If you've missed the last week of Royals baseball, the Royals have managed to win 5 of 6 and are threatening to move into 3rd place.
Naturally, this has stirred up a bit of attention, with eyes set on the next week of baseball (being the Houston series and the St. Louis series). In the event of 6 wins in the next week, the Royals will be at .500. But that's the tease, isn't it? The 2012 tease is built on duel arguments. Argument 1 invokes the 3-14 start to the 2012 season. Argument 2 invokes the impending return of Salvy Perez (whose presence is supposed to change everything through whatever hyperbole you wish to mention regarding his abilities), the eventual return of Lorenzo Cain, and the reversal of current bad things into good things.
Let's look at the history before we buy in on the surging Royals.Here's the record through 64 for the Royals teams since the strike:
The first year that sticks out should be the magical year of 18-11 where the team was the same record through 64 as this team. Game 64 for that team was the end of a 4 game winning streak (one game was the annual "Luke Hochevar is worth something" start). They proceeded to lose 11 of the next 14 on their way to 67-95. So a team that started 3-14 and a team that started 18-11 are at the same record at this point of the season.
Other years worth noting: The 2003 season was kind of in a funk in mid-June before Jose Lima showed up and the team went on another run (that ended around the time that Jose Lima and Kevin Appier and most other pitchers got hurt in August). The 2000 season where being over .500 at that point didn't really mean much for the AL Central. The 1997 season where the team capsized shortly afterwards (getting Bob Boone fired in favor of the worst manager in Royals History). Also the 1995 team is one of the better teams to finish 30 games out of first place.
But this team is 1 win ahead of the 2011 team, which won 71 games. This team is 2 wins ahead of the 2010 team, where Yost spoke of being "a good week and a day away from first place" as the team was 10 under and 8 out in early July (for those who have blocked that season out of their minds, the Royals swept the Mariners, taking them to 7 under and 8 out. Then they went on a 3-13 run and pretty much shut up about eyeing first place)
So if one uses the Yost math, we're 6 good days out of first place.
But how do the fundamentals look for such a quest?
The Offense: Let's be honest with ourselves, the offense is freeloading off the work of the pitching right now. Sunday's win was the first time the Royals scored 5 or more and won a game since May 30th. It was also the first time they scored 5 or more in two straight games since May 30th. The offense is a tale of two personalities. The performance with the bases empty and the performance with runners in scoring position have differed slightly. Which means the team is below average with the bases empty and at the bottom of the league with runners in scoring position.
Oh yeah, Yuni's home run today was the FIFTH home run with RISP for the entire season. Every other AL team has at least 10. Yuni is the team leader in Home Runs in June. Party like it's 2010.
But the Royals have won 4 of the last 5 due to getting some form of hit with runners in scoring position. So when they get in that habit (and clutch hitting is not a skill, it's a habit), then they will win games. No matter how zany the final play of the game may look.
You know how I know this offense is a bit inconsistent? Hosmer and Dyson have the same stolen base total in June. And somehow Dyson, the fastest player in baseball, has to be bunted to 2nd, instead of just stealing 2nd on his own.
For this team to be more than a tease, the hitting has to be more consistent and better. Guys like Hosmer and Moustakas will have to hit in the middle of the order. Jeff Francoeur will have to have a random good month for once since he's the 5 hitter for life in AL parks. Fortunately the Royals will be returning to the confines of 21st century baseball after the Astros series ends, meaning that both Hosmer and Butler will get to bat multiple times in the same game (instead of having games where Roman Colon, Nate Adcock, and Tim Collins bat).
The Pitching: The pitching is a bit of a mess right now. The bullpen has been worked quite a bit due to the lack of starters who can actually pitch for more than 5/9ths of the game. The bullpen was so overworked that Roman Colon was brought back from AAA to throw a few innings over the weekend (and he would have thrown MORE innings on Sunday if not for Yuni). The starting pitching may be showing signs of strain as well, depending on the health status of Mazzaro (leg) and Bruce Chen (velocity drop?/unwillingness to throw a curve?). Both are worth keeping an eye on.
Felipe Paulino's return appears to be impending. Paulino returning probably means Mazzaro gets demoted, although there's no clear "demotion candidate" at the moment [In other words, Hochevar and Sanchez aren't going to the bullpen and it's a Mazzaro/Mendoza battle, and unless Luis' magical run of looking good for 4/5 innings ends, then Vin gets the short stick].
We await the random arms that will show up until the bullpen guys get back into their happy zone of rest.
The Decisionmaking: Recently the decision making (BUNTS) has been questionable, or bad execution of bad ideas at best. But these decisions haven't been costing the team games in the last week. So ideally the decisionmaking by a certain manager remembers that overmanaging is not always best. If this team is meant to be as good as people hope, they should be able to beat the Astros and take a series from St. Louis without managing like it's Game 7.
The Returning Heroes: In all reality, people will expect too much from Sal Perez to start his 2012. Perez's offensive seems to be unrealistically high. His defense is worth keeping an eye on light of his knee injury. Some people act like Sal Perez were around, the team wouldn't just be at .500 (3 more wins) but in middle of the battle for the Central. Sal Perez could be good enough to finally give the team a catcher who is a plus. He's going to be better than Quintero/Pena (although they may keep 3 catchers for the next month because nothing says "winning team" like having catchers make up half of the bench bats). But let's not act like his tears cure cancer until we see proof.
As for Lorenzo Cain, he's not exactly operating with infinite time. Myers playing center field (which won't last) means that if Cain doesn't get warm quick, people will compare him to Myers. Cain returning should probably mean that Dyson moves into a specialist role (IOW, pinch runner). As for Myers? unless people start getting hurt, he's not getting an extended run before the all-star break. Odorizzi? there's probably going to be a limited opportunities short of injuries. What they have is what they have. Which is an offense that underachieves and pitching that will likely run 12 appliances off of 6 outlets.
The Competition: The Tigers have left a power vacuum in the central due to their "2008 Tigers" tribute act (1000 runs!). But the fact that the candles in the rest of the AL Central are not burning bright doesn't mean the Royals candle is brighter right now. The top 3 teams have a far more credible case to be the team to finally pull out the AL Central. This team is being given a favor that the teams above them are not exactly excelling as this Royals team starts their June at an 8-7 clip. But unless this team can just go on a freakish run, the odds don't favor them.
Is this another tease?
Check back at the end of June, or the All-Star Break. This team will have played 20 more games from now until the All-Star Break, including series v. the Twins, the Blue Jays, the Astros, and the occasional good team (Rays, Cards, Tigers). If this team is within 4 games of .500 (in other words, at least 40 wins), then they can continue the tease.
As for the post strike Royals teams through 84?
Yeah, two teams with 40 wins in their first 84 since the strike. It's a reasonable enough "now i'm impressed" mark for this team. 40-44 means just 11-9 in the next 20.
But considering the recent history and recent teases, until this team is on the block and not in the neighborhood, the tease is still alive.
They're winning games. They're winning in exciting ways. They're outcheering the Cardinals fans in St. Louis in the 15th inning. It's a fun time. It's a team that is finally on pace to win more games than the 2011 Royals. But this has been a reality dose. Take it with or without water.