The initial turning point for the now first-place Kansas City Royals began, as you might expect in this season gone mad, with a routine ground ball to the shortstop.
On May 29, with the Royals down to their final out against the Blue Jays and the tying run on second, Salvador Perez tapped a three-hopper to Jose Reyes. The Royals had entered the night 24-28, good for fourth place in the AL Central and the 11th-best record in the American League. The Houston Astros had just swept them at home. The 2014 season, which Kansas City had been building and pointing toward for close to a decade, was shaping up to be perhaps the team’s most disappointing ever.
That’s an incredible assertion considering the history of this organization, which over the past generation has been the most futile of any American sports franchise. Since the Royals won the World Series in 1985, they haven’t returned to the playoffs. Think about that: The Royals have gone 28 years without a playoff berth, a streak eight years longer than any other team’s in the four major North American sports. Worse, the Royals haven’t even come close. There are no near misses in that span, no epic last-week collapses that would have left a mark on us fans, even if it had been a mark of pain. Since 1985, the Royals haven’t been alone in first place later than August 20 in any season or held a playoff spot later than September 9. They haven’t even been mathematically alive entering the final weekend of the season since “Careless Whisper” was better known for topping Billboard’s charts than for serving as Josh Reddick’s walk-up song.
The Royals were a respectable and occasionally competitive franchise for the first decade of their streak, but then the strike hit, and they were unable to spend money, but also unwilling to think outside the box like the A’s did to find a different way to win. They tried to beat teams with three times their payroll using the same playbook. It worked about as well as you’d expect. Hope is not a strategy.
Still, hope and wingman Carlos Beltran gave it their best shot in 2003, when the Royals1 somehow started the season 16-3. They inevitably slid out of first place and were five games out by mid-June, but starting on Father’s Day, they went on another 22-10 run, and entered the All-Star break with a stunning seven-game lead in a very mediocre division.2
It all felt like a dream; the Royals had lost 100 games the year before, and K.C. fans were as aware as anyone that their team had no business lapping the field. But still … seven games. The Royals didn’t have to be good in the second half; they just needed to run out the clock.
They couldn’t, of course. By August 1, the Minnesota Twins had caught them. The Royals held on to first place for another three weeks, but the inevitable was stalking them: They fell out of first for good before August ended and finished seven games out.
In 2004, they lost 104 games. In 2005, they lost 106. In 2006, they lost 100. The 2003 Royals were one of the biggest aberrations in recent baseball history, and all they could muster was an 83-win season.
In 2006, ownership finally picked a strategy, choosing to emulate the Braves rather than the A’s. Dayton Moore, then the Braves’ assistant general manager and the game’s no. 1 GM candidate according to Baseball America, was offered/coerced/begged to take the job in Kansas City. He said yes and set about implementing a simple plan: draft and develop talent from within, and don’t let losing in the short term distract you from your long-term goals.
In theory, that’s a sound strategy for a small-market team, because young talent developed from within is cost-controlled talent, and a small-market team needs to control costs. But it does leave open one question: What should a team do while waiting for all of that talent to develop? Even the best 18-year-old draft picks3 need four or five years to become major league–ready, and it would take two or three years to get ample draft picks into the system in the first place.
Moore never really answered that question. To his credit, the Royals haven’t lost 100 games since 2006. But they did lose 90 or more games in 2007, and 2009, and 2010, and 2011, and 2012. Seven years after Moore was hired and the Royals had the no. 1 pick in the draft, they had … the no. 8 pick in the draft and an ever-expanding playoff drought.
Royals fans were willing to be patient. They weren’t willing to be suckers. A plan without a payoff isn’t a plan, and there was no payoff in sight.
After the 2012 season, Moore went all in, trading reigning Minor League Player of the Year Wil Myers and fellow top-100 prospect Jake Odorizzi to Tampa Bay for James Shields and Wade Davis. The trade was, ahem, not well received. It was too much talent for too little reward; the Royals had a mere two-year window to win with Shields, and trading Myers opened up a new void in right field that the Royals then had to fill.
