Top of the Order: The Royals Perform When It Counts

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

The Kansas City Royals’ strong start has been one of the most surprising stories of the season thus far. With a comeback win over the Mariners last night, the Royals raised their record to 26-18 and pulled into second place in the AL Central, just a game and a half behind the Guardians for the division lead. Bobby Witt Jr. is playing like a legitimate MVP candidate, Salvador Perez is walking more and striking out less than ever (at age 34!), and Seth Lugo is pitching like he wants a Cy Young award in his trophy case.

But take a look at Kansas City’s lineup and offensive statistics and it doesn’t exactly look like one of the best teams in the American League. Entering Tuesday, the Royals had a 94 wRC+ (22nd in the majors) and a .307 wOBA (16th); they also ranked 14th in average (.242), 20th in on-base percentage (.304), 14th in slugging (.390), and tied for 18th in home runs (40). That’s a middling offense at best and a bottom-third group at worst.

The easy explanation for Kansas City’s success this year is its pitching staff, which entering Tuesday ranked ninth in baseball with a 3.49 ERA and a 3.73 FIP. More specifically, the rotation has been one of the best in the majors. Royals starters have combined for a 3.26 ERA (5th), a 3.44 FIP (4th), and 4.6 WAR (2nd), again as of the start of play Tuesday.

But a great rotation alone doesn’t make a good team. If the season ended yesterday, the Royals would be in the playoffs right now because they are producing at the plate in the moments that matter.

That 94 wRC+ overall? Forget it. Their wRC+ was 132 with runners in scoring position, 131 with runners on, and 137 in their few dozen bases plate appearances with the bases loaded. They weren’t as excellent in high-leverage spots (101 wRC+), but that’s still notably better than their wRC+ in all other situations (94).

So, is this a skill? Eh, probably not, but if you’d like to re-litigate Esky Magic from 2014 and 2015 in the comments, have at it. More likely, it’s some combination of luck and random variation in a quarter-season sample. Players don’t suddenly become better or worse depending on the situation, they just perform better or worse. The statistics I shared above are merely what has happened; they’re not predictive of what the rest of the season will hold. Jeff Sullivan put it best back in 2018 when looking at “clutch” through a win probability lens: The most important thing about clutch is that you shouldn’t count on it continuing.

Now, this isn’t to say that the Royals are frauds, because the flip side of the above statement also holds true. Just because you shouldn’t count on clutch continuing doesn’t mean that it won’t. Also, Kansas City isn’t winning only because of its situational hitting. They’ve got Witt and Salvy and all that starting pitching! The Royals may not be this good, but they certainly aren’t bad. And when it’s all over, they might just be good enough. They’re a weird team in a weird division, and maybe they can ride that weirdness all the way into the postseason.

Quick Hits

• Bob Nightengale put it best: “Break up the Colorado Rockies!” Wednesday’s win over the Padres gave the Rockies their sixth straight win, and if five meant we should break them up, what are we supposed to do now? And they haven’t beaten bad teams either! The streak started with a win against the Giants, followed by a three-game sweep of the Rangers and a back-to-back victories against the Padres at Petco Park.

This strikes me as positive regression more than anything else (like the White Sox being above .500 since Tommy Pham joined the team), but Colorado’s sweep of the Rangers was quite the spoiler. Scoring just six runs across those three games, the vaunted Texas lineup was shut down by starting pitching luminaries Ryan Feltner, Austin Gomber, and Ty Blach. Even Dakota Hudson got in on the fun on Monday against the Padres. After going 0-6 in his first seven starts, he earned his first win of the season.

• You’re not a baseball writer if you don’t write a story that needs to be updated after it is published. So I would, of course, like to note that after I filed Monday’s column about how infrequently the Braves use their bench, Austin Riley left Sunday night’s game with an inflamed oblique. Riley isn’t expected to go on the IL, but he was kept out of Atlanta’s lineup on both Monday and Tuesday, allowing Zack Short to beef up those ghost bench statistics.

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Six Ten
11 days ago

My question is what would we expect if the clutch hitting didn’t continue? The current projected standings have them missing the 6th spot by one game, but if the rest of the projections are right and the Royals’ TTL is .500 instead of .483 they’d make it. And I think if they were actually a 94 wRC+ team and the pitching is what it looks like so far they’d project out to around or slightly above .500.

It’s cherrypicking to say “okay but what if we beat projections” for one team while assuming them for everyone else. But just trying to suss out whether they’ve now hit the mark where the baked-in past clutch performances have already done their job, as long as the situation-independent numbers are real. Seems like maybe?