On Thursday night, the Royals lost their sixth game in a row, and this game was over even quicker than the previous five: the Indians pounded Kyle Davies for four homers and eight runs before he departed in the fourth inning. The Royals scored a pair of runs in the seventh, but they still lost, 8-2, their biggest margin of defeat of the season.
After not getting blown out once (a blowout defined as a loss of five runs or more) during their 12-7 start, the Royals were blown out four times in their six-game losing streak. When the Royals were 10-4, we had hopes that they might play .500 ball all season. Instead, they couldn’t even wait until May to fashion a losing record.
You might call this a disappointment, or a collapse, or claim that the Royals are destined to crush our hopes every season. I call this a dose of reality. Even when the Royals were flying high, their starting rotation was a time bomb waiting to go off. It went off, and when the bullpen hit a rough patch as well thanks to some command issues, a long losing streak was inevitable.
The Royals actually scored 22 runs in their six losses; they averaged more runs per game during their losing streak (3.67) than the A’s have averaged all season (3.30) even as the A’s are 13-13. But the pitching staff allowed 46 runs, surrendering at least seven runs in all but one game.
You’d think that as Royals fans, we’d be used to losing streaks. I mean, six games is nothing. Since the beginning of the 2004 season, this was the 24th losing streak of six games or longer. Here’s how they break down:
6-game losing streaks: 7
7-game losing streaks: 6
8-game losing streaks: 5
9-game losing streaks: 1
10-game losing streaks: 1
11-game losing streaks: 1
12-game losing streaks: 1
13-game losing streaks: 1
19-game losing streaks: 1
The Royals at least three losing streaks of 6 games or longer every year from 2004 to 2009. Last year, the Royals had only two. Progress!
Meanwhile, the Royals have had three winning streaks of 6 games or longer from 2004 until today combined. After winning their first 9 games of the 2003 season, the Royals went over five years – until June, 2008 – before they again won six games in a row.
Last year, the Royals didn’t even win FOUR games in a row at any point during the season. That is almost unheard of…except that the Royals also played the entire 2004 season without a four-game winning streak.
(My favorite Royals-related losing streak stat: in 2006, the Royals had an 11-game losing streak, a 6-gamer, and a 13-gamer – all before the end of May.)
So yeah, you’d think that we would know how to take a six-game losing streak in stride. But I understand: it’s April. Everything’s magnified early in the season, especially when you start 12-7 and Alex Gordon is hitting .350 and Jeff Francoeur looks like the guy in the catalog.
So it’s understandable that the fans might panic a little. But the manager?
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened on Wednesday, when Ned Yost decided to bench two of his starting players, Chris Getz and Kila Ka’aihue. It’s not fair to lump those two together. Benching Getz – or at least adding him to the musical chairs game that Mike Aviles and Wilson Betemit are playing – makes a lot of sense. Getz plays good defense, has excellent speed, and can take a walk. He’s also slugging .268. Both Aviles and Betemit are slugging .500. That’s a lot of power to sacrifice for a defensive upgrade. I know the concept of platooning has virtually disappeared from modern baseball, particularly in the middle infield, but it would make a ton of sense for the Royals to sit Getz vs. southpaws.
Ka’aihue, on the other hand…look, I get it. Ka’aihue is 27 years old, he’s in a terrible slump, and the Royals have two different first basemen in Omaha with an OPS over 1000. Kila’s two hits last night finally got his batting average over .200. The affect of his slump is magnified by the fact that for most of the season, he was sandwiched between a resurgent Gordon and Billy Butler ahead of him, and an out-of-body Francoeur and a hot-hitting (when in the lineup) Betemit behind him. The most efficient way to score runs in baseball is to bunch your best hitters together, so that the guys at the front of the chain are on base for the guys at the back of the chain to drive them in. Ka’aihue was the weak link in that chain for the first three weeks of the season, so I get the frustration with him.
But I don’t get the obsession with Clint Robinson from some people. Robinson won the Texas League Triple Crown last year, hitting .335/.410/.625, and is hitting .342/.425/.697 in the early going in Omaha. Which is to say, he’s simply following the path that Ka’aihue already blazed. In 2008, Ka’aihue hit .314/.456/.628 between Double-A and Triple-A. Last year, Kila hit .319/.463/.598 in Omaha before he finally made it to Kansas City for good.
