Maybe it seems obvious, but winning in April is a really good thing.
On Sunday, the Royals improved to 13-7, the best record in the American League. With the win, the Royals guarantee they will finish April with a winning record, and in 52 seasons of Royals baseball, it will be just the 19th time that has happened. The Royals currently have a .650 winning percentage, and with four games left to go in the month, they have the fifth-best April in club history.
It is a franchise that has had a lot more slow starts, even when they had some success. But they have certainly had some seasons when April absolutely buried them.
Some Royals fans may still be skeptical that a hot start can be sustainable over the marathon of a six-month season. The memory of the 2009 Royals is still a bit fresh for some fans. That was the year that Dayton Moore’s rebuild of the franchise seemed like maybe it had arrived. Led by manager Trey Hillman, the 2009 Royals were coming off a 75-win season, their best under Dayton Moore at the time, and it looked like they may have a legit pitching rotation with Zack Greinke (who would win the Cy Young Award that year), Gil Meche, and young starters Luke Hochevar, Brian Bannister, and Kyle Davies. The lineup had young potential stars like Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, along with veterans David DeJesus, Mike Jacobs, and Jose Guillen.
The 2009 Royals held their own in April, finishing the month in first place with a 12-10 record. They would win six of their next seven in early May and get off to an 18-11 start, but that would sadly be the apex of the season. They dropped 13 of 15 in late May, eight of ten in June, and had a ten-game losing streak in July. The team would win just 35 percent of their games after their 18-11 start to finish 65-97.
But a team with a winning April finishing that poorly is a big outlier. Since 2000, 274 teams have finished April with a winning record, and 72 percent of them would finish the season at .500 or better. The two worst teams with a winning April were the 2009 Pirates, and Trey Hillman’s Royals. Teams with a winning April ended with an average of a .535 winning percentage, or an 86-win season, with a median of 88 wins.
But these Royals may not just be a .500 team at the end of April. Currently, they have played .600 ball, and with one more game against the Tigers and two more against the Pirates (with one against the Twins before the calendar turns to May), as long as the Royals split their next four games, they will finish April with a winning percentage north of .600.
Should they finish with a mark that impressive, their odds improve even more. Of the 123 teams since 2000 to finish April with a winning percentage of .600 or better, 85 percent would finish the season with a winning record. The average team had a .555 win pct, or 90 win-season, with a median of 91 wins.
There are still reasons to be skeptical. Until yesterday, the Royals had still allowed more runs than they had scored this season. They’ve gone just 6-5 against teams that had a winning season last year. Injuries could be a huge factor. It’s also just early – the Athletics went from a .500 team to the best record in the league in one week.
But there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic. A lot of their top hitters – Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozier, and Andrew Benintendi – are underperforming. Brad Keller hasn’t pitched anywhere close to what was expected of him (although conversely, Danny Duffy has overachieved). The Royals could get a mid-season boost from prospects like Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, and possibly even Asa Lacy and Bobby Witt, Jr. We have yet to see Adalberto Mondesi even get an at-bat.
It’s enough to cause the ZIPS projection system to be much more positive about the Royals than they were before the season. ZIPS had projected them to be a .475 team just four weeks ago, but now sees them as a .495 team, the largest improvement already in this young season. Under the projection system, their playoff odds have jumped from 6 percent to almost 25 percent – not that much of a long shot anymore, and better odds than for Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Washington, or Philadelphia.
Look, it is still early, and I’m not saying you should get ready to buy playoff tickets quite yet. Perhaps if you want, you can do some reconnaissance for a spot to watch the World Series parade. I’m just saying that a good April very likely means the Royals will be a much improved team, and possibly a pretty good one.
As long as we keep Trey Hillman away from this team.