Is it time to take the Royals seriously as contenders? Yes -- and no
The Royals enter a Thursday matinee with the Rays one day removed from a stirring comeback win over Tampa Bay that lifted their record to 15-10 and allowed them to retake first place in the AL Central, a spot they've held for all but four days since April 8. Through 25 games, they have their best record since they bolted to a 17-8 start in 2003, which turned out to be their lone winning season since 1994. After all the criticism of the organization's offseason plan, is it time to start taking Kansas City seriously?
Before delving into the nuts and bolts of how the Royals are getting the job done, it's worth considering what recent history tells us about such starts. As I did for the 9-17 Blue Jays the other day, I looked at wild card-era teams (1995 onward) with similar records to start the year via Baseball-Reference's Team Winning and Losing Streaks Analyzer.
The results are particularly encouraging for the Royals. Of the 54 teams that started exactly 15-10, 26 of them made the playoffs, with 18 winning their division and another eight claiming a wild card spot (including last year's Braves in the first year of the two wild-card format). Eight went on to win their league's pennant and five won the World Series. Forty-seven of those 56 teams finished with at least a .500 record, and the combined winning percentage of all the teams was .545, equivalent to an 88-win season. Those results hold up if we expand the sample by one win in either direction (including 16-9 and 14-11 teams). Of those 140 teams, 111 finished with at least a .500 record and 66 made the playoffs.
Digging in a little deeper, the Royals have outscored their opponents by 15 runs and have put up a .571 Pythagorean winning percentage, which projects to 14.3 wins in 25 games, not a bad match for their actual 15 wins. Looking at teams within 30 points of that Pythagorean percentage — an admittedly arbitrary cutoff — yields a sample of 94 teams, of which 32 made the playoffs; that group finished with a cumulative .520 winning percentage, equivalent to 84 wins.
In light of sabermetric research into the topic of hot starts, the results shouldn't be all that surprising. Back in 2003, Baseball Prospectus author and noted Royals fan Rany Jazayerli examined data from 1930 through 1999 (minus strike-shortened seasons) and found that a team's first 30 games provided a meaningful sample size for projecting its general direction, at least at the extremes. Building on that nearly a decade later, BP's Derek Carty tackled the topic in the book Extra Innings using non-strike seasons from 1962 through 2011 and found that at the 16-game mark, a team's current record reached a 0.5 correlation level with their final record, which is to say that their year-to-date performance became more predictive than simply assuming they'll finish at .500 (as the largest possible sample of teams inevitably does).
That said, Carty and Jazayerli both found via a more complicated method factoring the past three seasons' records — relevant here given the downtrodden nature of the Kansas City franchise — that it wasn't until the 48-game mark when the current record became more predictive than a preseason expectation, based upon a weighted three-year record (35 percent for the previous year, 12 percent for two years ago, five percent for three years ago and 48 percent for .500, for the strong tendency of teams to regress to the mean). In light of that, the Royals are only about halfway to the point where they can be taken seriously as contenders.
Even so, their results so far are encouraging, particularly with regards to the rotation makeover in which they added James Shields, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis via trade, and re-signed late-season acquisition Jeremy Guthrie, leaving Luis Mendoza the only holdover. Their starters' collective 3.85 ERA ranks fifth in the league, and their 56 percent quality start rate is fourth. Shields, Santana and Guthrie all have ERAs of 3.06 or below, though the latter's 5.06 FIP — driven by a high home run rate — offers more cause for concern. In fact, the three besides Shields and Santana have FIPs of 4.96 or higher due mainly to their problems keeping the ball in the park.
As with last year, the team's biggest strength appears to be its bullpen, which currently ranks second in the AL with a 2.67 ERA, and in a virtual tie for first at 10.6 strikeouts per nine, though their 33 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score ranks 11th. Closer Greg Holland, who took over the job late last year after Jonathan Broxton was traded, has converted seven out of eight opportunities while striking out an eye-popping 16.4 per nine. Of their top six relievers in terms of usage, five (Holland, Kelvim Herrera, Tim Collins, Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen) are striking out more than a batter per inning with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of at least 3.0. Banished from the rotation after ugly performances last year, Hochever and Chen have combined to allow three runs (one earned) in 18 1/3 innings while striking out 22 thus far, offering hope that they can give Kansas City something for the combined $9.1 million they're being paid this year.
Overall, the Royals rank third in the league in run prevention at 3.92 runs per game, a big improvement on last year's 4.60 per game. The offense has enjoyed an uptick as well, from 4.17 to 4.52 runs per game, seventh in the league. That said, their production has been very reliant on batting average; they're second in the league at .271, driven by a .320 BABIP (which ranks third). Meanwhile, they're 11th in slugging percentage (.401), second-to-last in isolated power (.129) and walk rate (7.1 percent) and tied for last in home runs (16).
Individually, Billy Butler (.278/.414/.430), Lorenzo Cain (.329/.383/.463) and Alex Gordon (.321/.351/.495) have been the team's most productive hitters, with Cain (one of my "Boom" picks for centerfield) offering a sizable upgrade on last year's centerfielder, Jarrod Dyson. On the other hand, former blue-chip prospects Mike Moustakas (.203/.286/.304) and Eric Hosmer (.250/.341/.303) have continued to fall short of expectations. Through April last year, the latter was hitting .188/.274/.388 with five homers and a .164 BABIP, while this time around he has yet to homer but has a .327 BABIP; even so, he's striking out significantly more often (21.6 percent, compared to 13.7 percent). Second baseman Chris Getz has been typically abysmal (.227/.250/.364) but the team has already shown it's less than sold on farmhand Johnny Giavotella no matter how hot he may be at Triple-A (where he's currently batting .326/.396/.489). While their showing thus far has been an encouraging one, the Royals are still a long way from showing that they can surmount the Tigers in the AL Central or that that they were justified in trading Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year Wil Myers to the Rays in a blockbuster that brought back Shields and Davis. Even with a finish above .500 or a playoff berth, that's not the kind of deal that can be won in a year. But if the Royals do snap their streak of futility this year and are able to build on that momentum by attracting or retaining better free agents and turning some of their languishing prospects into useful parts, the blow of losing six years of Myers will be softened considerably, and the AL Central, in recent years one of the game's less competitive divisions, could have a real fight on its hands for supremacy.