Meanwhile, Kila is barely 10 months older than Robinson. Ka’aihue does everything Robinson does except hit doubles – only Ka’aihue walked twice as often in the minors, without striking out any more frequently.
More to the point, the Royals have belatedly invested a half-season of playing time for Ka’aihue in the majors to get to this point…the point where pitchers have adjusted to him, and he needs to prove whether he can make adjustments back. If the Royals give up on their investment now and promote Robinson, we’re going to be back in this same situation in three or four months, at which point you’ll have no idea what you have in Ka’aihue or Robinson, and meanwhile it’s too late to find out about either because Eric Hosmer is at the door and he’s threatening to split it in half with his bat if we don’t open it.
My friend Kevin Goldstein wrote about this specific situation with Clint Robinson here, and his conclusion is the same: everyone simmer down. Robinson has great numbers, but like Ka’aihue, there are significant scouting concerns with him, which is why they were both late-round picks to begin with.
I’m not saying that Clint Robinson won’t have a career. What I’m saying is that it’s not clear he’ll have a better career than Ka’aihue, and until there’s a clear separation between the two, you have to dance with what brung ya. The Royals don’t seem inclined to get rid of Kila completely at this point, but it was disconcerting to see him on the bench for two straight games. He went 2-for-4 last night, getting a gift hit when Wilson Betemit shielded the shortstop on a groundball that set up the winning rally in the eighth, but he’s supposed to be out of the lineup again tonight against a lefty.
As a result of these machinations and the desire to get Jarrod Dyson into the lineup, Yost moved Alex Gordon to first base on Wednesday and Thursday, an equally frustrating move. Here you have a one-time phenom who was written off by almost everyone after four progressively more disappointing seasons, who is having a miraculous, if fragile, rebirth this season. Is this really the time to have him change positions?
I understand the desire for flexibility, and I think moving Gordon to first base in the late innings when Dyson comes in for defense – as he did last night – makes perfect sense. But Gordon, in addition to hitting the crap out of the ball, has been a revelation in left field. He’s making diving plays; he’s throwing runners out at the plate; most important of all, it seems like he’s actually enjoying the game of baseball for the first time in years.
Gordon has frustrated fans for years because of his body language – he’s almost like a poor man’s J.D. Drew, in that he doesn’t give off the vibe that he actually enjoys what he’s doing. But my take on this isn’t that Gordon doesn’t enjoy baseball – it’s that he doesn’t know how to handle failure, and if anything he’s guilty of trying too hard when things go poorly. This year, for the first time, he’s come out of the gate like a house afire, the fans are on his side, they’ve gone from cheering his every hit to cheering his every at-bat. And he’s playing inspired baseball.
Why mess with that? Why add to his burden by having him start at first base? Why take the chance that he might make an error at an unfamiliar position – as he did on Wednesday night – and put his mental state in even the slightest bit of risk? Even if you want to play Dyson, you could keep Gordon in left field and DH Melky Cabrera, or you could – perish the thought – let Billy Butler play first base again and DH Gordon. Instead, Yost moved two players out of position and took the Royals’ breakout player out of his comfort zone.
Coincidence or not, Gordon went hitless in both his starts at first base, after coming into Wednesday’s game with a 19-game hitting streak. Last night, he returned to left field, and he doubled, tripled, and walked. He already has 12 doubles in the month of April; I don’t know if that’s a Royals record, but if it isn’t, it’s awfully close.
The upside of all this maneuvering is that it got Jarrod Dyson a pair of starts in centerfield, in which he managed an infield single in nine at-bats. Look, I like Dyson, perhaps more than most people, as I wrote here. But it’s clear that his bat is not ready. If the Royals want to keep him on the roster as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement extraordinaire, that’s fine. As I wrote last season, ironically, Dyson would have more value to a team in contention, because his talents off the bench can win a game, and that’s worth hampering his development for a team trying to win now.
(Last night, Dyson had more impact than any pinch-runner I’ve ever seen before. With men on first-and-third, one out, Dyson pinch-ran for Ka’aihue at first base. He was off with the first pitch; the throw bounced into centerfield, allowing Dyson to take third and Betemit to score the tying run. And then Dyson scampered home on a 150-foot pop-up to the shortstop. If Dyson doesn’t pinch-run, the Royals probably don’t score in the inning at all; instead, they score two, and win the game by one run. Dyson may not have single-handedly won the game for the Royals. But he won the game for the Royals.)
