The Kansas City Royals are in first place. Yes, you read that right. The Kansas City Royals are ahead of the powerhouse known as the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central. A team that has been a symbol of futility for over a decade has finally cracked the code to success in today's Major League Baseball. I'm here to tell you how they are doing it.
Last year the Royals won 86 games, their first winning season since 2003. They missed out on the second Wild Card but were able to give their fanbase something they haven't had since their glory days of the 80's: hope. Similar to what the Rays did in the latter part of the 2000's, the Royals have finally parlayed drafting in the top 10 for years mixed with savvy free agents signings into winning. Unlike Tampa, the Royals will not have to auction off their prized assets after their ascendancy. Kansas City has played their hand to perfection and the potential pot is bigger than they've ever dreamed.
THEY CRAVE A DIFFERENT TYPE OF BUZZ
Kansas City's rise to relevance has been on the backs of their arms. That sentence may be anatomically incorrect but pitching wins and Kansas City has it in abundance. Neither their starting staff nor bullpen has headline making star power, but both corps have stayed healthy and maintained a level of consistency matched by maybe only Washington this year. Many Royals' fans were displeased when they traded top prospect Wil Myers to Tampa before 2013. He promptly won Rookie of the Year honors and made the playoffs. While Myers has had an injury plagued sophomore season (he just came off the DL after a 12 week stint), the man they got in return from the Rays, James Shields, has been a horse at the apex of the Kansas City starting rotation. Big Game James has taken the ball every fifth day for KC and is sixth in the Majors in innings pitched (178.1). He has never gone less than five innings in any of his 27 starts. Those are the kind of things you want to see when you are going into free agency.
The rest of the starting five is nothing to shake a stick at either. That is unless you like shaking sticks at good pitchers. To each their own I say. Jason Vargas came over from the Angels on a reasonable 4 year, $32 million deal. He has already pitched more innings than he did all of last year and has out-dueled Corey Kluber, Scott Kazmir, and Justin Verlander to a 10-5 record thus far. 23 year old Yordano Ventura (9-9, 119 K) and 25 year old Danny Duffy (2.53 ERA, 1.08 WHIP) are coming into their own in the middle of the rotation. Jeremy Guthrie's numbers aren't spectacular, but he performed yeoman's work last year (15-12 record) while the roster cohesion strengthened. Recently he has won four of his last five games including six shutout innings against Sonny Gray and the highest scoring team in baseball, Oakland. I bring up that game because the way that game was pitched has been the formula for Kansas City's pitching triumphs.
When Guthrie departed at the end of that sixth inning, Oakland would see three more pitchers in the game. Those pitchers were Kelvin Herrera in the seventh, Wade Davis in the eighth, and Greg Holland in the ninth. This triumvirate has been stellar in closing out games for Kansas City. They are even more dangerous when a starter can get to them with the regularity that Royals' starters have in 2014. The first man out of the pen is usually the fireballing Herrera. The Dominican righty averages around 97 MPH on his fastball and can ramp it up to as high as 103 on the gun. Pair that with a changeup at 86 and a fall off the table curve and you are going to get a lot of outs (1.53 ERA, 40 hits in 53 IP). Nevertheless, the first line of defense pales in comparison to the next bat silencer, Wade Davis. Davis has had a career renaissance in the set-up role this year. Davis floundered in the rotation in his first year in powder blue but a return to the pen has done wonders for his confidence. It has had an opposite effect on opposing hitters. Davis is 6-2 with a miniscule 0.81 ERA and 0.87 WHIP while filthily striking out 85 batters in just 55.1 innings pitched. Getting the final outs is Greg Holland's job. Holland has been an All-Star the two years he has had the closer gig full time and leads the majors with 39 saves (with only 2 blown saves). Having your starters consistently get deep into games paired with a bullpen set in their roles (and very good at them) gives you a puncher's chance come September. The team chasing them now, Detroit, needs to sure up that second part or risk not joining Kansas City in baseball's second season.
TIGERS ON A GOLD LEASH
The Tigers were my pick to win the American League Central going away at the start of the year. Justin Verlander was my AL MVP pick. They were able to pry David Price from Tampa Bay for essentially nothing and now sport three Cy Young Award winners in a rotation along with the more than capable arms of Anibal Sanchez (though currently disabled) and Rick Porcello. Why have the Tigers fallen behind then in a division they once led by as many as 7.5 games? The bullpen has been the main culprit. Closer Joe Nathan routinely has Tigers' fans on the edge of their seats for all the wrong reasons. He boasts a 5.28 ERA, 1.61 WHIP, and his six blown saves are the most among closers. They brought in Joakim Soria, then closer in Texas, to pitch the seventh inning. He was working out about as well as the last Texas closer to be traded to a contender to pitch in the seventh inning, Eric Gagne. Gagne at least got a ring with the 2007 Red Sox. The jury is still out on Soria. A team can make it to the playoffs with a bad bullpen but if they expect to win it all, shaky relief isn't going to cut it.
LIFE IS GREAT WITHOUT A CARE
All this talk of pitching is exactly what the Royals' hitters want. Like the arms, the bats don't have that standout force that the national media can sink their teeth into. No 30 home run masher. No .330 hitting machine. They just have a full lineup of .260-.280 hitters that have about 40-50 runs batted in. Alex Gordon is the leader of the pack. According to Fangraphs, he has the highest WAR (5.7) in the entire Majors. Omar Infante is fourth among second basemen with a team leading 57 RBI. Billy Butler and Salvador Perez aren't hitting for the high average that fans are accustomed to but Butler leads the team in hits and Perez is tops in homers. A great deal of those are coming in clutch situations too. It is one of the reasons they have not cut bait with Mike Moustakas whilst he only carries a .202 batting average. There is no pressure on them to do so. They were a "sneaky expert pick" to make waves before the season but right now Kansas City is playing with house money. While tension builds in the Motor City, Baltimore struggles to find an ace, and the two teams out West beat each other into dust, Kansas City can keep playing baseball with the carefree nature of the kids pinging homers out of Williamsport. I know I am secretly rooting for them even though their standard home uniforms are complete ripoffs of the Dodgers.
All in all I am happy for the Royals. They are a franchise that has put their fans through a boatload of losing without always the promise of future glory at the end of the trail. It seems they have now put their penny pinching, striving for the middle of the pack methods behind them and it is paying dividends. It is always good to see a fresh face in the MLB playoff picture like Baltimore two years ago and Cleveland last October. There is still over a month left in the regular season and plenty of baseball to be played. This may not be the year that the Royals become rulers of the Majors, but for now...let them live that fantasy.
Image Credit: Lorde w/ Brett jersey (gamedayr.com)