Friday, April 22, 2011

Royals Today: 4/22/11.

You know, if this series were played between these two teams vying for first place in September, this would have been an epic matchup, one that would have lived in Royals lore for a long time. The Royals miss a chance to take the lead in Game 1 when Billy Butler leaves second base, not realizing he’s safe, then lose in extra innings. The bullpen almost blows a 5-0 lead after six innings in Game 2, but with the bases loaded, Carlos Santana watches three straight strikes to end the game. Luke Hochevar goes from hero to zero in impressive time, even by his standards, in Game 3.

And in Game 4, the Royals find a way to come back from a 2-0 deficit after seven innings. Ned Yost pinch-runs for Billy Butler with Jarrod Dyson in the eighth, a move that immediately pays dividends when Dyson beats the flip from Asdrubal Cabrera after Cabrera smothered Jeff Francoeur’s grounder up the middle. Butler almost certainly would have been out, and the inning would have ended without a run scored.

And in the ninth, the Royals went from despair (starting the inning down a run) to exultation (men on first-and-third with none out) and back to despair, after Alcides Escobar’s grounder was snared by Jack Hannahan and Mike Aviles was thrown out at the plate. More exultation, when Chris Getz walked to load the bases and put the tying run at third again with one out, then more despair, when Melky Cabrera fell behind 0-2. And then Melky lined one past the shortstop and sent everyone home happy.

A series like this in September would have become part of the firmament of baseball memories in Kansas City. But of course, it didn’t happen in September, because the Royals haven’t played a meaningful series in September in 26 years. What’s the most memorable game the Royals have played since the strike? Maybe this game, when Carlos Beltran saved the game in regulation by taking away a homer, then winning it with a walk-off blast. That game came on July 20th. The other most memorable game? Probably Opening Day, 2004, which also featured a Carlos Beltran walk-off homer.

My personal favorite memory is probably this game in 1994, when the Royals, in the first game of a four-game series against the White Sox that they absolutely had to win in order to stay in the race, blew chance after chance in a tie game. In the ninth, with two on and one out, Greg Gagne was doubled up on Jose Lind’s fly out. In the tenth, after Brian McRae reached third base with one out, the Sox gave free passes to Wally Joyner and Bob Hamelin – and Mike Macfarlane grounded into a double play. In the 11th, Felix Jose tried to go first-to-third on Gagne’s one-out single and was thrown out. And in the top of the 12th, the White Sox got a two-out single from Tim Raines to drive in a run.

McRae tried to bunt his way on to start the 12th and popped out, but Dave Henderson walked, and Wally Joyner singled him to third to bring up the Hammer. Hamelin drove Roberto Hernandez’s pitch to center field, and my first emotion was relief that it was deep enough to drive in the run – and then elation when the ball kept carrying for a walk-off homer. That was the Royals’ third win a row; they would their next 11 games to put them a game out of the AL Central lead. A week later, Major League Baseball closed up shop for the year.

That game was on July 25th. I don’t have a single positive memory of a Royals game played in September or even August.

One of the best reasons to be a fan of a sports team is to avail yourself of the shared experiences and shared memories of that fan base. By sharing powerful memories – good or bad – with a group of people, you can’t help but feel connected with them. I’ve never lived in Kansas City, and have no real connection to the city other than the experiences and memories of watching this team play – and yet those experiences and memories are strong enough to have inextricably bound me to the city for over a quarter-century.

But I’m a special case, and if you’re reading this, so are you. Most of the people who consider themselves “Royals fans” are not connected to this web of fandom that we’ve constructed, the web that gets together on Twitter every evening to watch the Royals and argues over whether the Royals should give up on Kila Ka’aihue. It’s not their fault that they’re not connected to the team – the Royals simply haven’t given them the kind of memories that would bind them. Even bad memories, painful memories – think Lin Elliot, though not for too long – serve as a touchstone for a fan base to come together. Cleveland Browns fans still reminisce with heartache over The Drive and The Fumble, but at least they reminisce.

