The Detroit Tigers are suddenly looking up at the Kansas City Royals in the standings.
So who exactly is this upstart team that dares to depose the acknowledged king of the American League Central Division?
And might they actually pull it off?
Since the All-Star break, the Royals have clearly seized the momentum, going 22-10 while the Tigers have limped along at 15-19.
What was once a 6.5 game Tiger lead at the break has been transformed into a 1.5 game lead for the Royals.
In an attempt to explain this “revoltin’ development”, let’s take a look at the Royals’ personnel and consider whether they’ll still be atop the division when the regular season ends.
Not unlike the 2013 Tiger rotation, the Royals’ five front-liners have remained mostly healthy and have started the preponderance of games for the team.
Overall the starting rotation has been a pleasant surprise for Kansas City and is a major reason for the team’s success.
Whereas the Tiger relief corps would not be out of place at an arsonists’ convention, the Kansas City relievers have adopted what might seem to Tiger fans as a novel approach:
Throw pitches in the direction of opposing hitters and get them out.
What a concept!
And it doesn’t get any easier for opponents when they turn the game over to All-Star closer Greg Holland.
Holland has an ERA of 1.82 and a WHIP of 1.01. He’s also saved 39 games in 41 opportunities–the personification of a lock-down closer.
Watching Holland close out a game at least allows Tiger fans to see a genuine fireman at work.
With this trio’s consistent shutdown capacity, the Royal bullpen magically shrinks a nine-inning game to six.
Harry Houdini should have had such skills.
The Royals have a fine young backstop in Salvador Perez (BA .268), who deservedly made the AL All-Star team the past two years.
He has a rifle arm and hits for power, as evidenced by his 15 home-runs.
Normally a DH, Billy Butler(.282) has played first base since late July when Eric Hosmer went on the DL. Though Tiger-killer Butler slumped in the first half, he has recently come alive and was the AL Player of the Week last week.
Tiger fans need no introduction to the Royal second sacker, Omar Infante (.258). Though his offensive production is slightly down from last year, the former Tiger has solidified the position for KC.
Speedy shortstop Alcides Escobar (.278) has manned the position well for the Royals, while stealing 24 bases.
Third base has been a bit of a black hole for the Royals this year, with incumbent Mike Moustakas (.202) posting Brandon Inge-like numbers. He does have 14 homers, but that’s undermined by a deadly OBP of .262. Lately back-up shortstop Christian Colon (.379 in 29 AB’s) has been getting some starts at third.
The Royals have one of the finest defensive outfields in the game.
Gold–Glover Alex Gordon (.283) patrols left field with aplomb and keeps the running game in check. He has added 14 home runs and 8 stolen bases to the offensive side of the ledger.
Center field is reserved for the fleet.
Combined they have 45 steals in 52 attempts, for an astounding success rate of 90%.
Obtained from the Milwaukee Brewers in the offseason, Nori Aoki (.267) handles most of the right field duty and has been the leadoff man (OBP–.337) for much of the year.
With Butler backfilling at first base, the Royals acquired Josh Willingham (.345 as a Royal–.225 on the season) from Minnesota. Although he was having a down year with the Twins, Willingham is off to a strong start in 29 at-bats with the Royals. He adds a professional bat to a line-up in dire need of thump.
Veteran Raul Ibanez (.206) is finally showing signs of wear and is not garnering many plate appearances in a part-time capacity.
The Bottom Line
The Kansas City Royals are not an illusion.
They have been on-the-come for some time and are finally coalescing in the season’s second half.
They possess two elite qualities that have propelled them into the division lead at this late stage of the campaign–strong pitching and team speed.
Neither of these traits tends to disappear under pressure.
Adding to Kansas City’s chances of unseating the Tigers is a soft schedule down the stretch, as opposed to a relatively difficult slate for the home-towners.
Tote it all up and it’s clear these Royals are for real–far removed from the emperor who had no clothes, as some pundits have suggested.
And if Tiger fans were expecting something resembling a regal procession enroute to yet another division crown, well, you might want to dress differently for the occasion.
Because it’s more likely to be a Battle Royale.