For a large chunk of Royals fans, the 2014 season delivered an unexpected, entirely foreign, and largely surreal feeling of elation through sport fandom. The Royals repeatedly performed their modern-day rendition of the Lazarus tale more times than seemed possible, both in the regular season and in the do-or-die American League Wild Card Game--one of the most exciting/excruciating games in the sport's recent history.
The dominoes were set up in such a distanced and daunting fashion as to have rendered the season all but dead as their tumbling came to an expected end only to have tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes jump-start the succession time and time again. Whether divine intervention or the result of climate change and fracking, the Royals--who with a little statistical digging* were beneficiaries of more than a little good luck on the internal front--continued to pass teams, who against all odds lost and lost and lost.
*Pythagorean W-L of 84-78 and 3rd Order W-L 79-83 show that their actual 89-73 finish may have seen them beneficiaries of five-to-ten wins worth of good fortune. There's something to be said for strong defense and lockdown bullpens insofar as not giving away leads is concerned, but does that account for the entirety of the surplus of wins given their very real offensive shortcomings?
Their trek was one that seemed so magical thanks in large part to the gaping chasm separating the team that played before July 21 and the team that closed out the regular season and rolled through the postseason. Being two games under .500 at 48-50, an 89-win season did not simply feel implausible--it felt impossible.
From July 22 going forward, the Royals defied expectations, logic, and the odds, closed out the season on a 41-23 run, and capped that with an 8-0 run through the American League playoffs before running into their Kryptonite--a left-handed ace in the form of Madison Bumgarner. Drunk on the improbability of it all, it became increasingly easy to suspend disbelief and buy in where there was increasingly little reason to stay tethered to rational thought.
It was an undeniable, spectacular blast, and a season as special as 2014 certainly engenders a healthy measure of goodwill from a fanbase that justifiably had little need to extend such feelings toward an organization that had spent the better part of three decades a laughingstock.
While in the process of suspending our collective disbelief, it became easy to pare down one's focus to just the Royals' fortunes, tying their success to a healthy dose of good luck springing forth of their own doing. Unfortunately this line of thinking trickled further into the offseason than it should have, and the overwhelming amount of luck that played out in the Royals' favor has gotten lost in the mix.
Given the ceaseless trickle of the less than statistically inclined arguing for a non-analytical blind acceptance that the General Manager's moves need not be questioned which in turn leads to a mind-numbingly tedious back-and-forth between those asserting that the Royals thrilling postseason run entirely validates every move of the recent Dayton Moore Royals and those who believe that many internal and external factors which may or may not have included magic, luck, and/or divine intervention came together in a perfect storm that congealed over a turbulent ocean and against astronomical odds washed the Royals ashore in the World Series unscathed before running through a left-handed buzzsaw with the name of a millennial prom queen, it seems now is as good a time as any to lay out the myriad things outside of the Royals' control that needed to happen for the Royals to have become American League Champions.
Eight teams sported 3rd Order Win Pct better than the Royals
Their Pythagorean Record (or 1st Order Win Pct) was a little kinder and only had six teams finishing ahead of the Royals, but both measures of neutralized records would seem to indicate that the Blue Jays and Mariners both may have actually been better teams while fortune did not fall in their favor, to make no mention of the Athletics, who made the playoffs as the second Wild Card entrant while 1st and 3rd Order Wins showed them to be the best team in baseball. 3rd Order Win Pct also favored the Indians and Rays over the Royals.
Reigning World Champion Red Sox finished 71-91
Boston lost Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to free agency but were set to be getting a full year out of Xander Bogaerts. They eventually re-signed Drew after the qualifying offer they had extended him made him poisonous for any other team to sign. Moreover, the production that Drew was vacating as Bogaerts moved back to his natural position at short was actually mostly replaced internally by Brock Holt--Brock Holt! Unfortunately for the Red Sox, Mike Napoli and David Ortiz both saw their productivity drop as they eased one year further down the aging curve, Shane Victorino went from a 5.6 fWAR/5.8 rWAR player to roughly replacement level in only 33 games, Jackie Bradley and Will Middlebrooks proved unable to actually put together professional at-bats, and everything that could have gone wrong behind Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront did as each starter sported ERAs well above 5.00 (5.34 and 6.07, respectively). They dropped from a 97-win team to a 71-win team and ended up having to sell off any and every piece that they could at the deadline.
After the late season signing of Rusney Castillo and the huge offseason that could still see the Red Sox do more than just add Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Rick Porcello, and Justin Masterson, it would be require a complete collapse for Boston to see a season below .500, and that's just looking at their likely performance with the most conservative of expectations.
Rangers suffered 2,116 days lost to the disabled list
That is not a typo. As Jeff Zimmerman noted in his piece a couple weeks back at The Hardball Times, that is the highest total of days lost to the disabled list dating back to 2002 by 99 days.