The Royals went 43-27 after the All-Star break last season, but that only alleviated the frustration of a 43-49 first half. Shields pitched up to expectations, but Davis was a disaster, with a 5.67 ERA in 24 starts before being demoted to the bullpen. The Royals finished 86-76, six games out of a wild-card spot. It was the team’s best season in 24 years, and also a giant disappointment. Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay, Myers won AL Rookie of the Year honors.
And so came 2014, the final year of Shields’s contract, and the eighth full season of Moore’s tenure as GM. No general manager since at least the 1980s had survived on the job for eight full years without taking his team to the playoffs at least once.
And yet there the Royals were against the Blue Jays on May 29, having been swept at home by an Astros team whose rebuilding process under a new GM had started more than five years later than their own. The natives were getting restless. The Royals were 24-28. Perez hit that ground ball to short.
Only, Reyes’s throw to first base was offline, and when it popped out of Edwin Encarnacion’s glove, pinch runner Jarrod Dyson, one of the fastest players in baseball, raced home from second to score the tying run. The Royals won in 10 innings, beginning the process of righting the ship. A week later, they began a 10-game winning streak, the longest in the majors this season and the longest by the Royals in 20 years, moving into first place over the Tigers on June 18.
That Toronto game was a microcosm of how the Royals have been successful this season. They aren’t a Moneyball team, at least in the “get on base and hit home runs” sense. In fact, they’re last in the majors in walks and home runs. And it’s actually worse than that: The Royals’ walk rate (6.04 percent) is the lowest in the major leagues since the strike zone was redefined in 1969. They’re on pace for 99 homers, which would be the fewest by an AL team since 1994.
The Royals’ philosophy is decidedly retro, more suited for baseball in 1914 than 2014. Put the ball in play. Run fast. Play good defense.
Somehow, finally, it’s working.
When it comes to putting the ball in play, the Royals are, relative to the league, one of the most prolific teams in baseball history. Because while they’re last in the majors in walks, they’re also last in strikeouts: They’ve struck out more than 100 fewer times than every other team in baseball. Their three true outcomes percentage4 is just 23.6 percent; the major league average is 30.6 percent.
In an era in which strikeout rates are threatening to throw the game off its axis, the Royals’ long-standing adherence to putting the ball in play has become increasingly advantageous.5 All of that contact has propelled the Royals to third in the majors in batting average, meaning that despite their historic lack of plate discipline and power, their overall OBP (11th in the AL) and slugging (11th) are merely bad, not putrid. Their 110 stolen bases are 24 more than every other AL team, and their 83 percent success rate is third in the majors. They do the little things in an era in which “doing the little things” has deservedly become a point of mockery, not pride. And it’s working for them.
Well, to a point. The Royals rank ninth in the AL in runs scored, which is respectable but hardly playoff-caliber. However, they excel in run prevention. I say “run prevention” and not “pitching,” because while the Royals’ pitching staff is above average, their defense is the best in baseball for the second year in a row. Their fielders have been worth 52 runs above average this season according to FanGraphs, a year after their defense saved an incredible 88 runs.6
The Royals’ outfield defense, in particular, has been astounding. According to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved stat, here are the best defensive outfielders in the AL this season:
|1.||Kansas City||Alex Gordon||20|
|2.||Kansas City||Lorenzo Cain||19|
|T3.||Boston||Jackie Bradley Jr.||14|
|T3.||Kansas City||Jarrod Dyson||14|
|5.||Tampa Bay||Kevin Kiermaier||13|
When the Royals start Dyson, they play arguably the three best defensive outfielders in the league at once — and Dyson ranks this high even though he’s started less than half of the Royals’ games in the outfield.
As a result, Kauffman Stadium has become a place where fly balls go to die, and where fly ball pitchers thrive. Before the season, the Royals replaced free-agent starter Ervin Santana with Jason Vargas, a 31-year-old left-hander whose fastball averages 88 mph and whose 4.07 ERA the last five years belied the fact that he had pitched in two of the best pitcher’s parks in baseball in Seattle and Anaheim. But Vargas is a fly ball pitcher who throws strikes and lets his defense do his work for him, and he has been better than ever this season, posting a career-best 3.27 ERA.
