If the Cleveland Indians won every series from here on out without one sweep, the team’s record would be 89-73. That’s a .549 winning percentage, which is better than the Detroit Tigers’ .545 percentage, but still behind the Kansas City Royals at .556. Of course, this would include four of six from the Royals starting today and five of seven from the Tigers, with that four game set to start September. If Seattle held steady, doing this would lock the second Wild Card for the Indians. It also means playing .700 baseball from here to the end of the season. That would be, in no uncertain terms, incredible. But not impossible. It all starts with a trip to Kansas City to face maybe the hottest team in the league. Here’s your series preview.
In the month of August the Royals are 19-6, bolstered by an eight-game-winning streak to start the month. They’re a streaky team, as that run to start the month was KC’s second such extended hotness, along with a 10-game win streak back in early June, which boosted them back to contention before a few cold spurts dropped them below the Tribe in the standings. But that’s the past, and the past is prologue. Now the Royals sit in first with a game and a half on the supposed powerhouse Tigers and only 4.5 above the Indians. Kansas City has a bullpen which effectively shortens the game to seven innings with Wade Davis and closer Greg Holland combining to allow 15 earned runs and notching 160 strikeouts in 109.2 innings. Davis has a 525 ERA+, Holland is “only” at 231. For comparison’s sake, Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds has a 147 ERA+ the last two years and the Atlanta Braves’ Craig Kimbrel is at 260 in that same span. Good company. It’s just stupid to see these numbers, and it’s not just these two guys. KC lost its third relieving ace (Luke Hochevar) to elbow surgery for the year and he was filthy, but fill-in Kelvin Herrera has thrown 55.1 innings with a 275 ERA+, even better than Holland. He doesn’t get the K’s, but he gets the results. The Royals haven’t had the best luck in the draft with pitchers the last several years but it’s turned into maybe the filthiest bullpen in the majors.
The Royals bullpen is dirty. KC’s rotation is very good and the Tribe will get a sampling of its best this series. Kansas City’s defense is dynamite, with athletes and brilliant gloves all over the diamond, at least five Gold Gloves likely when the year is over. But an integral part of baseball is that pesky thing called offense, and there the Royals struggle. Alright, so in pure terms, the team hits the ball well, a .264 team batting average second in the AL. But power is where KC falls. Last in the league in homers with 84, twelfth in OPS at .693, last in walks. Really, the Royals are like a team built for about 1906 – they don’t walk but they don’t strike out, their 776 K’s least in the league. They’ve stolen the most bases in the American League. They are an amazing Dead Ball Era team.
Unfortunately for the Royals, it’s 2014. Now, we’re in a time where offense is in a terrific doldrums – offensive numbers are as low as they were in the early 70’s before the designated hitter was introduced. Still, hitting matters and when you have eight of your nine most-played players hitting well below league average, that’s going to bite you in the bottom sooner or later. In fact, only two players to log more than 350 plate appearances – Lorenzo Cain at 391 and Alex Gordon at 521 – have an OPS+ above 100. Cain isn’t even doing that strongly at 109, Gordon at 122. The legend that is Country Breakfast, AKA Billy Butler Designated Hitter Extraordinaire, is having a dreadful season. To be fair, if he were a shortstop, his numbers (.276/.326/.388, 9 dingers) would look sold, but the man has played in 70 games as a position player since 2010. If not for the struggles of Eric Hosmer and his .689 OPS prior to hitting the 15 day-DL, Butler wouldn’t have seen defense at all. No, he’s real bad this year, and that’s supposed to be a locus of offense for the Royals.
As for Gordon, he’s having a fine season, all the while poking holes in how strongly we consider Wins Above Replacement as a major metric for MVP voting. This year, as I mentioned, he’s having a fine offensive season, though his OPS+ isn’t even in the top 10. He has solid power with 16 dingers and surely the Royals would kill for a repeat of that 2012 season with his 51 doubles. No, it’s not his best offensive season, but he’s behind only Mike Trout in fWAR at 5.9, ahead of bomb launcher Giancarlo Stanton. It’s Gordon’s defense that is sealing the deal. Now, he’ unlikely to win MVP this year especially with how Trout has been snubbed and how the Angels are finally doing, but he’s making a great case even if a large chunk of his WAR is coming from a much more nebulous source. Defensive statistics, the good ones I mean, are still in their infancy. As time goes on, that player-tracking tech that a few parks have now becomes more ubiquitous and analysts get a better grip on things this will change, but right now? We’re just not sure. We can all tell Gordon is a phenomenal outfielder, there’s no running on him no matter who you are but at the same time, he’s still just a left fielder. That’s traditionally a place you hide people who can’t field. Your Manny Ramirez’s, Michael Brantleys, or Ted Williams’s. Gordon is great, but take a moment when you look at his WAR to understand what you’re really seeing. Also, he seems to actively hate the Indians, so he’s hard to love. He just beats on them so hard.
You know though, maybe this pitching and defense thing could work for them. After all, the San Fancisco Giants won a title a few years back with that recipe. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito and Johnathan Sanchez did the heavy lifting along with a wicked bullpen, though Aubrey Huff and Buster Posey had some solid offensive seasons. Along with Pat Burrell, but we don’t mention him for fear he’ll steal our girl. You have to wonder if they Royals have enough punch to go all the way. They’re likely to make it to October, their probability is at 80.1% going into the series.It’ll be interesting though. Can they poke balls through the infield then pitch tough all the way though? I suppose we’ll have to see.