What do we have to reminisce about? Chip Ambres dropping a routine fly ball? Terrence Long and Ambres letting another routine fly ball drop behind them? The Royals losing 19 games in a row? Tony Pena fleeing the team in the middle of the night? These memories aren’t painful – they’re comical. There’s no real emotion attached to them. We laugh when we think about them – but we don’t really feel anything.

So forgive us if we’re getting a little too worked up over a 12-7 start, or put too much meaning into last night’s comeback. Yes, it’s April. But April memories are better than no memories at all.

I apologize for that rambling and incredibly self-indulgent intro. Now, on with some analysis.

- I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Kila Ka’aihue’s ninth-inning double may have saved his career with the Royals. For one thing, it might be a temporary reprieve. But it certainly pulled him a step away from the abyss.

Ka’aihue went 0-for-4 on Monday, when a base hit at any point might have kept the game from going into extra innings. In the bottom of the sixth, with men on first and second and none out, he tried to put down a bunt – unsuccessfully – and eventually popped out. Francoeur followed with a sharp groundball that turned into a 4-6-3 double play; if Ka’aihue gets the bunt down, a run probably scores, and the Royals probably win. He was 0-for-3 on Tuesday, then capped his day with another bunt – this one was successful – in the eighth inning. Afterwards, Ned Yost went so far as to blame the decision to bunt on a miscommunication caused by the batboy; methinks he doth protest too much. This game brought Kila’s numbers down to a .151/.270/.245 line.

He went 2-for-3 with a walk on Wednesday, but last night he struck out and grounded out to the second baseman twice, the last one into a double play. When he batted in the ninth, boos were audible on TV from the sparse crowd. The natives have grown restless.

And then Chris Perez threw a fastball down Main Street, and Ka’aihue laced a double to the left-center field gap. And the Royals went on to win. It’s just one hit, but we’re starting to reach the point with Ka’aihue where every hit becomes notable.

For everyone who sees that Eric Hosmer is hitting .393 in Omaha and wants a change to be made: hold your horses. It took Ka’aihue three years to get a job; I think he deserves more than three weeks before he loses it. If you pick Hosmer over Ka’aihue now, you’re giving up on Kila forever, and there’s no way to come back from that – his tenure with the Royals is over. If you pick Ka’aihue over Hosmer now, Hosmer just bides his time in Omaha; his chance is coming.

If the scouts were right and Ka’aihue was struggling because he couldn’t catch up to major-league fastballs, I might be more inclined to worry. But his struggles are notable precisely because fastballs are the one pitch he hasn’t struggled against. His problem has been with the slow stuff, which makes me think he’s pressing. He’s drawing his share of walks, but also striking out an inordinate amount of the time – 19 whiffs in 60 at-bats, from a guy who never struck out 100 times in a minor-league season.

Winning is a double-edged sword. If the Royals were 7-12, no one would care that the Royals were sticking with a first baseman who is hitting .181. But they are, and if they continue to win, at some point they’ll have to decide if they ought to prioritize winning today over the development of one of their best young hitters for the future. But that point hasn’t been reached. Hopefully last night’s double bought Ka’aihue some time. He deserves it.

- With full awareness that my campaign to give Royals players nicknames has failed miserably over the years – the only nickname that stuck has now been disavowed by its owner – can we all agree that Alex Gordon should now be known as The Dominator?

If Gordon had come out this season and fallen on his face again, the nickname would have worked as a sarcastic insult to the player who dared to say “I’m going to dominate next year” after four progressively more disappointing seasons. Instead, he’s backed up his rare bravado with an even rarer display of all-around skill. He leads the league in hits, and he’s on pace to hit 85 doubles. His defense in left field has been excellent; while he’s taken bad routes to balls hit into the corner a few times, he’s also made some outstanding diving plays. He also has five outfield assists in just 18 games. (By way of comparison, Johnny Damon had five outfield assists in all of 1996, and again in all of 1997.) Last night, Gordon moved to first base in the ninth inning, and immediately made a diving play to snare a grounder headed to right field.

He’s not a superstar, and three weeks doesn’t change that. But neither is he Alex Gordon, Epic Disappointment anymore. Let’s just enjoy the ride.

