Not sure if these Royals are legit? This might convince you

36-25 start is fourth best in team history

June 4th, 2024

Only three teams in Royals history had a better record through the first 61 games of a season than this year’s 36-25 club, and the 1976, '80 and '89 editions all went on to win at least 90 games. Through Monday, only four teams have a better run differential than Kansas City’s +74: the Yankees, Phillies, Dodgers and Guardians, all first-place clubs.

With the Royals headed to Cleveland on Tuesday to begin a huge three-game set that could end up helping to decide the AL Central title, it's a good time to dive into what's happening in western Missouri -- about how a team that went a miserable 56-106 last year, its sixth consecutive last or next-to-last finish in baseball's weakest division, could be where it is now.

Is it "real?" The wins are real, and banked. The memories are real. The excitement is real. Still: there’s a big difference between getting off to a surprisingly hot start and managing to maintain that all season long on the way to one of the biggest single-year improvements in history.

What have the Royals done to get here – and what might they still do?

1) Did we all miss something here?

One thing is for sure: Everyone thought the Royals would be better than last year’s 106-loss team. That’s in part because last year’s negative run differential implied a 98-loss team, not a 106-loss one, and while that’s still bad, it’s also eight fewer losses than they had, and and made them a rare team with potential candidates for both the MVP and Cy Young Awards.

The ZiPS projection system, therefore, had them at 73-89. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections said 71-91. This author’s personal projection: 76-86. “I think the Royals are going to be a lot better this year,” if we can self-quote here. “No, scratch that -- I know they're going to be a lot better this year.”

Players thought so, too. In March, surveyed more than 100 active Major Leaguers on a variety of topics. When asked which team was most likely to surprise, the Royals were easily No. 1 on the list.

“I wouldn't be surprised if the Royals are in first place in the [American League] Central,” one National League pitcher said at the time.

Across the board, the Royals were expected to be 15 to 20 wins better. That everyone was hesitant to go further than that comes down to two factors, really. First, that’s already a huge improvement, one that’s rare enough to see on its own, without expecting even more. Second, 2023 breakout star Ragans came with a ton of questions, not about his talent and skill, but about his ability to repeat it over a full season, since he’d made just 12 starts for the Royals after being acquired last summer.

Throw in a weak farm system, and it’s hard to say a whole lot was missed here. The Royals were expected to be better. They are better! They’re just a little bit better beyond the type of better that was expected.

2) It’s a little about Bobby Witt Jr. being a superstar.

“Just a little?” you’re incredulously saying about a player who is battling Aaron Judge and Juan Soto for the No.1 position atop the Wins Above Replacement leaderboard every day. Witt’s OPS is up nearly 100 points from last season, and he’s now projected to end the year with something like 7-8 WAR. It’s going to be a truly special season -- maybe an MVP season, the first for Kansas City since George Brett 44 years ago. It might, perhaps, even be the greatest non-Brett season in team history.

So why are we not giving Witt even more credit here? That’s because he was already great last year. He did finish seventh in the 2023 AL MVP voting, remember, when FanGraphs credited him with 6 WAR. He’s even better this season, make no mistake. But it’s not like an average or below-average player making a huge leap in one winter. Witt was already a star. Now, he’s a bigger one.

3) It’s not really about speed and defense.

Sort of the same thing here, really. The 2024 Royals are outstanding at turning batted balls into outs. Thing is, so were the 2023 Royals. Just look at the Statcast metrics on their defense:

The infield, in particular Witt and third baseman Maikel Garcia, has been spectacular, rating as the best in baseball in 2024 – after being tied for best in baseball in 2023. That might have allowed the pitching staff to operate a little differently – more on that shortly – but it’s hard to point to this as a big change from last year’s last-place finish. (The outfield has actually declined on defense, from average in 2023 to fourth-worst in 2024.)

It’s somewhat similar on the bases. Last year’s Royals were the (tied) fifth-fastest group, and this year’s are as well. The 2023 Royals had the third-most stolen bases and rated seventh in advanced baserunning metrics; the 2024 Royals have the sixth-most steals and rate fifth in those same running metrics. These are valuable and useful things, but it’s not terribly different from last year.

4) It’s a little about scoring runs, but it’s a lot about preventing runs.

The Royals' offense is better. That’s easy enough to see:

  • 2023: 90 OPS+ (25th) // 4.17 runs per game (23rd)
  • 2024: 103 OPS+ (11th) // 4.87 runs per game (6th)

That’s thanks to Witt and, as we’ll see in a second, ; it’s also about a number of last year’s below-average hitters no longer being in the picture. The Royals have cut their strikeout rate down from 23% to 19%, while keeping their power metrics from last year consistent. It’s not a great offense – the 29th-ranked hitting outfield is particularly a problem right now – but it’s good enough, especially with Garcia and Vinnie Pasquantino each doing better in May than they did in April.

But the Royals' run prevention, well, now we’ve got something.

  • 2023: 5.30 runs allowed per game (28th)
  • 2024: 3.66 runs allowed per game (tied-4th)

Essentially the worst to something close to the best? That’ll play, and as we said, it’s not clearly about improved defense behind the pitcher. (It definitely is about improvement behind the plate, as you’ll see next.)

The incredible thing, however, is where it’s not coming from. The Royals aren’t striking out more hitters (essentially 21% of batters faced in each season). They’re ever-so-slightly walking fewer, but not meaningfully so. The grounder rate is up a tiny bit; the hard-hit rate is down a tiny bit. They’re throwing more sinkers (up from 14% to 19%), and they’re throwing it in the zone more (up from 49% to 52%), perhaps due to confidence in the defense behind them, but “Stuff” models like Stuff+ don’t see a huge difference in pitch quality.

