NEW YORK—The Kansas City Royals have an identity. It's an emerging one, of course, and it is sure to change as talent from its rich farm system begins to trickle into their big league clubhouse. But the Royals have established that they at least have the makings of a calling card, something for which they are known, something other than losing.
Really, when was the last time they could say that?
This seemed to be the overarching idea last week, when the Royals treated their arrival in New York as a showcase for their new frontman and their new philosophy, leaving the sense that they may have finally found a hook on which to hang an approach. Eric Hosmer, the first of what's expected to be a new wave of talent, hit his first career home runs with members of his family watching from the stands at Yankee Stadium. Meanwhile, the Royals looked comfortable while creating havoc on the bases, proof that they have bought into manager Ned Yost's renewed emphasis on the running game.
The Royals entered play on Monday tied for third in the American League in runs scored (187), which has helped push a solid start that has them at 20-20, a surprising beginning for a group that many dismissed as little more than veteran placeholders. “They're hungry to win,” Yost said. “I knew this going in.”
That hunger manifested itself in the team's efforts to better their baserunning, an area that in one season has gone from glaring weakness to team strength. The Royals ranked second the American League with a .274 team batting average last season, which Yost believed should have translated into more runs scored. Instead, the Royals languished in that department, finishing 10th in runs (676) and runs per game (4.12). Not surprisingly, the Royals also struggled to reach base (.331 OBP, 8th in the AL) and slugging (.399 SLG, 9th in the AL).“We had to find more ways to create scoring opportunities for a very good offense,” Yost said. “Through baserunning, we've done that.”
While it's easy to question whether improved baserunning alone can spur an offense—the Royals, it should be noted, have also improved in critical run-producing areas such as on-base and slugging—the added edge on the bases obviously can't hurt. It's an edge they've worked hard to gain. From the earliest days of spring training, Yost made baserunning the first task of every workout. “We'd just go through certain baserunning drills every single day, the first thing we did, right as soon as we'd get done with stretching, we'd go straight to baserunning.”
This much is clear: The Royals' work has paid off with measurable improvement on the bases. Last season, the Royals ranked 29th in baseball in EqBRR, costing themselves 14.2 runs. This season, they rank 13th with a gain of 1.6 EqBRR. Much of that gain has come on the strength of doing things like avoiding the double play and taking the extra base on outs. “We've been real good with taking the extra base,” Yost said. “But it's not just taking the extra base. It's knowing how to take the extra base, it's knowing how to cut the bag, it's knowing how to keep your turns short. It's knowing when to do it and when not to do it that's important. A lot of different things we work on, how to get down the line, how to think double from the second that the ball's hit on singles, running hard until the opposition stops you. It's a lot of things that everybody can do to improve as a baserunner.”
The difference is underscored when looking at some of the individual components behind EqBRR, in particular stolen bases (EqSBR), advancement on air outs (EqAAR), and advancement on hits (EqHAR). In each of these three areas, the Royals have enjoyed vast improvements.
· In EqSBR, the Royals cost themselves 5.58 runs last season, 29th in the game. This season, they've gained 1.46 runs, second best in baseball.
· In EqAAR, the Royals gained 1.83 runs last season, eighth in the game. This season, they've gained 2.97 runs, the best in baseball.
· In EqHAR, the Royals cost themselves 13.29 runs last season, dead last in the game. This season, they've gained 1.70 runs, eighth-best in baseball.
It's early and those baserunning numbers can change, but so far, the Royals have accomplished a major goal by turning their running game into a legitimate threat. Said Yost: “It gives us an advantage.”
Of course, so did bringing up the highly-touted prospect Hosmer. The first baseman's presence added to the sense that the Royals are a franchise on the rise. In 26 games at Triple-A Omaha, Hosmer posted a .439/.525/.582 slash line with three homers and 15 RBI. To Royals assistant general manager Dean Taylor, the decision to bring up Hosmer was easy considering the numbers.
“Eric really forced our hand,” Taylor said. “He's very deserving. He really had nothing else to prove in Triple-A.” Hosmer's May 5 call-up was symbolic, the first product of the Royals' devotion to the draft. Under general manager Dayton Moore, the Royals have shelled out $40 million over the last four years to sign picks such as Hosmer, the third overall choice in 2008.
Hosmer's stay in the minor leagues was relatively short, though the 22-year-old packed plenty of adversity into that span. He hit .241 in 2009, his first season in pro ball, prompting him to undergo LASIK surgery. He called the results of the procedure career-changing. “Everything was just a lot more clear,” Hosmer said. “It's kind of like watching the TV in regular and in HD. It was just like that. It made a world of difference. The biggest thing was at night. The biggest help was at night.”
Hosmer certainly didn't seem to have a problem under the bright lights of New York, hitting a pair of home runs for the Royals. For a franchise that has staked its future in developing talent such as Hosmer, the homers represented a high point in those efforts. “It's nice to be recognized with the consensus best farm system of baseball,” Taylor said. “That's part of what we're trying to accomplish. But our goal ultimately is to develop as many quality young players as we can for our major league roster.”
Fellow prospects such as Wil Myers and Mike Moustakas aren't too far away from following Hosmer. Together, they are among the pieces of the Royals' emerging identity, one they believe will one day produce a homegrown championship. Said Taylor: “We're at the early stages of that of that process.”
Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.