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How can it all go right for the Royals in 2017?

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It’s why the Royals are going to win the pennant, Poz!

One more time!
One more time!
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

For years, the incomparable Joe Posnanski wrote a column for the Kansas City Star called “Why the Royals are going to win the pennant”. For those suffering through four 100 loss seasons in five years, it was a wonderful exercise in optimism. It was based on the idea that if you squint hard enough, you could see a number of improbable good things come together and give fans a winning team.

Fortunately, we exceeded the shelf life of that writing idea the moment Salvador Perez’s line drive scooted past a diving Josh Donaldson in the most improbable, wonderful game any of us had ever seen. That said, let’s spend the next couple of days looking at best and worst case scenarios for the 2017 Royals. I have the pleasure of playing Pollyanna while tomorrow, (Shaun Newkirk ghost writing as) Hokius demurs to draft as Debbie Downer.

As we’ve saw in 2014-2015, a run of many unlikely events can be amazingly fun. However, last year showed that relying on them can also be a formula for disappointment. Better to be good rather than to have to rely the Baseball Gods, I suppose. But let’s see what 2017 looks like if they smile on Kansas City

(Note: I’m trying to keep these fairly realistic. I guess I could predict Peter O’Brien hitting 50 homers but I think that’s pretty darn unlikely and I don’t want to get into tweet eating territory.)

The Royals Are Healthier

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.

-Hokius

The basic proposition seems somewhat unlikely across the board, given the advancing age of their best players. And we all held our breath, thinking 2017 might have been doomed before it started, with Salvador Perez’s injury in the World Baseball Classic.

The injury bug last year hit the positional players with a precision that decimated the lineup. The position player leaders of the 2015 World Series Champion Kansas City Royals, by bWAR: Lorenzo Cain’s 7.2, Mike Moustakas’s 4.4, Eric Hosmer’s 3.6, and Alex Gordon’s 2.8. Games played for that quartet in 2016: 103, 27, 158, and 128 (likely partially-injured).

Particularly important here would be Lorenzo Cain being healthy and contributing his 6.5 fWAR/162 , Mike Moustakas coming back reasonably well from injury, Alex Gordon not having to play hurt, and getting Salvador Perez some rest for a change.

Core Position Players Are Better

I think it’s safe to call the following players the “core” position players for the Royals during this run. The chart below shows their bWAR over the last 5 years with greens being their best years and reds their worst. All six had a median year or worse in 2016:

Royals core bWAR
Royals core bWAR

We’ve already talked about injuries to Moustakas, Gordon, and Cain. But even Hosmer and Escobar are not that far removed from pairs of 3 and 2 WAR seasons, respectively. Last year these six accounted for 8.5 bWAR. Including last year’s woeful numbers, they have averaged nearly double that over the past 5 seasons (16.1). Even if they all just had their median seasons, that’s 4 WAR more than last season (12.5 vs 8.5). I also put their 2017 season age across the top as a reminder that this is not a team of mid 30s veterans who may have already fallen off of a cliff. They don’t all have to put up career highs, but the offense has to be better than last year’s 13th in the AL in runs scored. And getting back to average for those 6 players would be a really good start.

While it’s one of the more unlikely items I’ve thrown out, if Cain, Gordon, and Jorge Soler could somehow play 450 games next year, the Royals will likely be in great shape. it would mean the first two were healthy while the last tapped into at least some of his potential. We’ve already talked about Cain’s 6.5 fWAR/162 and, while Gordon has had his last 2 seasons shortened by injuries, from 2011-2014, he played over 150 games each season and averaged 5.5 fWAR.

Another newcomer with Soler is Brandon Moss. And you never know if you could magically get 1.6 bWAR from some guy named Whit or have Christian Colon actually tap into some of his potential. Raul Mondesi could take a step forward. There are a couple of places the lineup that could be better from the past couple of seasons without some sort of crazy unexpected performance.

Better-than-average Pitching

Last year, the Royals were a hair below league average with a 4.21 ERA, 9th in the AL. On paper, the team should be better than that. Even with Yordano Ventura's tragic death, there has been talk of this being Dayton Moore’s best rotation. If Ian Kennedy (4.1 bWAR) and Danny Duffy (4.2) duplicate last season, that’s a good start. And that assumes Duffy doesn’t turn his three months from mid-May until mid-August into a full season but backslides like he did for the last month and a half of 2016. Hammel's last 3 seasons netted 1.1, 1.8, and 3.1 bWAR. Jason Vargas's last healthy seasons were worth 2.4, 1.8, and 3.1 (albeit 2 years ago). Nate Karns’s top comp is Alvin “General” Crowder, who went 21-5 for the St. Louis Browns in his age 29 season and would go on to win 167 games.

*(Counterpoint material for Hokius: Ian Kennedy’s 2015 was -0.4, Duffy could get hurt or revert, there’s a reason Hammel was available to sign in February, Vargas is done, and Nate Karns’s 2nd comp is Mike Grace’s whose age 29 was his last in the majors with a 7.69 ERA).

Also, the Royals bullpen needs to do Royals bullpen things. Dayton Moore appears to be able to cobble together a bullpen, though this year will be his toughest test yet. Here are the Royals bullpen ranks by ERA the past few years: 5th (2016), 2nd (2015), 10th (2014), 2nd (2013), and 6th (2012). Keep in mind that last year’s top 5 finish was with an injured Wade Davis and no Greg Holland.

