The Royals still aren’t hitting home runs


The Kansas City Royals have hit 14 home runs in their first 36 games this year. That is not just the worst home run rate in baseball by far in 2014, it’s among the worst in recent baseball history. Here, over the last 25 years, are the fewest home runs hit by teams in the first 36 games:

2012 Padres, 13 homers

— Padres finished 14th in the National League with 121 home runs and went 76-82.

2014 Royals, 14 homers

— The Royals did not hit a home run in their first seven games. They have not hit one in their last four games either.

1992 Red Sox, 14 homers

— Red Sox went 73-89 and hit just 84 home runs all year, their lowest total INCLUDING STRIKE SEASONS since 1946.

1991 Cardinals, 15 homers

— Cardinals were a speed team for Joe Torre and went 84-78. But they hit 68 homers all year, far and a way the lowest total in baseball. Todd Zeile led the team with 11 home runs. As in ELEVEN home runs.

1991 Astros, 15 homers

— Houston lost 97 games that year and hit just 79 homers, led by a young Jeff Bagwell, who hit 15. The Astros were playing in that home-run crushing Astrodome.

1989 Cardinals, 16 homers

— Whitey Herzog’s Cardinals were always near or at the bottom of the league in home runs, but they found ways to win by getting-on-base and using speed. They hit 73 this season but won 86 games.

1994 Pirates, 16 homers

— Strike season Pirates went 53-61. Brian Hunter led the Pirates with 11 home runs in that same year the Ken Griffey and Matt Williams were on pace to challenge Roger Maris’ home run record.

1993 Marlins, 16 homers

— Expansion Marlins lost 98 games and hit league-worst 98 homers, led by Orestes Destrade with 20.

1989 Dodgers, 16 homers

— Defending World Champions had been power-challenged even in their championship season but they hit just 89 homers in 1989, 10 fewer than year before, and went 77-83.

This is not to say that home runs are everything in offense or even close to everything. You can win without hitting a lot of home runs. Just one of many examples: The Giants won the World Series in 2012 despite hitting the fewest home runs in baseball. But that Giants team found other ways to score runs — they were fourth in the league in on-base percentage, first in triples, third in hits — and they had five starters who made 30-plus starts.

The Royals show little sign so far of being able to make up for their near-historic lack of power. They have an everyday third baseman hitting .147, none of their regulars has even a .360 on-base percentage, and while they are getting some good pitching — especially from 23-year-old phenomenon Yordano Ventura — there just isn’t enough pitching in all the world to make up for that little offense.

A friend of mine, Lee Judge, writes a column for the Kansas City Star called “Judging the Royals.” In his latest installment, he goes into some detail about the importance of productive outs — the headline is “How making outs can help you win.” With all due respect to Lee, who has a great love and appreciation of the game, I have been straining all morning to think of a theme I disagree with more — maybe if he had written, “More intentional walks, please!” or “Why I want clutch hitters instead of good hitters.”

Making outs cannot help you win. Ever. If you make 27 first-class outs in a game — the kind that would score runners from third or move runners over — you have just become history as the 24th team to be on the wrong end of the perfect game. The only possible way you can score a run is by NOT making an out. This is so fundamental and yet some teams — and I’ve seen this with the Royals in particular for a long time — seem to utterly miss this point. They seem to think that they can score enough runs to win by maximizing the value of their outs, by doing little things that don’t show up in the box score (or only show up in the “sacrifice” part of the box score), by being smarter and hitting to the right side of the infield and lifting fly balls with a man on third.

No. You cannot score enough runs just doing that stuff. You have to actually get runners on base. You have to string together non-outs. And as crude as it may sound, you have to actually hit the ball out of the ballpark now and again. On a basic level, the Royals must understand this, but you never quite feel sure that they do. They always give the impression that if only they could play a little bit smarter … but all the smarts at MIT, NASA and the collected wisdom of Casey Stengel combined cannot change the basic formula of scoring runs: Get on base. Get around the bases.

Eric Hosmer, the Royals large and powerful first baseman, has one home run this year. Alex Gordon, the Royals best player for a while now, has a .300 on-base percentage and one home run this season. Billy Butler, the Royals designated hitter for the last six years, has a .298 on-base percentage and one home run this season. You can’t find enough good outs to make up for that.

I like to think of good outs as items you sell at below cost. If you own a store, it might not be a terrible thing to sell a couple of things below cost — say, the new Coldplay CD and charcoal — in order to get people into your store. Productive outs are better than unproductive ones. But if you sell too many things below cost, you lose money and go out of business, no matter how many people come to your store. The Royals get 27 outs just like every other team. Giving away too many of those outs and hitting many fewer home runs than any other team is a pretty good formula for another doomed season.

2018 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays.

A lot of teams start one season looking very different than they did at the end of the previous season. Usually you can see those changes coming as early as August or September. What the Rays look like now, on the eve of the 2018 regular season, however, is very different than the sort of change we assumed as recently as the Winter Meetings.

We knew they’d let Alex Cobb walk in free agency and they did. But we did not expect them to trade Evan Longoria, to designate Corey Dickerson for assignment coming off an All-Star year, to trade 30-homer outfielder Steven Souza, or to trade Jake Odorizzi as spring training was getting underway as opposed to some time later when, perhaps, he could bring more value. The baseball justifications for some of these trades were better than they were for others, but the way they were done and the timing of it all cast a pall on the offseason, appearing as they did to be payroll slashing moves. The certainly didn’t impress the MLBPA, which filed a grievance against Tampa Bay last month, accusing them of pocketing revenue sharing money instead of trying to make the team better.

