Are there any legit concerns with the Royals slow start?

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The Kansas City Royals lost again last night, 7-3, for their 12th loss in their last 16 games. It’s their fifth straight series loss and they are now 3-12 in their last 15 road games.

Who are these guys?

The Royals, who were once 12-6, are sitting below .500 at 16-18. Monday’s 6-3 loss (the first of three losses in the four games series) at the Yankees sent the Royals below .500 for the first time since July 23, 2014 – a 255-game streak without being below .500.

“We didn’t really deal with anything like this last year and I think this will be a good test for us to see what we’re made of,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said.

In fact, though, they did, in a 2-9 May 24 – June 6 stretch that saw them fall one game out of first place, temporarily, behind the Minnesota Twins. Then, there was a 4-12 stretch – just like the current skid – as part of the 11-17 month of September, also last season, which snapped the Royals 10 regular season winning month streak.

“It’s a long season,” Lorenzo Cain said. “That’s the thing about baseball, you just never know what’s going to happen. Things can turn quick and you can get on a hot streak, and that’s all you need. That’s how it is in baseball. We play until September. It’s 162 games, so you can’t count anybody out right now. I just feel like we hit a rough stretch. I feel like a lot of teams go through rough stretches. We hit one earlier this year than we did the last two years. But at the same time, it’s something we can definitely get out of. We know we have the talent to go out and compete with anybody. It’s about just putting it all together, and hopefully we get out here and start winning some games consistently.”

I agree, Renzo. But, not everyone does.

Is this nothing more than a rough stretch, which I have said time and time again, or is there more to it? Is this simply part of the ebs and flows of baseball, and it happens to every good team, every year, or is it more? After outperforming the computer projections the past three seasons, have sabermetrics finally got it right and the Royals really are…mediocre?

Lets take a look.

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Starting Pitching

The most notable problem right now for the Royals is their starting pitching…or lack there of. Thirty-four games into the season, the rotation has produced just 15 starts of at least six innings, with six coming from last night’s starter Ian Kennedy (in seven starts). Of those 15 starts, only two didn’t “quality,” including last night, where Kennedy allowed seven runs in 6.2 innings. Not good. Amazingly, there are three other teams (Minnesota, Atlanta Milwaukee) behind them in quality starts.

But, it gets worse.

In the first two games of the Yankees series, the starters (Chris Young and Kris Medlen) failed to go THREE innings in their starts. Ventura (6 IP, 1 ER, 3 H, 3 BB, 1 K) and Kennedy gave the Royals some effective innings the last two nights, and they needed them, as, before that, it had been three games in a row with a starter failing to go five innings. In that three-game span, the rotation threw together this woeful line: 14.00 ERA (14 ER in 9 IP), 2.78 WHIP (18 hits, 7 walks) with more HR allowed (7) than strikeouts (wow). Over the last 12 games, Royals starters have averaged less than five innings per start (55.2 IP), with a 7.27 ERA (45 ER), 15 HR allowed and a 1.724 WHIP. In the last 16, they’re averaging just 4.83 innings per start, with a 7.12 ERA and 1.69 WHIP. Not ideal.

For the season, the rotation has posted a 4.91 ERA (7th worst) in 179.2 IP (28th) – well up 4.34 a year ago. They have just three quality starts in the last 16 games. They were in front of everyone in strikeouts out of the gate, but have regressed beyond the mean, ranking 21st with 152 and are near the middle with a .252 batting average against (16). But, the big difference for the rotation this year, compared to the past, is their command, where they rank dead last with 90 walks. Ventura and Medlen own the two worst walk rates (per 9 innings) in MLB. They pitch (or at least were) back to back. Again, not good.

There are reasons NOT to worry.

The rotation has been mediocre the last two seasons, but it was good enough to get to the World Series, and win one of them. Last year, when they won it, they pitched the fewest innings of any starting rotation with 912. A great goal for a rotation is 1,000 innings pitched. The Royals hoped to get close to that, but currently, they’re pacing out for even less innings (856).

Medlen has posted just one quality start on the year and has an unhealthy 7.77 ERA and two more walks (20) than strikeouts (18). He really labored through his last two starts, allowing 10 earned runs in just four innings. Young has been betrayed by his tendency to give up the long ball – which he did FIVE times, a franchise record – while getting just seven outs in his Monday start. That’s now 13 HR allowed this season and 9 in his last 44 batters faced. There may be an excuse for both, who were placed on the DL, and although this hurts the Royals initially because of the lack of starting pitching depth, in the long run, this may not be a bad thing. Maybe they were simply injured and not this bad? I believe this to be the case for Medlen. Young could be about to fall off the Jeremy Guthrie/Bruce Chen cliff at anytime and the 84 mph fastball right down the middle and the homers have hurt him. But, other than his 17 ER allowed off his HR, he has a 1.95 ERA, so there’s that.

