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Just how much can the Royals improve? You might be surprised.

Is an 80-win season in the cards?

Maikel Garcia #11 of the Kansas City Royals advances to third against the New York Yankees at Kauffman Stadium on September 30, 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Maikel Garcia #11 of the Kansas City Royals advances to third against the New York Yankees at Kauffman Stadium on September 30, 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Despite what the Kansas City Royals have done over the past quarter century or so, it’s hard to lose 100 baseball games if you’re trying not to. From 2014 through 2017, only one team lost 100 games. Nowadays, you pretty consistently find three or four 100-loss squads every year, but many of those clubs are very clearly tanking.

A big part of this is because of something I talked about earlier in the week—there’s comparatively little difference between the best teams in the league and the worst teams. To win less than 38% of your games in such a closed system like Major League Baseball is a feat, and one or two hot streaks can ruin that particular “dream.”

This offseason has been one of the most eventful for the Royals in years. So far, it’s been headlined by the $45 million signing of pitcher Seth Lugo, but has also included guaranteed money given out to relievers Will Smith and Chris Stratton alongside a few trades. The Royals aren’t done, and seem to be intent on further improving the rotation.

Let’s assume that the Royals make a few more deals, either with free agents or via trades to improve the roster. What then? How much can we expect the Royals to improve?

We’ve got to start somewhere here, so let’s start based on some recent success stories. The 2021 Baltimore Orioles lost an astonishing 110 games but improved by an equally astonishing 31 games to finish 83-79 in 2022. The 2021 Texas Rangers lost 102 games, and though they only improved by eight wins in 2022, they won 90 games this year to become the reigning World Series champs. Finally, the 2016 Minnesota Twins lost 103 games and roared back to sneak into the 2017 Wild Card game after improving by 26 games.

Right off the bat, you can discount the Orioles as a comparison to the Royals. Why? Because Mike Elias, Sig Mejdal, and crew are heads and shoulders better than the Royals’ front office; I say this not to intentionally disparage Kansas City’s team, but come on. Elias and Mejdal are running the identical playbook they ran in Houston a decade ago, but in Baltimore. There’s a reason why they keep having success and the Royals aren’t.

But let’s not get too far down that road because it makes me sad. In any case, the recent Rangers aren’t a great comparison, either, despite employing former Royals Chris Young and Dayton Moore. That’s because the Rangers added roughly a bazillion dollars to their payroll; in 2021, their payroll was $94 million. They’ll likely break $200 million in 2024. At most, the Royals won’t add any more than $50 million to their 2023 figure over the next few years, which if you’ll do the math is less than the $106 million difference that the Rangers are running.

The good news is that those 2016-2017 Twins are a pretty good comparison to what the Royals are hoping to do. First, from a payroll perspective being reasonable: the 2016 Twins were at $105 million with the 2017 Twins at $108 million. That’s absolutely doable—and something the Royals are on track to hit for 2024.

Second, the Twins had a pretty similar roster both years. Brian Dozier, Max Kepler, Byron Buxton, Joe Mauer, and Eddie Rosario formed their core, combining for 13.7 WAR (per Fangraphs) in 2016 and 17.4 WAR in 2017. On the pitching side, the combination of Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson, Jose Berrios, and Hector Santiago started 80 games in 2016 and 101 games in 2017. Overall, the team produced 26.5 WAR in 2016 and 37.5 WAR in 2017; the Twins got worse production from their pitchers but more production from a surprisingly deep position player group. That kind of improvement is doable.

But the secret sauce here: both the 2016 Twins and the 2017 Royals vastly underperformed their first order winning percentage. For those of you who don’t know, there are four ways of looking at winning percentage:

  • Winning percentage: Actual wins and losses.
  • First order winning percentage: Also called a team’s “Pythagorean record,” this expected winning percentage is calculated using runs scored and runs allowed.
  • Second order winning percentage: Taking it one step further, this calculates an expected winning percentage based on expected runs scored and runs allowed. This is calculated from batted ball events independent of sequencing (IE, a home run before a single vs. the opposite).
  • Third order winning percentage: This version uses second order winning percentage but takes strength of schedule into account.

Obviously, there are no World Series trophies for best third order winning percentage. But it is true that chance plays a big part of the game of baseball. These stats are glimpses under the hood of a team’s raw win/loss record and give you a better idea of the true talent level that hiding underneath.

The 2016 Twins won 59 games, but their Pythagorean record suggested they should have had 66 wins. When they won 85 games the next year, their Pythagorean record suggested they should have had 83 wins. In other words, the 2017 Twins were better than the 2016 Twins by eight games just from their improvement in first order winning percentage. If you looked at raw wins and losses, it looks like they won 26 more games, a huge amount. But, really, they were only better by 18 or so games. That’s still a lot, but it’s still far more reasonable than improving by 26 games in one go.

The 2023 Royals won 56 games, but their Pythagorean record had them as a 63-win club. And in fact, this year’s Royals squad had the biggest negative difference between their third order winning percentage and their actual winning percentage—by their third order winning percentage, the Royals should have won nearly 10 more games.

If, then, the Royals were a 66-win true talent team from last year, they improved by 15 games, and got a little extra juice from overperforming their Pythagorean record in 2024, there’s a reasonable world out there where the 2024 Royals post a winning record.

As Preston noted on this very website, getting out of the gutter to become a respectable team is the easy part. The hard part is to take the step afterwards, the step that results in the team getting to the upper-80s win totals it takes to regularly make the playoffs. There are reasons to doubt the Royals in that regard for sure. But we’ve seen enough bad Royals teams to last a lifetime, and I for one would enjoy a competent Royals squad for once.