I’ve been considering my pre-season Royals write up for a while and with 5 days until Opening Day, now’s the time. While Royals fans are still wondering if Sal Perez knew swinging was optional, the educated baseball world has moved on to 2015. I listen to a lot of intelligent baseball opinions and thus far all (but one) HATE Kansas City this season. This First Take and people aren’t being controversial just to make headlines. Let me lay out the criticisms:
- This team wasn’t THAT good last year, they just got hot for 20 games at the right time.
- This team has been incredibly healthy and that’s not repeatable.
- This team has a lack of depth that if injured creates major holes.
- The starting pitching really wasn’t too good last year and will be worse without Shields.
- This team depended on historical performances from its bullpen and that’s not repeatable.
- This team doesn’t walk, so they’re subject to BABIP variance.
- This team depends on breakout performances from younger players, must have improvement for the team to succeed.
- There are no stars on this team that elite performance is guaranteed.
I see their point on almost all 8. I believe this specific team viewed in this specific offensive context does have certain characteristics which makes them the exception to most of the rules above. I address these criticisms as follows:
- The presence of the 3 elite bullpen pitchers and elite defensive replacements led to lower scoring and closer games. KC had one of the lowest run differentials in wins and one of the highest differentials in losses. This was because their top 3 bullpen arms were elite and their last 4-5 bullpen arms were barely major league quality. In my opinion, this accounts more for their reduced run differential than anything else.
- Health is correlated to two things: Age and previous health. Overall this team is young and doesn’t have a history of injury. Both of those are still relatively true this season.
- This is a real problem. Escobar, Perez, and the starting pitching don’t really have true replacements without a significant drop in production. This is true of most teams though. Once you get past the starting 9 and starting rotation, there’s not much there. It’s just how it is.
- Basically we’re replacing last year’s Shields with this year’s Ventura. At least that’s what we hope. Ventura had more WAR than Shields last year, so that’s no big deal. We hope Duffy can be what Ventura was, which is really where the fall off might be. Duffy put up 2 WAR in 25 starts in the PY. One more win would make it happen, it’s doable, but ambitious. Volquez really just needs to be as good as the Chen/Duffy combination was last year. They put up 2 WAR combined, so it’s doable. I’m not sure the starting pitching is worse, as long as the defense is still good, they should be decent enough.
- Herrera, Davis and Holland were incredible last season. They were also incredible in 2013. So it’s been repeated once. Bullpen’s as a general whole are unpredictable, great bullpens without turnover seem to be more predictable. The Giants have won 3 World Series with many of the same bullpen arms involved. The Yankees did something very similar. Just because it’s generally true doesn’t mean it’s always true. I think KC’s the exception. Add in Hochevar and this bullpen is elite again.
- Walks and OBP are a problem for KC. We’re a high contact team which is why we were dangerous in the playoffs. We’ll lose to some bad pitchers, but we’ll also beat some good ones. It’s just how BABIP works out. It keeps us from ever winning 100, that’s for sure.
- This is easily the most troubling one for me. KC must have more offense to be good. Moose, Hosmer, Perez, and Gordon gotta hit 80 HRs between them for this team to really succeed. Maybe the playoff bats were the real deal, but maybe it was a fluke. If a fluke, the offense will be ugly again.
- Really, it’s the same issue as #7. They added Rios and Morales, but they aren’t expected to be the centerpieces of an offense. If the bats are working, KC rolls.
I have a few primary indicators of KC’s success. Like I said above, if Moose, Hosmer, Perez, and Gordon hit 80 HRs, this team makes the playoffs. If Ventura, Duffy, Volquez, Guthrie and Vargas make a combined 140 starts, they win the division. If they score 700 runs, they win 100 games. The road for success is lined with HRs and quality starts. If that happens, this team will be good. If they aren’t, I still think this is an above .500 team. The Vegas over/under is 80.5 wins. Baseball Prospectus projects 73 wins. Fangraphs (ZiPS) projects 79 wins. I’ve got them at 86 and winning the division. It’s probably my median outcome for them. My range is probably from 82-90. I just don’t see a below .500 team here and I think there’s still enough guys improving that there’s some upside. The baseball intelligencia as a whole thinks the Royals were a mirage. A fluke of baseball variance that will correct itself shortly. I believe KC is fundamentally different from almost every other team in the game currently. They can’t be measured by the same "Moneyball" type metrics which govern our understanding of what makes for a successful baseball team. I believe our models and projection systems are based upon teams playing baseball in a certain way and if a team doesn’t fit that mold, the systems don’t react well to the information provided. It can’t understand what it wasn’t made to understand. Maybe I’m just trying to find reason in variance, and maybe I’m still clouded by a postseason that seems like a dream, we’ve got 162 games to prove it out. Monday is coming.