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.
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