The Royals are in first place; enjoy it while it lasts, then duck

Steven Goldman
SB Nation

We cling to hope when an under-gunned team makes a run at the postseason, but it's probably all ephemeral. Not that anyone wants to hear that. Or write it.

The Kansas City Royals are in first place, albeit by half a game. They have been there for most of this week, and for the first time in a long time. These are facts, which means the challenge is plain: write a non-sentimental column about the possibility of the first postseason Royals team since we had a president who thought trees caused pollution. I have been avoiding this for the better part of a week.

The current hit film Guardians of the Galaxy contains a (spoilers) post-credits cameo by Howard the Duck, a cult-classic character turned into a horrible film by George Lucas back in the 1980s. Howard's original comics series featured an entire issue about co-creator Steve Gerber's inability to write that issue. It's mostly text. "Writers are like people," he began. For those that dropped their 30 cents that week expecting Howard to do his usual thing -- satirize pop culture, run for president, have sex with human women, fight villains with an intimidating ability to hit themselves in the head -- the reaction was probably more along the lines of, "Writers are like assholes." I am willing to risk that reaction with a series of false starts. And yet, Howard may prove to be even more relevant than that. This is Dayton Moore's team we're talking about.

1: Honest First Effort at Analysis

Pace in baseball is meaningless, but fun to play with. Consider the in-first-place-as-I-write-this Kansas City Royals. They are, by one major standard, powerless, and dead last in the major leagues with 72 home runs. They do a little better on doubles and triples, but not well enough to rescue them from being last in the majors in isolated power. Consider: The Royals have perhaps 1450 at-bats left in this season. They have hit a home run roughly once every 57 at-bats. If that pace holds, They'll hit another 25 out of the park before it's all over. Grand total: 97 home runs.

That would be the sixth-lowest total since the strike years of 1994-1995. Since then, only five teams have hit fewer than 100 home runs (no team has hit 100 on the nose). Here are those teams and their records:
























And that is your Royals miracle right there. It shouldn't work, but thanks to a relatively high batting average (second-best on the circuit), an outstanding pitching staff, and a Tigers team collapsing from injuries, slumping hitters, and perhaps the eminently first-guessable Doug Fister trade, Kansas City is in first place this late in the season for the first time since many of us were children. Heck, there are many people born the year after the Royals won the World Series in 1985 who have numerous children by now.

Of course, it's much easier to procreate with no money than it is to build a baseball team under David Glass. But I repeat myself. The Royals lead the league in stolen bases, but not like that. Where to go from here: Something about Willie Wilson.

2: Honest effort at historical analogy that goes terribly, horribly awry

The Royals' stay in first place may be transient. In his book Vanished Kingdoms, the historian Norman Davies addresses the country of Carpatho-Ukraine, which existed for something like 15 minutes during the pre-game ceremonies leading up to the Second World War. The region of Transcarpathia, presently the westernmost part of the Ukraine, is wedged between Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. The primary home of the Rusyn ethnic group had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the First World War, attached to the new nation of Czechoslovakia after, and then became part of the Ukraine, and thereby part of the Soviet Union after World War II. If given the choice, Transcarpathia would not have opted for any of that. They were not given a choice.

To make quick work of a very tumultuous period, Neville Chamberlain slunk away from Munich having handed the "Sudetenland" section of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler. Hitler forced Slovakia to secede from what was left of the country and become a German vassal state. This left the Rusyns with a series of bad choices. Being under the thumb of the Nazis seemed like an obviously bad idea even then. They could also have tried to be absorbed into the Ukraine, but given that Joseph Stalin had been killing millions of Ukrainians through a state-orchestrated famine, that was not a good choice either. And so, with a population of about 850,000 and an army that was mostly notional, they declared independence on March 15, 1939. The whole thing lasted about 48 hours. Hungary invaded to quell "unrest" and that was that.

Well, I have to be honest with you. That was that until Adolf Eichmann showed up in 1944. But this is not a digression worth the digressing. The Royals have been a bummer for a long time, now, but this is about baseball, not human tragedy.

No, just... stop. Don't.

3: Attempt at less obscure at analogy that goes nowhere

I never liked the continual violence of the classic Tom and Jerry cat vs. mouse cartoons, but being a latchkey kid with only the television to calm feelings of abandonment anxiety, I watched them anyway. I'm tempted to put "classic" in quotes given that anything involving schlock-peddlers William Hanna and Joseph Barbera cannot be referred to as classic, and I don't care how many Academy Awards those pictures won (wouldja believe seven?).

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Mostly these cartoons were harmless, the occasional not-so-harmless racial stereotype aside. They were not stimulating this particular small child to acts of homicide, as those old cartoons were sometimes accused of doing by shrill, hysterical parents groups -- violent cartoons don't make you violent any more than Batman and Robin made people gay or gay marriage makes heterosexual people gay or PBS documentaries on hippo sex make people desirous of copulating with hippos.

