Pitchers and catchers are reporting for duty, and the marathon that is the major league baseball season will soon commence with the cactus and grapefruit leagues splitting squads and testing arms on the way to telling us almost nothing of value in terms of accurately predicting the events of the upcoming season. In the vein of pointlessly speculating, and in lieu of more productive activity in the real world, let’s examine the prospects for the 2014 Kansas City Royals.
The 2013 edition of the Royals were the best defensive team in baseball. Here are a few examples of their collective brilliance.
Yes, that last one is Bo Jackson, but I’ll take any excuse to revisit his days in a Kansas City uniform.
As for the current incarnation of the team, the Royals were really, really, really good last year on the defensive side of the ball and really, really, really bad on the offensive side of things. How do we define three ‘reallys’ in quick succession?
Well, here’s their likely opening day lineup for this year along with their UZR or Ultimate Zone Rating, a great statistic that compares the event that actually happened on the diamond (like a base hit/out/error) to data on similarly hit balls in the past to determine how much better or worse the fielder did than the ‘average’ player. Small sample sizes, even an entire season, can be a bit unreliable, but it’s still a useful comparative tool in determining player value.
Here’s the Royals opening day projected lineup and their 2013 UZR stat line, followed by its rank amongst League players at the same position from last season (with a minimum eligibility of 700 innings played).
Eric Hosmer 1B – 2.5 UZR – #6 in AL
Omar Infante 2B – 2.0 UZR – #4 in AL
Mike Moustakas 3B – 7.6 UZR – #4 in AL (but well behind the freakishly, astonishingly great Machado of Baltimore who posted a 31!! This is more than twice as good as the next best third baseman in the American league.)
Alcides Escobar SS – 10.9 UZR – #1 in AL
Alex Gordon LF – 8.6 UZR – #3 in AL
Lorenzo Cain CF – 12.8 UZR – #1 in AL
Norichika Aoki RF – 3.2 UZR – #6 in NL
UZR isn’t applicable to catchers, but Salvador Perez led the American league in defensive runs saved by a catcher with 11. There isn’t a weak spot on the team.
All of this excellence means that the Royals are the best defensive team in the American League, in all of major league baseball. By far. They combined to save 93 runs in 2013, the best mark by a team in the last ten years in all of major league baseball. The standard probably goes back a lot farther than that, but I got tired of looking up the numbers after a while.
The hitting of the ball in successful fashion is another story. The royals were awful last year. Just awful. Their .315 OBP was bad, but still good enough for 9th in the AL. Their slugging percentage was .379, good for 12th in the league, but only .04 from the Astros who were dead last. For comparison, the world series champion Red Sox slugged .446. To have a reasonably chance to win 92 games, which is what the Royals will likely have to win to ensure the postseason, they must reach base safely more often AND hit for more power in the same breath. No mean feat. Will they?
Spoiler alert for those who only have so much time to read a blog post about the Kansas City Royals: Yes!
The Royals had the worst production in all of baseball at shortstop, second base and, to a slightly lesser (or better, depending on how you look at it) extent in right field. Here are the basic splits at those positions for 2013 (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage):
2B – .240BA/.296OBP/.306SLG
SS – .233BA/.258OBP/.299SLG
RF – .256BA/.304OBP/.379SLG
Royals shortstops (Escobar) were dead last in the AL in slugging and on-base percentage by a wide margin and the assorted second basemen were dead last in the American league in slugging percentage, 30 points worse than the next worst team in all of the American league and over 200 points worse than the number one team in the league. Right fielders for KC fared only slightly better, finishing 10th in OBP and SLG.
If you’re wondering how a team with a legendary defense could miss out on playing for a thirty-pound trophy of sterling silver and gold fashioned by Tiffany and Company, then look no further than these three positions. They cost the team a shot at the world series last year.