But for a rebuilding team, having Dyson on the roster makes no sense, because at this point in his development, he doesn’t have the bat to warrant regular playing time. So long as the Royals are playing .500 ball and ostensibly in the pennant race, you can make an argument for Dyson to stick around. But if and when the Royals find themselves 8 games out of first place, I hope the front office will realize that the future interests of the team are best-served by sending Dyson down to Omaha, perhaps in exchange for Lorenzo Cain, who will probably have earned an opportunity at that point.
In the meantime, if the cascade effect of starting Dyson is that Gordon has to play first base and Ka’aihue rides the pine, I’d just as soon keep Dyson back behind the “Break Glass In Case Of Tying Or Lead Runner On Base” sign.
The irony of all these moves is that on Wednesday morning, when Yost decided he needed to shake up his lineup, the Royals were second in the American League in runs scored. (They’re down to fourth now.) Think about that. The Royals, relative to the league, are on pace for their best offense in years, if not decades. It’s not a fluke…the Royals are third in the league in average, fourth in OBP and slugging, fourth in walks, first in doubles, and first in steals (with a remarkable 33-for-38 success rate). The only offensive measure they’re below average in is homers, where they rank 10th. Meanwhile, the pitching staff is flirting with the worst ERA in the league. And Yost’s solution to this dichotomy is to…mix up the offense.
In fairness, that might be the only thing he can do. As strong as the offense has been, the Royals regularly start three players – Getz, Escobar, and Treanor – with an OPS+ of under 75. The opportunity to upgrade the offense at these three positions – either through regression, replacement, or (hopefully) genuine improvement – ought to make up for at least some of the expected regression from guys like Francoeur and Gordon. Meanwhile, unless the Royals want to rush Mike Montgomery or Danny Duffy to the majors, there’s little Yost can do with the pitching staff.
I know that Kyle Davies has replaced Jason Kendall as the roster piñata, but I’m not even willing to give up on him just yet. Davies is actually throwing more strikes than he ever has in his career – his walk rate is just 3.1 per nine innings. Throughout his career, Davies’ ultimate problem is that he doesn’t throw enough strikes for a guy with just okay stuff. So far this year, Davies has cut his walks (his career rate is 4.3 BB/9) while also increasing his strikeouts; he has 7.1 Ks per 9 this year compared to a career average of 6.3 per 9. He gave up four homers on Thursday, but prior to that he had allowed just one homer in his first five starts. Davies’ struggles this season are pretty simple to explain – he has a .380 BABIP.
That’s fluky and unsustainable, and uncharacteristic of Davies. The last three seasons, Davies’ BABIPs were .307, .286, and .316 – and with a worse defense behind him. If Davies’ ERA is still hovering around 8 a month from not, I’ll pick up a pitchfork and a torch along with everyone else. In the meantime, as boring as it might be to say this, I think the Royals should just stand pat. I’m not giving up on this season by any means – the Royals are still in second place, and I’m still not sold on the Indians – but I think it’s a touch too early to be going all-in for this season.
Meanwhile, if you want to see a team that wins every night, keep an eye on Omaha. On Thursday night, while the Royals were losing their sixth in a row, the Storm Chasers won their ninth straight. Danny Duffy pitched six innings, allowed a single baserunner (a single off the glove of a diving Johnny Giavotella), and struck out eight. Mike Moustakas hit two homers. Eric Hosmer hit only one homer – and a double, a two singles. Giavotella had three hits and a walk. Cain chipped in with two hits. Last night, while the Royals were breaking their streak, Omaha saw their winning streak end – when non-prospect Luis Mendoza gave up three runs in the ninth. That didn’t take away from Montgomery’s six inning, one-run performance. Monty has a 2.67 ERA, which pales in comparison to Duffy’s mark of 0.90. Hosmer, with two more hits last night, is hitting .412.
Soon enough, all these guys should be in Kansas City. By “soon enough”, I’m no longer talking about numbers like “2012” or “2013”, I’m talking about words like “June” or “July”. But not yet. This is shaping up to be a more interesting season than most people expected, but it would be foolish to let one so-so month alter the franchise’s long-term goals. Now two so-so months…that’s different. But for now: patience. The finish line is coming into view. Let’s not pull a hammy trying to quicken our pace now.