The Royals are in sole possession of second place in the AL Central, and coming off a series split against the Indians they have to be feeling pretty good about how they stack up against the rest of their division…at this point. However, can the Royals possibly sustain this success? There are those out there completely buying in and saying the Royals can stick around and compete and there are those around that are saying the Royals have been more than fortunate and are waiting for the other shoe to drop.
We all know how Alex Gordon seems to be turning things around, Jeff Francoeur is playing like it’s 2005 all over again and Billy Butler is being even better than you would expect for Billy Butler. It’s no shock to say that these three won’t end the season all batting over .333 but the question is how viable is it that they can sustain close to the level their at for an extended period of time, to which the answer probably isn’t what you would want to hear.
Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is a statistic that is derived to factor out “luck” from a players offensive stats. It is exactly what it says it is: the metric takes away home runs and strikeouts and gives you the batting average for a player when they put the ball “in play.” Generally, this statistic falls around .300 over the course of a season no matter who the hitter is (variations are negligible at best). A high BABIP tells you that a player is on a real hot streak and has been unusually lucky, so one should expect a “cooling down” period to take place. In contrast, an unusually low BABIP shows that the player has been very unlucky and can expect that number to rise along with their average.
Currently, Alex Gordon is sitting at a monstrously high BABIP of .429. His career average is .301 which is right where the average should be, which is an unfortunate indicator that we should expect Gordon to come back down to Earth soon. If his BABIP-AVG currently is an indicator of the spread we can expect then a -.128 correction to BABIP (to get him to his career average) puts him at roughly .225. I do think Gordon has fixed some of his flaws so I don’t imagine a drop to a .225 avg but we all need to prepare for a pretty decent drop and Gordon will most likely even out around .280 which is where I imagine Gordon will be at for the majority of the rest of his career, which I am fine with.
Along those same lines Francoeur and Butler have found themselves knocking the ball around to the tune of a .345 and .362 BABIPs, respectively. While there is not quite as big of a disparity in the BABIP-AVG numbers, those BABIPs can still be expected to come down and their averages with it.
Now, on the flip side, you can expect the opposite when you look at the same numbers for the Royals that are struggling. There has been much noise made about the struggles of Kila Ka’aihue and when you post a line of .183/.296/.283, as much is to be expected. The same can be said for Mike Aviles when he is posting a slightly-better-but-still-not-great line of .200/.241/.400. When you look at the BABIP of these two players and see Kila with a .237 and Aviles with a .231, it starts to look as though they are in a pretty decent sized slump. Even if both of them are below average major league hitters (which we know that Aviles isn’t at the very least), you would expect those numbers to jump to the .280 range which would increase their averages as well. The only issue being that the improvement we would expect from Aviles or Kila probably won’t make up for the normalizing of Gordon, Francoeur, and Butler.
This brings us to the same question about pitching of whether they can sustain what they have going for an extended period of time. Similar to BABIP, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is a stat designed to give a better idea about how a pitcher is pitching. FIP takes out all things a pitcher can’t control such as the team defense behind them, the difference in size of the ball parks, etc. It’s on the same scale as ERA and basically shows how well a pitcher is pitching versus how his entire team is doing as a whole.
Luke Hochevar is about as perplexing of a pitcher as you will find. He has shown up dominating at times (Wednesday’s 5 perfect innings) and he has shown up, or rather hasn’t shown up, at other times (2 bawlks and 4 runs given up in the 6thinning on Wednesday). All the indicators of a good pitcher are there, his WHIP is a Greinke-like 1.07, his GB% is at 50.5%, his K/9:BB/9 ratio is 2.85:1 and his BABIP is .214. These are strong numbers until you look at his ERA of 5.12, and HR/9 of 1.71. Even with that you could say that his homeruns were given up in his first three starts and he has settled down his last two. What’s encouraging about Hochevar so far is his 5.06 FIP. While that is extremely high for a FIP it also means that number will most likely come down quite a bit and his ERA with it. The fact that his WHIP is low shows that he’s not putting many men on base and that is always a good sign. This leads one to believe that his numbers are sustainable for the long haul.
Then you look at Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen who have been huge surprises so far. Francis is sitting with a 4.67:1 K/9:BB/9 ratio, a .284 BABIP, a 3.00 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and a 3.27 FIP. All these numbers are not outlandish and are sustainable through the rest of the season. They are even more impressive considering Francis has had shoulder surgery and still only gets about 87-89 on his fastball. Chen is in a similar situation with a 2.2:1 K/9:BB/9 ratio, a .250 BABIP, 2.42 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and a 4.09 FIP. Those numbers are not outlandish, you would expect the ERA and BABIP numbers to come up based on his FIP but the increase shouldn’t make Chen too much worse of a pitcher overall.
The moral of all of this is that the Royals are most likely not going to be able to continue the way they are and sustain what they have going offensively, but pitching is another story. We should all be prepared for some drop in stats at the plate. However, the pitching seems more sustainable than the hitting which is ideal in this scenario, and I don’t believe the drop-offs we can expect would be large enough that the Royals can’t compete. Right now the Royals are on pace to win 102 games and it’s no stretch to say that this pace will not continue. However, the start has shown what the Royals can be when at the top of their games and if they can power through the lows and not have any prolonged losing streaks the Royals are going to remain competitive and not be the 100 loss team that many predicted.