So here's the deal: Two weeks ago, the Kansas City Royals were scuffling along at 26-30, Ned Yost was doing funny things with the batting order, nobody was hitting for power, and Yordano Ventura's elbow had an ache.
Two weeks later, the Royals are 36-32 after winning 6-3 on Sunday, Ned Yost is still doing funny things with the batting order, the Royals have slugged 11 home runs and 28 doubles in their past 12 games, and Ventura, while not dominating like earlier in the season, is at least back in the rotation.
The Royals now trail the Tigers by a mere 1.5 games in the AL Central -- and they just happen to be traveling to Detroit for a four-game series that begins Monday. To say this is the biggest series the Royals have played in years isn't an overstatement; even during last year's feel-good season the closest they got to first place after June 1 was 4.5 games. They climbed 2.5 games behind Cleveland in late September for the second wild card, but even then there were two other teams ahead of them before getting to the Indians.
So yes, it's only June, but this is an important series for the Royals, considering they come in riding a seven-game winning streak and the Tigers are 9-17 over their past 26 games. There's also this: The Royals are 0-5 against the Tigers this season, getting hammered 32-12 in the process.
Over these past 12 games, however, the Royals have hit .284/.335/.444 and have the sixth-best wOBA in the majors over that stretch. This comes after ranking 28th -- ahead of only two National League teams -- through June 1, due primarily to hitting just 24 home runs in 56 games.
So here's the question: Are the Royals just hot at the plate right now or are they finally progressing toward their true talent level?
One way to examine this is to look at player projections. Dave Cameron wrote a piece on FanGraphs the other day titled "You Should Trust the Projections." Dave borrows from a study done by Mitchel Lichtman that looked at players from 2007-2013 who were off to hot or cold starts after one month compared to their season projection. As it turns out, the rest-of-season projection more accurately projected the player's stats the rest of the way than their first-month totals. This remained the case whether you look at two months or three months and held up for pitchers as well. In other words, trust the projections: A player's entire career is still a better barometer of his talent level than what he's done after 50 or 60 games.
Before you throw up your arms in sabermetric disgust, as Dave writes, "it’s not like projection systems are infallible." He cites extreme examples like Jose Bautista or Cliff Lee. And certainly young players are less predictable. Yes, of course, pitchers can add a pitch or get healthy (or injured) or a hitter can tweak his stance. But, generally speaking, the projection systems do work.
With that in mind, let's see where the Royals hitters are now and see where the ZiPS and Steamer systems have them finishing the season.
Dyson started Sunday in place of Norichika Aoki, but he normally comes off the bench and has just 95 plate appearances. He has a few extra hits to boost his average and OBP, but otherwise he's doing what you'd expect.
Steamer sees a little improvement moving forward. His power has been nonexistent (zero home runs) after hitting eight for Milwaukee last season.
Maybe he's a little better than the .288 OBP he's putting up now, but not much. Speaking of Yost's bad lineups: Why keep Infante in the two-hole? (Well, we know why Yost does, but it's still bad lineup ordering.)
While both systems see improvement moving forward, note that Hosmer's slow start has them projecting him well below last year's .302/.353/.448 line. He does have three of his four home runs in the past 12 games. Some will suggest the uptick in power had to with the firing of hitting coach Pedro Grifol on May 29 and the hiring of Dale Sveum -- similar to when George Brett temporarily took over as hitting coach last year and Hosmer starting hitting better. If only it were so simple. Sveum does have a different philosophy than Grifol -- apparently emphasizing head and hands compared to Grifol's focus on the lower half. Hosmer himself downplayed the change after Friday's game, telling the Kansas City Star, "Honestly, man, I really don’t think that had anything to do with it, to be honest with you. But something had to happen, obviously. If anything, it was a spark for us. Woke us all up."
Two years ago, Butler hit a career-high 29 home runs. His home run on Saturday was just his second, his first since May 2. His reaction resembled a guy who just got off death row. The systems see a little more power moving forward.
Right in line with his projection. Should obviously be hitting higher in the order considering he can actually get on base.
Again, right in line with his projection.
The batting average is up although that's been negated by a slightly lower walk rate, so overall we shouldn't see much improvement or regression.
OK, he's expected to raise his average 30 or so points, and thus his OBP and slugging. He's still bad.
Minor regression predicted.
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Where does that leave us? The numbers suggest a few players may show slight improvement; I guess the good news is that nobody is over performing expectations by much and the Royals have still gone 36-32. Overall, the Royals are averaging 4.10 runs per game -- barely higher than last year's 4.0 runs per game.
The problem, just like last year, is there's no go-to guy in this lineup. It's certainly not Hosmer, no matter what may have once been expected of him. Gordon is a nice player but compare him to Miguel Cabrera or Victor Martinez and he doesn't match up. Butler's freefall may not be reversible. It's an underwhelming attack not likely to perform all that much better.
But I suppose the other good news is that it may not have to be better. The Royals' run prevention, while predictably not as good as last year, is still third-best in the AL.
I don't have much faith in Yost's strategic moves helping the team out, so that's a strike against them. They're counting on Ventura, who has three or fewer strikeouts in five of his past six starts, and Duffy, neither of whom has pitched a complete season in the majors, suggesting they could perhaps go after Jason Hammel or another starter at some point. The offense looks like the offense of a .500 team.
In the mediocre AL Central -- combined run differential: minus-47 runs -- that may be enough, however, and it may have the Royals playing even bigger series late in September. For Royals fans, they'll take that.