The Royals allowed four runs Tuesday night. Fairly ordinary total, four runs. Not too few to score; not too many to allow. There were 16 games on Tuesday. In 13 of them, at least one team scored at least four runs. In two of them, both teams scored at least four runs. Four might be the least remarkable run total. But then, there’s a thing about these Royals. That was only the second time all month the Royals allowed more than three runs in a game. The other time, they allowed five. It’s been a good month for the Royals’ pitching staff, and so it’s been a good month for the Royals.
It was an impressive streak they put together. Between June 1 and June 14, the Royals played 13 games, never allowing four or more runs. In 2010, the Giants had such a streak of 18 games, but previous to that, you have to go back to the 2002 Diamondbacks to find a streak of at least equal length. Then you have to go back to the 1993 Braves. A few weeks ago, people wondered whether Ned Yost was on the hot seat. Now the Royals have pulled themselves back into the race, and they own the American League’s fourth-best run differential. Thanks in large part to their run prevention, the Royals presently have the look of a contender.
As evidenced by the controversial James Shields trade, run prevention was the Royals’ offseason priority. They also added Wade Davis and Jeremy Guthrie and Ervin Santana, and now look at the results. The Royals have baseball’s lowest ERA-. They have the second-lowest ERA- in franchise history, just one point behind 1985’s 83. The 1985 Kansas City Royals won the World Series. This year’s Royals haven’t quite started hitting yet, but they’re back in the thick of things because of the pitching, seemingly validating the plan. As good as the Tigers look, the Royals are within striking distance. As good as the Orioles and Yankees and Rangers have occasionally looked, the Royals are within striking distance. Least flatteringly, the Royals aren’t a pushover. Most flatteringly, the Royals are a borderline playoff team.
But though the Royals are first in ERA-, they’re ninth in the AL in FIP-. They’re tied for eighth in the AL in xFIP-. Those numbers aren’t bad, and you know what the Royals have? Great defense. They lead the majors in UZR. They’re the runner-up in Defensive Runs Saved. That’s a big help, because pitchers and defenders work together. But we have to look at the Royals’ rate of leaving runners on base. You’re familiar, probably, with LOB%. If not, go to town. The Royals have a pitching staff LOB% of 78.8%. That’s the highest mark in baseball. That’s one of the highest marks in baseball history.
Let’s go all the way back to 1950. That leaves us with a pool of 1,562 individual team seasons. League-average LOB% hasn’t stayed exactly the same over that span, but it’s remained fairly stable. Here now are the highest team pitching staff LOB% marks since 1950:
- 1968 Tigers, 79.5%
- 2013 Royals, 78.8%
- 1972 Indians, 78.8%
- 1972 Athletics, 78.1%
- 1972 Orioles, 77.9%
- 1964 White Sox, 77.8%
- 1954 Giants, 77.6%
- 2011 Phillies, 77.5%
- 2013 Pirates, 77.4%
- 1968 Cardinals, 77.3%
You notice this year’s Pirates in there, too, and that’s a thing, but here the Royals are our focus. It’s true that better pitchers can be expected to post better LOB% rates than worse pitchers. But this year’s average is 73.2%, and as noted earlier, the Royals have been about exactly league average based on their peripherals as a staff. There isn’t good reason to believe the Royals’ pitchers are elite, and so there is good reason to expect this number to come down. And the relationship between LOB% and ERA- is steep. Every runner not stranded, after all, is a run.
The culprit, pretty obviously, is performance with runners on base. Hits with runners on base do more damage than hits not with runners on base. Teams tend to do a little worse with men on compared to with none on. Here’s the Royals’ breakdown:
- Bases empty: .326 wOBA allowed
- Men on base: .296
- Scoring position: .290
Only the Red Sox have a bigger drop in wOBA between bases-empty situations and men-on situations. Only the Red Sox, again, have a bigger drop in wOBA between bases-empty situations and scoring-position situations. It’s not so much because of hit prevention, or walk prevention — the Royals just haven’t really allowed homers of the multiple-run variety. Regression is a boring, over-cited principle, but it’s an important and unavoidable principle nonetheless.
It’s not that the Royals haven’t been a little better in more critical situations. Sorry for throwing so many numbers at you, but the Royals are 24th in baseball in xFIP with the bases empty. They’re 10th with men on, and ninth with runners in scoring position. One shouldn’t expect complete and total regression to some mean. But the Royals aren’t going to keep preventing runs like this, which is going to put more pressure on the bats, and the bats have yet to show collective life.
Fun fact: the Royals have gone 12-5 in June, with a 1.89 ERA. The Royals went 8-20 in May, with a 4.33 ERA. In both months, the offense was bad. In May, the team xFIP was 4.18. In June, the team xFIP has been 4.37. They are neither as bad as May nor as good as June, and if you put them together, you get a nearly-.500 ballclub. Overall on the season, the Royals have been a .500 ballclub.
It helps that the Royals might soon get Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino back off the disabled list. Those are two talented arms with real strikeout potential, and there’s never anything wrong with having pitching depth. But they’re coming back off major injury, and before getting hurt Paulino was fine and Duffy was inconsistent. Most likely, they aren’t going to be in position to make a major impact, and the Royals, probably, won’t be looking to make a trade-deadline splash. There are only so many ways this can go.
The easiest thing to do would probably just be to cite our projected standings page. The Royals are projected to finish 44-49, in the company of the Indians, Mets, and Mariners. The team they are now is a team with fine pitching and good defense and mediocre hitting. It’d be great if Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas took a step forward, but that was the hope back in March, and now it’s been almost three more months of disappointment. In a way, the Royals’ situation hasn’t changed. But instead of having six months to keep up with the contenders after starting from the same place, now they have three and a half months to catch up to the contenders from behind. It’s far from being hopeless — there’s no such thing as a hopeless .500 baseball team — but seasons are made up of littler streaks. Cold streaks make people too pessimistic. Hot streaks make people too optimistic. The Royals could be in a much worse place, but lately they’ve overachieved.
In the sense that it’s June and the Royals are relevant, this season, so far, has been something of a success. But the Royals needed to overachieve to get back to .500. There’s a lot to like on that roster. There’s a lot to like on a lot of non-playoff rosters.
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