Yet, I feel like this is a better team now than it was a year ago.
For one thing, the 2011 Royals are on pace to score 716 runs. Last year, they scored 676. Even better, with offensive numbers down all around the league, this year the Royals are sixth in the AL in runs scored and above the league average. In 2010, the Royals were 10th in the AL in runs scored and 45 runs below the league average. Even better, the Royals are doing this with the youngest offense in all of Major League Baseball, according to baseball-reference.com.
That leads me to two key thoughts about the Royals' offense: it should continue to improve over the next few years as players like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas get more experience, and this offense should get even younger, but better, in the short term whenever Lorenzo Cain (age 25) and Johnny Giavotella (turning 24 tomorrow) are added to the mix.
In other good news, all those rookies in the bullpen are having solid years. I like that the Royals are using the bullpen to get a potential starting pitcher like Aaron Crow acclimated to the majors while controlling his innings. And guys that project as relievers in the majors, like a Louis Coleman, are getting to experience success in 6th- and 7th- inning situations. With Joakim Soria apparently back to his normal form, you have to like the Royals' chances for a win if they can get through 5 or 6 innings with a lead.
Defensively, this team at least looks better than any Royals team in recent memory. With Alcides Escobar playing a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, Eric Hosmer showing Gold Glove potential at first base and the outfielders leading the majors in assists, the eye test tells me this is an upgraded defensive team from last year. Oddly enough, though, the Royals rank last in the league in the Defensive Efficiency stat, which is simply a measurement of how many batted balls are turned into outs. Which leads me to the main problem with this year's team...
Many expected the 2011 Royals to have the worst starting rotation in baseball history. They haven't been that bad, but they have been awful. Royals starters have won 19 games this year. The relievers have won 18. Royals starters have compiled a 5.13 ERA this year, while the bullpen has a 3.56 ERA (and remember, Vin Mazzaro's amazingly awful outing in May counts against the bullpen's numbers, even though he's normally a starting pitcher). But the most telling (and damning) statistic about the starters: in 519 1/3 innings pitched, they have 303 strikeouts. In 303 2/3 innings pitched, the relievers have 262 strikeouts.
That's right. In 216 more innings, Royals starters have managed to strikeout only 41 more hitters than the relievers. And this is after Felipe Paulino has amassed 42 K's in 43.2 innings. Basically, if the Royals hadn't plucked Paulino off the waiver wire, the strikeout competition would be a dead heat.
This ties in to the defensive stats of the team. The fewer strikeouts the pitchers get, the more opposing hitters are putting the ball in play. That doesn't necessarily impact the Defensive Efficiency stat, but it does give more chances for bloopers to fall in, grounders to find a hole, line drives to find a gap, or fly balls to get over the fence. It's nearly impossible to win consistently as a starter when you are striking out only five batters per nine innings pitched. About the only way to do it is to limit your walks, but of course the Royals are failing at that too. KC has given up the second-most walks in the AL, and the bullpen has contributed to that (178 walks by starters, 137 by relievers).
The plan on Opening Day was to have a starting rotation of Luke Hochevar, Jeff Francis, Bruce Chen, Kyle Davies and Mazzaro. They have 198 K's in 369 innings. Hochevar in particular is a mystery--for all his faults, he struck out 6.7 hitters per nine innings in 2009, 6.6 last year, but is only at 4.6 this year. Chen and Francis have never been big strikeout guys, but their rates have fallen off a bit, too. Only Davies has maintained his normal rate. Unfortunately, he's also maintained his normal rate of awfulness, too.
On the bright side, Paulino and Danny Duffy have both put up good strikeout numbers in their limited time as Royals. Paulino is at 8.4 K's per nine innings, while Duffy has 7.4. In fact, they rank 3rd and 4th on the team in strikeouts (Duffy and Crow are tied at 43). Both of them should expect to be in the rotation next year.
Unfortunately, any help from the minor leagues seems to be a ways off. I think we all expected Mike Montgomery to be in the majors by now, but a prolonged bout of wildness at Omaha has kept him in the minors. I'm not too worried--it sounds like his velocity is still there, just the command has been off. After skipping one turn in the rotation, he has had two consecutive good starts. Also, he just turned 22 last week and he's already had a half-season in AAA ball--that's very advanced for his age. If Monty keeps putting together solid outings, I would expect him to be called up in August or September, depending on what moves the Royals make at the July 31 trade deadline.
The 2011 Royals are a prime example of how important good starting pitching is. The offense is good enough to win, especially in a weak division like the AL Central (the Royals are second in the division in runs scored, only 10 behind Detroit). The bullpen is solid. In Escobar, Hosmer and Alex Gordon, the Royals have three of the best defensive players in the league at their respective positions. But without starting pitching, they have one of the worst records in the league. Progress has been made, but not in the most important area of any baseball team.