A few minutes earlier, Moore had addressed reporters in a beginning-of-the-month news conference held over Zoom — the kind of session the New York Yankees’ Brian Cashman and New York Mets’ Zack Scott have had to hold to account for disappointment. Moore’s was largely the opposite, a chance for the architect of one of the most surprising teams in the majors to explain how his club, not even favorites in the American League Central, ended up with the best record in baseball by the beginning of May.
Moore touted his manager, Mike Matheny. He touted the presence of experienced veterans with winning pasts. And he did not shy away from a constant small-market Royals reality: Even as they experience surprising success, his team’s margin for error remains thin.
“We have a team that has to play very fundamentally sound. We have to execute on defense. We have to execute on offense. We’ve got to make pitches. We’ve got to pick each other up. We’ve got to run the bases well. We’ve got to show up every single day mentally and physically prepared to play,” Moore said. “And if not, we’re probably not going to shake hands at the end of the night, and our guys know that.”
Now, as they prepare to welcome their most formidable division rivals, the Chicago White Sox, for a weekend series, the Royals are getting a sense of what happens when a toe slips off that tightrope. They enter Wednesday having lost five of their past seven games, though simply looking at their record in that stretch won’t tell the full story. In two losses against Cleveland to start this week, a double play not turned and a poorly timed error helped unravel two late-inning leads, and Kansas City’s normally steady bullpen lapsed.
“We’re going to have to have time where different components of our game pick up other guys that are carrying us,” Matheny said. “We’re going to have to keep making plays.”
The Royals began this season with the 22nd-highest payroll in MLB, in a division the White Sox were expected to lead from pole to pole and in which the Minnesota Twins looked strong, too. Their offseason maneuvers — trading for former Boston Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi, signing former Cleveland stalwart Carlos Santana and former Washington Nationals outfielder Michael A. Taylor, re-signing former World Series hero Greg Holland — were hardly headline grabbers.
While the majors were full of surprises through the first month of the season — the bludgeoning Red Sox, the stingy San Francisco Giants — the Royals have been one of the most confounding of the bunch. According to MLB.com’s Sarah Langs, who cited the Elias Sports Bureau on Twitter, they entered Monday as the first team in baseball history to be at least 25 games into their season and in at least a tie for the sport’s best record while also having a negative run differential (negative-3).
That differential fell to negative-9 by Wednesday morning, a statistic that suggests the Royals’ early success might be a mirage. Kansas City is winning games but not beating up opponents. Those other two upstarts, the Red Sox and Giants, each entered Wednesday with run differentials well over 20. The White Sox finished Wednesday with a run differential of plus-36.
On the other hand, the Royals aren’t built to dominate. They are built to make contact, steal bases and play defense — all of which they have done well so far. According to Baseball Savant, they entered Wednesday with the fourth-lowest whiff rate in baseball, which means that when they swing at pitches, they hit them more than most. They made contact on the sixth-highest percentage of pitches they saw in the strike zone. According to FanGraphs, they owned the second-lowest strikeout percentage in the majors.
“I’ve been proud of some of the recent statistics of this club, one of the harder teams to strike out in the league. That’s something we need to take a lot of pride in,” Matheny said last week. “That balance of aggressiveness in the count — don’t go up there straight into a two-strike count, that’s not a good plan, but once we get there, let’s figure out a way to put pressure on the defense by putting the ball in play.”
The Royals are also one of the few remaining teams to emphasize taking the extra base and even stealing bases as a necessary habit rather than an unnecessary risk. They entered Wednesday second in the majors in stolen bases, and Matheny, Moore and clubhouse veterans place an oft-spoken premium on using speed to create runs that other teams may grab by slugging.
“[Aggressive base running] is our identity. We’ve got to run the bases very well,” shortstop Nicky Lopez said. “We have some speed. We’re going to play defense. We’re going to throw it, too. We know that we’re going to hit this year, we know who we are, but we’ve got to be flawless on the base paths.”
Lopez wasn’t penciled in as the Royals’ starting shortstop. That job was supposed to go to elite prospect Adalberto Mondesi, the 25-year-old with the baseball pedigree who made his major league debut in the 2015 World Series, which Kansas City won. Mondesi has missed the first month of the season with an oblique injury, but Moore said he will probably depart for a rehab assignment next week.
His return is one of several reasons the Royals would dispute the notion that they are outplaying their potential and are due to stumble back into their expected trajectory. Another reason is their offense, which leans on multiple players who did not begin the season scalding.
Benintendi, Whit Merrifield, Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler all answered questions about their slow starts as recently as late April. Of that group, only Benintendi caught fire since, though Merrifield has shown recent signs of life. Soler, who busted out for 48 homers in 2019, has hit two this season and entered Wednesday slugging just .344. Dozier was hitting almost 70 points below his career average. Even Merrifield, the steady, contact-heavy leadoff man, was well below his career norms.
“It can get a lot better,” Merrifield said. “We’ve got some guys that have just gotten off to bad starts. Nothing to be concerned about in my eyes. Guys are working hard. Guys care. Just a matter of time before you get a couple doinkers fall in and a couple barrels that don’t go at somebody and you get some confidence back and you start rolling.”
Merrifield made his major league debut in 2016, a year after the scrappy, speedy, contact-heavy Royals (sound familiar?) won their first World Series in three decades. He said he was sitting in the training room late last month with another member of that team who found his way back to Kauffman Stadium, reliever Wade Davis, counting the number of players on the roster who had played in a World Series here or elsewhere. They counted nine — or more than a third of a 26-man roster. Their manager has been there, too.
“When you have that sort of experience with winning baseball, stuff like those comebacks, they seem to happen a little more often than not because guys expect to win. Guys have been around winning. They know what to do to win,” Merrifield said. “That’s huge for guys like myself and Dozier and Nicky — guys who have been in the system but weren’t in the big leagues when we were winning baseball games.”
The presence of those veterans — and the fact that Moore added multiple veterans with playoff experience this winter — is indicative of the culture he has created here. His teams, particularly those that grew into World Series contenders half a decade ago, tend to sneak into relevance, built around potential and emphasis on the details.
“From my experiences against the Royals, it’s always been the case. It’s just teams that go hard, play hard and take nothing for granted. They do a lot of things right,” Matheny said. “… We’re spending a lot of time making sure that the guys who are doing those things — even though they may seem insignificant at the time — they have huge significance into the style of baseball we play and they have huge significance into our success rates. They’re buying into that.”