Slumping Royals bring in George Brett as hitting coach, but their woes run deeper
A day after hitting co-coach Jack Maloof's comments about the punchless Royals' offensive philosophy drew scrutiny, the team reassigned him and fellow co-coach Andre David within the organization and hired Hall of Famer George Brett as one of the new co-coaches. It's a desperation move for a team caught in a 4-19 tailspin that has undone both their hot start and whatever pretensions of contention they harbored coming into the season.
After general manager Dayton Moore traded top prospect Wil Myers this past winter in a win-now move intended to halt the franchise's streaks of nine straight losing seasons and 27 without a playoff appearance, the Royals started the year winning 17 of their first 27 games. Their current slide, borne of offensive futility, is the worst in Moore's seven-year tenure, and it's increasingly clear that despite Kansas City's stock of talented young players, neither he nor manager Ned Yost have much idea of how to move the organization forward.
Viewed from a short-term standpoint, Moore's efforts to remake the rotation by trading Myers and three other players to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis, trading a reliever to the Angels for Ervin Santana and re-signing free agent Jeremy Guthrie have borne fruit. Shields (2.96 ERA, 82 percent quality start rate), Santana (3.33 ERA, 60 percent quality start rate) and Guthrie (3.92 ERA, 50 percent quality start rate) have helped the team improve its run prevention by about half a run per game over last year, from 4.60 per game to 4.12.
The problem is that the offense has been among the league's most punchless, scoring 3.98 runs per game (12th) while ranking dead last in home run rate (1.5 percent), unintentional walk rate (6.1 percent) and isolated power (.112). During their 23-game skid, the Royals have hit just two home runs, both of them by 39-year-old backup infielder Miguel Tejada, and the solutions Yost and Maloof have offered in response to the slump aren't likely to help.
K.C. ranked last in home run and walk rates last year as well, with blue-chip prospects such as Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas failing to live up to their potential, so the team axed hitting coach Kevin Seitzer in favor of Maloof, who spent 1999-2001 as the Marlins' hitting coach and had served as the Royals' minor league hitting coordinator and special assistant to player development since 2008, and David, who was the Royals' hitting coach for 11 months in 2005-2006 and who preceded Maloof as the minor league coordinator. Earlier this week, Maloof made comments to Fox Sports Kansas City's Jeffrey Flanagan, showing his conviction that despite the team's power outage, a focus on home runs aren't the answer:
"There is just no reward here (for us) to try and hit home runs," Maloof said. "We try to stay down on the ball, be more line-drive oriented, and do more situational hitting at least through the first two or three rounds (at home) here. That's why I'm not overly concerned because I think we'll lead the league in fewest home runs again this year. We don't have a 40-homer guy in the middle of the lineup.
Of course, the counter argument is obvious: Other teams seem to come into spacious Kauffman Stadium and have no trouble hitting home runs. Yost mentioned as much after letting Seitzer go last fall.
…"Other teams come in here from Anaheim or wherever and they have their swing already down," Maloof said. "This park doesn't even enter into their minds when they hit here. They have their swings, the same swings, because it pays dividends for them at home.
It's one thing to focus on the fundamentals of hitting, using proper mechanics and waiting for the proper pitch to drive instead of simply swinging for the fences every time, regardless of context — a lesson that's been drilled into the heads of just about anyone who's ever received instruction in Little League or above. It's another to write off the offense's most potent weapon in an era when they're not as hard to come by as some think; since 1994, major league teams have averaged at least 1.0 homers per game in every year except 2010 and 2011.
To be fair, the Royals do play in a park that's tough to homer in; the three-year park factors in The Bill James Handbook 2013 are 81 for lefty hitters (19 percent below average) and 90 for righty hitters (10 percent below average). Still, as Flanagan pointed out, opponents have outhomered the Royals at Kauffman by a 32-11 margin, yet Maloof's prescription is "be better at situational hitting…In this ballpark, go ahead and hit the ball in play."
It's not that the Royals' lineup lacks for hitters with more than a modicum of power. In 2011, Alex Gordon hit 23 homers during a breakout season, Jeff Francouer added 20 in a career year, Hosmer (whom Baseball America described as having "outstanding raw power" in 2010) bopped 19 after debuting in May and Billy Butler equaled that total. In 2012, Butler hit 29 and Moustakas (whom BA described as having "plus-plus power" in 2011) added 20, though Gordon (14), Hosmer (14) and Francouer (16) fell off, with the latter two unable to add much else of value offensively. At the moment Gordon (six), Butler (five) and Moustakas (four) are the only Royals with more than three homers, and none of them are on pace to even crack 20. Moustakas is hitting just .187/.257/.313, while Hosmer (.262/.323/.331) has just one homer, not to mention the league's third-highest groundball rate (57 percent).
Successful situational hitting isn't going to compensate for that, particularly when Kansas City doesn't get on base often; the team is seventh in batting average (.261) but 10th in on-base percentage (.314) due to its dearth of walks. After using Gordon (.340/.379/.502) as the leadoff hitter in the first 30 games, Yost understandably moved him to third in the order in front of Butler (.263/.371/.404). But instead of installing Lorenzo Cain (.282/.346/.387 with eight stolen bases) in one of the top two spots on a regular basis, he's used Chris Getz (.204/.259/.296 this year, .253/.310/.314 career) and Jarrod Dyson (.268/.286/.561, albeit in just 42 PA this year, .249/.317/.346 career) as leadoff hitters, and maintained Alcides Escobar (.252/.279/.333 this year, .264/.304/.354 career) in the number two spot, all despite track records strongly suggesting they're not up to the task. It's not exactly a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes as to how the team is eking out just 3.39 runs per game during their slide.
Whether Brett can help remains to be seen. Winner of three batting titles, collector of 3,154 hits with a career .305/.369/.487 line and the face of the franchise's glory days, he knows a thing or two about hitting. Now 60 years old, he has served as the Royals' vice president of baseball operations since retiring in 1993, the year before the team ripped apart its roster in favor of a youth movement that has produced exactly one winning season since, that back in 2003. Brett has worked as an instructor at spring training for years, but never as a full-time hitting coach. He'll share responsibilities with Pedro Grifol, who spent 13 years as a hitting coach in Seattle's organization — now there's an endorsement — before being hired to do the same with Kansas City's Arizona Rookie League affiliate. Perhaps the gambit will work, but even so, the scapegoating of Maloof, with less than one-third of a season on the job, shouldn't distract anyone from the larger failures of Moore and Yost. The former's long-range plans have failed to materialize after seven years despite his keen eye for amateur talent, because his major league rosters are inevitably poorly constructed even given payroll limitations. The latter has a .437 winning percentage in parts of four seasons in Kansas City, and a .463 mark overall including his six years in Milwaukee; he's not the manager that's going to take this team to the next level. So while the Royals have made a change in reaction to their current troubles, they need a more fundamental one in order to move forward.