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Sports Postscript: Royals Still Down, But Surprisingly Within Striking Distance

The only thing certain about where things stand at the midseason break of Major League Baseball is that there are certain to be changes and more surprises over the second half of the 2012 season.

Jul 4, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; Kansas City Royals designated hitter Billy Butler (16) bats against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays beat the Royals 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE
Jul 4, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; Kansas City Royals designated hitter Billy Butler (16) bats against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays beat the Royals 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

The All-Star break in Major League Baseball marks the unofficial midway point in the season, and as baseball lore goes, the teams that are out front heading into the second half of the season have the best chance of being there at the end of the season.

With as many as 80 games still left to play in the 2012 season, there is plenty of time for a lot to happen to change what the standing look like at midseason, but how the teams did in the first half offers a good indication of how things can be expected to go in the final three months of the regular season, barring major injury or unforeseen circumstances.

Not a season goes by, however, that there aren't one or more major surprises at the halfway mark in the schedule that seem to confound even the smartest of baseball people. And this season, the number of oddities is almost as unusual as the abnormal weather patterns that the country has experienced practically from the start of the MLB season.

For example, most baseball experts, and certainly the Kansas City Royals' management, which supported the catchphrase "It's Our Time," sincerely believed that the Royals would do better this year. At the season's midpoint, the question becomes: "Better than what?" A year ago at this time, Kansas City was 37-43 and 11.5 games back in the AL Central standings. The Royals enter the All-Star break this season with the same number of wins, but with four more losses, so technically the only improvement to speak of is in the 'games behind" column. The reality is, this team is probably not going to get significantly better until something is done to improve the starting pitching.

And we're not talking about adding a pitcher or two, we're talking about the dire need to add as many as three quality big-league starters, which, frankly is not easy to do. Signing or trading for washed-up starters like Jeff Francis a year ago and Jonathan Sanchez this season does not cut the mustard.

Most major league teams have at least one starter they can label as an ace or stopper, someone they can generally count on to bring a victory or stop a losing skid. The truly good teams have two, and sometimes three, pitchers of this caliber. The Royals don't even have one. Right-hander Luke Hochevar and lefty Bruce Chen have traded off in the No. 1 spot in the Royals' rotation, but historically their performance has been more equivalent to a third- or fourth-line starter. Both have ERAs of over 5.00.

Averaging just over four runs a game, the Royals have to be able to count on their starters going longer into games and not placing undue pressure or overwork on what is a very good relief corps, or they are never going to win many more than one out of every three games on average, which does not constitute steady improvement or upward movement in the standings.

Before losing three of four at Toronto and suffering a three-game sweep at Detroit last weekend, Kansas City was only seven games back of the division-leading Chicago White Sox. Now they've dropped to 9.5 games behind. Surprisingly, though, the Boys in Blue are still realistically within striking distance, but that is going to require a much better performance in the second half of the season over the first half. The Royals are on a present pace to win 71 games this season, with 91 losses, which is a four-game improvement over 2011, but still far below across-the-board expectations.

As well as the White Sox are playing right now, and having added former All-Star Kevin Youkilis to the roster, it's probably going to take at least 89 or 90 wins to win the AL Central. For the Royals to get to 89 wins, it would take a 52-26 record in the second half, or a .670 winning percentage. For you match-challenged fans like myself, that would require KC to win two out of every three games the rest of the way.

What are the chances of reaching the .500 level? In order to finish 81-81, the Royals would need to go 44-34 between now and the remainder of the schedule. Certainly within reach, but it will require a considerable turnaround, and through the dog days of the MLB season. From my fan's-eye view: very possible, but not very probable.

Some other first-half outcomes in the 2012 MLB season that have a lot of fans and baseball experts shaking their heads in disbelief:

  • The Philadelphia Phillies won their fifth consecutive NL East division title last season. They've been without slugger Ryan Howard and fellow All-Star Chase Utley for practically the entire season thus far, but even then, who would have projected them the Phils to be in last place and 13 games out of the lead at the midseason break?
  • Conversely, in the same division, the Washington Nationals have been on fire. The Nationals, representing a city that has not won a postseason baseball game since 1933, own a three-and-a-half game lead at the All-Star break.
  • The Phillies (NL East), Arizona Diamonbacks (NL West), Milwaukee Brewers (NL
    Central) and Detroit Tigers (AL Central) won their respective divisions by a combined 42 games a year ago. This season, the four defending division champs are a combined 26 games out of first.
  • The Yankees have the best record in baseball at the break with 52 wins. That won't surprise many people. Nor probably will having the Texas Rangers as the team with the second-best record (52-34). But how about the Nationals with the third-best record (49-34) and the Pittsburgh Pirates at 48-37 and in first place in the NL Central. The Pirates have not had a winning season in 19 years.
  • All five teams in the AL East (Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays) are at .500 or better through the first half of the season.
  • Two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants is just 3-8 over the first half, and another former Cy Young winner, Cliff Lee of the Phiilies, did not register his first win of the season until a week ago.
  • If the season were to end today, the Orioles (45-40), perennial cellar-dwellers in the AL East, would make the MLB playoffs as one of the two AL wild-card teams.
  • Five no-hitters have been recorded, including two perfect games, have been recorded in the first half. R.A. Dickey, 37-year-old knuckleballer of the New York Mets, the winningest pitcher (12-1) in the major leagues over the first half, threw back-to-back one-hitters.

Follow news and commentary on the Kansas City Royals all season long by visiting Royals Authority, Royals Review and, of course, at SB Nation Kansas City.