As of this writing, the Royals are 10-7 and all alone atop the AL Central more than 10% of the way through the 2021 Major League Baseball season. That is real. That is incontrovertible. No one can take that away from the team or from the fans. Still, a question lingers. Is this merely a mirage of competitive baseball or dare we get our hopes up that the Royals might have a legitimate shot at their first postseason in six years?
They might be lucky: Run differential
The Royals, before last night’s action, had a negative run differential through the first 17 games of the season. As an avid sports fan, I’m sure you are aware that winning a baseball game requires you to score more runs than your opponent. If there is an exception to this rule I am wholly unaware of it. If you are winning more often than you’re losing this almost always translates to scoring more total runs than your opponents score against you. This works out so consistently that the Pythagorean Win Formula was developed to help show whether a team is unlucky or lucky and predict future records. The Royals are 10-7 but their Pythagorean record is actually 8-9. That means, based on the runs scored and allowed by the team so far, they have won two more games than we would usually expect them to win. That’s the very definition of luck.
It’s not difficult to tell how the Royals got here, either. They are 4-0 in games that were decided by a single run. Winning one-run games is the easiest way to mess up a Pythagorean record and thus has generally been considered to be an example of luck. However, there are some indications that other factors may intrude as well. This article suggests that good teams and teams with good bullpens are more likely to win one-run games. This article points out that home teams are more likely to win one-run games because they stop trying to score more once they’re up by even one run in the ninth inning. Still, the Royals have a good bullpen and they’ve played three times as many games at home, so far. Either or both of those might account for the team’s record in close matches; there is no way to use that information to determine if the Royals are just good overall.
They might be good: The middle of the lineup has been MIA
None of that might matter, though. In last week’s Hok Talk I made passing mention of the fact that the middle of the Royals lineup has not been very good this year. That may be about to change, and in some ways, it has already started to change. One easy way to help improve the run differential would be to score more runs and having the big boppers get going would be instrumental in that goal.
The underperformers heading into last weekend were Salvador Perez, Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, Hunter Dozier, and Jorge Soler. Here are some slash lines from the last week of play that might interest you:
Salvador Perez: .240/.269/.520/.789
Jorge Soler: .278/.364/.556/.920
Carlos Santana: .429/.500/.857/1.357
Dozier and Benintendi have not yet seen their numbers increase but Dozier did hit his first home run of the year on Wednesday night and his five hardest-hit balls have all come in the last week. Similarly, five of Benintendi’s seven hardest-hit balls all came against the Rays. The whole reason anyone tracks exit velocity is that it’s highly indicative of a hitter succeeding at doing his job. Of those ten hard-hit balls Benintendi and Dozier have only a pair of singles and a home run to show for themselves. If they keep hitting the ball hard that won’t last.
Yes, the Royals have a negative run differential but their offense might be about to get “Magma Hot.”
They might be lucky: Starters not pitching long enough
All throughout the off-season and spring training the rotation was expected to be a source of strength for the Royals. Most people expected Brady Singer and Kris Bubic to take a step forward. Mike Minor was signed to provide some veteran presence and stability. Jakob Junis and Ervin Santana drew rave reviews all spring. Brad Keller has been nothing but good since joining the Royals’ rotation. Finally, the Royals' best prospects are all near-major-league-ready, high-caliber, starting-pitcher prospects.
Unfortunately, to say that hasn’t panned out would be an understatement. The biggest disappointment has been Brad Keller who is suddenly not fooling anyone and has a 12.00 ERA in four starts to prove it. On the other hand, Junis, Singer, and Minor have all been fine and Duffy has been stellar. The problem is that not one of them has thrown a single pitch in the seventh inning yet this year. Even Duffy has pitched exactly six innings every time out. On the other end of the spectrum, Keller is averaging only three innings a start.
We are well and truly into the era of the bullpen, starters are required to pitch fewer innings than ever before. However, never going into the seventh inning simply isn’t going to cut it. Leaving three or more innings for the bullpen to cover every. single. night. is just asking too much of them. Even on the good days, the Royals are having to ask three or more guys to step in and fill the gap from whatever the starter did until the end of the game. The Royals have been fortunate to play two seven-inning games and only one extra-inning, so far. That luck can’t hold forever and then the team might be in trouble.
They might be good: The Royals have a lot of pitching depth
Scott Barlow, Jake Brentz, Kyle Zimmer, Josh Staumont, and Tyler Zuber. That’s five guys who have pitched very well in the Royals bullpen, so far this year. Wade Davis and Greg Holland are both shells of their former selves but they’ve been serviceable in at least half of their appearances, as well. Jake Newberry has a lot of unfulfilled promise. And Richard Lovelady is still sitting at the alternate site, waiting for the Royals to figure out how to unlock the shutdown reliever he was all throughout his minor league career.
That’s a very deep bullpen. Many teams, including some very good teams, would trade bullpens with the Royals in a heartbeat. The Royals are 5-1 in games decided while their relievers were on the mound. Perhaps most impressive is that they have the fifth-most appearances by a reliever who earns more than three outs. A lot of their overall numbers don’t look great but that’s because when the Royals are forced to pitch relievers not named above things go very poorly, very quickly.
The final thing working in the Royals favor is something that was actually mentioned in the above paragraph; they still have all of those pitching prospects with high ceilings waiting for their chance to explode onto the scene. It seems likely that more than one of them will have their debuts this season and if at least a couple are as good as advertised the Royals will end up with a wealth of options to hold opponent scoring down.
They might be lucky: Opponent weakness/injuries
Let’s face it, the Royals have not exactly faced the cream of the crop, so far this year. The Rays were the first team the Royals played that was both expected to be very good this season and not missing multiple stars. There’s probably a reason that that series is the only one the Royals have dropped all year.
They might be good: They’re doing what they’re supposed to
It’s hard to beat a good team, even if your team is also good. If a team wants to have a playoff-worthy record they must strive to hang in there with the big boys and crush the weaker and unfortunate teams beneath their collective heel. So what if the Blue Jays were missing two or three of their anticipated starters? As Rex Hudler would say, the Royals won’t be sending them any sympathy cards. Just like no other team feels particularly disappointed to not have to face Adalberto Mondesi.
When presented with an opportunity to face a scuffling, injured, or just plain weak team you have to take advantage of the situation and win. A bad team faces the Jays in the situation the Royals had and they still lose three games or maybe split because the Jays still have a very good lineup even without George Springer and Cavan Biggio. If the Royals keep hanging tough with good teams like the Rays and beating everyone else given these kinds of opportunities, they’ll be following the recipe for success that most teams must use.
They might be good and lucky
Since we’re only 1/10 of the way through the schedule these answers could drastically change between now and the end of the season. To use a framing device beloved of Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger, it’s a bit like trying to figure out the true ability of a football team after only a single game has been played. We can’t say anything with 100% certainty.
That said, yeah, there have been some elements of luck. There have been some reasons to think that the team is actually pretty good, too. Those who watched in 2014 and 2015 know just how important a role something like luck can play in a winning team’s successes, too. The fact that this team seems to have a little bit of both smacks of a very enjoyable 2021 baseball season for Royals fans.