Any way you slice it, the 2023 Kansas City Royals are a bad baseball team. Ultimately, it comes down to a lack of both depth and top-end talent, and there’s not any amount of luck that can fix it. This year’s Royals are on pace for more than 110 losses, which would easily be the worst team in franchise history.
But it doesn’t feel like this team should be the worst team in franchise history over such, erm, extraordinary teams like the 2006 Royals, who sent Mark Redman to the All-Star Game, or the 2004 Royals, who featured a whopping 28 position players to play in 10 or more games. That’s because, yes, this team is bad, but they’ve been as unlucky as you could possibly be—especially at the plate.
How can you take luck, as a factor, out of a team’s performance as much as possible? By looking at underlying statistics. The simplest way to ballpark how many games a team should have won is by purely looking at actual runs scored and runs allowed, as teams with a better run differential are generally better than teams with a worse run differential. This is called first-order winning percentage or Pythagorean winning percentage. You can also calculate winning percentage by looking at equivalent runs, which attempts to take hit sequencing out of the equation. This is called second-order winning percentage. Finally, third-order winning percentage takes into account strength of schedule.
The following table includes actual win and loss records as well as the difference in wins as calculated by first order, second order, and third order winning percentage per Clay Davenport’s adjusted standings. It is sorted by the average win difference among the three. The Royals, it seems, are one of a few teams who broke a mirror while watching a black cat sprint in front of them.
2023 Adjusted Records
As you can see here, based on underlying data, the Royals are the third unluckiest team in the big leagues and should have won a tick under four additional games—which would have brought their win percentage from 0.294 to 0.369.
Again: a .369 winning percentage is bad; that’s a 102-loss pace over the course of a full season. But that’s within the realm of possibility for a 90-loss true talent team playing poorly over the course of a few months, which would be much better for the Royals long-term plans than the 2023 Royals being a 100-loss (or worse) true talent level team.
How’d we get here? Primarily, this is due to hitters being unlucky. Statcast’s xwOBA—expected weighted on base average—is “formulated using exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain types of batted balls, Sprint Speed.” In other words, it looks at how many hits a player should have had based on how hard hitters hit pitches and where they hit them. Royals hitters have, by and large, done a very nice job hitting the ball hard and doing so often. They are not being rewarded for it.
When are those hits going to fall?
|Jackie Bradley Jr.||103||0.147||0.206||0.232||0.199||0.265||-0.066|
|Bobby Witt Jr.||219||0.227||0.265||0.401||0.286||0.326||-0.040|
Among all Royals with more than 10 plate appearances this year, a whopping eight players are seeing at least a 30 point gap between their actual wOBA and their expected wOBA based on batted ball data. Meanwhile, only one Royal has seen that amount of luck but in the other direction.
And, as anybody who has seen a Royals game this season has noted, this is especially true when they’ve got men on base. As KC Star reporter Jesse Newell pointed out, the Royals rank dead last with a 34 wRC+ in what Fangraphs deem “high leverage” situations—aka, when men are on base, and when the game is close in the late innings.
This is the Royals hitting in FanGraphs' "high leverage" situations. I don't know how to make this make sense. pic.twitter.com/Ox0tpxE7V1— Jesse Newell (@jessenewell) May 25, 2023
The good news here is that, even with no change in approach, the Royals will improve in all these areas. The worst team last year had a 58 wRC+ in high leverage situations, and how a team performs in high leverage situations is mostly random. Additionally, there are some other good signs here. The Royals rank third in HardHit% per Statcast, and they are eighth in Barrel%, which does an even better job at signaling when players are hitting the ball well.
The bad news here is that bad luck wouldn’t be so damaging to the Royals if they walked more. Yet again, however, the Royals are filled with players who can’t or won’t take a walk. As a team, their 7.3% walk rate ranks 27th in the league, and they are predictably last in on base percentage. If Kansas City’s hits aren’t falling, most of the lineup isn’t avoiding outs.
We’ll see how this shakes out for the rest of the year. I suspect the 2023 Royals are not a 115-loss team, and while they might be a 100-loss team, their offense has a chance to pull itself out of the gutter.