- Billy Butler is hitting .353/.476/.500. Just as impressively, he hasn’t grounded into a single double play in 19 games. Last year, he grounded into 32 of them.

- Jeff Francoeur is hitting .329/.363/.534 and leads the league in RBIs, but before you get too excited, consider this:

vs. LHP: 10-for-21 with 3 homers (.476/.478/.952)
vs. RHP: 14-for-52 with 0 homers (.269/.316/.365)

Frenchy is playing well, but it’s almost entirely on the shoulders of his performance against southpaws. Francoeur has always hit LHP pretty well, and deserves a role as a platoon outfielder in the majors on that basis alone. And his performance against right-handed pitchers isn’t bad by his standards; that .316 OBP is actually better than his career OBP (.311) against all pitchers. But I’m not about to proclaim him a new man yet. Let’s just enjoy the ride, and be prepared to jump off at any moment.

- The Royals uncharacteristic embrace of the base on balls continues – they rank third in the league in walks drawn. Last night showed the kind of impact patience can have, as four walks in the final two innings were instrumental in scoring all three runs.

I should give a shout-out here to Chris Getz, who is hitting just .242 and has just two extra-base hits all season, but has drawn 10 walks for a solid .347 OBP. Last night, he walked to lead off the eighth and scored the first run, and in the ninth, after the Royals had the tying run gunned down at the plate, Getz drew a second walk to load the bases and set up Melky’s heroics. Neither walk made headlines in the game recap, but the Royals wouldn’t have won without them.

- I’ve had little reason to mention Mitch Maier’s name this season, so let’s give him a nod here. After getting all of five plate appearances in the first 18 games of the season, Maier comes off the bench to pinch-hit for Matt Treanor in the ninth, and immediately rifles a line drive to center. Yost hasn’t pinch-hit much, but that situation screamed for one – Treanor is hitting .132, and Chris Perez’s slider makes him much more effective against right-handed hitters. Yost has made some strange tactical moves of late, but he pushed all the right buttons last night.

- Wednesday’s start was perhaps the quintessential Luke Hochevar performance. He started with five perfect innings, continuing a stretch of 31 consecutive batters retired. Then Michael Brantley singled to lead off the sixth, starting a stretch where 8 of 11 batters would reach base, and Hochevar would balk twice.

There’s a reason why Hochevar, despite a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost exactly 2-to-1, has a career 5.56 ERA. Take a look at these career numbers:

No one on base: .246/.305/.405
Man on base: .316/.385/.504

With someone base, Hochevar allows opposing hitters to bat 70 points higher, with an OBP 80 points higher, and a slugging average 100 points higher. There’s a reason I’m breaking out the bold – that’s an unbelievable difference. Those are career numbers, in a sample size of over 400 innings, so you can’t dismiss them as a fluke.

And it only feeds the perception that Hochevar’s struggles in the major leagues are not physical. I continue to think better times are ahead for him, and I continue to think Ned Yost is handling him well. But it’s clear that there’s plenty more work to be done.

- Speaking of bad pitchers, Craig Brown’s takedown of Kyle Davies has (deservedly) gotten a lot of publicity the last few days. It’s an impressive piece of work; I think we all vaguely sensed that Davies was a terrible pitcher, but I certainly had no idea that his ERA was historically bad.

I have a few small critiques of Brown’s study. Mainly, I don’t see the point in limiting his study to pitchers who have started in 90% of their appearances. By definition, any pitcher this bad is eventually going to be tried in the bullpen out of desperation; Davies simply hasn’t reached that point of desperation yet.

If you look at all the pitchers in major-league history with 700+ innings pitched, Davies does not have the worst career ERA. He does, however, have the 6th-worst ERA, one slot behind Todd Van Poppel and one slot ahead of Pat Mahomes. That kind of historic suckitude does not require embellishment.

(And Davies’ career ERA of 5.54 is two points lower than Hochevar’s.)

With that being said, I still don’t see a better option for the rotation at this point in time. Vinny Mazzaro was hardly more impressive in his second start in Omaha than in his first. Mike Montgomery and Danny Duffy are close, but rushing them to the majors now smacks of desperation.