You can’t expect to win a division that has the juggernaut Detroit Tigers in it with those gaping holes in the lineup, so to upgrade, the Royals signed Omar Infante to play second and Norichika Aoki to play right. Here are their 2013 numbers:
Infante – .318BA/.345OBP/.450SLG
Aoki – .286BA/.356OBP/.370SLG
There’s nothing here to write sonnets about, but this is obviously a vast upgrade in talent. The news gets even better. Aoki is a lefty, and while his platoon splits are just good enough to warrant every day action, he has no power against lefty pitching, managing a single home run in 180 at bats last season against southpaws. The Royals have the luxury of splitting his time with Justin Maxwell, a right-handed hitter who put up excellent numbers after a late-season trade to the Royals (.857 OPS in 35 games). He’s not that good, his career numbers tells us he is not anywhere near that good, but he has hit 11 home runs against lefties in 299 career at-bats, which tells us that his power numbers are certainly an improvement over what the Royals enjoyed for most of 2013.
These three guys are all flawed. Infante doesn’t walk anywhere nearly enough, but he’s light years better than his predecessors at the position given his overall production. Aoki walks a bunch, but his power is below-average. Maxwell will help with the latter, and the combined output of these three players, given their career numbers, will likely produce an additional 25 runs from these two positions, which will translate into more wins. More on that below.
Shortstop is a similar story without the similarly upbeat ending. Escobar’s brilliant glove returns, but so does the purveyor one of the worst offensive seasons in recent memory for any player at any position. His BABIP (batting average of balls in play) took a huge drop from the previous two years, so bad luck was partially a cause, but after four seasons in the majors, the reality is clear – Escobar is descended from a long line of great glove/no hit shortstops. Luck evens out in baseball, so as his BABIP improves, as it will, so will his overall numbers, but expecting more than a .675 OPS is probably a fantasy. He’s a #9 hitter if ever there was one, but he will be better at the plate in 2013, while continuing to dazzle with the glove.
The good news keeps coming. Baseball players peak between the ages of 27-33. Here are the ages of the Royals projected starting lineup on opening day.
C – 23
1B – 24
2B – 32
SS – 27
3B – 25
LF – 29
CF – 27
RF – 32
DH – 27
Every player is either in his prime, or fast approaching. This means it’s extremely unlikely that any of these players will experience a significant decline this year. If anything, with young players it is far more likely that they will increase their level of production from year-to-year until they reach their prime, at which point they will plateau before a slow decline becomes a rapid decline. So really, for this team, offensively, the only way to go is up.
Take designated hitter Billy Butler. Butler’s 2012 season was superb, where he hit 29 home runs, slugged .510 and finished tied for 6th in batting average. All those numbers dropped off a cliff in 2013 – only 15 homers, 100 points less on the slugging front and over 30 point drop in batting average.
Great hitters get on base a lot, which invariably means they walk a lot, which in turn lends itself to strong pitch selection, which in turn translates to more power, since extra base bits are overwhelmingly struck on pitches in the strike zone. This is why Omar Infante has a limited upside. He’s 32, at the end of his prime or the beginning of his decline, and his walk rate stinks. This doesn’t mean he’s a bad hitter, but the notion that he will exceed his 2013 or career averages is a pipe dream/steroid induced fantasy. His best case scenario is to sustain his 2013 level of play.
Butler, however, dramatically increased his walk rate from 2012 to 2013, despite a precipitous drop-off in home runs, while simultaneously lowering his strikeout rate. With his age and career progression, Butler’s worst-case scenario is a repeat of his 2013 season, where he finished in the top ten in on-base percentage. This also tells us one of the safest bets in baseball is Butler hitting for more home runs in 2014.
Butler is one of the few great hitters on the team, this is not a group that gets on base particularly well, but he is not the only player who is in a similar position of having an expected increase in production with almost no chance of regression. That’s the beauty of investing in youth. Twenty-four year olds aren’t generally as good as thirty-year old players, but they do have the luxury of an expected increase in production from year-to-year while older players, historically, have plateaued. They can only get worse. This is why you don’t give a bunch of dumbass long-term contracts to guys in their 30’s, a lesson the Dodgers and Yankees will apparently never learn.
All of this is to say the Royals will undoubtedly score more runs this season. Get to Vegas and take the over people. But how many and what will it all add up to in the wins column? Good question.
