How the Kansas City Royals Have Gone from Pretenders to Contenders

Sean FryeFeatured ColumnistAugust 12, 2013

It's mid-August, and that usually means the Kansas City Royals have once again lost all relevance in the world of baseball. Fans in the area at this point have usually turned all focus to the Kansas City Chiefs' preseason activities and the upcoming college football season. 

But this year, that's not the case. The Royals have gone 18-5 since the All-Star break, are coming off a 3-to-1 series win over the Boston Red Sox and have somehow put themselves in the middle of the playoff race. 

Currently, Kansas City is 61-54 and 4.5 games out of the AL wild card. The club is 7.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers, who have been equally as hot as of late, in the AL Central standings. 

And while 4.5 games seems like a lot to catch up to the Oakland A's and the Tampa Bay Rays, there are plenty of signs for optimism in Kansas City. Most notably, the Royals start a three-game series with the Miami Marlins, the worst team in the NL and tied for the second-worst record in baseball, on Monday. 

So for now, the Royals should stay hot. 

But what's got them to this point? Besides unloading right fielder Jeff Francoeur and trading for outfielder Justin Maxwell, the team hasn't seen too much turnover. 

However, Maxwell's addition has certainly proven to be valuable. Since arriving in Kansas City from the Houston Astros on Aug. 1, he's improved his batting average from .243 to .268. Maxwell's also hit three homers—including a pinch-hit one against the New York Mets in extra innings—in just nine games with the team and 20 at-bats. 

But the real turnaround this season has come from the mound. In 2012, the Royals had the eighth-worst ERA across the staff at 4.30. The starters were even worse, ranking 26th in baseball at a 5.01 ERA. 

The starting pitching also went just 890.0 innings last season, the third-worst in baseball. 

But this year, the starting staff has completely turned around. The Royals have the second-lowest ERA in the AL at 3.56, trailing only Detroit at 3.54. And, per Jerry Crasnick of ESPN, the relievers have pitched the fewest innings in the majors at just 320. 

The Royals are also tied for second in the league in quality starts with 69. Again, they trail only Detroit, which has a whopping 79. James Shields leads the league in the same category with 19. 

Royals closer Greg Holland is one of the best in the game right now. He's fourth in the league with 32 saves and he's converted on his last 25 opportunities, according to Crasnick. 

The fielding has also been outstanding for Kansas City. According to an article highlighting the Royals defense by Sam Mellinger of The Wichita Eagle,

Using the 10-runs-saved-equals-a-win rule, that means the Royals have won between seven and eight games more than they would have with an average defense, and 14 or 15 more than they would with the league’s worst defense (which they had as recently as 2010).

Imagine if the Royals were only 46-69 at this point. Well that's the difference this defense has made. 

The bats have certainly been there this season as well for the Royals. The club ranks fourth in league in average with runners in scoring position at .275. However, the three teams they trail are Detroit, Tampa Bay and the Baltimore Orioles. All these teams are ranked above the Royals in either divisional or wild card standings. 

Nevertheless, the offense has especially come alive during the team's run since the All-Star break. The Royals have scored 103 runs during their 18-5 streak, the fifth-most in the AL. 

Third baseman Mike Moustakas has also proven to be a huge jolt of energy in the past few weeks. Since that All-Star break, "Moose" has risen his batting average from .213 to .231. While that's still not an incredible average, he's showing signs of life. 

Moustakas has also been a big run producer lately. Eleven of his 30 RBI this season have come since July 26. He's also making great plays on defense, like against Boston where turned a 5-4 double play.

What's perhaps most exciting about this team though is it's overall character and determination. Kansas City is 8-2 in extra innings games this year, which is the most wins in extras and also tied for the fewest losses. 

The Royals also have 35 comeback wins this season, the most in the league. 

Ultimately, the Royals still have an uphill battle. 4.5 games is a lot for a team to makeup, especially when two of the four teams above you are in the AL East, which is arguably baseball's best division. 

In an attempt to provide good leadership and some depth in the middle infield for this late-season run—which is uncharted territory for this team—the Royals acquired second baseman Jamey Carroll from the Minnesota Twins in a trade on Aug. 11. 

On Aug. 15, the Royals will face one of its most important tests of the season as they travel to Detroit for a five-game, four-day series. The team can make up a lot of ground not just in the wild card race, but also in the race for the division. 

But if they falter in Detroit, it could start a downward spiral that Royals fans are all too familiar with. 

For now, fans in Kansas City can continue to focus on baseball and pack Kaufman Stadium. The team is now eyeing not only just its second winning season since 1985, but it's first playoff appearance since that same year when they won the World Series.