Despite recent struggles, Kansas City Royals are here to stay

The Kansas City Royals have been one of MLB's biggest surprises. Here's why.

Kansas City Royals
Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Royals finished the 2023 season with the second-worst record in MLB at 56-106, ahead of just the Oakland A’s (50-112). When the team decided to spend some money over the off-season, capping everything with an 11-year, $288 million deal for franchise player Bobby Witt Jr., people didn’t pay the team much mind. They brought in some good players on short-term deals, but outside of Witt, who was already under team control for another four years, there were no superstars brought in.

Funny thing is, baseball is a team game and not a superstar-driven league like the NBA or NFL. So, building a competent roster is a much better way to find yourself in contention, rather than having a couple of high-paid players that are really good at the game. Just ask the Los Angeles Angels, who had both Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani and zero playoff games in a six-year stretch with both generational talents.

Bobby Witt leads the team in just about every offensive category, be it home runs (12), RBI (53), stolen bases (21), average (.316) or OBP (.364), the 24-year-old is the engine for this club with the bats.

When the Royals were in Oakland this past week, we asked Witt who the biggest X-factor on the club is. “I think everyone has a piece to it. That’s why we’re having success. When everyone does their job, I think we are one of the best teams,” Witt told Sportsnaut.

While the Royals have dropped 10 of 13 in a 7-12 month of June, they’ve built up enough of a lead over the first two months of the season to afford them a tough stretch. K.C. holds a half-game lead over the Boston Red Sox for the third and final wild-card spot in the American League. Let’s take a look at some of the standout players on the roster that are propelling the Royals into the postseason picture.

Related: Kansas City Royals standing in Sportsnaut’s MLB power rankings

Seth Lugo is shining for the Kansas City Royals

Seth Lugo, Kansas City Royals
Credit: D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals rank 13th in baseball in team ERA with a 3.87, and the starter leading the charge is 34-year-old reliever-turned-starter Seth Lugo, who holds a 2.42 across 104 innings pitched. That ERA ranks fifth in MLB this season among qualified starters, and he entered play Saturday as the only pitcher to have totaled 100+ innings this year. Seattle’s Logan Gilbert tossed eight innings, putting him above the century mark on Saturday.

There aren’t many pitchers in today’s game are both effective when they’re on the mound, and can also go deep into games. It’s even more impressive that up until last season, he’d spent 2018-2022 as a relief pitcher for the New York Mets, topping out at 101.1 innings in 2018.

Pitching a starter’s number of innings is not something that can just happen, so we asked him what kinds of adjustments he’s had to make the past two years in order to get ready for a season as a member of the rotation, and he said that he’s always trained as a starter because he never lost the conviction that he was a starting pitcher.

He also said that his X-factors are the middle infielders behind him, as a pitcher. Lugo’s .269 BABIP ranks as the 24th lowest among qualified starters, which would suggest that he’s been getting some help from his defense, as does his 3.46 FIP.

Witt is tied for first in Outs Above Average (+10) at short, and Nick Loftin, who has started just 35 games, primarily at second, ranks sixth among second basemen (+4). Michael Massey, the other Royal to get significant time at second, starting 26 games before landing on the IL, has racked up +2 OAA of his own.

Having a duo like that up the middle is a pitcher’s best friend.

Salvador Perez is a mainstay

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Oakland Athletics
Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

At 34 years old, Salvy is still mashing the baseball, ranking second behind Witt in wRC+ (149 for Witt to Perez’s 128), home runs (11), third in RBI (45), second in average (.283) and second in OBP (.356). He began his career with the Royals in 2011, and all these years later he is continuing to be just as important to the club as he was during their World Series run nearly a decade ago.

Part of the reason for this is because he has been in the lineup consistently, playing in 75 of the team’s 78 games while splitting time between catching and first base.

Royals manager Matt Quatraro said earlier this week that last season Perez was playing first more out of necessity with some of the injuries the team was facing, but this season he’s getting time there because he’s good at it and it helps the team. Plus, Freddy Fermin is very good behind the dish, so the club is comfortable all around. It also provides the veteran with a bit of a breather from catching, which is beneficial to the club.

Both Fermin and Perez rank in the top-10 in blocking ability, and Fermin happens to be one of the best in baseball at controlling the run game. Of the 12 attempted stolen bases on Fermin, only six have been successful. Having someone like Fermin defensively at catcher has freed up Perez to play some first. That may not seem like a big deal, but catchers take a lot of punishment behind the plate on a daily basis. Getting Perez out of the squat and keeping his legs fresh could be a huge factor later in the season if the Royals continue to push for a postseason berth.

Angel Zerpa solidifies Kansas City Royals bullpen

Kansas City Royals' Angel Zerpa
Credit: Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

Entering play on Saturday, left-hander Angel Zerpa was the only player on the roster with at least 20 innings pitched that held a lower ERA than Lugo. However, the 24-year-old allowed five earned against the Texas Rangers last night, which bloated his ERA on the year to 3.49 from 1.93, which is more in line with his 3.32 FIP. Still, Zerpa has had a pretty significant impact this season.

Zerpa has appeared in 34 games this year, which is roughly 44% of the team’s contests. Of those 34 games, he has allowed a run to cross the plate in just five of them. That’s consistency, and having a reliable arm like that is extremely valuable.

The southpaw averages 96 miles per hour on his sinker, but it’s his slider that has been his most effective pitch this year, ranking in the 84th percentile in run value. Even with the poor outing last night, Zerpa is the only Royals reliever that is qualified in innings pitched to hold an ERA under 4.00. The team as a whole ranks 21st in reliever’s ERA with a 4.43.

On the bright side, if the Royals want to make some moves at the trade deadline, they know one area of the roster that could use some work. The club is 19-18 in games decided by two runs or less. With an extra arm or two in the bullpen, that could make enough of a difference to earn the Royals a spot playing October baseball.

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