KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Twenty-one games into the season and sadly, the Royals’ offense looks as impatient and impotent as it did a year ago.
Time to panic? Of course not.
But already there are some head-scratching trends.
TRY SWINGING ONLY AT STRIKES
Entering Thursday’s game, only Seattle had walked fewer times than the Royals, who had walked just 53 times. And naturally, the Royals didn’t draw a single walk against Cleveland starter Corey Kluber, who threw the first complete game of his career (seriously) and struck out 11. Granted, Kluber did pound the strike zone Thursday. But what opposing pitchers have known for over a year is that Royals hitters have a somewhat inflated view of their talents and will swing wildly, even when they are ahead in the count.
And some of that aggression at the plate seems to be encouraged. The Royals have swung at 3-0 pitches four times this year and made five outs (one a double play). They swung at 3-0 pitches nine times last season and got only three hits (not exactly worth the risk). Minnesota, which leads the league in walks with 111, has not swung at a 3-0 pitch this season. Cleveland also is very patient at the plate. Royals pitchers, in fact, have commented in the last week about what a pain it is to pitch to the Indians and Twins because of their hitters’ ability to work the count. I have never heard an opposing pitcher have that complaint about the Royals.
Of course, part of the reason the Royals walk so rarely is that they don’t hit for power or a high average. The Royals were last in the league in homers last season and are last again this year. When pitchers don’t fear you, they don’t pitch around you, either. But there is a chicken-and-egg element here: If Royals hitters were more patient and less likely to get themselves out, they might see more hittable pitches.
With that in mind, here are the two most damning statistics for the Royals’ offense this year: When Royals hitters get ahead in the count at 2-0, they still are hitting only .169. When they get ahead in the count 3-0, they are hitting a disgraceful .077. At 3-1? Try .219. That is a selfish offensive approach.
DON’T SWITCH HITTING COACHES
OK, I know what you’re thinking: Time to change hitting coaches, right? Wrong. The Royals can’t keep changing hitting coaches every five minutes. They probably made a mistake by canning Kevin Seitzer after 2012 and bringing in Jack Maloof and Andre David. Probably. There also is evidence that some hitters simply didn’t connect with Seitzer, but that’s irrelevant now. Now that the Royals have brought in Pedro Grifol, they need to stick it out with him and let him continue to try to implement his approach.
Grifol says all the right things — he wants his hitters to spit on pitcher’s pitches, and he wants them to "do damage" on fat pitches. The problem is getting his hitters to execute that approach. Grifol hasn’t been on the job for a year, so it truly would be a disaster to flip hitting coaches again this soon.
ROYALS WILL SINK OR SWIM WITH THEIR NUCLEUS
Josh Vernier of 610 Sports asked me the other day on the Royals’ pregame show if the Royals would likely sink or swim with their present nucleus of hitters. I said yes, definitely. There is no immediate offensive help on the way in the minors. Outfielder Jorge Bonifacio is probably two years away, as are Hunter Dozier and Raul Mondesi and the rest of the Wilmington gang, at least. And the Royals aren’t about to go out and throw $36 million at someone like Jose Guillen ever again.
GM Dayton Moore has staked his job on the offensive growth of Eric Hosmer, Sal Perez, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, and the bounce-back capabilities of veterans Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, both coming back from off years. As Moore often has told me, "If those guys don’t hit, the Royals will have a new general manager in here."
Skipper Ned Yost came out again this week with a vote of confidence for struggling left-hander Bruce Chen, one of the most likable players in the clubhouse. Yost stood by Wade Davis for most of last season until it became obvious to everyone in baseball that Davis simply was hurting the team too much as a starter (and Davis excelled in the bullpen thereafter). The guess here is that a similar scenario will unfold for Chen, except that Chen is probably down to his last one or two starts before the Royals have to insert Danny Duffy in the rotation.
Chen was excellent in the ‘pen last year and could be again. But there are some concerns about a Chen/Duffy swap: Duffy has been outstanding in relief and has said repeatedly that he actually prefers the bullpen because it keeps him mentally sharp. Still, the organization comes first, always, and Duffy might have to man up and learn to take that mental approach from the bullpen back to the rotation (as Zack Greinke did).
Logistically, it won’t be an easy transition; Duffy told me he would need about 12 days to build up his pitch count enough to be a starter. So, the Royals likely would have to find someone to spot start at least once, depending on potential off days in the schedule.
ONCE AGAIN, MOORE FLEECES THE ANGELS
When Moore signed left-hander Jason Vargas, sealing the deal by offering Vargas a fourth year on the contract, Moore got ripped on local sports radio and some bloggers (the same way Moore got ripped a year earlier by taking a chance on Ervin Santana). The irony is that Moore got blasted by some critics for not trying harder to retain Santana, even though those same critics never liked the Santana trade to begin with. But it appears that Moore and his scouts knew that Vargas would be a great fit for the Royals. Vargas is 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA through five starts.
Will Vargas be this great all season? Probably not. But it’s hard to picture Vargas simply imploding. More likely is that Vargas will turn out to be a solid No. 2 starter who is unflappable and gobbles up innings. Give credit where credit is due: With limited resources, Moore made a solid signing.
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email firstname.lastname@example.org.