As unpalatable as it sounds for a team that’s 12-7 and ostensibly in contention, I think the Royals have little choice other than to continue to start Davies every fifth game. A month from now, they ought to have options for the rotation, maybe several options. But for now, their best option is to sit tight.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Game Not On. (Yet.)

So on Saturday, the Royals beat the Mariners 7-0, as Sean O’Sullivan outdueled Felix Hernandez with five scoreless innings, three middle relievers struck out six batters in the last four innings, the defense made several outstanding plays, Alex Gordon (who is leading the league in hits) and Billy Butler played pinball against King Felix, and the Royals remained tied for the American League lead in wins, as they enter a crucial matchup with the Cleveland Indians on Monday between the two best teams in the AL Central, and literally every word of this sentence would have seemed unthinkable three weeks ago.

The fun came to an end today, when the Royals lost 3-2 after Ned Yost made the questionable decision to send Jeff Francis back out to the mound to start the seventh inning. Justin Smoak and lefty-killer Miguel Olivo followed with singles, and both scored on Brendan Ryan’s single (the only baserunner Blake Wood allowed in 2.2 innings.) Even so, the Royals should have tied the game; a blown umpire call at first base in the eighth inning – Chris Getz was called out even though his foot beat Jamey Wright’s to the bag – cost the Royals a run. In the ninth, after Kila Ka’aihue singled, Jeff Francoeur ripped a one-hopper off Ryan’s glove at shortstop, but Ryan made a fantastic play to recover the ball and nip Francoeur at first. With two out, Betemit drove in Ka’aihue with a single, and pinch-runner Mike Aviles stole second before Brayan Pena grounded out.

The Royals lost, but they fought to their last batter, something they’ve done in 14 of their 15 games this year. The Royals are still 10-5, and what might be even more amazing is that four of their five losses could have gone the other way:

Loss #1: On Opening Day, Alex Gordon’s bid for a walk-off homer with two outs in the ninth goes just foul before he strikes out. It would be the last time Gordon would make an out all season.

Loss #2: The Royals lead the White Sox 6-3 with two outs in the ninth and no one on, before the Sox pull off an improbable four-run rally against Joakim Soria. Even so, the Royals tie the game in the bottom of the ninth, and have the winning run on second base with one out. In the tenth, the Royals have men on first and third with one out, but Chris Sale strikes out Francoeur to keep the winning run from moving up; the Sox score two in the 12th to win.

Loss #3: The Tigers score four runs off Kyle Davies in the first, and put the game away early, 5-2.

Loss #4: The Royals tie the Twins 3-3 in the top of the seventh, and have men on first and third with none out – but Gordon strikes out, Butler pops out, and Francoeur strikes out to kill the rally. The Royals don’t get another baserunner the rest of the game, and the Twins win in the tenth when Ned Yost decides to prove, beyond the shadowiest shadow of a sliver of a doubt, that Robinson Tejeda really has lost five mph off his fastball.

Loss #5: See above.

The Royals have played 15 games, and in just one of them did they not have the winning run at the plate in the ninth inning. That’s pretty damn amazing. Granted, they’ve pulled some victories out of a hat; they could be 7-8 right now. But a few fly balls to the outfield and they could be 13-3 or 14-2 as well.

But the Royals are still 10-5, and if they keep winning two out of every three games, at some point we have to take them seriously. The question is, have we reached that point yet?

You know I’m going to say no, and not only because two years ago, after a sample size that was nearly twice as large, I fell for the mirage – and wound up with rotten eggs on my face when the team went 47-86 the rest of the way. But I will say, this year doesn’t feel like 2009 at all. I didn’t go into the 2009 season with high expectations, but I at least acknowledged the possibility before the season that the team could be competitive if they caught a few breaks.