Weighted runs created (wRC) is a great stat whose objective is to provide a single number to get to the heart of a player’s run production, which makes it much easier to then quantify their value to the team. Runs mean nothing in and of itself in determining a players worth if we can’t convert that production to the one number that every team values at the same level – wins. Offensively in 2013, the Royals created 624 runs (wRC), which was about 12% below league average. The basic formula is 10 runs=1 win, so we can see based on their 86 wins last year that the Royals need to produce about sixty more runs (at a minimum) this coming season to push themselves into prime playoff position. Let’s take the new guys first.
In 2013, Infante had a wRC of 64, which seems lousy when considering the rotating crew of sub-par Royals second basemen put up a 59, which is substantially below average, but Infante did his damage in only 118 games, which comes out to being 17% better than the league average taken over the course of the season, which translates to being about 50% better than Kansas City’s second basemen, which, if the production holds true in 2013, means he will produce an additional 16 runs for the Royals over their 2012 production at that position.
KC right fielders out up a wRC of 71, which includes Maxwell. Aoki put up 80, which is a touch above league average, which puts the team an additional 9 runs up in the plus column.
Escobar put up a 37. Cue sound effect of man plummeting over cliff. He’ll do better this year because a blind kid swinging a thin reed could do better. With a minimum of 500 plate appearances he was 17th in the major leagues, only the Marlins Hechavarria was worse. To really put this into perspective, the 16th ranked shortstop produced 53 runs. Escobar was basically 50% worse than the average shortstop in MLB. He will be better in 2014, I guarantee it, but let’s be conservative and put him down for a +5, which would still make him a minor league hitter in a major league uniform.
It’s unreasonable to expect the stars of the team – Perez, Hosmer, Butler and Gordon – to produce significantly more runs. My guess is Butler will be a little better, but with even a small decline by the others, this will balance out. It leaves Cain in center field and Moustakas at third to produce an additional 30 runs to pick up the slack.
Injuries limited Cain to only 442 plate appearances, and he was a bit below average in his time. This extends to his offense only, his defense is truly spectacular, but offensively, he was one of the worst center fielders in baseball last year. His young age and (brief) career numbers suggest he will improve slightly in 2014, but probably not by much, so a +5 only.
Can Moustakas produce an additional 25 runs this season? He was pretty bad at the plate last year, so one would surmise the only way to go is up, but a look at the numbers is not overly optimistic. He produced only 46 runs, which was below average for his position, but he did have appalling luck. He hit only .257 on balls in play, which was 41 points below league average. Still, bad luck in baseball only runs so far.
He dropped his strikeout percentage, which is a good sign, but his walk rate didn’t improve, which is a bad sign for someone who doesn’t walk nearly enough. The guy’s a dead pull hitter, completely incapable of driving the ball to left field (0 home runs and only 3 doubles all season to the opposite field) which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it speaks to his limited upside. He is never going to hit for a high average, and with lousy strike zone judgement, he’s never going to be an elite power hitter either. To that end, the Royals signed Danny Valencia, a right-handed third baseman who obliterated left-handed pitching last season to the tune of a 1.031 OPS(!) in 102 plate appearances. It’s unclear how much he’ll play, this could be an effective platoon situation, but it’s guesswork to know if the Royals essentially plan to give up on Moustakas as a regular, every-day player.
Still, with even a modest regression to mean, his run production is going up, my guess is +10, but there’s a real chance he could bump this up to +15. With Valencia, this could even become a +20 overall at the position, but better to be conservative, which puts the Royals offensive improvement in 2014 at an additional 45 runs scored. This is basically 4-5 wins, which would put the Royals above the magical 90-win plateau, but it unfortunately requires them to give up the same number of runs (or fewer) than in 2013. This is very unlikely given the Royals pitching and defense was pretty darn good last year, a tough act to follow.
As I’ve already written, defensively the team is in phenomenal shape, and the new additions won’t change things much, Aoki and Infante are solid defensive players, unlikely to add or detract much from the stellar makeup of the 2013 team. As mentioned, a healthy season from Cain will undoubtedly save them another few runs, since he’s one of the best defensive players in all of baseball.