Young had already been sent to the pen in favor of Dillon Gee, who tossed 5.1 innings of one-run, 3-hit ball piggy-backing Young’s dreadful start. It’s unclear how long Gee and his 2.61 ERA will stay in the rotation. He could give the team a real boost, where he owns a 40-37 record, 4.00 ERA and 1.37 WHIP as a starter in the National League, so I wouldn’t expect a lot. In terms of replacing Medlen, Danny Duffy is next in line, but he’s unlikely to factor in the decision with a pitch count of 45-50. At 27, he’s not “young” anymore, but depending on how long he remains in the rotation, his ceiling still remains high. Consistency and pitch counts has always been an issue for him, and as a result he has only won 23 of 80 of his starts (29 losses), averaging only 5.1 IP per start, only a 1.79 K/BB ratio and a 1.38 WHIP to go along with a 3.90 ERA.

Neither Young or Medlen should be out long, and honestly, this could be the “I suck really bad right now” trip to DL. On the horizon, though, there are some reinforcements. Mike Minor, who began his minor league rehab assignment on Tuesday with a 54-pitch, 28-strike 2.2-inning outing down at AA NW Arkansas (3 R, 2 ER, 1 H, 4 K, 4 BB) and Kyle Zimmer, who made his first start of 2016 in High A Wilmington (1.2 IP, 0 H, 5 K, 2 BB, 51 pitches) after working in extended spring training.

On the 60-Day DL, Minor can’t return until May 20 at the earliest and likely won’t return until late May or early June, but he should enter the rotation upon return. And, a left-hander will be a change of pace for the rotation. Zimmer, the top pitching prospect, posted a 2.81 ERA at the Double-A level last season, so it should not be long before he is moved up there again and could be here after the All-Star break to help the rotation.

Ventura’s velocity is down just 0.7 mph for the season. He has yet to hit 100 mph on the gun, but has hit 98 four times and 30% of his pitches have registered at 95 or more so far in 2016. So, even though it has seemed down, his velo is not an issue. But, his command and location, is. With two more walks (28) than strikeouts (26) in 37 innings, his ERA (4.62) and WHIP (1.57 WHIP) have taken a hit. But, this was also a concern last season, when Ventura (3-2) posted a 5.19 ERA in 76.1 IP in his first 14 starts, receiving a demotion, albeit brief as he didn’t even miss a start. Ventura appears scared to work in the zone with runners on – struggling with his confidence. But, he’s been here before, as Ventura was a stud down the stretch last season, posting a 2.38 ERA over his final 11 starts, including 81 strikeouts in just 68 innings. Super Dave Eiland will get him right.

Edinson Volquez owns the rotation’s longest start of 2016 – 7.2 IP in a home loss last Monday against Washington – but has lost three straight starts after winning three of his first four, seeing his ERA soar from 1.09 to 3.89 in the process. But, he’ll be fine. They don’t call him “Steady Eddie” for nothing. A 3.89 ERA, or better, would a nice season for Volquez. Expect good things out of him Sunday against the Braves.

Before Ventura’s start last night, the Royals had posted one start of five innings in the last six games and have now allowed first-inning runs in 10 of the last 14 games. Maybe, if the offense continues with its upward trend, the pitching will settle down?

Let’s hope.

Offense

As we wrote a week ago, when the Royals start hitting with runners in scoring position again, they’ll start scoring again. It seems like an easy explanation, and there is a bit more to it, but on a broad scale, the Royals, who rank 25th in scoring (3.6) after ranking 7th last year (4.47), it’s the MAIN issue. Ranks-wise, they aren’t ranked any lower than 21st in any offensive category, including HR, but no higher than 12th (AVG – .255). They’re ranks are below last year, but they’re not in the lower third. They’re running more again this year (4th in SB), as they’re trying to generate offense since they have been unable to hit with runners in scoring position (.242). Last year, the Royals slashed .306/.362/.450 in March/April and their offense continued to produce runs as they kept the line moving, so they didn’t have to rely on the running game as much.

The Royals scored 11 runs in the first seven games of this 16-game stretch, so it has played a part in the slump, but they’re showing signs of coming out of it, scoring 31 runs in the last five games (6.1 runs per). They entered May dead last in hitting with RISP (.200), but they have increased that by 42 points in the first 12 days of the month, climbing to 21st in the league. Cain himself has spearheaded the effort, with 4 multi-hit games in the last seven games, including the 9th 3-HR effort in franchise history on Tuesday. He’s the hottest of any Royal right now, raising his average by 73 points in the last 14 games, including 45 points in his 7-game hitting streak. Cain now has 21 home runs in just 739 plate appearances since 2015 after hitting just 16 in his previous 1,888.

