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Just how real are the Royals chances of making the playoffs?

A hot streak gained some ground

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

As if some baseball deity corrected some path and exerted some comical predestined fortune for the Royals this year, the team has, of course, won 15 of their last 20 games. They have won eight straight, climbing above .500 and now find themselves 3.5 games back of the second Wild Card spot. A few weeks back we may have laughed at an article of this kind, but not today at least.

MLB Wild Card Standings

Team W L W% GB
Red Sox 69 54 .561 0
Orioles 67 56 .545 0
Mariners 66 57 .537 -1
Tigers 65 59 .524 -2.5
Astros 64 60 .516 -3.5
Royals 64 60 .516 -3.5
Yankees 63 60 .512 -4

It is probably no surprise to you I am the least bullish on the Royals playoff chances this year. Maybe you think it is pessimism but this kinda stuff is always subjective. It is only pessimistic if you think the Royals are very good and likely to make the playoffs.

Projection systems aren't really pessimistic, at least not in a subjective sense. PECOTA doesn't look at the Royals and go "oh hey it's the Royals" then subtract 15 wins. FanGraphs playoff odds don't underrate the Royals because they are the Royals. Projection systems are always agnostic of the team's name and past history against projections.

So let's look at how the Royals currently stand in their various playoff scenarios:

System Div. Odds WC Odds Playoff Odds
FanGraphs 0.4% 3.8% 4.2%
Baseball Prospectus 0.6% 5.1% 5.7%
MLB 0.4% 2.4% 2.9%
FiveThirtyEight 3.0% 11.0% 14.0%

Royals have the "Big Mo" going for them after the hot streak but the odds of making the playoffs are still a tall order. Fivethirtyeight has them at a 14% chance to make the playoffs and that seems comparatively bullish with the other sites. However that's still the tenth best odds among AL teams.

The other sites of course aren't nearly as high. All of them effectively say the Royals aren't winning the division (which most would agree with) and at best there is a 5.1% chance of making the Wild Card. The Royals are also off today while New York, Seattle, Houston, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Boston all play. Seattle and New York play each other so the Royals are guaranteed to lose some ground on one of them. Houston, Baltimore, Cleveland (if you are looking at the division), and Boston with wins could get a free day on the Royals too.

When you look at the road ahead for the Royals it's bumpy, with patches of seemingly easy streaks and then harder matchups.

The upcoming series against Miami and Boston (both at their respective parks) are two higher (ie: harder) points on the graph. However there is a deep plunge after the Detroit series where the Royals play Minnesota (who they just swept in four games), the White Sox (who they are 9-3 against this year), and then Oakland. However they then travel to Cleveland, where the Royals have only won one game this year (out of six) and Detroit (where they did just sweep the Tigers but also lost 2-3 earlier). There is a maybe final breath of air with the penultimate series being against the lowly Twins at home before the Indians come to town for a series that very well could make or break the playoffs for KC.

The Royals have 38 games left. It seems like they will need to win 90 games to make the Wild Card this year, based on the fact the 2014 Royals won 89 games and the two Wild Card teams from 2013 had to each win 92. To get to 90 wins the Royals would need to go 26-12 for the rest of the year. That's a .684 winning percentage or a 110 win full season pace. It's easier to go on a ~.700 W% streak for a week or two but very very hard to do it for a month and a half. For reference the Cubs this year have a .639 W%. That means the Royals need to play ~7 games better than the Cubs have played so know...the best team in baseball.

Mapping out the rest of the year the Royals probably can't afford to lose more than a series or two and they almost certainly can't get swept. Let's say the Royals went:

2-1 vs @MIA
2-1 vs @BOS
2-1 vs NYY
2-1 vs DET
3-0 vs @MIN
2-1 vs @CWS
3-1 vs OAK
3-1 v CWS
2-1 v @CLE
2-1 v @DET
3-0 v MIN
2-1 v CLE

That's 92 wins, which puts them over that 90 win threshold. That means they win every series (including the four game series against Oakland/Chicago) and sweep both Minnesota series (not impossible but one of them is on the road where KC hasn't played well).

Let's just imagine the Royals play the same as they have against those teams this year (using W% then rounding). Note that they haven't played the Marlins of course so we'll leave that at 2-1.

2-1 vs @MIA
2-1 vs @BOS (.750)
1-2 vs NYY (.250)
2-1 vs DET (.692)
2-1 vs @MIN (.833)
2-1 vs @CWS (.750) 
1-3 vs OAK  (.333)
3-1 v CWS (.750)
1-2 v @CLE (.385)
2-1 v @DET (.692)
2-1 v MIN (.833)
1-2 v CLE (.385)

That's 85 wins. A far cry of five games below the 90 win threshold and a few games shy of a much lower hurdle of 88 wins. That of course is without any benefits or penalties of home/road. If we just assume they win every home series and lose every road one it looks like:

1-2 vs @MIA
1-2 vs @BOS 
2-1 vs NYY 
2-1 vs DET 
1-2 vs @MIN
1-2 vs @CWS 
3-1 vs OAK 
3-1 v CWS
1-2 v @CLE
1-2 v @DET
2-1 v MIN
2-1 v CLE

That's an even lower outcome of 84 wins, even despite getting the advantage of two extra wins with the back-to-back four game series at home.

The Royals not only have to keep winning, but they have to keep winning series too. They'll probably need a sweep or two on the way and have to avoid getting swept themselves. These results are of course agnostic of what the other teams will do but barring a collapse by two of Boston/Toronto/Baltimore, and bad finishes by Houston, Seattle, Detroit, and the Yankees, KC will need to do their part to finish very strong.