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The Rangers lost in a play-in game for an entrance to the Wild Card game in 2013. Aside from swapping Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder to make room for wunderkind Jurickson Profar, the Rangers did not look to get discernibly worse on paper heading from 2013 into 2014. Then Derek Holland tripped over his dog, requiring knee surgery, and the floodgates opened. Holland made six appearances at the end of the season. Profar never took the field in 2014, nursing a shoulder injury. Fielder was awful and then went down for the year. Shin-Soo Choo played 123 games of roughly replacement level baseball before being shut down with arthroscopic knee surgery. Matt Harrison had spinal fusion surgery in the hopes of correcting a nerve irritation condition called Spondylolisthesis, which limited him to 17.1 IP and does not have a high rate of recovery in general. Martin Perez had Tommy John surgery 51.1 innings into his season. Set-up men Tanner Scheppers and Alexi Ogando both had elbow issues, but despite missing over 100 days apiece neither have gone under the knife. Yu Darvish missed the greater part of the last two months of the season with right elbow inflammation of his own, but the season was already well past over for the Rangers at that point.
This shockingly long list of injuries continues well past that, but it is probably easiest to say that the Rangers played 64 different players last season, breaking the previous MLB record of 59 by a wide margin of five players. They employed 37 different pitchers, tying the 2002 Padres for the MLB record for most pitchers used. The jaw-dropping slew of injuries that the Rangers endured took them from a team playing a Game 163 to the worst team in baseball the next season.
It could be that Jon Daniels's ride is over, at least as these Rangers are currently constructed, but it's hard to imagine them being the worst team in baseball without injuries entirely derailing them once again.
The Rays went from the playoffs to 77 wins
Early on, Tampa found out that they would be without services of Matt Moore, who needed Tommy John surgery after tearing his UCL in his second start of the season. They also lost 81 days of Wil Myers to a wrist injury suffered on a collision, and 74 days of David DeJesus to a broken hand on a check swing. They were also without Jeremy Hellickson's services until the end of July.
However, it wasn't just injuries that undid the Rays. 2nd and 3rd Order Win Pct had them as an 86-win team, markedly higher than the Royals and nine wins higher than their actual record. Once sequencing and adjusting for quality of opponent is neutralized, it looks like the Rays' disappointing 2014 season may have been the vagaries of luck or the capriciousness of the fates doing their randomized business on Friedman's monster. Of course, Andrew Friedman is gone now--as is Joe Maddon--but some of the front office remains, and they probably gleaned a bit of the business from Friedman. They may well rebound in 2015.
The entire AL East put just their division winner in the playoffs
While the Yankees had the look of a team that should have won 77 games or so, they placed second in the division with 84 wins. The Jays played within a win or so of their perceived talent level at 83 wins. The Rays were wildly unlucky. The Red Sox were struck with nearly every bit of bad luck and regression about which they could have had nightmares. Since 2003, 2014 was only the second year where the AL East didn't have a Wild Card entrant, 2006 being the other year.
Since HBOSignature is running The Wire in marathon
Since HBOSignature is running The Wire in marathon
Oakland went into a bizarre tailspin
On August 9th, the A's were 72-44 and had a four-game lead on the Angels, who were the second-best team in baseball up to that point. Then Oakland mystifyingly went 16-30 to end the season, dropping a game behind the resurgent Royals. The A's offense cratered for two straight months. People looking to blame the loss of Yoenis Cespedes for Oakland's struggles conveniently ignored the fact that Jon Lester was actually more productive than Cespedes after the trade. Furthermore, Beane's trading for Jeff Samardzija--even after taking the negative value of Jason Hammel away--made the team better. Unfortunately for them, Derek Norris and Brandon Moss both went ice cold August and September after fueling much of their offense for the first four months of the season. Coco Crisp joined those two in playing particularly putrid offensive baseball for those two months, and an offense without a lot of depth was simply unable to weather the trio's concurrent dismal production.
And it was all still almost enough, were it not for the Royals coming back three times in the AL Wild Card Game. That may not have been possible without the home field advantage of batting last that Oakland's downward spiral afforded Kansas City.
Garrett Richard ruptured his left patellar tendon
With a month left in the season, the Angels lost their ace, Garrett Richards, on a freak knee injury on his way to cover first base on a pretty routine play. He was well on his way to a 5+ WAR season by either standard measure. Richards would have changed the complexion of the ALDS to be sure. The Royals might still have been able to beat the Angels, but the Royals struggled with Anaheim's should-have-been #2 and #3 starters, Jered Weaver and Matt Shoemaker, in the first two games of the series. The loss of Richards on a fluky injury absolutely cost the Angels. How much it cost them is immeasurable and obviously exists in a solely hypothetical arena, but it certainly helped the Royals out in the end.
Detroit continued to play below expectations
Thanks in large part to Dave Dombrowski continuing to be snake-bitten when it comes to constructing a bullpen, the Tigers never really separated from the pack. The Tigers still won the division, of course, but with the exception of those September series against the Royals where Detroit decided they were going to look like the team they should have been on paper, the Tigers never took on the look of the team they should have been.
