Even as the Royals ascended to the top of the baseball world, the analytics community thought they were a fraud. After they made a surprising run to Game 7 of the World Series in 2014 as a wild-card, most preseason projections had them pegged as a second-division club heading into 2015. For instance, Baseball Prospectus, one of the most highly regarded baseball websites, predicted the Royals to win a mere 72 games last season. Boy did they whiff horribly on that one: The Royals were even better than the year before, as they cruised through the American League and hoisted their first World Series crown in over thirty years.
And yet, many people still doubted the Royals. Coming into 2016, Kansas City wasn’t even in the top ten in projected win totals, ranking alongside the likes of non-playoff teams like Seattle and Cleveland. Moreover, like Baseball Prospectus the year before, Fangraphs projected the defending champions to only go 77-85 this season.
I’m well attuned to many of the discussions in the analytics community, but even I had no idea why Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and various betting websites were in unanimous agreement that the Royals run of success was bound to come crashing down.
However, it looks like these websites finally got it right. Kansas City is currently 47-47 and holds the AL’s 4th worst run differential, which actually indicates that they’re lucky to even be .500. Even so, the Royals are unlikely to return to the playoffs: They’re nine games behind the terrific Cleveland Indians in the AL Central and will have to leapfrog several teams just to capture a wild-card berth. In short, the Royals won’t repeat this year.
What’s the reason behind Kansas City’s regression? Let’s look first at their hitting:
As you can see, there hasn’t really been an appreciable drop-off. With regards to Kansas City’s 2016 totals, you have to adjust for the fact that there are two months left to play, so they should finish with a total offensive WAR of around 17 or 18. That’s certainly less than their marks from 2014 and 2015, but if you look at their team batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, the 2016 Royals offense has at least been performing similarly to the ’14 and ’15 squads.
However, Kansas City ranks noticeably lower in a few key offensive categories compared to the rest of baseball. After ranking in the top 10 in WAR in ’14 and ’15, the Royals only rank 19th in that same category this year. Plus, they aren’t putting the ball in play quite as much as they have over the past two years: The Royals had the league’s lowest strikeout percentage by far over the past two years, but this year they rank 6th. That’s still damn good, but it’s clear that their ability to put the ball in play hasn’t been as much of an advantage.
Now let’s turn to their pitching:
In contrast to their hitting, the Royals pitching hasn’t been nearly as good this year. They are on pace for (maybe) a WAR of 10 and they project to finish the season with a much higher ERA and FIP. The simplest explanation for these increases is that Kansas City is allowing far more home runs per nine innings; even though the Royals still have one of one of the league’s best defenses, if the ball doesn’t stay in the ballpark, there is nothing a great defense can do.
Without question, their pitching woes can be attributed to their horrible starting staff. While Kansas City’s bullpen still ranks as one of the best in the league (6th in ERA), the Royals starting pitching is near the bottom in practically every major category. In particular, they are 29th in WAR, 29th in FIP, 25th in ERA, and they have allowed the most home runs/nine innings. Clearly they miss Johnny Cueto.
As I alluded to earlier, Kansas City’s pitching woes come despite the fact that they still have a tremendous defense. Moreover, it’s remarkable the Royals have managed to stay afloat given that they are a terrific 13-8 in one-run games and 4-0 in extra inning contests–most teams are fortunate to be a little bit above .500 in both of those situations. So, in some respects, the Royals magic has carried over to this season.
But above all else, this team has been plagued by injuries. The Royals have lost key players such as Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, Lorenzo Cain, Wade Davis, and Mike Moustakas at various points this season. And for that reason, I’d write 2016 off as “one of those years” for Royals fans. Simply put, the Royals–like any championship team–have had a lot of things go their way recently. They will need to improve their starting rotation, but with better health next year, the Royals should be back in the playoff mix.
Young photo courtesy of Anthony Grupposo/USA Today Sports