Playing Contender or Pretender With the Kansas City Royals

Posted: 05/25/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

Has a team ever gone through a quicker transformation from lovable underdogs to annoying favorites than these Kansas City Royals? Last year, everyone was rooting for the Royals, as they rallied to make the playoffs, won the wild card play-in game, and streaked all the way to the World Series, where they fell to the Giants. It was a prototypical small market team that relied on small ball, some timely hits, and a stifling bullpen. This year, I, and probably a majority of baseball fans, thought the Royals would regress back to the .500 or sub.500 record we’d come to expect from them. Their 89-73 season last year had been aided by luck, as their expected win-loss based on run differential was 84-78. More importantly, the biggest offseason addition they made was the signing of Kendrys Morales, and they lost ace James Shields. But instead of regression, we got an explosion. The Royals are 28-16 and are three runs away from having the best run differential in baseball despite a 14-1 loss earlier today. We should be happy for them, right? Well, sort of. They’ve also been involved in a few of the biggest fights of the season to this point (most notably with the Athletics and White Sox), with HBPs, retaliations, and ejections galore. Whether we should be rooting for this plucky team or not is up for debate, and so is whether they are really good candidates to get to a second consecutive World Series. We know they’ve been good to this point, but is it sustainable? Will they win a tough AL Central, or will they have to fight for another wild card?

After finishing 15th last year, the Royals are third in Fangraphs offensive WAR, behind only the Dodgers and Blue Jays, each of whom have spent oodles of money on offense. The Royals have done it differently. As recently as before this season, it seemed as if their plan, drafting and developing elite hitters, was failing. Top prospects like Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer were the poster children, as they always showed potential but had never cashed in on that potential. Hosmer, a first baseman who was supposed to hit for power, was a career .275/.328/.418 hitter in four full seasons, with just 26 combined homers in the previous two. Moustakas, at .236/.290/.378 over four seasons, was much worse. Although he and Hosmer both performed well in the playoffs, that wasn’t supposed to carry over into this season. Well, Moustakas and Hosmer, in their age 27 and 26 seasons, have become Kansas City’s best hitters this year. Moustakas, hitting second in the order, is hitting .327/.382/.481 for a 144 wRC+; his previous high was 90. Meanwhile, Hosmer has rediscovered his power stroke, hitting .312/.385/.524 with seven homers and 153 wRC+, up from 99 last season. Given that these two guys are entering their primes and have the pedigree of elite hitters, I have to believe that at least most of this breakout is real, especially since neither of them have a jaw-dropping BABIP. So right there is two above average hitters we didn’t think the Royals would have. They also have three other regulars, Morales, Lorenzo Cain, and Salvador Perez, hitting over .300 and no starter hitting under Omar Infante’s .250. With the homegrown core of Moustakas at third, Gordon in left, Hosmer at first, Cain in center, and Perez behind the plate, all is going really well at the plate for a team that leads baseball with a .287 average while ranking last with a 5.4% walk rate. With right fielder Alex Rios set to return from injury in the next week, it could get even better.

There are a few more question marks on the pitching side for a team that ranks has the third best ERA in baseball but only the 16th best pitching WAR, which is based on the more predictive FIP. You only have to look at today’s loss against the Yankees to see where the rotation concerns begin. Yesterday, Jeremy Guthrie, a mediocre pitcher, had a 4.75 ERA. After giving up 11 runs while recording just three outs (he’s the second pitcher to ever manage that), the ERA is at 6.70. Calamitous start aside, starting pitching is becoming a real concern for the Royals. Their ace, Yordano Ventura, has been laboring, and there are concerns over his elbow, which has caused him to leave multiple games early. Edinson Volquez has a 2.77 ERA, but that’s mostly down to luck. And two fifths of the starters on the opening day roster (Jason Vargas and Danny Duffy) are on the DL after terrible starts. Without Shields there are no sure things in this rotation, and all of Kansas City’s best pitching prospects are at least a year from being ready. The Royals will thus have to rely even more on their stellar bullpen. After wowing last year, the bullpen is again putting up great numbers, with a 1.68 ERA only slightly downgraded by its 3.30 FIP. The ERA is nearly 50 points better than second place Houston, with Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Greg Holland leading the way again.

So, is the start sustainable? Unfortunately for Royals haters, I think the answer is mostly yes. If any team can overcome a poor rotation, it’ll be these Royals, with their great offense and bullpen. Another concern is the over usage of Perez. You would have thought that KC would have learned their lesson last season, when Perez looked incredibly fatigued at the end of the season and hit .229/.236/.360 after the All-Star break with three walks and 46 strikeouts, but it appears that they haven’t. Perez’s numbers are comparable to his pre-All-Star break numbers last season, and he’s on pace to play in 155 games. He has more at-bats than any other catcher besides Buster Posey (who plays first when he needs an off day) and Derek Norris. Hopefully Perez can stay healthy, because he’s one of the best catchers in baseball.

The starting pitching and Perez concerns are real, but they are also minor compared to all this team has going for it. The entire lineup is in its prime and raking, while the bullpen looks set to lap the rest of baseball again. Because they play in the tough AL Central they are separated from third place by just three games, but I think they’ll maintain their lead in the division. That makes them…

Contenders.

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