The Kansas City Royals have done a few things right in the last week or so and it’s a nice reminder that it really is a long season. When the year began, I kind of thought they had a pretty good shot at a .500 season -- their second since 1994 -- and anything beyond that would be gravy. Hey, they lost 90-plus games in seven of the last eight seasons. Walk, then run.
Then, the Royals got off to a nice start, a 17-10 start, a first-place start, and sure, it was fun to do a little dreaming. Hey, why not?
Then, the Royals went through a spectacular stretch of awfulness like only a Kansas City team can -- they lost 18 of 22 and looked hopeless and fired hitting coaches and said ridiculous things -- and it was fun to do a little venting because, well, if you follow the Royals without venting you will end up with holes in the plaster from where you continuously banged your head.
And now? Well now, you look up, and the Kansas City Royals are three games under .500. No, it’s not ticker tape parade stuff. It’s not where fans want them to be be. But you know it’s really not terrible for a team that has broken .500 once since 1994 … it’s probably about where the realistically optimistic thought they would be. They are right around .500. They’ve scored more runs than they’ve allowed all season, which is nice. They’ve got the best ERA in the American League, which probably won’t last. But they’ve also been in a rolling power outage straight out of biblical times -- more on this in a second -- and that probably last either.
They seem, maybe, to be settling into a decent team that is working through some growing pains and might take a real step toward respectability and contention in 2013. And, honestly, that was all anyone really wanted.
Before getting into the good things the Royals are doing -- at least what I think are good things -- let’s get into that astonishing power slump. The Royals are, of course, dead last in homers in the American League. But that’s only the start of it. They have TWENTY THREE fewer home runs than any team in the league, which is striking when you realize the Royals have only hit 31 homers all year. Every team but the Twins and White Sox have at least DOUBLE the home runs the Royals have, and Baltimore has close to three-times as many.
Kansas City Royals: 31 homers.
Chris Davis: 20 homers.
Nice. But even that doesn’t quite tell the story. Here it is: The Royals have not hit a left-handed home run in more than a month. I’ll repeat that. The Kansas City Royals have not had a left-handed batter hit a home run since May 10, which is more than one month ago. The Royals really thought that with Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, they would be OK with left-handed power. Hosmer is the real mystery. He’s a huge guy who hit 19 homers as a rookie (nine of them in a 30 game stretch) and looked to be on his way to a Joey Votto like existence.
But I come to praise the Royals, not to bury them, and I have to say I really like what the Royals are doing with Hosmer now: They moved him up to the No. 2 spot in the lineup. I realize that lineup maneuvers are mostly cosmetic but the minute manager Ned Yost moved Hosmer up, I have to admit, I thought it was an inspired move. There were a couple of reasons for my enthusiasm. One, the Royals for a little while there were hitting Chris Getz (lifetime ..310 OBP and .313 SLG) and Alcides Escobar (lifetime .302 OBP) in the top two spots in the lineup, and to me that was like jumping out the window to see if it would hurt when you landed. It wasn’t just ridiculous, it was hostile to basic logic and any fan who dared use it.
Finally, they moved Getz out and put Gordon back in the top spot, but they stuck with Escobar a little longer because, I can only guess, he hit .293 last year. Yes, true, it was an entirely empty .293, but, hey, he hit .293 last year! Sigh. Finally, a few days ago, the Royals seemed to realize that Escobar is not going to hit even an empty .293 this year and they moved him down and moved up Hosmer. So I liked it because it made the Royals look just a little less crazy.
But two -- I liked it for Hosmer. I don’t know what’s causing his hitting struggles, but to me, even visually, he doesn’t look anything like the rookie who looked ready to be a star. His swing seems herky-jerky, the ball just seems to misfire off his bat and, more than anything, he seems to have lost any feel for what makes a hittable pitch and what doesn’t. I’m a much bigger proponent of the walk than anyone in the Royals organization, I’ve just come to accept that. But even the Royals would concede that swinging at bad pitches consistently (not just balls out of the strike zone but BAD PITCHES) will not lead to good things. Hosmer seems to give himself up two or three at-bats every game by swinging at pitches he cannot hit.
So, when the Royals moved him from the middle of the lineup to the No. 2 spot, they sent him a clear message -- don’t worry about home runs. That’s the cliche of the No. 2 spot -- you want your “bat control” guy there. And while I think that’s a goofy concept, I think the Royals are using it to their benefit with Hosmer. It’s like they’re telling him: Just get your swing together, just focus on seeing the ball, reacting to good pitches, thinking line drive, thinking all fields, and not over thinking anything.
These are all George Brett beliefs, and it would not surprise me at all if he was the guy who recommended moving Hosmer to the No. 2 spot. I think it’s really smart. Hosmer, it seems to me, is not one or two adjustments away from being the player everyone thought. He’s a lump of clay, and if Brett and the Royals can gradually rebuild his confidence, gradually get him to recognize pitches again, gradually rework his swing back into a recognizable thing, well, the power and home runs and the good things will come. Hosmer has looked better in the No. 2 spot. I hope they keep him there for a while.
The Royals also moved Salvador Perez into the No. 3 spot -- and it’s another move I like, not because I think Perez is necessarily a prototypical No. 3 hitter yet (he probably isn’t) but precisely because I think that prototypical lineup stuff doesn’t matter much. Perez is a really good player and he has proven throughout his young career that the more responsibility you give him, the better he plays. This is a guy who couldn’t hit in Low-A, who hit pretty well in High-A, who hit about the same in Class AA, who crushed the ball in Class AAA and who is hitting .313/.340/.460 in more than 600 plate appearances in the big leagues. Meanwhile, he’s fabulous behind the plate and it now seems clear to me that he -- more than Hosmer or Moustakas or any of the other big Royals prospects -- is destined to be the heart of this team. It’s a silly small-sample size, but in the six games since being moved to the No. 3 spot, he has at least one hit every game and he’s hitting .409/.480/.636. I’m not going to start singing about intangibles, but I think Perez likes being challenged.
As for the rest … the Royals are still very limited offensively but they do seem to be trying to make the best of things. They have essentially benched Jeff Francoeur -- long overdue, but with the Royals you are just amazed any time they are willing to admit a mistake. On the pitching side, they are doing many nice things -- I particularly like how they have worked with reliever Kelvin Herrera, who has some of the best stuff in all of baseball but was giving up home runs like candy. He seems to have locked back in.
They are -- and this is almost beyond belief if you’re a Royals fan -- playing the best defense in the American League based on John Dewan’s “Team Runs Saved” statistic. From 2008 to 2010, the Royals were last in the American League in that statistic each year by a wide margin; the statistic estimated the Royals defense cost them more than 250 runs over those three years. So credit the Royals for blowing up the worst defense in baseball and building a good defense with superior catching, solid infield play and an outfield that goes and gets the ball.
Of course, they are the Royals and so a 20-game losing streak always threatens. But this really isn’t a bad team. That’s what made that 22-game stretch of death so puzzling and depressing -- I kept saying: ‘Look, I know they’re not a great team but they’re not THIS bad.’ Now, the Royals are playing well again, and you look up and see them in a decent position, and it’s nice. It’s a long season. And, shockingly, in June, it’s not a lost season yet.