While the Royals play great defense, their opponents sometimes do not, and by putting the ball in play as often as they do, Kansas City is constantly testing its foes. There was the game in Toronto. On May 11, the Royals won 9-7 in Seattle when the Mariners made five errors in the game. On July 23, they beat the White Sox, 2-1, after Tyler Flowers dropped the relay throw that would have nailed go-ahead runner Mike Moustakas at the plate in the ninth. The next night in Cleveland, Corey Kluber was nearly unhittable, facing one batter beyond the minimum in nine innings of work; but that batter, Moustakas, rounded the bases on a little league home run when left fielder Ryan Raburn couldn’t catch his blooper down the line and then threw a relay throw to an imaginary cutoff man; the Royals won the game, 2-1, in extra innings. On June 29, Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick bungled a potential inning-ending double-play ball in the ninth, and the Royals walked off one batter later. On August 11 against Oakland, Reddick fielded a single with Dyson on first base, and his throw to the infield squirted out of his hand like a watermelon seed, allowing Dyson to advance to third. Dyson would score on a ground ball double play, and the Royals would win by one run.
That’s been the Royals’ approach all season: In the field, throw strikes and let the defense make plays; on offense, put the ball in play and force the opposing defense to make the plays. If the game comes down to a battle of fielders, the Royals have the edge.
But when things happen that the fielders have no control over, like walks and home runs, the Royals are helpless. Which is why, after winning those 10 consecutive games to take over first place in mid-June, they quickly fell apart, losing 18 of their next 27 games and dropping below .500 and eight games out of first place. They were so desperate for offense that they signed Raul Ibanez, who’s 42 years old and had been released by the Angels after hitting .157/.258/.265.
Ten days before the trade deadline, in a season in which the Royals had invested all of their dreams, it looked like K.C.’s best move would be to sell.
The second turning point began, as you might expect in this season that defies logic, with a players-only meeting. Before their game on July 22, with the Royals sitting at 48-50, the players gathered to speak their minds and air their grievances. Ibanez, who had been signed as much for his veteran presence as his bat, did much of the talking. Typically, players-only meetings are the last refuge of teams careening out of control; as Bob Boone (just one in a long string of failed Royals managers) said in the 1990s: “Winners win. Losers meet.” Looking at the history of previous Royals players-only meetings did nothing to change that impression.
The Royals won that night, 7-1. They won their next four games as well, and on the morning of the trade deadline, they were five games out of first place in the Central and 3.5 games out for the second wild card. Their playoff odds, as estimated by FanGraphs, were about 12 percent.
The Royals’ key move at the deadline, as you might expect in this season that has shredded common sense, was to do nothing. They’d made a minor trade earlier in July, sending a minor league reliever named Spencer Patton to Texas for major league reliever Jason Frasor, a small price to pay for a pitcher who in 11 major league seasons has posted just one below-average ERA. The Royals’ other notable move was trading platoon third baseman Danny Valencia to the Blue Jays for backup catcher Erik Kratz, who was in the minors at the time. But on July 31, the Royals did nothing. And it was hard to blame them; they had too much invested in the season to sell, but their playoff odds were too small to justify mortgaging the future in a quixotic attempt to better them.
While the Royals did nothing, the Tigers traded for David Price. In the same deal, the Mariners acquired Austin Jackson, meaning the Royals’ chief competition for the Central title and the second wild-card spot both got better while K.C. stood pat. Shortly after the deadline, the Royals learned that first baseman Eric Hosmer had a hairline fracture in his wrist and would miss at least a month.
The Royals won their game the night of the trade deadline, though. The next night, Ibanez, who has hit .206 for the Royals since he signed, launched a home run off Sonny Gray; it was the only run of the game, marking the first time the Royals won a 1-0 game on a home run since 1993. Two days later they beat Oakland again, handing the A’s their first home-series loss in three months. But K.C. remained five games out.
The final turning point for the Royals, as you might expect in this season that’s certifiably bat-shit nuts, occurred when a 38-year-old South Korean man, who had been a die-hard Royals fan for half his life even though he had never been to America and had no connection to Kansas City whatsoever, arrived in town to watch his first major league games in person. The story of SungWoo Lee, which I chronicled last week on my Royals blog and for the New York Times, can only be described as stranger than fiction. No one in his or her right mind would concoct such a fanciful tale.
