Buddy Bell is famous (or perhaps infamous) for saying “I never say it can’t get worse. This game is too hard to play. There’s always something lurking around the corner.” After fans suffered through the early 2000s Royals at the turn of the millenium, we thought those depths were inconceivable and unreachable again. Terms like “laughingstock” were thrown around and the Royals were mostly known as a cheap team that suffered decades of ineptitude since winning their first World Series in 1985. Ol’ Buddy couldn’t even be tortured into saying it won’t get worse at some point, even if he wouldn’t be around to see it inevitably.
So as fanbases do when they soak in the highs or suffer the lows, they ponder where their current team ranks in the annals of team history. Since we are currently suffering the lows, we can ask ourselves just how bad this team is, relative to previous Royals teams.
One way we can do this is through FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, which measure the relative strength of a team at any given time compared to the rest of the league and in turn prior team history.
What’s Elo, you ask? Named after the Hungarian-American chess master (and power-ratings pioneer) Arpad Elo, Elo is a simple way to rate competitors that can be tuned and customized endlessly to incorporate available data. For our purposes, each MLB team carries a rating that estimates its current skill level. (The average is about 1500.) After every game is played, the winning team gains some rating points while the losing team loses the same number of points, based on the chances our model gave each team to win the game beforehand (and the margin of victory). For example, a win by a big underdog results in a bigger exchange of points than a win by a favorite — and the larger the margin of victory, the larger the exchange.
The Royals last year were right near the bottom of the relative strength in franchise history. On August 19th, 2005 the Royals had an Elo rating of 1415. Last year on August 23rd, they touched 1421, which seems to be the 2nd lowest point in team history. Right now after a 19-4 drumming from the Oakland Athletics, the Royals are at 1431.
We’re talking about relative lows here, and the difference of call it 15 Elo points when you are arguing 1415 vs 1431 might as well be a tie.
But maybe there is another way to look at it. What about statistically how the team has done? Elo using wins and losses as the general assumption of performance, but we also have the underlying statistical makeup of the team. So what I did was pull six metrics:
wRC+ (as a measure of adjusted hitting)
Offensive WAR (to include defense and baserunning too)
Starting pitcher ERA- and FIP- (which like wRC+ is adjusted for league and year environments)
Reliever ERA- and FIP-
Through these measures we might get a glimpse of the four segments of a team: offense, defense, starting pitching, and relief pitching. Then we can rank each metric for each year relative to prior Royals seasons and then average up each rank.
By this simple measure, the 2019 team is the worst team in team history (of course we still have a month left in the season). The Royals have had 51 seasons overall, and the 2019 Royals rank no higher than 40th on any individual metric. The team wRC+ is tied for second worst in team history at 82 (18% below league average).
Now it’s basically splitting hairs here too. 2019, 2018, 2005, and 2002 have all been bad teams and three of them 100+ loss seasons (with the 2019 team on their way to the same fate).
There is an argument that this is the worst Royals team ever, even if it doesn’t feel like it. This team doesn’t seem as bad as those woeful early-millennium teams that featured Ken Harvey running into Jason Grimsley, Mark Redman as an All Star, or Joel Peralta giving up four-straight home runs to Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, Alexei Ramirez, and Juan Uribe.
There is certainly more hope with the 2019 Royals. Not on the roster necessarily, as those teams had some good young talent too (Adalberto Mondesi meet Rookie of the Year winner Angel Berroa). But just a...general lack of “this team is unfixable”. The organizational infrastructure is better than it was back then and the World Series run of 2014 and 2015 brought baseball life back into the tombstone of a town.
I think anyone would take the 2019 team over the 2002 or 2005 team, even if they are just as bad (and suffering from recency bias).
*For fun here are the top 10 teams in Royals history by my methodology