The 30: Are the Royals This Year’s Royals?

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Welcome to the 2015 season-premiere edition of The 30! Each week, I’ll use a broad range of criteria to rank all 30 major league teams, grouping them into tiers and taking a closer look at one team per tier. If you’re looking for straight standings, here you go — that’s not what we’ll be doing. No, we’ll consider a wide array of factors, ranging from run differential to team health to strength of schedule. For the first few weeks of the season, as teams are still rounding into their true forms, the gap between records and rankings will look especially large. In other words: Sorry, Braves fans.

Today, we’ll look at four teams that have compiled surprising offensive results through the first handful of games: The Angels, expected to be a run-scoring juggernaut, haven’t started hitting yet. The Brewers, expected to be a middle-of-the-road club, have been worse than that. The Royals have an eye on repeating last year’s AL-winning playoff run, and even their biggest backers must be impressed by the club’s batting onslaught. And as for the mashing 5-1 Braves? Savor it while it lasts, Atlanta.1

Let’s jump into the action. It’s Week 1 of The 30.

Best Celebratory Postgame Dunk on a Children’s Basketball Hoop

Last year, we introduced a new feature in The 30 called “Bat Flip of the Week.” This was a tribute to baseball’s flippiest showboats, with bonus points given to those brave enough to offer up a flip on a routine single or plain old fly out. Yasiel Puig was the runaway winner for the season, and his award is in the mail.

However, with Puig poised to establish a bat-flipping dynasty, we’re expanding this year’s weekly award to cover all kinds of other fun plays: diving catches, walk-off homers, preposterous bloopers, skillful hotfoots — you name it. For Week 1, we’re honoring Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon. After scoring the winning run on Christian Yelich’s walk-off single against the Rays on Friday, Gordon replaced the customary postgame pie with something much less messy and way more fun. As Yelich stood for the customary hero’s interview, Gordon turned his teammate into Frederic Weis:

dee-gordon-dunk

Eat your heart out, Vince Carter.

Bottom-Feeders

Some are struggling, some are soaring; either way, it’s too soon to amend preseason expectations.

30. Minnesota Twins (1-5 record, minus-20 run differential)
29. Philadelphia Phillies (3-3, minus-7)
28. Texas Rangers (3-4, minus-9)
27. Milwaukee Brewers (1-5, minus-20)
26. Chicago White Sox (2-4, minus-15)
25. Houston Astros (3-3, minus-2)
24. Arizona Diamondbacks (3-3, plus-1)
23. New York Yankees (2-4, minus-2)

With a 1-5 record in their first six games and just 16 runs scored, the Brewers have limped out of the gate. They celebrated Opening Day by getting shut out at home by the Rockies, 10-0, and managing just eight singles against the vaunted trio of Kyle Kendrick, Rafael Betancourt, and Christian Friedrich. Most of the Brewers-induced fireworks at Miller Park this season have been premature:

brewers-premature-fireworks

As with the other three clubs we’re focusing on today, one question looms for the Brewers: Is this what we should expect their offense to look like all year long? While one week isn’t nearly enough time to make any broad, sweeping statements about a team’s hitting profile, and while we have a long way to go until major individual stats become more than just noise, we can at least eyeball a few numbers to see how they jibe with preseason expectations.

Milwaukee’s main source of frustration must be the team’s early failure to draw walks. The Brewers rank just 22nd in walk rate by hitters, drawing bases on balls 6.5 percent of the time. That’s consistent with last year’s results, when the Brewers finished 22nd in walk rate (7 percent) and 19th in on-base percentage.

Although seven of the team’s eight starting position players remain the same as last year, the eighth, Adam Lind, provides enough reason to believe these results will improve. The veteran first baseman walked 79 times in 755 plate appearances and posted a .367 OBP over the past two seasons in Toronto, and he should provide a gigantic upgrade over last year’s primary first baseman, Mark Reynolds, who hit .196 and posted a .287 OBP in 2014. Lind, who is also on a blistering hit pace, has already drawn five walks this season, compared with the nine total among the rest of the team.

Some other trends to watch in Milwaukee:

• Last year, the starting outfield of Khris Davis, Carlos Gomez, and Ryan Braun combined to hit 64 home runs. This year, that trio, along with third-base slugger Aramis Ramirez, has combined for a grand total of one.