Almost all expect Kelvin Herrera to ascend to the closer spot with little issue after years of being the bullpen’s fireman. That role is now expected to be filled by the tantalizing Matt Strahm, he of the 12.3 K/9 in limited action last year.

It’s probably safe to expect Joakim Soria to take up the 7th or 8th inning spot. Hopefully last year was the result of something mechanical and we can all get back to loving Soria. Every single pitcher save one* on Joakim Soria’s comp list are pitchers who had rough patches in their late 20s and/or early 30s and then rebounded to put up at least a couple more quality years. Even #8 comp Mariano Rivera had a “rough” age 30 and age 32 season before bouncing back. Soria showed flashes at times last year, with 10.1 scoreless innings (13K, 3BB) in August during the team bullpen streak. He was tinkering a lot last year and hopefully has found something that works. But I’ll grant this is probably more wishcasting than anything.

*Brian Wilson, who is now trying a beardless knuckle ball comeback, which seems so Brian Wilson

Travis Wood and his 2.95 ERA from last year have also been added. And would it surprise anyone if someone rolled in off the street to became this year’s Peter Moylan (128 ERA+ in 2016), Scott Alexander (133, 2016), Joe Blanton (108, 2015), Ryan Madson (197, 2015), Franklin Morales (132, 2015), orJason Frasor (263, 2014). Formerly dominant Al Albuquerque? Seth Maness and his experimental surgery? Mike Minor’s injury comeback? Yender “Granite” Caramo? Eric The Stout? Peter Moylan or Scott Alexander number 2? I wouldn’t bet against a couple of those guys going 30-60 IP and putting up a 125 ERA+ or better.

The Royals get some help

Every team needs some luck and the Baseball Gods, while fickle, do sometimes provide.

One thing is certain: the team needs to get off to a good start so there is no temptation to start a fire sale. Fortunately, the early schedule favors Kansas City. The Royals play 17 series in April and May. Only 6 are against teams PECOTA projects to have a winning record. With only 19 games against winning teams and 35 against those on the other side, it’s a good time to grab wins and build confidence.

Then again, this is from a system that predicts the Royals to have only 71 wins, worst in the AL. 2015 famously predicted just a record of 72-90. They reached that win total on August 18th and the loss total on June 2nd, 2016 aka October 246th of Always October. There’s the specter that for one more year, #RoyalsDevilMagic just works. Maybe there’s just something about the current composition of the team that isn’t being captured by projection systems. Over the last 4 seasons, the Royals have exceeded PECOTA by 10, 10, 23, and 5 wins.

Everyone, of course, remembers 2015 as the juggernaut team with Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto. But prior to those two massive deadline deals, they were already 20 games over .500 at 58-38 (98-win pace). It’s revisionist history to pretend that those two additions were the difference between the regular season success of 2015 vs 2014 or 2016. Of the 10 players on that team worth 2 bWAR or more, 6 are still with the Royals in 2017. The departing four of Wade Davis, Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, and Jarrod Dyson all have replacements in Joakim Soria/Mike Wood, Jason Hammel/Nate Karns, Brandon Moss, and Jorge Soler. If there’s something about the makeup of the team which is being overlooked, perhaps enough of that core is still there to tap into it.

Beyond that, PECOTA provides additional reason for optimism, too. In the Central, only the Indians are projected to have a winning record. If the Royals are better than expected, that’s a lot of wins against a weak division. And Cleveland is already beginning to get punches on their “Injure 10 players, get a free Tommy John surgery” card.

Then there’s the human side of the equation which gives so much variability to this great game. For instance, there’s the potential of the “contract year” phenomenon. One study has shown hitters can add 6.7% on average to their OPS in a walk year while some claim otherwise. That wouldn’t be a bad boost on the career averages of Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, and Escobar. Maybe said human beings rally around the memory of Ventura or the idea of “one last chance” to play together and perform better.* I’m not aware of a baseball-specific study about better workplace morale leading to increased productivity but the number in industry are legion.

*Though for a team that boasts about their good chemistry, I’m not sure if it helps when the team is negotiating with only one of the core. I would think it would be much worse if Hosmer gets taken care of and everyone else harbors resentment.

Finally

Of course, the Royals don’t have to have everything go right even to win the World Series, but I think they need more good luck than bad just to make the playoffs. While this is still the same core from a team that won the 2014 AL Pennant and 2015 World Series, those teams also benefited from good fortune. Most every winning team does.

I guess if we’re really talking about uber-best case scenarios... Dr. Brian Bannister’s research, funded by Dan Glass, discovers some sort of energy superfood that lengthens human lifespans while simultaneously solving world hunger and clean energy problems, leading to world peace. It was unfortunate for St. Louis, however, as the only spots where it could grow were provel-contaminated areas directly under Busch Stadium and local high schools. All were demolished for the greater good and the Cardinals were disbanded.

Baseball flourished in a new Golden Age with great competitive balance, bringing long sought titles not just to Cleveland but to Houston, Dallas, Seattle, San Diego, Tampa, Denver, Milwaukee, and expansion teams Montreal and Mexico City. Kansas City, of course, gets their fair share and Dayton finally gets his parade on the Plaza. Baseball once again becomes the national pastime and most popular sport while historians debunk the theory that the sport did best when the Yankees had a competitive advantage. But the 2115 World Champion Yankees give a storybook ending to legions of their long suffering fans, ending a 100 year playoff drought.

But that may be a bit too fanciful. Let’s settle for this core of the team riding off into the sunset after flying one more flag at Kauffman Stadium. And if this team makes the playoffs, no matter how, who knows how much damage they could do in the postseason.