Here we are. With 120 games played, the Royals are basically back where they started. With 60 wins and 60 losses, they are at .500. Even Steven.
Technically, they’re not really back to where they started. They weren’t nine games back in the AL Central and 6.5 back in the Wild Card when the season opened, but you get the point. The Royals have achieved a measure of symmetry at the moment, one that many thought was out of reach just a couple of weeks ago.
Indeed, the Royals are on a tear. Winners of nine of the last 11, they haven’t exactly clawed their way back into the playoff hunt, but they are in a batch of teams that, at the moment, cannot be ignored. A couple of weeks ago, they were behind the White Sox in the standings, just another team they were required to leapfrog. Check the first team off the list. The Royals have powered past fading Chicago and are now 2.5 games to the good.
Up next, a couple of other fading teams. The Astros and the Yankees are both 5.5 games out of the final Wild Card spot. The Astros stumbled out of the gate, got hot to pull themselves back into the race, and have stumbled over the last month, winning only 12 of 30. The Yankees have played better, but are competing in a more difficult division, meaning their strength of schedule down the stretch is daunting. Plus, they dealt away two-thirds of their lock-down bullpen at the deadline. The Yankees are traveling in the middle lane of the highway at the moment, having difficulty passing the Astros, who are driving in the slow lane. Look out drivers, the Royals are approaching on the left.
This is all the more insane we are even having this conversation given the Royals offense. They are scoring 3.9 runs per game, good for last in the league. Their pitching fares a bit better in the prism of the AL, at 4.3 runs allowed per game, but this shines the spotlight on the uncomfortable fact their bats can’t keep pace with their pitching. Or vice versa. With such a run differential, their Pythagorean win-loss record is 55-65. If you click on the expanded standings page at Baseball Reference, you’ll see a column simply labeled “luck.” Luck is just a simple calculation; the difference between the Pythag wins and the real life wins. The dirt against the spreadsheet, if you will. By now, you probably realize the Royals “Luck” is five games to the good. That’s the second best mark in the league, tied with the Yankees and behind the Rangers, who are really punching above their weight at plus 10.
Here at Baseball Prospectus, we have 3rd order wins, which is a calculation based on projected runs scored along with a calculation accounting for strength of schedule. Looking at those standings, the Royals have a 3rd order record of 54-66, which is behind even the Twins. By this measure, the Royals are six games to the good, which is the second best amount of luck, behind only the Rangers who have outpaced their 3rd order wins by a whopping 13 games.
I bring this up, not to rain on your parade, rather to point out the Royals are extremely fortunate to be in the position they currently find themselves. Luck plays a role in any run to a championship. Somehow, some way, the Royals find themselves at .500 with 42 games remaining. Given how the offense has struggled and how the pitching has been anything but a picture of stability, it’s amazing where the Royals find themselves.
The current Wild Card landscape demands only that teams hang around the first five months of the season. It doesn’t matter how exactly you achieve this, just win enough games to maintain your relevance. Then, get hot at the right moment and things will fall into place. We know this. We’ve seen this in action. There are no guarantees, but the Royals have positioned themselves to be in the mix. Now, they play the remaining 42 games on their schedule.
Things get started this weekend against the Twins. From there, things get a bit serious. Three interleague games in Miami and then six against the AL East (three each versus Boston and New York) before returning to the division for three against those Tigers. That’s a stretch of 12 games against teams with a better record than the Royals. It’s the most difficult stretch remaining on the schedule. The Royals will emerge from this gauntlet on Labor Day. Roughly two weeks of games that will certainly define the season.
Are you ready?