• The most promising development for Milwaukee has been the play of Jean Segura. In 2013, his first full season in the majors, Segura dominated over the opening half, hitting .325/.363/.487 with 11 homers and 27 steals en route to an All-Star nod. Unfortunately, he hasn’t reached that level since: Segura posted a .241/.268/.315 line with 36 strikeouts and only eight walks in the final 54 games of 2013 and continued that tepid performance through the entirety of 2014 with a .246/.289/.326 line and 70 strikeouts against just 23 unintentional walks.

This spring, the 25-year-old shortstop worked on a mechanical adjustment aimed at helping him stay back longer on balls and stride more effectively on his swings. The early returns have been exciting: .316/.381/.526, including this long blast against the Pirates. Watch how he waits on Vance Worley’s changeup, then quickly rotates his hips and launches one into the Miller Park bleachers.

Of course, we can’t get too fired up about 20 plate appearances, but if Segura’s new mechanics create a sustainably more effective swing, he’ll provide a nice boost to a lineup that finished a mediocre 17th in park-adjusted offense last year.

• Although a week’s worth of individual offensive numbers don’t tell us much, we do know that a week’s worth of game results can tell us a fair bit about a team’s chances the rest of the year. If you believe the combination of five projection systems that pegged the team to win 80 games this year, go ahead and lop a couple of W’s off that total after this 1-5 start. If you don’t, then feel free to hold on to this: The last time the Brewers were swept in a season-opening series was in 2011. After that? They won 96 games and their most recent NL Central crown.

Fact or Fiction?

Unexpected starts abound in this NL-heavy group.

22. Atlanta Braves (5-1, plus-16)
21. Miami Marlins (1-5, minus-17)
20. Tampa Bay Rays (3-3, plus-1)
19. Cincinnati Reds (4-2, plus-1)
18. Colorado Rockies (4-2, plus-13)
17. Chicago Cubs (3-2, 0)
16. New York Mets (3-3, plus-1)

As I wrote in Grantland’s NL East preview, the Braves finished 29th in runs scored last year — and then proceeded to unload three of their top four offensive performers (Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Evan Gattis) over the winter as they prepared for a near future of offensive ineptitude. Yet after six games, Atlanta ranks second in the National League in runs scored, trailing only the offensively talented and Coors Field–aided Rockies. So, what gives?

After Saturday’s 5-3 win over the Mets, MLB.com’s Mark Bowman pointed out that Braves hitters were averaging six strikeouts across their first five wins. Last year, they accomplished such a feat of patience only 37 times (23 percent of their games). Bowman credited the Braves for adopting a new, contact-focused strategy at the plate this season, as did Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez.

“We had a good approach at the plate,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve been doing that for a while now. The season is only five days old, but I think you look back at some point during spring training and guys were really buying into that stuff.”

Confirmation bias aside, could there be a nugget of truth here? In October, the Braves hired Kevin Seitzer as their new hitting coach. It’s Seitzer’s fourth big league stop in such a role, and over that time he’s developed a reputation for teaching the same hitting style that propelled him to a .295 career batting average and .375 career OBP. Bowman called it a “disciplined and cerebral approach.”

However, quantifying the effect of hitting coaches is something that’s frustrated even the most dogged baseball analysts. Two years ago, Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus found that a good hitting coach could make a statistically significant improvement to a team’s run-scoring ability. And one of the top-rated hitting coaches by his methodology was Seitzer. Except: Carleton then went back a year later and reexamined his results, only to find that the numbers fluctuated too much from season to season for any significant conclusions to be drawn.

So we have some anecdotal and not-yet-tangible reasons to believe Seitzer knows what he’s doing and might in fact make his hitters noticeably better, but it’s highly doubtful he’s had enough of an impact to immediately turn the Braves into a patient, efficient offensive machine. Instead, the most likely cause of Atlanta’s early success is a nice helping of cluster luck. In the first six games, the Braves strung together seven (once), four (twice), and two (four times) runs in individual innings. Over the long haul, though, very few teams show an innate ability to bunch hits together. Clubs that get hot on the back of a couple of run-filled innings will almost always eventually regress.