Yet, there was one from Tom and Jerry cartoon from relatively late in the run that disturbed me greatly. In the 1953 "The Missing Mouse," Tom hears a radio broadcast that urges listeners to beware of an escaped white lab mouse that has swallowed a high explosive, apparently something like an atomic bomb. Any jarring of this mouse will result in horrific destruction. The normally-brown Jerry douses himself in white and hijinks ensue. Tom (spoilers again) figures out the deception and, hearing the radio broadcast amended to say that the white mouse is not dangerous, punts what he does not know is the real white mouse out the window. There are a series of explosions, and the next thing we see is a severely damaged Tom rise from the rubble at the center of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The miraculously still-functioning radio then repeats that the (presumably dead) white mouse is not dangerous, and Tom, who almost never speaks in the entire series, says, in the most eerie voice possible, "DON'T YOU BELIEVE IT!"

Yes, the whole thing may be a metaphor for 1950s government propaganda about a nuclear attack by the Russians being survivable by hiding under your school desk, and given that atomic Armageddon was something I tended to obsess about as a kid that probably got through to me on some subliminal level and teased my anxieties. The "DON'T YOU BELIEVE IT!" line was actually a callback to a short-lived radio show, although I didn't know that then. It just sounded like a warning from radioactive hell, and not just because a creepy cat was saying it.

I think you will understand, then, that though I feel great dread at uttering the phrase, when I see the Royals in first place and gaze on the abject failure of their offense -- they are second in the AL in batting average but last in home runs and walks -- and that despite the general excellence of their pitching staff I feel obligated to say to you, "DON'T YOU BELIEVE IT!"

4: Keep it simple, stupid, stay with the facts

The Royals are 4-9 against the Tigers this year and have six games against them remaining. The Tigers are just one game over .500 since the end of May, but a rotation that has been reduced to Max Scherzer, David Price, Rick Porcello and "guys" is still quite good. Where Detroit can't compete with the Royals (or anyone else), is in the bullpen, as has seemingly been the case year after year. Bullpen ERA is far from the best way to measure a staff's effectiveness, but in this case it provides a decent bird's-eye view of the relative position of the two teams. The Royals' pen has an overall ERA of 3.28, 10th -best in the majors; boil it down to the four guys they actually use and you get an ERA  of 1.78 in 197.1 innings (which is roughly 60 percent of the total innings). The Tigers' pen has a 4.35 ERA, which ranks 28th out of 30 teams. Reduce that to the four pitchers most frequently called upon by Brad Ausmus and you get an ERA of 4.03 in 180.2 innings. The average major league reliever has a 3.55 ERA this year. So.

Alex Gordon, swinger. (Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports)

The Tigers have slumped offensively as well, and the Royals are actually outhitting them right now. But let's pull the camera back and look at the last six weeks instead of the last 12 games. The Royals have scored 3.8 runs per game in that period, the Tigers 4.6. Given that the key players are at least healthy enough to play, the Tigers seem like a good bet to snap back.

Now, the Royals also have a 3.26 ERA in that period, but as Casey Stengel said, "Good pitching stops good hitting -- and vice-versa." Royals pitchers have a 5.35 ERA against the Tigers this year. Danny Duffy has a 2.12 ERA in three starts but hasn't been supported offensively. Conversely, Jason Vargas and James Shields have combined to go 1-3 with 22 runs allowed in 38.2 innings over six starts. Even great pitching sometimes/often wilts when confronted with a tough offense. And while Shields has a long track-record of very-good pitching, no one else in the Royals' rotation really does.

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Which brings us to the Treaty of Versailles, which attempted to sort out the mess left behind by the First World War. Woodrow Wilson came to Europe hailed by millions and left a broken man that... No, stop. Cut it out. Look: Here's the one thing to worry about. Billy Butler is having a good second half after a drag of a first and Eric Hosmer is hurt and isn't coming back soon, not that he's been good either. First base is such a degraded position right now that the Royals have been almost average there. Designated hitter, however, is still evil-bad for them, and Raul Ibanez as the long half of a DH platoon with Josh Willingham isn't going to work -- it's been a long  and honorable career, but it's over now. Even Willingham by himself might not help -- since the start of last season he's hit .199/.338/.174 against right-handed hitting.

As such, it's easy to imagine a desperate Dayton Moore, straining for the postseason, making some incredibly ill-advised waiver-claim, going the full Howard -- not Howard the Duck, but Ryan Howard the Duck. Even if the Phillies were willing to pay all but $1 of the remaining $60 million or so, that...

Did I tell you the story about Tom and Jerry yet?

5: Conclusion is there is no conclusion

Let's just leave it at this: Three cheers for Royals fans, who have something really, truly substantial to get worked up about for the first time in forever. My personal belief is that this team is as much a tease as last year's, which had a record not particularly different from those of ballclubs like the Orioles or Yankees or Nationals, teams viewed as disappointments. I realize the standards are different for the Royals given all these years in the wilderness, but they shouldn't be.

Hitting-only teams have won postseason series. Pitching-only teams have also won postseason series. Sometimes someone gets hot and they discover qualities they hadn't had prior to the moment that they needed them. Everyone likes a Cinderella story and I hope it works out that way for Kansas City and not as it did for, you know, Carpatho-Ukraine. There's really nothing else to say that remotely matters. I...

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