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The Royals are the most difficult team in baseball to analyze and discuss, and it’s not especially close. What does one do with this team? A year ago, they were one of the most maligned franchises in baseball. Eight months ago, they were the toast of baseball. Four months ago, they were an enigma, and in some circles, a laughingstock after an inscrutable offseason. They were a playoff team last season, but if you take away the games played July 22-August 23, they weren’t even a .500 team. They became famous as the bullpen-and-defense team during last year’s playoffs, but in fact, they won only when their inconsistent, below-average offense went into spasms of competence.

This season, though, they’re moving from the ranks of the uncommon to the lonely spotlight of uniqueness. They’re incomparable, because while they’re having tremendous success, there’s not much evidence that their success can be reliably replicated anywhere else. That killer bullpen? It’s still killer: The Royals’ 1.60 relief ERA is a half-run lower than that of any other team. Much of that is driven by the .215 BABIP those relievers are allowing, though. Kansas City is 19th in reliever strikeout rate. Eight of every nine runners the Royals’ bullpen has allowed to reach base have been stranded. They do have some guys capable of stifling opponents’ power, but that strand rate still feels fluky.

And while the bullpen is sorting out its kinda-sorta problems, the starting rotation is dealing with very real ones. The starters have a 4.46 ERA, eighth worst in baseball. Despite allowing the second-fewest runs in the AL and the fifth fewest in MLB, Kansas City ranks 27th in baseball with a 4.47 DRA. The arms have actually failed the Royals pretty profoundly this season.

You already know the answer, but let’s ask the question: How is this happening? How is a team with subpar pitching still one of the best run-prevention teams in the league? Obviously, it’s the defense. And not, as was the case last year, just the outfield defense. They lead the league in Defensive Efficiency. StatCorner credits their fielders with the second-highest Runs Above Average on grounders and the second-highest on fly balls; no one else is even in the top six on both lists. Opponents have a .260 BABIP against the Royals. Since 1988 (in fact, since the 1970s), only the 1990 Athletics and 1991 White Sox have allowed BABIPs that low.

As crucial to the Royals’ success as their defense might be, though, their defense isn’t what most makes them interesting. What most makes them interesting is their offense. The Royals have the highest (non-Dodgers, and the Dodgers don’t count, because come on, man) True Average of any team in baseball. Only the Blue Jays have scored more runs per game. Though they still don’t have much power and they still don’t draw many walks, the Royals are doing one great thing they did last season (striking out less often than any other club), and they’ve added one great thing at which they were just okay last year: They’re hitting .321 on balls in play, the second-highest rate in the league, after coming in at a pedestrian .302 last year.

There’s a real temptation to mark their offensive outburst down as luck, and to dismiss their hot start on that basis. I get that. To be sure, it’d be a surprise if the Royals could suddenly hit, because they haven’t turned over much of the lineup in the last year, and last year’s team couldn’t hit. Many people remember the way they came to life when the occasion demanded it last season, but they hit .198/.275/.349 in the ALDS against the Angels. On the other hand, Mike Moustakas has gotten all kinds of love for his altered approach, which was designed to beat the shift and increase his BABIP, and sure enough, he’s sporting a .333 BABIP. Lorenzo Cain, whom we watched discover his offensive potential last fall, has a .370 BABIP that sort of fits, really, given that Cain is a good fit for the archetype of the high-BABIP hitter: fast, right-handed, line-drive guy with power, but not home run power. When Eric Hosmer found it last summer, he became impossible to get him out on balls in play, as evidenced by his .341 second-half BABIP, and by his 18 hits on 34 balls in play during the playoffs.

I’m not saying that those three will finish the season with BABIP numbers this high; they won’t. But this is the Age of BABIP. Four Marlins came to the plate at least 502 times last season and posted BABIPs north of .330, and five other teams had three such players apiece. The Royals had only one batter who met those criteria (Cain), and Moustakas was at .220 in 500 plate appearances. If the new levels established by Hosmer and Moustakas are real, this team has a very legitimate offense. They’re not the juggernaut they’ve looked like in the early going, but they’re not pure smoke and mirrors, either.

Now, there’s one more thing we need to talk about. We’ve laid out how the team has done what they’ve done so far (namely, hold onto the AL Central lead, with a 25-14 record and a run differential that more than supports it). We still need to know what the road map to sustaining and building upon that success looks like. It’s important to talk about that, because the unique way the Royals work makes their formula for wins unusually volatile.

