The Royals aren’t going to be good for a while. They weren’t last year, with a 58-104 record; they won’t be in 2019, with a bottom-five projected record; and they won’t be for several seasons to come, with one of the worst farm systems in baseball supplementing that porous major league core.
That’s OK—the last time the Royals built through the minors, they won consecutive pennants and a World Series, so a rehash of that plan is no reason to fret. But if they’re going to lose most of their games in 2019 regardless, they might as well try to entertain their fans in the process, and with the dual signings of free-agent speedsters Billy Hamilton and Terrance Gore this month, Kansas City has taken two lightning-fast steps to creating a presentable product.
Tanking—or, ahem, rebuilding—can prove a tragicomic exercise that lends itself well to YouTube clips and Twitter laughs but less well to fans who want to watch their favored team play 162 distinct three-hour games throughout the summer. It might work for the future (see: the Astros), but it works quite poorly while it’s happening (see: also the Astros). Tanking in all its glory looks like this.
The Royals have been there before. They were trapped in an endless loop of similar plays for decades, and they don’t want to end up there again, even if the win-loss columns will look the same either way. They can’t end up there again, for financial purposes: As baseball writer Joe Sheehan noted in his newsletter this week, attendance at Royals home games has cratered along with the team’s on-field fortunes, from 2.71 million fans in the title-winning 2015 season to just 1.67 million in 2018.
So what to do when all paths to winning are closed and the fans don’t want to pay to watch bad and boring baseball? Welcome Hamilton, Gore, and Chris Owings to a lineup that already features Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi. Turn the sport of baseball, which plods in pace and slogs through the summer, into a kinetic thrill. Make every trip around the bases a footrace.
Whit Merrifield has led the league in steals each of the last two seasons and will be at best the fourth fastest member of the 2019 Royals.— Sam Mellinger (@mellinger) December 18, 2018
It’s important to note, first, that this approach won’t actually produce more runs than a typical rebuilding team might. Rather, the 2019 Royals might collect the most futile trips to the plate of any team in years—at the moment, only one Royal, right-fielder Jorge Soler, projects as a better-than-average hitter.
The new additions will exacerbate this problem. Over the last five seasons, out of 164 MLB hitters who recorded at least 2,000 plate appearances, Hamilton has the worst wRC+, with a batting line 31 percent worse than average, and Owings has the third-worst wRC+, with a batting line 28 percent worse than average. (Second from the bottom, sandwiched between the two new Royals, is old K.C. friend Alcides Escobar.)
Gore, meanwhile, has displayed little evidence that he can hit MLB pitching, despite recording his first career hit off Max Scherzer last season. He managed just a .193/.283/.227 slash line in Triple-A in 2018 and hasn’t recorded an OPS better than .677 at any level since rookie ball in 2011.
But on the rare occasions Kansas City’s batters reach base, the Royals will transform into the most fun team in the league, and a unique one in 2018. Both refined analytics and statistical trends have rendered stolen bases increasingly rare in today’s game. For the former, a successful steal attempt adds only about half as much run value as an unsuccessful attempt costs, so teams realized they should be more conservative with their green lights. And for the latter, with home runs pinging from and strikeouts blowing by bats at ever-increasing rates, there is less incentive than ever to try to steal: A homer will score the runner from first anyway, and a single to score him from second base is less likely than before.
Indeed, steals leaguewide have dropped to a near-low point in the divisional era (which spans the last half-century, back to 1969), as teams in 2018 combined for just 0.51 steals per game. It’s not a low point in all of baseball history—steals disappeared for basically all of the 1930s through the ’60s—but it’s an unfortunate trend nonetheless. Stylistic variation is part of baseball’s charm; it’s fun when the sport finds a place for players with different skill sets and teams with different run-scoring philosophies, but the league has trended toward uniformity in the 2000s. The high-volume base-stealing team is a relic in the contemporary game. The 2016 Brewers are the only team since 2011 to record at least one theft per game, and the 2007 Mets, led by 78-steal man José Reyes, are the only team since 1996 to reach 200 in a season.
The 2019 Royals could buck the trend toward three true outcomes–inspired inertness. After the All-Star break last season, Merrifield led the majors with 28 steals, while double-play partner Mondesi ranked second with 27. Their 55 combined thefts bested the totals from 27 teams in the second half. Imagine how much more running Kansas City can accomplish with a full season of the young Mondesi plus its fast free-agent finds.
It might not play out that way, of course; it remains to be seen how much Gore will even play, for one. It’s a bit of a surprise that the playoff hero even tempted a major league deal, as the former Royal and (briefly) Cub has been almost exclusively a September and postseason call-up in his MLB career. Since being drafted in 2011, he has collected more than 2,000 minor league plate appearances but has never made a major league start, and despite appearing in 63 regular-season games, he recorded just 19 trips to the plate. Baseball-Reference lists his primary position as “pinch runner.”
Terrance Gore's deal is a split contract — $650K when in the majors, $350K when in the minors, and $100K in possible performance bonuses. He's out of options so he'll have to clear waivers to be sent to minors. If he clears, he could accept FA instead of an assignment.— Rustin Dodd (@rustindodd) December 18, 2018
Yet Gore’s contract suggests that the Royals view him as a viable MLB option, as any possible demotion comes with complications that mean Gore could leave the club entirely, and they could do worse than devote a back-end roster spot to a fan favorite who can double as a useful pinch-runner late in games. Maybe Hamilton and Gore can’t hit well enough to warrant a regular role for most teams, but Kansas City isn’t most teams, and the Royals’ upper minors are sufficiently barren that the duo isn’t blocking any real prospects from taking their first MLB at-bats. Nor is Owings, who likely slots as a utility player and stole double-digit bases in each of the last four seasons despite playing as a part-timer for most of that span.
Even if they ultimately play the role of placeholders until the next generation of Royals prospects is ready, these new Royals will use their one common trait to entertain the Kansas City crowds in the meantime. In five full major league seasons, Hamilton’s averaged more than 50 steals per year, the most in the majors in that span, and his career 81 percent success rate makes running well worth his while. Merrifield, who led the AL in steals in 2017 and the majors in 2018, is also at 81 percent in his career. Mondesi’s at 82 percent, Owings at 84, and Gore 87.
A single fast runner who takes a lead off first base in a close game kindles a sense of electrified anticipation in the stadium; half a lineup of such threats will give Royals fans that rarest of feelings for a club deep in the rebuilding depths: hope. Every walk or bloop single will yield dreams of two immediate thefts and a raucous jaunt around the bases. Opposing pitchers will be miserable (that is, when they aren’t easily whiffing Kansas City’s overmatched hitters).
Kansas City is familiar with 100-loss seasons, but it’s familiar with this sense of running-based wonder, too. Since the 2014 wild-card win, stolen bases have been a thrilling part of the Royals’ modern identity. Stolen bases from Gore specifically are a part. In the grand scheme of the franchise, 2019 is likely to prove a forgettable year—but in the moment, manufacturing excitement on the basepaths is an easy and remarkably successful way to make every night memorable.