The greatest juxtaposition of the 2014 regular baseball season so far kicked off last night in Toronto, when the Kansas City Royals arrived to begin a four-game series with the Blue Jays. There have been other pretenders to that particular throne, sure -- the Colorado Rockies and the Philadelphia Phillies just finished up a series a couple days ago, for instance -- but no two teams seem to be headed in completely opposite directions this year quite like the Jays and the Royals.
It's almost required that any column about either one of these two teams this week contain some laundry list of ridiculous offensive numbers, so let's do this:
* Six different Toronto Blue Jays (Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera, Juan Francisco, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus) would lead the Kansas City Royals in home runs. Lawrie (8) and Rasmus (9) almost double up the current Royals' team leader, Salvador Perez (5).
* Corollary: pick any four 2014 Royals. Encarnacion has hit more home runs in May than they have all season. Combined. (He hit another two Thursday night.)
* The only club with a higher team slugging percentage than the Blue Jays (.450 going into last night's series opener) is the aforementioned Coors-assisted Rockies (.471). No one trails the Kansas City Royals, who are slugging a full 100 points lower (.348?! Seriously?!),
* Lorenzo Cain is the best hitter on the Royals with more than 50 PA, hitting .325/.376/.404 for an OPS+ of 114. That's a good, encouraging performance from a young centerfielder! It ranks him 8th on the Blue Jays by those same criteria. And lest you think I'm playing arbitrary endpoint tricks, if we just remove PA requirements altogether, the only Royals hitter better than Cain is...Yordano Ventura (.500/.500/1.000, 3 PA). Sadly, thanks to his injury it remains to be seen if Ventura can build on this early success.
That's enough of that; you get the picture. The Blue Jays are destroying the baseball, especially to left field with right-handed pull hitting monsters Encarnacion and Bautista; the Royals, not so much. Now, if these two teams had the same pitching staffs putting up the same performances as their 2013 incarnations, I could rattle off a similar list of comparisons using pitching stats -- this time lionizing the Royals and embarrassing the Blue Jays.
But 2014 has been a different beast, thanks essentially to one man on the Toronto staff: Mark Buehrle. Buehrle came to town in the mega-trade with the Miami Marlins two offseasons ago. Over the last two seasons -- one in Miami, one in Toronto -- Buehrle, now 35, threw 406 innings of 3.95 ERA baseball. That's a 104 ERA+, an above average starter, though just barely (average starting pitching varies from year to year, but usually hangs out in the 94-96 ERA+ range).
This season, Buehrle has 73.1 IP of 2.33 ERA (178 ERA+) baseball and is easily the staff ace. Buehrle has never come close to sustaining this kind of success over a full season; his second-best campaign was for the 2005 World Champion Chicago White Sox, when he threw 236 innings of 3.12 ERA baseball in a somewhat offense-friendlier league environment. That was nearly ten years ago, and Buehrle managed it with a merely low HR/9 (0.8) as opposed to an absurd one (0.2).
The rest of the current Toronto rotation, with their ERA and ERA+: RA Dickey (3.95, 105), Drew Hutchison (3.88, 107), JA Happ (3.34, 125), and Liam Hendricks (2.31, 184). That's a pretty good group! Except we already know who Happ and Hendricks are, too, and we're pretty sure that once they've thrown more than 40 combined innings they'll start looking like the guys they've been their entire careers (4.21 ERA for Happ, 5.80 ERA for Hendricks). There are other guys floating around out there who could swap in for them, but they're either unproven (like Marcus Stroman) or proven unreliable for one reason or another (Dustin McGowan, Brandon Morrow). Still, you can get by on mirages and small sample size magic at the back of your rotation. Hutchison and Dickey, who have been healthy all season and have thrown almost 140 combined innings, are a bigger concern. Hutchison is young enough that it's reasonable to dream on his unrealized potential -- but he's shown no particular reason to believe he has in fact realized it so far this season; he's a better pitcher than last season, yes, but he had a 4.60 ERA last season.
Dickey's struggles have been well documented, and they will also likely keep him a league average starter at best over the course of a season. He's not going deep into games like he did in his Cy Young season, he's not striking guys out like he did in that season, and most importantly, his control is slipping so far this year -- 4.1 BB/9, reminiscent of the bad old days bouncing around between Texas and Seattle and Minnesota. If his good, hard knuckleball comes back and stays back, then he'll be worth another look, but that's unlikely to happen this late in Dickey's career.
The Royals are in a much better position as far as pitching goes, of course, but the offense is what it is, no matter how many times they cycle through hitting coaches (ex-Cubs manager Dale Sveum was rotated into the job, replacing Pedro Grifol just before the series in Toronto began). Eventually Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Omar Infante and Billy Butler will heat up a little bit, though probably not all at once, and Sal Perez is still going to be one of the league's better hitting catchers. But the Royals put this team together with an eye toward pitching and defense, and none of the guys they hoped would develop bats to complement their defense have done so, while the few ideally bat-first guys in the lineup -- Butler, Gordon, previously Mike Moustakas -- have not been there at the plate. As important as defense is in today's game, no club is going to consistently field anything resembling a contender by completely selling out the offense in its favor. And it's kind of puzzling how little public pressure there's been from ownership to make the Kansas City front office aware of this. We're closing in on a decade of Dayton Moore and his team in Kansas City with nothing to show for it, and eventually hard questions need to start being asked.
Certainly James Shields and his representation will be asking them. Shields is a free agent after this season, and not only will he be looking to get paid, he'll be looking for a team that wins baseball games -- as he should, given that he's spent a good chunk of his career so far on the bad old Tampa Bay Devil Rays teams and now two underachieving Royals squads. And if Yordano Ventura misses any substantial period of time, a Shields-less Royals rotation doesn't look all that much better than what the Blue Jays will be running out there when Buehrle returns to Earth.
So even though both starters got shelled last night -- a rarity for Shields, not so much for Dickey -- don't be fooled: the Royals and Jays are two very different teams headed in two very different directions. The good and bad news, though, is this: if one or two things start breaking differently, they could look more similar in the win column than either team's fans might expect.