Three weeks ago, no one but a few of us serious Royals fans had heard of SungWoo. Then again, three weeks ago not that many people had heard about the Royals. Today, both are the talk of baseball. SungWoo arrived in Kansas City on August 5, and the Royals didn’t lose again until August 12. They won eight games in a row, making this the first season in which they’d managed two winning streaks of seven games or longer since … 1985. After getting crushed by the A’s 11-3 on August 12, the Royals bounced back by winning their next three, completing their first 19-4 stretch since 1991.
And if that weren’t enough, the Tigers began to break right as the Royals began to come together. On August 8, Anibal Sanchez, who led the AL in ERA last year, was pulled from his start with a strained pectoral muscle that figures to keep him out until September. The next night, Joakim Soria, for whom the Tigers had just traded two of their best pitching prospects, was pulled from a game with a strained oblique muscle that will keep him out until September. Two nights after that, Justin Verlander, who hasn’t been right all season, made the shortest outing of his career, allowing five runs in one inning before getting pulled with shoulder soreness. While his MRI was clean, at this point it’s not clear whether getting Verlander back on the mound will be more beneficial for the Tigers or their opponents.
When the Tigers added Price, three-fifths of their rotation was composed of the last three AL Cy Young winners. Now, their rotation is Price, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, rookie Robbie Ray (whom the Tigers inexplicably traded Doug Fister for), and someone named Buck Farmer (who was in the Midwest League a month ago). The Tigers have lost eight of their last 12 games, and less than three weeks after adding Price to a team that led the division by five games, they’ve fallen out of first place.
The Royals have gone from being seven games out of first place to holding first place by themselves — for the second time this season. In the history of baseball, that’s happened only one other time:7 in 2003, when the Twins caught the Royals twice, making it stick the second time. It’s as if the Royals haven’t merely been chasing Detroit, but also their own ghosts. They’ve caught both of them.
The Royals’ playoff odds, which were barely out of single digits at the trading deadline, are now above 70 percent, including better than 60 percent odds of winning the division. There are still six weeks left to go, but this is already the greatest playoff offensive the Royals have launched in a generation.
Appropriately enough in a season in which up is down and black is white, the Royals aren’t really winning because of their fabled farm system, the one labeled maybe the greatest ever three years ago, when it put a record nine players on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list. The two cornerstones of that farm system, Moustakas and Hosmer, have been largely terrible. Hosmer was hitting .267/.312/.377 with six home runs — as a first baseman! — before going on the DL, while Moustakas can’t keep his batting average over the Mendoza Line, hitting .198/.260/.378 on the year and briefly being demoted to Triple-A in May. Of the nine players featured on that top prospects list, only one, lefty Danny Duffy, has made a significant contribution to this year’s team.
His contribution shouldn’t be overlooked, though, because after not developing a single starting pitcher from within during his first eight years as a GM, Moore has developed two this year. Duffy came up in 2011, full of promise but bereft of command, and just as he was looking to put things together in 2012, he blew out his elbow. While he returned late last year and pitched well, his future was so hazy when this season began that the Royals sent him to Triple-A, then brought him up to pitch out of the bullpen two weeks later. But he went into the rotation on May 3 and hasn’t looked back. While his mid-90s fastball returned after surgery, he left some of his walks behind: His walk rate is down from his career mark of 12 percent to 9 percent this season, and his 2.60 ERA leads the rotation.
Duffy gets overlooked, though, because rookie Yordano Ventura took the league by storm early this season. Despite being less dominant since missing a start with a minor elbow injury, he’s posted a 3.48 ERA while consistently throwing 98-99 mph. Ventura and the Angels’ Garrett Richards are the two hardest-throwing starting pitchers in the majors this year.8 Meanwhile, among left-handed starters (with a minimum of 100 innings pitched), Duffy’s average fastball of 93.3 mph ranks behind only Price’s.