Justin Verlander's velocity and K-rates plummeted as lurid pictures of him and his famous girlfriend surfaced. Anibal Sanchez was limited to just 126.1 IP thanks to a middle finger laceration and later a right pectoral strain. The closer signed to stop the bleeding, Joe Nathan, saw his walk-rates spike and his BABIP settle in .066 points above his career mark. David Price, their key acquisition at the trade deadline, had strong DIPS numbers, but sported a 3.59 ERA 1.15 points higher than his FIP. Detroit's dismal defense didn't help Price--or any of their pitchers for that matter--but that was to be expected, as their defensive unit was near the bottom of baseball again by virtually any measure you could choose.
While it's hard to imagine the Tigers playing much better against the Royals (they won the season series 13-6), they looked the part of a superior team that never sprinted ahead of the pack in the Central.
Seattle ended up two games back from the Royals for a Wild Card spot
The Mariners were in the thick of the Wild Card hunt until the final days of the season. It doesn't take much imagination to see the team closing a two-game gap with the help of an even slightly more healthy Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. Both missed time with shoulder injuries but were effective when they returned. Walker actually threw quite a bit in Tacoma, so it isn't as though he couldn't have been of more help to the team than someone like Erasmo Ramirez, who got at least six starts after Walker appeared ready to go. With as close as they were and the addition of Nelson Cruz's bat to the lineup, there's no reason to think they won't be as good next year, and they ended up just one game worse than the other Wild Card team, Oakland. Jon Lester's great and all, but facing Felix Hernandez (if they'd have held him out of his Game 162 start, of course) in a one-game playoff would have been scarier.
Despite better Pythagorean W-L and 3rd Order Win Pct, Blue Jays ended up six games back of Royals
Toronto was red hot early in the year. On June 6th, they were just half a game worse than the A's. The Jays underperformed their Pythag by two games, and their 3rd Order Wins show that they should have won 84 games. That's not more than the Royals ended up winning, but both marks were better than the Royals respective marks of 84 and 79 wins. The difference in 3rd Order Wins is particularly stark, as the Jays' mark was five wins higher. This doesn't mean the Jays were definitely better, obviously, but there's reason to believe that they were at least as good as their record indicated without the benefit of luck playing heavily in their favor. With the additions of Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin, it's hard to say that the Jays aren't shaping up to be better this coming season.
Injuries shredded the Yankees starting rotation
By W-L, Pythag, and 3rd Order Win Pct, the Yankees were a worse team than the Royals. Their position players were about as productive as could have been expected, but their pitching rotation suffered some significant injuries. Masahiro Tanaka made just two starts after July 8th after suffering a partial UCL tear. He didn't require surgery and made two starts at the end of the season but spent 74 days on the disabled list. CC Sabathia had surgery to repair a degenerative condition in his knee and threw just 46.1 innings. Ivan Nova exited his fourth start of the season with a torn UCL, which resulted in an April 29th Tommy John surgery. The oft-injured Michael Pineda was great when he pitched but went from the April 23rd start that he left with a Teres Major strain until August 13th without making a start for the Yankees.
They got to 84 wins without the services of these pitchers for much of the 2014 campaign. A little kinder fortunes on the injury front, and it's not hard to see the Yankees closing that gap on the Royals.
The Indians finished behind the Royals despite better 2nd and 3rd Order Win Pct
Once a bit of the luck that worked so heavily in the Royals' favor in 2014 is removed from the equation, Cleveland looks to have been between three and five wins better than the Royals were. This was also an Indians team who got a terrible campaign from Justin Masterson following his 3.5 fWAR/3.4 rWAR 2013 season. And Danny Salazar pitched so poorly early in the season that he was sent down to Columbus for 11 starts before getting recalled and pitching every bit as well as he had in 2013. And Jason Kipnis went from a 4.4 fWAR player in 2013 to a 1.0 fWAR player in 2014 thanks in large part to a .288 BABIP that is .020 points lower than his career mark after being dragged down by last year's mark. The Indians were only four wins back from the Royals with two key players being shells of what they should have been.
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That is a sizable list of things that happened in the regular season that broke in the Royals favor that were entirely outside of their control. At over 3,500 words, listing them in this fashion is probably enough, at least to give a sense of scope. This list almost entirely ignores the
HO-scaled small-scale, anecdotal stuff that happened in the playoffs, too. If any two of those things do not happen--and it is safe to say that the A's could very easily been slightly less unlucky, leaving just one other favorable turn of events needing correction--the Royals could still be in that playoff drought.
Those things did all happen to break for Kansas City, but expecting an absurdly complicated with so many external variables all forming into a confluence of events that shake out in the Royals' favor again is probably foolhardy.
When so many external factors worked in the already lucky Royals favor, how much blind faith should the fanbase hold onto when looking toward the 2015 season? The key additions of Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios, and Edinson Volquez require quite a bit of blind faith from a fanbase that had little reason for anything but agnosticism for the first seven years of this regime. One magical year--with a heavy emphasis on the magic-- probably does not trump the longer track record of questionable results. Barring a facile appeal to authority based on one luck-fueled playoff bender, it would appear as though the Royals need to get better from where they currently stand to return to where they ended up last year.