This year (this article notwithstanding) I had no expectations whatsoever. More to the point – the Royals had no expectations of winning. This team, as it was constructed over the winter, was not built to win. In that sense, this team is very much like the 2003 squad. When that team came out of the chute 9-0, there was a level of cognitive dissonance within the media, both in Kansas City and nationally. There was simply no explanation for how a team that looked so bad on paper could be playing so well, and no one knew what to make of it.

It turns out that the 9-0 start wasn’t real, but it wasn’t exactly a fraud either. Let’s try to figure out where the 2011 Royals fit on the continuum.

Pythagorean Theorem: One of the fundamental axioms of baseball analysis – it was discovered and named by Bill James in the early 1980s – is that there is a very strong correlation between a team’s win-loss record and its runs/runs allowed ratio. Specifically, the ratio between a team’s wins and its losses is approximately the square of the ratio between its runs scored and runs allowed (hence the term “Pythagorean.”)

We can apply that theorem to the Royals to see whether their 10-5 record is the product of good fortune or a true reflection of how they’ve played. The Royals have a .667 winning percentage. Based on their run totals – they’ve scored 82 runs and allowed 63 – their winning percentage should be only .629.

That’s not an indictment of the team. Put it this way – the Royals are currently on a 108-win pace. Based on their run totals, they should “only” be on pace to win 102 games.

I’d take that.

Closely allied with how a team performs compared to its Pythagorean expectation is how well the team plays in one-run games. A team that wins a lot of one-run games is going to win more games than you’d expect from their run totals. With their loss today, the Royals are 4-2 in one-run games – and they’re 6-3 in games decided by more than one run. They’re 2-2 in extra-inning games. They’ve only played two blowouts (games decided by 5+ runs), and won both of them. While the Royals may be playing five miles over their heads, there’s simply no evidence of that based on the scores of their games.

Second-Order Wins: A team’s Pythagorean record is what Baseball Prospectus calls “First-Order Wins”, meaning a team’s record once the first layer of luck is stripped out. Second-Order Wins strips out another layer of luck, looking at how a team scores their runs. If a team is scoring a lot of runs because they’re hitting really well with runners in scoring position, that’s unlikely to continue, and their offense is likely to slow down. If a pitching staff is stranding a lot of baserunners, eventually the debt will come due.

When you mine the data this deep, the Royals do come out looking fairly lucky. The Royals are 10-5, but they actually have fewer hits than their opponents (152 to 148), and have been out-homered, 16-11. They do have more doubles (33-29), more steals (19-8), and shocking, their biggest advantage is in walks (57-41).

Overall, the Royals are hitting .275/.341/.408. Their opponents are hitting .272/.323/.421. The Royals have a slight offensive advantage thanks to their higher OBP (!), and we also have to give them a significant edge on the basepaths. But even so, those numbers are the mark of an 8-7 team, not a 10-5 one.

Strength of Schedule: Baseball Prospectus also has “Third-Order Wins”, which adjust a team’s record based on the strength of the teams they have faced so far. Of course, if it’s too early in the season to know how good the Royals are, it’s too early in the season to know how good their opponents are.

But if there’s one thing we know, it’s that the Mariners are a pretty awful baseball team, a team that without Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda might be historically bad. Their offense already was historically bad last year – the Mariners scored the fewest runs of any AL team in a full season since the invention of the DH. This year’s offense might not be any better; they scored nine runs in four games against the Royals, and three of those came in the ninth inning on Friday night in the kind of weather conditions last seen in the third installment of Pirates of the Caribbean.

This series aside, the Royals went 7-3 against the three teams widely considered to be the three contenders in the AL Central, and the Angels, a team that at least one pundit (read: me) picked to win the AL West, and a team that is 9-2 since they left Kansas City. Frankly, the best case you can make on behalf of the Royals is that the Tigers, White Sox, and (especially) the Twins don’t look nearly as formidable as they did three weeks ago. Of course, the best case against the Royals is that the Indians have the best record in baseball at 11-4, which should serve as a reminder that it’s way too early to be taking records seriously.

