The defending World Series champions are the hottest team in baseball right now.
Sunday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals beat the Twins (KC 2, MIN 1) for their eighth consecutive win and their 13th win in the last 15 games. That hot streak has trimmed their deficit in the wild-card race from 9 1/2 games to only 3 1/2 games.
The Royals have been able to make up a lot of ground in a short period of time, though they still have a ways to go. Three and a half games back with three teams ahead of you is a tough task. That's why FanGraphs puts Kansas City's odds of reaching the postseason at a mere 4.4 percent as of this writing. They dug themselves quite a hole.
For now the Royals can feel good about making up some ground and getting back into the race. How have they done it? Well, it's taken a total team effort. It's not just one or two players making a difference. It's a combination of things.
1. The rotation has been much better
Danny Duffy, who has emerged as the staff ace in recent weeks, held the Twins to one run in 6 2/3 innings on Sunday afternoon. Even with that effort, Kansas City's rotation still ranks 17th among the 30 teams with a 4.55 ERA. They're 27th with +4.5 WAR. Yikes. Overall, the rotation has not been good in 2016.
The starting five has been a strength of late though, thanks in large part to Duffy. He currently leads the AL with a 2.66 ERA, and since moving into the rotation in mid-May, he has a 2.61 ERA in 19 starts and 120 2/3 innings. It's not just Duffy though. Others have stepped up as well. Check out the rotation's numbers during this 13-2 stretch.
|First 109 Games||4.88||1.38||8.1||3.4||1.6|
|Last 15 Games||2.35||1.10||7.0||1.9||1.2|
The strikeout rate is down quite a bit and that is generally a bad thing. More importantly, everything else is better. Fewer walks, fewer homers, less baserunners in general ... all of that leads to fewer runs scored.
Yordano Ventura's turnaround has been easy to overlook because of Duffy's dominance. Ventura went into the All-Star break with a 5.15 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP on the season. In the second half he has a 3.00 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP. His strikeouts are up and his walks are down. Getting Ventura back on track has been huge.
There's no way the Royals were going to climb back into the wild-card race unless their rotation improved. The staff simply was not good enough for the first 100 or so games of the season. They've been way better of late, and that will have to continue through the end of the season.
2. Gordon is finally starting to hit
Over the winter the Royals re-signed Alex Gordon to the richest contract in franchise history: four years and $72 million. Gordon is the team's longest tenured player, he's homegrown, and he's also extremely productive. Re-signing him made all the sense in the world.
The early returns on the contract were not good. Not good at all. Gordon hit a weak .211/.319/.331 through the team's first 43 games before landing on the DL with a broken hand. He missed just about a full month, and when he returned, he wasn't any better. Gordon hit .187/.283/.321 in his first 39 games back from the injury.
As with the rotation, Gordon has turned his season around of late, and not a moment too soon for the Royals. Even with Sunday afternoon's 0 for 3 game, Gordon has gone 18 for 59 (.305) with five home runs since August 6, which coincides perfectly with the club's 13-2 hot streak. That has raised his season batting line to a more tolerable .225/.326/.392.
Gordon was hardly the only Royal to start slowly this season. Lorenzo Cain and Kendrys Morales did as well, though those two snapped out of the slumps much sooner than Gordon, who just started being himself roughly two weeks ago. The club's lineup is that much more dangerous now.
3. The call-ups have been producing
Every single team in baseball deals with injuries throughout the year. It's part of the game, and the teams that best overcome those injuries are often the ones that go to the postseason. The Royals lost not only Gordon earlier this season, but also Mike Moustakas (knee), Wade Davis (forearm), Luke Hochevar (Thoracic Outlet Syndrome), and Kris Medlen (shoulder).
Moustakas and Gordon actually suffered their injuries on the same play. They collided while chasing a foul pop-up back in May. Moustakas torn his ACL and Gordon broke his hand. Here's the video:
That has to be the most costly collision in recent history, in terms of talent lost to injury. Maybe since the brutal Carlos Beltran-Mike Cameron collision back in 2005. The collision sidelined Gordon for a month and Moustakas for the rest of the season.
Losing Moustakas is a big blow, but rookie Cheslor Cuthbert has been able to step in and give the team some nice production. He is hitting a nifty .293/.329/.443 on the season even after Sunday's 0 for 4. No, Cuthbert is not Moustakas, but he's giving the Royals a much-needed lift. Losing Moustakas could have been devastating. Cuthbert has helped the team survive.
The Royals have also gotten great work from relievers Brian Flynn and Matt Strahm. Flynn, a lefty, was called up for good in late June and he has a 2.72 ERA with a 1.08 WHIP in 29 2/3 innings. He's holding left-handed batters to a .176/.263/.333 batting line, so he's effectively replaced Duffy as manager Ned Yost's go-to lefty reliever.
Strahm, meanwhile, was called up late last month, and he's allowed one run while striking out 15 in 8 1/3 innings. He was called up straight from Double-A to replace Davis and hey, Strahm has done a heck of a job pitching just like Wade Davis in his limited big league time. He's giving the bullpen a real nice shot in the arm.
Not every call-up has panned out, of course. Raul Mondesi Jr. is hitting only .203/.234/.311 in his four weeks as the everyday second baseman. Whit Merrifield had his moments before cooling off. Outfielder Brett Eibner and lefty Scott Alexander didn't do much. Cuthbert, Flynn, and Strahm has been a huge help though, and they've allowed the Royals hang around despite some key injuries.
The Royals are red hot right now and this club certainly has the confidence of a World Series champion. I think GM Dayton Moore may swing a waiver trade at some point this month to get his team some help -- right field and second base would be obvious spots to upgrade, ditto the pitching staff -- and show them he believes in them. They've earned the benefit of the doubt.
Right now the Royals are the hottest team in baseball and they've been able to inch closer to the second wild-card spot. There's six weeks to go in the season, and while Kansas City still has more ground to make up, they do have time on their side. If there's one thing this team showed the last two seasons, and that's they won't go down without a fight.