Don’t look now, but the Kansas City Royals lead the AL Central by a half game over the Detroit Tigers. And that’s after the Tigers acquired prized starter David Price at the trade deadline.
It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise: the Royals were playing good enough baseball in the middle of June to make a run. But they aren’t doing it all in the traditional way with offense or pitching. They are doing it with defense, last night’s game notwithstanding.
They rank seventh in the league overall for defensive runs saved and are third in the AL for the same. They were first among all MLB teams in 2013. Their outfield, specifically, is crushing the majors defensively. As a unit, they lead the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating, which puts a run value to defense, attempting to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding prowess (or lack thereof), by a wide margin.
Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain have three of the top six UZR among outfielders this season and all are in the Top 20 AL position players. Gordon has been particulary impressive. He leads the league in UZR (24.8) and has made five out of 11 plays deemed by Inside Edge as “unlikely” (10-40 percent chance at being successful).
But here is the thing: As good as these Royals are, they look remarkably similar to the team that broke their fans’ hearts last season.
In 2013, the Royals hit .260 with a .305 weighted on-base average, which combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value. This season they have a .263 average and .305 wOBA. Plus, their walk and strikeouts rates are also almost identical.
The Royal’s starting rotation has been average this season – it ranks ninth in wins above replacement in the American League - and look, statistically, similar to last season. The bullpen ranks eighth in RE24, which is the difference in run expectancy between the start of the play and the end of the play. But they too have performed a lot like last season’s bullpen.
The Royals are projected to finish 22-22 the rest of the way and currently have just a 46.4 percent chance at a playoff spot, showing that the more things change, the more they could stay the same.