This weekend the Tigers face the Royals, a team hungry for a taste of the playoffs. The Tigers swept the Royals in the 1984 ALCS, but Kansas City came back to win the World Series in 1985. They have not seen the postseason since.
The Royals enter the series six games over .500. They have finished above .500 once in the past twenty years. They have not been this good since David Cone and Kevin Appier toed the rubber, and George Brett DH'd. What has made the difference this year?
It is not the offense. Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer are leading the way, but few are following. The Royals finally gave up on Jeff Francoeur, their version of Delmon Young, which is addition by subtraction. But they added Jamey Carroll and his .514 OPS to help down the stretch. Overall they are ninth in on-base percentage and thirteenth in slugging percentage out of the fifteen American League teams.
Kansas City's pitching staff however is leading the league in ERA. James Shields was a costly acquisition but has been a workhorse with 196 innings in 29 starts, delivering a 3.03 ERA and 1.235 WHIP. Jeremy Guthrie had turned into a pumpkin in Colorado last year, but has bounced back with 29 starts and a 4.19 ERA even though he strikes out less than five per nine innings. Ervin Santana struggled last year with an ERA of 5.16 with the Angels, but has delivered excellent performance this year with an ERA of 3.33 and 1.17 WHIP. Bruce Chen has returned to the rotation after an ERA of 5.07 last year, with ten starts, an ERA of 2.81 and 1.15 WHIP. Not every reclamation project has paid off, as Wade Davis's return to a starting role has been ugly.
Where the Royals have really excelled is in the bullpen. The highest ERA of any relief pitcher is 3.60, including those not currently on the roster. Greg Holland delivers 14 strikeouts per nine innings and a WHIP below 0.9 as the closer. Kelvin Herrera and Will Smith have over 11 strikeouts per nine innings. Luke Hochevar moved to the ‘pen after five uneventful years in the rotation, and has finally blossomed with over four strikeouts per walk and a WHIP of 0.829.
What the Royals do best is run, though it does not correlate well with winning. The Royals lead the league in stolen bases, and ran at will the last time they faced the Tigers. Last night Quintin Berry stole a base for the Red Sox with two outs in the ninth inning and Mariano Rivera closing the game for the Yankees. Berry then scored, and the Red Sox won in ten innings. The Tigers should make a special focus on shutting down the running game this weekend, in preparation for important postseason moments.