- The defending champions' hopes of a repeat looked finished at the start of August, but a red-hot month has Kansas City back in the wild-card hunt. But can the Royals pull off the impossible yet again?
It's not yet at the level of their late-inning comeback in the 2014 AL wild-card game, but the 2016 Royals aren't licked yet. The reigning world champions, who were six games under .500 as the Aug. 1 trade deadline arrived, have won a season-high eight games in a row to re-enter the playoff picture, as they sit just four games out of the second wild-card spot.
The Royals' chances to repeat as AL champions for the third straight season appeared to fade when they skidded to a 7–19 record in July, bookended by stretches of 3–8 and 1–8. At that point, they were 49–55, 12 games out of first place in the AL Central and 8 1/2 back in the wild card race. Worse, their vaunted bullpen had just endured a pair of serious blows with the losses of Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis, the former to season-ending surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome, the latter to a flexor strain. Given the ongoing struggles of the rotation and lineup, there was a case to be made that Kansas City should sell at the deadline, albeit not an exceptionally strong one.
Instead the Royals passed the deadline quietly, limiting themselves to one very minor swap of outfielders with the A's (Brett Eibner to Oakland, Billy Burns to Kansas City, where he’s become the all-important keeper of the Rally Mantis). That tack made sense given the significant number of players—first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, Davis, starter Danny Duffy and fourth outfielder Jarrod Dyson—under contract through 2017, giving their current nucleus one more shot at recreating the magic of '14–15.
But even given the less-than-mint state of this year's cast—minus not only Davis and Hochevar but also Moustakas (out for the year due to a torn ACL)—the Royals have won an AL-best 15 out of 20 this month. They split a four-game series with the Rays in Tampa Bay, won home series against the Blue Jays and White Sox, took road series against the Twins and Tigers (the latter a three-game sweep) and then swept a four-game set from Minnesota at Kauffman Stadium last weekend. At 64–60, Kansas City is still 8 1/2 games behind the Indians in the AL Central, but the surge has the Royals back in the wild-card hunt; Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds gives their chances at claiming a wild-card spot at 3.9%, up from 0.3% entering August.
As with their fall from contention, the Royals' resurrection has everything to do with starting pitching. Where their rotation pitched to a 4.95 ERA and 5.03 FIP with a 40% quality-start rate through the end of July, they're at a 2.78 ERA and 4.01 FIP with a 70% quality-start rate this month. Most notably, the starters have cut their home-run rate from 1.7 per nine to 1.1 and their walk rate from 3.3 per nine to 2.6. Ian Kennedy (0.67 ERA in four starts) and Duffy (1.18 in five starts) have both been brilliant, and Yordano Ventura (2.52 in four starts) has been very good, with Edinson Volquez (7.17 in four starts) the only one truly struggling. The bullpen, even down Davis and Hochevar, has pitched to a 1.63 ERA with 10.1 strikeouts per nine, a dramatic reversal from the unit’s 5.96 ERA and 8.1 strikeouts per nine in July. Kelvin Herrera has converted all six save chances (but taken two losses in which he entered in ties), with Joakim Soria, Peter Moylan and Matt Strahm (a rookie southpaw who's whiffed 15 in his first 8 1/3 innings) picking up the slack in high-leverage duty.
Overall, the Royals have allowed just 2.75 runs per game in August. Meanwhile, a lineup that had averaged an AL-low 3.88 runs per game through July has perked up to 4.55 per game since. Leftfielder Alex Gordon, who had scuffled to a .206/.313/.335 line through July, has led the with a sizzling .294/.377/.603 showing with six homers in August, one fewer than he'd hit over the previous four months. Cain (.324/.346/.432) and rightfielder Paulo Orlando (.316/.342/.474) have been reasonably hot as well, and shortstop Alcides Escobar (.280/.325/.373, largely since shifting from the leadoff spot to eighth in the order) and designated hitter Kendrys Morales (.246/.333/.464) have been far more productive this month than prior. Not that everybody has been on fire: Hosmer (.263/.310/.388) is in a slide, and catcher Salvador Perez (.197/.221/.348) appears to have run out of gas while starting 100 of the team's 124 games behind the plate.
While Davis has been throwing bullpen sessions and could be nearing a return, the Royals still don't appear to be a particularly imposing squad on paper. Duffy (2.66 ERA, 167 ERA+, 3.21 FIP) has stepped to the fore as the ace of the staff, but Kennedy (124 ERA+) and Ventura (100 ERA+) are the only other starters preventing runs at even an average clip. At this point, Hosmer (102 OPS+), Moustakas fill-in Cheslor Cuthbert (102) and Orlando (101) are the only above-average contributors to the offense, though Cain (97) and Morales (95) aren't far off, and Perez (92) is a positive contributor given his position. Gordon (89 OPS+) still rates as drag on the offense, Escobar (61) even moreso. Second base remains a gaping vortex of suck, with Omar Infante (since departed), Whit Merrifield, Christian Colon and Raul Mondesi Jr. combining to hit .240/.289/.328, albeit with some positive defense (+5 DRS between them).
As good as the Royals have been, though, their road is not an easy one. Among the eight teams vying for the two wild-card spots, the remade Yankees (63–61, 2.2%) are the only one with lower BP odds than Kansas City. Excluding those leading their respective divisions, the Red Sox (39.2%), Mariners (35.5%), Orioles (26.9%), Tigers (18.4%) and Astros (14.9%) all rate as having better shots. The next leg of the Royals' schedule will be their big test, as it comes against the Marlins and Red Sox (both on the road) and the Yankees and Tigers (both at home)—a quartet whose combined .530 winning percentage trumps Kansas City's own .516.
If there’s good news within that schedule, it’s that the Indians may have socked away the AL Central by the time the two teams square off in six of the Royals’ final 12 games. We’ll see if Kansas City can surmount the odds to advance to October yet again.