The more I look at the Royals’ roster as the season approaches, the more it seems to me like they are built to be in the middle-third. Their position players, starters, and bullpen all look like they will be in the 11th to 20th spots in a league of thirty teams, which is a nice step up from last year. That made me play around with some things and define what a middling team looks like in these three areas and also how those teams do in the regular season standings.
I went and pulled team data off of Fangraphs back to 2020 just to see what the 11th and 20th team did for position player, starting pitching, and bullpen WAR each year. This allowed me to loosely define where you needed to be to get into the middle, not that attaining a certain level guaranteed a spot in the middle. For position players, the middle third tends to land in the 13 to 23 fWAR range. Starters are usually around 8 to 13, and bullpens end up in the 1.5 to 4.5 range. Only the bullpen range is a little misleading, as far as I can tell. Bullpen WAR production has steadily increased over this period as pitching development and usage has changed, so that range might need to be shifted a little higher.
Right now, the position players for the Royals are projected for 16.7 fWAR by ZIPS depth chart projections. It is plausible that the offensive and defensive contributions of this team will put them in that middling space as long as injuries and under-performance don’t rear their ugly head (as usual). The starters are projected somewhere in the low 8 wins range, possibly more depending on who spot starts and how much. That puts them in the bottom end of the defined range, though I am oddly more convinced that the starters will end up in the middle than the position players. Finally, the bullpen is the hard one. There are a lot of guys with negative projections, in the Jake Brentz/Carlos Hernandez camp, and some that are hard to know what of their value is coming from bullpen versus what is starting value. The positive projections all add to 1.8 WAR. Again, possible they will get there, but this one is iffy, as bullpens tend to be.
Again, this team just looks like if things go okay, then they will end up in that middling place across the board. They are the Royals, and that usually means things do not go okay, but it is the preseason and I am going to hope they have average to above-average production relative to expectation.
Around 10% of teams end up in all three of the above fWAR ranges across the last 24 seasons, a total of 69 teams. I am not forcing them to be in the 11 to 20th position for each one every year, because a lot of that is meaningless variation. So, for instance, the 2002 Expos (now Nationals) had position player WAR of 13.2 and finished 22nd in the league. I am still counting them because they were in the range of likely middle third of 13 to 23 WAR. If you look at the teams that end up in middling positions across the board, their outcomes vary a bit more than the standard team, so a lot of different outcomes are possible.
The most wins for a team with this style of averageish across the board was 95 by both the 2005 New York Yankees and the 2016 Texas Rangers. San Diego’s 2008 team has the lowest win total of the bunch at 63. On the Yankees, the only thing approaching escape velocity for the middle third was the bullpen nearing the top end of the range. Texas finished 17th, 20th, and 20th in fWAR across the three groupings, so how they got 95 wins out of that production would require a lot more work than I am willing to do for a preseason Royals blog post.
There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to which middling teams end up winning a bunch versus those that don’t as far as I can tell. On average, this style of team wins just over 80 games, which if someone offered me 80 wins for the Royals in 2024, I would sign on that dotted line pretty quickly just to shake the stink of last season off guaranteed. The standard deviation on that is about 7 wins, so this style of team should fall in the 73 to 87 win range. In this sample, 69.6% of them did.
Win projections for teams are coming out now too, and might augment how I look at this team. Fangraphs put out theirs on February 7th, and they project the Royals to win 75 games, an improvement of 19 games season over season. That dovetails nicely with what I have been thinking considering this article was mostly written before that projection came out. That, according to Fangraphs, gives them a 6.4% chance to win the central and 10.8% odds of making the playoffs. It’s not comforting, but we have seen much worse in recent years. PECOTA likes the Royals roster less. Their simulation wins (different system) ended up having the Royals at 69.9 wins on average, and playoff odds barely existed.
Are projections real and should they be taken seriously? Yes and no. All models are wrong, some are useful. I think the front-line talent of the Royals could have things break right and near the .500 mark, but it is going to take some luck/development. Their main problem is a mix of depending on unproven and mediocre players coupled with a lack of depth. Margin of error for this team on injuries and under-performance is very limited. If Pasquantino goes down again...if Bobby starts slow again...if Ragans reverts back to pre-Royals form..if...and so on. There is no cavalry in Omaha or Northwest Arkansas to bolster the squad unless someone breaks out in very unexpected fashion.
The roster going into 2024 is in much better shape than it was going into 2023. Just the rotation additions plus addition through subtraction on the position player side makes me optimistic that they won’t come out of the gate so poorly. Not depending on guys like Hunter Dozier, Jackie Bradley Jr., Franmil Reyes, Brad Keller, et al is going to help a lot. If they can get into the mid-70s or higher, that puts them in striking distance for the central in 2025 because of how weak the division is. Right now, I feel pretty good, it’s hard not to feel good as a sports fan in KC this week, but this team is too flawed to get truly excited about.