The Royals offense isn’t good. There’s a bunch of potential, sure, but production? That’s a completely different story for them. Yet the struggling, small market team is challenging the playoff behemoth that is the Detroit Tigers for the AL Central crown, sitting just 5.5 games back as the All-Star break approaches.
The first point to make is that their pitching and defense are keeping the Royals’ heads above water, which is true. Rookie flamethrower Yordano Ventura has been spectacular, posting a 3.53 xFIP. James Shields, despite his recent struggles, has still been a workhorse from the number one spot, pitching 123.2 innings with a 3.60 xFIP. Another rookie in Danny Duffy has been a godsend for the rotation, as well as a surprisingly effective Jason Vargas. The defense has ranked best in baseball by Defensive Runs Saved over the past two years. An outfield that can throw out Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Alex Gordon or Norichika Aoki will always be among the best in baseball, and Salvador Perez has stepped into his own as an excellent pitch framer with a cannon arm.
But you just can’t win without offense. Kansas City has had to deal with jokes about their lack of production. From early April where Albert Pujols has more homers as an individual than the entire Royals team, to recently where Ned Yost is actually starting Raul Ibanez on purpose.
They rank 21st in MLB in team wRC+ at 91, a linear stat weighted to compare eras and parks equally. They rank 22nd in Slugging% and dead last in Isolated Power. They have two less home runs than the 29th place Cardinals, who have had injuries to key power hitters.
And despite all of this, having one of the most anemic and incompetent offenses, and a manager who thinks “lineup optimization” was the head Autobot in the recent Transformers movie, they’ve scored the twelfth most runs in baseball. How on earth are they doing this? It seems they’re squeezing out value in another undervalued area.
Any way you cut it, the Kansas City Royals have the best team baserunning in the league. Ultimate Baserunning (BsR) found on FanGraphs puts them in first place by a hair, and then a head. Baseball Prospectus’ metric Base Running Runs (BRR) puts them at 11.1 runs above average, four runs better than the second place Brewers. Not a fan of overall baserunning stats? They have the third best stolen base percentage at 80%. Converted to runs using Stolen Base Runs (SBR) they rank at the top of the list again, leading the league with 3.76 runs above average and over a full run better than the next best team (here’s some more team baserunning data to play around with).
I can sit here just regurgitating random baserunning statistics to you (no really, I can. It’s pretty easy) but I think you get the point. So let’s get to the fun part; how they have built a team that works so well on the bases.
The thing about good fielders is they tend to be good on the bases as well. This lets their skills play twofold, so long as their basic motor skills work well enough to let them reach base. Top of the list for the Royals top baserunners reads just like their top fielders: Dyson, Cain, Gordon, Aoki and Alcides Escobar. But they don’t just use their wheels with reckless abandon, a la Billy Hamilton. They rank 20th in percentage of extra bases taken at 38%, well below league average. Instead, the Royals have been smart about when to send their runners and when to leave them on base.
This runs well with run expectancy indices. With runs at a premium, the Royals don’t want to be giving up more than the break even point on extra bases. One of the most overrated moves is trying to take third as an extra base, as the run value is almost insignificant compared to the potential damage it can cause. The Royals again follow in line, ranking 18th in 1st to 3rd base advancements.
The Royals dismal offense can be brutal to watch, but they’re the most efficient run scoring team in baseball. Once they get someone on, the team does what they can to get the runner in. Even though they’re managed by one of the most painfully old-school oriented coaches in the league (“Yosted” is becoming a term for poor management decisions), when it comes to running the bases they’re the most advanced team there is. The true talent of the Royals won’t show up in the flashy stats, but it’s there, underneath all the dirt and grass stains. Hidden value is as good as any, and the Royals are maximizing it. Don’t expect them to die out come September, as this is a well built team ready for a playoff hunt.