The Royals slide into the All-Star Break with a 44-43 record and have positioned themselves for a fight for a playoff spot.
It sure didn’t seem like this was possible.
On May 7, the Royals dropped a 1-0 game to Cleveland to drop their record to 10-20. At that moment, the offense was averaging 2.7 runs per game and was looking like it would spend the summer setting records for futility. Since that loss, the Royals have a 34-23 record powered by an offense averaging 4.9 R/G.
Quite the turnaround.
However, if the Royals want to give themselves a shot at playing beyond their final regular season series in Arizona, they still need to failsafe their offensive production. They need to take steps to ensure an April repeat isn’t possible, while positioning themselves to remain a consistent run-scoring threat.
That means they need to overhaul their lineup.
No team gets less production from their leadoff man than the Royals.
Their collective .236 OBP is almost 40 points lower than the next worst team, an astounding gap. They are the only team in the league with a slugging percentage below .300. The Royals leadoff batter’s sOPS+ (their OPS+ for the split relative to the league split, meaning 100 is league average) is 42. Since they’re entrenched at the bottom, it’s easy to compare their production from the leadoff role against the league average.
Do not adjust your internet. The Royals have received abysmal production from the top of their order.
Of course, the Royals early season offensive malaise happened when Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar were hitting leadoff. The offense kicked in with Escobar at the top of the order, but since he’s usually in the conversation for worst offensive performer in baseball, Ned Yost rightfully decided he had to ignore the canard of “Esky Magic” and make a change.
(This seems like the ideal time to drop the “lineup construction is overrated” caveat. Generally, it’s easy to agree with this. However, the Royals have seemed hell-bent on deploying the worst possible choices for the top of the batting order. Already the top spot has accumulated 40 more PAs than the fifth spot in the lineup. Overrated? Sure. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking the lineup construction hasn’t hurt this team at times this year.)
Whit Merrifield has received a ton of love and he certainly seems to have something that resembles the clutch gene. Or maybe it’s an ignite gene. Either way, he always seems to be in the middle of the offensive outbursts we are finally seeing from this team. That’s great and all, except when seen in the larger picture, Merrifield isn’t doing all that in the leadoff spot either.
Merrifield’s OBP is worse than Gordon’s at leadoff. Merrifield has the edge in slugging, but that was when Gordon had his complete power outage. Since dropping to his now permanent home in the bottom third of the order, (which came about two weeks after being removed from the leadoff spot) he’s slugging .377. Not great, but again, better than what we’re currently seeing from Merrifield.
One thing Merrifield does have over his leadoff compatriots is speed. His Sprint Speed is second highest on the team, behind only Lorenzo Cain. That means on the rare occasions he reaches base, he’s a strong threat to steal. And with 14 thefts in 15 attempts, his chances for success are exceptional. Merrifield has also been worth 1.8 Base Running Runs (BRR), the best on the team.
Despite the lack of production at the top of the order, the Royals have been rolling. As long-time observers of Yost, Royals fans know his reluctance to change anything when the team in winning. That worked when he was possessed by the luck of a riverboat gambler who kept drawing a three card when doubling down on 18. But luck has a nasty way of abandoning you in a time of need. With the three game sweep at the hands of the Dodgers, coupled with the All-Star Break, the schedule ensures the Royals will go for at least eight days without a win. If there was ever a time to move the parts of the order around, this seems optimal.
The ideal solution would involve getting as many plate appearances from your best bats. That means Cain, with his OBP of .348 moves to the top of the order. His current 9.7 percent walk rate is the best of his career and, while still not to the rate you would like to see from someone in the leadoff role, on the Royals it qualifies as exceptional. Also, his current .307 BABIP is well below his career rate of .340. Squint hard enough and you can see a big second half from Cain.
Also, Cain brings the speed and base running savvy you like to see from the top of the order. He’s a perfect 15 for 15 on steals and grades out as the third best base runner on the team, worth 1.1 BRR.
If Cain is moving to the top, that means Eric Hosmer follows him up to the second spot. Despite an awful start to the season, the free agent to be has rebounded to a team best .301 TAv. The way he’s going with pitches to the opposite field with consistency shows he has the bat control to handle this position.
Drop Merrifield to the third spot in the order. The third spot is generally overrated, as studies have shown the third batter hits with fewer runners on base than the fourth or fifth place hitters. This seems like the perfect spot for Merrifield who, as noted above, seems to have the knack for coming through in important spots or at the very least giving quality plate appearances. His base running moxie will continue to serve him well in this spot.
This sets the table for Mike Moustakas at cleanup. The thunder goes at cleanup. Moustakas provides the thunder. Yes, sometimes lineup construction is that simple.
Salvador Perez is leapfrogged by Moustakas and remains fifth. Hey, we’re doing Yost a favor by alternating the left-handed and right-handed bats.
Sixth can go to Gordon. As noted, he’s shown some life in his bat over the last month or so. Let’s see if bumping up in the order a few spots does anything.
Brandon Moss, Jorge Bonifacio and Escobar can occupy the bottom third with Jorge Soler also in the mix. This is where it simply doesn’t matter who hits where. Except Escobar. He should never hit anywhere other than ninth.