In 2014, the Royals won the American League pennant. In 2015, they bested that by winning the World Series. Over those two seasons, the Royals won 89 and 95 games respectively, including a pretty much wire-to-wire dominance over the AL in 2015. Cumulatively, those squads put together a 22-9 record in the postseason. Those were two very good teams.
In 2019, the Royals have won 34.7% of their games. They are currently pacing for 106 losses, which would tie a franchise record. It should be noted that their Pythagorean W-L record is 21-28, but Pythag isn’t real. Their 17-32 record is.
There are many, drastic differences between this 2019 team and those 2014-2015 Royals. For starters, the pennant-winning squads had a lights-out bullpen that, more or less, reinvented how baseball uses bullpens. They had seven players make the All-Star team in 2015. However, one of the more striking differences between these three teams is that the 2019 team has more top-40 fWAR positions players than the 2014 and 2015 teams had combined.
Entering Friday’s action, Hunter Dozier (2.0), Alex Gordon (1.9), Adalberto Mondesi (1.6), and Whit Merrifield (1.5) will all start as top-40 players according to fWAR. Given, it is just May 24, and both the 2014 and 2015 teams played out full seasons. However, those teams only had three top-40 players in Alex Gordon (2014) and Lorenzo Cain (2014-2015).
In Royals history, this sort of talent on a team this bad is pretty unprecedented. I want to note again that there is a lot of baseball left to be played and that we aren’t likely to see four Royals in the top-40 by the end of the season. Still, if we are looking at this on a per-game basis, this team has done a lot of losing despite having four very good position players, which isn’t normal.
So, I took a look at every Royals season that ended in at least 90 losses, as well as one that came up just short (2010) and even one winning team (2003). In total, I looked at 17 seasons, starting with the most recent.
In 2018, Whit Merrifield was the 17th best position player in baseball despite the Royals losing 104 games, but the next best Royals player on the list was Mondesi, all the way down at 75. After that, it was Gordon at 104. 2011 and 2012 were interesting because the Royals had peak Gordon, who finished those seasons ranked 9th and 19th respectively. But after that, No other Royal was able to crack the top-40, and in 2012, no other player even cracked the top-50.
Aside from those three seasons where the Royals got near-elite to elite production from at least one player, it was pretty ugly. From 1999-2009, the Royals had just one player not named Carlos Beltran or David DeJesus crack the top-40. That player was Mike Aviles in 2008. In 1969, 1970, 1992, 1999, 2004, 2007, and 2009, the Royals didn’t have one player rank inside the top-40 and the average rank of those teams’ best position player was 68th. Even the 2003 team, who produced the first winning season in Kansas City since 1993, had far less offensive talent. Beltran carried the ship with a 6.9 fWAR, good for 6th in baseball that season, but the next best player was Angel Berroa and his 97th ranked 2.7 fWAR.
In the 17 seasons I looked at, the Royals had just ten top-40 seasons from their position players. And interestingly enough, only one of those teams (2006) lost baseball games as often as the 2019 Royals are. More importantly, not a single one of those teams had two top-40 players, let alone four. The 2002 squad came close, with Beltran checking in at 18 and Mike Sweeney just missing the cut at 41.
So, what does all of this mean? Well, if you are thinking that creating a cutoff at the 40th best player in baseball is arbitrary, you are absolutely right. I picked 40 as the cutoff because Whit checks in at 38. With that being said, in any given season, there are around 140-145 qualified players. Being a top-40 player means that you are in the top 27-28% of players in baseball. Over the past 10 years, the 40th best player in baseball has been worth 4.0 fWAR almost exactly, which is a borderline All-Star.
As arbitrary as the cutoff might be, the Royals have four players that are playing at an All-Star caliber level and they have lost nearly twice as many games as they have won. And that doesn’t include guys like Jorge Soler, who leads the Royals in home runs, or Nicky Lopez, who has only played eight games.
The Royals have a pretty strong history of losing in spectacular fashion, and they are doing it again in 2019. However, this should give us a bit of hope for the rest of the season. Top-40 players aside, they have been outscored by just 37 runs this season. That’s a better run differential than the 25-22 Pirates. A regression to the mean should be expected. In other words, this team shouldn’t lose 106 games.
But man, if they do and somehow manage to finish with four of the best 40 players in baseball, it will be the weirdest, most painfully hilarious thing ever.