The AL Central has been fascinating so far this year, and I’m not just talking about how bad the Tigers have been. The Royals are a team that I was relatively optimistic about. I’m not crazy enough to love the team – by relatively optimistic I mean better than they have been in four years, but that only means that they need a win total that starts with a seven. Even though, I liked them, though, I certainly didn’t see them jumping out to a 6-2 start and a perch at the top of their division. They swept the Tigers to start the season, faltered lightly against Minnesota, and now they have a chance to sweep the Yankees tonight. That is two presumed playoff teams that have fallen to the Royals. It’s unexpected, but can it be sustainable? How are they doing it, and can they keep doing it?
I liked this team for three main reasons – they have a pitching staff which is better than they get credit for, they have a couple of incredible young hitting talents, and they hired themselves a very good first time manager. So far, things have been going as hoped.
Gil Meche hasn’t been great, but Zack Greinke seems to have his mental problems under control, and he has been almost unhittable. Brian Bannister and Brett Tomko have been almost as good. The rotation is full of talented but underappreciated guys, and they are working well. They won’t stay as strong as they have been, but they don’t have the look of a group that are just counting the seconds until their inevitable collapse, either. There are several teams out there with much more to worry about on the pitching side than the Royals.
The young bats – Alex Gordon and Billy Butler – have been every bit as good as expected. Better, even. Butler is hitting .406, while Gordon is at .303 and leads the team in home runs and RBIs. Besides them you have a couple of guys who are better than they get credit for. First baseman Ross Gload has bounced around a bit in his career, but he has a .295 career batting average in almost 370 games. He’s hitting .345 so far this year. Mark Grudzielanek is seen as a journeyman by most people, but the 37 year old has hit a very solid .290 on his career, and better than that in each of the last five seasons. The fact that he is hitting .407 is a bit of a surprise, but that he is leading the team in batting average isn’t. It all boils down to this – he team has benefited from hot bats, but they haven’t been overachieving to such an extent that the team will be significantly worse down the road.
Trey Hillman, the new manager, is the third and perhaps biggest element in the big start. The guy is a born motivator – just listening to the guy for two seconds makes you want to jump up and do something. Whatever he is doing is working.
This team has been wildly profitable so far – they have been favored just once, and a $100 bet on each game would have generated a total profit of $698 in just eight games. That pace won’t keep up obviously, but I do suspect that their rate of improvement this year significantly exceeds thepublic perception of the team, and that means that they could provide serious value this year. The last time they were any good – in 2003 when they won 83 games – the public never really caught up to them, and they ended the year as the fourth most profitable team in the league.