The Royals desperately needed Duffy and Ventura to come through for them, because in addition to losing Santana as a free agent, they pulled the plug on the Wade Davis starter experiment and moved him back to the bullpen, where he had thrived with the Rays in 2012. All Davis has given them is one of the most dominant seasons ever for a reliever: His 0.84 ERA is the fourth-best in the live ball era for a pitcher with 50-plus innings, and in addition to not allowing a home run, he hadn’t allowed an extra-base hit until July 31. Going back to last season, in fact, Davis had gone 49.2 consecutive innings without allowing an extra-base hit, the longest streak by a reliever in major league history.9
Last season, the Royals’ bullpen posted a 2.55 ERA, the lowest by an AL team since 1990. This year’s bullpen isn’t quite as dominant overall, with a 3.29 ERA that ranks fifth in the AL, as those numbers have been brought down by terrible performances by long relievers in games whose outcomes were already decided. But with Davis serving as a bridge between seventh-inning man Kelvin Herrera, who also hasn’t allowed a home run all season,10 and closer Greg Holland, the Royals have the best 1-2-3 relief set in the game. If the season ended today, the Royals would be just the third team in major league history to have three pitchers make 40 or more relief appearances while posting an ERA below 1.90.11
Despite their dominant bullpen, and despite a correlation between great bullpens and better-than-expected records in one-run games, the Royals were just 10-20 in one-run games on July 22, the worst record in baseball. They’ve gone 7-1 in one-run games since, however, evening out their luck and fueling their hot streak. And while they’re just 17-21 in one-run games overall, they’re 17-6 in two-run games. Meanwhile, they’re just 4-8 in games decided by seven or more runs. The Royals don’t have the offense to blow out their opponents, but they do have the ability to scratch out runs, and they do have a bullpen that can make a lead stand up.
Meanwhile, Hosmer’s injury, far from torpedoing the club, may well have spurred the turnaround. The Royals haven’t missed his bat, since he wasn’t hitting anyway, but the opportunity for DH Billy Butler to play the field seems to have resurrected his bat. Butler, who hit .313 with 29 homers just two years ago, was hitting a terrible .269/.329/.348 when Hosmer got hurt. But since moving to first base on July 21, Butler has hit .323/.357/.527 with more homers (4) in three weeks than he had hit (3) in the season’s first half. Butler’s reemergence as a viable bat has been crucial, giving the Royals a second legitimate middle-of-the-order bat behind Alex Gordon, who between his .284/.360/.445 line and Gold Glove defense has quietly become one of the 10 most valuable players in the league; as of Monday morning, Gordon topped FanGraphs’ WAR list for position players with 5.7 wins, 0.1 better than Mike Trout.
Last Tuesday, the Royals traded with the Twins for Josh Willingham, who had slipped through waivers, giving them the bat they needed to replace Hosmer. Willingham was hitting only .210 at the time, but his blend of power (only three Royals can match or top his 13 homers this year) and plate discipline (no Royals have more than his 44 walks) suddenly make him one of the team’s best hitters.
That acquisition notwithstanding, the Royals are not a Moneyball team; in fact, they’ve been as aggressively anti-Moneyball as any team in the majors, and for 28 years they’ve been the least successful team in the sport. That’s not a coincidence. To win without any power, and without any plate discipline, requires a minuscule margin for error.
But on their 29th try, the Royals might have finally hit a gusher. There are six weeks left in the season, and just about anything can still happen. The Royals could lose 10 of 12 and fall out of the race before Labor Day, and leave us remembering their brief flirtations with first place as a beautiful anomaly. These are the Royals, of whom another failed manager, Buddy Bell, once famously said, “I never say it can’t get worse.” Current manager Ned Yost has kept the clubhouse together all season, but his tactical decisions, which had a lot to do with him getting fired in Milwaukee while the Brewers were in a pennant race in 2008, continue to make Royals fans nervous. There’s still plenty of time for everything to go wrong.
But suddenly, gloriously, Royals fans are starting to ponder the possibility that things might go right. Playoff tickets went on sale over the weekend, and we’re trying to find a way to coax SungWoo back in October. We’re starting to believe again — in the team, and in a front office that has borne the brunt of our frustrations for more than eight years. I’m starting to believe that maybe I was wrong. About the front office. About the Shields trade. About everything.
All stats are current through Sunday’s games.