Putting An Anemic Offensive Start Into Context: Kansas City Royals Edition
The Kansas City Royals offense has been absolutely dreadful for the first month of this season. They’re comfortably last in the league in a number of categories. Their team batting average of .203 is the worst in all of baseball, as is their OPS of .587. They’re not striking out that much—they are still the Royals—but they’re towards the bottom of the league in power, walks, and BABIP. Their hard-hit rate of 26.9% is the second-worst in baseball, ahead of only the White Sox. That all adds up to a team wRC+ of just 61; the worst mark in the league by 17 points.
To put a 61 wRC+ in perspective, Neifi Perez had a 62 wRC+ in 2004 in 420 plate appearances. In over 300 more combined plate appearances, the Royals have managed to be worse than Neifi Perez. A 61 wRC+ was also Cesar Izturis’s career mark. The Royals have basically sent out a team of Cesar Izturises for 21 games.
So what’s wrong?
Well, a look at the Royals individual offensive numbers so far this year makes it quite obvious how they’ve had such trouble scoring runs. They have only two players above 30 plate appearances with an above-average wRC+— Mike Moustakas (149) and Lorenzo Cain (115). The rest of the lineup is filled with players just having terrible months of April. Alex Gordon has a 41 wRC+. Eric Hosmer has a 56. Alcides Escobar has a 15. Brandon Moss a 49. 50 plate appearances have been given to Paolo Orlando and his -14 wRC+, and Raul Mondesi Jr. posted a -9 wRC+ over 46 plate appearances before his recent demotion. Needless to say, things have been ugly in Kansas City.
An offensive start this bad isn’t particularly common either. Since 2002, only three teams have had worse offensive Aprils than the Royals have had this year: the 2016 Braves, the 2003 Tigers, and the 2004 Twins. Of course, we all know what happened with the 2003 Tigers, one of the worst teams of all-time, and while the 2016 Braves got better after April, they were still a bad team. However, the Twins went on to win 92 games and take the AL Central in 2004, so that’s interesting. But this still isn’t a recommended path to go down. In fact, there have been 38 teams who had an April wRC+ below 75 since 2002, and only four of them—those Twins, the 2015 Texas Rangers, the 2006 Padres, and the 2015 Pirates—made the postseason.
The Royals Can’t Stay Bad Forever
Simply put, teams who start out this bad on offense are not usually good. But luckily for the Royals, common sense would tell you that they can’t be this bad all year. And they won’t, because teams simply don’t put up a 61 wRC+ over a full season. In modern baseball history, the lowest full-season team wRC+ belongs to the 1920 Athletics, with a 67. The Royals are not the worst offensive team in the modern era.
But there are still some major red flags in the Royals’ lineup right now, however, even though 21 games is a dangerously small sample size to draw anything from. And while it’s fair to assume Alex Gordon will start walking like he usually does and will stop hitting so many soft ground balls, Brandon Moss won’t strike out 40% of the time, and Jorge Soler will get healthy, the Royals’ prospects for future offensive success still aren’t looking rosy. For one, Moustakas has never hit this well in his career, and is likely due for regression. Also, it’s worth pointing out that Salvador Perez at a 91 wRC+ is actually hitting a few ticks higher than he usually does. And Escobar is not this bad, but he’s always been a terrible hitter anyway, and there aren’t really any major changes in his profile that would tell you this year is any different from his usual pace.
Can Eric Hosmer Wake Up?
But perhaps the most concerning development is that Hosmer has doubled-down on his weaknesses. The thing that derailed Hosmer’s offensive output last season was that he was hitting a remarkable 58% of his balls on the ground, pulling them mostly into the shift, and not hitting nearly enough balls in the air to maximize his power. And early this season, Hosmer’s bad habits have gotten even worse, as he’s hitting over 60% of his batted balls in the ground, and pulling them even more. It’s unlikely he’ll be this bad all season, but this is something to monitor.
In addition, guys like Orlando, Whitt Merrifield, and Cheslor Cuthbert are just role players who aren’t going to make up for the other players’ offensive losses or fill in admirably if injury strikes. There are no notable prospects on the horizon, and we still don’t even really know what Soler is. So yes, the Royals’ offense is going to be better, but how much better is a legitimate question. And with Hosmer, Moustakas, and Cain all hitting free agency after this season, this is the Royals’ last chance in their window. Dayton Moore went with a half-in, half-out approach to this season, moving Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson, but keeping the core mostly in place. But if their offense doesn’t get it together, they’ll be all-the-way out very soon. And if they are, there could be a fire sale in Kansas City this summer.