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Why are the Royals this bad?

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It’s a question worth asking

Kansas City Royals v Oakland Athletics Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Last week, a gentleman emailed me about the Kansas City Royals. This happens sometimes, and to be honest I wonder why it doesn’t happen more often. It’s sitting there in my SB Nation profile for everyone to see, which you can find at any time by clicking the Masthead link at the bottom of the page.

But what was interesting about this email is that he wasn’t a Royals fan. He said so. He was just wondering: “Did you have an inkling the Royals would be as bad as they are this year, or has it surprised you as much as anyone?”

Then, just a few days ago, Sam Mellinger at the Kansas City Star and I had a conversation over Twitter about whether or not the Royals were likely to eclipse 100 losses. Sam asserted that losing 100 games is really hard even for truly awful teams, submitting the 2009 Royals as a horrific team that still didn‘t get to the 100-loss plateau; in fact, despite some truly awful teams, the Royals haven‘t lost 100 games in a dozen years. Sam also argued that this year’s Royals are much better than the 2009 team.

Combine the two conversations, and it got me thinking. Are these Royals really that bad? And how did we get there? Let’s see.

STARTING POINT: 80 wins in 2017

We have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is this: the 2017 team won 80 games. It was a losing season, if only just. But their Pythagorean expected win-loss record, calculated only using runs scored and runs allowed, stated that the Royals should have won only 72 games. Now, the Royals have a recent history of overachieving their Pythag, but it’s perfectly useful as a datapoint, and that datapoint says that the Royals weren’t good in 2017.

STEP ONE: lose your two best position players

Per Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, the 2017 Royals’ best players were Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer. They had a combined WAR of 8.4, and individually they both generated at least 4 WAR. That amount of production is squarely in legitimate All-Star land, and Hosmer placed 14th in MVP voting that year.

Both signed with other teams--Cain with the Milwaukee Brewers and Hosmer with the San Diego Padres--thus bringing their considerable talents with them.

STEP TWO: lose your most reliable, All-Star starting pitcher

Jason Vargas was an All-Star last year, which is somewhat ridiculous, but at the time he was simply excellent. Vargas made all 32 starts in 2017, throwing the second-most innings in the entire staff (just behind 32-start Jason Hammel) and putting up a respectable 4.16 ERA. While fWAR dings Vargas for his higher fielding-independent pitching numbers, Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR rated him at 3.9, which is very good.

Losing a reliable dude who makes 20% of your team’s starts is never good, and the Royals let Jason Vargas sign with the New York Mets (though, to be fair, they dodged a bit of a bullet considering his 2018 performance).

STEP THREE: toss four of your five most used relievers to the winds

This gets sort of overlooked a bit here despite the 2018 Royals’ bullpen struggles, but 2017 had an ok pen. Their top five relievers by games played were Peter Moylan, Mike Minor, Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria, and Scott Alexander. All but Herrera went elsewhere: Kansas City didn’t re-sign Moylan or Minor in free agency, and traded Soria and Alexander away.

While none of those guys were Wade Davis-quality or anything, they were all perfectly acceptable and reasonably reliable relievers. That they are all gone is part of why this year’s squad has relied on, you know, Justin Grimm and Blaine Boyer and Brandon Maurer, who are all definitively ungood.

RESULT: a very bad 2018 team

What happens if an 80-win team with a Pythagorean record eight wins worse than that loses seven of its most productive players? That team would be very bad.

And that is exactly what we’re seeing this year: the 2018 team is awful for those exact reasons. But beyond that, don’t let name recognition fool you: the 2018 is legitimately awful and every bit as awful as the mid-2000 ones.

There is, I think, this prevailing thought that this year’s Royals are somehow better than the ones of a decade ago, but that just doesn’t hold any water. The Royals are an absurd 22-46, and their Pythagorean record is about the same. This is not an unlucky team; this is a truly awful team.

Consider: the 2018 Royals have three players with an ERA under 4. They have four players with an ERA over 10. They have five players on pace for -0.6 WAR or worse. Their once-lauded defense ranks 22nd among the 30 MLB teams in Defensive Runs Saved. They have the league’s second-highest bullpen ERA and fifth-highest starting pitcher ERA, and they’ve combined that by ranking 27th in runs per game. While this group doesn’t have the amount of no-name, awful players that the mid-2000s teams did, it makes up for that with a true lack of depth and little high-end talent.

Maybe we didn’t see the Royals on pace for well over 100 losses in the middle of June. But everyone who was even somewhat realistically informed knew that this season was going to be bad. They still have time to turn it around a bit. But at this point, they probably shouldn’t. They’ve gotten this far tanking while trying not to tank. Might as well tank on purpose now.