The Royals have been the standard for smaller market times these last two season, depending on pitching and defense. The 2015 American League Champions let a few familiar faces walk out the door in free agency but they reloaded and current sit atop the American League Central.
We talk with Royals Review's Max Rieper to get a better understanding of the Royals:
Have you been surprised with the Royals success this season after the rosters changes this offseason?
Before the season began, I had the Royals pegged as a candidate for major regression, predicting them to have a losing season. Even if they had brought everyone back, I thought that they had overachieved in 2014, and that the league had been a bit down, requiring the Royals to improve just to get back to the playoffs. Once they lost James Shields (which we expected), I thought that would further set them back.
But the team has instead confounded writers and projection models. They have won due to a lot of things projection models can't really capture. Mike Moustakas is a completely different hitter now due to his attempts to beat the shift by hitting the ball the other way. Edinson Volquez has becomes a consistent performer now due to an ability to throw strikes. Chris Young has confounded BABIP this year by being a flyball pitcher in the perfect flyball park with the perfect flyball defense. The Royals have been a little bit lucky, but its been half a season and its time to acknowledge that they are really, really good too.
What's up with the Royals fans getting the vote out for the All-Star Game? Do Royals fans really want Omar Infante starting for the American League with home field advantage on the line?
Baseball fever is at an all-time high in Kansas City. We've had pent-up fandom ready to explode for 20 years and its all spilling out now. The Royals are in the top five in the league in attendance, top ten in all of baseball in merchandise sales, and they lead all of baseball in local TV ratings. I think initially there was also support for Royals candidates around the country due to their appearance in the World Series and the likeable nature of guys like Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain.
I'm not sure we expected the voting results to be this massive, and once there was media backlash at the ballot-stuffing, I think Royals fans doubled-down and began voting even more. We're a smaller market, and things like this tend to matter to us more. Royals fans hunkered down and protected their own and said "you don't like this many Royals in the All-Star game? Well wait til we start voting for Omar Infante!"
I personally think Jason Kipnis should start at second base, but ultimately my stance is the All-Star Game is a silly exhibition game not worth hand-wringing over. Fans should vote for who they want, and if more people want Jason Kipnis or Jose Altuve, they should vote accordingly. As far as home field advantage, the difference between Omar Infante and Altuve or Kipnis for one at-bat shouldn't make much of a difference, and the rest of the Royals up in the voting are All-Star caliber players, if not necessarily worthy of starting. Home field advantage is not being jeopardized, and studies have shown home field advantage in the playoffs isn't much of an advantage anyway (I should know, I was there when we lost Game 7!)
What are the Royals keys to success?
The Royals are winning with the same formula they won in the playoffs last year. They have a defense that does not give outs away and is by far the best in baseball. The offense is not great, but it has been better than last year, and seems to be able to score just enough runs to take the lead. They have developed an interesting offensive philosophy of acquiring guys that don't necessarily walk, but don't strike out either. It seems to be working, but the fact they've been able to hit a few more pitches over the fence than last year when they were dead last in all of baseball in home runs has helped too.
Once the Royals have the lead to turn things over to the bullpen, the game is over - they are 34-2 when leading after six innings. Wade Davis is one of the best, if not the best, reliever in the game. Closer Greg Holland battled an injury earlier in the year, but appears to be back to his usual All-Star self. The Royals pen is actually deeper and better than it was last year with Jason Frasor pitching well and former Phillies closer Ryan Madson proving to be a shrewd reclamation project.
What do the Royals need to improve at the trade deadline?
The Royals big weakness right now is starting pitching. They were hoping the loss of James Shields would be filled with improvements from young pitchers Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy. Both have had very disappointing seasons filled with inconsistency and injury. Duffy is back, but Ventura will miss this series rehabbing in Omaha. Edinson Volquez and Chris Young have proved to be very good free agent signings, but the Royals will probably seek to add a frontline starting pitcher they can slot ahead of those guys. Their long-term financial situation is a bit dicey though, even with increased revenues, because all of these young players are hitting arbitration or free agency at the same time. So I would expect the Royals to look for someone on a short-term deal, maybe an impending free agent.
You can read all the latest Royals news at Royals Review. Thank you very much Max Rieper for answering our questions.