Sustainability of Performance: This, ultimately, is all that matters. Can the Royals, on an individual level, continue to play this well? Let’s look at the players who are most responsible for this start:

Alex Gordon: He’s hitting .365/.394/.540 so far, and no, he’s not going to hit .365 all season. But if his breakout is for real, he might slug .540. And if he starts to draw more walks, he might maintain a .394 OBP. I have no doubt that I’m jumping to conclusions with Gordon’s hot start – I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for four years, and I’m not going to let it slip out of my hands now.

I think Gordon is going to cool down. But I think we have to upgrade, perhaps significantly, our expectations of what Gordon will hit this season. (And, perhaps more importantly, what he will hit in 2012 and 2013 as well.)

Jeff Francoeur: He’s hitting .328/.349/.517 so far, and no, he’s not going to hit .328 all season. He’s not going to slug .517 all season. Frankly, even projecting a .349 OBP for him seems overly optimistic, and a .349 OBP is nothing to brag about to begin with.

I’ll be honest: I have no idea what to expect from Francoeur. As the Kansas City Star reported a few days ago, there is some data to suggest Francoeur is succeeding with a different, more patient approach at the plate. But those of you who have followed the Jeff Francoeur Saga over the years know that this isn’t the first time, or even the fifth time, he’s convinced people that he’s about to turn a corner. It’s not a fulfilling answer, but saying “we just don’t know” is the only honest answer to give.

Billy Butler: He won’t hit .352/.470/.537, but he’s going to hit, and he might well have his best season yet.

Wilson Betemit: He won’t hit .371/.452/.571, but he can hit, and if he does he’s not going to remain a part-time player. His impact has been limited by batting only 41 times in 15 games so far, so even if he cools down he could continue to maintain his value.

Those four hitters – who fortuitously all bat in the middle of the lineup – are the only four hitters who are playing above expectations. Melky Cabrera has been nothing special at .279/.286/.397; Chris Getz, after a hot start, is hitting .269/.333/.288. Alcides Escobar might not continue to make one Gold Glove-caliber play at shortstop per game, but at the same time he can probably improve on his .233/.270/.267 line so far this year. Brayan Pena and Matt Treanor are hitting a combined .200/.297/.327. Mike Aviles has recovered from a tough start, but he’s still hitting .200/.250/.450. And Ka’aihue, most troublingly, is hitting .174/.304/.283.

I have no doubt that Gordon, Francoeur, Butler, and Betemit will cool off. But at the same time, they can expect better production from shortstop, second base, and DH. If either Getz or Ka’aihue don’t pick it up, they’ll see their playing time eaten away by Betemit, with Aviles picking up the slack. They’re not going to continue to score 5.5 runs a game. But they may have a less bumpy descent than you’d think.

On the pitching side of things…

Aaron Crow, Jeremy Jeffress, and Tim Collins have combined for 23.1 innings, and have allowed just 15 hits, walked 11, and struck out 29. They’ve allowed just three runs. That level of performance is, obviously, unsustainable.

But at the same time, none of the three are doing this with smoke and mirrors. They all have power stuff, and they’re all striking guys out in bunches. There’s no position where a rookie is more likely to find immediate success than in the bullpen, so you can’t use their inexperience against them. The walks have to concern you, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that, if they stay healthy, all three pitchers will continue to find success all season.

Kanekoa Texeira and Nate Adcock have combined to throw 8.2 innings, they’ve allowed 14 hits and two walks, and have not a single strikeout – but they’ve allowed just one run. Some serious regression is due here – but at the same time, both pitchers are largely garbage-time guys whose performances are unlikely to decide a ballgame one way or the other.

And that leaves Joakim Soria and Robinson Tejeda, who have allowed nine runs in 13 innings, allowed 18 hits and six walks, and struck out just four. Tejeda is now on the DL, having been replaced by Blake Wood, who is supposed to be throwing harder and better than he did as a rookie a year ago. Soria is a concern given his lack of strikeouts as well as his performance. I reached a personal DEFCON low with Soria after he nearly blew another big ninth-inning lead on Friday, but that was before I was aware of just how bad the conditions were at the time. I can see how it might be hard to throw strikes while trying to pitch through an icy monsoon.

