The First-Place Kansas City Royals

June 17, 2014
 
At this exact moment, within the mode of linear experience that we call ‘time’, the Kansas City Royals are in first place.
 
By the time you read this, the Royals might not be in first place. Though I am writing this in what is my present expeirence, that presentness can’t be guaranteed to last until the moment you read this. Even the two sentences that precede this one, though ostensibly written in my present, now exist in my past.
 
I better check back on those Royals.
 
Yup…still in first place. Okay.  We can start this again.
 
The Kansas City Royals are in first place.
 
As the time we experience is linear, there will almost certainly be a moment in the future when the Royals will not be in first place. Even if you buy into the theory of a closed universe in which the greater density of dark energy to matter will cause a collapse of all space, that probably won't happen until next week at the earliest, which gives the Royals plenty of time to slip out of first place. If you believe in the multiple universe theory, the Kansas City Royals are always and never in first place, and this entire conversation is a bit unnecessary.
 
Let’s consider how the Royals that we experience (assuming that you and I share a common perception, and we’re not just code in a vast computer program, a la The Matrix) have found themselves in the rarified air of first place in the AL Central.
 
 
(Likely) Reason the Royals are in First Place #1: Eric Hosmer is having a monster season.
 
If I told you at the start of the season that the Royals would be in first halfway through June, you’d probably guess that second-half breakout player Eric Hosmer would be a big reason why the Royals were in first.
 
Except….he isn’t. Eric Hosmer is hitting .264 with four homeruns, and an OPS under .700. He’s only 1-for-2 in stolen base attempts, so if you drafted him for your fake team thinking he’d get you surprise steals, he hasn’t even done that. His WAR, if you’re the kind of person who likes WAR, is in negative numbers.
 
So that’s not going right for Kansas City.
 
 
(Probable) Reason #2: Big Game James is having a Cy Young-caliber season.
 
Well….Shields is pitching well. He has a 3.50 ERA, though his Fielding-Independent measures suggest that ERA is a bit luck inflated. His strikeout rate is the lowest it’s been since 2009, and he’s giving up more hits than innings pitched. He has a nice enough 8-3 mark, but no one is talking about him as a Cy Young candidate.
 
 
(Maybe) Reason #3: Mike Moustakas is having a breakout season?
 
No. Though Moustakas homered today, he is hitting under .200 on the season. He’s basically having a Pete Incaviglia-type of season.
 
 
(Possibly) Reason #4: Tigers transplant Omar Infante has jump-starting the middle infield.
 
Infante, coming off a PED-suspension and a .318/.345/.450 season in Detroit, looked like a smart pickup in the offseason. And he’s hitting .249 this year, with an OPS+ of 76. Remember that 100 is an average offensive performance, and then consider that Infante is just 3/4th of a hitter. His WAR is above the negative numbers….all the way up to 0.1.
 
 
(Throwing Reasons Out the Window, and Just Going On Past Performance) Reason #5: Billy Butler is smokin’ baseballs.
 
Nope. Butler has two homers on the season. Two. This from a 28-year old player who posted a Triple Crown line of .313/29/107 in 2012, and has played every game for the Royals (just about) since mid-2008. Butler has fallen off a cliff as a hitter, and there’s little that he adds to the team on defense or the base paths.
 
 
*          *          *
 
So what is going right for the Royals?
 
A few things:
 
 
1. Salvador Perez continues to prove that ‘clutchiness’, like Bigfoot, totally exists.
 
As the only baseball writer to argue that Sal Perez deserved MVP votes last year, I can’t be considered an impartial judge of the Royals catcher. Just like last year, Perez is showing a strong tendency to hit best when it matters most: he has a 1.054 OPS in High Leverage situations, and a .390 batting average in late & close situations. He’s not blowing the league away (111 OPS+), but he’s pretty good.
 
 
2. Alex Gordon is still anonymously excellent.
 
Gordon, an outfielder on the Ben Zobrist Travelling Tour of  Players-With-Higher-Than-You’d-Expect-WAR’s, is the best player on the Royals right now. According to WAR, he is the 6th best player in the American League this season, behind Josh Donaldson, Mike Trout, Dallas Keuchel (wait, what?), Yu Darvish, and Tanaka.
 
 
3. Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar have been tolerable.
 
They’re not headed to the All-Star game, but Cain and Escobar have been above-average players. Within the specific context of the Royals lineup, this stands them in some contrast to the sub-par performances of Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, Omar Infante, and Mike Moustakas.
 
 
4. Jason Vargas has been good; Jeremy Guthrie has been not-entirely-bad.
 
Vargas, signed to a four-year, $32 million dollar deal in the off-season, has actually lived up to the price, posting 7-2 record, and a 3.25 ERA. Jeremy Guthrie, whose $11 million dollar salary for 2014 makes him the fourth-highest paid played on the Royals, has a league-average ERA of 4.04.
 
 
5. Young pitchers Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura have stepped it up.
 
While Ventura’s triple-digit heater has generated a lot of buzz in the early goings, Danny Duffy’s been the most effective starter among the Royals, posting a 2.96 ERA in eight starts so far.
 
