Royals still have margin for error in playoff chase

07/12/2014 5:23 PM

07/13/2014 12:13 AM

You are old enough to read this, so you are old enough to remember when the lucky breaks and government action and certified miracles required to get the Royals into playoffs were comparable to getting a puppy to the moon and back on a paper airplane.

Emil Brown had to drive in 100 runs, Runelvys Hernandez had to eat right, Mike Sweeney had to stay healthy, and the reflection of the moon had to hit the top of the crown scoreboard at exactly noon the day of the trade deadline. Also, Angel Berroa would have to turn into Derek Jeter.

There is a certain charm in looking back at those days, not unlike thinking about that rat-infested dump you lived in after graduating. But these are better days for the Royals and their fans in almost every conceivable way, including the likelihood of eye damage from one of Sluggerrr’s hot dogs.

We’ve heard about Processes and changing culture and Baseball America championships over the last eight years, but still, as the Royals head into the All-Star break they will need to play their way into the postseason over these last 2 1/2 months to make it all pay off.

Their chief competition includes both the Tigers — whom the Royals still haven’t beaten this year at Kauffman Stadium after a 5-1 loss Saturday — for the division, and teams like the Angels, Mariners, Blue Jays, Indians and Yankees for the wild card.

At the moment, various statistical projections give the Royals between a 19 and 24 percent chance at making the playoffs, which, appropriately, is around the odds of winning Squeeze Play on “The Price Is Right.”

What follows, if you’ll pardon the awful metaphor, is an argument for how the Royals can find themselves in October’s Showcase Showdown.

Before we get into what the Royals must do, it’s worth setting the context of how good they must be. When the team you follow owns the longest playoff drought in major North American sports, it’s easy to think you must be perfect, that any little mistake or shortcoming will cost your guys glory. At least this year, in the Royals’ situation, that’s not true.

The Royals must be good, perhaps even very good, but they do not have to be great. Last year, the Indians and Rays got in the playoffs with 92 wins. At the moment, the Mariners own the second wild-card spot and are on pace for 87 wins. Last year, the Royals won 43 of their last 70 games. The same finish would give them 90 wins this year.

Among the Royals’ competition, the Tigers have a horrendous bullpen and their fans are now regularly booing Justin Verlander. The Mariners hit worse than the Royals. Edwin Encarnacion is on the disabled list for the Blue Jays, who are still giving regular starts to J.A. Happ. The Yankees have an ancient lineup and their only two good starting pitchers are hurt.

So this is not a treacherous climb up a mountain as much as it is a brisk jog, most of it uphill but also with a few water breaks along the way.

The most obvious place the Royals need to improve is offensively, particularly with power. No American League team has finished last in homers and made the playoffs since any current Royals player was born, including Raul Ibañez.

With 55 homers, the Royals are 12 behind the next-lowest AL team total (Boston), so by now it may be unrealistic for them to catch up. But they can certainly hit with more power, which means Mike Moustakas must continue his post-Omaha ways, Billy Butler would do well to find his bat speed, and Eric Hosmer needs to hit with those long arms extended more often like he’s done the last week or so.

This actually opens the door for some optimism that is easy to miss. In some ways, the Royals have done especially well to be one game over .500 and just 3 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. They are a team built on speed and defense and pitching with an offense they know lacks a safety net or much room for error.

And, yet, here they are in the playoff picture despite perhaps their two most important hitters — the No. 3 and cleanup spots in the original plan — underperforming. To that point, you would have a good idea whether the Royals make the playoffs this year by knowing if Butler and Hosmer perform to their talents the rest of the way.

One easy way for the Royals to add some muscle is to stop being so darned jumpy at the plate. Only the Mariners see fewer pitches per at-bat, and only the Orioles swing at more pitches outside the strike zone.

Here’s one more indicator to look for the rest of the season. The Royals are 10-18 in one-run games, the worst record in the American League. You probably started blaming Ned Yost before the end of that last sentence, but it’s also true that the Royals were over .500 and outperformed their overall record in one-run games each of the last two seasons.

Statistical studies and old-time baseball common sense agree that good teams generally win more one-run games. The last five years of playoff teams won 96 more one-run games than they lost. Only five of those 22 teams were below .500 in one-run games.

Depending on what you read and hear, the best one-run teams tend to be good at small-ball, with strong relievers — particularly relievers with lots of strikeouts and not so many walks.

The Royals, then, should be much better here. And with all of the talk about Hosmer and Butler and Moustakas, the Royals’ biggest chance for improvement is in their performance in close games.

Some of that depends on Yost, but with defined bullpen roles a lot of it also depends on the players. Alcides Escobar, for instance, can’t go blank-brained after fielding a possible double-play ball in the eighth inning on Tuesday. And in games like Friday’s, the Royals can’t come up empty with two runners on against a shaky closer in the ninth, no matter what the umpires do.

If the Royals — with their small-ball tendencies and monsters at the back of the bullpen — were merely even in one-run games they’d be 3 1/2 out in the division and second in the wild card.

So much of this is in the margins. Taking the very big-picture view, the Royals have probably lost a few games they could’ve won by going white-flag with their bullpen too soon. Friday’s game is a rare exception, but Yost’s insistence on virtually never using Wade Davis when behind means fewer comeback opportunities. The benefit is the most important relievers are fresher than they’d be under some other managers, but if the Royals are going to make a real run here it’s probably time to change that philosophy.

You can stretch that to the rest of the roster, too. Ibañez was an interesting pickup for a lot of reasons, but the Royals aren’t in a position to give regular playing time on spec. This is a team built on speed and defense, of which Ibañez provides neither, so playing him through an extended slump instead of Jarrod Dyson makes little sense. When Alex Gordon recovers from his wrist injury, the Royals should be willing to continue giving Dyson more time, no matter what that would say about the trade for Nori Aoki.

The final piece of this is a major trade before the July 31 deadline, but this isn’t as easy as the tight sound bite makes it appear. There are more buyers than sellers, and the cost for even a marginal upgrade like Ben Zobrist may be a package that includes both Hunter Dozier and Sean Manaea. The Royals already made their big play for this year when they traded for Davis and James Shields.

If there is a way to upgrade the backup catcher, bullpen depth, or power without significantly chopping up the minor-league system, then of course the Royals should do that.

But realistically, the price will likely be too high. Which means the upgrades must come from within, as has always been the case, this critical Royals season eight years in the making either soaring or flat-lining based on the men already on board.

Because these are the Royals, the odds are both against them and better than at any time in a generation.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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