffy this season. Maybe it was the shellacking he received on Opening Day against the White Sox that has stuck with me for these first few months of baseball. Or maybe it’s the fact that Duffy hasn’t turned into the “savior” ace that we hoped he would be ever since he was drafted in the third round by the Royals in 2007. (Tall, big, hard-throwing lefties can generate that kind of fervor; remember, the Natural?) For whatever reason, Duffy’s reputation as a Royals starting pitcher seems to be more synonymous with words such as “inconsistent” and “frustrating” rather than “successful” or “star”.

But we need to give Duffy some credit: he has been the Royals’ best pitcher this year in the first half. Period. No doubt about it.

Jason Hammel and Ian Kennedy seem to be on their way out of Kansas City, as Hammel has been regulated to the bullpen, and Kennedy can’t seem to stay off the disabled list. (It will be interesting to see what the Royals do with Kennedy; while Hammel will be a free agent after this year, Kennedy still has two years and nearly $33 million owed to him left on his deal). Jake Junis, who looked like the Royals’ lone bright spot in the rotation at the start, has fallen off a cliff, as he has developed a propensity for giving up the long ball the last couple of months before he too found himself on the DL. And youngsters Erik Skoglund and Trevor Oaks didn’t offer too impressive outings either before they eventually made their way off the Royals’ active rosters (Skoglund to the 60-day DL and Oaks being optioned back to Omaha). For the most part in 2018, the Royals’ rotation has been a revolving door of mediocrity and lacklusterness.

(I could go into more starting pitchers, like Brad Keller and Nathan Karns, but what’s the point? A whole lot of “cups of coffee” and spot starts that won’t have much impact on the rotation going forward, so I figured not to waste the word count.)

Duffy, on the other hand, has been the closest to “dependable” of the Royals’ starting pitchers this year, even though the stats may not look like it at first.

For the year, Duffy’s peripheral numbers don’t look great. In 20 starts and a 113.2 IP thus far, he’s 5-8 with a 4.59 ERA, 4.98 FIP, a K-BB ratio of 1.94, a HR/FB rate of 12.7 percent, and a GB/FB rate of 0.77. For those who don’t know what those numbers mean, I can break it down into bullet points:

  • His FIP is higher than his ERA, meaning that he’s been worse or luckier than his ERA suggests, though not overwhelmingly so. His BABIP (.290) and strand rate (76.5 percent), are pretty league average, hence demonstrating not much of a difference between ERA and FIP.
  • The K-BB ratio is below league average, as typically average is 2. It usually means that he struggled with command, as Ron Shandler of Baseball HQ typically quantifies K-BB ratio as a sign of command.
  • He’s giving up the long ball a decent amount, though batter typically hit more fly balls off of him than groundballs (as evidenced by the GB/FB ratio being under 1). Granted, Duffy is the kind of pitcher who will induce more fly balls than ground balls due to his repertoire (fastball-heavy pitchers will do so; while sinker, less fastball-reliant pitchers will induce more groundballs, but have fewer strikeouts). But he is giving up the long ball more in comparison to last year, where his HR/FB rate was only 7.6 percent in 2017.

So, Duffy has been okay, serviceable, which is probably good enough considering the Royals’ starting pitching woes this year. But there has been an interesting pattern and trend to Duffy’s starts this year:

Duffy has been pretty good on the road, and horrendous at Kauffman Stadium.

On the road, Duffy has shown reasons why the Royals’ gave him a five-year $65-million extension in 2017. In 13 starts and 76.1 IP, Duffy has a 5-4 record, a 3.54 ERA, a 1.38 WHIP and hitters only hitting .238 against him. His advanced numbers are even more impressive, as his K/9 is over 1 better on the road than at home (8.49 to 7.47 at home), his K-BB ratio is better (2.06 to 1.72), he is posting a better FIP (4.58 to 5.79) and he is inducing more groundballs (37.1 to 28.3 percent) and less hard hit balls as well (36.5 to 41.3 percent).

In Kauffman, Duffy has looked like a pitcher at a home run derby. In other stadiums, however, Duffy has been a lot more effective and consistent, worthy of a top spot in the rotation in a Major League rotation (though he isn’t a lockdown ace by any means; even his road numbers, such as the WHIP, could use some improvement).

I mean, Duffy has an ERA of 6.75, a WHIP of 1.63, a 0-4 record, and an HR/FB ratio of 1.93 in supposedly a “pitcher’s park” in Kauffman stadium. Should Duffy just not pitch anymore in Kansas City? Is he unable to handle the pressure of being the ace in front of the hometown fans?

