clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Win or lose, the Royals still don't know what they're doing

The Braves have hired Ned Yost's deposed hitting coach, Kevin Seitzer, to revive their gone-dead-train offense. Meanwhile, the World Series has shown that the early rounds were flukes and Yost is still looking for keys he may never find.

Moose-tified: Mike Moustakas strikes out.
Moose-tified: Mike Moustakas strikes out.
Rob Carr

SB Nation 2014 MLB Bracket

The main storyline the media has pushed in this postseason is that America loves the Royals. They are the plucky underdogs, 29 years removed from their last championship, and we love that. You love that. Your dog or cat loves that. Everyone, including all the people not particularly enticed by the Royals or Giants and aren't watching, love that.

This is not a strict accounting -- I haven't been using a stopwatch and through long experience with baseball broadcasters I have become adept at generating mental white noise so that although I have the volume up on the television set, much of what is said just sails on by -- but I would guess the percentage of Royals to Giants commentary is something like 60-40. "I don't think people realized how good the Royals were," Harold Reynolds said with the Royals trailing 11-4 in Game 4. "I believe all these looks [at Giants relievers] are good for the Royals," he said as they faced Javier Lopez and Hunter Strickland in the course of Kansas City's 7-1 loss in Game 1.

The problem with that narrative is that the Royals aren't necessarily all that attractive a team. The underdog story is conceptually attractive, but the product itself is mediocre, something the team's 8-0 run to the World Series obscured. The Royals hit home runs and stole bases at paces that bore no resemblance to their regular-season versions of the same. Which was the better measure of the Royals' capabilities -- games 1-162 or 163-170? It wasn't that Mike Moustakas solved his problem six months and a day into 2014. The seven bases they stole against the A's in the Wild Card game didn't mean they had the capabilities of the 1980s Cardinals. They were still a pale imitation.

The Royals may well win the last two games of the World Series and take home the championship; the Giants' next two starting pitchers, Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson, are the two they've already beaten. If they do win, they're going to complete a rags-to-riches story that will be immensely valuable to their fans. There is no diminishing that. Yet in the pull-back-the-camera, cosmic scheme of things, they will go down as one of the weaker champions in baseball history. Despite the 8-0 run, they are what they were throughout 2014: an offensively weak team that has some speed and plays good defense, but relies almost exclusively on a deep rotation and a killer bullpen endgame. (It's worth noting the rotation is actually weaker in its October form, as Danny Duffy and his rotation-leading 157 ERA+ were shuffled to the bullpen over innings concerns.)

Parenthetically, that endgame may be in the process of fraying. Kelvin Herrera has now pitched 80.2 innings in 2014 and 12.1 innings in 10 of 13 postseason games.  Over a full season that would be 125 games and 154 innings. Wade Davis is up to 84.1 innings in '14 and 12.1 innings in 11 of 13 postseason games, or 137 games and 154 innings. Comparatively underused, Greg Holland has appeared in 10 of 13 games and pitched 10 innings. You can do this in the postseason, and Ned Yost has correctly concluded that he should do it, but it was that eight-game winning streak that allowed him to do it. Go longer and these arms are going to wear.

The Royals are a one-trick pony. Clearly you can win a World Series that way. Does it make you great or the best team in baseball? No. Does it mean Dayton Moore is a general manager who knows what he's doing, that David Glass is committed to giving the city a first-class organization, or anything else? Nope, not that either. The Royals still don't know quite what they're going, and you can see that carried out in the case of ex-hitting coach Kevin Seitzer.

Since Moore began running the Royals, the club has vented hitting coaches like a puffball mushroom venting spores. Andre David, Mike Barnett, Seitzer, Jack Maloof, George Brett, Pedro Grifol, and currently Dale Sveum. Seitzer was the longest-lived of these, employed from 2009 through 2012. Yost disliked Seitzer's all-field approach and decreed that the Royals would become a power-hitting team. "I would rather strike out than hit a ball to the right-center field wall and have it caught -- unless there's a runner on third," Yost said at the 2012 winter meetings. "I want to open up our offense."

Kevin Seitzer
Kevin Seitzer talks hitting with John Mayberry, Jr. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports).

We can all dream. The 2013 Royals finished last in the American League in home runs. The 2014 Royals finished last ­and dropped below 100 total round-trippers. The two post-Seitzer teams were 12th and 15th in OPS+, respectively. The 2014 team had the fourth-highest batting average in the majors, but that doesn't prove much -- so did Seitzer's 2012 offense.