That leaves the pitching, and it’s good news/bad news/question marks, just what you want when trying to nail down a specific number.
First, the bad news. There is only one really good starting pitcher, James Shields, returning to the rotation. He led the league in innings pitched and finished in the top ten in ERA, strikeouts, complete games and a few other stat-heavy stats like adjusted pitching wins. Suffice it to say, he was really good, and even a modest drop in form will still be a welcome presence on this staff.
The other returning starting pitchers, Wade Davis and Jeremy Guthrie, were not very good last year. Their age and career numbers tell us the best case scenario is that they will be league average this year. Guthrie had the much better season of the two in terms of wins and ERA, but he was undoubtedly the luckier of the two, as evidenced by his extremely low strikeout totals (only 4.7 per 9 innings) and proclivity to give up home runs. For Davis, he walks too many batters and has never produced a full season as a starting pitcher worth celebrating, but the league did hit over 60 points higher against him on balls in play, and that mark will undoubtedly come way down this year. These guys are both #5 starter quality in the league.
Jason Vargas was signed as a free agent, and through his last four years, pitching at least 150 innings, it’s pretty obvious what sort of pitcher he is, and what the Royals can expect, and that’s an average to slightly below-average starting pitcher. He’d be a pretty good #5 starter, but there are a lot of those already on the squad, so this isn’t as big a recommendation as it might be for another team with lesser needs on the mound.
Now, on to the good news. The bullpen is back and it’s an imposing force, led by Greg Holland. Holy mother of all that is strikeout-to-walk ratio was this guy good last year. He punched out 103 batters in only 67 innings of work. He was spectacular, maybe the best reliever in all of baseball.
The rest of the bullpen was also really good, if not quite that otherworldly. The Royals have put together a bunch of power arms for the late innings, and it is a sight to behold. Here’s a look at their likely first five arms out of the bullpen and their strikeouts per nine innings from last year, and bear in mind, anything over 9 is excellent.
Holland – 13.84
Hochevar – 10.49
Crow – 8.25
Herrera – 11.42
Collins – 8.78
Great bullpen, mediocre starters. Here’s where things get interesting. The back end of the rotation in 2013 was hideous last year for KC, just brutalizing. Davis and Mendoza made 39 starts between them and had a combined ERA of 5.33, they were just lit up most of the year. Mendoza is gone from the rotation this year, and what Kansas City does have instead is a host of options, and that is the question mark portion of the equation for this season – who will be pitching the bulk of the innings at the back end of the rotation and what can we expect from them?
Shields, Varga and Guthrie will begin the season in the starting rotation. Five other pitchers will battle for the other two spots.
– Hochevar was very good out of the bullpen last year, striking out over 10 batters per nine innings amidst his 70 innings of work. He never caught on as a starter in his previous four or five big league campaigns, but it’s possible he makes his way in this year, he certainly has the velocity to succeed.
– Duffy started five games in 2013. He’s a lefty who has high strikeout potential and looked sharp in his 5 starts from 2013, only his high walk rate smudging his debut in the bigs. He likely begins the year in the rotation.
– Yordano Ventura can throw 100 mph. He is a phenom, one of the highest rated prospects in all of baseball. He could end up making 25 starts for the Royals and having a sub-3.00 ERA or he could end up making three starts and getting hammered. I have no idea. The kid has extraordinary talent, but projecting it to hit home this season in consistent fashion is optimistic. Not unrealistic, mind you, given his talent, and he will see time in the major leagues this year.
– Bruce Chen had a nice season for the Royals last year, making 15 starts among his 34 appearances. His ERA was better than it deserved to be given his other numbers, but there are worse options should anyone go down with injury or if, like last year, the back end of the rotation fails to deliver.
– Wade Davis has limited upside, but he strikes out a decent percentage of batters and was very unlucky last year. Like Chen, he has value as a spot starter and reliever if he can’t make the starting five.
Anyone who can accurately predict who amongst this lot will make the majority of the starts and how they will perform deserves a pat on the back. What is very clear is that no matter who is filling out the rotation, this is not an elite unit when Shields is not on the mound. It is equally clear that there are plenty of options and flexibility, so if someone fails to perform, we should expect a quick hook. The depth also bolsters the already strong bullpen, protecting arms from fatigue and giving Kansas City one of the best relief units in all of baseball.
