Is MLB's Most Shocking Division Leader a Truly Sustainable Contender?

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Is MLB's Most Shocking Division Leader a Truly Sustainable Contender?
Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press
The underdog Kansas City Royals are the most surprising division leader in baseball at the moment.

The Milwaukee Brewers might be the most surprising team overall this season after getting off to a fast start and possessing at least a share of the NL Central lead for all but three days. But the most shocking division leader in Major League Baseball at the moment actually resides in the other Central: the Kansas City Royals.

The Royals, you see, weren't supposed to be where they are—namely, at the top of the AL Central, a division that has belonged to the Detroit Tigers in recent years.

They weren't supposed to be here according to most preseason prognostications. And they sure as heck weren't supposed to be here a little less than a month ago, when a fourth straight loss dropped them to 48-50 and a season-worst eight games behind Detroit on July 21.

Well, Kansas City has gone a best-in-baseball 21-5 since that low point. The once-mighty Tigers, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times, winning just 11 of their last 26 in the wake of injuries to key pitchers Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Joakim Soria.

So with about six weeks left and the Royals now 69-55 and two-and-a-half games up in the Central, the heck with "supposed to be."

"We've got too much focus now to say, 'Hey, we're in first, we're fine,'" first baseman/designated hitter Billy Butler told Dick Kaegel of MLB.com. "No, it's like, 'We're in first, we need to stretch this lead out.'"

But just how did the Royals—a small-market franchise with the longest active playoff drought in the majors dating back to 1985—get here? How are they doing this? Are they for real?

Because it's starting to feel like we're not in Kansas (City) anymore.

In some ways, the story seems too good to be true. In fact, the tale comes complete with a feel-good ditty involving team superfan SungWoo Lee, a longtime follower from South Korea who recently made his first trip to Kansas City to experience the Royals in person—at the exact time when the team was overtaking the Tigers for first place last week. Seriously.

That too-good-to-be-true feeling has some merit, though, especially in terms of the Royals offense, which remains right around league average at 4.12 runs per game. The sticks have been better of late, but not much: After scoring 4.07 runs per game in the first half, Kansas City is averaging 4.28 since the break.

The young offensive core just hasn't taken the next step that many figured. First baseman Eric Hosmer, who had the potential to come into his own this year, currently is injured and wasn't hitting all that much even when he was healthy (.267/.312/.377). Meanwhile, the formerly steady Billy Butler (.282/.330/.387) and potential breakout candidate Mike Moustakas (.198/.259/.376) have been disappointments, too.

In fact, going by weighted runs created plus (wRC+)—a metric that measures a player's total offensive contributions where 100 represents league average—the Royals have only two players performing above average: left fielder Alex Gordon and center fielder Lorenzo Cain.

Royals' 2014 Leaders in wRC+*
PLAYER POSITION PA wRC+
Alex Gordon LF 484 126
Lorenzo Cain CF 363 106
Salvador Perez C 459 99
Billy Butler DH/1B 489 98
Norichika Aoki RF 413 94
Jarrod Dyson CF 230 93
Alcides Escobar SS 462 92
Eric Hosmer 1B 445 91
Omar Infante 2B 432 78
Mike Moustakas 3B 366 76
*Through Aug. 17

FanGraphs

Essentially, this club is getting it done and sits where it does in the standings because of how much it excels on the other side of the ball—run prevention, and that factors in both pitching and defense.

The Royals rank 12th in total runs allowed, and that is driven by a staff that sports a 3.58 ERA—11th best in baseball. The rotation lacks any big names outside of James Shields (3.29 ERA, 1.21 WHIP), but each of Jason Vargas (3.17 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), Danny Duffy (2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP), Jeremy Guthrie (4.48 ERA, 1.34) and rookie Yordano Ventura (3.48 ERA, 1.31 WHIP) is capable of throwing a quality start in any given game.

To wit, Kansas City has 70 quality starts (six-plus innings pitched, three earned runs or less) on the year, the 10th most in the sport, and the five-man rotation has averaged 6.2 innings per start, which is the fifth-best mark around.

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press
A failure as a starter for the Royals in 2013, Wade Davis has flourished as a setup man in 2014.

The bullpen? Well, that's filled with young, hard-throwing arms like Aaron Crow (3.65 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, team-high 56 appearances), Kelvin Herrera (1.56 ERA, 1.17 WHIP) and Wade Davis (team-bests with an 0.83 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and 13.8 K/9) in front of one of baseball's very best closers in Greg Holland (1.84 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and an MLB-high 38 saves).

No wonder the club ranks fifth overall with 4.1 wins above replacement accrued by relievers.

As Buster Olney of ESPN.com (subscription required) writes:

The Kansas City bullpen is probably the difference between the Royals between in or out of first place in the AL Central. While Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has had to wade through uncertainty all summer with a struggling bullpen that ranks 27th in ERA, the back end of the Kansas City relief has been nearly pristine of late. 

And as for defense, well, the Royals are downright regal. Here's a look at where they rank in various defensive metrics:

Royals' MLB Ranks in Various Defensive Statistics*
STATISTIC ROYALS MLB RANK
Errors 70 T-13
Defensive Efficiency .708 13
Stolen Base Percentage .703 12
Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) 18 8
Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) 42.9 1
Total Defense 51.9 1
*Through Aug. 17

MLB.com, FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus

Among those statistics, the most impressive one is the total defense, an all-encompassing metric from FanGraphs that factors in all aspects of D and rolls them into one easy-to-digest number to show how many runs above (or below) average a team (or player) is.

In the Royals' case, they are 51.9 runs better than average, which is not only the top mark in MLB but the top mark in MLB by quite a bit.

Much of that comes from the performances of three-time Gold Glove winner Gordon (17 runs above average), backup center fielder Jarrod Dyson (16.7) and catcher Salvador Perez (11.1), all of whom rank in the top 25 in the entire sport. But Cain (7.2) and shortstop Alcides Escobar (6.6) aren't too shabby either.

Speaking of Perez and his work behind the plate, opponents simply don't dare test his arm, as he's allowed all of 46 successful steals on the season, the second-fewest among all teams. 

Run prevention clearly has become a bigger focus in MLB in recent years, and the Royals do it as well as just about any team out there, whether it's pitching (both starters and relievers) or defense.

That's why Kansas City is well above .500 both at home (33-28) and on the road (36-27), one of only seven teams—a group that does not include the vaunted Los Angeles Dodgers—that can make that claim through Monday.

Taking all of this into account, the question remains: Are the Royals for real? Like, really for real?

Perhaps the only way to know for sure is to wait and see. If Kansas City hangs around with the Tigers at or near the top of the AL Central for another few weeks, we're sure to get an answer one way or another.

After all, the Royals are only 4-9 against the Tigers head-to-head so far. That could be a problem considering they play each other six more times down the stretch, with three games in Detroit (Sept. 8-10) and three at home (Sept. 19-21).

It's not unreasonable to suggest that those series could determine whether the Royals really are for real—and whether they can make it to October for the first time in 29 years.

 

Statistics are accurate as of Aug. 18 and come from MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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