While I think his starts at Kauffman are startling, it may be too early to make any conclusions. On the other hand, though, there are a couple of statistical trends that point to Duffy making an improvement, and that he can carry that development to not just his starts on the road for the rest of the year, but also in Kauffman Stadium as well.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals
Duffy has a 0-4 record and 6.75 ERA in 7 starts at Kauffman this season.

Duffy hasn’t pitched a lot at home, and when he has, it’s been against REALLY GOOD competition

The sample size of Duffy’s starts at home is small. He’s only made 7 starts and pitched 37.1 IP in Kansas City. He has almost double of the number of starts (13) and innings (76.1) on the road, so his lackluster performance at Kauffman may just be a result of a small sample size. Also, if you take a look at who he’s pitched against, it hasn’t been the easiest of competition:

  • White Sox (2 starts, 1 loss, 1 no-decision, 10 ER, 10 IP)
  • Mariners (No-decision, 5.1 IP, 1 ER, 7 K’s)
  • Yankees (Loss, 4.0 IP, 5 ER, 2 HR)
  • Twins (No-decision, 6 IP, 4 H, 4 BB, 1 ER)
  • Astros (Loss, 7 H, 6 ER, 3 BB)
  • Indians (Loss, 6 IP, 8 H, 6 ER, 2 BB)

As you can see, that stretch of starts is brutal. The Astros are the defending champs and look to be in the running again. The Yankees have one of the most dynamic offenses in baseball. The Indians are atop of the AL Central, and the Mariners look to be a playoff favorite as well (though most likely in the Wild Card). The only bad teams he faced were the Twins (who are more mediocre than bad; and he actually didn’t pitch badly against them) and the White Sox, who have looked like a playoff team at Kauffman this year, and the worst team in baseball everywhere else.

So, in the second half, Duffy will not only get more starts at home but will also face some easier competition. And when that happens, it is likely that his splits at home will improve, and Royals fans will get to appreciate Duffy’s solid starts in person rather than just on television.

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July has been a good month, as he has a 2.84 ERA so far this month.

Duffy has been pitching well the past couple of months

In June and July, Duffy has started to find his groove, as he has begun to strike out more batters and walk less. In June, he increased his K/9 to 8.70 from 7.09 in May, and he decreased his walk rate slightly from 4.64 to 4.50. In July, those gains were even more pronounced, as his strikeout rate increased to 9.47 and his walk rate decreased to 3.32, which put his FIP at 2.98 for the month of July.

And not only are the K’s up and walks down, but he displayed better command overall, resulting in batters not making good contact against him in July. Hitters only made hard contact 27.3 percent of the time against him in July, down from 42.2 percent in June. His GB/FB was 0.77, down from 1.56 the previous month, and he had a K-BB ratio of 2.86, which was his best ratio overall in the first half.

Yes, a majority of Duffy’s July starts came on the road (2 out of 3), but it’s obvious that Duffy is turning it around as a starter, which should be encouraging for the Royals as they enter the second half of the season. It’s definitely plausible that if he can continue this strong approach, he’ll be successful in the second half, whether it’s home or away.

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Duffy has been a much better pitcher on the road this year. Can he turn it around at Kauffman in the second half?

What should the Royals expect from Duffy?

Duffy is far from perfect, and though comparatively, he’s strong for a Royals pitcher, he’s still pretty average in comparison to other pitchers in the league. He still struggles with runners on and in scoring positions, as his FIP in those situations are 5.39 and 6.40, respectively, and his K-BB ratio is 1.48 and 1.29 in those situations, respectively as well. If Duffy wants to really experience any lasting success (whether this year or beyond), he really has to learn to pitch better in the stretch.

At the same time, the trend for Duffy is a positive one, which should provide some glimmering hope for Royals fans in a season that has been pretty devoid of hope overall (other than the draft and signing prospects). The Royals are pretty all-in on Duffy as their “ace” going forward and Duffy will get the opportunities going forward (and with so much left on his deal, it’s pretty safe to say he’s going to be on the Royals for a good while as well). It’s been nice to see Duffy rebound after a rough start to the year, and at the very least, stay healthy, which is something he has struggled with over the past few seasons.

It’s been a good July for Duffy, and on the road overall, Duffy has been serviceable to somewhat masterful on occasion. As you will see in the video below, his win against Chicago last night was maybe his best of the year, sweet redemption for his awful opening day start against the White Sox.

Duffy is on the right track. Now it’s time for him in the second half to impress the Kauffman faithful, and not just Royals fans visiting opposing stadiums.