The Kansas City Royals have been steadily building toward contention over the past five years. Each year since 2009 the Royals have added to their win total from the previous season (65, 67, 71, 72), peaking at 86 wins last season. Depending on which projection system you look at they are expected to win 77 (Clay Davenport) or 82 (FanGraphs) games. This ranges from tremendously disappointing to within reach of an American League wild card spot. For the latter to be realistic Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas will need to start trending in the same, positive direction.
The Royals entered the 2012 season with their prized first round draft picks (Hosmer: 3rd overall in 2008; Moustakas: 2nd overall in 2007) locked in as starters. Hosmer struggled, posting a -1.7 fWAR over 152 games, the lowest fWAR of any first baseman in baseball that season (min. 500 PAs). He struggled at the plate (.291 wOBA; 79 wRC+) and with the glove (-14.9 UZR/150). Contrary to Hosmer, Moustakas played very well, putting up 3.1 fWAR over 149 games, the 9th best fWAR of any third baseman in baseball that year (min. 500 PAs). While much of his value came on defense (14.3 UZR/150), his offensive numbers in the minors (.366 wOBA in 107 games at AAA) suggested the bat would come around from his .305 wOBA and 89 wRC+.
In 2013, Hosmer and Moustakas' performances flipped from 2012. Hosmer figured things out at the plate (.350 wOBA; 119 wRC+) and to some extent with the glove (2.2 UZR/150) resulting in a 3.1 fWAR over 159 games; jumping him into the top 10 fWAR for first basemen. Yet, Moustakas' performance took a step back, as he put up only 1.1 fWAR over 136 games (15th for third basemen with at least 500 PAs). His struggles at the plate got worse (.287 wOBA; 77 wRC+), specifically against left handed pitching (.246 wOBA; 48 wRC+). The good news is that his defense at third base was still very good (10.0 UZR/150).
A closer look at the offensive statistics for these players across seasons may provide insight into what changed; positively for Hosmer and negatively for Moustakas. First, Hosmer:
The main difference here is an exchange of a few ground balls and fly balls for line drives. Line drives typically lead to more positive results. His 80-point jump in BABIP is likely at least partially driven by the increase in line drive rate. However, it is also partially related to luck and this large of a jump in BABIP may mean his performance in 2014 will come back down a bit from 2013.
How about Moustakas? Here are his statistics:
For Moustakas we see a drop in his power numbers (HR and ISO) in 2013 that are likely related to the drop in fly ball rate. He hit more ground balls and line drives in 2013, but both rates remained well below league average (44.5 and 21.2, respectively). The lower strikeout rate is great, but his walk rate did not change. He needs to get his walk rate up. It will help increase his on-base percentage, which is unacceptably low (.287). The previously mentioned difficulty with left-handed pitching is not shown in this table, but is a real concern. So much so that the Royals may decide to platoon Moustakas with Danny Valencia this season, who had a .441 wOBA and 181 wRC+ in his 102 PA against lefties in 2013.
So what can we expect from these players in 2014? It is difficult to determine. Each has put together a solid season and a weak season as a starter. Somewhat unsurprisingly then, Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection has each player performing somewhere in between their 2012 and 2013 seasons, at a level slightly above an average player.
These numbers are not really overwhelming, and certainly do not predict star status for either player. But notice that if Hosmer and Moustakas just play to these projections their combined WAR (5.0) will be their best cumulative season yet (1.4 in 2012; 4.2 in 2013). They are both still very young with Hosmer coming into his age 24 season and Moustakas his age 25 season. Theoretically, their performance should still be on the rise.
It may only take one of these players outperforming his projection for Kansas City to contend for a playoff spot this year given how close they seem to be to the conversation. It would be great to see the Royals continue their trend of adding to previous season win totals, but for now this is all just speculation. Luckily there are only 28 days until Spring Training games begin, which means we are that much closer to the regular season at which point we can observe real results. Reports are already in that Moustakas is in great shape (#BSOHL), which is a nice, albeit meaningless note. Somebody needs to challenge the reigning division champion Tigers, and maybe the Royals' can do it if things break right for their cornermen.
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Chris Teeter is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.