AL CentralAnalysis

Royals: Contenders or Pretenders?

As we arrive in June, we’re beginning to gain a general idea of who’s who within the league. Approximately 70 games in, the sellers and the buyers have started to separate themselves from each other, and the playoff picture is starting to become a little clearer.

But as you look around the standings, there are a couple of placements that only introduce more questions than answers. Are the Astros really that bad this year? How did Arizona go from the World Series to missing the playoffs? Shouldn’t the defending champions be better than this? How does Cleveland have the third-best record in the American League?

All of those questions are mystifying in their own right. But after taking a cursory glance at the standings, one team in particular stuck out to me. Kansas City, sitting pretty, second in the AL Central with a 39-29 record.

In 2023, this team was flat-out awful. There’s no other way around it. Outside of shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. and midseason pitching acquisition Cole Ragans, there was little reason for any confidence going into 2024. Even Brady Singer, who was promising in 2022, was a shell of himself last season, with a 5.52 ERA across 29 starts. That team managed to win a paltry 56 games, and they weren’t unlucky by any stretch of the imagination.

How is this team holding a wild card spot nearly 70 games in? With the way the MLB season is structured, it’s not difficult to luck into a playoff spot early on. There are 162 games in a season, so anyone can get off to a hot start in April – just ask the 2023 Pirates.

But after 70 games, team records usually begin to stabilize to match their talent levels, yet the Royals are still kicking with a winning percentage that approaches .600. They’re better than they were last year, that fact is indisputable. But the real question is, how truly good are they?

The Lineup: Crazy or Fugazi?

Photo Credit: @Royals on X.

In short, probably a little bit of both.

To this point in the season, the Royals are collectively top ten in almost every single hitting stat imaginable. The team is eighth in OPS, seventh in batting average, and fifth in runs scored as well. They’ve hit well as a collective, and that has driven their success to this point in the season. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to continue their performance going forward.

The infield is legitimately good offensively, and there’s no doubt about that. At shortstop, Bobby Witt Jr. has finally completed his ascension from top prospect to bonafide superstar, and he might earn a start at shortstop for the American League in the All-Star Game. But that’s not surprising by any means, and anyone could’ve seen that coming after his 2023.

Do you want to know what is surprising? Look at Salvador Perez turning back the clock for a .900 OPS, on pace to be his highest mark in a league-qualified season. Or how about second baseman Michael Massey, who’s hitting for a 125 wRC+ across his first 30 games. In 2023, Massey put up a 73 wRC+ across nearly 500 plate appearances, nearly unprecedented levels of progression. And the craziest part is, those improvements might be legitimate, too. Massey’s contact rates have improved by nearly six percent in 2024, and he’s been striking out less as a result. I wouldn’t expect this level of production when he returns from injury, but he can definitely stabilize at a 100 wRC+ at least.

As for the other infielders, Vinnie Pasquantino has actually hit slightly worse than his career averages this year. Yet, he’s still a fairly above league-average hitter at first. And there are no surprises with Maikel Garcia at this point. He’s a contact-hitting defensive whiz at third base, always good for a consistent .270 batting average and a .700 OPS.

But when you start to look at the outfield, there’s a lot more to be concerned about. Offseason acquisition Hunter Renfroe has a highly volatile, high-whiff playstyle in right field. So, his .583 OPS can be partially explained by variance, and there’s hope that his performance will stabilize with more at-bats. But as for MJ Melendez and Kyle Isbel? You should start to worry.

Firstly, I’ve been critical of the Royals’ insistence on sticking Melendez in the outfield for a while now. He’s a catcher by trade, albeit not a good defensive one either. And while his outfield defense has improved since his debut, his -14 Outs Above Average since 2022 ranks among the ten worst outfielders in that span. He’s not a good defender, a fact that makes his consistent inclusion in the lineup even more baffling. His .554 OPS would be the third worst in the league if he had enough plate appearances to qualify, slotting in just ahead of Andrew Benintendi and Javier Baez. He’s chasing more than before, making contact on those chases, and thus making less hard contact than he usually does, which is a bad sign for a player with his offensive profile.

And Kyle Isbel is who he is. The Royals center fielder is an open book at the plate. He’s always going to be a defense-first player. Although he makes a fair bit of contact, it’s not damaging enough to make him an impactful bat. His sprays don’t lend themselves well to a high-BABIP playstyle, he’s elevating the ball even less than before, and his swing decisions are worse than they usually are, as he’s taking more called strikes than ever. It’s not a good formula for success, and that’s why his .587 OPS is really unsurprising.

How About That Rotation?

Photo Credit: @Royals on X.

The rotation is absolutely the biggest reason for this team’s success so far in the season. They went from 28th in team ERA to 9th in the span of a year, without changing their bullpen or completely revamping their coaching staff. Matt Quatraro is still there as the manager, and so is Brian Sweeney, the pitching coach that he hand-selected for 2023. So, what’s driving this improvement in the Royals’ pitching staff? The only factor left would have to be J.J. Picollo’s new additions to the rotation.

