As August draws to a close, the Royals find themselves in an unfamiliar position -- trying to hold onto a playoff berth in the face of another team chasing them. Don't get this wrong, it's definitely the preferable situation to chasing the pipe dream of the second wild card spot, but at the same time things are getting a little spooky after the last couple days. Should the loyal fanbase be panicking over two losses? No. Two losses, in the grand scheme of things, is a hilariously small cold patch, especially when we recall certain teams of recent Royal past. Should we realize that, for all the hotness of the last month, it actually wouldn't take very much for the Detroit Tigers to draw level again? Certainly.
There is, as with most division leaders outside of the Beltway (The Orioles and Nationals seem pretty damn safe, the Dodgers could be thrown into this category but they only just opened up their lead a bit), legitimate questions as to whether Kansas City can hang on. This is the part of the season where, as a former contributor to this site once put it, baseball seems to get tired of itself. Maybe that doesn't directly apply to fans of a legitimately contending team, but it's worth mentioning because, for all the ups and downs the Royals have been through this year, for all the success that they have experienced over the last month, there's still a month of baseball left to go. Whose idea was this whole 162-game schedule, anyway?
There's still 32 games left on the docket for the Royals, 33 for the Tigers. Detroit is 1.5 games back, and only one in the loss column. There's much talk of the Royals being expected to come back to earth down the stretch, and there's an equal amount of talk that seems to suggest that Tigers have already come back to earth and they're not really going to get back up without Anibal Sanchez healthy and without David Price getting any run support. I'm not really prepared to check either box, myself, but this is going to be close. As noted in this Fangraphs piece on the subject, there are six head-to-head games left. Anything can happen at this point, and sometimes it does.
One thing I will say about the impending Royal regression is that the whole, "Royals are extremely hot with men on base and it can't last thing" both has some merit and may also be slightly overblown. The Royals are hitting a modest .263/.312/.381 as a team in all situations, compared to .268/.321/.386 with runners on and .275/.337/.410 with RISP. So yes, the Roys have been fortunate to have their surge take place of late, but it's really the RISP performance that's slightly out of whack with the overall hitting. That difference might not seem like much, but it's the same difference between the Royals--a thoroughly mediocre hitting team--and the Tigers--one of the better hitting teams in MLB--overall. And no, hitting doesn't tell the whole story, it just serves to show us that the Royals have been slightly over their heads in one way. But, to illustrate the "wait a second" part of this cursory analysis, if you move the goalposts to "RISP, 2 out," the Royals are down at .216/.304/.348 to the Tigers .239/.320/.365, which seems like it should be.
Speaking of those same Tigers, have they been unlucky? Well, certainly with injuries, though it feels a bit disingenuous to give them any kind of pass when everyone already knew that they were a "win-now" team that was on the old side. Such is life in baseball when you rely as heavily on 30-somethings as Detroit does. But in terms of those same hitting numbers, Detroit's .274/.330/.426 overall line doesn't really stick out in comparison to their .274/.344/.412 with RISP or .286/.346/.426. They haven't been particularly unfortunate when you look at it that way, though there's some argument for the fact that their bats went insanely cold at the right time for KC to make a surge. That probably won't continue to the degree it's been happening, and the Tigers are bound to score a couple runs for Price every-so-often.
I don't have a definitive answer to whether the Royals hold on here. My own perception is that Kansas City has been playing over its head to some extent, but the wins are in the bank already and there's no area except for RISP hitting that seems like it's due to come back down with any impact. On the flip side of that, I could definitely point out a couple areas where the Tigers are probably going to bounce back down the stretch, whereas the Royals have been clicking to the point where it's hard to expect improvement. And then there's the fact that the Royals have the easier non head-to-head schedule. It feels like, to me, all of this offsets, leaving us with a big coin flip, with the odds currently stacked slightly in favor of KC.
The wild card, of course, isn't out of the realm of possibility for either one of these teams, but we shouldn't rely on that net what with how competitive the AL West is this season. Anyway, suffice to say that this race is going to be entertaining, and it's fun to be talking about the Royals in these terms, for whatever other (and there have been many) missteps have led us to this point. Go Royals. Sorry for ranting. Here are your Pitching Staff Ups and Downs for the week.
The Royals have such a thin margin for error that when Shields gets hit hard, I feel like he hasn't been pitching that well overall. Then I realize, going back through his games since the 5th (the last time I did Ups and Downs for the staff), that the Yankees start was his only bad one in that stretch. 13 baserunners in 6.2 innings isn't good, but Shields had shut out San Francisco and turned in decent-to-good efforts against Oakland and Colorado. At this point, it's beating a dead horse to say that Shields isn't quite having the success of last year (his strand rate coming down to his career average is part of that, as is his strikeout rate dropping), but the Royals will need every bit of Big Game James that he can muster down the stretch.
