Friday, June 20, 2014

We're Going Streaking!

If you want to understand why the Royals fan base is so jacked up, it boils down to one thing: This is the team Dayton Moore wanted. This is the team Moore promised was the payoff for our patience. The 2014 Royals, the culmination of The Process, are in first place at the 72-game mark of the season for the first time since 1980.

A lot can happen in three weeks of baseball, but what has happened in the last three weeks of baseball is almost unprecedented in Royals history, which is why I can take the lede to a column I wrote for the Kansas City Star on June 1st and tweak a few words to make it mean the exact opposite of what it meant then. I’ve written many things that look ridiculous in retrospect – but it usually takes a lot more retro than this.

You might recall that as a sop to the organization I finished my column with a caveat – “Moore deserves a little more time to turn this season around — if the team goes on a stretch where it wins 15 out of 20, as the Royals did last year, they might lead the wild-card race and quiet their critics.” The team didn’t go on a stretch where it won 15 out of 20 – it was already in such a stretch, starting the day that Dale Sveum was hired as the team’s new hitting coach on May 29th.

Along the way they won 10 games in a row for the first time since 1994, the second time since 1978, and the fifth time in franchise history. (By comparison, the Royals have lost ten games in a row six times – just since 2005.) I wouldn’t argue that it’s the most unlikely winning streak in team history; I think the 9-0 start to the 2003 season was more unlikely, coming from a team that had lost 100 games the year before. But I don’t think any winning streak in the history of the Royals has changed the narrative of the franchise quite like this one has. On the morning of June 7th – 13 days ago! – they were 29-32 and tied for last place. Yet tonight I’m writing this column from the press box at Kauffman Stadium, looking out at what I believe is the first sold-out crowd I have ever witnessed here – a sold-out crowd to watch a first-place baseball team.

And it’s time for me to acknowledge that…well…I’m not saying I was wrong – about the Royals, the Shields trade, Jason Vargas, a lot of things. It is June, after all, even if the deliriously festive mood among Royals fans – and the incredulous reaction from the rest of baseball – would have you believing it’s late September. But I have to acknowledge at least the possibility that I was wrong. Very wrong.

The funny thing is that the standings are not all that different from what I (or a lot of observers) expected before the season began.

Team          W   L  Pct.   GB
Kansas City  39  33  .542  ---
Detroit      37  32  .536  0.5
Cleveland    37  36  .507  2.5
Chicago      35  38  .479  4.5
Minnesota    33  38  .465  5.5

I projected the Royals to win 85 games before the season, which at the 72-game mark would project to a 38-34 record – they’ve literally won one more game than I would have expected. The Tigers are two or three games behind where I expected them to be, but I thought they were vulnerable before the season – I saw them as maybe a 90-92 win team. Honestly, the most surprising part of the AL Central standings are that the White Sox and Twins are so close to .500.

But of course here are the standings on the morning of May 19th:

Team          W   L  Pct.   GB
Detroit      27  12  .692  ---
Kansas City  22  21  .512  7.0
Minnesota    21  21  .500  7.5
Chicago      21  24  .467  9.0
Cleveland    19  25  .432 10.5

It’s when you look at the standings from a month ago that you realize the real story of the AL Central isn’t the rise of the Royals – the Indians have actually played better (18-11) than Kansas City (17-12) in that span – but the collapse of the Tigers. Detroit has followed a 27-12 start by going 10-20 since. That, to me, might be even more surprising than what the Royals have done. I didn’t expect the Tigers to play .692 ball all season, but I also didn’t expect the three-time defending AL Central champions, who had the best record in baseball a month ago, to lose two-thirds of their games for the next month.

And so here with are, 90 games left in the season, the Royals and Tigers essentially tied. The two teams represent a fascinating contrast of styles, both in terms of the way they were built – the Royals largely from within, the Tigers mostly through trades and free agent signings – and in terms of strengths and weaknesses. The Tigers have the two-time defending AL MVP in Miguel Cabrera, an almost equally terrifying Victor Martinez, and an excellent rotation in which Justin Verlander is suddenly, and clearly, the worst starter. The Royals have a good rotation that looks great because it’s backed by the best defense in the game; excellent team speed; and a bullpen that has been as impervious as the Tigers’ bullpen has been leaky. This could be a fascinating pennant race because it’s as much a referendum on baseball philosophy as it is a clash of two equally-matched baseball teams. (Just watch: the Indians will wind up winning it.)

