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Royal Ups and Downs: And Down The Stretch They Come Edition

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The series that chronicles the highs and lows and of the Royals roster, now with more Aoki and less losing.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Three games versus Detroit. Three games and the end of the suspended game against Cleveland. Four games against the very same White Sox whom the Royals just defeated. Fin. Baseball's regular season has finally grown tired of itself, and the end is in sight. With ten full games left and an 11th--the resumption of the suspended game versus Cleveland, that is most likely a loss, the Royals sit at 83-68. They are a half-game back of the Detroit Tigers, a team that pulled the very Royal feat of losing two of three to the Minnesota Twins.

The Tigers have this all-important series with KC, then three against the White Sox and four against the Twins again -- they finish the season on a seven-game homestand against teams that are a combined 36 games under .500. Not that Cleveland is a great team, of course, but the Royals have finally hit the point where the strength of schedule is no longer in their favor. To retain a shot at the division, a series win this weekend is necessary, at least from where I'm sitting.

The Royals, of course, don't need to win the division to make the postseason. Unlike last year, where their involvement with the Wild Card race was a mere flirtation that led to nothing in particular, KC and the fading Oakland Athletics--it's now mandatory to refer to the A's as "the [insert adjective that means falling apart at a truly impressive level] Oakland Athletics--have the exact same record. Seattle, the only other team with a reasonable expectation of catching those two, is 81-70. The A's, for their remaining schedule, have a game against the Rangers tonight, followed by two three-game sets hosting the woeful Phillies and an Angels team that's only playing for homefield advantage, and then a four-game road series against those same Rangers.

Seattle? The Royals' opponents in the Battle for Grass Creek have a schedule that's hard to predict the outcomes of; they finish their current series against the Angels tonight, then go on a seven-game road trip against the awful Astros (3) and the still-might-be-pretending-they-have-a-shot Toronto Blue Jays. Coming back home for the last series of the year, they also draw the Angels...who again will have nothing left to play for but homefield advantage, and that might already be wrapped up by games 160-162.

If you want to throw Cleveland, New York, and Toronto into the mix, go for it. They'd probably have to run the table, or close to it, to even be in the discussion when the penultimate day of the season arrives. In all likelihood, the Royals are knee-deep in a four-team race for three spots; the division is coming down to the Tigers and Royals, the WC spot comes down to whoever can't win the AL Central and the two AL West teams. That's the skinny. Now who's leading us to victory? Here are your Position Player Ups and Downs for the last couple weeks.

Alcides Escobar - SS - Nope_medium

Escobar is wrapping up a season where he'll be worth over 3 fWAR as long as he doesn't crash, and it's really hard to complain about any aspect of his year. Yes, he's not a patient hitter, and doesn't have much power, but we knew these things about him and it's not his fault that he's been put in the leadoff role down the stretch. After being buoyed by BABIP two years ago and slaughtered by it last season, Escobar's luck has evened out. Coupled with either defensive metrics catching up to his reputation (despite his rough defensive series against the Red Sox, obviously) or Escobar improving his defense, I don't think it's a stretch to call this the best year of Alcides' career. This is probably as good as he gets, as he turns 28 in December, but overall that's a plus.

Norichika Aoki - RF- Up_medium

Aoki's caught fire at the exact right time, and it's been fun. While his first (and possibly last) season as a Royal has generally been lukewarm, he went a blistering 11-for-13 (this is not a typographical error) in the White Sox series with two walks in his other two PAs. That's insane. Somewhat subjectively speaking, I think his defensive game has generally been solid down the stretch as well. He might not have exactly set the world on fire this year, but he and the BABIP fairy picked an awesome time for him to channel Rogers Hornsby. Coupled with his ability to actually work a count, which is still about as rare as a pink unicorn on this team, he's been fun to watch of late.

And if you're keeping score, Aoki's 2.2 fWAR to date is...well, it's around 2.2 fWAR more than Jeff Francoeur put up in his Royals career. As a lot of people said at the beginning of the season (in one way or another), a tolerable performance in RF has been a shot in the arm for KC. And lately, Aoki's been a helluva lot more than tolerable.

Lorenzo Cain -  CF - Up_medium

Also having the best year of his career. As mentioned before, Cain has been BFFs with the BABIP Fairy this season. Actually, given that his 0.7% difference in LD% that's somehow led to a sixty-odd point spike in BABIP, it's fair to wonder if Cain and said Fairy are an item. That would pose the question of whether or not the BABIP Fairy used to be married to Jeremy Guthrie, and what caused her to leave.

Ahem, returning to (slightly) more tangible things than the dating life of a regression function, Cain's been very good defensively this year and his .298/.337/.413 looks prettier and prettier as you look at the offensive downturn around MLB. At alreayd 28, this is another case of a player who is what he is at this point, but he's been a bigger plus than some guys who get a lot more attention. He also hit his fifth dinger of the year against Chris Sale, god bless him.

Josh Willingham - OF - Nope_medium

Keeps doing what he do. .258/.380/.424 as a Royal. No word from the organization on whether or not .380 OBPs cause a fine to be levied against a player for being too passive. I think it's safe to assume that Willingham's losing a chunk of his paycheck, though. Gotta go up there looking for a hit, kid.

