Over the course of a baseball off-season, all the moves, deals, rumors, analysis and conjecture lead us to a single question: can the team win? The Royals were a good team last season. They’ll be better next season. With the signings of Jason Vargas and Omar Infante, with the trades for Danny Valencia and Norichika Aoki, with a superb bench and bullpen, of course they’ll win, but will they be good enough to make the playoffs? That is a little murkier.
The Kansas City Royals are very close, but it’s not a sure thing.
On a recent Pinetar Press Podcast, former Kansas City Star beat reporter Bob Dutton revealed that the Royals organization believes that the team’s true talent level equals their performance from the second half of 2013. During that stretch of 70 games, the Royals were 43-27, for a .614 winning percentage. To win those 43 games, the team hit .266/.320/.384 and the pitching staff, as a whole, had a 2.97 ERA. While the level of hitting should be easy enough to replicate (because it’s not good), the pitching cannot maintain that level of play for an entire season.
Generally, baseball analysts believe that the Royals pitching staff will regress from their overall 2013 ERA of 3.45–especially without a career year from Ervin Santana. The team certainly won’t maintain a sub-3.00 ERA. The last American League team to have less than a 3.00 ERA was the 1981 Yankees (who had two Hall of Fame candidates, a Rookie of the Year and a former Cy Young winner at his peak).
The Royals probably have none of those.
The defense and bullpen will stabilize the team ERA to some extent, but replicating a 3.45 team ERA is a tall order. Anyone thinking that the Royals can go back out and pitch the way they did in the second half of 2013 will be disappointed. No way that any front office believes it will happen. If Dayton Moore and the rest of the Royals front office believe the team can win 61% of their games, then they must believe the offense will produce considerably more runs, and with recent acquisitions, it is all but assured.
The Royals only scored 4.04 runs per game in the second half, when the league average was 4.33. The lineup hit like this for the second half:
1. Alex Gordon – .244/.291/.428
2. Emilio Bonifacio – .285/.352/.348
3. Eric Hosmer – .323/.379/.473
4. Billy Butler – .310/.379/.425
5. Salvador Perez – .303/.335/.483
6. Mike Moustakas – .259/.308/.416
9. Alcides Escobar – .216/.233/.260 (that’s right, a .493 OPS–ninth spot in NL, where they have pitchers hit: .462)
Norichika Aoki – .294/.361/.392
Omar Infante – .288/.325/.405
Eric Hosmer – .284/.344/.437
Billy Butler – .291/.366/.444
Alex Gordon – .276/.343/.430
Salvador Perez - .294/.328/.445
Mike Moustakas – .250/.307/.408
Lorenzo Cain – .262/.323/.387
Alcides Escobar – .267/.300/.349
*I chose Oliver because until ZIPs projections are released in January, the overall lineup efficiency is closer to my personal projections. I’m not as high on some guys and not as low on others, but the lineup as a whole is reasonably projected.
Just by glancing at it, it’s easy to tell that the 2014 lineup is better. The top two spots in the lineup are newly-acquired players, setting a completely new pace for the offense. According to the Baseball Musings‘ lineup optimizer, that lineup should score around 4.70-4.75 runs per game. In the past two years, baseball has had a more suppressed run environment, so they might score slightly fewer runs. This is a considerably better offense. Over the course of 162 games, that’s 760-770 runs. That is over 110 runs better than last season’s offense. Of course, every-day players don’t actually play every day. Emilio Bonifacio, Danny Valencia, Brett Hayes and at least one more outfielder will get playing time. That is an excellent bench, so we’re still looking at a team that might score 80-90 more runs in 2014.
Eighty runs should be enough to make up for any regression by the pitching staff. If we input Steamer pitcher projections (Oliver’s won’t work for this) and extrapolate them to the appropriate pitcher workloads,the Royals pitching staff would allow around 100 more runs than last season, but as Rany Jazayerli pointed out in a series of podcasts, the defense will be a run-prevention stabilizer. The Royals defense saved somewhere around 100 runs in 2013, the best in the history of advanced defensive metrics. With Aoki in right field, Omar Infante at second base, Bonifacio as a super-utility player and Brett Hayes as backup catcher, there’s a decent case to be made that the Royals defense is even better in 2014.
It is at least possible that the Royals pitching staff will repeat their overall numbers from last year. Without Luis Mendoza and Wade Davis combining for 39 starts with a 5.47 ERA, the rotation will improve just by their subtraction. Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie are two of the more consistently average innings-eaters at the major league level. Their average output is not guaranteed, but it is as close as it gets in the MLB. If either Danny Duffy or Yordano Ventura can replicate what Bruce Chen did (3.61 ERA in 15 starts), the rotation will be good enough that the bullpen can regress slightly without leaving much ill-effect on the overall pitching performance of the staff.
We’re probably looking at a starting rotation that can achieve league average over 960 innings and another superb bullpen with Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, Luke Hochevar and Louis Coleman. If the Royals have an average starting rotation (3.99 ERA) and excellent bullpen (2.91 ERA), the team’s ceiling is similar to the 2013 Rangers, who allowed only 636 runs. If the starting rotation (4.20 ERA) AND the bullpen (3.27 ERA) are worse, the Royals might be similar to the 2013 Brewers, who allowed 687 runs. Rany Jazayerli believes that the Royals will prevent somewhere around 70 fewer runs than they did in 2013–something in the vicinity of 671 runs. It might be as few as 45, or as many as 85, but 70 is not a bad prediction.
If we use the pythagorean formula of baseball to calculate the wins and losses with the above projections, 760-770 runs scored, 670-690 runs allowed, the team looks like a 88-91 win team. That is right on the playoff bubble, where the slightest breeze can waft them to victory or into obscurity.
At the team’s current level of production, including aging curves and manager interference, their floor is 83 wins and their ceiling is 97 (not a typo).
If we apply the same process to the division favorite Detroit Tigers, they look like a 94-98 win team. That does not leave a lot of possibility for the Royals to catch them. Once again, it looks like the Kansas City Royals will be chasing after a wild-card spot. If everything goes right, yes, technically the Royals could win the division, but that’s a lot of ifs that have to pan out.