Saturday, September 27, 2014

Flyover: Kansas City Royals

With the season winding down, and the postseason pretty much set, I figured I'd wrap this up by covering the remaining contenders, starting with the Kansas City Royals. Here are my links to the OriolesTigersA'sAngelsCardinalsPiratesDodgers, and Giants. As a reminder, for each team, I'm looking at how they've done over the past 30 days.

How Are They Doing Lately? They've kind of slouched into the postseason. A month ago, the Royals were 2.5 games up on Detroit in the AL Central. Were they to fall out of the top slot, they were four games behind the Athletics and two ahead of the Mariners for the wild card. Since then, the Tigers have taken control of the division, going 18-11, while Kansas City's played .500 ball, 14-14. However, they've pulled away from the A's (9-19, worst in the league) and the Mariners (13-15). If the season were to end today, they'd host Oakland for the wild card play-in game. They'e scored 3.46 runs per game, just tenth in the league, while giving up 3.75, the seventh fewest, over the past 30 days.

What's Going Right? The Royals haven't scored a lot due to a lack of power, as I'll explain below, but they're OK at getting on base: fifth in batting average over the past 30 days at .259, sixth in on base percentage at .317. Not great, but OK. They could help themselves by walking more (7% of plate appearances, fifth fewest in the league), but that's not been a Royals team strength--they're last in the league, walking in just 6% of plate appearances, for the full year. Once on base, they've been the league's most prolific basestealers (36 over the past 30 days, no other team's even at 30) and competent as well (success on 80% of attempts compared to a league average of 76%). 

The team ERA of 3.25 is fifth in the league over the past 30 days: 3.26 for the starters (sixth), 3.23 for the relievers (fifth). They've been extremely stingy with the long ball, allowing the fewest homers (ten) and the lowest percentage of fly balls becoming home runs (4.3%). Those numbers are particularly impressive when you consider that the Royals pitchers don't get to pitch to the Royals hitters. They've followed the On The Field Of Play mantra, it's good to throw strikes, but better to get strikes. They've been a little below average at throwing strikes, with 48.4% of pitches in the strike zone, fifth fewest in the league over the last 30 days, but well above average at getting strikes, inducing batters to swing at a fifth-highest 32.0% of pitches outside the strike zone.

Part of the success of the pitchers is attributable to the team's defense. Virtually every fielding metric ranks the Orioles and Royals as the best-fielding teams in the league by a fair margin.

What's Going Wrong? The Royals have had a power outage all year, slugging .376, fourth lowest in the league compared to a league average of .390, and the last 30 days fit the pattern. They've hit ten homers, fewest in the league. Their isolated slugging--slugging percentage less batting average--is .098, second lowest. Some of that is probably bad luck, as their percentage of fly balls that go over the fence has been just 4.1% over the past 30 days, second lowest in the league and less than half the league average of 8.7%, but they're last over the full year (6.5% vs. the league's 9.5%) as well, so it's not like this is something new.

As for their inability to draw walks, last year their GM, Dayton Moore, fairly improbably blamed their home field, Kauffman Stadium, for their lack of walks, claiming the ballpark suppresses free passes. If that were true, the Royals would draw more walks in road games than at home. In actuality, they've walked more frequently at home (6.4% of plate appearances) than on the road (6.1%) this year. Good try, though, Dayton.

Who's Hot? Right fielder Nori Aoki is batting .361 over the past 30 days, fifth in the league, and has an on base percentage of .415, sixth. Center fielder Lornezo Cain's batting .327 and is tied for third in the league with seven stolen bases. Shortstop Alcides Escobar is batting .321 (though with a barely higher .336 on base percentage, as he's drawn only two walks) and is tied for eighth with six steals. The best power source has been first baseman Eric Hosmer, batting .310 with a .368 on base percentage and .529 slugging percentage (eleventh in the league).

The top of the Royals rotation looks set for the postseason. The top four starters are James Shields, who's 2-1 with a 2.14 ERA over the past 30 days, Jeremy Guthrie (3-1, 3.25) and rookie Yordano Ventura (4-1, 1.62). Lefty starter Danny Duffy, sidelined much of September with shoulder pain, put up good numbers in his first start over two weeks on Monday, holding Cleveland to six hits, two walks, and no runs while striking out five in six innings, though not everyone was impressed

If the Royals starter goes six innings, the Royals hand the ball over to Kelvin Herrera in the seventh, Wade Davis in the eighth, and Greg Holland in the ninth. Over the past 30 days, those three have combined for 40 appearances covering 38.2 innings, during which they've allowed 25 hits and eight walks while striking out 49 with a 1.16 ERA. The thing is, that's not a big outlier for this trio: they all have ERAs below 1.50 for the full season, the main reason the Royals are 64-4 in games they've led after six innnings. If the three maintain their sub-1.50 ERAs, the Royals will join the 1907 Chicago Cubs as the only teams in history with three pitchers with over 60 innings pitched with ERAs that low. (Fun facts: Those Cubs won the World Series, had a team ERA of 1.73, used only eight pitchers all year, and the three with sub-1.50 ERAs were all starters: Mordecai Brown had a 1.39 ERA over 233 innings, Carl Lundgren was 1.17 over 207 innings, and Jack Pfeister was 1.15 over 195 innings.)

Who's Not? Left fielder Alex Gordon is a lock for a Gold Glove award, but he's batting only .188 over the past 30 days, striking out in 27% of his plate appearances. Third baseman Mike Moustakis has a .211/.273/.244 slash line (the league average is .249/.309/.380) and DH Billy Butler has barely been better at .219/.286/.281.

If Duffy's not right, the No. 4 postseason starter will be Jason Vargas, who's been bad (6.46 ERA) over the past 30 days. But we may be getting a bit ahead of ourselves talking about a No. 4 starter in the postseason anyway.
What's the Outlook? The Royals are one of the nice stories of this season, as they'll play in the postseason for the first time since they won the World Series in 1985. As of now, they'll host Oakland for a one-game play-in on Tuesday. However, they could win the division (they enter play today a game behind Detroit), their wild card opponent could be Seattle (which is two games behind Oakland), and they could lose the home field advantage in the play-in (if they lose their last two games and Oakland wins theirs).

Assuming the Royals are a wild-card team, a victory would take them to a best-of-five Divisional Series against the Angels, who have the best record in the American League and against whom the Royals split six games this year. They're not a good hitting team. They'll be the only American League postseason team to score a below-average number of runs (unless Seattle sneaks past Oakland). But with their solid starters and lockdown bullpen, they're well-positioned for the postseason, where good pitching beats good hitting, right? Except, as I showed yesterday, that's not the case. The Royals' long postseason drought has ended, but maybe not for long.

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