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The Royals are much better than their record suggests

They’re not this bad.

Hunter Dozier #17 celebrates with Jorge Soler #12 of the Kansas City Royals after hitting a home run during the eighth inning of the game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on April 21, 2019 in the Bronx borough of New York City.
Hunter Dozier #17 celebrates with Jorge Soler #12 of the Kansas City Royals after hitting a home run during the eighth inning of the game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on April 21, 2019 in the Bronx borough of New York City.
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

When a team is 11-20, there tends to not often be a lot of meaningful positives to discuss. Indeed, Royals Review hasn’t exactly been sunshine and rainbows about the Kansas City Royals this year. That is because there are currently an abundance of bad things to talk about. I mean, come on, the team is 11-20. That is a “look I know just started my franchise mode in MLB The Show but this is no fun so I’m going to restart from spring training” level of bad.

But, as is sung in the cinematic masterpiece The Life of Brian, you can always look on the bright side of life. Furthermore, something has clearly gone right with the Royals—they have won 11 games in the first place.

Your ray of positivity in this dark baseball time is this: the Royals are way better than their record suggests.

Now, some of you will quote Bill Parcells’ famous line when confronted with this idea: “you are what your record says you are.” And on some level, that’s true. The Royals are 11-20. That they’ve played well enough to win more games is moot because they didn’t. But Parcells’ statement doesn’t hold as much ground when brought from the violent world of football, where sample sizes are as tiny as the stadiums are giant, into baseball. It certainly doesn’t predict future performances.

The main reason why the Royals are better than their record shows is because of their raw runs scored and runs allowed. In some ways, the differential between your runs scored and runs allowed tells more about the team than the record because it points to underlying skill levels and is removed from the hyper-specific situations in which one run can a game between a win and a loss.

Measuring a team’s theoretical record based on that team’s run differential is called the Pythagorean record. Devised by Bill James, it does a fantastic job of predicting actual win-loss records over a long period of time. These expected win-loss records for baseball teams usually fall within three games of a team’s actual win-loss record over a full season.

Before yesterday, when the Royals went 2-0 in a traditional doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Rays, Kansas City’s Pythagorean record was significantly better than their normal record. Below is a table with all American League Central teams, their Pythag win percentage, and the corresponding record rounded to the nearest whole number (because winning 0.4 of a game is as impossible as it is for Chris Owings to be a good big league hitter).

AL Central Pythagorean Record

Team Actual Record Pythagorean Record
Team Actual Record Pythagorean Record
Minnesota Twins 17-10 (.630) 15-12 (.562)
Cleveland Indians 16-12 (.571) 15-13 (.517)
Chicago White Sox 12-14 (.462) 12-13 (.454)
Kansas City Royals 9-20 (.310) 12-17 (.420)
Detroit Tigers 13-14 (.481) 11-16 (.410)

Entering yesterday’s game, the Royals had scored 4.55 runs per game and allowed 5.38 runs per game. That’s bad, but not 9-20 bad. The Royals should have won three more games based solely on runs scored and runs against.

And if you want to delve in further, you can. Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted standings has two more levels of calculations. Their 2nd order winning percentage uses the Pythagorean method for calculating wins, but goes one step further by calculating how many runs the team should have scored and allowed based on underlying counting totals.

That sounds tricky, but you can see why that matters: two singles before a home run will result in three runs, but two singles after a home run will result in one run. Second order winning percentage gives an expected run value to each offensive events independent of order, thereby attempting to weed out luck or variance. 3rd winning percentage does what second order winning percentage does, but also adjusts for quality of opponents.

And, wouldn’t you know it, when taking into account the raw underlying stats and opponent quality, the Royals also come out pretty well. Better than their actual record, certainly.

AL Central 2nd and 3rd Order Records

Team Actual Record 2nd Order Record 3rd Order Record
Team Actual Record 2nd Order Record 3rd Order Record
Minnesota Twins 17-10 (.630) 15-12 (.570) 15-12 (.553)
Cleveland Indians 16-12 (.571) 13-15 (.452) 13-15 (.471)
Detroit Tigers 13-14 (.481) 13-14 (.476) 13-14 (.469)
Kansas City Royals 9-20 (.310) 12-17 (.427) 13-16 (.443)
Chicago White Sox 12-14 (.462) 12-14 (.456) 11-15 (.440)

At this point in the season, the Royals have underperformed their raw stats by between three and four wins. Nobody’s thinking about these Royals as world beaters or baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors that will lazily cruise to the title without even much effort. But if you’ve thought to yourself, “Gee, this team seems like it should be doing better,” you are correct.

So, what does this mean?

The Royals are a bad team. Before the season, not one of the 14 writers who contributed to our big thread of probably wrong baseball predictions thought the Royals would have a winning record. And after over 30 games, those predictions have been validated. The starting pitching isn’t good. The defense hasn’t been as good as advertised. And even though it’s settled down, the bullpen is still a mess.

What it does mean, though, is that the Royals are looking to be in prime position to surprise in the second half of the year. Not only will simple regression help—the Royals aren’t going to lose every one-run game moving forward—but the Royals could radically transform their squad by then. Lucas Duda (-0.3 fWAR in 18 games) and Chris Owings (-0.4 fWAR in 28 games) will be of greater use to the Royals when they aren’t on the team anymore, to put it charitably. Ryan O’Hearn (-0.4 fWAR in 26 games) will either turn it around or get demoted to figure stuff out in Triple-A. The bullpen will probably continue to find its groove, especially as Ned Yost starts giving high leverage innings to the best guys.

Yes, Hunter Dozier will stop doing his Mike Trout impression, and Alex Gordon won’t be vintage Alex Gordon forever. But that should be offset by improvement by Martin Maldonado and Billy Hamilton, two guys who haven’t been producing but have been both worth at least 1.2 fWAR each of the last three seasons. Overall, I don’t think it would be surprising to see the Royals play at an even .500 clip for a few months later in the year.

If you want to be optimistic, you should note that the Royals have multiple solid pieces already in the lineup, with a wave of talent approaching in the minor leagues. It also helps that the numbers bear out that the Royals haven’t really been as bad as they’ve played.