The Kansas City Royals on Sunday rode another dominant outing from Danny Duffy to a 4-0 win over the Detroit Tigers (box score). That's the Royals' fourth straight win, which means they maintain a 2.0-game lead over the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central.
That K.C. triumph paired with the end of of the Oakland A's win streak also means that the upstart Royals -- at least for one night's sleep -- have the best record in the American League. The Royals right now check in at 13-7, which puts them percentage points ahead of the 14-8 Athletics. Of note is that 11 of their 20 games have come against teams that made the expanded playoffs in 2020, and another three came against the Los Angeles Angels, who profile as at least relevant this season.
Broadly, credit to GM Dayton Moore and ownership for still maintaining a credible level of investment in the roster, even as they undertook a soft rebuild. Further credit for making targeted additions this winter like Mike Minor, Carlos Santana, and Michael A. Taylor even when most outside observers gave the Royals little chance of contention. The veteran Santana, plucked away from division-rival Cleveland (who in contrast prioritizes spending as little as possible on payroll), is slashing .229/.360/.457 with four home runs and more walks than strikeouts. Taylor has been a sparkling defender in center while also being a solid on-base threat at the bottom of the order. Minor has functioned as a league-average starting pitcher across four starts, and fellow free agent additions Hanser Alberto and Jarrod Dyson have been useful depth pieces in the early going.
Much of this is reflective of a deeper organizational ethos that is all too rare these days -- one in which the Royals endeavor to treat players as something more than "assets" and strives for a baseline of respectability on the field even when the prevailing focus is on the future. In that sense, it's good to see this early surge in K.C.
As for how they've done it, nothing stands out. They rank generally middle of pack in OPS, rotation ERA, and bullpen ERA. The Royals' current run differential is just plus-three, which suggests they should be around .500. As well, the BaseRuns standings available at FanGraphs, which correct for some of the sequencing and clustering effects inherent in run differential, pegs them as a slightly below .500 team at a fundamental level. In other words, there's probably a bit of good luck baked into the Royals' AL-best record, but at the same time they've avoided being bad at anything.
Broadly, they've ridden individual performances from the likes of Duffy, Salvador Perez, Santana, and Brady Singer that range from dominant to strong. Mike Matheny will need them to keep that up, and that's not implausible in broad terms. As well, current under-performers like Andrew Benintendi, Hunter Dozier, and Brad Keller will need to find their levels. If those things continue, then there's no reason the Royals can't find themselves playing baseball that matters much later in the season.
For now, though, the odds are still against them in a division that also includes the White Sox and Minnesota Twins. That's why the SportsLine Projection System coming into Sunday gave the Royals just a 14.5 percent chance of making the playoffs. That figure is higher than what it was coming into the season, and that's for the simple reason that K.C. has been winning. Keep winning, and that figure keeps going up. That's the goal, of course, but for now just appreciate the start the Royals have enjoyed in 2021. It's still early with a lot of correction ahead for a number teams and players. Baseball can be cruel in that way, so it's never out of bounds to take a moment to savor the work that's been done. The Royals have good cause to do that right about now.