Royals and Run Differential


Aug 11, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals pitcher

Greg Holland

(56) celebrates with catcher

Salvador Perez

(13) after beating the Boston Red Sox 4-3 at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Statement of the obvious: It has been a long time since the Royals have been good at baseball.

This recent run of excellent baseball by the Royals caught many off guard – minus Dayton Moore – and has been a pleasant shock. It isn’t that the Royals are just winning, they are outplaying good teams. KC took three of four from the Boston Red Sox over the weekend, a team that entered the series with the best record in the American League.

Boston, in fact, had won nine of their last 12 games entering the series.

Knowing how to appropriately interpret what we are seeing – at least for the last three weeks anyway – as Royals fans has been difficult to compute. We’re waiting for someone to throw a relay throw into Eric Hosmer‘s back, or flip over and get stuck behind the tarp, or leap at the wall to rob a home run only to watch the ball land in front of them on the warning track.

Yet, it hasn’t happened. Not yet, anyway. There seems to be a sub-current of feeling amongst some Royals fans that eventually this team will turn back into a pumpkin and the Royals we’ve known for the last two decades will return.

But if you’re a believer in run differential, this team is for real.

Fun 2003 Stat: Jose Lima had a 4.91 ERA in 14 starts for the Royals. That was good enough for a 100 ERA+. That’s right: 4.91 ERA equals league average. Jeremy Guthrie has a 4.10 ERA which has earned him a 100 ERA+ so far this season.

When referring to the last time the Royals were “good” many people bring up the 2003 season, and, frankly, it makes sense. KC was over .500 that season, the only time they’ve done so since 1995. The Royals were in first place in the AL Central as late as August 29 (I know, right?) with a 70-63 record, and finished the year 83-79, which was good enough for third place, seven games behind the division-winning Minnesota Twins.

Everybody was happy about that year, as they should have been. However, 10 years removed from that magical season we now know there was more luck involved with that team than there was talent.

We know this not just because Angel Berroa was on the team, but because the Royals allowed more runs that year than they scored.

In 2003 the Royals scored the fourth most runs in the American League (836) but allowed the third most runs (867). By Bill James pythagorean winning percentage – which estimates a team’s record based on the runs the score and allow – the Royals were expected to finish 78-84. A weak division (Detroit lost 119 games that year), quick start, and luck helped the Royals overachieve, but they were not that great of a baseball team that year. Probably not even average.

Fun 2003 Stat: Chris George was tied for second on the team in starts (18) and went 9-6. This is impressive when you consider he had a 7.11 ERA and 1.751 WHIP. He’s one of three starting pitchers in the history of baseball to have at least 15 starts, a 7.00 ERA, and 1.700 WHIP and still have more wins than losses. The other two: Colby Lewis (2003) and Horacio Ramirez (2007).

Bill James‘ Pythagorean Winning Percentage stat is an indicator stat, it is not meant to accurately predict a team’s record. The idea is to help figure out if a team is overachieving, underachieving, or is winning at precisely the pace they are supposed to based on the runs the score and the runs they allow. It’s simple, quick and ingenious way to gage how good a team is.

While it is possible to be a playoff team with a negative run differential, it is extremely rare. And for the most part, the teams with high run differentials make the playoffs, says Blake Street Stroll.

"Consider this, since the Wild Card era began in ’95 only the three previously mentioned teams made the playoffs with a negative run differential. That’s 133 playoff teams with positive run differentials and three with negative. And interestingly enough, all three of those teams came out of the NL West.Also consider that of those 136 playoff teams, only nine made it to the postseason with a run differential less than +50. In other words, run differential can be a very telling statistic for a good ballclub."

Run differential can say a lot about a team.

This isn’t going to be surprising to you, but the Royals have been a bad baseball team for a long time. Using runs scored/allowed, you’ll see that even average baseball has been hard to come by in Kansas City.

YearWinLossRunsRARun Diff.Pythag. Winning %Pythag. Record

Since the strike, the only team to get even close to a .500 expected winning percentage was the 2003 team, and they still “finished” six games under the break-even mark.

The Royals have not had a positive run differential season since 1994, and that season was ended prematurely by a strike. You’ll have to go all the way back to 1991 to find a Royals team that scored more runs than they allowed in a full 162 games season. Even then they only scored five more runs than they allowed.

Bo Jackson had to be superhuman in order to get the Royals into a double-digit positive run differential in a full season. It’s been that long. So the weird feeling you have about the Royals right now, it’s validated.

However, this should help validate the idea Kansas City is for real: the 61-54 Royals, to this point in the season, have outscored their opponents 468 to 440. A plus-28 run differential that would be their best in a full season since 1994 if the season ended today.

And it terms of Pythag, a plus-28 run differential is good for… a 61-54 expected record.

Fun 2003 Stat: The Royals hit 162 home runs in 2003, second most in franchise history for a single season. KC hit 168 homers in 1987. 15 MLB teams hit 172 home runs or more in 2003. 

There is a lot of baseball yet to play this season. There is a lot that could change, and it could change in a hurry if the Royals aren’t careful. KC could easily bomb their five-game series against Detroit next weekend and find themselves gasping for air again. Nothing is certain for the 2013 Kansas City Royals yet in that regard.

What we can say is that through 115 games the Royals are a legit 61-54 team, according run differential. At 115 game mark in 2003 the Royals were 61-54, too, but had a run differential of minus-9 (Pythag: 57-58), and eventually fell back to earth.

The Royals, at least by run differential, may already be where they are supposed to be.