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It’s okay to believe once again

Maybe this year is different.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Blind optimism isn’t easy to find for fans of the Kansas City Royals. The team hasn’t finished above .500 since 2015 when they won the World Series. Although the losses have far outweighed the win total, there has still been some reason for hope to close out nearly every season in that span. Just as the Royals have an uncanny ability to find a long losing streak somewhere in the season’s first two months, they seem to have the ability to put together a cause for hope at the end of each season as well.

In 2016 they played at a scorching .690 pace in August to re-position themselves in the playoff race. In 2018, the team lost 104 games but finished above .500 for the month of September. That season, Adalberto Mondesi slashed .282/.322/.564 with eight home runs over his final 26 games and helped carry the offense to the finish line. Even last year, hope shined brighter in August when Michael Massey was promoted to the everyday lineup. The Royals were just 40-62 entering the month but posted their best month of the season behind most of what we hoped would become the young core of this team.

Royals Win/Loss Totals in Aug/Sept

Season August Win/Loss September Win/Loss
Season August Win/Loss September Win/Loss
2016 20-9 (.690) 12-15 (.444)
2017 10-18 (.357) 15-14 (.517)
2018 10-18 (.357) 15-13 (.536)
2019 8-19 (.296) 11-14 (.440)
2021 14-14 (.500) 14-14 (.500)
2022 13-16 (.448) 10-16 (.385)
2023 7-6 (.538)* TBD

Now this month, they’re starting to do it again. The Royals are 7-6 halfway through the month. Over the course of an entire month, that would be a .538 winning percentage. This team hasn’t finished an entire month above .500 since April of 2021. There’s still a long way to go this month — and even then we’re only talking about 30 days of baseball. Why should we have any hope that this time will be different than the rest?

Bobby Witt Jr. — Budding Superstar

It was hard to see who the foundation of the Royals would become entering this season. Without a doubt, there was a lot of hope for some players. Vinnie Pasquantino looked like he was propelling himself into the upper tier of hitters in the league. Salvador Perez was entering his age-33 season but maybe he could continue his offensive rekindling and anchor the offense for a few more years. Other former top prospects — players like Bobby Witt Jr. and MJ Melendez — hadn’t quite done enough to meet their potential but maybe they could do it this year.

That didn’t pan off early on this season. Pasquantino hit the shelf fairly early with a season-ending injury. Salvy has seen his offensive output decline for a third straight season and owns just a 93 wRC+ on the season. Melendez owned a .206/.289/.333 triple-slash line through July 13. That line, coupled with below-average defense made him worth -1.0 fWAR on the year to that point. Even Witt, one of the best hitters on the team, owned just a 98 wRC+ over his first 90 games this season.

The Royals were a roster full of role players, lacking a true superstar that could anchor the offense and carry this team forward. Now into mid-August, the same can’t be said anymore — at least not with the same, definite melancholy from before. There is reason to believe in Bobby again. “Bobby Baseball” hasn’t just turned his season around. We already saw that from him last season when he started slow but became closer to league-average over the second half of the year.

Instead, he’s blossoming into the promised-superstar right before our eyes. Over 27 games since the All-Star break, Witt Jr. is slashing .342/.375/.649 with a 176 wRC+. He’s been worth the fifth most fWAR in the major leagues over that span. We don’t just have to talk about the small sample sizes either. On the entire season now, the Royals' young phenom ranks ninth in baseball in fWAR (4.6). He owns a 116 wRC+ with a .277 batting average while grading as baseball’s very best defender in terms of Outs Above Average (OAA):

It may still be a small sample, but considering who the player was drafted to become, the draft pedigree, and the way he’s accomplished what he has on the field so far, there’s not a lot of reason to believe that this is just a mirage from Bobby Witt Jr. Sure, he will undoubtedly come back down to earth in some regard at some point, but this isn’t some token hot-streak for a player that no one expected entering this season. This is a former number-one overall prospect finding his stride and rising up to his potential.

Role Players playing roles and pitchers pitching

It hasn’t just been Bobby Witt Jr. either. As the Royals have started to find life post-All-Star break, we’ve seen contributions from many of the young players that we expected to have an impact. MJ Melendez (123 wRC+), Michael Massey (.242 ISO), Maikel Garcia (16-game hit streak), Drew Waters (109 wRC+), and Kyle Isbel (.276 BA) have all done well to varying degrees since the second half of the season kicked off. On top of those five, Freddy Fermin has been a nice surprise. In 18 games since the break, he’s slashed .354/.368/.646. On the year, he now owns a 135 wRC+ and has been worth 1.9 fWAR.

Add in Salvador Perez and eventually Vinnie Pasquantino when he returns next season, and that’s a full lineup of nine players that you feel good about to some degree entering the 2024 campaign. Maybe Isbel comes back down to earth, and maybe MJ Melendez is more the player we saw in the first half than he is the hitter we have seen lately. Whatever happens, right now the Royals are winning games at the hands of the young players they hope to rely on for years to come. That’s exactly what you'd like to see in an evaluation year.

On the mound, Brady Singer is back. Since the All-Star break, he has made six starts. Over those games, he has a 2.85 ERA and has pitched nearly seven innings per start on average. Cole Ragans, acquired in the Aroldis Chapman trade, has a 2.38 ERA in four starts over that same time frame. Even Jordan Lyles — 3-13 on the season — has two wins over that time frame even though he’s pitched to a 5.16 ERA.

As a team, the Royals rank 7th in BB/9 since July 14. Over the second half, starting pitchers for the Royals rank seventh in ERA (4.15), 15th in K-BB% (14.7%), and fourth in WHIP. The rotation has also allowed the fifth-best hard-hit rate (37.3%) in that span. The bullpen has stood in the way of what could’ve been an even longer stretch of winning baseball but the success of both the starting rotation and the lineup has culminated in a +10 run differential in the month of August so far.

With so much to suddenly be optimistic about, after there was so little just two months ago, it may be easy to assume this end-of-year improvement is no different than we saw in 2016, 2018, or 2021. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. But fool me every August and September? I must be a Royals fan.