There is a team in our nation’s capitol that has been red-hot offensively – a streak that was highlighted on Sunday by a 23-run affair. However, 1,060 miles to the west, another team is the polar opposite – having scored just one run or fewer in eight games in April. While the contrast is currently stark, what does the rest of the season hold for the red-hot Washington Nationals and the ice-cold Kansas City Royals?
The Best of Times
The Washington Nationals lead the National League East by 6.5 games over New York entering play on Monday, with an 21-10 record. While Washington’s pitching has been decent – the starters being much better than the bullpen – the offense has been spectacular. At the end of April, the Nationals led the major leagues in almost all major offensive categories:
Runs: 170, which led the next closest team – the Arizona Diamondbacks – by 29
Hits: 265, which led Arizona by 12
Doubles: 58, which led the powerful Milwaukee Brewers by six
Walks: 102, which was tied for the league lead with the Minnesota Twins
Batting Average: .295
On Base Percentage: .369
Slugging Percentage: .510
Of the major offensive categories, home runs was the only category that the Nats were not leading – they were second, two blasts behind the Brewers.
While the 23-run inferno on April 30 was the team’s top mark thus far this season, it was the fourth time that week that the Nats had scored in double digits in a game – having laid 15, 11, and 16 runs against the Colorado Rockies over three consecutive games earlier in the week. Early in the season, they put up 14 runs against both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves. If six times in double digits in one month isn’t enough offense, they have scored at least six runs in another five games. Only once, on April 12 in a 6-1 defeat to the Cards, have the Nats scored fewer than three runs.
While the leaders of the offense, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, are all over the MLB leaderboards, they are far from the only studs in the lineup. In fact, all eight of the typical starters have been above average when ranked by OPS+, with Anthony Rendon – after his six-hit, three-bomb, ten-RBI day – checking in as the worst of the bunch at 103. All eight of these players have scored at least ten runs, each have at least 20 hits, and only Jayson Werth failed to drive in double digit runners in the first month.
The Worst of Times
Meanwhile, in Kansas City, the offense has been stagnant. A 7-16 record in April saw the Royals taking residence in the basement of the AL Central. But the inverted parallels with the Nationals are amazing. While Washington had six games in double digits in April, Kansas City’s top output was a seven, which they notched twice. More amazingly, in all the categories the Nationals led MLB in through the end of the first month, Kansas City logs in as the worst in the majors:
Again, like Washington, home runs is the only major category where KC failed to bring up the rear. The Royals 24 home runs in April rank midpack in MLB, with Boston’s 15 at the bottom of the bunch.
While the Nationals starting lineup have all been above average, most of the Royals have been scuffling. Second base has been a particularly sore spot for the team, with Raul Mondesi and Christian Colon – who have combined for 20 games there – each having a negative OPS+. Paolo Orlando joins that duo with a -5 OPS+ in his 50 plate appearances. However, many of the stars are also failing to produce. Three-time All-Star Alex Gordon is off to a .187/.267/.231 start. Last year’s All-Star MVP, Eric Hosmer, has only a .603 OPS through his first 24 games. Alcides Escobar is not expected to be an offensive superstar, but his anemic .188/.225/.247 is far worse than expected. Only Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain have been above average starters thus far for the Royals.
Sound and Fury, Meaning Nothing
While any individual game in April could be highlighted at the end of the season as the reason a team made the playoffs or finished one game out, the lengthy baseball season tends to make any individual month’s record relatively unimportant at the end of the year. After all, there are still 85% of the games to be played at this point. Injuries, trades, a string of inspired play, or some rotten luck could end up changing the calculus for both Kansas City and Washington.
For Washington, their historic offensive pace is almost certain to slow down. Their current scoring pace would see them break 1,000 runs this season, a mark last achieved by the 1999 Cleveland Indians and a threshold that has only been reached seven times in MLB history. Bryce Harper’s 35 runs scored puts him on a pace that could challenge Sliding Billy Hamilton’s record from 1894 of 192 runs. Even a slight decrease could put him into the 160 range, a mark that was last reached in 1936 by Lou Gehrig. And can Ryan Zimmerman continue whacking homers at a rate that puts Barry Bonds’s record into the picture?
But beyond simple regression from an absurd pace, other factors could contribute to a Nationals decline. Injury risk is one factor that has already reared its ugly head. Centerfielder Adam Eaton, batting .297/.393/.462, is out for the season after suffering an ACL injury. While his replacement, Michael Taylor, has shown flashes of brilliance in the minors, he has yet to show any offensive prowess at the MLB level. The Nationals also have a couple of players on the wrong side of 30 – most notably 38-year-old Jayson Werth – an age where nagging injuries tend to crop up and linger.
However, absent multiple major injuries, the Nationals offense should continue to motor along at a good enough pace for them to repeat as NL East champions. After all, last season they scored 763 runs (fourth in the league) despite Ryan Zimmerman having a really bad year, Ben Revere being even worse, and Bryce Harper being merely mortal. Simply having Revere off the team and Zimmerman returning to competence puts the Nationals in a better position than 2016.
The Royals, on the other hand, might have a tougher time out of the hole. They’ve already made two major changes, jettisoning Mondesi and Orlando to AAA Omaha in favor of Christian Colon and Jorge Bonifacio. While Bonifacio has been a vast improvement over Orlando, Colon has equaled Mondesi’s ineptitude at the plate. However, the bigger issues may reside with one of their superstars. Alex Gordon and his $16 million salary started this season by regressing from 2016 in which he put up a mere .692 OPS. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Gordon is on a precipitous decline that can not be reversed.
However, the bright side might be that the offense can only get better. While Alcides Escobar has never been a great offensive shortstop, his current numbers are by far the worst of his career. Even a modest improvement to last season’s output (.261/.292/.350) would improve the fortunes of the Royals. The same is true with Eric Hosmer, who has started the season cold as ice. A mere improvement to his worst MLB season (2012 – .232/.304/.359), let alone to his standard league average offense, could set up KC for some wins.
But if the Royals can not stem the tide in the near term, GM Dayton Moore may choose to break up the band and trade off the few assets that have value. Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Perez all have shown their value offensively this season and all play positions of need for other teams.
In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Washington GM Mike Rizzo hasn’t already reached out to Dayton Moore about Lorenzo Cain. After all, with the loss of Adam Eaton, the Nationals could use another centerfielder.