Alex Gordon - LF - Kablooey_medium

Gordon finally snapped his slump in the Boston series, though it was a rough enough stretch that he still grabs a red arrow for the last regular season position player Ups and Downs. This may seem unfair, but it was a heck of a slump. Still, while I'm not a big believe in Gordon's MVP case, it has been a magical year for the guy, as he's cracked 6 WAR and maintained very good on-base skills and good pop at a time where baseball seems to be losing their players who can actually do both. Gordon was carrying this team on his broad shoulders for a long time, so it's okay that he slumps every-so-often. That's the least I can say. Alex Gordon is a wonderful baseball player. "Smirky" has come a long way, regardless of the way this season finishes.

Salvador Perez - C - Kablooey_medium

The other key contributor who's been slumping, though with Perez it hasn't seemed like a fluctuation in normal performance. While it would've been unreasonable/kind of amazing to expect him to keep up his first half production, Perez's bat has been AWOL in the second half. He's "hit" .225/.233/.349 since the All-Star Break. Read that again, and hope that Perez finds a little bit of his swing down the stretch.

Players with Perez's profile--low-walk, batting average dependent, above average pop--are always going to be subject to BABIP fluctuations in terms of their overall value at the plate, and he is currently down 25 points from his career average. The issue is that he's been crashing for over two months now, there were rumblings about nagging injures, and he also just might be tiring out. He's already set a career-high for PAs, and it's September 18th. Given all these factors, it's hard to write off his BABIP dive as just bad luck, at least in the interim. Keep an eye on him down the stretch, as KC really needs signs of life out of his bat.

.233 OBP since the All-Star Break. I can't make this stuff up.

Billy Butler - DH - Kablooey_medium

Down to .265/.318/.373, sporting the lowest walk rate and isolated power of his career, and losing playing time. Butler's just not having a good month. He hasn't had a good year overall, as you might have noticed. I fall somewhere in the middle of debates or whether Butler's actually on a downturn or just getting killed by luck factors this season--there are concerning trends this year that don't necessarily involve BABIP or low HR/FB%--but as with Salvy, whatever the reasons, things have not been pretty of late.

It's worth noting, however, that his batted ball data is no longer reading as that of the double play machine he was earlier this year. He's hitting more line drives and flyballs than last year, less groundballs now. Maybe Butler's hitting ability is actually falling off a cliff, but it's not like the data is unequivocally suggesting that. For now, though, it's "what have you done for me lately," and Hosmer's hitting, so Butler might find himself missing more time.

Eric Hosmer - "1B" - Nope_medium

Hosmer's been hitting, not fielding. It feels bizarre to be comparing the defensive aptitude of an athletic-looking 24-year-old to that of Billy Butler, but it's worth wondering whether Hosmer's actually been worse around the bag than Billy was when pressed into service. At .259/.333/.463 in September, it's a very happy thing that the Royals have Hoz back. It's also been painful to watch him play defense, to the point where it's fair to say that it was the biggest factor in one of the losses to Boston.

Offensively, it's great to see him driving the ball a bit again. Going forward, it will be key for Hosmer and the Royals to figure out how to keep his approach and swing on track, as it's clear that he has more ability than he's shown this season. Hosmer also might have the ability to improve defensively, but the disconnect that's developed between his actual performance on the field and his reputation is somewhat astounding. You should take defensive stats with a grain of salt, but Hosmer's -9.9 rating via Fangraphs lines up with what my eyes tell me.

Omar Infante - 2B - Nope_medium

Infante's been steady over the last month, though not steadily good. At least he finally stopped being batted second every day, and somewhat arrested the precipitous decline in performance that he's suffered through in the second half. For my money, I'd bet you that the shoulder injury he sustained turns out to be one of those things that's treated a as a relatively minor issue during the season, and then winds up with him having surgery in November. Don't place actual bets on that, I'm just spitballing.

Mike Moustakas - 3B - Nope_medium

This has already been brought up, but if the Royals make the playoffs despite running Mike Moustakas out there with such regularity, it will be pretty crazy. Moose has gone from potential franchise cornerstone to people asking whether or not it'd just be better to save the $1-2 million he'd probably make in arbitration and look elsewhere next season. If the Royals are going to continue to try to contend in this division, and going to continue to cry poor, it's worth wondering about that.

Moose's power isn't gone -- his IsoP is .158, better than a lot of guys on the team who are having pretty good seasons. Unfortunately, it appears to be the only skill left at the plate. He's also gone through a recent defensive slump. Where's Danny Valencia again? Christian Colon? Mark Teahen? Chris Truby?

Jarrod Dyson - OF - Kablooey_medium

Slumping for the first time in awhile, Dyson's also lost playing time to Aoki's recent surge. While he's come back to Earth over the last month or so, he continues to be an incredibly valuable part-timer this year. It will be interesting to see how the Royals handle Dyson when it comes to off-season contract decisions; he's been as good or better as the starting RF on the team for the best couple years in less PAs, but it's never seemed like the Royals were particularly keen on giving him an actual starting job. With his speed, good defense, and relative lack of MLB PAs, it's easy to forget he's already 30.

Rotating Cast of Characters That Don't Get Their Own Paragraphs: Christian Colon (injured)Johnny GiavotellaJayson NixFrancisco PenaLane AdamsCarlos PegueroErik Kratz, Raul Ibanez, Terrence Gore

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The Royals return to action tomorrow night, hosting the Tigers in the biggest series of the year. It'll be Vargas vs. Verlander in game one. Happy Thursday, and stay tuned!