SI.com is previewing all 10 playoff teams as they begin their chase for a World Series title. You can find each team's individual capsule here.
Regular-Season Record/Finish: 89-73, first in AL Wild Card
How They Got Here: For most of the season, the Royals were the definition of a solid, unspectacular, .500-level team. Two sustained hot streaks, though, ultimately allowed them to end baseball's longest playoff drought, to stay in the AL Central race with the Tigers until the regular season's final day, and to win home field advantage for Tuesday night's Wild Card game against the Athletics. The first came in mid-June, when they reeled off ten straight wins. The second came in August, when their 19-10 record included an eight-game tear that boosted them into first place, where they stayed for nearly a month. (It also landed them — unjinxably, it seems — on the cover of a certain national sports publication.)
Some will dismiss the Royals as having proven themselves unable to sustain such above-average play. The counter, of course, is that Kansas City has shown that when it is operating at peak efficiency, few clubs are better.
Why They'll Win: The White Sox came nowhere near the playoffs, and that's a good thing for Wade Davis. Davis, a 29-year-old who was acquired along with James Shields from the Rays two years ago in exchange for prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi, allowed eight earned runs all year. Five of them were produced by Chicago. His ERA against the White Sox was 3.86, and 0.45 against everybody else.
Even if the White Sox had perhaps a few fractions of his number, Davis still had one of the most astounding seasons by a reliever ever (his overall ERA was an even 1.00 in 72 innings), and he emerged as a crucial element of the formula by which the Royals win games. It includes a solid six innings from one member of a deep group of starters, buoyed by a group of fielders that ranks at or near the top of the league by most metrics. To that, you add a seventh inning pitched by the 100-mph-throwing Kelvin Herrera (1.41 ERA), an eighth pitched by the 97-mph-throwing Davis, and then a ninth pitched by 99-mph-throwing closer Greg Holland (1.44 ERA), whose 46 saves ranked second in the AL.
The Royals were 64-4 when leading after six innings, 71-1 when leading after seven and 78-1 when leading after eight. In other words, if an opponent finds itself trailing Kansas City with nine outs to go, it might as well start planning for the next game.
Why They Won't: The Royals' bullpen and defense were excellent all season long, and their starters were solid as well (the rotation's 3.58 ERA ranked fourth in the AL). So why weren't they better than a generally mediocre team that got scorching hot here and there? The answer, of course, was a lineup that features several young, big names (the biggest of which was Alex Gordon, a darkhorse MVP candidate), but was as unreliable as a Soviet sedan.
During the regular season, the Royals ranked ninth in the AL in runs scored (4.0 per game), 11th in OPS (.689) and dead last in both homers (95) and walks (377). In fact, if not for an MLB-best 153 steals (Jarrod Dyson, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain all finished in the AL's top eight), the offense might have been truly abysmal.
For certain periods of time, though, the Royals' run producers lived up to their potential. It shouldn't be a surprise that those periods neatly coincided with their long winning streaks. During the stretch that included their 10-game tear in June, the Royals led the AL in scoring (6.9 runs per game), ranked second in homers and first in OPS. During their eight-game win streak in August, they were second in runs (5.6 per game) and third in homers and OPS.
Perhaps no player embodies both the offense's inconsistency and its production as much as Billy Butler, the 28-year-old who was just two years ago a 28-homer, 107-RBI man. Butler struggled for most of this season — he finished at .271 with nine home runs, 66 RBI and a .696 OPS — and often found himself on manager Ned Yost's bench. However, he showed his old magic during those long winning streaks, producing a 1.048 OPS during the first and a 1.212 OPS during the second.
Those stretches of proficiency, by both Butler and the offense as a whole, were not sustained, and the Royals seemed unable to figure out why. Yost suffered local criticism for his unwillingness to depart from his ideal formula when the team wasn’t clicking on all cylinders, which was most of the time, when you think about it. If the Royals' offense doesn't happen to find itself in one of its hot periods, the team's excellent pitching and fielding won't be enough to prevent Kansas City's first playoff appearance since 1985 from being a very short one.