Eric Hosmer is the only Royal who has hit all season, reaching base in 32 of the 34 games this season. With two more hits last night, he’s slashing .333/.381/.543 and is on pace for a 29-HR season. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Once again, the Royals are last in walk rate, but tops in the league at putting the ball in play. They’re also hitting .255 compared with .269 last season. Some might point to the BABIP, but the Royals still sport a .296 BABIP after .300 in 2015. They aren’t putting as many balls in play this year, as their strikeout rate has increased from 16.5 percent (lowest in the AL) to 19.4 percent (6th), thanks to guys like Alex Gordon, who has struck 41 times and has just six games without a strikeout in 2016, Cain (32) and Kendrys Morales (28). Cain’s K rate is up 10 percent. Meanwhile, Morales, who homered for the fourth time this season last night and for the second time in five games, has really been struggling this year, hovering below the Mendoza Line (.190) with a woeful .572 OPS after racking up a .290 average in 2015 with 106 RBI. Once he gets going, the offense will be rolling.

Gordon (.239/.351/.381) is recovering from his slow start. He drove in two tonight and has finally reached the 10 RBI-plateau. He has homered twice in the last four games as the Royals have homered in six straight games after going five games without leaving the yard.

Of course, there’s the continued offensive holes in RF (.239/.270/.265 in 117 AB with just seven runs scored, but 5 SB…anytime you’re OBP > SLUG, you’re NOT hot) and 2B (although Christian Colon could be vying for more playing time with a 2-4 night and is now hitting .282) and it doesn’t help that Yost continues to bat Alcides Escobar and his .286 OBP with no power in the leadoff spot. But, Yost’s, “We win when he hits leadoff” rationale, it won’t change anytime soon, so we might as well skip over it. But another stat to consider, the Royals are last in runs scored from the leadoff spot with just 10 in 34 games. Escobar has started all 34 of those games.

Defense

Speaking of Escobar, when you hear his name, you think of defense. When you think of the Royals, you also think of great team defense. That defense all of a sudden doesn’t seem better than everyone else in the league. Maybe it is the noticeable blunders all over the field, such as Cain looking lost more than once this year, Escobar’s game-costing error in the 8th inning on Tuesday night or Colon’s mistake last night that ended lead to a 2-run HR after the inning should have been over. But, when you’re pitching sucks, it’s hard to make up for the errors. In actuality there is nothing wrong with the Royals defense, where they rank 3rd in DEF, 4th in UZR, 5th in errors and 8th in fielding percentage.

Escobar already has six errors this season, but in the end, he, and our defense, which is still really good, could still end up as one the best by season’s end.

They can play. Multiple Gold Glovers.

Bullpen

The Royals boasted the B-BOAT (best bullpen of all-time) over the last two seasons, literally. Now, there appears to be some kinks in the armor. With the loss of Greg Holland at the end of last season, the Royals slid Wade Davis, who has been simply amazing over the last two seasons and nearly unhittable, into the closer role and it was pen to win as normal for the Royals, not missing a beat, with Kelvin Herrera sliding into the primary 8th-inning set-up role, Ryan Madsen, and later in the season into the postseason, Luke Hochevar, into the 7th inning.

Holland is still gone, out for the season recovering from Tommy John surgery, and not even on a roster. Exit Madsen, who left for greener pastures, and by greener I mean more money – and the chance to close out games, and he’s doing just that with 8 saves for the A’s and a 1.23 WHIP and ERA.

Enter, Joakim Soria into, at least initially, as the primary set-up man to Davis with Herrera sliding back to the 7th. Soria struggled from the get go and has a 4.96 ERA with a 1.59 WHIP and is on pace for 15 balks, which will shatter the major league record for relievers, set by Rod Scurry with 11 for the 1988 Mariners.

The bullpen looks vulnerable now, and it’s hard to maintain what the Royals had done the last two years in the bullpen, where a game was pretty much over if the Royals had a lead after six. Last night, the Royals channeled their inner-2015 bullpen and went three scoreless innings allowing one hit with Herrera – the rare higher ERA (1.10) than WHIP (0.98) and Davis (1-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, 8 saves) locking it down in the last two innings. Those two are going to get the job done this year almost every time, but up to now, the bridge between them and the starting pitching, hasn’t always been the smoothest. But, when looking at the numbers, as much as it is with anything else when things are going bad, things are not as bad as they seem. The 2.83 ERA ranks fifth amongst all bullpens in MLB and even though the bullpen has been taxed so far in May, there’s still 11 more teams have thrown more innings and the Royals rank in the Top 10 in every other meaningful category. So, if this is “bad” for the Royals bullpen, then when things even out, the Royals will be right there again as one of the best pens in the game.

The Chicago White Sox

The Royals sit 6.5 games out of the AL Central standings, which is in no way insurmountable with 19 games remaining against the White Sox. And, the White Sox (23-12) will not maintain their .657 win percentage – a current pace of 106 games. It WON’T HAPPEN.

Bottom line is, the Royals will have to play well in a more competitive division, or its night-night.

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The Royals have long been a team that sabermetricians expect to take a step backward, as their numbers don’t translate to how much success they’ve had, maybe they are taking that step back. When you combine the legitimate concerns about the rotation, plus the once-struggling offense, it’s easy to see why the Royals are where they are. But, there’s also plenty of recent trends that indicate the Royals will turn it around.

And…

WIN. GAMES.

WIN. CHAMPIONSHIPS.

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