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How it could all go right for the Royals in 2021

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A winning season isn’t far away...is it?

Jackson Kowar #37 of the Kansas City Royals delivers a pitch against the Cleveland Indians during a spring training game at Goodyear Ballpark on March 01, 2021 in Goodyear, Arizona.
Jackson Kowar #37 of the Kansas City Royals delivers a pitch against the Cleveland Indians during a spring training game at Goodyear Ballpark on March 01, 2021 in Goodyear, Arizona.
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Regardless of your outlook for 2021, there’s one undeniable fact, one that is not criticism but the honest truth - the Kansas City Royals have been an awful baseball team over the last three years. The Royals lost 100 games in both 2018 and 2019, and in a pandemic-shortened season still only managed a 70-win pace in 2020. They have been poor at just about everything, lacking both depth and upside on both the hitting and pitching sides of the ball.

As a result, there is not a lot of national buzz about the Royals, and projection systems and betting lines alike do not believe that they will be particularly competitive next year. William Hill Sportsbook puts the over/under for the Royals at 72 wins, PECOTA projections have the Royals at 71 wins, and even the comparatively optimistic Fangraphs team projections only predict 77 wins.

While anybody can really dream about how it can go right for their team, no matter how bad they are, there is legitimate hope this season for the Royals. For the first time since 2017, Kansas City has a path to competitiveness—and not one that simply hinges on unfettered hope.

So: how it could go right for the Royals in 2021? And why it could reasonably happen? Why is it that those projection systems and betters that have the Royals in the low-70s win totals could be very, very wrong? Let’s find out.


The 2020 Royals Might Have Been Better Than You Thought

Last year, the Royals finished 26-34, for fourth place in the American League Central. Over a full season, that’s a 70-win pace. That winning percentage is the starting point for 2021 predictions.

But that 26-34 record doesn’t tell the full story. The Royals were probably better than that.

Why is that the case? A lot of it has to do with the brutal schedule the Royals had. Thanks to COVID, the 2020 schedule was unique: Kansas City played only teams in the AL Central and NL Central—nine opponents, less than half of the usual figure. Unfortunately for the Royals, the AL Central was rather loaded, with the Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, and Minnesota Twins all playing at a 95-win or better pace.

Through Thursday, September 10, the Royals had played 45 games. A total of 41 of those games were against teams that ended with a winning record. Forty-one.

Thankfully, adjusted standings give us some insight into how well the Royals played against such a schedule. The Royals’ 3rd order winning percentage—the team’s winning percentage based on adjusted equivalent runs while also accounting for strength of opponent—was at .470. Over a full season, that’s a 76-win pace. And if 76 wins is the base for the 2021 Royals as opposed to 70, well, that’s quite the difference, and a hidden reason for optimism.

Adalberto Mondesi

Since the 1994 MLB strike, three Royals position players have accrued six or more WAR, per Fangraphs, in an individual season - Carlos Beltran in 2003, Alex Gordon in 2011, and Lorenzo Cain in 2015. A season of that caliber—one that deserves MVP votes—is elusive and outside the capabilities of most players.

The Royals certainly have a lot of places they can improve. But having that excellent player, that no-doubt All-Star, helps cover for some deficiencies elsewhere. And Adalberto Mondesi has that potential for Kansas City.

Mondesi’s struggles and successes have been well documented, and varying prognosticators have suggested a Mondesi breakout for years. But Mondesi isn’t that far away, warts and all. Over the last three seasons, Mondesi has put up 4.2 WAR per 150 games. Injuries and shortened seasons have held him back, but his production is nearly there. If he plays a full season and brings some of his batting momentum from the end of last year, he is a lot closer than you might think to being a true star.

Post-Covid Year Rebounds

It goes without saying that 2020 was a weird, weird year. MLB’s season finally started in July after external limitations and self-inflicted wounds. The result was not only that everyone’s preparation routines had been totally thrown off, but that a short, 60-game season was not a lot of time to settle in.

Four 2021 Royals—Hunter Dozier, Jorge Soler, Andrew Benintendi, Carlos Santana—had very similar experiences: a very good 2019 followed by a down 2020. Dozier even had COVID, which he claims impacted him throughout the season. As a result, projection systems peg those four Royals to be rather significantly worse than their last full season.

Projection Dropoffs from 2019

Stat Hunter Dozier Jorge Soler Carlos Santana Andrew Benintendi AVERAGE
Stat Hunter Dozier Jorge Soler Carlos Santana Andrew Benintendi AVERAGE
2019 wRC+ 123 136 136 101 124
2021 ZiPS wRC+ 101 117 108 98 106
2019 WAR 2.9 3.6 4.5 2.0 3.3
2019 ZiPS WAR 1.2 1.6 1.4 1.5 1.4

ZiPS, one of the best projection systems out there, predicts significant dropoffs in wRC+ from these players’ 2019 seasons, and predicts that they’ll be a little less than half as valuable per WAR. It does so because it considers those players’ poor performances in 2020 as indicative of future performance.

But what if those 2020 performances weren’t indicative of true performance? What if they were outliers in one of the weirdest and most stressful years in American history? Projection systems don’t know the reasons why a player plays poorly. And so if those four players’ 2020 seasons were due to one-time circumstances, they could very well play better than the computers predict—much better.

Prospect Breakouts

In the best of times, it’s difficult to predict breakouts. Humans and projection systems don’t know when a pitcher has discovered a new effective pitch for their arsenal or when a position player has successfully tweaked their swing to get more power, and they certainly don’t know about behind-the-scenes events that affect a player’s performance. Sure, we can read about those things if they’re well-reported, but players tweak things all the time. There’s no reliable way to determine what will make a big difference and what won’t until it happens.

Projection systems in particular struggle with breakouts. This is because they are expressly designed not to, because most players don’t have big breakouts—and when they happen, those breakouts are often unrepeatable outliers in one way or another. Still, breakouts happen, for a variety of reasons. Consider Mike Moustakas, who hit 236/.290/.379, for an 82 OPS+, in his 2000 or so plate appearances. In his last 2700 plate appearances, Moose has posted a .262/.326/.490 triple slash for a 114 OPS+.

When it comes to prospects, the data that we have is somewhat volatile. And, for this season, there’s one big problem: there is no minor league data from 2020. Not a single inning.

What does this mean? It means that all potential prospect breakouts are particularly hidden from projection systems that are using two-year-old data. For a team like the Royals, this is a big deal, because there are a half dozen of the system’s top prospects that could debut and contribute this year. Put it this way: the Bobby Witt, Jr. hype has blindsided a lot of people. Witt nearly broke camp with the Royals, and probably would have if he had not struck out 36% of the time in his last week of games. But let’s say that Witt had a great 2020 season, dominating the minors and pushing his way up to Double-A. Makes more sense, doesn’t it?

Ultimately, the prospect error bars are wider than ever this year for obvious reasons. This is doubly true for pitching prospects, who often have uneven development curves, and that should excite anyone who has looked at the Royals’ top prospects recently.

Conclusion

How can it go right for the Royals in 2021? It’s simple:

  • The 2020 Royals were better than their record showed, putting a higher floor on the 2021 squad
  • Adalberto Mondesi finally breaks out, something that could happen even if he simply is healthy for 150 games
  • Multiple players with down years from COVID-related reasons bounce back
  • Prospects have a breakout year, and contribute in a big way

The Royals are likely to not win 90 games or anything like that. But Kansas City is probably better than its record showed last year, has added talent, and is waiting on a collection of intriguing prospects who are closer than we think. That’s a recipe for how it can go right if there ever was one.