Forty-three straight zeroes. That's the Royals' current string of futility, the longest scoring drought in nearly half a century. The team has lost five straight, knocking them to the outskirts of a wild card race that's engulfed more than half of the American League. With free agency looming for several core players who were part of their back-to-back trips to the World Series in 2014–15, it remains to be seen whether a team known for its resilience can climb off the mat once more.
The Royals last scored a run on Thursday, August 24, when Brandon Moss led off the second inning with a homer off Rockies starter German Marquez. An inning before that, Whit Merrifield led off with a homer. Despite that rare show of power—the team is 10th in the AL in homers, with 157—the Royals lost 3–2. Their victory the previous night came via Eric Hosmer's walkoff three-run homer, so you'd have to dial back to the seventh inning of that game, 48 innings ago, to find the last time the Royals manufactured a run the old fashioned, Ned Yost-approved way.
The Royals' scoreless streak is the longest since the Cubs went 48 innings without a run in 1968, the "Year of the Pitcher." Those Cubs lost three of the five games in that span by a 1–0 score and surrendered just 10 runs. The 1906 Philadelphia A's also went 48 innings without a run back in the midst of the dead-ball era, another low-scoring period (hat-tip to Joe Posnanski for identifying the two teams). That the Royals are doing what they're doing—or not doing—at a time when scoring rates are at their highest in a decade is remarkable.
It's also poorly timed. While there's never a good occasion for a five-game losing streak, this one hammered a nail in the Royals' slim chance of winning the AL Central by knocking them from five games behind the Indians (who swept three from them this past weekend) to 10 with just 32 games to play. With that, the Royals are 9–18 since the close of play on July 30, tied with the Mets for the majors' worst mark. At 64–66, they're only three games out of the second AL wild card spot (currently occupied by the 67–63 Twins), but they trail the Angels (67–65), Orioles (66–65), Mariners (66–66) and Rays (66–67) and are tied with the Rangers (64–66) in that "race."
It’s not the distance, it’s the traffic. The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, which account for remaining schedule and projections for available players, give the Royals just a 6.2% chance of claiming a spot, the lowest of any of the aforementioned teams. That's in part because they've been outscored by 58 runs, the league's fifth-worst differential; their Pythagorean record is just 59–71, tied for the league's fourth-worst mark.
Back to actual wins and losses, the Royals' 9–18 plunge is just the latest down in a rollercoaster season. They stumbled out of the gate, finishing April with an MLB-worst 7–16 (.304) record but reasserted their viability by winning 37 of their next 51 games to climb above .500 and into the thick of both the AL Central and wild card races. They spent the rest of July backing up a 1–7 skid with a nine-game wining streak that put them a season-high seven games above .500 at 54–47. A two-game split separated that run from the aforementioned fade.
Prior to their current drought, the Royals' offense had bashed out 5.07 runs per game since the All-Star break, a miraculous showing given the continued presence of a trio of Replacement Level Killers. Shortstop Alcides Escobar (.233/.256/.314/50 OPS+) and leftfielder Alex Gordon (.199/.284/.286/52 OPS+) have been the two worst-hitting regulars in the majors. Even with 14 Defensive Runs Saved, Gordon, who has started 109 of the team's 130 games, is right at zero WAR for the year, while Escobar (-7 DRS) is at -1.4 WAR while starting every game and playing all but eight of the team’s innings at short; perhaps a day off or 30 is in order. The lefty-swinging Moss (.204/.291/.429/87 OPS+), who has taken the bulk of the team's at-bats at DH while spotting at first base and the outfield corners, is at -0.6 WAR. Meanwhile, Melky Cabrera, who has hit for a 107 OPS+ since being reacquired from the White Sox on July 30, has offset that work with -7 DRS in 19 games in rightfield (yes, small-sample alert) and -0.5 WAR overall.
The bigger problem for the Royals lately has been run prevention. Not only have they lost back-to-back games to the Indians and Rays by 12–0 scores, they've allowed 6.23 runs per game this month, with opponents reaching double digits four other times. Their starters have been hammered for a 6.39 ERA in August while allowing 2.0 homers per nine and making just six quality starts in 26 games; they've exited before completing five innings nine times. Ian Kennedy (9.57 ERA in 26 1/3 innings over six starts) and All-Star Jason Vargas (7.11 ERA in five starts) have been particularly bad, and both deadline acquisition Trevor Cahill and standby Danny Duffy have been bad as well. Both are now on the DL, the former due to shoulder impingement, the latter due to a pronator strain which felled him after making his first quality start of the month on August 22. What’s more, Duffy was charged with a DUI on Sunday after being picked up in a Burger King parking lot. Stretched thin by the lack of innings from the starters, the bullpen has yielded a 5.63 ERA this month, with the now-injured Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz each posting ERAs above 10.00 and deadline acquisition Brandon Maurer (8.68 ERA in 9 1/3 innings) not much better.
If there's good news for the Royals, it's that they have a relatively soft schedule the rest of the way, with an average opponent winning percentage of .485 (the equivalent of a 63–67 record); among the other wild card contenders, the Angels, Mariners, Orioles, Rangers, Rays and Yankees all face tougher slates. Just 15 of the Royals’ final 32 games are against teams with .500 records or better, namely the Twins (four at home and three on the road), Indians (four in Cleveland), Diamondbacks (three in Phoenix), and Yankees (one in the Bronx). They also have their best hitters—Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain, all of whom are pending free agents—in working order; they've been the lineup's three most productive members this month, each with an OPS of .845 or better. That said, Moustakas, who’s one homer away from tying Steve Balboni for the franchise’s single-season home run record of 36, set in 1985, hasn’t homered since August 15 and is now in a 1-for-17 slump.
Having resisted calls to break up the Hosmer-Cain-Moustakas trio prior to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, general manager Dayton Moore would be well-served to augment it before the August 31st trade deadline, the last day teams can acquire players eligible for postseason play. Reds shortstop Zack Cozart doesn't appear to have gone through waivers yet and would be a significant upgrade over Escobar on both sides of the ball; as a fallback option, the Mets' Asdrubal Cabrera can at least hit. Phillies outfielder Daniel Nava, who has lately been losing time to power prodigy Rhys Hoskins, could shore up the outfield, and as for rotation help, why not go back to the Padres (from whom they acquired Cahill and Maurer) to see if they can land Jhoulys Chacin? The August waiver rules may complicate such deals, but particularly so long as the Royals are near the bottom of the wild card race, they have fewer teams ahead of them in the pecking order.
If they can claw their way back into playoff position, it will be a fitting farewell for the Hosmer-Cain-Moustakas nucleus, who did so much to revive Royals baseball as part of the team’s 2014 AL pennant winners and 2015 champions; it seems highly unlikely the team will pay free-agent prices to retain all three. But even if the Royals fall short and their run of four straight finishes at .500 or better—something unseen in Kansas City since 1977-80—ends, they’ll be remembered for their part in the most successful run Kauffman Stadium has seen in a couple of generations.