 
6. The bullpen remains spectacular.
 
Luke Hocheaver’s early injury hasn’t prevented the Royals from putting together another impressive bullpen. While Greg Holland continues to make his case as the best closer in the American League (post-Mariano), Wade Davis has been nearly unhittable. Really: Davis has allowed 13 hits in 30.1 innings pitched, while striking out 49 batters. Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow have also been great.
 
 
*          *          *
 
Because the Royals are in first place, we ask the obvious question: can they stay in firs t place?
 
Absenting a sudden and protracted player’s strike that would fix the Royals permanently atop the AL Central standings for the 2014 season, or a sudden and devastating meteor strike in which, like the Permian-Triassic extinction event, 96% of marine animals, 70% of terrestrial animals, and 100% of people-caring-about-baseball-standings will go extinct, it is extremely unlikely that the Royals will remainin first place in 2014.
 
This is because their offense is kind of terrible, and their pitching isn’t very good.
 
Their pitching has been effective…but it’s also been very lucky. Jason Vargas has an impressive 127 ERA+, but his peripheral numbers suggest that that ERA isn’t sustainable. His Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP) is 4.00. His Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) is 4.10. He’s not really that effective….he’s just getting a bit lucky on balls in play, and how the base runners he allows are being sequenced.
 
This is true for all of the Royals starters: while their traditional numbers (ERA, W-L record) are impressive, their peripheral numbers suggest a decline is coming:
 
 
Pitcher
 
ERA
 
FIP
 
xFIP
Vargas
3.25
4.00
4.10
Shields
2.50
3.88
3.62
Guthrie
4.04
4.89
4.73
Ventura
3.20
3.34
3.36
Duffy
2.83
3.88
4.58
 
Vargas and Shields are getting very lucky, and Guthrie’s apparent not-so-badness is an illusion. Duffy’s ERA isn’t just an illusion; it’s currently booking in Las Vegas, covering for David Copperfield. Only Ventura’s pitching line is where is should be, and his tendency to throw the baseball extremely hard carries some obvious risks.
 
The bullpen is just as lucky:
 
 
Pitcher
 
ERA
 
FIP
 
xFIP
Herrera
2.35
2.89
4.12
Davis
1.19
1.34
2.02
Crow
2.97
4.14
4.14
 
Davis has been excellent, but not that excellent. Herrera and Crow have troubling peripheral numbers.
 
 
Pitcher
 
ERA
 
FIP
 
xFIP
Holland
1.35
1.36
1.75
 
Okay…there’s nothing wrong with Greg Holland. He is amazing.
 
Regarding the Royals offense: Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez are pennant-caliber players, and I remain optimistic that Eric Hosmer will be a productive hitter in the major leagues. Escobar and Cain are both net pluses on this team, and the Royals should give Moustakas a shot to put things together. But…they’re a team that had Aoki, Infante, Hosmer, and Butler batting 1-4 in their order.
 
Let’s consider that…here are the nine starters from today’s game, listed with their on-base percentages and Adjusted OPS (OPS+):
 
 
Player
 
OBP
 
OPS+
Gordon
.369
124
Cain
.344
109
Perez
.333
111
Escobar
.330
101
Aoki
.324
78
Butler
.321
85
Hosmer
.305
88
Infante
.290
76
Moose
.246
62
 
This communicates, very clearly, that the Royals have four good (or good-ish)hitters, and a lot of hitters who you wouldn’t expect would be playing for a team in first place.
 
I don’t think the weak bats are a problem, necessarily. Or: it is a problem, but it isn’t the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is how the Kansas City Royals are using their hitters. In yesterday’s win against the Tigers, which brought the Royals within a half-game of first:
 
-Alex Gordon, the team’s best hitter by a comfortable margin, hit 5th.
-Salvador Perez, the best clutch hitter on the team, batted 6th.
 
-Lorenzo Cain, either the second- or third-best  hitter on the team, batted 7th.
-Alcides Escobar, a very competent hitter who currently has the third-best on-base percentage on the team, batted 9th.
 
Phrased more directly: the Royals have their best hitters batting 5th, 6th, 7th, and 9th in their lineup. The Detroit equivalent would have the Tigers hitting Miggy 5th, V-Mart 7th, and Torii Hunter 9th.
 
I know managing is hard, and there’s more to team planning than optimum lineup construction. But the Royals have trotted this lineup out all season long, and I very much doubt they’re going to change their plan of attack mid-way through an eight-game winning streak. But it’s stupid….in this day and age it reflects an organization that has no interest in paying any attention in thinking beyond: "Our DH is supposed to bat cleanup, right?"
 
I’ll start to believe in the Royals when they stop slotting their best hitters in the bottom-half of their order. Which isn’t going to happen in this universe.
 
 
 
David Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
    
 
 

COMMENTS (1 Comment)

therevverend
After watching the M's sweep the Royals in KC I had trouble understanding why these teams have winning records.
The Mariners lineup is atrocious as usual. After Hernandez and Iwakuma their pitching staff should be terrible. I expected the entire bullpen to choke flamingly but guys like Medina, Rodney and Farhquar known for meltdowns have been clutch. Their top four rotation guys have been excellent.
I think the game has swung to the pitcher's advantage so much that teams can win with bad lineups if their arms are good.
A lot of teams are running out abysmal hitters in the bottom half of their lineup. After the 3-4 best hitters on a team pitchers can cruise through a group of batters having bad years.
1:39 PM Jun 23rd
 
 
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