The Royals Are the Most Confounding Story in Baseball Right Now

A third of the way into the season, Kansas City is 32–19 after finishing a dismal 56–106 last year. Can the Royals keep up the shocking turnaround? Or are they primed for a monumental collapse?
The Royals, who tied the franchise record for fewest wins in a full season with 56 last year, are now on pace for 102 in 2024.
The Royals, who tied the franchise record for fewest wins in a full season with 56 last year, are now on pace for 102 in 2024. / Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated

The Kansas City Royals might be the most shocking team in baseball in 121 years.

Or they might be primed to rival the 2021 San Diego Padres when it comes to monumental collapses.

That both scenarios are possible is because somehow, some way, Kansas City is 32–19 after finishing last season 56–106.

You can tell me that Shohei Ohtani is on pace to become the first 40–40 player without being caught stealing, that Elly De La Cruz will become the first player to steal 100 bases and hit more than 10 home runs, or that Aaron Judge and Juan Soto could be the first New York Yankees teammates with a 1.000 OPS since Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig, and I would still contest that the Royals are the biggest, most surprising, most downright confounding story of the first third of the season.

The Royals! The team that didn’t win its 31st game last season until July 29. The team that ranked 27th in runs allowed and 23rd in runs scored. The team that tied the franchise record for fewest wins in a full season with 56 and now is on pace for 102.

Here they are at 32–19. Only 63 previous teams in the wild-card era started a full season 32–19 or better through 51 games. Only one of those 63 finished with a losing record: those folding Friars of 2021, who ended the season in a 12–34 freefall to finish 79–83.

All but eight of the previous 63 teams to start this well won at least 90 games or made the postseason. The Royals’ playoff chances began at 12% on Opening Day and are now at 81.8% on Baseball Reference. Only one team made the playoffs in a full season the year after losing 100 games: the 2017 Minnesota Twins.

Let’s assume Kansas City can’t keep up this pace. Say the Royals go 61–50 the rest of the way. That would still give them 93 wins—37 more than last year, which would break the 121-year-old “modern” record of biggest leap forward, held by John McGraw’s 1903 New York Giants (+36 wins).

Even if Kansas City slumps to 56–55 the rest of the way, it will set a record for most wins after a 100-loss season, topping the 87 wins of the 1967 Chicago Cubs and ’89 Baltimore Orioles.

By now you should be appreciating why the Royals are such a shocking story. After the debacle of last season, they dropped $105 million on free agents, which is sofa cushion money for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Yankees but was a franchise-record spending spree. They fortified their pitching with starters Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo and their bullpen with Will Smith, Chris Stratton and John Schreiber, all veterans in their 30s with reputations as solid professionals and teammates.

Wacha and Lugo are a combined 11–5 without missing a start while lefty Cole Ragans, heisted from the Texas Rangers at the deadline last year for Aroldis Chapman, leads the league in strikeouts. Brady Singer, 27, drafted nine years ago, is blossoming into the star the Royals have waited on (2.70 ERA). There is no bigger reason for this turnaround than Kansas City’s rotation. It has improved from fourth worst last year (5.12 ERA) to fourth best this year (3.03).

Royals player Bobby Witt Jr. swings at the plate.
At 24 years old, Witt is having an MVP-quality season. / Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated

On offense, the maturation of Bobby Witt Jr. at age 24 and the revival of Salvador Pérez at 34 are carrying what is a plucky but not deep lineup.

Now the big question: Can the Royals keep it up? By banking so many wins so early, Kansas City is more likely to make the playoffs than not. That’s because the unofficial entry to the postseason is 87 wins. Under the current 12-team playoff format, 21 of 22 teams that won 87 games made the playoffs, with the 2023 Mariners (88–74) the exception.

The Royals are likely to fall somewhere between the Giants of John McGraw and the Padres of Jayce Tingler. Which outlier do they most resemble? Here are reasons to believe in the Royals—and to doubt them.

Why the Royals are more like the 1903 Giants

  • The rotation. It’s been rock solid. One warning: None of their starters, Lugo, Wacha, Singer, Ragans and Alec Marsh, have thrown 162 innings in any of the past six years.
  • The Royals are a terrific defensive team. Only the Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays rate higher among defensive runs saved.
  • They put the ball in play. Only the Houston Astros have a lower strikeout rate than Kansas City.
  • Kansas City leads the majors with a .308 average with runners in scoring position, though that may be an unsustainable pace considering the league average is .253 and no team has hit that well over a full season since the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals.
  • Witt is having an MVP-quality season.
  • The Royals are going to add to this roster. A source familiar with the club’s trade talks said the team already is having internal discussions about which players to acquire before the trade deadline, an indication the team views this fast start as a postseason opportunity rather than a “we’re ahead of schedule” victory lap. It’s most likely Kansas City adds an outfield bat and pitching depth.

Why the Royals are more like the 2021 Padres

  • The schedule has been soft. The Royals are 6–9 against winning teams. Only the Philadelphia Phillies (4–2) have won fewer games against winning teams.
  • Kansas City has the worst hitting outfield in MLB. Its outfielders rank last in average (.201), on-base percentage (.262) and OPS (.589, which would be the worst ever in a full season).
  • The Royals’ bullpen has the lowest strikeout rate in baseball (7.1 per 9) and has a higher WHIP (1.42) than any bullpen except the one in Colorado.

Ultimately, what will determine the Royals’ fate will be how they fare against the Twins and Cleveland Guardians, their main division rivals. They are 1–2 against Minnesota and have yet to play Cleveland. Starting Monday, they will play Minnesota and Cleveland 23 times in their next 90 games. The real test of Kansas City is about to begin.

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Tom Verducci


Tom Verducci is a senior baseball writer for Sports Illustrated. He’s covered Major League Baseball since 1981. Tom also has been an analyst for Fox and the MLB Network; a New York Times No. 1 bestselling author; and co-host of The Book of Joe podcast with Joe Maddon. A five-time Emmy Award winner across three categories (studio analyst, reporter, short form writing) and nominated in a fourth (game analyst), he’s garnered many honorifics over the years, including three-time National Sportswriter of the Year; two-time National Magazine Award finalist; and Penn State Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient. Tom is a member of the National Sports Media Hall of Fame, Baseball Writers Association of America (including past New York chapter chairman) and a Baseball Hall of Fame voter since 1993. He also is the only writer to be a game analyst for World Series telecasts.

Tom Verducci


Tom Verducci covers Major League Baseball and brings Sports Illustrated 41 seasons of experience. Tom is a five-time Emmy Award winner, two-time National Magazine Award finalist, two-time New York Times bestselling author and a member of the National Sports Media Association Hall of Fame. He was the first baseball writer to be named National Sportswriter of the Year for three consecutive years and the only to call the World Series as an analyst. He appears on MLB Network and Fox. He holds a degree from Penn State and lives in New Jersey with his wife. They have two sons.