There’s no team more in danger of seeing its season fall apart due to injury than a team reliant upon young pitchers. The Royals do have young pitchers, notably Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy, but they’re not that kind of team. They don’t rely on their pitchers at all; we established that at the top of this article. Rather, the Royals rely on their position players. The only thing is, they really, really rely on their position players, and to elaborate, they rely on their starting position players staying healthy and producing every day.

That might just be the second-most dangerous way to build a winning team. The Royals are bound to suffer greater than usual inconsistency, because they run out so many of their position players every single day. Guys get tired, play through fatigue, play through injury, and their performance suffers. Salvador Perez plays way, way too much; everyone knows that. In truth, though, just about every player on the Royals plays too much. It’s because the team is dependent on those players not only to produce runs, but to prevent them. That means that a single injury—especially one to Cain, Hosmer or Alex Gordon—could disproportionately hurt this team.

It’s great to have two-way positional talent, but if a team’s pitching staff is weak, those players take on a degree of importance to the team that isn’t healthy or viable. Call this the Tulowitzki Theorem. When things are going well, these teams will project an illusory balance, but break down the components of everything, and it becomes clear that their weaknesses are simply being painted over. Unless the Royals’ pitching staff either recovers its 2014 home, or gets some serious reinforcement from Dayton Moore in July, the team will go only as far as good health and good fortune permit.

Thank you for reading

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roarke
5/20
I think it is interesting that the Royals are doing this without Ventura and Duffy performing to expectations yet this year. So if the offense is due for some regression to their true abilities, so is the top of the rotation, which could balance out some offensive regression.

Everyone keeps waiting for the Royals to fall apart, but I think it's a fun team to watch and I hope their success continues. It makes for entertaining baseball.
huztlers
5/20
The Royals are one of the few teams in MLB that play baseball. Another would be the Giants. By "baseball", I mean situational hitting, base-running, playing defense, etc. Most teams are more concerned with promoting the youngest, mistake-prone, swing-and-miss prospects to their active roster. Classic style over substance. It is great to see the teams doing it right having continued "surprising: success.
reid82
5/20
Matthew - Interesting breakdown of the Royals and at what they're excelling, but can you really say that a team that is 3rd in MLB in extra base hits and second in SLG doesn't have power?

HR power? Sure, this still is not a great HR-hitting team. But they lead baseball in triples and doubles. They're getting a lot more extra base hits than a season ago - and that's up and down the lineup.

Morales is slugging better than Billy Butler; Moustakas is far outperforming his 2014 self; Hosmer and Cain are driving the ball more; Before his hand injury, Rios was providing more XB thump than Aoki.

I think you make a great point with Perez, though. He's the most irreplaceable of the 2-way players on that team. If Cain or Gordon were to be injured and miss time, the Royals could duplicate a big part of the run prevention those two provide with Dyson.

But Perez? That would be a black hole like the one in Cleveland without Yan Gomes...
darthack2661
5/21
You bring up great points about how SLG is automatically assumed to be HR. While Hos seems to have finally found that elusive 80 power scouts saw in him coming up (although I think 25 dingers may be his ceiling), the XBH the Royals have are still legit, and sustainable. This is really a fun team to watch, and outside of Ventura's antics, very easy to root for.
rselzer
5/21
I agree with most of the points here, but disagree with the conclusion. Yes, this team is more dependent on its position players than most teams, but their balance makes their continued success LESS fragile to injuries than other teams.

That the position players play a lot is a common feature of good teams. Just looking at Baseball Reference data, the Royals have more PA's from their top 8 position players than any other team, which supports your argument, but the next three teams on the list are Detroit, NY Yankees, and St. Louis.

But more specifically, Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain have fewer PA's this year than: Cabrera, Cespedes, Ellsbury, Bryce Harper, Jose Abreu, Mike Trout, Stanton, Donaldson, Kipnis, Goldschmidt, Votto, Cruz, Upton, Adrian Gonzalez, Posey...and I doubt that losing either Gordon or Cain would hurt the Royals any more than losing one of those players would hurt his team.

Sure, losing any one of Hosmer, Perez, Moustakas, Gordon or Cain would hurt the team, but none of them rise to the level of importance that those guys listed above do. And to me, this is a feature, not a bug. Also, the reason that those five play every day that they're available is that they're good, which is the same reason that Cabrera, harper, Trout, Goldschmidt, etc, etc, play every day.

Finally I guess I don't see the connection between acknowledging that Royals position players are more valuable than most teams' position players and then implying that this makes them more vulnerable. Position players are less prone to injuries, are they not? Seems to me like concentrating a team's value in its least susceptible pockets is a good strategy.
brucegilsen
5/23
The Royals need to trade for Ben Zobrist. He could fill in all over the diamond and give everyone but Perez a day off when they need it.