The Numbers Behind the Kansas City Royals' Hot Start
Once again, Ned Yost and the Kansas City Royals have shown that they don't care about your math.
The Royals, widely expected to regress after a surprising run to the World Series last year, have instead picked up where they left off in 2014.
Overall, their offense was subpar last season, as they got by thanks to unsustainable clutch hitting and sequencing luck. This year, though, they are doing their mashing outside of high-leverage situations as well, and are tied for the league lead in runs scored per game (5.67) and third in wRC+ (134).
We’re only talking about a 12-game sample, of course, and while it may be very difficult to discern what is real or not for individual players early on, it is next to impossible to do so for a team.
A player, for example, can add a new pitch, while a batter can change his approach at the plate or modify his stance, so what seems like a fluke might actually be real.
The performance of an entire team, on the other hand, is almost certainly more noise than signal at this point.
That being said, here is what has gone well for Kansas City, particularly on offense.
The Anatomy of a Hot Start
Based on their hot start, the Royals are second behind their American League Central rivals in Detroit in our MLB power rankings.
They are sixth-best in terms of run prevention by allowing 3.33 runs per game and have the game’s fifth-best ERA- (82). This is not nearly as surprising as their strong offensive start to the season, as Kansas City rode its solid pitching and elite defense to baseball’s fifth-best ERA- last season.
The offense, though, was below average last year in terms of runs per game (4.02) and wRC+ (94). This season, the Royals are slashing .313/.373/.467, and while line drive rates are prone to variation, their 24.0% rate is second in the majors, contributing to a .343 batting average on balls in play (BABIP; second in the majors).
The team’s overall approach at the plate remains unchanged, as the Royals are among the major league leaders in contact rate (fourth in baseball at 82.4%, per FanGraphs), while ranking 26th in walk rate (6.1%) and posting baseball’s best strikeout rate (13.1%).
The biggest difference in the team’s performance at the plate this year compared to last year, is a sizable uptick in power hitting, as the Royals are fourth in the majors in slugging percentage (.467) and are 11th in isolated power (ISO; .154).
Last season, they were 19th in baseball in slugging percentage (.376) and last in ISO (.113), and only had three players post an ISO above the big league average of .135 (Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Perez).
Again, it cannot be stressed enough that we are too early in the season to draw any meaningful conclusions from these numbers. Cain, in particular, will almost surely see his power numbers plummet, since he came into this season with a .113 career ISO in 274 major league plate appearances, and a .136 ISO in over 3,100 minor league plate appearances.
Then again, Gordon, who has one extra-base hit this year, will probably see his power regress in the opposite direction, and Morales (.189 career ISO) has always profiled as a power hitter.
Moustakas is an interesting case, as the 26-year-old has a .144 ISO in 2,036 major league plate appearances, but posted a .220 rate in 1,944 minor league plate appearances. Perhaps this is finally the season Moustakas fulfills his potential as a slugger.
While the team's BABIP and line drive rates seem destined to drop (and take the Royals OBP down with them), the uptick in power could conceivably be something to keep an eye on (while it could also just be a meaningless product of a small sample).
Going forward, our projections see the Royals finishing 85-77, meaning they go about .500 for the rest of the way. Still, the seven wins they already have in the bank are not worthless, as their playoff odds have shot up to 45.6%, from their 19.6% postseason probability before the season.