It's May 31, and the Royals are just 1.5 games behind the preseason AL Central runaway favorite the Detroit Tigers. If I were to tell you that prior to the season how many of you would be thrilled? How many of you would say "yeah right"? But it's true and quite frankly, Royals fans should be much more excited about the remaining four months than they seem to be.
I've always been of the mindset that as long as there is a chance, it is more fun to enter each night with the mindset that the team needs to win. Not just because watching a win is more fun than a loss, but because believing that the team is still in the race, creates a lot more excitement during the games and throughout the summer. There is always a time to switch to development mode (you know, when you care more about individual performance than the team winning), but in my opinion we shouldn't be switching to that gear just yet.
Roughly a year ago, the Cleveland Indians were the surprise team of baseball. The Indians sat atop the AL Central standings with a 30-15 record and a 6 game cushion over the Detroit Tigers. Today, the Chicago White Sox reign over the division. In the midst of an eight game win streak, the White Sox have a 29-22 record and are 7 up on the Royals. Are the White Sox a team that could run away with a division title? Not in my mind.
The White Sox, at this point in time are clearly the best team in the AL Central. But is it sustainable? I don't think so. Right now, how many of you would good and place a bet on the White Sox to win the division? To me they are a team that is going to take their lumps, and if you want to talk about hand picked end points, it is definitely beneficial to the Pale Hosers that this post is coming during an 8 game winning streak.
With just a cursory glance over some White Sox numbers, it isn't hard to see where some regression will come from. At the moment their the bulk of their offense is coming from Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko. Dunn of course was horrid last season, but his numbers seem consistent with where he was prior to 2011. Konerko however, is simply having an unsustainable hot start. Konerko is a fantastic hitter and his 24.5% line drive percentage suggest a high BABIP, but no one is can maintain a .424 mark.
Other overachievers on the offensive side include Alejandro De Aza, AJ Pierzynski, Alex Rios and Dayan Viciedo. De Aza is hitting the ball extremely well thus far, but something tells me his LD% isn't going to jump over 8% from one season to the next. Pierzynski is slugging over .500 for the first time in his career, but his FB% is right in line with his career average. His power output is in thanks to his HR/FB doubling his career mark, look for that to shift towards the mean as the season progresses.
Alex Rios, is overachieving preseason expectations, but I don't see any reasons his numbers are a fluke. In fact, the fluke may have been 2011. Viciedo has strong numbers this season, but an ugly 4:35 walk to k rate. Like Pierzynski his slugging percentage is the beneficiary of an insanely high HR/FB of 26.8%, 9% higher than his brief career mark.
On the pitching side of things actual performance and peripheral performance seem to correlate quite well with one another. However, the White Sox rotation has been anchored by Jake Peavy and Chris Sale. Peavy of course has had some sort of voodoo magic performed on his arm, while Sale has already experienced some arm trouble early in the season. After a year in the pen it wouldn't be shocking at all to see him hit the DL for at least a short stint, or to slow down late in the season.
You might be ready to count the Royals out because they are seven games back at the beginning of June, but I look at the White Sox and I see a team that is in for some regression. So what about the Indians, whom the Royals trail by 5.5 games?
I won't go as in depth on the Cleveland Indians, because I don't think I need to. After blowing a six game cushion last season, it seems as though the Indians could be in for some more of the same in 2012. The Indians, are experiencing a wave of injuries and already have a worst run differential than the Kansas City Royals in the first two months of the season. Their pitching has taken a step back from 2011, and their farm system simply doesn't offer the ammunition to plug the holes on the roster that are being created by injury and poor performance.
This brings me back to perhaps the most disappointing team in baseball, the Detroit Tigers. Their infield defense is terrible and it definitely hasn't done their pitching staff any favors. There doesn't appear to be any hitters suffering from plain bad luck, in fact Austin Jackson is a guy who I expect to take a step back in the second half.
Verlander of course, is dominating, but Porcello and Scherzer are both under performing their peripherals. Normally I'd expect their numbers to improve as the progress toward the mean, but in this case I wonder if the Tigers defense is just so bad they can't overcome it. This is particularly true for Porcello, who is a ground ball pitcher.
If I were in charge of the Tigers, I'd be playng Cabrera and Fielder exclusively at DH/1B. I'd slide Peralta over to second or third and I'd look for a defensive wiz to play short. The guy may bring nothing to the table offensively, but the current set up just isn't working in Detroit and Peralta isn't hitting enough to make up for his defensive short comings. Nonetheless, if there is a team in the AL Central that could run away from the pack, it is the Detroit Tigers.
So what about Kansas City? Obviously you can't win 3 out of every 7 games and hope to contend. But keep in mind that since the 3-14 start the Royals are 18-14. If they can keep this up for the remainder of the season they'll wind up 85-77 (84.5 rounds up, according to my education). Would 85 wins be enough to win the division? It might. Would 85 wins be enough to keep the Royals fan base excited and in contention mode throughout the year? Abso-freaking-lutely.
I'm looking at the June schedule and I believe the Royals should post a better record than their 15-13 May. The Royals play six against the Twins, three against the Athletics, Pirates, Brewers, and Astros. These are all series the Royals should win. If they can play even in the six games against St. Louis and even sneak out a winning series against the Rays, they will be a game under .500 entering July.
The offense appears to be coming alive. Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer are starting to hit. Francoeur is back to 2011 form. Billy Butler is finally showing the power we've all hoped for, and Alcides Escobar has broken out. Johnny Giavotella could solidify the second base spot in the order, while Salvador Perez's return will provide a huge boost both offensively and defensively.
The pitching has been pretty terrible for the first two months of the season. Worse than most of us expected. But half of that time was without Felipe Paulino, and after a horrid start, Luke Hochevar's peripherals are back in line with his 2011 numbers. My point is that moving forward there is a more than fair shot that the rotation will be better in the final four months of the season than it was in the first 2.
I'm not advocating that the Royals get crazy and buy at the deadline. I'm merely trying to explain why in my mind the Royals are still right in the thick of things. June is a big month for Kansas City, I haven't taken the time to examine the other schedules by month, but I'd be shocked if there was a month that featured weaker competition.
Don't go into development mode just yet. Thanks to a weak AL Central, the Royals (at 21-28) still have hope. After a 12 game losing streak and 3-14 start, that is amazing.