A lack of veteran talent in the starting rotation, balanced against an increase in depth and versatility, means they will likely give up a few more runs, but nothing approaching cataclysmic proportions. Yes, the starting pitching is very average, but it’s also difficult to imagine it being significantly worse from last year, when taken as a whole. The Royals will probably not be quite as good at the top of the rotation with Santana gone via free agency and Guthrie’s inevitable regression, but they will be significantly better at the back end of the rotation with Mendoza far, far away from the first inning.
My guess is the team gives up about 30 more runs this season, but that’s all it is, a blind, shot-in-the-dark guess. The team is going to rely on unproven young talent to pitch them to glory, and while predicting their value is impossible, who knows, the team may just reap the rewards of such faith.
Predicting wins is a little silly, of course, considering the luck involved over the course of a season for teams in staying healthy and winning/losing one-run games (see the Baltimore Orioles in 2012), but predicting the level of play for individuals is easier given the volume of statistics at our fingertips. A certain number of runs scored and a certain number of runs given up will give us an idea of how competitive a team will be and the numbers tell us Kansas City should be equal to or very slightly better than last year.
For the 2013 season, their runs scored/given up projected them to a season of 87 wins (they actually won 86).
My 2014 Projection – 690 runs scored and 631 given up, which projects to 89-73 and a likely playoff near-miss.
There are, by my count, five to seven teams in the AL that are better on paper than the Royals. The thing is, I’ve never understood rooting the for the Yankees, partly because I didn’t grow up in New York and partly because I have a soul, but this allegiance to the forces of light expresses in specific terms everything about why I care about sports in general, and baseball in particular.
Sports aren’t about winning. People make this mistake all the time. Sports are about the pursuit of greatness, about excelling against fierce competition, and the best way to appreciate the search for greatness is not an arbitrary accomplishment independent of context, like winning, or even winning a championship. This is an inadequate measure because it focuses on the end result at the expense of properly appreciating and valuing the quality of play along the way. You can read more in this excellent piece I found while surfing the internets.
Baseball is so much fun in part because it is a game of numbers, and those numbers tell us how to adequately/accurately measure what has transpired (fueling things like the Mantle vs. Mays debate) but they also tell us in baseball what is possible. That’s why I love sports in general, it’s a celebration of possibility, but baseball is my favorite sport in large part because success is almost always predicated on beating the numbers.
That’s why the last twenty years of the Yankees have oftentimes been so dull. Consistently with the highest payroll in baseball, they’ve assembled a team that is filled with such talent it has no inherent ability to exceed the numbers. You can appreciate the quality of play, sure, but there’s no sense of accomplishment, no catharsis at the closing of the curtain, so to speak. They’ve accomplished all they will before opening day and come October, win or lose, their season simply ends. It’s like going to a movie when the trailer already told you the whole story.
For the 90% of major league baseball that can’t buy winning seasons on a yearly basis, success comes incrementally, suddenly, unexpectedly, but almost always improbably. That’s why it was so much fun to watch Baltimore in 2012, that team had to beat (obliterate) the numbers to make the postseason, and wildly improbable though it was, they were somehow able to do so, and it was thrilling to watch it happen.
Whenever I turn on the television to watch a sporting event and my dad is in the room, he is fond of asking, “Who is playing and why should I care?” Well, to preemptively answer him, the Royals are worth watching because the numbers tell us the Royals will be competitive, but to take the division and/or make the postseason, they will have to play a little better and/or be a little luckier than they have any right to be, and the fun in baseball isn’t just in being good enough to win, it’s in the chase for greatness.
Anyway, it’s a guess, but I’m predicting 89 wins for the best defensive team in baseball and the agony/ecstasy of just making/missing the postseason. Should be a fun ride either way.
So, in conclusion, all of the above is just my way of saying, yet again but with clarity and confidence, that yes, absolutely, there is indeed a chance.
Last year’s forecast