The coach sat out '13 and then joined John Gibbons' Toronto staff last October. The Blue Jays hit quite well overall, though it's hard to know how much to credit that to Seitzer; it must be nice to be able to coach Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. "Yes, keep doing that. Very good. Thattaboy." Melky Cabrera bounced back in a big way once that tumor came off his spine. Adam Lind hit .321 but only played in 96 games. There was a lot of that -- injuries were so much a part of the Blue Jays story that you can't really say anything concrete about how Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, or Lind hit.

An offense this light is not the coming trend in baseball, no matter what the pundits tell you -- the Royals won't win this way again.

Seitzer apparently couldn't come to terms with the Jays on a new contract this fall, and as part of what feels like a massive shuffle of hitting coaches during the postseason, he joined the Atlanta Braves on Monday. He'll be asked to resuscitate an offense that registered an 87 OPS+, pretty much indistinguishable from last in the majors (the Phillies, Reds, and Padres were lower, but only by 1-2 points). Along the way, he'll have to figure out where Jason Heyward's power went, who stole Chris Johnson's batting average, where B.J. Upton's head has gone, how to get Andrelton Simmons back on the road to league-average offense he was seemingly on in 2013, and a thousand other things, among them convincing his own manager that 36 games of Bossman Junior leading off is 36 games too many -- you can't just take a problem player and say, "I have nowhere to put him, so I'll just stash him at the top of the order where he'll do the most possible harm and maybe no one will notice."

Parenthetically, whatever positive benefit Fredi Gonzalez brings to the Braves, if the first rule of being a big-league manager is primum non nocere, "first, do no harm" (and it should be), then he's a pretty easy case for immediate termination: when Upton wasn't batting first he was batting second. Gonzalez didn't have a lot of great choices for the top of the order, but that doesn't mean you just throw up your hands and say, "Screw it, I'll put Upton up there." In '13 it was Simmons, the dude with the .296 on-base percentage. "You know, man, whatever. It's just a batting order, right?"

Seitzer plans to pursue the goals above through the exact same methods that got him run out of town by Yost. MLB.com's Mark Bowman interviewed Seitzer on Tuesday and the man who was a .295/.375/.404 career hitter in over 1,400 games is sticking to his guns:

On being a hitting coach who preaches hitting the ball up the middle and the other way:

Seitzer: I kind of feel that is one of my big strengths, being able to show guys how to hit the ball the other way. When I first became a hitting coach, I was kind of an anomaly from a sense that I didn't like guys to go up there and just try to turn and burn on pitches, just because you're so vulnerable to [many different pitches].

On how to improve approaches and situational hitting:

Seitzer: The more guys try to stay in the middle of the field, it seems like the more home runs that they hit, the more they hit for extra-base hits and hit for power, better [slugging percentage] and better OPS. That generates more runs. Frankly, this is all about scoring more runs... I'm big on every single bitty detail to generate runs. There might be a three-, four- or five-hitter that needs to try to hit the ball the other way and beat a shift if we're in a tight game with two outs in the ninth with a man in scoring position.

What did the Blue Jays and the Braves know that the Royals and Yost did not? The Royals have had flashes of improvement from Eric Hosmer, but he's also still relatively young -- there will be rookies next year born before he was. Moustakas is a mystery Sherlock Holmes couldn't solve. Billy Butler might have gotten old young. Alex Gordon is a strong but mercurial hitter. He's also the only hitter willing to take ball four with anything approaching regularity. (This has been an issue as long as the Royals have been around -- they've had six 100-walk seasons in team history, the last by Seitzer in 1989, and a handful of 80-somethings.)

Seitzer may or may not help the Braves. Some of their players may be beyond help. At best, the most a hitting coach can do is tinker around the edges anyway -- no hitting coach has ever turned a Simmons into a Ted Williams or vice-versa. However, his continued status as an in-demand coach and the limited returns the Royals have received since dismissing him suggest that the decision-making process in Kansas City remains flawed.

Again, the Royals may yet win the World Series and it will be a "nice" story, with all the blandness and transience that a weak word like "nice" implies. The real test of any leadership is sustainability. Bullpens, no matter how good, often don't repeat from year to year. An offense this light is not the coming trend in baseball, no matter what the pundits tell you -- the Royals won't win this way again. Toss in the loss of James Shields, and they will have a hard time getting back here.

Celebrate the end of their time in the desert all you want. Cheer the underdog if you like being told what to do. The Giants are just as much weaker canines as the Royals, but they've been here more recently so they apparently don't count. If you're the underdog because you're outgunned, that's one thing. If you're the underdog because you got hot enough at the right moment to surpass your weaknesses, that's luck, not heroism.

The Royals still don't know what they're doing. Win or  lose, that truth will be born out in the coming months and years.