Monday, May 4, 2009

Will I Be Able To Count On You?

...or is your love in vain?
(From "Is Your Love In Vain," Street Legal)

Is the Royals' offense sustainable?

At the beginning of this season, I think most Royals fans felt pretty good about the team's pitching. Sure, no one was happy with the presence of Horacio Ramirez and Sidney Ponson in the rotation, and most fans were wary of Kyle Farnsworth in the bullpen and the middle relief in general. But with Gil Meche and Zack Greinke at the top of the rotation and the hope that last September's Kyle Davies would show up this season, plus Joakim Soria and Juan Cruz at the back of the bullpen, there were reasons to believe the pitching could keep the Royals in the race.

That meant the pressure was on the offense to improve from last year. In 2008, the Royals finished 12th in the 14-team American League in runs scored, 12th in on-base percentage, 12th in slugging percentage and 13th in home runs. Dayton Moore gave up two solid relief pitchers to add centerfielder Coco Crisp and first baseman Mike Jacobs, hoping the former would be an improvement in the leadoff spot and the latter would add some slugging ability. There was some skepticism as to how improved the offense would be, since Jacobs only had a .299 OBP last year, about the same as noted free-swinger Jose Guillen's .300.

The Royals are 25 games into 2009. That's still a small sample size, I think. But I also think we can draw some conclusions. Or at least look at the numbers and see if there are any reasons to be optimistic about the offense.

In those 25 games, the Royals have scored 119 runs. True, about a third of that has come in the last 5 games (41 runs). But teams will have good and bad offensive stretches, just like individual players. These will even out over six months. In the first five games of the year, the Royals only scored eight runs. But 49 runs in 10 games sounds a lot better.

Anyway, the Royals are now averaging 4.76 runs per game. The league average is 5.13 runs per game, so the Royals are about 7% below average.

In 2008, the Royals scored 691 runs, an average of 4.27 per game. The league average was 4.78 runs per game, so the Royals were about 11% below average. So the Royals are doing better so far this year. Also note that the Royals are almost at last year's league average.

When I noticed that, I wondered how this year's league average compared with recent years. The answer is, so far scoring in the AL is up. Way up. AL teams are averaging 5.13 runs per game this season, an increase of 7% so far. Going back to 2000, the AL has scored 4.92 runs per game on average. Last year was the lowest RPG number since 2005. It's probably still too early to say that this year's scoring increase is permanent or what the causes may be. But it does look like the Royals still have work to do; I don't think that's a surprise to anyone.

On the other hand, the Royals have only allowed 101 runs so far (thank you, Zack Greinke!). Thus, their expected win-loss record, using the Bill James Pythagorean theorem, is 15-
10. So the Royals really haven't been a fluke. So far, they really have been a .560 win percentage team. By the way, that would be 91 wins over a full season. I don't believe the Royals are that good, especially since I don't expect the pitching to stay this good. But there are reasons to expect the offense to improve; the question is whether that will offset the pitching staff's theoretical dropoff.

Right now, the two best OPS (on-base pct. plus slugging pct.) numbers on the Royals belong to Willie Bloomquist (1.020) and Alberto Callaspo (1.001). A 1.000 OPS is considered tremendous; last year, Albert Pujols led baseball with a 1.114 OPS. Obviously, Bloomquist and Callaspo are not Pujols and are not going to sustain this for an entire year. But to me, the exciting news there is that the players the Royals are counting on to carry the offense are not the ones playing way over their heads.

Mike Aviles led the team with an .833 OPS last year; this year he's at .539. Now, it's doubtful Aviles will be as good as he was last year, but I do not believe he is this bad of a hitter. By comparison, Joey Gathright's OPS last year was .584, and he had no power whatsoever.

David DeJesus was second on the team last year at .818. This year, he's at .663. In four of the five years DeJesus has been a regular, his OPS has been above .763. I expect he will improve as well.

And so it goes. Alex Gordon had a .783 OPS last year; he was only at .507 when he got hurt. I would expect improvement there. Jacobs has a career .813 OPS; he's at .742 right now. Billy Butler has a career .752 OPS; he's at .731 right now. I think Butler has even more room for improvement--he's only 23 and should be on the upswing.

Sure, some of the important Royal hitters are doing better than you would expect--Jose Guillen and Mark Teahen, to name two. The funny thing is that Guillen hasn't even really had one of his hot streaks yet. Due to his injury, he's only played in 12 games and may just be getting back in the groove (he hit two homers last Monday and one Sunday). Guillen's average, OBP and slugging percentage are all up from last year.

One thing that has helped Guillen and the entire Royals offense is an increase in walks. KC had a pitiful walk total of 392 last year; that was last in the league by a wide margin. Enter Coco Crisp. He already has 17 walks after only drawing 35 in 118 games last year. Butler has 12 walks after getting 33 last year in 124 games. Might an understanding of the strike zone be the last step before he starts to hit at a level the Royals expect? Teahen has 10 walks compared with 46 last year in 149 games. Even better, his strikeout rate is down--he's on pace to K 90 times after 131 last year. Even free swingers like Jacobs and Guillen are on pace to have better walk totals than they did last year. As a team, the Royals have 86 walks: that's a pace for 557, which would have put them seventh in the league last year. Seventh is where they are so far this year.

It will be interesting to see if the improved plate discipline continues. I don't know if it's the work of new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer or what, but it is a good sign so far. And I think it will be a good indicator of the Royals' chances to show continued offensive improvement. In turn, that offensive improvement is what they will need to stay in the race all year. The pitching is good enough to win; the offense looks like it can be.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Great stats & research as usual. I hope the pitching holds out! If Zach can keep throwing complete game shutouts....