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The best-case scenario for the Royals starting pitchers

The glass isn’t just half full. It’s overflowing with optimism.

Chicago White Sox v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Earlier this week, I used the just-released PECOTA numbers to look at who was projected as each team’s top starter. To carry on, let’s dive headfirst into the entire starting rotation. But instead of looking at the usual, run-of-the-mill projections, let’s up the ante a little bit. Let’s look at what PECOTA says is the best case scenario for the Royals rotation.

One of the great things about PECOTA is it presents a range of outcomes. In the spreadsheets that are available this year, they have broken out results on percentiles. The oft-quoted team records and general projections for individual players are based on the 50th percentile projections. But what about the best-case scenarios? What if everyone hit their absolute PECOTA pinnacle of the 99th percentile?

The idea for this comes from the PECOTA standings page at Baseball Prospectus. Yes, they project just 68 wins and a last place finish for the Royals. But look at the distribution chart that is below the standings. There is a path for Kansas City to win 90 games and make the postseason. For real. Indeed, under their playoff percentage on the standings, they are at 0.1 percent. PECOTA is telling you there’s a chance, Lloyd! Suddenly those Spring Training stories where the veterans are ready to shed the rebuild tag make some sort of sense!

This year, BP created distribution charts for their projections. It’s an interesting way to look at the range of outcomes PECOTA projects.

Baseball Prospectus

As I said, there’s a path (however narrow and fraught with bizarre, yet somehow positive outcomes) for the Royals to not only break .500, but push their way to near the top of the AL Central class and get into the postseason. (This isn’t about winning the division. The Twins are going to be really good this year. Again.) Likewise, there’s a way where the dumpster fire jumps off the tracks all the metaphors come crashing down. How would you feel about 115 losses? From the distribution chart above, the PECOTA floor of the Royals is lower than the PECOTA floor of the Tigers. PECOTA hates your team!

Wipe away that tear, blog reader! It’s Friday and we’re going to keep it positive! Wins! A trip to the postseason! (We’ll save the bad news for a Monday.)

So about this impending AL Central juggernaut that resides at Kauffman Stadium…As you can infer from the article I wrote on Tuesday where Danny Duffy is projected as the Royals top starter, PECOTA as a whole is not a fan of the Royals starting pitchers. There’s a reason for this. Have you seen their collective numbers from last year?

Royals Starting Pitching - 2019

Danny Duffy 7 6 23 23 14 130.2 3.2 7.9 0.285 1.31 4.34 4.78 5.35 110 0.6
Brad Keller 7 14 28 28 14 165.1 3.8 6.6 0.282 1.35 4.19 4.35 5.01 103 1.4
Jakob Junis 9 14 31 31 12 175.1 3.0 8.4 0.318 1.43 5.24 4.82 5.91 121 -0.3
Mike Montgomery 3 9 33 13 12 91 3.4 6.8 0.348 1.62 4.95 5.52 7.65 158 -2.0
Jorge Lopez 4 9 39 18 4 123.2 3.1 7.9 0.314 1.47 6.33 5.55 6.64 136 -1.3
Glenn Sparkman 4 11 31 23 6 136 2.7 5.3 0.299 1.51 6.02 5.93 8.56 176 -4.2
TOTALS 34 63 185 136 62 820.6 3.2 7.2 -5.8

Keller was OK, but below league average when it comes to DRA-. The rest of the staff? Woof. And again… Woof. How about a third time, just to underscore the point? WOOF.

There were myriad issues on the 2019 Royals. That’s usually the case when you crash past 100 losses. Starting pitching was one of those. The regular starters weren’t just awful, they were abysmal. Atrocious. Awful. Abominable. I’m not even past the letter “A” in the thesaurus and I can keep going. There are 25 more letters and plenty of synonyms remaining.

Bah. You don’t need me to remind you. You saw it. You want to forget it.

So let’s move forward. It’s a new year and we have a computer by our side and a pair of rose-colored glasses. Here’s what the Royals starting rotation would look like if their top arms all reached their PECOTA 99th percentile projection:

Royals Starting Pitching - 2020 PECOTA 99th Percentile

Danny Duffy 15 2 26 26 14 148 2.5 9 0.258 1.07 2.76 3.81 4.13 85 2.4
Brad Keller 14 3 24 24 13 141 2.8 7.8 0.274 1.16 2.98 3.7 4.37 90 1.9
Jakob Junis 15 3 26 26 13 145 2.2 9.4 0.284 1.12 3.2 3.78 4.64 95 1.5
Mike Montgomery 13 3 24 24 12 124 2.9 8 0.279 1.19 3.17 3.78 4.65 95 1.3
Jorge Lopez 12 4 52 19 8 136 2.9 8.3 0.28 1.22 3.51 4.1 5.13 105 0.6
Glenn Sparkman 9 4 47 15 6 107 2 6.8 0.269 1.15 3.43 4.27 5.16 106 0.4
TOTALS 78 19 199 134 66 801 2.7 8.3 1.15 8.1

Somewhere in the circuits and the spreadsheets, there lives a dimension where no matter when you buy a ticket to see a Royals game you are almost guaranteed to see that night’s starting pitcher shove. It’s like John Sherman didn’t spend money on players this offseason, but instead bought a DNA replicator and cloned Zack Greinke (the 2010 version, not 2009 Greinke. Not even PECOTA can get that drunk.) on the current crop of starters. Money well spent if you ask me.

The cool thing about the starting pitchers in the table above is it’s the same cast as last summer. (For the most part, excusing Montgomery’s first couple of months with the Cubs.) So we can use their real outcomes from 2019 to see how it compares with the top of the projection scale. Frankly, it’s stunning that there’s a universe even in a computer where this motley crew of starting pitchers can turn it around that dramatically.

In these 99th percentile projections Duffy could claim that ace tag, improving four-fold from last year and posting his best season since his 2016-2017 pinnacle. It’s a huge jump in whiff rate and a nice decline in the walks that get him to that point. Keller’s numbers don’t leap a great deal from what he posted the previous year, and that’s something that should be troubling if you put stock in these projections. The ceiling for the big right-hander just isn’t much beyond what we’ve already seen.

Junis and Montgomery parlay a regression on their respective BABIPs into seasons that are surprisingly productive. I mean when a pitcher (Montgomery) can slice half a point off his WHIP and gain over three whole points on his WARP, you should be riding that success train into October. You don’t waste the good hallucinogens on just any randos.

I was at the game where the photo at the top of this story was taken. Sparkman twirled a gem, shutting out the White Sox on five hits and eight strikeouts. It was, by far, his best start of his major league career and one of the highlights of a season where they were scarce on the pitching side. Makes you wonder where he would have ended up if not for this outlier. Despite this outing, Sparkman was the worst pitcher in the big leagues last year. The numbers from the first table leave little mystery. So for PECOTA to project this kind of turnaround... Whew. We should take a collective moment.

Overall, it’s a leap from -5.8 WARP to 8.1 with the exact same personnel. That’s a collective improvement of nearly 14 WARP.

Alas, it’s the 99th percentile projection. It’s not going to happen. It’s not going to come close to happening. You hope that Duffy can put together the kind of season we’ve been waiting for and you would like to see a step forward for Keller. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if Montgomery could fulfill his potential and make the trade that brought him back to Kansas City look genius? Lopez and Sparkman won’t sniff that many starts. Reality will be much, much more harsh than the best-case PECOTA. But it’s spring and pitchers and catchers are throwing and why can’t you have a little fun sometimes? Dream today. Baseball catches up tomorrow.