Last year was frustrating to watch, and I never bought the idea that the Royals were truly in it. Sure, they were one of the myriad of teams that managed to "lead" the chase for the 2nd Wild Card spot down the stretch, but even their 17 of 21 stretch only served to tease us; the Royals faded down the stretch, as they were who everyone thought they were. And hey, as recent as the last position player Ups and Downs, they were at a very similar point:
...here's your Position Player Ups and Downs for the last couple weeks, for your 53-51 Kansas City Royals (2.5 games out of the 2nd Wild Card...sound familiar?).
Well dang. This year, for whatever else has gone on, it's now getting to the point where it's actually hard to deny that the Royals have a legitimate shot at extra baseball. The Detroit Tigers have slumped hard, missing Anibal Sanchez and hitting like Chris Getz. The Royals can currently do no wrong, and have one of the easiest schedules remaining. Still, pretty much every fiber of me wants to take note of some caveat, because to acknowledge this legitimate shot at the postseason feels like a jinx for a team that hasn't made the playoffs during my lifetime...
Is this what excitement about a Royals team feels like? If so, like the team itself, it's a confusing feeling that came on rather quickly. But it's a good one.
Without further adieu, the Position Player Ups and Downs:
Cain continues to have a year where the results are difficult to complain about, but the process of which gives us some concerning trends to keep an eye on for next year and down the stretch. Cain's been legitimately good as MLB CFs go this year, hitting .295/.335/.406 with appropriately Cain-like defense. Fangraphs has his WAR for this year already at .3 higher than last year's figure, and there's a still a month to go. He's hit more line drives this year than in years past too. You look at all of this, and you realize that Cain's 2014 is adding up to a pretty solid year as a contender's CF. He's swiped 18 bags, just for good measure.
Now here's a couple things that don't bode well for him:
- His walk rate is down, strikeout rate back up.
- His BABIP is still at a haughty .378, and the uptick in LD% does not explain this away. He's due to come back down, this year or next.
- You can make the argument that injuries haven't affected his play overall this year, but we're also talking about a player with 364 PAs through August 18th. Any durability he's added has not been enough to avoid the usual time off.
- Cain is already 28, and he's about to get more expensive just as the percentages (and career arcs of non-star players) are about to start working against him. Anyone trust Dayton Moore with that transaction?
Anyway, don't avoid enjoying the nice year that Cain's had overall (I'm certainly not, I find him one of the most fun Royals to watch), just know that this might be the most effective we ever see him.
Crawled back to a respectable .335 OBP, and that's not nothing. Aoki has not really met expectations in his first year as a Royal, but given the depths that his position's production had sunk to...quite frankly, his vanilla-ness is pretty sufferable when the Royals are winning.
Looking at some of these individual players, you'll excuse me if I can't help but wonder how this team is in a 2-game driver's seat over Detroit right now. It's not just that Infante stinks to the high heavens at the plate right now, it's that he keeps being run out there as an automatic out in the second spot of the line-up. This extended rough stretch has brought his season line down to .251./.291/.348. I will maintain that his signing was a decent one, and a lot of his struggles are the BABIP that's running 37 points below his career average, but he's been dead in the water over the last month or so.
The Salvy voodoo I was talking about last time has run out, though since he's a Royal he's still getting hits with guys on base right now. Perez has had a stretch almost as rough as Infante's on some levels, and he's down to .268/.305/.417. You ride the waves of BABIP when you hit like Perez does, and they're going down right now. Finally.
Of course, the real concern now is his health. Voodoo aside, the downgrade from Perez to Kratz would be significant.
Well, finally I don't feel like a homer for giving Billy Rat an up arrow. It's still been a remarkably poor year for a normally reliable hitter, but he's starting to show more regular flashes of his old self. We might well ask, again, in light of his decline this year, what his future will bring given that he's almost exactly as old as Cain. Butler's been a good hitter in his career, very good in some stretches, but never a star, and his own dropoff this year is a concern.
Still, for now? He's up to .282/.330/.387, and that's a marked improvement on the malaise of his early season.
It's hard to quantify how good of a year Alex has had without dipping into the type of value that normal baseball fans tend to undervalue. A .362 OBP doesn't look world-beating to fans who lived through the "steroid era," but it's good for 32nd in all of MLB this year. Everyone knows Gordon is a good defensive player, but it's hard to explain how much value he adds in light of the fact that LF isn't considered a premium defensive position. He's a hitter with good pop, but he's never been a true masher and he isn't this year.
Still, all of these things add up to 5.7 fWAR, and if the Royals somehow hang on to the division or a Wild Card spot, Gordon's monster year will be a huge reason for it. And in a year where the Royals have dropped production from several other (some normally reliable) sources, it's hard to think of a position player in the AL who means more to his team.
Raise your hand if you actually anticipated the Royals adding someone who can actually hit a home run. I, for one, didn't really see this acquisition coming. Willingham has never really been able to play defense without staggering around, and his batting averages have dropped to almost untenable levels in recent years, but he's always been able to hit a ball that stays hit. For the Royals, he's been a little of a shot in the arm since joining the team.
The Royals are in first place by two games with Mike Moustakas's .198/.259/.376 performance in the line-up. Let that sink in. Pass me a beer when it does.
His hitting line continues to decay, though not to untenable levels. It's not a BABIP thing, it's just a bad case of "hitting like Alcides Escobar." Still, he doesn't embarrass himself compared to most SSs, and his defense is still Escobarian.
I want to strangle something when I think too much about the fact that Dyson was on the roster at the same time that "Frenchy" was flailing into oblivion. At this point, it's pretty legit to say that Dyson has been one of most valuable part-timers in MLB, as he's hit well of late and continues to be stellar defensively when he gets the chance. If nothing else, maybe this year has helped him escape Mitch Maier Baseball Camp.
Kratz's green arrow is almost solely based on yesterday's game, and also the fact that he's not Brett Hayes. But seriously, what kind of divine force is behind the Royals surge if Erik Freakin' Kratz comes off the bench and homers twice?
Maybe everything the Royals touch is going to turn to gold.
Others of Note: Eric Hosmer, of course, is currently more broken than usual. He was hitting like Escobar before he went on the DL, but the Royals probably still miss his Gold Glove.
The Royals pennant charge continues tonight against the Colorado Rockies. The Tigers take on the Rays with Max Scherzer on the hill. That sounds a lot like KC will be up by 3 games by this time tomorrow, with the way things are going.