It's well-documented that the Kansas City Royals have struggled for much of the past two decades, but 2012 was supposed to be different in the eyes of many observers. A trip to the playoffs was never realistically in the cards, but because of a promising young nucleus, it was easy to envision an improvement on last year's 71-91 record and possible contention in 2013.
Yet on May 1, the Royals are 6-15 after losing 12 straight games near the end of April, and many folks are wondering what exactly happened to all that optimism surrounding the team. The good news for Kansas City fans is that some of these tough times can be chalked up to bad luck; however, there are other issues that won't be as easy to fix.
The Royals' biggest problem so far this season is that their best hitter, Eric Hosmer, has been unlucky despite a lot of hard-hit balls, including a .164 batting average on balls in play that's around half of what it's likely to be the rest of the year. He's put a lot of balls in play to the opposite field because he has a habit of landing his feet slightly open and pulling off the ball, which isn't new but looks like it's happening a little more than it did previously. Hosmer is strong enough to do that and still hit doubles and home runs to left-center if he's not hitting the ball right at someone. He's walking and hitting for power, so if he can just get that front foot down more in line with his back foot, more of those hard-hit balls to left should end up as hits.
As a team, the Royals are slugging about 60 points higher with the bases empty than with men in scoring position, random variation that doesn't indicate any particular lack of skill but should normalize throughout the season.
Of course, it hasn't helped that manager Ned Yost can't seem to fill out a lineup card without suffering a severe brain cramp. In the leadoff spot, Yost has used Chris Getz (.315 career OBP), Yuniesky Betancourt (.292), Jason Bourgeois (.307) or rookie Jarrod Dyson in half the Royals' games. Yost has even hit Alcides Escobar, who came into the season with a .294 career OBP in nearly 1,300 plate appearances, second three times. Lineup construction isn't a huge factor in any team's offensive performance, but there is some small impact from keeping your out machines at the bottom of the lineup so that someone is getting on base in front of Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Hosmer. Yost's lineup lunacy bottomed out on April 23 when Getz, who shouldn't be in any major league team's lineup, sacrificed with a man on second and no outs, a situation in which a successful sacrifice actually reduces the team's run expectancy for the inning. (The runner didn't score.) If your No. 2 hitter isn't good enough for you to let him swing away with a man on second and nobody out, he's not good enough to be your No. 2 hitter, period.
Assuming Yost can figure out where to put his deadweight in the lineup, a little better luck for Hosmer & Co. should put the Royals in the top half of the American League in runs scored.
Things don't look as promising on the other side of the ball. Greg Holland, the ace of last year's bullpen, has been lit up by left-handed hitters this year in a minuscule sample, mostly by leaving fastballs and sliders up in the zone; he's thrown six splitters all year (per Bloomberg Sports), only one for a strike, a ground ball to first hit by Maicer Izturis. We're likely seeing nothing but statistical noise here, but perhaps Holland would be better off if he could keep left-handers from sitting on that straight four-seamer. Losing Joakim Soria to injury hurt, but replacing 60 innings of his performance isn't as big as replacing a league-average starter, and Aaron Crow and Jonathan Broxton should fill that gap. I doubt we'll be talking about the Royals' offense or bullpen in October when dissecting what went wrong for this team.
That leaves the one area that even folks (including me) who were generally optimistic about the club acknowledged was their main weakness: Their rotation just isn't good enough.
The team's most promising major league starter at this point is Danny Duffy, who has shown increased velocity so far this year and missed his last start with a sore elbow. After a promising side session on Sunday, he's expected to make his next start, but a velocity spike plus immediate arm soreness is a dangerous sign. Speaking anecdotally, it seems we often hear about a pitcher throwing harder than ever right before something goes "snap!" (Nick Hagadone has always stood out as one such example for me.) Duffy was hitting 97 mph regularly before the injury, but his slider was harder and he had better action on the changeup, as well. If he's healthy, he could be a big part of a turnaround this year, but pushing him too hard this year could cost the Royals significantly more in the long term if there's really something wrong with his arm. The Royals' problem is that Duffy is the one guy here who could put in a well above league-average performance; you're not getting that from Bruce Chen's smoke-and-mirrors act (more mirrors this year, less smoke), or from Luke Hochevar, who doesn't have the stuff to miss enough bats or limit homers to let him pitch like a No. 1 or No. 2 starter.
Dropping Luis Mendoza (6.00 ERA, 0.55 K/BB ratio) from the rotation is an obvious move, and Jonathan Sanchez (6.75, 0.76) isn't far behind, but the upper levels of Kansas City's farm system don't offer a ton of immediate help. Lefty Mike Montgomery should be next in line for the call, but after a brutal spring and two rough starts to begin the season, he's had two solid outings, hardly enough to justify recalling him (especially because he struggled most of last year, as well). Right-hander Jake Odorizzi, the only viable option at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, still has work to do with his off-speed stuff, and rushing him to the majors isn't going to help him or the club. That lack of depth probably will hold this team back all season, and it's also a driving factor behind the industry belief that they'll take a pitcher, likely a college starter, with their first pick (No. 5 overall) in this June's Rule 4 draft.
This is still a lineup with a chance to be among the best in the league, but if the Royals' pitching prospects don't develop in the next year or two, the club's 27-year playoff drought will continue indefinitely.