Despite the bright start, the Braves will most likely begin to suffer the effects of losing Heyward, Upton, and Gattis. Their offense wasn’t good last year, and this year they’re giving a lot of playing time to the forever-punchless Eric Young Jr. Even if Seitzer does provide some help, there’s just not enough talent here for Atlanta to score runs with any kind of consistency.

But hey, if you’re looking for electric young pitching and a fair number of 2-1 wins, the Braves will still give you plenty of that.

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Sorting ’Em Out

The defending champs and several preseason darlings bunch together after one week.

15. Cleveland Indians (2-4, minus-6)
14. San Francisco Giants (3-4, minus-7)
13. Pittsburgh Pirates (2-4, plus-1)
12. San Diego Padres (4-3, plus-8)
11. Los Angeles Angels (2-4, minus-10)
10. Oakland A’s (3-4, plus-17)
9. Seattle Mariners (3-3, minus-11)
8. Baltimore Orioles (3-3, minus-1)
7. Washington Nationals (2-4, minus-11)

Let’s take a quick look at the two sides of the Josh Hamilton situation:

• If you’re Angels owner Arte Moreno, you’re frustrated by Hamilton’s performance turning south and his history of drug addiction getting the best of him again, so you’re making noise about getting out of the contract you gave Hamilton that runs through 2017.

• If you’re a human being with any kind of compassion or someone who actually respects the concept of a contract, you know a weaselly ploy to escape $80 million–plus in financial commitments when you see one.

The most likely outcome here is that the Angels do remain on the hook for the rest of Hamilton’s cumbersome contract. The 33-year-old, who’s currently rehabbing a shoulder injury, will either continue to sit out or he’ll come back and, given the way his numbers have trended since that huge 2012 season, not be all that good anymore. For as loud as the headlines surrounding him have been, any on-field issues this team might have certainly won’t be solved by Hamilton’s return.

Through the first six games, the Angels are the third-worst offensive team in the American League with just 2.7 runs scored per game. Much of that comes from a struggle to get on base, as the team’s .245 OBP ranks 29th in MLB, ahead of only the Mariners. But despite the Week 1 struggles, the Angels should expect the lineup’s pistons to start firing sooner rather than later.

Without Hamilton, the Angels have only three left-handed options against right-handed pitchers: switch-hitting shortstop Erick Aybar, left fielder Matt Joyce,2 and right fielder Kole Calhoun. Batting just .200/.273/.200 overall in the first six games, Aybar is off to a rough start, but he was effective (.290/.336/.393) against right-handers last year. Joyce is just three for his first 18 as an Angel, with five strikeouts and no walks, but he’s also been an effective hitter against righties for years (.253/.355/.427 from 2012 through 2014) in a home ballpark, Tropicana Field, which smushes offense. Calhoun, who sat out Sunday’s game with a calf strain, was a potent hitter against righties in 2014 (his first season as a lineup regular), slugging .467 and launching 15 homers and 25 doubles in 393 at-bats. And after all, by trotting out a lineup last year with all but two of the same players, the Halos fielded the sixth-most productive offense in the majors against righties.

In addition to their temporary lack of left-sided production, the Angels faced a brutal opening series in Seattle. They ran up against one of the best starting-pitcher trios in baseball — Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and James Paxton — in addition to the typical offense-dampening effects of Safeco Field. Just check out Mike Trout’s season-opening homer off King Felix:

Trout absolutely crushed the pitch, and it barely scraped over the wall. Luckily for Los Angeles, it’s not every week you play on the road in a pitcher-friendly park against the top three starters on one of the best teams in baseball.

Of course, things aren’t perfect, either. Losing Howie Kendrick to an offseason trade will hurt, so the Angels might look to upgrade at second base at some point. Also, Hamilton’s de facto lineup replacement, 6-foot-4, 235-pound bruiser C.J. Cron, is an all-or-nothing slugger who’s going to look terrible on nights when he’s swinging at air. But even with those weaknesses, there’s just no way this offense — with Trout anchoring the lineup and a capable supporting cast led by Albert Pujols and Calhoun — is going to circle the drain in the AL for long.

