There's no shame in losing to the Atlanta Braves these days, not with the way they're hitting and pitching.
What was disappointing for the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday night is that the supposed strengths of their team faltered again. Kelvin Herrera, one of the members of the bullpen that was so good in 2012, entered in a tie game in the eighth inning and promptly served one-out, back-to-back home runs to Jason Heyward (who hit a 98-mph heater) and the scorching hot Justin Upton. Then, an out later, Herrera gave up his third home run of the inning to Dan Uggla as the Braves ended up with a 6-3 victory.
Herrera allowed just four home runs in 84 innings last year and had been dominant so far in 2013, with two hits and 11 strikeouts in 5.1 innings. So maybe it was just one of those innings, although if you want to contend for the postseason your bullpen can't afford too many of those innings. Still, in the long run the Kansas City bullpen should be just fine with its arsenal of power arms.
Of more concern is the lack of power -- or any kind of production, really -- from the left-handed bats of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. One reason for much optimism around the Royals this year was the expected improvement for the 23-year-old Hosmer and 24-year-old Moustakas. Those expectations were a reason the Royals believed they could trade minor league stud Wil Myers for James Shields. After all, even though both were pretty bad last year, there were signs of hope: Hosmer had hit well as a rookie in 2011 and Moustakas had a very good first half before falling apart in the second half.
But after going 1-for-8 in Tuesday's loss, their batting lines:
Hosmer: .242/.359/.273, 1 2B, 5 BB, 8 SO
Moustakas: .171/.244/.220, 2 2B, 4 BB, 6 SO
That's a .203 average, three doubles, no home runs and five RBIs in 74 combined at-bats. This is where we point out that it's early and that all this is small-sample-size kind of analysis and each player could have two big games and suddenly be having good seasons. There is some positive news in those numbers as well, as neither player is striking out excessively.
In Hosmer's case, he just isn't driving the ball -- at all. He had his one double to deep left-center and one fly out to deep left, but after flying out twice and striking out twice on Tuesday, he now has 12 ground balls in play and six fly balls. He has hit seven line drives, but those lines drives aren't being driven into the gaps.
This is somewhat similar to the issue he faced last year when he had trouble pulling the ball with much authority -- he only pulled three home runs all season (he hit seven to the opposite field and four just to the right of center). You can be a good hitter even if your natural stroke goes to the opposite field, but unless you possess the raw power of someone like Ryan Howard or David Ortiz, you're not going to develop into a big home run hitter unless you pull the ball more. Hosmer hit .284 and slugged .444 against fastballs last year, which sounds pretty good, but the major-league averages were .295 and .485 for qualified regulars. Hosmer ranked in the 42nd percentile in batting average and 32nd percentile in slugging percentage against the fastball. The trouble is, he was even worse against "soft" stuff -- he hit .177 and slugged .245, well below the .242 and .393 marks of the 144 qualified regulars.
I would argue that it all stems off hitting the fastball. If he can't catch up to the good fastballs, he's going to struggle much more against offspeed stuff. So far in 2013, he's 0-for-14 in plate appearances ending in fastballs. Until he shows he can hit the hard stuff with authority, Hosmer isn't going to meet the lofty expectations everyone had for him after his rookie season.
As for Moustakas, he has had the opposite problem: Twenty-two fly balls, seven ground balls and seven infield pop-outs. He had one fly out and one foul infield pop-out on Tuesday. He's just getting under everything (he has had four deep flies to center field that were caught).
In looking at Moustakas' success rate against fastballs, last year he hit .261 and slugged .478. The power was there but the batting average was low -- in large part because his chase percentage (swings at fastballs outside the strike zone) was 32 percent, which ranked in the 10th percentile of all regulars. So far in 2013 that chase percentage is 35 percent, not a sign that he's going to drastically improve.
Both are young. Both have a lot of work to do before they become stars and meet the hype they generated coming up to the majors.
The good news for the Royals: The bullpen has struggled, their two young corner infielders have struggled, and Salvador Perez hasn't hit yet. And they're still 7-6.