The Royals Are Having the Most Royals Month Ever

On July 31st, the Royals were basically dead in the water. On the day before the team had to make a final buy, sold, or hold decision, KC stood at 49-55, 12 games out of first place in the AL Central. They’d been outscored by 59 runs. And to top it off, Wade Davis had to go back on the DL with a flexor strain, signaling that he hadn’t been able to get past the arm problems that had already cost him part of the season. The Royals hadn’t been very good with him in 2016, and now were looking at likely spending the rest of the season without one of the main reasons they’ve been able to win the last few years.

And yet, despite four months of struggles and Davis’ absence, since the calendar flipped over to August, the Royals have been almost unbeatable. They’ve reeled off 16 wins in 21 games, including their last nine, and have breathed some life back into a season that looked to be dead and buried. The graph of their end-of-season expected record tells the story pretty well.

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In a season of ups and downs, August has been the biggest up so far, and unsurprisingly, the Royals have been winning games with the same kind of crazy formula that allowed them to make a couple of postseason runs the last two years.

During the team’s 21 games this month, the Royals have scored just a rather pedestrian 92 runs; that ranks 19th in MLB this month. At 4.4 runs per game, the Royals offense has still been below average relative to the rest of the league, as MLB teams overall are scoring 4.6 runs per game in August.

But the fact that they’ve managed even 4.4 runs per game this month is pretty remarkable, given how badly they’ve hit overall. This month, the Royals have put up a .258/.305/.402 batting line, good for an 85 wRC+, third-worst in baseball. They’ve actually hit worse this month than they have the rest of the year, as they had a 90 wRC+ from April through July, but were only able to score 3.9 runs per game during the first four months of the season. In classic Royals fashion, they have managed to score an extra half-run per game this month despite hitting worse.

Some of that is just regression to the mean, though. They were scoring fewer runs earlier in the season than we’d have expected, based on their batting line, so it’s not like they’ve suddenly become monster clutch hitters. By Weighted Runs Created, we’d have expected them to score 84 runs this month, only eight fewer than they actually scored, so while there’s some elements of clutch hitting here, it’s not the major factor in the story.

The real story, of course, is the run prevention.

In those 21 August games, the Royals have allowed a grand total of 55 runs. The next lowest total belongs to the Cubs, at 62 runs allowed, and they play in the league where pitchers have to hit. The second-lowest total belonging to an AL team is Toronto’s 64 runs allowed, but they’ve only played 20 games. Despite not having Davis to anchor their bullpen, the August version of the Royals have basically been impossible to score runs against.

The big change has been the performance of the starting pitchers. Up through July, the Royals starters were allowing 5.2 runs per nine innings, and were pushing the Reds and Braves for the title of worst rotation in baseball. In August, the Royals starters are allowing 2.9 runs per game, and have prevented runs at a rate better than any non-Cubs team in baseball. Danny Duffy, of course, has been excellent, but he was excellent earlier in the year too, so that hasn’t been the big change.

No, the big turnarounds have come from Yordano Ventura and Ian Kennedy. Back in June, Ventura was mostly in the news for starting fights and being a big disappointment, and pieces about him were being concluded with lines like “It’s time for Yordano Ventura to grow up.” I don’t know much about his maturity level at this point, but after a terrible April and May, Ventura has been pretty decent the last three months, and has been at his best in August, holding opposing batters to just a .282 wOBA. So getting him back as a reliable innings eater has stabilized a rotation that needed another solid arm.

But the real boost has come from Kennedy. Back in July, the Royals were apparently considering Kennedy as a salary dump; on the 28th, I wrote a piece trying to determine the amount of negative trade value he’d have if the Royals wanted to move him. Davis’ injury squashed any thought of tying the two together in a big trade, so the Royals just ended up hanging onto Kennedy, and have seen him put together a pretty remarkable run since.

In four August starts, Kennedy has allowed just two runs, both coming on solo homers. He’s allowed 14 other hits, walked seven guys, and hit a batter, but every single one of those 22 baserunners has failed to score. Yes, Kennedy is running a 100% LOB% in August. And that’s how you put up a 0.67 ERA against a 3.37 FIP.

Of course, as a flyball guy in front of an excellent defense, something like this is what the Royals were betting on when they signed him over the winter, and now — less than a month after we were talking about whether a team would take his contract to get Wade Davis — Kennedy is sitting there at +3.6 RA9-WAR, 12th-best in the American League. There’s no question that some of that success has to be attributed to Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, and Alex Gordon, but the Royals intentionally signed Kennedy because of their belief that his value would be maximized because of the players they already have.

Will Kennedy keep stranding every runner who reaches base against him? Of course not. The fact that the team struggled to make this formula work for the first four months is more instructive than the fact that they’ve had a three week run of beating teams by scoring just enough to provide a small edge while their defense destroys opposing offenses. And they probably dug too big a hole early in the year to dig out of; this August run should help them finish with a respectable record, but the playoffs remain a long shot.

But for the last three weeks, the Royals of 2016 have looked like the Royals of 2014-2015. The offense still isn’t good, but with a crazy great defense and pitchers who have finally started throwing strikes and keeping the ball in the park, Royals magic has made a dramatic comeback. If they can keep this up for another month or so and get back into the postseason, this might be an even more remarkable accomplishment than what they did the past couple of years.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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5 years ago

Paulo Orlando has played more in the outfield than Dyson. He has even swapped positions with Cain and is playing CF now.