In a season where offense was down across baseball, the Royals excelled at the dish, posting a .325 wOBA (5th in the AL) and notching their highest team OPS (744) since 2003, despite having the AL's worst walk rate.
The Royals had some trouble converting that production into runs, however, due to an epically bad team clutch-hitting performance. Actually, their Fangraphs "clutch" rating was merely bad (12th in the AL), but it seemed epically bad because the Royals' suckage in the clutch was magnified by an extraordinary number of clutch appearances. Their team leverage index was 1.08. Second place was 1.03 -- meaning the second-place team was closer to league average than to the Royals.
Left fielder Alex Gordon blossomed in his age 27 season, leading the Royals with a 140 OPS+ (303/376/502). Rookie first baseman Eric Hosmer, who turned 22 on October 24th, flourished (293/334/465, 117 OPS+), as did 21-year old catcher Salvador Perez (158 PAs, 331/361/473, 128 OPS+).. New acquisitions Melky Cabrera (305/339/470, 121 OPS+) and Jeff Francoeur (285/329/476, 119 OPS+) were better than expected, though Cabrera was suspect defensively (-9.7 UZR/150 in CF).
On the down side, DH Billy Butler took a step back statistically (291/361/461, 125 OPS+), but the main culprit was a drop in BABIP that appears to be a fluke. Second base was a black hole, with Chris Getz getting far too much rope (429 PAs, 68 OPS+) and 23-year old Johnny Giavotella struggling (77 OPS+) when the front office belatedly gave him a shot. Alcides Escobar was also awful at the dish (74 OPS+, and far worse in the clutch), but his glove work at shortstop (+9.9 UZR/150) helped offset the suck supplied by his bat. Touted third-base prospect Mike Moustakas struggled in his first big-league action (365 PAs, 86 OPS+), but he seemed to improve after a rough start and actually put together a nice hot streak to finish the season (352/380/580 in September).
The Royals traded Cabrera to the Giants for starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez and a minor leaguer, which opens center field for Lorenzo Cain (312/380/497 at Triple-A Omaha). The Royals' projected Opening Day starters are:
C-- Perez (age 22 in 2012, 287/317/413 Bill James projection for 2012)
1B -- Hosmer (22, 311/362/494)
2B -- Giavotella (24, 295/342/419)
3B -- Moustakas (23, 278/323/447)
SS -- Escobar (25, 267/309/360)
LF -- Gordon (28, 276/361/467)
CF -- Cain (26, 284/337/416)
RF -- Francoeur (28, 269/317/432)
DH -- Butler (26, 301/372/477)
Of the names on that list, Giavotella is the most in doubt; GM Dayton Moore didn't seem enamored of him even before his disappointing big-league debut, and Giavotella's suspect glove isn't a great fit for a team that's trying to develop young pitchers.
Ah yes, pitchers. They didn't hit in the clutch, and they had bad luck with the Pythagorean record, but the overriding reason the 2011 Royals only won 71 games was that their pitching sucked. Only the Twins and Orioles had worse team ERAs than the Royals, and those clubs can point to high BABIPs and low strand rates as cause for optimism heading toward 2012. The Royals have no such excuses; their pitching was just bad.
Actually, the Royals' bullpen was a middle-of-the-pack unit, with a disappointing season by closer Joakim Soria more than offset by surprisingly good performances by Greg Holland, Aaron Crow and Louis Coleman. Of those three, however, only Holland (2.67 xFIP) is a good bet to be excellent again in 2012. The Royals should be in the market for a couple middle relievers, but with only $23mm in contractual commitments for 2012 and only two pricey arbitrations (Gordon, plus the newly acquired Sanchez), that's something they can easily afford.
Fixing the woeful starting pitching is a much bigger task. Bruce Chen (25 GS, 108 ERA+) was the Royals' most effective starter, and he's a free agent and is unlikely to return. The biggest bright spot is Felipe Paulino, who shined in 20 starts after the Royals ransomed him from Colorado (119 Ks in 124 2/3 IP, 3.74 xFIP). Luke Hochevar had a strong second half and showed enough (4.05 xFIP) to earn a rotation spot in 2012, but he'd be a 5th starter anywhere else. Danny Duffy struggled (20 GS, 4.53 xFIP) after a hot start in Omaha earned him a June call-up, but he showed enough to lock down one of the other three spots. Another one of those spots will go to Jonathan Sanchez. Royals fans are hoping the FO makes another move to fill the other open rotation spot; Rany Jazayerli recently posted a five-part study on this subject. Long story short, the Royals have the prospects and (surprisingly) the free cash needed to add an elite starting pitcher, but they need to balance their 2012 aspirations against the window they're building with all those young hitters, many of whom won't reach their prime until the middle of the decade.
Edited by maufman, 26 March 2012 - 03:44 PM.