Odds are that Vargas would've been shellacked last time out, but he somehow left a game where he yielded 15 baserunners in six innings with only a 2-1 deficit. He also only gave up three runs in the 21 IP of his other three starts since the 5th of August. None of these were traditionally dominant outings, but Vargas has hit the zone most of the time this year and taken advantage of the Royals sudden ability to field their ideal outfield line-up. In other words, there's a stark difference between Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie: Vargas is actually a good enough pitcher where taking advantage of a good defense behind him significantly adds to his value.
We can wax poetic some other time over whether that fourth year (or even third) was a good idea for a pitcher of his ilk, but the Royals have got their money's worth out of Jason this season and it's been a shot in the arm for a team that was set to miss Ervin Santana.
Well, at least he sandwiched Guthrie Specials--CG, 2 ER, 4 K vs. Arizona and 8 IP, ER, 2 K vs. Texas--around getting bombed by Oakland and making the Twins offense look competent (in a win, but still). It feels like without his vaunted strand rate of 2013, the floor is rising up to meet Jeremy sometime in the near future (think 2015), but for now he's still pitching just well enough to be a safe non-entity at the back of this rotation. It hurts a little, even in light of the team's recent success, to realize how much the Royals are paying Guts compared to some other members of this squad. But hey, he's here, and it's not like he's got a 6 ERA or something.
Ventura isn't getting hit hard, but he's been all over the place of late. After a good stretch that saw him bounce back from months of having trouble missing bats, Ventura has walked 13 hitters in his last three starts, a span of 18.2 innings. The results haven't been bad, because his stuff has been hard to square up for the last four teams he's faced, to the tune of 18 hits in 24.2 innings, but he's hardly cruising.
How much more can the Royals milk out of Ventura and Duffy? Because that's one question, of many, that could easily determine the AL Central race. Duffy's ERA is sailing over a run below his FIP, almost two below his xFIP. It helps that he's a flyball pitcher in front of a great outfield defense, but that doesn't fully explain the .231 BABIP Against this season. But as long as he keeps getting results, the Royals will be happy. He looked excellent against Arizona and Colorado, and muddled through his SF and Minny starts without getting pasted. We've talked a lot about how much Ventura has left for the stretch drive, but Duffy is just as key at this point.
Currently going through a weird stretch of 6 appearances with only one strikeout over that time. What with the 70:17 K:BB in 50.1 IP this year, I'm not worried. If saves are your jam, Greg's up to 40 out of 42 opportunities this year. Another reason the Royals are outperforming some of the metrics? This bullpen, man. It's hard to quantify how automatic it's been for some stretches this season, and it all begins and ends with Holland.
There's some irony in the ridiculous season Davis is having, given that it felt like the Royals had to be smashed over the head with an anvil that had "he is not a starting pitcher" written on it in order to put him in the bullpen. That said, dear god. 5 RA, 28 hits given up all year, 86:20 in 56.1 Innings. Davis hasn't just been spectacular, he's been better than Greg Freakin' Holland.
His strikeout rate has been going up ever since I pointed out that it was falling toward generic reliever territory, and that he might be a good trade candidate. June 24th was the last time he was charged with a run. The Royals should hire me as a motivational speaker.
"What? Generic Reliever Territory? I'm buying a house there!" Said Aaron Crow.
Frasor has been fine in a Royals uniform, but you'll excuse me if I make the crack that it feels like KC acquired a somewhat less effective righty RP just to see what having one feels like. He's had a good year, and he really doesn't have too much to do in light of other options. At least he's actually, you know, generally effective, unlike the guys above and below him on this list.
6 runs allowed in his last three appearances. Ouch. And more than half of the ER Bueno has been charged with came in August. This is one Royal who couldn't escape Captain Regression.
Same as last time we met, Bruce Chen has one spot start where he got throttled and one harmless mop-up outing on his player card.
Others: Scott Downs is on the DL with a stiff neck, but threw a 25-pitch bullpen session yesterday. Luke Hochevar is still rehabbing TJ Surgery, in case anyone had forgot.
The Royals are hosting the Twins tonight, with Duffy on the mound versus Ricky Nolasco. And, since it is officially scoreboard-watching time of year, the Tigers face the Yankees with Brandon McCarthy against Rick Porcello as the pitching match-up. Happy Tuesday!