The Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 1985. Since then, they have yet to make it back to the playoffs, and the 28 year span is the longest current MLB postseason drought. At the time of this writing they are in first place in the American League Central Division by 1.5 games over the Detroit Tigers. Considering they were under .500 as late as July 22nd, this is an impressive feat. With a real chance to make the playoffs for the first time in almost 30 years, how have the Royals managed to turn the tide? (All stats courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.)
The quick answer is with pitching and defense, both of which have been a steady constant for much of the season and a big reason why they managed to hang around .500 even with a lackluster offense. Their team earned run average (ERA) for starting pitching is currently 4th best in the American League, and their bullpen has a respectable 3.36 ERA, good for 7th best in the AL. Their starting rotation has been led by James Shields, but Jason Vargas, Danny Duffy, and Yordano Ventura have also pitched well this season. These four starters all have solid Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), with none of them posting a fWAR of under 2.0. They also all have ERAs below 3.50. Jeremy Guthrie has been the one blemish in their rotation, but he’s a veteran arm, capable of eating innings while pitching towards the back of the rotation, which is all you can ask for out of a backend starter. The bullpen has been equally impressive between closer Greg Holland, and setup men Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera. Holland could easily finish the year with 50+ saves, a sub 2.00 ERA, and almost 13 strikeouts per nine innings, while Davis (and his sparkling 0.81 ERA) currently has the 2nd highest fWAR among all Royals pitchers. Herrera doesn’t have as high of an fWAR as Davis, but his ERA is currently 1.53. When the Royals get to the 7th inning with the lead, it’s basically game over. Part of the success of the entire pitching staff is due to the impressive team defense.
According to FanGraphs, the Royals have the best defensive fWAR in baseball – by a significant amount (roughly eight points). They are also 2nd in team Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and 7th in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). The main reason for this is that have three players in the top-22 of all of baseball in individual defensive fWAR in Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, and Alcides Escobar. No one other team has more than two in the top-25. While good pitching and solid defense put teams in position to win, they still need to score runs in order to do so, and the Royals have been great at doing this since late-July.
Over the last 30 days, only one team in baseball has scored more than the Royals (shockingly, it’s the Padres). The Royals also have the 4th highest team batting average and 10th highest Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) over this same time frame. Alex Gordon has been hitting all year and is battling with Mike Trout for the lead in fWAR on the season, but he’s performed even better in the second half. His line over the last 30 days is .320/.374/.536. Billy Butler has also played an integral part in the turnaround of the Royals. His line for the first half of the season was .273/.325/.355 with an Isolated Power (ISO) of just .082. However, in the last 30 days he’s hitting .330/.369/.526 with an ISO of .196, as he’s managed to regain his power. Gordon and Butler aren’t the only hitters that are currently producing for the Royals. Norichika Aoki (their leadoff hitter) and Lorenzo Cain (6/7 hitter) have been providing solid contributions at both ends of the lineup. Over the last 30 days Aoki is hitting .289/.360/.400, while Cain is hitting .280/.321/.360. New acquisition Josh Willingham was absent for much of the Royals turnaround, but he can help keep it going in the right direction. It’s a small sample size, but since he joined the Royals he’s hitting .345/.387/.586 acting primarily as the team’s designated hitter. The Royals have struggled as a team with their power (they currently have the 15th best slugging percentage), and as Willingham is known for his power, he can potentially help lead an improvement in this area.
The Royals bats have heated up at the right time and this mixed with solid pitching and elite defense has put them in position to make the playoffs. Considering it’s been so long since they last saw a postseason, I’m rooting for them to get there. It’s been quite a turnaround from looking like another mediocre season for the Royals at the halfway point (or later), but if their bats continue to stay hot, they’ll finish off a remarkable season with a trip to the playoffs.