August is a strange time for baseball. The month-long span of post-trade deadline and pre-September races is generally approached in various manners by teams in various situations: the contending Red Sox have already grooved Jake Peavy into his potential pennant-race role on the staff, the non-threatening Astros have begun their late-season call-ups amidst injury and inconsistency and every other team has begun doing something between rallying and reloading. Right now, the Kansas City Royals – the winners of 11 of their last 12, the perennial AL Central doormat, the biggest gamblers of this past offseason – are blurring the line between rally and reload.
Coming off a five-game losing streak to cap the first half, Kansas City was six games below .500, scoring runs in the bottom third rank of the league while former prospect Wil Myers produced immediately for the Rays. The offseason James Shields-for-Myers swap has been increasingly scrutinized with each passing month of the Royals’ mediocrity, and media began to call for general manager Dayton Moore’s exit after seven seasons. Then, August came.
Kansas City is 13-3 since the break, winning series against Detroit and Baltimore before sweeping both the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota and rattling off nine consecutive that would have been ten had it not been for a wild 4-2 loss against the Mets on August 2. They’ve outscored opponents by a combined 21 runs since the break, showing a new penchant for thriving in tight matches: in wins they are outscoring opponents by approximately 2.5 runs, in losses they are outscored by approximately four. In fact, the team has played 40 games this season in which they have only scored three or four runs – but have won 28 of those games.
The close scoring may be chalked up to their opportunistic hitting, as the lineup is posting an on-base plus slugging percentage over 60 points greater with runners in scoring position than they are without. But, what’s really driving the Royal’s rally car right now is their phenomenal pitching.
Trading the future of the lineup – Myers – for the pitcher of the present – Shields – was a blatant win-now move: ‘Big Game James’ has been the silent ace for a Tampa Bay squad that boasted a similar lineup to the dysfunctional-functioning hitters of Kansas City. In 2012, the Rays were 11th in the American League in runs scored; the Royals were 12th. Shields has a career ERA of 3.31 when given two or less runs of support, while averaging about seven innings per start in those situations. This means – for his career — he’s averaging about two runs surrendered in games that his team is only scoring two runs. He’s the league’s best ‘bad-team pitcher’ – a fact amplified by his nonsensical 93-80 career record. Although his 2013 campaign currently boasts a 6-7 record, it should be known that in his seven losses, the Royals have lost by three runs twice, two runs once and one run four times. Shields isn’t just an ace; he’s a minimalist of poor offensive production.
Aside from these advantages, Moore’s move for Shields is justified by his former location. Last year, Ryan Dempster was the hottest name at the trade deadline, as his 2.25 ERA was the one of few bright spots on the Cubs. He was flipped to the contending Rangers for two minor leaguers and immediately faltered in the American League. His ERA ballooned to 3.38 by season’s end and, had it not been for the Rangers’ then-loaded lineup, may have been a major setback in Texas’ run.
Had they wanted to, Kansas City could have given up far less than Myers for the veteran Dempster, and the deal would have – at the time – been much more justified. Instead, their decision to wait for Shields should be heralded almost exclusively for the fact that he has been one of the four best starting pitchers in the AL East division since 2011. He made a name out of winning ugly in the American League, whereas someone like Dempster thrived in National League matchups.
Setting Shields atop the rotation relieved the pressed erratic results of both Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie, who have both stayed healthy and consistent: they have contributed a combined 19 wins and 3.57 ERA through 290 innings pitched. The trio’s production offsets the struggling Wade Davis and Luis Mendoza, who both bear a WHIP above 1.50. Davis is currently on emergency leave for personal issues and the Royals have opted to call up 24-year old Will Smith, who through two starts has gone 15 innings with 16 strikeouts. If Smith, the only left-handed starter on the squad, gets Davis’ next start and delivers aid to the team’s streak, he may find himself a temporary home at the bottom of the rotation.
Opponents are hitting just .231 against the Kansas City bullpen, and Greg Holland has been a perfect seven for seven in save opportunities since the break. The only concern lays within 23-year old Tim Collins, the ‘pen’s resident lefty specialist. Collins has toned down his issues in his four second-half appearances, but still has a WHIP of 1.48 – which is just above his career average. In a scenario that could involve a decisive September game against the fellow-streaking Cleveland Indians, Collins may not even be suitable to face the lefty pinch-hitting likes of 42-year old Jason Giambi. However, the quickest thing to patch up on a major league roster is the minor role of a specialist reliever.
It should be noted that Lorenzo Cain is cushioning the pitching staff that much more with defensive dominance, that Mike Moustakas is slugging .556 in the past 15 games and that Miguel Tejada is literally making fans feel bad about being mean to him. These things help. But, it should also be noted that the bench is depraved of any productivity beyond Justin Maxwell, that Alex Gordon is hitting .188 this half and was recently moved to cleanup and that the Royals have a 97-126 record in the second half since Ned Yost has been manager. The biggest difference from years past is the pitching, and during this strange August, the only the reason eyes are set on the rallying Royals is the men on the mound. It’s almost time to see if a gamble pays off.