The Royals are in first. The Royals are the best baseball team in Missouri. It is the 15th of August.
These are sentences that usually don't exist on their own (well, except for the last one, if you believe in things such as days and months). Put together, and they combine a surprising and powerful statement that is equal parts confusion, fear, and jubilation. For those unaware of the Royals' history, the last time they were in the playoffs was 1985. That's 29 years ago, or roughly forever in sports terms. This isn't something like a playoff victory drought like the Kansas City Chiefs--whose drought goes back 21 years to 1993--or a World Series win drought. No, this is simply extra baseball drought, the absence of meaningful baseball for an entire generation of fans. Because nobody experiences baseball in the womb (or so we think), the youngest fans who remember a playoff game are in their mid 30s. That's unfathomable, and yet it's happened. It is, as you might expect, the longest active drought in North American professional sports.
What's also unfathomable is that these Royals are, almost equally as stunning, in the midst of an amazing season. Playoff odds are calculated in a myriad of ways depending on who conducts them. Regardless of their calculators, playoff odds include such things as talent level, strength of schedule, injuries, and both positive and negative regressions. They also like the Royals. Here are some playoff odds for you:
ESPN: 69.9% (Overall)
Baseball Prospectus: 58.8% (Overall), 15.3% (Wild Card), 43.5% (Division)
Fangraphs: 59.7% (Overall), 19.1% (Wild Card), 40.6% (Division)
At this point, it is more likely than not that the Royals will reach the playoffs and break the longest, most excruciating streak of uselessness in recent sports history. Which is mind-blowing.
Of course, many of doubted the Royals would be this good, including many of the Royals Review staff. Back when we previewed this season, the win predictions looked like this:
Connor Moylan: 85 wins
Jeff Zimmerman: 82 wins
Josh Duggan: 84 wins
NHZ: 84 wins
Max Rieper: 83 wins
Tyler Drennon: 91 wins
That's not a particularly rosy collective outlook; but we were pretty close together. (I predicted 88 wins as a reader). The Royals are currently on pace for 89 wins, more than everyone but Drennon guessed.
So, what gives? If the Royals end up with 89 wins, are we all stupid for under-predicting them? Well, no.
Baseball is a funny game. You hear that all the time, but it's true. Luck is often washed away though game after game, but not always. Sometimes you get the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, who rode an insane stretch of luck to a 93-69 record with a Pythag of only 82-80. Sometimes, a pitcher in the midst of a horrific, 6.55 ERA season will throw an 80 pitch complete game a month before tossing 13 strikeouts in only 7 innings. It happens.
That is partially why evaluating baseball is just so difficult, especially with a statistically-oriented mindset. There is always a margin for error, sometimes a large one, that exists no matter the perfection of a given prediction. Injuries loom to destroy arms as well as brackets, but even unforseen variance can do the same with just as little warning and far more subtlety.
Of course we can accurately predict things in baseball. On a simple level, we know that a team with a better on-base percentage should be better offensively than one with little plate discipline and extreme reliance on batting average. Projection systems like Dan Szymborski's ZiPS are actually quite reliable because of just how much we can accurately evaluate players.
But even the most well-founded guesses can fail.
Essentially, this all comes down to odds. If a team has a 70% chance of finishing with a certain range of wins, it still has a 30% chance of not doing so. It would be ludicrous to pick the 30% odds in any circumstance, yet many people backtrack and apologize for their prediction if it turns out incorrectly and the tiny chance actually happens.
This is a reasonably large reason why the uninitiated criticize statistics: sabermetricians are wrong a lot. It's just the nature of the beast. Any time somebody picks something based on stats and it doesn't occur, the stats are criticized. In reality, it's far from that; that prediction was made based on the odds, and sabermetricians are right many, many other times. Nothing is 100%--not in baseball. Picking using statistics maximizes efficiency and allows you to say, 'Hey, you know what, I was wrong, but it's ok.' It allows you to put together a thorough and efficient thought process that can be repeatable, unlike results. That is certainly better than primarily using your gut and being wrong anyway, no? There's no way out of that one.
This Kansas City season was unlikely. This team was not good enough to have a sure shot at the playoffs, and still isn't even now. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy it. I am certainly loving every minute of this August baseball team and I hope it continues. But I can still criticize Dayton Moore for bad execution and logic; that's only fair. There isn't a binary between being wrong and being stupid.
Sometimes, being wrong is a product of a good thing, and being right is a product of poor judgment--but it doesn't diminish the ride.