Those Last Six Wins: How will the Royals Make the Playoffs in 2014?

86 wins was a breath of fresh air for most of us who read this site. It was a relief to finish above .500. It was a joy to witness that no-doubt grand slam Justin Maxwell hit near the end of the season-- and off the Mexicutioner no less. But that number, 86, recedes further in the rear view mirror as we approach pitchers-and-catchers in Surprise. Gold stars to Dayton Moore and Ned Yost, but a reproduction of that number this year will not be met with gratitude. We need more. In fact, we probably need 6 more in order to make the playoffs in 2014.

Estimating exactly where the cutoff will be is difficult to predict since the coin-flip game has only been around two years. But just assuming that the endgame would play out the same in pre-2012 seasons, 92 seems to be a reasonable estimate of the last wildcard spot, on average.

Where will those six wins come from? The optimistic view is that there will be no regression by the team defense, which ranked first in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) by FanGraphs-- and in fact was the second-best defensive team by this metric since its creation in 2002. The optimistic view is that there will be no regression by the team bullpen, even though we have had back-to-back years of >7 WAR from our relief pitchers, and "bullpen stability" is not a maxim of either sabermetricians or old-school thinkers.

For simplicity, I'm going to use WAR to make my arguments. FanGraphs WAR, specifically. I know it's not perfect, but I wanted to keep this post under 10,000 words. So if you're not down with the metrics, probably best to post your snarky comment now and just move on to googling more pictures of Sunny Leone.

But even in the optimist's scenario of a zero-regression ballclub, where will we find improvement? In the rotation? We're losing 5.0 WAR in the form of Santana (3.0), Chen (1.4), and Mendoza (0.6), the latter two accounting for 30 starts. So we're replacing Chendoza with Vargas in a one-to-one swap of value. We have 2.1 WAR from Davis and Duffy (24 starts from the former, 6 the latter), but Davis is one of those anomalies where the difference between fWAR and bWAR is staggering: 1.5 fWAR to -2.1 bWAR. Let's call it replacement level and feel good that a full season of Duffy or Ventura will add at least one win to the register. But one of those two players (or, god forbid, Hoch or Davis himself) has to fill the cleats Stantana has left in the clubhouse. Thinking anything above a 2-WAR season for Santana's replacement is where hope conquers experience. So a reasonable estimate is that the rotation stands pat in 2014. (Shields may come down slightly from his excellent 4.5 win season, but Steamer projections for Guthrie are a little improved, so we'll call that one even as well.)

Then we get to the lineup. Butler, Gordon, Moustakas, Cain, and Escobar all had disappointing seasons at the plate in 2013. That's a long list, even after removing the flotsam the team jettisoned during the year and in the off season. Do we really expect them all to improve? Butler has shown a tendency to oscillate annually, being above average in 2010 and 2012, and to dip in the odd-number years. But Gordon? After his amazing 7-WAR season in 2011, he's regressed two years in a row. And this is his age-30 season. I'm not saying he's done, just let's not get irrationally exuberant.

So let's say that Escobar and Moustakas get us an extra win at the plate just from the laws of regression, Butler has his annual 0.5-win bump in even-numbered years, and maybe A1 keeps himself from falling any further and stays at 2013 levels. That's 1.5 wins.

What about the additions? Omar Infante (who should not bat second) is an average to slightly-above-average second baseman. But compared to Chris Getz (and what Johnny Giavotella put on the board) he's Joe Morgan after an mammoth dose of gamma radiation. I'm happy---and surprised---that the Royals did not immediately denote Emilio Bonifacio the starting second baseman, but we did catch lightening in a bottle for 42 games with him and rode the variance to a 1.0 WAR[*]. The Steamer projections show a +1.0 improvement this year with Infante, and I don't see any reason to expect more or less.

[*] ...which prorates to a 3.6 WAR for a 150-game campaign. How did our front office say 'no'? How could they resist the big, shiny, candy-like button? Did someone finally show them the wikipedia page on "statistical outlier"?).

Right field is a tough one. Aoki projects as a plus defender, and his .355 OBP makes my man parts tingle. But even with 59 games of Francoeur we got 2.2 WAR out of RF last year. Most of that was Lough's defense, which I felt was a real contribution but not repeatable. Steamer says 2.1 WAR for Aoki, which puts us even in the outfield. And all that assumes that Lorenzo Cain does not miss 78 games after a microwave donut catastrophe or break both legs while walking up the dugout steps.

Where do we stand?

  • Defense: +0.0
  • Bullpen: +0.0
  • Rotation: +0.0
  • Offense: +2.5

Some might look at this list and call me defeatist, but as I said at the beginning, I actually think this is an optimistic appraisal of the situation. Bullpens do not post 7 WAR seasons 3 years in a row[*]. Defenses vary year to year[**]. And we lost half of a 1-2 tandem at the top of our rotation that was head and shoulders above everyone else who took the mound. So even under the idealized conditions, we still have a ways to go to get to 92 wins.

[*] That's a statistically factual statement, not an assertion. Since 1990, no team has posted even consecutive +7 WAR seasons from a bullpen. Except the Royals of the last two years. We could all smell a little stink coming off Crow and Collins towards the end of the season, and Yost sensed it too given their usage down the stretch. So the health of our pen will depend on keeping new blood flowing though the system. Donnie Joseph. Louis Coleman. Please step forward. John Rauch, Guillermo Mota, and Brad Penny: Do not pass Go.

[**] Since DRS was created, 29 out of 30 teams that posted a +50 DRS regressed the next year. And I mean regressed A LOT. The average regression was -58 runs. Perhaps this implies that DRS is garbage that doesn't reflect the reality on the diamond. And to reinforce that notion, the 2013 Royals and their +93 DRS registered as totally average in defensive efficiency rating, as per Baseball Prospectus, turning 71% of balls in play into outs. I loved reading about how great our defense was last year, but I'm hoping that it was actually overrated.

Which brings me to Eric Hosmer. He is the most important player on the Royals in 2014. If you look at the roster and try to identify locations of improvement, he's at the top of the list by a wide margin. After two months of suck, he posted a consistent .880 OPS for the rest of the season. But even that won't make up the difference. For Hosmer to get us to the playoffs, he has to jump from a 3-win player to a 6+ win player, meaning he'll have improve from his second-half highlight show last year, reaching something like a .320/.390/.520 slash line. And even then, one of the young arms needs to step up and do something surprising. This is the same conclusion Rany Jazayerli came to last week: someone on the offense is going to have to make the short list for the MVP award in order for this team to contend. This is no different than the requirement for most any other team, of course, but it's been so long since that happened in KC---Brett in '85 was the last top-3 finalist---the whole concept is hard to accept.

This is not a team that is built to go to the playoffs. It's a team that you hope can get you there. I would prefer the former, but if anyone on this team is going to make The Leap, he's the one to do it.

This FanPost was written by a member of the Royals Review community. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors and writers of this site.

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