All those little fractions add up, and indeed, ERA estimators do think the pitchers are performing better, no matter which you choose. FIP says 3.69, which is better than last year’s 4.70; Statcast’s xERA says 4.06, down from last year’s 4.49.

So where are the extra runs saved coming from? As usual in these cases, look to timing and relievers. Last year’s Royals relievers allowed the fifth-highest rate of inherited runners to score; this year’s Royals relievers are the fifth-best at it. Last year’s Royals had the second-highest batting average allowed with RISP; this year’s have the ninth-lowest.

Those aren’t usually things that last, especially since they have the weakest bullpen strikeout rate of any team in an entire decade -- and you're already starting to see the effects: the relievers had a 3.44 ERA in April, then a 5.52 ERA since.

5) It’s a lot about .

The only remaining player from the 2014-15 World Series years, the 34-year-old Perez is in the midst of one of the most incredible late-career resurgences in recent history. For years, around a 2019 missed entirely due to elbow surgery, Perez had become a hitter who would reliably divide new-school and old-school fans, given that he’d give you 20 HRs and 80 RBIs every year, yet post on-base percentages under .300, meaning that between 2014 and ’23, he had a 102 OPS+, which means “average.”

But this year, Perez is hitting .315/.388/.519. He’s been the best-hitting catcher in the AL. He’s managed to cut his strikeout rate more than all but a few others, and he’s done it without losing power. It won’t last like that, and that’s already started – his OPS in May was down more than 200 points from what it was in April – but he’s been hugely valuable, and it’s hardly a miss not to have expected that “a 34-year-old catcher would have basically his best month ever.

The far more interesting area, however, is his pitch framing, which for years had been a huge weakness. (Since 2015, he’s cost his team 89 runs through framing alone, easily the weakest of any catcher.) Setting aside the partial 2020, he’s been rated between -7 and -18 in framing runs every single year. Until 2024, that is. Seeing a “0” in framing runs for Perez might not seem impressive, but merely getting to average is a huge improvement for him.

How has that happened? It seems probable that having him catch less often might take some stress off his legs; he’s at a 70/30 split between catcher and first after years of being more like 95/5. But it’s also intentional. The Royals have moved Perez closer to the plate – a lot closer. Two years ago, K.C. catchers were 70 inches behind the back tip of home, the second furthest back. This year? They’re 58 inches, the second closest. Every inch deeper than average costs about a run of value per season. It’s not hard to draw the connection here.

6) It’s a little about the new pitchers added …

If there was anything that did get a lot of hype about the Royals’ winter, it was in all of the veterans they went out and added – pitchers , , and , most notably, along with hitters , and – and in March,’s Anne Rogers gave a full accounting of how those decisions were made and how those veterans ended up recruiting other veterans.

While the new hitters haven’t done a whole lot, and both Smith and Stratton have disappointed, Lugo has been tremendous. Overall, consider it like this: So far, the 2024 Royals have had seven pitchers throw at least 10 innings for the team who didn’t do that last year. That group was generally good last year, and they’ve been generally good this year.

  • 2023: 3.62 ERA (in 504 IP for other teams)
  • 2024: 3.64 ERA (in 245 IP for KC)

Have they all worked out? No. But overall, the newcomers have added competent pitching.

7) ... and a lot more about returning pitchers improving …

Similarly, there are six pitchers who have thrown at least 10 innings for the Royals in both 2023 and ’24, and this group has been stellar.

  • 2023: 4.84 ERA (in 424 IP for KC)
  • 2024: 3.21 ERA (in 249 IP for KC)

“Making pitchers better” is a hallmark of today’s best organizations – it is something that Kansas City was notably poor at as recently as 2022, before an overhaul of the franchise’s pitching staff and strategy.

So who does this group comprise? It’s Ragans, who has been just as dominant this year, even if the ERA is higher; it’s and , who hasn’t really shown much change aside from an unsustainably low ERA drop. But it’s also , who is throwing his sinker nearly twice as much as he did a year ago, and , who entered camp “light-years ahead of where he was last year,” according to pitching coach Brian Sweeney.

Most notably, it’s , who dropped his ERA from 5.52 to 2.63 after entering the spring with a pair of new pitches, even though it’s only the four-seamer that has lasted into the season. (His reason for being open to change was clear. “Probably sucking,” Singer said in camp. “Probably that, yeah.”)

8) ... and a whole lot about the pitchers they moved on from.

But the key here might be making correct decisions on pitchers who could no longer be part of the core. Twenty-three pitchers threw at least five innings for the 2023 Royals but haven’t done so this year. That includes franchise legend Zack Greinke, short-timer Aroldis Chapman and occasionally useful arms like Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont; it also includes names you might have missed like Steven Cruz and Collin Snider.

That group is almost entirely gone, either from Kansas City or the sport, and the ones who remain in the organization (Jordan Lyles, Carlos Hernandez) haven’t been pitching. Look what’s missing.

  • 2023: 5.20 ERA (in 1,110 IP for K.C.)
  • 2024: 4.54 ERA (in 148 IP, almost all for other teams)

Last year's group of more than 1,100 poor-quality innings has been whittled down to a mere 7.7 so far for Kansas City in 2024.

The Royals, then, have turned a whole bunch of poor innings into improved innings (from the pitchers who returned) and better innings (from the newcomers). It’s not an easy trick.

So: are the Royals for real? In some ways, it seems like they're exactly what we expected, which was a young, interesting team that would very clearly be taking a big step forward. They have, though the weak bullpen seems likely to bring the team back to the 15- to 20-win improvement we thought we'd see entering the season.

Which, to be clear, would be incredible. The Royals may or may not catch the Guardians in the Central; this week's series will have a lot to say about that. But the fact that in the first week of June we're even talking about it tells you almost everything you need to know. The Royals are here. They might be for a while.