Flags fly forever. The Kansas City Royals haven’t had a winning season since winning it all in 2015. In fact, their only three winning seasons since 2003 were grouped in a row: 86-76 in 2013, 89-73 in 2014 and lost in the World Series, 95-67 in 2015 and won the World Series. Kansas City hasn’t finished higher than fourth in any of the last four seasons.
The Royals are in no man’s land. They have some good players on the major league roster, but not enough of them. They have some good prospects in the system, but not enough of them. At some point, the Royals need to decide on a direction moving forward. This looks like the year Whit Merrifield finally gets traded. Carlos Santana, Zack Greinke and Andrew Benintendi are likely to be on the move as well, barring a surprising push into contention. A big decision is looming with Adalberto Mondesi and a potential contract extension. With only three guaranteed contracts for 2023, the Royals will have a bigger year off the field than on it.
Only the Astros and Blue Jays struck out less often than the Royals, but those two offenses were among the best in baseball. The Royals were just outside of the bottom five in wOBA. They put a ton of balls in play but didn’t walk and hit for minimal power (one of nine teams with a SLG under .400).
In some respects, the Royals were unlucky. They were 13th in Hard Hit% and ninth in average exit velocity but still only batted .249. Batting averages are as low as they’ve been in more than 50 years, but it still feels like the Royals should have been better. They also ranked in the top five offense in Pull% but still didn’t generate much power.
Some key offensive guys had really bad years. Merrifield posted a 91 wRC + , which equaled the worst of his career. He still provided a ton of baserunning and defensive value and was one of the team’s leaders in fWAR, but his offensive profile was a bust. Santana needed the shift to be banned like six seasons ago, as he again put a lot of balls in play and walked a lot but had a .227 BABIP.
Hunter Dozier never got on track, posting an 82 wRC + after signing a four-year extension. It was a throwback to his 2018 rookie season and nothing like what we saw in 2019 or 2020. Jorge Soler failed to repeat his 2019 with insane power and high contact quality.
Salvador Perez bashed 48 homers, tied for tops in baseball, and was one of the lone bright spots. Nicky Lopez had a 4.4-win season with great offensive production and terrific defense at second base.
Other than that, Mondesi’s 2021 was a lost season with just 35 games played, and no youngsters had a big enough impact to crack the lineup.
Bobby Witt Jr. will help tremendously, as the Royals have one of the best prospects in baseball ready to make his debut at just 22. The shortstop slashed .290/.361/.576 and hit 33 homers across two levels last season. He’ll be an impact player at the most valuable position on the diamond and it looks like he will make the Opening Day roster as one of the AL Rookie of the Year favorites.
Nick Pratto hit 36 homers in 124 games in the minors last season, and his prodigious power will be another shot in the arm for the Royals. Catcher MJ Melendez hit 41 homers in 123 games in the minors. Those three prospects could boost the projection for the Royals, though Melendez is currently blocked by Perez and it’s hard to see the Royals punting on his development as a catcher. We saw him play 80 innings at third base last season, which allows him to still showcase a tremendous arm.
The onus is on the Royals front office to trade expiring contracts and fill the holes around some promising power bats, and this is a good year to do it.
In my 2021 MLB Guide for ATS.io, I praised the Royals extensively for how they handled the 60-game 2020 season. Rather than lose a year of development with Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, they decided to let them go through some growing pains at the MLB level. Both wound up having their innings limited in 2021, but now each have 39 games of experience.
Singer’s FIP of 4.04 in 27 starts was similar to his 4.08 FIP in 2020. His 4.91 ERA was significantly higher. A 5% decrease in LOB% was the main culprit, along with some shoddy relief work. Singer struck out a higher percentage of batters and did a better job of keeping the ball in the park. He also fell victim to some seriously bad luck with a .350 BABIP. BABIP and LOB are two stats I use as big indicators to project pitcher regression. By the looks of it, Singer should improve.
I’m less sure about Bubic. The 24-year-old made a huge leap from High-A to the majors during that 2020 season. His ERA remained the same year over year, but he struck out fewer batters, had a higher walk rate and saw an increase in his home-run rate. A lot of his stats and metrics were worse, including his velocity, which is concerning given that he made nine relief appearances to go with 20 starts. We typically see upticks in velo as a reliever.
With Bubic’s struggles and a complete throwaway year from Brad Keller, the Royals couldn’t have been pleased with 2021 on the pitching side. Keller saw a huge uptick in his strikeout rate, but just about every other stat went in the wrong direction, including every command metric. He had allowed 24 homers in 360.1 innings from 2018-20 but allowed 18 in 133.2 innings last season. In hopes of helping the beleaguered rotation, the Royals signed Greinke, but like Keller, his K% was down, his BB% was up and he allowed home runs at the highest rate of his career.
Greinke has pitched more than 3,100 innings. His numbers were skewed by the 14 runs he allowed in 11.1 innings in September, but decreased command and a lack of swings and misses were evident throughout the season. There’s a lot of mileage on that arm and I’m not sure I’d buy any Greinke shares this season.
The staff’s success may ultimately fall on the shoulders of Jackson Kowar and Carlos Hernandez. Kowar, who struggled in his first MLB season after posting strong numbers with an increased K% at each level in the minors, probably has the highest upside of any Royals pitcher. Like Singer and others, though, Kowar is predominantly a two-pitch pitcher right now. Hernandez has two decent pitches but is also lacking a third.
The bullpen is one I expected to be better last season and was a big reason why I took a flier on an Over ticket for season wins. The relievers wound up 19th in ERA and 15th in FIP. Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont were really good. Jake Brentz was serviceable. Otherwise, most of the relievers struggled mightily. Barlow and Staumont are back, and Amir Garrett was acquired from the Reds for 2021 fWAR leader Mike Minor, so this should be an average or better bullpen. It won’t be enough to cover up the team’s other holes, though.
Player to Watch
SP Brady Singer: Using the FanGraphs all-encompassing Def metric, which measures Defensive Runs Above Average, the Royals were fifth last season. Why, then, was Singer so unlucky? Among pitchers that threw at least 2,000 pitches, Singer had the second-biggest difference in actual batting average allowed vs. expected batting average, trailing only Eduardo Rodriguez of the Red Sox, who had to deal with one of the worst defensive infields in baseball. Singer had a lower Hard Hit% last season than he did in 2020, but the Royals did a poor job of converting outs behind him. I think he’ll be underpriced in his starts and would be a pitcher to consider backing on a bad team.
The Opening Day lineup and end-of-season lineup should look a lot different for the Royals, which is why I’m not betting the season win total Under. Witt Jr. might start from Day 1, but the Royals should find ways to get Pratto and Melendez in the lineup as the season goes along. I expect a fire sale at the trade deadline, but the remaining holdovers will have some power bats around them. The pitching staff is lacking depth and may not improve much. This feels like a reasonable line and I don’t see enough value either way to make a bet.
Win Total Lean: Under 74.5