If Soria is healthy – and we’ll have a better answer for that question after his next few outings – I think the bullpen will continue to be a strength of this team. I expected it to be one before the season, and I certainly have seen no reason to change my mind.

As for the rotation…

Jeff Francis has a 3.00 ERA, and in 27 innings has walked 3 batters. If he can keep throwing that many strikes, he’ll be effective, but 1) he won’t be this effective, not in the American League, not with his velocity; and 2) he won’t keep walking a batter per nine innings.

Bruce Chen had a 4.17 ERA last season. I love Bruce Chen, but nothing in his peripheral results or in his repertoire made you think that’s sustainable. This year, his ERA is 2.61. You do the math.

Luke Hochevar has a 4.21 ERA, and I do think that’s sustainable. He has four walks and 16 strikeouts on the year; his bugaboo has been the six homers he’s surrendered in 26 innings, and that’s a little fluky.

Kyle Davies, on the other hand, has allowed 14 runs in 14 innings. He’s not that bad, and if he is, the Royals will soon replace him with someone who isn’t that bad.

The bottom line here is that neither Francis nor Chen can keep this up, and now that the Royals need a fifth starter every fifth game, they’re not going to get five shutout innings from that slot either. The rotation’s ERA as a whole is 3.97, and that’s not sustainable. I’d be happy with a 50-point jump; it might be a lot higher. Let me put it this way: right now, who starts Game 1 of the playoffs for the Royals?

Future Roster Changes: The answer to that question, in all seriousness, is probably Mike Montgomery. If you could see the future and told me that the Royals will make the playoffs this October, and I had to wager on who started Game 1 of the ALDS, I’d pick Monty. (And after he struck out 7 of the 16 batters he faced in Triple-A on Saturday, Danny Duffy might be my pick for Game 2.)

That’s what you have to hope for if you’re a Royals fan. The offense will regress, although I’ve seen enough to posit that it’s a better offense than we thought it would be. The bullpen, which has a 3.28 collective ERA right now, will regress, but will probably still be one of the better units in the American League. But the rotation is going to regress a lot – unless and until reinforcements arrive. However, if the Royals can just find a way to channel 2003 until mid-season, and dodge the laws of probability long enough to remain in contention at the All-Star Break, then unlike in 2003, they will have the opportunity to fix the team’s biggest weakness from within when the second half kicks off.

We might not even have to wait that long. Everyone obsesses about the Super-Two Deadline, but the more important deadline has already passed. Every one of the Royals’ vaunted prospects who are in the minors today are now guaranteed to be under club control through 2017. If Montgomery were called up tomorrow, the Royals would get almost seven full seasons out of him. He might get arbitration a year early, and in a best/worst case scenario that could cost the Royals more than $10 million. (That’s what it cost the Giants when Tim Lincecum qualified for arbitration prior to the 2010 season – after he had just won back-to-back Cy Young Awards.)

But if the Royals maintain their hot start, and the front office decides to go for it, and they deem Montgomery or Moustakas or any of a half-dozen other guys are ready…they shouldn’t hold back. If the future is now, then The Future Is Now.

The Verdict: Eight years ago, in response to the Royals’ 9-0 and 16-3 start, I researched the impact that a hot start had on a team’s final projected record. You can read the results here. Even when the Royals were 16-3, their projected finish was 85-77, a disappointing finish given their record but a reasonable one for a team that had just lost 100 games the year before.

Prior to this season, the simple formula I introduced in the article above would have projected the Royals to go 72-90 this season. Based on their 10-5 start, we can now update our projection for the Royals this year all the way to 79-83. The 10-5 start has been worth about seven wins – four of those are already in the bank (because the team should have won only six of their first 15 games, instead of 10), and three of those are a reflection of the fact that the team might actually be better than we thought.

If you projected the Royals to win 69 games before the season, as I did, then you would project them to go 76-86 now. That’s not good…but on the other hand, it would be the team’s best record since 2003.

So it’s definitely not on. Not yet. But it’s not completely off either. Stay tuned.

(Also, stay tuned to 810 WHB this Thursday at 6. Still finalizing the details, but I should be on the air one way or the other.)