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How could the 2020 Royals be the 2017 Twins?

A turnaround for the ages

American League Wild Card Game - Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees
Brian Dozier in the 2017 American League Wild Card Game

The 2016 Minnesota Twins were a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad baseball team. They lost 103 games and had the second-worst run differential in Major League Baseball at -167. While they were a decent-hitting team, they were tied with the worst team ERA and also had one of the worst defenses in the game.

However, the 2017 Twins were a revelation, winning 26 more games than the 2016 Twins squad. They even appeared in a playoff game, the Wild Card game against the Yankees (of course) whom they lost to (of course). But playoff results aside, it was one of the best turnarounds of a squad in recent memory.

The 2019 Kansas City Royals were a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad baseball team. They lost 103 games and had a run differential of -178. It was their second consecutive 100-loss campaign, and the Royals are itching to be better. That desire and expectation played at least partially into Alex Gordon’s decision to come back, and you’ve got to think that Gordon wouldn’t have signed up for another disappointing grind if he didn’t think there would be much improvement.

So, the question: can the Royals pull a 2017 Twins? It isn’t likely, of course; sports betting lines have the over/under for the season at 65 wins, a far cry from the 85 that the 2017 Twins achieved. But it’s possible—sports are weird, after all. This is what the Royals need to do to take a step back into contention way quicker than anybody thought possible.

Be better at close games...and luckier

A better baseball team will win more games because they score more runs than their opponents, and a worse baseball team does the opposite by scoring fewer runs. As a result, the best teams have higher run differentials (and vice versa) at the end of the season. It turns out that run differential is, just by itself, a pretty good predictor of how many games a team will win. This is termed the Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball, and it’s a fancy way of saying that run differential is a great tool to determine how many wins a team should have accrued.

There are two factors that affect the difference between a team’s Pythagorean record and its actual record the most: close games and luck. If a team is really good and often scores more runs than their opponents but doesn’t win very many close games, their actual record will be worse than their Pythagorean record—and vice versa. Luck needs no explanation. Sometimes it be that way, ya know?

In 2019, the Royals won 59 games, but they Pythagorean record suggested they should have won 64 based solely on their run differential. To everyone who watched last year’s team impale itself on terrible bullpen pitching again and again, that tracks. However, the 2017 Twins overperformed their Pythagorean record by two runs. Their run differential suggests they should have won 83, but they won 85.

The difference between those two squads’ Pythagorean record and real record may not seem like a big deal, but put it this way: if the 2020 Royals was just like the 2019 squad but had the 2017 Twins’ Pythagorean record overperformance, they’d be seven wins better. That’s huge.

Have less dead weight

The Royals had some good players in 2019—Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozier, Whit Merrifield, and Adalberto Mondesi were worth a combined 11.9 Wins Above Replacement per Fangraphs—but they had their fair share of, uh, not as good players. In fact, they had quite a lot. Among hitters with at least 10 plate apperances, the Royals had 10 guys who accrued negative WAR.

  • Ryan O’Hearn
  • Lucas Duda
  • Meibrys Viloria
  • Cheslor Cuthbert
  • Humberto Arteaga
  • Chris Owings
  • Bubba Starling
  • Frank Schwindel
  • Nicky Lopez
  • Nick Dini

That collection of players was “worth” a combined -6.2 WAR. That’s...quite impressive.

The 2017 Twins did not have this problem. Not even close. Only three Twins that year accrued negative WAR: Zack Granite, Mitch Garver, and Niko Goodrum, for a combined -0.5 WAR.

It’s easier said than done, but an improvement in amount of dead weight on the roster to what the 2017 Twins did would be like adding Trevor Story to the team in terms of productivity.

Get Better Pitching

In 2017, the Twins had eight pitchers with both an ERA and an FIP under 4.50 and at least 10 innings pitched: Alan Busenitz, Brandon Kintzler, Taylor Rogers, Trevor Hildenberger, Dillon Gee, Ervin Santana, Jose Berrios, and Matt Belisle. They pitched a total of 626 innings. Additionally, the Twins had two players with an ERA and an FIP over 6.00: Nik Turley and Adam Wilk. They pitched a total of 28 innings.

In 2019, the Royals had five pitchers with both an ERA and an FIP under 4.50 and at least 10 inning pitched: Ian Kennedy, Scott Barlow, Tim Hill, Kevin McCarthy, and Brad Keller. They pitched a total of 399 innings. Additionally, the Royals had three players with an ERA and an FIP over 6.00: Jacob Barnes, Health Fillmyer, and Eric Skoglund. They pitched a total of 56.1 innings.

Now, this is somewhat of an arbitrary cutoff and obviously isn’t statistically bulletproof. But it is an illustration of where the Royals need to be. In 2017, the Twins got over 200 more innings out of their definitively serviceable pitchers and needed to use only half the innings of their definitively un-serviceable pitchers than the 2019 Royals did. A huge step towards competitiveness is, shocker, using decent pitching. The Royals had practically none of that in 2019.

Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, and Daniel Lynch will likely make their big league debuts in 2020. But the Royals are going to need far more than that. They’ll also need better relievers, which is perhaps where Tyler Zuber, Bryan Brickhouse, Gabe Speier, and Daniel Tillo step in.

It’s not easy for a reason

To recap: in order for the 2020 Royals to be the 2017 Twins, the Royals need to be luckier, play less bad players, use a lot more good pitchers, and be better in close games—necessitating more good pitchers. In other words, the Royals need to get a whole lot better very quickly.

There’s a reason why the over/under for this year’s team is at 65 wins. There’s nothing to suggest that they have the organizational talent to make that leap. But if they do, it’ll look a lot like this.