Lutz Blog

OPS speaking, the Kansas City Royals are a surprising playoff contender

Kansas City veteran Billy Butler hasn’t been producing a lot as the team’s designated-hitter this season.
Kansas City veteran Billy Butler hasn’t been producing a lot as the team’s designated-hitter this season. AP

In 1968, the year pitchers dominated Major League Baseball like never before, the Detroit Tigers won the World Series. They had a lineup that included Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan and Jim Northrup and their offense - praised throughout baseball - produced an OPS (combined slugging and on-base percentage) of .692.

The Tigers, who beat the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games to win the world championship, had a lineup that was feared. It was a different time. After the season, in an effort to add more offense to the game, new commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered that the pitcher’s mound be lowered from 15 to 10 inches.

And over the past 45 seasons, we have become accustomed to a much more robust, offensive game. The addition of the designated hitter in the American League in 1973 and the proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs during the mid- to late-1990s had an effect, too.

We’ve come to take offense in baseball for granted. But the 2014 season could produce the first team in the American League since 1976 to make the postseason with an OPS of under .700. And that team is none other than the Kansas City Royals (.692 OPS, who are in a dogfight with the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central.

The Royals, by the way, were the last AL team to play a full season and reach the playoffs with a sub-.700 OPS (.699 in ‘76). Oakland did make it to an expanded postseason during a strike-interrupted 1981 season with a .691 OPS, but the A’s played only 109 regular-season games.

How much has baseball changed over the past five decades?

Consider that the Tigers were considered to be a team full of mashers in 1968 with their .692 OPS. Forty-six years later, the Royals have an identical OPS and are considered to be light-hitting. And that’s putting it mildly.

The last sub-.700 OPS team to reach the postseason in the National League, where the DH has never been in play, was the Los Angeles Dodgers (.657) in 1988. There have been seven seasons since 1996 during which not a single team in baseball had an OPS lower than .700, including the terrible teams.

Offense in baseball really started to take off in 1995, when .800-plus OPS’s started to appear and even become commonplace. From ‘95 through 2000, 23 of the 48 postseason teams produced an OPS of .800 or higher.

In 13 seasons since, only 17 of 104 playoff teams reached an .800-plus OPS, and it’s happened just five times in the National League.

Since OPS is the statistic baseball statistical analysts love to use as an indicator of offense, it’s obvious that offense in the game has been slacking for a while now. The reasons are multiple, but I think it begins with the way the game has gone about identifying and punishing those who are inclined to use PEDs. Other factors include a proliferation or hard-throwing pitchers and specialists; there have never been this many pitchers who throw 95 mph or faster.

The Royals have a bunch of those pitchers, which is a big factor in their successful season. If the Royals do find a way to play in October, it’ll be mostly because of their pitching. The offense, though, has started to pick up. Some. Kansas City’s OPS in August was .710.

Some other interesting tidbits about the Royals’ OPS:

* It’s a robust .787 in wins and a putrid .571 in losses.

* KC had a .691 OPS before the All-Star break and a .694 OPS since.

* Kansas City is getting little production from its DH’s this season, with a .641 combined OPS. Makes you wonder how much longer Billy Butler has in KC. The Royals have also struggled to find production at second base (.640 OPS), third (.668) and right field (.688).

* Thank goodness for Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez.

Thanks for reading, as always.