There are still reasons to think the Royals are the underdog here, for the simple reason that, objectively speaking, they’ve been a little lucky. I’m not just referring to the first win in this 15-of-20 stretch coming after Jose Reyes made a bad throw to first base on what would have been the final out, or the last win in this stretch coming when Alex Gordon’s routine grounder hit the second base bag and took a crazy bounce, allowing Eric Hosmer to score in what turned out to be a one-run win. Although those certainly count.

What I mean when I say the Royals are lucky is this:

The Royals are hitting .261/.314/.372. They’ve scored 304 runs.
The Royals’ opponents are hitting .252/.315/.383. They’ve scored 286 runs.

The Royals are allowing more offense than they’re generating – pretty much the same OBP, and a touch more slugging. (The Royals have hit for a higher batting average, but once you’ve accounted for OBP and slugging – remember, batting average figures into both of them – there’s no advantage to a higher batting average.) Yet they’ve outscored their opponents by 18 runs. Some of that may be team speed; the Royals have stolen 31 more bases than their opponents while being caught only five more times. But that’s a difference of three or four runs, which might make up for the slight edge in power but no more. The Royals are, on paper, a .500 team.

The Tigers, meanwhile, have hit .272/.325/.431; their opponents have hit .259/.322/.409. Again, the Royals have an edge in speed, and these numbers don’t take into account the Royals’ amazing ability to throw out baserunners from the outfield. But at least on paper the Royals are the slightly inferior team.

But they don’t play games on paper, and they’re only slightly inferior. And the Royals have one additional asset the Tigers lack – a farm system capable of bringing back premium talent. I don’t get the Jeff Samardzija rumors at all; it’s not just that it might take someone like Ventura or Duffy to get the deal done, but that I’m not even certain Samardzija would represent that much of an upgrade on the five starters the Royals have now. (Keep in mind that I still consider the NL to be an inferior level of competition, and am always leery of players who move to the superior league.)

If David Price is available, then yeah, everything is on the table. I just don’t think the Royals need to waste valuable farm system resources on pitching when they still have an acute need for a hitter. The Ben Zobrist rumors intrigue me; Zobrist is arguably the most underrated player of the last decade, and from 2009 to 2013 ranked third in all of baseball in bWAR. They also frighten me – he’s 33, having an off-year that may or may not signal a real decline, and you know how I feel about the Royals trading with Tampa Bay. But he would fill a need at the one position the Royals seem willing to upgrade – right field, with the added benefit that 1) he could fill in at third base if Moustakas continues to hit .170, or second base if Infante gets hurt again, or pretty much anywhere else on the diamond; and 2) he has a club option for 2015, which would give the Royals another year to develop a long-term solution (hopefully Jorge Bonifacio, who is hitting .225/.295/.332 in Double-A but is only 21) at the position.

Dayton Moore has indicated the Royals are still a few weeks from making any big moves to upgrade the team. That makes sense if the Royals need more time to figure out where their needs are – but it’s pretty clear what this team needs, and it’s pretty clear that even one less win that is the result of waiting a month to pull the trigger on a trade could make the difference between playing in October and going home early.

But at least we’re talking about who the Royals need to acquire instead of who they need to deal. A few weeks after we were talking about what we could get James Shields, we’re talking about who the Royals would have to give up for David Price. Yeah, it’s only June. But if you think being in first place in June doesn’t matter, you need to see what I’m seeing right now, a packed house at Kauffman Stadium watching a first place team. Thanks to Alex Gordon, Danny Duffy, and yes, the Tigers, this season is turning out to be a hell of a lot more fun than we thought it would be a month ago. I’m going to hold off on proclaiming the Royals’ greatness, or flogging myself for daring to question the wisdom of the Shields trade, for a while longer. Let’s just enjoy being in a pennant race for now. For now, that’s enough.