DETROIT - APRIL 09: Alex Gordon #4 of the Kansas City Royals is congratulated by his teammates after scoring in the ninth inning on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Jeff Francoeur (not in photo) during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on April 9, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. The Royals defeated the Tigers 3-1. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Is a 6-3 start for real, or is this the same old Royals?
By now most everyone who follows baseball is aware the Kansas City Royals are off to a 6-3 start. While impressive, us who follow Kansas City have been teased in the past with good starts, only to end up down the usual path before. Most recently the Royals sat at 18-11 during their peak in 2009 and finished the season with a 65-97 record. The Royals had just finished two game sweeps of Chicago and Seattle, and then lost to the Angels in what began a six game losing streak and the story was over from there.
Well what about this year, has anything changed or is the sample size just too small to judge? Digging into the numbers, currently the Royals lead the American League in walks with 39 and also have a league high 15 stolen bases. For a team that has certainly struggled in recent years with swinging early at pitches, this is a certain positive. Through just 9 games, Kansas City is averaging 4.33 walks per game. The average for last season as a whole was 2.91. So thus far Kansas City is putting an extra runner and half on base each game from walks alone. Along with the improved focus on steals, this certainly means more runners are ending up in scoring position and have a chance to score. The Royals weren't a bad hitting team last season, as they finished second in the league in batting average. The problem was 72% of their hits last season were singles. Compared to this year 65.6% of the hits so far have been singles, when means they Royals are doing more at the plate this season.
Kansas City is hitting .278 so far as a team, while last season they hit .274. So really the difference is minimal at best. The difference has been an increase in both the on base percentage and the slugging percentage, along with being more aggressive on the bases.
The numbers can be dissected even further when you see so far Billy Butler is swinging at just 14.3% of pitches outside the strike zone, where last year he swung at 27.1% of all pitches outside the strike zone. When arguably your best hitter can reduce his bad swings in half from one season to another, that is showing something early on. It will definitely be something to look at as the season goes on.
Last season's center fielder Rick Ankiel swung at 35.7% of pitches outsize the zone and made contact with the ball 48.6% of the time it was outsize the zone. On the negative size, Melky Cabrera is swinging at 44.9% of pitches that are balls, however he connects 75% of the time on those pitches. That concerns me that Cabrera won't be able to keep it up, until I saw that his career average of making contact when he does swing at a ball is 75.7%. So I would definitely consider that an upgrade over Ankiel at the plate.
While looking at the numbers, we also would be doing a disservice if we didn't look at former whipping boy Yuniesky Betancourt and current fan villain Jason Kendall. Last year Yuni swung at 38.3% of pitches outside the zone. This year's shortstop Alcides Escobar swings at just 18.0% of those same pitches. Jason Kendall? He swung at 28.9% of pitches outside the zone, which was actually less than Lucas May. This year Matt Treanor is second at the team in O-Swing%, swinging at only 15.2% of pitches that are balls. Ironically Jeff Francoeuer's numbers are very similar to Jose Guillen's from last season in terms of O-Swing% and the contact made on those pitches. Let's hope that changes, but to be honest we all probably saw that coming.
Defensive stats are much harder to evaluate thus far in the season as one game can really throw things off. Kansas City has 7 errors so far this season on defense, but 5 of them came in the first two games of the season. That is why it is too early to compare data on defense. However anyone who has seen the Royals play this season can agree that Escobar is better on defense than Yuni was last season. One doesn't need to know anything about statistics to see that.
Looking at the pitching staff, the ERA so far for the staff is sitting at 4.20. Last season it was 4.97. Like fielding it is hard to get a read on the pitching staff so early in the season, as for example we know Joakim Soria won't finish to 2011 season with a 6.75 ERA (I may cry if he does). However through 9 games Kansas City has a WHIP of 1.41 (walks+hits/innings pitched). The scary thing is that Kansas City has given up 102 hits in 90 innings so far. No other team has given up more than 89 hits. Last year's WHIP was 1.46. If Royals pitchers can reduce the hits allowed that number should improve, as the Royals staff is giving up nearly a full walk less over 9 innings compared to last year. And this is without Zack Greinke.
So it really comes full circle. The Royals so far have walked one less batter on average per game over 2010, while Royals batters are averaging nearly 1.5 more walks per game. In a game where the little things mean so much, this is an example of what teams that are trying to turn into winners can take pride in.
I told many over the off season that I still believe this will be a lean season in the win column, but that I would be looking at the small things to see if I can see improvements from the Royals. Though not all categories have improved, I would have to say as a whole the Royals are certainly headed in the right direction and positive times are on the horizon. Remember this is also the youngest team in baseball too, and the vast majority of the talent is still in the minors.
What do you think so far?