As for the Angels’ starting pitching? Well, that might be a different story, especially after the thirtysomething duo of C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver started the season by allowing 17 runs on 26 hits over 24 innings. The return the franchise should really be worried about is getting Garrett Richards back on the mound and back to the form he showed last season.

Top Dogs

Six clubs with the potential for big things this season.

6. Boston Red Sox (4-2, plus-5)
5. Los Angeles Dodgers (3-3, minus-2)
4. St. Louis Cardinals (3-2, plus-5)
3. Toronto Blue Jays (4-2, plus-11)
2. Kansas City Royals (6-0, plus-25)
1. Detroit Tigers (6-0, plus-31)

We don’t need any caveats about too many fluky big innings or a team cashing in a ton of runs while playing in a bandbox to explain what the Royals did in the opening week. They scored more runs per game than any team other than the Tigers — and the Tigers look like the ’27 Yankees right now.

Speaking of Murderers’ Row, name any Royal and there’s a good chance he’s currently hitting like vintage Lou Gehrig. Leadoff man Alcides Escobar: .375/.407/.500. Much-maligned third baseman Mike Moustakas: .333/.481/.667. Lorenzo Cain: .417/.517/.625. Salvador Perez: .417/.440/.833, plus three homers. Even Kendrys Morales, arguably one of the five worst players in the majors last year, is on fire, batting .400/.483/.640 in his first week as a Royal.

Now, obviously none of these performances are even remotely close to sustainable, but forecasting blatantly obvious regression for five absurd early-season performances doesn’t mean the projection systems couldn’t have also been a little too harsh on several Royals players. If that’s the case, this team might be better than the sub-.500 bunch that PECOTA and others predicted. And since I wasn’t particularly kind to the Royals leading into the season, either, I’m considering it my duty to make the optimist’s case here for a K.C. return to the playoffs.

For starters, the Royals have youth on their side: Perez is 24, Moustakas is 26, Escobar is 28, and Cain is 29. Based on age alone, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect one or more of this quartet to have a breakout year.

Perez’s numbers crashed in the second half last year — he hit .283/.329/.437 before the All-Star break, .229/.236/.360 after — and many observers blame that plunge on fatigue: He played in 150 games, which is an uncommonly high total for a catcher in today’s era. Even a little more judiciousness from manager Ned Yost concerning Perez’s playing time could make a notable difference.

As for the others: Moustakas was once considered a top-10 prospect by Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America, and he batted a robust .282/.338/.504 in the minors. Escobar, who doesn’t swing and miss all that often, has increased the number of pitches he goes after in the strike zone, and his more active contact skills combined with his speed (31 steals in 2014) could see him turn in a peak Juan Pierre season one of these years. After a coming-out party in last year’s playoffs, Cain turns 29 today, but with fewer than 1,400 major league plate appearances under his belt, there’s still hope for some untapped potential even at his (relatively) advanced age. Heck, throw in the possibility of a bounce-back for Morales, who doesn’t have to do much to equal Billy Butler’s weak 2014 production from the DH spot, and there’s some much-needed lineup upside here.

With James Shields now gone, it’s not realistic to expect the Royals to repeat last year’s starting pitching success. Nor should we expect the trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland to throw like triple Eckersleys for the second year running. Considering that likely pitching regression, K.C. will have to find strength from other sources, and an improvement over an offense that finished ninth in the AL last year in runs scored and last in both homers and walks would be a great place to start. A little more juice from the hot-start fivesome — and maybe from playoff co-hero Eric Hosmer, too — could help mitigate a lot of the pullback you’d expect from a team that shocked the world last year by making it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.

The speed will likely be there again. The defense likely will be, too:

So if the Royals make another run at the AL pennant, chances are it’ll seem improbable because we’ve underestimated their bats. And, well, maybe we have: In the past 100 years, just 43 teams, including the 2015 Royals and Tigers, have started the season 6-0. The average record of those teams comes out to a .565 winning percentage. Over a 162-game season, that’s 92 wins.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, Baseball, MLB Stats, Jonah Keri, Milwaukee Brewers, Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Angels, Kansas City Royals, Dee Gordon, Miami Marlins, Lorenzo Cain, Josh Hamilton, Jean Segura, Kevin Seitzer

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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