Kendrys Morales craned his neck in search of an interpreter. He was trying to describe how he swatted his 22nd homer of the season, his hands supplying all the power to smash a splitter over the fence at U.S. Cellular Field last week, but as a native Cuban, the English language still eludes him.
Seated nearby, Alex Gordon looked up from his postgame meal. He offered a suggestion that spanned languages and cultures.
“Look at his hands,” Gordon said. “Kendrys, just show them your hands.”
This edition of the 2015 Kansas City Royals surpasses last year’s World Series club in terms of bullpen depth, offensive firepower and roster-wide maturity, in the eyes of club officials, coaches, players and, to boot, rival evaluators from around the game. On the eve of the playoffs, the difference between the two teams can be measured by dozens of statistics or metrics.
But perhaps the best place to start is the bear claws Morales uses to clasp his bat. They are massive, pocked by blisters, often left uncovered when he hits. He entered Saturday leading the club with 106 RBIs and tied for the team lead with 22 homers. His presence represents a sizable upgrade over former designated hitter Billy Butler, and personifies the improvement of this team as it embarks on its defense of the pennant, likely starting on Thursday against Texas in an American League Division Series.
“Obviously, going in, you feel a lot better than you did last year,” hitting coach Dale Sveum said. “You’ve got a switch-hitting, power-hitting DH, who drives in runs and turns the lineup over. It changes the whole lineup when you can do that.”
To reach the playoffs last autumn, the Royals relied upon suffocating defense, propulsive running and the best late-game bullpen trio in baseball. Once entered into the postseason tournament, the team experienced star turns from Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. All three carried that experience into 2015, forming the core of one of the best teams in baseball.
In 2015 the Royals have scored over 100 more runs and hit over 40 more home runs than they did in 2014. The staff-wide ERA was 3.76 in 2015 heading into Saturday, comparable to last season’s 3.51 mark. The defense once again leads the American League in advanced metrics such as FanGraphs’ defensive runs above average and defensive runs saved. Plus, the players and coaches say, they can draw from a sudden wealth of experience and confidence in October.
“We’re more of a complete team this year,” Cain said. “Even though we played the way we did, ended up sweeping teams throughout the playoffs, I feel like we’re more complete. At the end of the day, you get to that postseason, it’s a whole different level of baseball. All that goes out the window. It’s either who shows up, or who gets how at the right time.”
As the regular season draws to a close, it is worth remembering that this team represents one of the best in Royals franchise history. No matter Sunday’s outcome, the Royals will finish with their best record since 1980. Last week the team captured its first division title since 1985 and its first ever American League Central championship.
The club played its worst baseball in the season’s final full month, finishing 11-17 in September, which put homefield advantage in jeopardy and scotched any chance of surpassing the franchise record for victories. As history shows, though, the concept of momentum in baseball is overblown.
We don’t have to relive what we did last year. We can just be who we are.
Alex Gordon, Royals left fielder
The Angels won 98 games last season, more than any other club. They faced the Royals in the ALDS and did not win again. The Nationals went 19-8 last September. They fell to San Francisco in four games in the first round.
“Once the postseason starts, all this stuff doesn’t matter,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said.
But when the postseason starts, how will the Royals respond? There is no way to predict the outcomes. Yet the Royals believe their roster stacks up well with any other club in baseball.
One rival executive referred to the starting rotation as the Royals’ “weakest link.” The team acquired Johnny Cueto in late July in hopes of rectifying that. Cueto combusted in the middle of his tenure with a five-start swoon that included a 9.57 ERA. He has rebounded in his past three outings, thanks to improved communication with catcher Salvador Perez, but the Royals are still likely to start Yordano Ventura in Game 1 on Thursday.
After Ventura and Cueto, the team will turn to Edinson Volquez for Game 3. The club can choose between either Kris Medlen or Chris Young for a fourth game. They could also use Ventura, who has been their most reliable pitcher this past month, on short rest.
“The rotation’s numbers, if you’re a numbers guy, were better last year,” Eiland said. “But it’s still about getting us to the middle innings and keeping us in the game. And then we’re going to turn it over to our strength.”
2.75Royals’ bullpen ERA entering Saturday
3.30Royals’ bullpen ERA last season
That would be the bullpen. With Greg Holland out for the season following Tommy John surgery, Ryan Madson replaces him as the third anchor in manager Ned Yost’s late-game package. Wade Davis will close. Kelvin Herrera will handle the eighth.
