Alex Rios: Likely Royal, Unlikely Hero

The Kansas City Royals succeeded last season in the face of low expectations — and, among many who appreciate advanced statistics, at least slight derision regarding the way Dayton Moore assembled his team. Contracts to middling pitchers like Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas seemed unlikely to get the Royals from also-ran status. Trading away top prospect Wil Myers, even for a talented pitcher like James Shields, did not look to be enough to take the Royals over the top. So it was with this backdrop that Shields, along with the talented and young Yordano Ventura, stabilized the rotation; Wade Davis and Greg Holland anchored an incredible bullpen; and a slew of former top position prospects whose luster had worn off came together to win the Wild Card and make a run to the World Series.

Fast-forward to spring training — the Royals lost Shields and Billy Butler to free agency, and the improbable run of 2014 seemed even more unlikely to repeat itself this season. Not a single FanGraphs writer picked the Royals to make it back to the postseason. Nobody picked the Houston Astros or Texas Rangers, either, in an American League race that ran counter to predictions everywhere. The Royals had not done a whole lot to make themselves better and expecting their good fortune to continue for another year did not make for a good bet.

One of their acquisitions last winter was Alex Rios. The former Blue Jays prospect — who combined enough promise and results to sign a seven-year, $69 million contract that didn’t end until after last season — signed a one-year ,$11 million deal with the Royals. Heading into the season, Rios’s resume featured a pair of five-win seasons back in 2007 and 2008, mixed as well with six, three-WAR seasons. Unfortunately, he had almost as many seasons (four) in which he was unable to produce even a single win, and was coming off a season of disappointment with the Rangers, where he managed a wRC+ of just 92 before signing with the Royals.

Rios was another middling signing who did not look to make the Royals any better. It was not the the signing was necessarily bad: one-year contracts that go bad do not significantly impact a club, but it did not appear to be a particularly wise way to spend money. The move felt a little bit like a move the Royals would make. Jeff Sullivan hit the nail on the head with his analysis after the signing was announced, writing that Rios was essentially an inexpensive (relatively) lottery ticket:

Cheap fliers aren’t so cheap anymore. But as good as Rios was once, he presumably will be no longer so good. And if Rios and Morales don’t bounce back, the Royals will have spent some of their windfall on players who weren’t good the very season before they became Royals. That would be ripe for mockery in hindsight, which is the best and worst kind of mockery.

Kendrys Morales did bounce back for the Royals, providing much-needed production in the middle of the lineup. Rios, on the other hand, was not very good this season. He recorded a .255/.287/.353 and 72 wRC+, which latter figure ranked 184 out of 198 hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. Removing up-the-middle positions (catcher, second base, shortstop, and center field), Rios bested only Ichiro Suzuki on offense. A quick twitter search of “DFA Rios” shows hundreds of results from fans begging the Royals to cut bait.

Rios is not the only player with a disappointing season on a playoff roster. Chase Utley has had a rough season split between Philadelphia and Los Angeles. However, it can be difficult to succeed when carrying dead weight throughout the season. Of the players with at least 400 plate appearances with one team on the year, 45 of them finished the season having failed to produce even as much as a win. The teams representing these players come from expected places: the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox, and Arizona Diamondbacks are all well-represented on this list. From the eight teams qualifying for the Division Series, there were just eight players on the list, Rios among them:

Players on Playoff Teams With Under 1.0 WAR
Name Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Off Def WAR
Starlin Castro Cubs 0.265 0.296 0.375 80 -15.9 5.4 0.8
Chris Carter Astros 0.199 0.307 0.427 101 -1.6 -10.6 0.3
Jimmy Rollins Dodgers 0.224 0.285 0.358 80 -15.2 -0.3 0.2
Alex Rios Royals 0.255 0.287 0.353 72 -11.8 -0.2 0.2
Jorge Soler Cubs 0.262 0.324 0.399 96 -0.6 -11.4 0.1
Evan Gattis Astros 0.246 0.285 0.463 99 -3.8 -16.0 0.0
Michael Cuddyer Mets 0.259 0.309 0.391 97 -1.1 -12.0 0.0
Mark Reynolds Cardinals 0.23 0.315 0.398 97 -4.4 -10.3 -0.1
Omar Infante Royals 0.22 0.234 0.318 44 -29.7 6.5 -0.9

The players on this list are not entirely bad players. Over the past week, Soler has fulfilled much of the promise that he had entering the season when many suspected a breakout. Castro has done well of late, and Chris Carter still managed to put up an average hitting line despite a Mendoza-level batting average. Infante is not on the playoff roster, leaving Rios as the Royals’ lone representative. Heading into last night’s game, Rios’ production from the regular season had carried over the playoffs. The right fielder found himself in the ninth spot of the batting order. He’d recorded only two hits in eleven at bats, striking out four times and reaching base three times on a walk.

In the fifth inning, Rios came to the plate against Mike Fiers, who was brought in to face Rios with no outs and runners on second and third. The chances were good that the Royals would score, but what was less clear was whether Rios was the hitter who would get the job done. Fiers through a curve, a solid pitch that yields ground balls and generally weak contact. Fiers got what he wanted, but not the desired result. Rios did not hit the ball particularly hard, but it got the job done.

Rios is not the reason the Royals made the playoffs, and he’s not really the reason that the team is advancing to the American League Championship Series for the second straight season. He was in the right place at the right time. He earned his spot on the club through well deserved past successes, and despite a disappointing season, he had earned the trust of his manager to hit in that spot. On the spectrum of professional baseball players, Rios is on the low end, but he is still a professional and it afforded him the opportunity to get a key hit in an important playoff game. Success is a blend of luck and skill, and it is often difficult to tell how much is the former and how much is the latter, but for Rios and the Royals, the percentages don’t matter, only the result.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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8 years ago

I was interested to see Rios’s splits for the year. In case you also have a weird interest in data with no actual value, here are his RAR for the months.
Mar/Apr: 2.1
May: -0.9
June: -6.5
July: 4.2
August: 0.8
Sept/Oct: 1.8

jim fetterolf
8 years ago
Reply to  Yosted

Broken hand may have had something to do with that, then the chicken pox.