The 2023 offseason was a trainwreck for the Royals and Picollo was keenly aware of that fact heading into 2024. Last year, their big offseason adds were Aroldis Chapman and Jordan Lyles, the former being expected to serve as a lockdown closer for them and the latter expected to add much-needed stability to an inexperienced rotation.

Chapman’s signing was actually rather successful, as his late-career resurgence landed the Royals Ragans at the deadline. But Lyles was an absolute disaster. His 6.28 ERA was the worst in the league by more than half a run, and his 39 home runs allowed was the third-highest mark behind Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn. And Zack Greinke, who the Royals brought back prior to the 2022 season, was also unable to find any sort of success since the passage of time had eroded the sneakily deceptive stuff that he once had at his apex.

Going into this offseason, Picollo knew that his number one priority was to fix the rotation. But a 56-win small market team equipped with a shoestring budget isn’t an appealing draw to any ace, and he understood that from the get-go. So, instead of looking for the home run on the first pitch, he settled for a couple of hits, hoping that it was just what he needed in order to start a rally.

And it did. Instead of trying to shop in the Blake Snell and the Sonny Gray markets, Picollo set his sights on Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha, two Padre arms coming off fairly successful seasons. After arriving in Boston in 2022, Wacha started to approach his 2015 form, back when he earned his only All-Star appearance as a 23-year-old Cardinal. As for Lugo, he managed to put up a 3.57 ERA with the Padres in his first year as a starter since 2017 with the Mets, and he parlayed that success into a multi-year deal with Kansas City.

It was a little bit of a gamble by Picollo, but these moves have paid dividends for the Royals. Prior to his recent injury, Wacha was essentially filling the role that Jordan Lyles was supposed to in 2023, eating innings effectively while maintaining a 4.24 ERA. And Lugo? He’s been a borderline ace to this point in the season, with his 2.13 ERA ranked sixth among qualified pitchers in MLB. He’s due for some regression to the mean, but he’s undeniably a quality starter now, something that few people thought they would say when he was a swingman for the Mets.

But those two offseason acquisitions aren’t enough to vault the Royals into playoff contention, and Picollo knew that as well. Going into 2024, a lot of Kansas City’s success was going to ride on the progression of their existing arms, and they have absolutely delivered.

With his electric four-seamer and his deceptive changeup, Cole Ragans has stymied hitters this year, and he’ll likely establish himself as the team’s ace as the year goes on. By utilizing his four-seamer more, Brady Singer has returned to form, limiting damaging contact and inducing a ground ball rate over 50%. And as the fifth starter, Alec Marsh has done an admirable job in his own right. Kansas City’s pitching staff is legitimately good now, and their top four matches up well with most teams in the American League.

Closing It Out With The Bullpen

Photo Credit: @Royals on X.

Unfortunately, the bullpen is probably the worst aspect of this team.

It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s markedly worse than the formidable bullpens that they boasted during the 2010s. There is no Greg Holland to be found here, nor is there a Wade Davis or a Kelvin Herrera. There’s just James McArthur.

McArthur’s solid, but I’d contend that the Royals would be better off with another arm in the ninth inning. He can miss bats and get chases at a fairly high level, but when his offspeed stuff gets hit, he’s really susceptible to allowing hard contact. McArthur isn’t reliable enough to be a lockdown closer yet, and that means the ninth innings are a bit of a roller coaster for Kansas City.

Outside of him though, the rest of the bullpen is pretty solid. After a difficult 2023 season, Angel Zerpa has finally established himself as a high-leverage reliever for the Royals, utilizing his sinker to generate grounders at a nearly 60% clip this year. John Schreiber has proven to be a shrewd offseason pickup, as he’s continued to build on his success in Boston. And although Chris Stratton is walking an obscene amount of batters, his ability to limit hard contact is unmatched, and his 5.76 ERA should decrease as the year goes on.

Will Smith is certainly a weak spot in this unit, as he’s essentially lost any ability to get outs against major league hitters. And while Nick Anderson’s results haven’t been awful, his inability to get whiffs makes him an unreliable option in high-leverage. Injuries have made his stuff worse than it was with Tampa, a really tough break for such a talented arm.

The Final Verdict?

Photo Credit: @Royals on X.

All in all, the Royals might be a playoff team, but they’re still a few moves away from being contenders.

I wasn’t expecting to walk away with that conclusion, but they’re built to be successful now and into the future. The Royals’ ceiling is dependent on how the front office chooses to approach the trade deadline because the team just has a few holes that need to be plugged before they establish themselves as serious contenders.

The farm system is a little barren, due to a mix of poor drafting and recent graduates. But if they can swing a deal for a relief option, and maybe a rental outfield bat or two, the Royals could make a shock run in October. The rotation is among the best in the league, and facing a lineup featuring Bobby Witt is a frightening proposition for any team in the field.

Follow us @Diamond_Digest for more throughout the season!

Mauricio Palmar

Aspiring journalist, occasional Nationals fan. Tweets can be found at @sixmileshow or @RoblesTruther.

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