A Royal Pennant Race

It is September 8 in the Heartland’s City of Fountains, and do you know where your Kansas City Royals are? They are in a most unfamiliar spot, first place, two games up on Detroit in the standings, a game and a half up in a version closer to reality, 20 full games to go. The Royals enter the gauntlet with small lead, a crazy dominant bullpen, an ace facing an MRI and a lineup that can’t score runs. Hitchcock always said suspense is a ticking bomb under a table and you have no idea when or if it will go off. Those are you 2014 Royals.

Logic has already gone out the window for this team. You probably know about Bill James pythagorean win-loss percentage, which estaimates what a team’s record should be based on runs scored and runs allowed. But there is also something called a “second order pythagorean win percentage” which estimates the same things based on how many runs a team SHOULD score and allow based on their statistics. And there’s even a third-order pythag, which looks at the underlying stats and the quality of opponents.

Point is, by any of those the Royals are winning more games than the math suggests they should.

Royals actual record: 79-62.
Royals pythag win-loss: 73-68.
Royals second order win-loss: 68-73.
Royals third order win-loss: 68-73.

According to Baseball Prospectus’ chart, the Royals are outperforming their pythag by more than any team in baseball.

So, how in the heck are the Royals doing it? It’s a great question. You know they might not hit 100 home runs. They are ninth in runs scored and way closer to last place (15 runs ahead) than league average (31 runs less). They are actually winning more games on the road than at home. They aren’t doing it with a lot of one-run victories — they have a 21-22 record in games decided by one run and a losing record in extra innings.

The Royals do have the best record in baseball in games decided by two runs (18-8) but that doesn’t really explain it.

The Royals do have the most wins in the American League against teams with .440 or worse winning percentages (they are 22-10) but, again, that doesn’t really explain it either.

I guessed that a big reason for the success is that the Royals have scored many more runs late in games because of their overwhelming bullpen (especially the work of Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera). There are numbers to support that. The Royals have a sizable run-scoring advantage in the seventh and eighth innings (131-89). I must admit, I’m not sure how that translates to wins considering the Royals are outscored when you add up the rest of the innings.

Then, to be fair, it must be considered that a lot of the credit must go to manager Ned Yost. I say that seriously. It’s no secret that I have long thought that he’s overmatched strategically, and that he says incredibly silly things, and he just drives me batty. But, hey, just about everything about these Royals points to mediocrity, and they are currently much better than mediocre, they are in first place on September 8. Managing a baseball team is such a mysterious art form. Seemingly good managers lose, seemingly bad managers win. I once had a fascinating conversation with a retired Major League ballplayer who was utterly convinced that one of his managers, someone with a pretty spectacular career record, was kind of an idiot.

“He didn’t do anything,” the player said.

“Well, maybe that was the best way to manage your team,” I said.

“We managed ourselves,” the player said.

“Well, he let you do that,” I said. “And it worked, right?"

Anyway, the real question about the Royals is not how they got here but can they bring it home. They have to finish a suspended game with Cleveland, one they trail by two runs, so let’s just call that a loss. It is hard enough for this team to score two runs in nine innings.

That makes the standings look like so:

Team W L GB
Kansas City 79 63 —
Detroit 78 65 1.5
Cleveland 75 67 4.0

The Royals and Indians have 20 games left, the Tigers have 19. And a big chunk of those games are against each other:

Kansas City: 6 left with Detroit, 3 left with Cleveland.
Detroit: 6 left with Kansas City, 3 left with Cleveland.
Cleveland: 3 left with Kansas City, 3 left with Detroit.

My guess — and it’s only a guess — is that the division title will be determined by those games the three teams play against each other. The other games Kansas City, Detroit and Cleveland play are mostly against lousy teams.

Kansas City: Four against Boston, Seven against the White Sox.
Detroit: Seven against Minnesota, three against the White Sox.
Cleveland: One against Angels, four against Houston, six against Minnesota, three against Tampa Bay.

You would expect all three teams to win their share against the others. So, yes, I think the Royals’ season will come down to the six games they play against Detroit, beginning with one this afternoon, and, as always, it’s hard to see how the Royals match up with the Tigers. Detroit is second in the American League in runs scored, they have a rotation with three Cy Young winners, they have the two-time MVP hitting in the middle along with two different guys named Martinez who are hitting better than anyone in the Royals lineup.

But this is baseball and the Tigers have had all sorts of weird issues — their bullpen has been a fiasco, Justin Verlander has been knocked around, and they have won just nine games all year when scoring three runs or less, fewest in baseball.

Meanwhile, the Royals have had all sorts of weird positive things happen. They are in a terrible offensive slump — they have scored two runs or less in 10 of their last 14 games — but they keep finding ways to hold their own (they have won seven of those 14 games). In the last week, they have won games 2-1, 1-0 and 2-1. Wade Davis has not given up a run in his last 31 appearances, Kelvin Herrera has not given up a run in his last 27 appearances, James Shields has a 2.24 ERA since July 4, the Royals continue to be one of the best defensive teams in baseball, especially in the outfield.

With just 20 games remaining, randomness takes a seat at the poker table, and it has a lot of chips. Twenty games is a blip. The absymal Colorado Rockies have had a 15-5 stretch over 20 games at some point this season. Chicago’s Adam Eaton had a 20-game stretch where he hit .458. It is true that water seeks its own level, but it’s also true that over the next 20 games the Texas Rangers might have best record and someone you never heard of might hit nine home runs and someone else you’ve never heard of might throw three straight shutouts.

Which is another way of saying: There’s no real point is talking about how much better the Tigers SHOULD BE than Kansas City. This is the reality in which we live. If the Royals split the remaining six games with the Tigers or take four out of six, they will be favorites to win the division. If the Tigers wipe out the Royals in their six games, they will have a clear route to winning the thing. Cleveland still has a say in all this too. It’s an old-fashoned pennant race, the only one going in the American League — the first one in Kansas City in more than a quarter century. Predicting is fun but it’s kind of pointless now.

All this leads to one small story and thought: In the summer of 2006, I traveled the country with the great Negro Leagues player, manager and spokesman Buck O’Neil for my book The Soul of Baseball. Buck was a huge Royals fan. The summer, like many summers before, the Royals were absolutely dreadful — it was another 100 loss season — but he still checked in daily.

One day we were on the road somewhere — Atlanta maybe — and we were in the hotel restaurant having breakfast. And the conversation went something like this:

Buck: How did the Royals do last night? I didn’t get to the see the paper.
Me: They actually won. They beat Curt Schilling.
Buck: Did they? That makes three in a row, doesn’t it?
Me: Yep. They swept Boston.
Buck: Isn’t that amazing. How many games back are they now?
Me: Thirty-five, I think.
Buck: Thirty-five, eh?
(He paused for a minute and ate some food).
Buck: Well, maybe they can cut it down to 34 tonight.

He would have loved this pennant race. I like to think of him up there somewhere, checking in on the radio, poring over the box scores in the Elysium Gazette, and telling Satchel Paige, “Man, you should see this Wade Davis kid pitch."