Plus, both Eiland and rival evaluators explained, the team possesses more options than before. Lefty Danny Duffy has looked dynamic since joining the relief corps this month. Neither Luke Hochevar nor Franklin Morales can be considered truly reliable, but they figure to be upgrades over last year’s options like Brandon Finnegan and Jason Frasor.
The statistics bear out the depth. the Royals entered Saturday with a 2.75 bullpen ERA. Last year, the group finished the season with a 3.30 ERA.
The bullpen, the defense and the running game became the team’s calling cards last October. Both the bullpen and the defense will be back. The running game has slightly changed, as the Royals counter the tactics of opposing teams, first-base coach Rusty Kuntz said.
Once the postseason starts, all this stuff doesn’t matter.
Dave Eiland, Royals pitching coach
The Royals raced into the hearts of fans by matching a postseason record and stealing seven bases in the American League Wild Card Game. The team hit the fewest homers in the majors during the regular season and led both leagues with 153 stolen bases.
But Kuntz noted how teams like Baltimore and San Francisco strove to shut down the Royals’ running game during the playoffs, and expected others to copy the blueprint in 2015. He expected a slew of slide-steps and a standard of quicker times to the plate for the pitchers.
During the winter, Kuntz set a more modest goal for his runners. He wanted 100 stolen bases. The team has stolen 103, and entered Saturday second in the American League.
And that has occurred even after Escobar, one of their best runners in years past, has been less active on the bases. Part of that stems from his inability to reach base. But Kuntz and others wonder about the lingering affect of the takeout slide Escobar absorbed from Oakland third baseman Brett Lawrie in April.
“Ever since that, he just hasn’t looked or moved or acted the same,” Kuntz said. “Because before, he was always looking to run.” He added, “Maybe it’s just my own eyes, but he just doesn’t look the same to me.”
Yet Escobar still operates as a talisman for this group. Yost returned him to the leadoff spot this week after experimenting for weeks with more productive hitters like Alex Gordon and Ben Zobrist at the top of the order. The Royals responded with their first three-game winning streak in five weeks.
The winning helped stop a disquieting slide that continued throughout September. The Royals managed a double-digit lead in the American League Central for weeks, but lost momentum heading into the final month of the season. The Royals insisted they were never worried during this stretch, and in the view of rival scouts, they never needed to.
On the first five games of this road trip, the Royals received a quality start from their pitcher. The offense picked up some steam, for whatever reason, with Escobar at the top.
Yost cannot explain why the Royals are so successful with Escobar leading off. But he will not mess with success. And his support of his players has paid dividends in career seasons for Cain, Hosmer and Moustakas. All three pointed to the team’s boosted self-esteem after their performance in 2014.
To hear the Royals tell it, the swagger was born in last year’s Wild Card Game, when the club conquered Jon Lester, a four-run deficit and the Oakland A’s with only two innings left. The confidence carried them through October and into the start of this season.
The night Kansas City baseball came back to life: Reconstructing the 2014 AL Wild Card Game
On Opening Day, Medlen sat inside his dugout, bewildered by the consistency of chatter among his teammates, the audible pride emanating from the group. When White Sox starter Jeff Samardzija drilled Cain, the players clambered over the railing, bristling for action. Whenever a Royal scored, his teammates congratulated him on the top step.
Medlen grew up with the Braves, the demure, reserved organization that raised Moore as an executive and Yost as a coach. Medlen turned to Jason Vargas, who joined the team in 2014.
“Are they always like this?” Medlen asked.
“I’ve played on some really good teams before, and I’ve played against some really good teams,” Medlen said. “But I had never been a part of this, just every day. The same energy.”
The Royals intend to unleash that same force on Thursday evening at Kauffman Stadium. A flag already flies high above the left-field wall at the ballpark. The Royals intend to add another, one to match their flag from 1985, the organization’s lone World Series championship.
“Last year was last year,” Gordon said. “There’s no reason to compare it. This is a new year. A chance to make new history. We don’t have to relive what we did last year. We can just be who we are.”
Royals in 2014 vs. 2015
2014 Regular season
2015 Regular season*
Runs per game
Opponents’ batting average
Opponents’ home runs
Royals in the home stretch
Runs per game
Opponents’ batting average
Opponents’ home runs