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How the Royals can exceed their PECOTA-projected win total

Nobody believes in us!

Kansas City Royals v Oakland A’s Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

It’s no secret that the PECOTA standings hate the Royals. Well, let me rephrase that. It’s no secret that the PECOTA standings hate your team. PECOTA hates everybody and it’s clear that the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm has malice in its cold, dead heart.

While PECOTA has a long and pretentious history with the Royals, dating all the way back to our old friend Bill Pecota, it hasn’t ever really been wrong. There are a few noted exceptions, of course. From 2013-2015, the Royals were projected to win 76, 79, and 72 games, respectively. They went onto win 86, 89, and 95 wins, respectively.

2015’s projection officially made PECOTA a marked robot in Kansas City. After coming up 90 feet short of a championship, the system projected that the Royals would have a worse record than all but two teams. And of course, that projection was wildly wrong.

However, it’s hard to get mad at bad PECOTA projections when the Royals have lost at least 90 games in 14 of 26 seasons since the 1994 strike, which includes the two seasons that ended with pennants being raised.

This season, our old friend projects 71 wins in Kansas City. That would represent a slight improvement (.438 W-L%) from last season (.433 W-L%). However, the Royals Pythagorean W-L% sat at .458% after last season, and if you look at the game logs, you’ll see a very weird season happening in the midst of a very weird season.

The Royals had just two losing streaks of at least four games. Each streak was immediately followed by one of the Royals’ only two winning streaks of at least four games. The second streak sandwich is the most intriguing. For the first two weeks of September, the Royals went 6-7. During that span, they played in a single one-run game. They lost all seven games in the first week of September by a 51-18 margin. They won all six games the next week by a 44-14 margin.

We saw an unbelievable performance from Salvador Perez, a confusing performance from Adalberto Mondesi, disappointing, albeit injury-riddled performances from Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler, as well a surprisingly strong performance from a starting rotation anchored by Brad Keller, Brady Singer, and Kris Bubic.

There was far more to be excited about from 2020 than 2018-2019. But will that excitement get the Royals past the 72 win mark? Well, maybe, if at least a few of these things happen.

Brady Singer and Kris Bubic avoid regression

It’s hard to be anything but happy with Brady Singer and Kris Bubic’s rookie campaigns. Singer logged a 113 ERA+ and struck batters out at a decent clip (8.5/9IP) for a guy without an out pitch. Bubic logged a 106 ERA+ and struck out more batters than any other Royals pitcher not named Danny Duffy, all despite walking quite a few batters (9.9%).

If they can build off those performances, they can join forces with Brad Keller and Mike Minor and form a pretty darn okay starting rotation. However, regression seems just as likely. Singer struggled to miss bats last season and really struggled when he had two strikes, which is a bit of a red flag. ZiPS isn’t as concerned with regression for Bubic, but his struggles to get deep into games could cause problems.

Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier get back to their 2019 form

Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier’s 2019 seasons were the 3rd and 10th-best individual campaigns of the Dayton Moore era according to wRC+. Their performances truly came out of left field. Dozier had never hit more than 15 home runs across a full professional season and he hit 26. And of course, we all know that Soler obliterated the Royals home run record and led the American League with 48 bombs.

However, both regressed dramatically in 2020 and finished the season as just above league average hitters. A good path to 72 wins starts with them getting healthy. Soler wasn’t a qualified hitter in 2020 and Dozier just made the cut. With both being below-average defenders, they’ll need to be healthy and productive at the plate to give Kansas City value at their positions.

Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifield regress well to the mean

On one hand, Salvador Perez had the best season of his career by a mile. On the other, it was just a 37-game sample and this wasn’t the first time he had scorched the earth for a small sample of games.

On one hand, Whit Merrifield had his worst season since 2016. On the other hand, it was just a 60-game sample and was exaggerated by the Royals refusing to play him at the appropriate position, and by a one-week stretch from August 31 to September 7 that was maybe the single worst week of his career.

Both Sal and Whit will regress to the mean. The question is how drastic will it be. For Sal, we know that he is not the hitter that we saw in 2020. But he is clearly a dangerous hitter when he isn’t swinging at a ton of balls and when he swings at a ton of strikes. For Whit, we know that a bad week in a shortened season is more like a bad three weeks in a full season. And with Michael Taylor taking time in center field, he should be due some positive regression.

The bullpen stays average

The bullpen was actually a significant strength for Kansas City in 2020. Since 2016, the Royals have finished in the top half of teams in fWAR for either hitters, starting pitching, or relief pitching just three times. All three times, it has been the bullpen. Two of those teams included the 2016 and 2017 bullpens, which featured remnants of the 2014-15 bullpens.

Then there is the 2020 team, who finished 11th in the league in fWAR by a bullpen. It was kind of an island of misfit toys, as well. Greg Holland, on a minor league deal, led the bullpen with a 0.8 fWAR before re-signing this offseason to a one-year contract. Then you had Jesse Hahn, Kyle Zimmer, Scott Barlow, and reclamation-project Trevor Rosenthal.

The only shiny toy was Josh Staumont, who was borderline unhittable at times but gave up a lot of hard contact as well. The bullpen doesn’t need to be great, but pairing an average-to-good rotation with an average-to-good bullpen is certainly more than most of the 91+ loss teams of the 2000s were working with.

Adalberto Mondesi takes a step forward

If you want proof that time is a flat circle, this article is your proof. Here we are, Royals fans, talking about bad PECOTA projections and asking Adalberto Mondesi to take a step. If we’re being honest, many Royals fans aren’t just thinking about getting to 72 wins. There are obvious red flags, but as I mentioned in the last section, there weren’t a whole lot of those bad 2000’s teams that had a serviceable rotation and bullpen.

With the newly deadened ball, it isn’t crazy to think the Royals lose fewer than 90 games. But if they have any hope of being a surprise team that flirts with .500, Mondesi has to take a step. And that’s the problem with projecting the Royals. For the projection to be good, everything has to go right. And that never happens.

Some things in this post will go wrong, but for the Royals to win games, Mondesi has to be one of the things that go right. They can afford to see Jesse Hahn regress a little survive. They can’t watch Mondesi bat .192 with six extra-base hits across the first two months of the season and expect to win.

Mondesi hit the ball harder than ever last season and also posted a career-high BB%. On the other hand, he struck out 30% of the time and needed a .350 BABIP to post a paltry 89wRC+. With that said, he did post a 1.075 OPS in September and October, hitting all six of his home runs, stealing 67% of his bases, and more than doubling the number of hits he had in July and August combined.

Hopefully, that stretch of games was more than just a mirage. And I fully expect to write those exact same words in 2026.