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Are the Royals as bad as their record suggests?

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And what’s luck got to do with it?

Kansas City Royals v Houston Astros Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The mantra through the first half of the 2019 season seems to be something along the lines of “The Royals aren’t near as bad as their record.”

The offense is decent enough to offset any deficiencies on the mound. The starters have just come off a solid stretch of appearances. Every once in a while, the bullpen strings together a nice couple of innings. They’re not a winning team by any stretch, but should they be 100-loss bad? Does their current record make any sense given the construction of this team?

Time to shove some numbers around.

In the 30 games where the Royals pitchers have allowed four runs or less, they have a 22-7 record. That’s an astounding .733 winning percentage. Of course, you’re generally expected to win games where your pitchers allow so few runs. The league average in 2019 for runs allowed is 4.78. To put it in as simple way as possible, in games where the Royals pitchers yield a below average amount of runs, they play like the love child of the Big Red Machine and 1927 Yankees.

Pump the brakes! At this point we need a little perspective. There have been 1,227 times where a team has limited their opponents to four runs or less. In those games, teams own a 909-318 record. That’s good for a .741 winning percentage. In other words, despite the seemingly amazing winning percentage when holding their opponents to four runs or less, the Royals are actually just a tick off the league average winning percentage.

They’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing when limiting the opposition. For a team on pace for 106 losses, it’s nice to see an area where they are actually close to league average.

Let’s flip the runs allowed script. This is where it gets ugly. In games where the Royals have allowed five or six runs, they own a 3-24 record. That’s a binary-like .111 winning percentage. Again, we have to state the obvious—the more runs you allow, the less chance you have of winning. (Aren’t you glad this isn’t a subscription site?) The league as a whole wins at a .339 percentage when allowing five or six runs. Once we get into above average territory on runs allowed, the Royals basically have no shot of winning this year. It doesn’t help that a five or six runs allowed outing is the most common outcome for a Royals game this year.

Runs Allowed
Runs Games Wins Loss W-L%
0 2 2 0 1.000
1 6 6 0 1.000
2 10 7 3 .700
3 7 4 3 .571
4 5 3 2 .600
5 13 1 12 .077
6 14 2 12 .143
7 9 1 8 .111
8 7 1 6 .143
9 2 0 2 .000
10 1 0 1 .000
13 1 0 1 .000
16 1 0 1 .000
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/25/2019.

Through games Sunday the Royals have allowed 392 runs. That’s an average of 5.03 RA/G and just above the league average of 4.78 RA/G. Their offense, which was out-performing the league average earlier in the season, has now stalled. The Royals are plating just 4.27 runs per game, well off the league rate.

Their Pythagorean record based on runs scored and allowed is 33-45. Not great, but much better than their current 27-51. That would put the Royals on track for 94 losses. Still less than ideal, but a marked improvement from last season’s real record of 104 losses. And we all know how this front office likes to point to markers as improvement. It’s easy to buy into given that was the route we saw building up to 2014 and ’15.

Since the franchise returned to prominence, underperforming their Pythagorean is generally unfamiliar territory.

Royals by Pythagorean record

Actual Wins Pythag Wins Win Difference
Actual Wins Pythag Wins Win Difference
86 87 -1
89 84 5
95 90 5
81 77 4
80 72 8
58 62 -4
27 33 -6

It’s interesting that when the core of the World Championship team developed, they began to outpace their Pythagorean record. Once the key group of offensive performers moved on (along with the bullpen), the Win Difference dropped into the negative territory.

When we look at something like Pythagorean record, the easy reaction is to say a team was either lucky or unlucky based on where they ended up with their Win Difference. That’s not always accurate. There’s more than one way to string together a winning record.

The disparity is underscored even more by Third Order Winning Percentage. This is defined as a team’s projected winning percentage based on underlying statistics and the quality of opponents.

Royals by Third Order Winning Percentage

Actual Win Pct 3rd Order Win Pct Win Difference
Actual Win Pct 3rd Order Win Pct Win Difference
.531 .490 6.6
.549 .485 10.4
.586 .532 8.7
.500 .434 10.7
.494 .442 8.4
.358 .357 0.2
.338 .407 -5.3

Here, the Royals have consistently outperformed their projected Third Order Winning Percentage. Sometimes by as much as 10 wins. Except this year, the Win Difference has been flipped. The Royals, according to this metric, along with their Pythagorean record, are underperforming this year.

What does that tell us about the upcoming second half? Really… Nothing. There’s nothing predictive about the Pythagorean or Third Order records. It’s more or less a mapping tool, a way to look back at how you arrived to the current record. Just because the Royals have a negative run differential at the moment, doesn’t necessarily mean they will continue to carry one over the final 81 games of the year. (They will, but that’s because of their below league-average hitting and pitching. And the bullpen that should be declared illegal.)

We can look back through the first half of the season and see that yes, the Royals didn’t exactly catch many breaks. Pin that on the bullpen, or an offense that slumbers when the starting pitching is strong or vice-versa. Or how about that while the offense may be improved from last year, it’s not strong or consistent enough to salvage a win when the pitching wobbles. Good teams are good because they create their chances and seize the opportunity. Bad teams fail to capitalize.

It’s not difficult to see the category where the Royals fall.