The Royals offense is bad. That’s no secret. However, several of their offensive characteristics lend a unique (albeit small) advantage against the Detroit Tigers. On top of that, the Tigers have a few characteristics that make them a mismatch against the Royals. While Detroit wails on other American League teams this season, the Royals could be a thorn in their side for the duration. It’s like Rocky Balboa fighting Apollo Creed. Sure, Creed was a way better boxer, but he had a weakness against southpaws. The Royals are clearly Rocky in this analogy–worse overall than their opponent, but possessing annoying qualities that give them a shot at victory. Against Detroit, the Royals have a decent chance at winning more than half their games.
Detroit may have a stellar starting rotation, the best in the league with 70% quality starts, but the Royals starters have kept up just fine so far this season.
1. Anibal Sanchez: 2.65 ERA, 78 IP, 98 K, 19 BB
1. James Shields: 2.79 ERA, 100 IP, 90 K, 26 BB
2. Max Scherzer: 3.19 ERA, 90 2/3 IP, 106 K, 22 BB
2. Ervin Santana: 2.99 ERA, 84 1/3 IP, 68 K, 13 BB
3. Doug Fister: 3.28 ERA, 69 K, 12 BB (but 12 HBP, ouch)
3. Jeremy Guthrie: 3.60 ERA, 44 K, 28 BB
4. Justin Verlander: 3.41 ERA, 87 IP, 101 K, 28 BB
4. Luis Mendoza: 4.19 ERA, 58 IP, 37 K, 24 BB
5. Rick Porcello: 4.86 ERA, 63 IP, 54 K, 13 BB
5. Wade Davis: 5.37 ERA, 68 2/3 IP, 61 K, 28 BB
Normally, the Tigers have a pretty good plan to avoid letting teams exploit their bad infielders: they strike everyone out. They have struck out a mind-boggling 623 batters in just 584 IP. That doesn’t matter to the Royals (who strike out less than any team in the AL) because Detroit has only struck out 35 Royals in 45 2/3 IP.
With so few strikeouts, the Royals can really exploit a weak Detroit defense. It may be rude to look at Prince Fielder and surmise that he would be oh-so-very-slow, but it’s also oh-so-very-true. No matter which metric is used to measure his defensive range, whether it’s Rtot, UZR, or Rdrs, they agree that it is limited, even for a first baseman. His range has been worth a loss of 4 to 6 runs in just the 63 games this season. Miguel Cabrera is even worse at about -5 to -7 runs. Shortstop Johnny Peralta is traditionally considered to have average range, and according to various metrics this season(-3 to 2), that seems about right. Their best infielder is, by far, second baseman Omar Infante, but even with him they have a bad infield. They knew this already, of course. They intentionally traded a solid defense for raw offensive production.
The Royals hit more ground balls than any other American League team, by far. They lead the American League in ground out to air out ratio (GO/AO) with 1.31. The next highest team is the 27-38 Angels with 1.19. League average is 1.07. The Royals also, predictably, lead the AL in ground ball to fly ball ratio (GB/FB) with 1.00. The next highest team is again the Angels with .87. League average is .80. Against most teams, this alarming number of ground balls turn into easy outs and double plays, but against Detroit’s slow infielders, grounders are potential infield singles.
No matter what the Tigers do, the Royals are going to keep smacking choppy ground balls to their lumbering infielders. Coupled with the Royals’ obvious speed (Cain, Escobar, Gordon, Lough, Johnson, Getz, and Dyson all have good-to-great speed and Hosmer and Salvy move pretty well for their positions), the Royals should pick up infield singles and avoid double-plays. The Royals already have eight infield singles in five games against the Detroit infield, while the Tigers only have one against the Royals.
The Tigers aren’t interested in infield hits anyway. They have power (Fielder, Cabrera, Hunter). They draw walks (.350 team OBP, 2nd in AL). They hit for average (.282, 1st in AL). Nonetheless, that hitting prowess has not been able to overcome Royals pitching. They have been contained. The Royals have only allowed 17 runs in five games, a rather paltry average of 3.4 runs per game.
If Royals starters keep up with Tigers starters, it could be become a battle of the bullpens. No team in the Majors has a much more talented pen than the Royals and with a shallow Tigers bullpen, there isn’t much contest. Other than Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit, Detroit fans have to endure a cavalcade of pitchers who seem perpetually on the cusp of blowing games. The Royals bullpen has only allowed one run against the Tigers in 14 1/3 IP this season. If the Tigers lead when their starter leaves the game, the Royals are given too many chances to catch up by Phil Coke and Jose Valverde. While that’s going on, their batters must face one Royals flamethrower after another (with the exception of Chen, Royals relievers can all throw 95 mph or faster). Even though the Tigers have a better rotation, the Royals still have the lowest ERA in the American League. That’s how good their bullpen is. In instances when games have gone to extra innings, the Royals have twice exploited that shallow Detroit bullpen to score the final runs.
The Royals are currently leading the season series against the Tigers 3-2. Unless the Tigers get sudden bullpen support, there’s a chance the Royals can continue winning three out of every five games against Detroit.