When the Kansas City Royals won the American League last year, many thought it might have been a fluke. The team had to make an incredible comeback just to make the playoffs, then relied on historic bullpen performances and highlight-reel defense on its way to the World Series.

When 2014 ace James Shields signed a contract with the San Diego Padres during free agency, it seemed extremely unlikely for Kansas City to repeat last year’s success. But the team is off to a hot start—it is 7-2 as of this writing, after starting the season 7-0—and its lineup has been mashing. It’s early yet, but it seems perfectly fair to call the Royals contenders.

So what are the keys to Kansas City’s season? What makes the Royals contenders? Here are three things to think about.


Their Offseason Was Better Than You Thought

The Royals’ offseason moves this year garnered a range of criticism. Some, like Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh citing FanGraphs stats, argued that Kansas City took a step backward when it replaced Nori Aoki, Billy Butler and James Shields (5.7 WAR combined) with Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios and Edinson Volquez (minus-0.8 WAR combined, including Kris Medlen).

Others, like ESPN.com’s Christina Kahrl, credited Royals general manager Dayton Moore with an effective offseason and predicted that Kansas City would compete for a title once again.

The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Lindbergh was correct that Morales, Rios and Volquez are not equivalent to Shields, Butler and Aoki. But, as he noted, the former three are projected to improve dramatically in 2015, and there was never much of a chance for Shields to return anyway.

Nine games in, Rios is hitting .321 with an .809 OPS (although he’s now headed to the DL). Morales is even better—.351 average and 1.036 OPS—and the Royals lineup in general has destroyed opposing pitchers. Seven Royals are hitting over .300, and two players (Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer) are likely to improve upon their comparatively slow starts.

Volquez is 1-1, but he’s allowed just four runs and nine hits in 15.2 innings, good for a tiny WHIP of 0.70. He’s coming off two Tommy John surgeries, so the risk of injury is notable. But if he can stay healthy, Volquez will have been a smart (and economic) offseason pickup.

Most importantly, the rest of the Royals roster went largely unchanged, and production hasn’t diminished. The otherworldly trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland have allowed just three hits and zero runs in their combined 10 innings pitched. Shortstop Alcides Escobar and catcher Salvador Perez are off to hot starts as well.

And Lorenzo Cain remains Lorenzo Cain:


Defense and Speed

The Royals’ postseason success last year could be attributed to any number of things: clutch hitting, an unhittable bullpen, key contributions from unexpected sources and even their delirious fanbase. But Kansas City’s defense, and its aggressive baserunning, was arguably what kept the team alive.

Let’s start with defense. In last year’s ALDS, the Royals were saved on two occasions by spectacular defensive plays. First, in the second game of the series, Jarrod Dyson did this:

That double play was essential to the Royals victory, given that it preserved a 1-1 tie that wasn’t broken until the 11th inning.

Then, in Game 3, Cain topped Dyson by robbing the Angels of two consecutive hits (and at least one run):

Surprisingly, Kansas City was a well-below-average defensive team in 2014. But the Royals have retained their speedy youngsters and (at this point) have the league’s sixth-best defense in 2015.

On a different note, the Royals were arguably the best-running team in baseball last year. Per SportingCharts, the Royals stole an average of 0.94 bases per gameand 15 more bases than the second-place team. That aggressive running paid off, particularly in the team’s remarkable Wild Card Game victory against Oakland:

Kansas City is off to a fast start on the bases again, with eight stolen bases in nine games (a number similar to last year’s average). Rios and Cain have stolen two bases each, and while the absurdly fast Dyson hasn’t swiped a base yet, he’s only appeared in three games.

Pitching and batting are less predictable than running and defense. The Royals can expect to improve upon last year’s defense and continue their success on the basepaths.



This is Royals fans’ biggest cause for excitement. In Kansas City’s loss to Minnesota last night, eight of the Royals’ nine batters were 30 years old or younger—and Morales is just 31. That’s crazy. Eric Hosmer is only 25, Perez is 24 and the oft-criticized Mike Moustakas is 26.

On the other side of the ball, the Royals’ superlative relief trio—Davis, Herrera and Holland—are all 29 or younger. The starting rotation is older (four of the five starters are 31 or older), but the team’s most exciting pitching prospect, Yordano Ventura, is just 23. Ventura is young, and his stuff is nasty:


The Bottom Line

The Royals are young. They can run and play defense, and their offense—so far—has been dominant. Baseball is a long, long season, and the team will undoubtedly grapple with injuries, slumps and downturns. But there is good reason for the Royals to expect a postseason berth.

And, as Kansas City fans saw in last year’s Wild Card Game, anything can happen in the playoffs.

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