Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, considering how much of the baseball world's attention is focused on off-the-field issues, but almost no one has noticed as the Kansas City Royals have quietly crept back into the American League wild-card race.
When July came to an end last Wednesday, the Royals closed the book on their second consecutive month with a winning percentage at or near .600. They started June super-hot, going 12-5 through the first 17 days, before falling off and muddling around for the rest of June and the first half of July, winning just nine out of 22 games and culminating in a three-game sweep by the Cleveland Indians, right before the All-Star break. Since the break, however, Kansas City is 12-3 going into Monday's action and 4.5 games back in the wild-card chase.
A while back I wrote that if the Royals had any real chance of salvaging the season, they needed their pitching staff to keep performing at as high a level as they had so far, and they needed at least two more legitimate bats. The good news was that the two bats they needed were already on the team: Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, their starting corner infielders; the bad news was that both players looked lost at the plate. I also noted that Hosmer recently had been making harder contact, in addition to his usual good discipline. Since that point, Hosmer has been on a tear, with 10 home runs and 12 doubles over the past two months, after hitting only one home run and eight doubles over the previous two months. Hosmer's problem before was that he was late getting around on pitches, resulting in weak groundballs and flyouts the opposite way. That is no longer the case. Why? Let's let Hosmer himself explain:
"We've installed an approach that we stick to every day and a routine that we've created and stick to, so that, basically, when you're in the box, you let all the work you've done and all the talent take over."
That's an impressive quote -- perhaps my favorite quote from a hitter all year -- because it means absolutely nothing. It doesn't even mean Hosmer's doing anything fundamentally different from earlier in the season, which is why hitting coaching can be so infuriating for fans on the outside looking in. From a distance, it can seem like no one's actually doing anything except taking BP and giving pep talks and buzzword-laden speeches. Then one day, after another BP session and another pep talk just like the rest, something seems to click. And this time it sticks. And suddenly the guy can hit consistently at the major league level, even though the only thing he can tell you about how he did it is that he started "learning from situations of failing to learn."
It took Mike Moustakas a bit longer, but now he's joining the party, too. Though his June was just as disappointing as his April and May, he broke out in July with five doubles and four home runs, finally hitting the ball with consistent authority for the first time this season and posting a month with an OBP in the .330s, which is really where it needs to be for Moustakas to be worth playing every day. A word of fair warning: Hot streaks, even hot months, happen all the time for players, and neither Hosmer's resurgence nor Moustakas' should be taken as anything more than positive steps forward that both players hopefully can build on. But it's still good news for Kansas City fans.
The biggest change to the fortunes of the Royals lineup, however, involved neither man. On July 5 the Royals released longtime right fielder Jeff Francoeur and made David Lough the starter in his place. Lough already had been handling many of the duties in right field in June, as Francoeur's contributions dropped, and while Lough is no Wil Myers, his .299/.315/.439 line is far better than Francoeur's sub-replacement contributions were. Lough has more than enough range to handle right field, though a weaker arm than one would hope for at the position. He should perhaps switch corners with former third baseman and current left fielder Alex Gordon, but so far the change has been impressive enough on its own merits.
The Royals are still a very flawed team at the plate. Every member of the five- or six-man band that Kansas City has been rotating through shortstop and second base -- Alcides Escobar at short most of the time, with Elliot Johnson, Miguel Tejada, Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella getting time on the pivot -- has been just about useless at the plate, and only Escobar and Johnson really handle their positions well. Starting catcher Salvador Perez has just gone on the seven-day concussion disabled list, after taking a shot to the head over the weekend, being examined by a trainer while clearly woozy and out of it, and being allowed to remain in the game -- yet another example of teams not taking head injuries seriously enough at the highest level. Before the concussion, he'd been scuffling at the plate compared to his numbers from previous years. Even with the hot streak, the Royals only have a .651 OPS as a team over the past 28 days, and the reason they're winning is that the pitching staff only allows 3.87 runs/game -- sixth-lowest in the majors, even with a mostly mediocre defense behind them.
The Royals made one trade at the deadline, acquiring outfielder Justin Maxwell from the Houston Astros for pitching prospect Kyle Smith -- Dayton Moore has been overpaying in trades for years, and clearly he's not about to stop now. Kansas City needs bats, yes, but Justin Maxwell is a 29-year-old center fielder that needs to sit against right-handed pitchers. Now, he mashes lefties, which is why Moore got him -- Ned Yost should be strictly platooning Jarrod Dyson against righties and Maxwell against lefties for the rest of the year -- but Kyle Smith is a highly regarded starting pitching prospect, and this is a trade market in which the return for Ian Kennedy was two relievers, and the return for Jake Peavy was a very flawed outfield prospect at the bottom of the Top 100. Ignoring the cost of the trade for a moment, Maxwell at least turns the center field position into a mildly above-average contributor as opposed to an average one; Dyson was already league average this year, even with his platoon split. But since that's the only move the Royals made, they still have no offense from the middle infield and catcher positions, and only a couple hot months from the infield corners pushing them forward right now.
It's been a fun couple months for Kansas City, but if they're going to sneak into the second wild-card spot, they need at least a league-average offense -- and since they lack any superstar hitters, it's all the more important that everyone in the lineup contributes at the plate. Without finding some solution to the middle infield problem via waiver trade, it's tough to see that happening. The truth of the matter is that no matter how well they've hit during their hottest run of the season, they probably have to hit even better than that if they want to make a legitimate run at the wild card.