None of that played well, but if you take a couple of steps back, it’s possible to defend it all by realizing that even with all of those guys, the Rays were an 80-win team last year and would not have had a huge amount of upside this year if they had kept it all together. I’ll leave it to prospect experts, number crunchers to decide whether the Rays did a good job of tearing it down — and I think they could’ve done better than they did with stopgap measures until their minor league talent matures — but it’s at least understandable that they wanted to tear it down and start anew.

Until the fruits of those deals — and the fruits of a minor league system which has been pretty darn good in recent years — are ripe, though, the big league Rays are going to have a lot of question marks.

On offense the biggest question mark is health and durability. Here’s a pretty plausible Opening Day lineup Kevin Cash may send out there:

DH Denard Span
3B Matt Duffy
CF Kevin Kiermaier
RF Carlos Gomez
2B Brad Miller
C Wilson Ramos
1B C.J. Cron
SS Adeiny Hechavarria
LF Mallex Smith

Not terrible, but not durable or, in some cases, consistent. Kiermaier has had some freak injuries, but the nature of his play — hard, fast and diving for stuff — makes that a hazard and, as such, he’s really only played in one full season. Matt Duffy missed all of last year and, let’s face it, has never struck fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. Wilson Ramos knows the disabled list like few others. Meanwhile, Carlos Gomez, C.J. Cron and Brad Miller have had fairly substantial swings in production across recent and within recent seasons. Adeiny Hechavarria and Mallex Smith are not serious offensive threats.

It’s easy to squint and to imagine Span, Kiermaier, Ramos, Gomez and maybe Cron forming the nucleus of a respectable attack, but it’s also easy to see half of that lineup playing in only, like, 107 games, Cash penciling in dudes like Jesus Sucre and Daniel Robertson a lot or putting Denard Span out in the outfield more than he should to cover for whoever. The Rays featured the 14th-best offense in the AL in 2017. I can see a case for it improving a tad, but not by much, and if the injury fairy flies through the window, this could be really bad.

On the upside, most of these guys can pick it pretty well, so the defense should be pretty decent and potentially even superior. The pitching is good on paper too, but there is gonna be some weirdness afoot if Cash sticks with the plan he outlined earlier this month.

Even with the departure of Cobb and Odorizzi — and even with the season-ending surgery to top prospect Brent Honeywell — the Rays have five good starters in Chris Archer, Nate Eovaldi, Blake Snell, Jake Faria and Matt Andriese. Except they’re not going to use all five starters in their rotation. They’re going to go with a four-man rotation and a bullpen game every fifth day. At present it appears that Andriese, who started 17 games last year, is the odd man out and will be part of the all-hands-on-deck crew on day 5, whenever that comes up.

Early on this should not make a difference. There are a lot of off days in the first month of the season, so the need for that bullpen day will be pretty limited. One wonders, though, what this will do to their effectiveness and durability as the temperature rises and the season wears on. Yes, “bullpenning” got a lot of press in the postseason, but the idea that a bullpen can stay fresh with such a high-level of use for 5-6 months with few days off is a questionable one. That’s especially the case when three of the Rays’ four starters — Eovaldi, Faria and Snell — pitched limited innings last year and can’t be expected to go six or seven innings per start in 2018 (who can anymore?). Maybe Archer is a horse, but the rest of your games you’re going to need three relievers to finish things up based on how life works these days. Maybe more.

In light of that, is the bullpen going to be able to handle nine innings once every five days? Color me dubious. I think they’ll be fried by July. At least if they truly do use that fifth day as a true bullpen day and don’t, say, just call up a new fifth starter every week and a half and use that slot to audition organizational depth before ultimately just handing it over to Andriese. Indeed, now that I’m thinking about it, I’d wager that the fifth day plan morphs into that pretty quickly and that we’ll be smiling at the notion of a true bullpen day by the All-Star break.

As for the arms in that bullpen, Alex Colome is the closer, mostly because the Rays couldn’t find anyone to deal him to this past offseason. In support are old hands Daniel Hudson and Sergio Romo, neither of whom have been relief aces in recent years, even if Romo did do well for the Rays after coming over late last season. Dan Jennings, Jose Alvarado, Ryne Stanek and a cast of similarly anonymous guys will take the ball a lot. Even Johnny Venters, who had three Tommy John surgeries, could be in the mix at some point. The cast will be as big as “Love Actually.” Whether they are as annoying depends on who you’re rooting for.

Where does that leave the Rays? It leaves them with some serious dice rolling in the lineup, some good defense, some respectable pitching but a potentially odd and possibly detrimental approach to its deployment. It leaves them with a still very good farm system and a roster that looks really nice for 2020. I think it leaves them in some pretty serious trouble for 2018, though, especially in a division as top heavy as the AL East.

As far as on-the-fly rebuilds go, it’s not a bad one, but it’s still one that’s gonna leave the Rays in the low-80s win-wise at best, with some pretty serious potential downside.

Prediction: Fourth Place, AL East.