There has been a narrative running around since the end of the 2016 baseball season all through the off-season that the Royals failed to finish over .500 for the first time since 2012 because they just endured far too many injuries for any team to succeed. Take a look at this graph quantifying injuries in 2016, though.
Ignore for a moment that Cleveland did not win the World Series and focus on the rest. Any team that isn’t red made the playoffs. The further to the right a team is, the more days it had players on the disabled list. The larger the circle the higher quality of players lost.
All of the playoff teams were hurt as much or more than the Royals in one of the two categories, while still winning more games. For that matter, Seattle, Detroit, St. Louis, and the New York Yankees also finished the season with more injuries and more wins, even while missing the playoffs.
Based on that data, it becomes relatively obvious that a team can endure just as many injuries as the Royals and succeed. Every successful team had to do so. But let’s back up and look at this a different way for a moment.
Everyone knows a team has to be elite at something if they want to get to the World Series. You can’t get there by just being mediocre at everything, there will be other teams that are mediocre at most things and very good at at least one or two others. The 2014 and 2015 Royals notoriously received low projections before both seasons from most of the famous projection algorithms. Many people want to argue that the projection systems don’t take into account fielding ability, or base-running, bullpen, or heart.
According to baseball-reference.com the 2014 Royals were tied for third in baserunning runs, fourth in fielding runs, and allowed well bellow average runs per game out of their bullpen. In 2015 they were seventh in baserunning runs, second in fielding runs, and still well below average in runs allowed per game by the bullpen. The 2016 Royals were sixth in baserunning runs, eighth in fielding runs, and were only slightly better than average in runs allowed by their bullpen.
If you prefer Fangraphs stats, the Royals from 2014-2016 were 10th, 19th, and 21st in BsR; 4th, 8th, and 11th by Def; and 4th, 3rd, and 8th by bullpen fWAR.
Depending on how you weight the stats, it is true that the 2016 Royals were not as good as the previous two iterations of the team in any of those 3 categories. But they weren’t that much worse, either. So what changed? This is where you say, “Injuries” and I say, “Yep.”
You see, while the Royals were not significantly injured in 2016, they were hardly injured at all in 2014 and 2015. Shaun Newkirk was kind enough to provide me with a table he made based on data from Man-Games Lost detailing how many player-games a team lost to the DL and estimates of the amount of WAR lost in those injuries. So it’s pretty similar to that graph at the top, but allows me to compare teams across years. This is what you get for the 2014-2016 Royals:
Royals Injury History
IIT-WAR is a stat that MGL invented. They define it as, “...a single-value metric that attempts to quantify the impact of a player not playing for their team due to injury.” And it more or less attempts to calculate how much bWAR was lost due to injuries. The Royals were hurt significantly less in 2014 and 2015, to the point that you could pretty much say they were elite at not being injured which contributed to their playoff runs in those years.
The Royals stopped being elite at not being hurt in 2016, and they didn’t become elite in any other way to make up the difference. If they had had a better team, or more depth, the injuries wouldn’t have mattered. According to the IIT, the Royals lost a little bit less than 5 bWAR to injury last year, that’s not insignificant but still only puts them 8th in that category. It also means that if they had endured absolutely no injuries you might have expected them to win 86 games instead of 81, still not enough to make the playoffs. MGL admits that the IIT-WAR shouldn’t really be taken literally, but I suspect it’s more likely an over-estimate than an underestimate.
So what does all of this mean? The Royals were definitely hurt worse last year than the previous two years, but not more than any of the other good teams and even if they hadn’t been hurt, they still probably would not have made the playoffs. If the Royals want to get back to the playoffs in 2017, they’re going to have to a better team, not just a healthier one.