I originally headed to YouTube hoping to find that someone had made a video putting Lorde’s hit single, “Royals,” to a slideshow/video clips of Kansas City players and coaches. Instead, I found this. John Long, you did good, kid. You did real good.
The age-old cliche, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” is most certainly appropriate for the game of baseball. With a season 162 games long, teams are bound to go on winning streaks and losing streaks, get hot and get cold, though I will argue there’s is some element of this in every sports season. When you get really hot, you start making headlines. The test comes as the season continues to see if you can turn being “hot” into enough sustained success to reach the playoffs and take the proverbial “next step.” The trendy team at the moment? The Kansas City Royals, who are 39-33 entering Friday and have won 10 of their last 11 heading into a weekend series against the Mariners.
Last year, the team from the City of Fountains finished 86-76, their first winning season since 2003. Since 2003, they’ve had eight 90+ loss seasons and three 100+ loss seasons. Heck, 2002-06 the Royals lost 100 games in four of five seasons. The last time Kansas City reached the playoffs? They won the World Series — but that was way back in 1985, nearly 30 years ago, making for the longest current playoff drought. 2013 brought progress and optimism for Royals fans, fueled offensively by a team that had the fewest home runs in the American League (112) but the most stolen bases (153). The Royals aggression was not only seen on the basepaths but also in the batters box as their 6.9% team walk rate was third lowest in the AL. The Royals lack of power was also illustrated by their AL-highest 47.0% groundball rate. This season, they’re still leading the AL in groundball rate, up to 49.2%, still one of the lowest walk rates at 6.7% (2nd lowest in AL), and still leading the AL in stolen bases with 55. Heck, they’re still last in the league in home runs with a measly 39.
The Royals pitching staff though has been a quality group, ranked in the Top 5 in most metrics in the AL each of the last two seasons. Among American League pitching staff so far in 2014, the Royals rank 4th in ERA (3.71), 5th in HR/9 (0.87), 4th in LOB% (74.4%), 4th-lowest BB/9 (2.88), and T-5th in BAA (.250).
Who are some of the names that you should know? Let’s take a look.
Davis came over to Kansas City as part of the famed Wil Myers-James Shields trade and struggled last year as a starter. This season Davis is coming out of the bullpen and has been one of the best setup men in the American League, pitching to a 1.15 ERA (3rd among AL relievers), 1.21 FIP (4th among AL relievers), 14.94 K/9 (4th among AL relievers), 42.3% K rate (3rd among AL relievers), 29 ERA- (3rd among AL relievers), and has yet to allow a home run in 31.1 innings pitched.
One of the other studs in the Royals bullpen has been Greg Holland, who has almost matched his save total from the first half of last season in seven less appearances. Holland, a 28-year old RHP from Marion, North Carolina, was a first time All-Star last year and had a 1.21 ERA. Just like Davis, Holland ranks among the Top 10 American League relievers in a number of metrics including saves (21 – Leads AL), K/9 (13.34 – 6th in AL), LOB% (89.8% – 6th in AL), ERA (1.30 – 6th in AL), FIP (1.36 – 6th in AL), K-BB% (31.7% – 7th in AL), and ERA- (32 – 6th in AL).
Gordon’s stellar defensive play has helped him post one of the best WAR levels in the American League (FG: 4.1 – 2nd in AL, BRef: 3.8 – 3rd in AL) and nearly double the mark of the second highest player on his team, Salvador Perez. Using the more highly-regarded advanced defensive metrics of Defensive Runs Saved, Range Rating, Ultimate Zone Rating, and UZR/150 (which scales UZR on a per 150 game basis), Alex Gordon ranks as not only the best defensive outfielder in the American League but one of the best defensive players in the league regardless of position. Those aforementioned marks are as follows; 16 Defensive Runs Saved (2nd in AL), 11.9 Range Rating (2nd in AL), and 19.0 UZR & 42.8 UZR/150 (both lead the AL). His ARM (which measures the amount of runs above average an outfielder saves with their arm by preventing runners to advance) second in the AL behind only Yoenis Cespedes. If his defense wasn’t enough for you, Gordon has posted a .288/.368/.458 line with eight home runs, 39 RBI, and five steals. Alex Gordon has positioned himself as one of the most deserving candidates for an American League All-Star nod.
The 6’3″ 240 lbs. Venezuelan was named an All-Star last year and also won a Gold Glove in just his first full season and he’s picked up right where he left off. So far in 2014, Perez has posted a .280/.333/.435 line with seven home runs and 18 RBI. Perez also leads AL catchers with at least 200 plate appearances in WAR (2.1) and is second only to Kurt Suzuki in wOBA (.339) and wRC+ (113).
“Big Game” James Shields
About a year and a half ago, the Rays sent James Shields to the Royals (along with the aforementioned Wade Davis) for a couple of minor leaguers, Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi. You should question the credibility of most anyone who is now saying the Royals got the better end of the trade, but that doesn’t mean Shields hasn’t been an important piece for Kansas City. With 2010 as the lone exception, Shields has been worth about 4 WAR each season since reaching the bigs, last year posting a 4.5 mark good for 8th in the AL (FanGraphs). Shields’ numbers aren’t quite there yet this year (3.89 FIP, .311 BABIP, 1.11 HR/9, 7.46 K/9 — all the worst for Shields over the last four seasons), but he has been a part of the Royals’ three solid starters along with our next two pitchers.
Mr. Ventura is a 23-year old rookie out of Samana in the Dominican Republic and in his 13 starts and 77.1 innings pitched, he’s been better than James Shields. Ventura has posted a 7.8 K/9 rate, 0.7 HR/9, 54.1 GB%, 3.30 FIP & 3.37 xFIP, and a 1.6 WAR, all the best among Royals starters. This leaves just one other Royals starter, and he’s a former Mariner.
Dayton Moore got surprisingly excited this past November when he signed Jason Vargas to a 3-year, $25-million contract. Vargas, now 31, has been a solid contributor for the Royals so far though, joining Ventura and Shields in the Top 25 in WAR among AL starters and posting numbers (3.25 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 4.11 xFIP) in line with his best season in Seattle.
The Royals are a balanced team with three solid starters, one of the better bullpens in the American League, and are one of the best defensive teams in baseball — outfield and otherwise, and a decent lineup led by Alex Gordon. They are not without fault though; James Shields’ contract is up at the end of the year, Mike Moustakas – who was supposed to be the Royals’ 3B of the future – has played poorly enough to earn a brief demotion, and we haven’t even gotten to Omar Infante. The 32-year old from Venezuela was an All-Star with the Braves in 2010 and played well in Detroit last year. Dayton Moore, however, thought that meant he should get a 4-year deal worth more than $30 million. In 51 games and 228 plate appearances so far this year, Infante has been the 3rd-worst 2B in the American League, posting a .255/.301/.370 line with four homers and 34 RBI. The Royals are stuck with Infante through his age-35 season. We’re focusing on the here-and-now, however, and even with their loss Thursday to the Tigers, the Royals have a 1/2 game lead atop the AL Central as they head into a stretch where they play 12 of their next 15 games against teams with records above .500. The “Dog Days of Summer” are fast approaching, and we’ll soon see if the Royals will wilt, or stand tall.