It's a bit bizarre that a six-game winning streak is being seen as a such a catalyst for a team in early June, but when you fire your hitting coach, as the Kansas City Royals did while on a 2-13 stretch to close out the month of May, you're a team looking for something, anything to cling to. And sure, the Royals' current streak is mostly predicated on beating up on the Twins and the Astros, two of the worst teams in MLB so far this season, and sure the only reason the Royals are flirting with second place in their division right now (at 29-32) is because the team above them, the Cleveland Indians, is on a coincidental eight-game losing streak, and sure, George Brett, hitting coach, has nothing to do with any of these things, but Royals fans aren't precisely complaining.
It's important, though, to realize -- as many Royals fans do -- that unless the rest of the schedule is against the Twins and Astros, and unless Cleveland just isn't going to win ever again, this past week and change isn't a game-changer. George Brett hasn't ridden out of the night to save the Kansas City Royals, and they've still got a lot to work on if they want to dream on getting back into the wild-card race. The theoretical Royals offense is driven by four batters: Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. Those are the guys that need to be smashing for the Royals to be a threat in the Central. Two of them, Gordon and Butler, are just fine. The other two, Moustakas and Hosmer, remain both works in progress and two of the most critical pieces to the Royals' success this season. And even during the recent winning streak, there's not too much good news to be had about either.
Hosmer, at least, has a pretty line: .381/.458/.476 over the past week. It's a bit less impressive when you expand that to the last 14 days (.326/.370/.395), though that's far preferable to his entire season to date (.276/.333/.346). There are a lot of sins that a first baseman on a second-place team can get away with -- not being able to hit same-handed pitching, not being able to hit to all fields, not being able to take a walk, not being able to handle his position with league-average defense -- but not being able to slug the ball isn't among them, and Eric Hosmer cannot slug the ball. Watch him hit: He's late on everything, he rarely squares a pitch up -- I don't want to say "never," because I'm sure he does from time to time, but I've tried to follow him rather closely since the end of last season and when he gets hits, they're usually pitches he's late on and slaps the other way into left field. It's odd, because the guy can take a walk well enough, but his bat is just late on everything. And sure enough, during this past hot streak, here's what he's done: six singles, two doubles and three walks in 24 plate appearances. That's not bad hitting at all, but if that's the hottest your young starting first baseman has been all year -- only two extra base hits -- there's trouble. Those singles don't always sneak through the infield. That's not sustainable, and the root issue -- starting the swing late -- could find its genesis in a bunch of things, some of which (bad eyesight, for instance) no hitting coach is going to be able to fix.
Moustakas is an even stranger case. As opposed to last season, when he had what would be decent but pedestrian numbers for an elite defensive third baseman, which Moustakas is not (.242/.292/.412), this year he's hitting .180/.249/.287 in 197 plate appearances, which is downright unacceptable. His problem isn't being able to tell what's a strike and what's not -- he's still able to take a walk like a good major league hitter -- nor is it something as visibly obvious as being constantly late on pitches like Hosmer. In fact, Moustakas routinely looks like he's able to correctly jump on pitches to hit, square them up and hammer them .. to middle-deep right field. Or shallow left. Or weakly on the ground. Everything about what he's doing looks good, but he has absolutely none of the authority in his contact that a guy of his profile should. It's fairly baffling, not just to fans watching but to the Royals themselves, who've been rather openly grappling with the option of sending Moustakas down to Triple A to work on something.
Under the last hitting coach, Jack Maloof, Moustakas' response to his poor start was to evermore "simplify his approach," to continue to not do video review (in fairness, I question how much a hitter watching video by himself is going to help if the hitting coach isn't on board with it too), and just go out there and try to hit his way out of it. Maybe George Brett will find some way to succeed where the now-departed Maloof failed and identify something new for Moustakas to work on. But work on what? He looks fine at the plate; the results are just terrible. Is he hurt and not telling anyone?
It's possible, but sometimes this stuff has no better explanation than that MLB pitching, on the whole, is just too hard for some prospects to hit, no matter what tools they have and no matter what they did in the minor leagues. There's no shame in that, nor does it reflect any real personal failing on Hosmer or Moustakas' part if it turns out to be the case -- and they'll have a lot of chances to learn and hopefully turn it around, either in the Royals organization or, perhaps, elsewhere.
But none of this helps the 2013 Kansas City Royals. This year is the year they dealt their top prospects to get their ace pitcher and go all in. This year is the year they need two more good-to-great bats, and it doesn't matter from where they come, if they want to stay making noise in the American League Central. This is the year they've finally got something resembling a complete starting rotation and an actually good-to-great bullpen, and if they walk away with nothing to show for it, this could be the year heads start to roll. Hosmer and Moustakas need to hit, now, or the Royals need to find first and third baseman that can. And six wins in June change none of this.