October 02, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie (33), first baseman Eric Hosmer (35), center fielder Jarrod Dyson (1), and shortstop Alcides Escobar (2) celebrate after the game against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Comparison: 2007-08 Rays and 2012-13 Royals

I watched Moneyball again last night. That movie is my crystal meth; I just love it so much. In my smitten swoon over baseball and logic and analysis, I started looking at stuff online and ended up on the baseball reference page for the 2007 Tampa Bay Rays.

If you’ve been paying close enough attention, you’ve heard James Shields compare the Royals of 2013 to the 2008 Rays, a team Shields helped lead to the World Series. Like the Rays, Shields claims the Royals are on the cusp of a breakthrough. In Yostian English, the Royals are about to turn a corner.

So, in the context of this comparison, the 2012 Royals should look like the 2007 Rays. And you know what’s kinda crazy? They do.

Let me halt this train for a moment to first state this. I find the notion that a team’s previous win total limits their potential win total troubling. While I know it may be true that the Royals winning 72 games in 2012 might reflect that their talent level is that of a 72-win team, thus keeping us from predicting 95 wins in 2013, I also know that the number of wins in 2012 really has nothing to do with its play in 2013. And yet, we—bloggers, fans, commentators—write and speak as if it does, as if that win total will somehow prevent the team from reaching certain heights the next year. This gets expressed in arguments that sound like I really can’t see the Royals jumping from 72 wins to 90 wins because they added James Shields. Or the more coded I just don’t think the Royals have gotten “that much” better. These are all focused on the idea that a team’s win total from last season is necessarily a predictor for its win total for the next.

Of course, I am not crazy and do realize that a team’s win total might just be a reflection of how good that team is and/or will be. But we know this isn’t always the case because we see teams like the 2012 Baltimore Orioles and Oakland A’s—and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. Our challenge, I think, is to recognize when a teams record doesn’t necessarily reflect where it’s at developmentally.

In 2007, the Rays went 66-96. In 2008, they better than flipped that at 97-65, maybe the most remarkable turnaround in MLB history. That’s a 31-game swing. When I started looking at the 2007 Rays page though, I wanted to know is this team really like the current Royals? Why were they so bad in 2007 and so good in 2008? Can the Royals duplicate that swing, at least to some degree?

The first one is easy. They were so bad in 2007 because their pitching was terrible. Here’s a little table thing of the 2007 Rays pitching staff:

as Starter 45 62 .421 5.20 162 162 0 2 1 0 932.2 1044 584 539 122 318 9 799 41 1 35 4094 1.460 7.7 2.51
as Reliever 21 34 .382 6.16 483 0 160 0 0 28 497.0 605 360 340 77 250 22 395 22 1 20 2309 1.720 7.2 1.58
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/17/2013.

A 5.20 starter ERA! That’s worse than the Royals in 2012. In 2007, that ranked 28th in MLB. Somehow, their bullpen was even worse—dead last with a 6.16 ERA. They had the worst team ERA in baseball (5.53) by nearly half a run and gave up more runs as a team than every team by over 50 runs. Important to note, though, that Shields was their oldest primary starter at 26.

Their offense was better than their defense but still not great. They were 15th in runs scored (782) and had a team slash line of .268/.336/.433. The Royals were a little worse than that last year at 20th. Of course, that 2007 Rays team had some good hitters—B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Ty Wigginton, Delmon Young. Pena had a monster year (1.037 OPS); so did Upton. The Rays lineup was a little further along in the maturation process. But Upton, Young, and Crawford were all still young in 2007, and virtually none of their good hitters were even 30.

Is this starting to sound familiar? A terrible pitching staff coupled with a young, talented group of hitters who have yet to completely mature. What’s interesting to me is that the Royals 2013 lineup probably has a chance to be better than the Rays 2008 lineup if Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas realize their potential.

So, what happened to the Rays in 2008? It’s very simple. Their defense (by defense I mean pitching and fielding) went from unbelievably bad to elite. They shaved well over a run off their team ERA dropping it to 3.82, third in the majors. Their offense ranked two slots higher, 13th, but scored fewer runs at 774—offense was dipping all over baseball. Really it was almost entirely the defense (again pitching and fielding) that picked up 31 extra wins. The Rays allowed 671 runs in 2008, a 273 run drop from the 944 they allowed in 2007. If it hasn’t dawned on you yet, that is freakin incredible.

as Starter 66 48 .579 3.95 162 162 0 7 5 0 973.1 958 461 427 115 305 8 711 31 3 28 4105 1.298 6.6 2.33
as Reliever 31 17 .646 3.55 448 0 155 0 0 52 484.1 391 210 191 51 221 21 432 15 0 24 2040 1.264 8.0 1.95
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/17/2013.

How did they make this seemingly remarkable jump? Well, it actually isn’t all that remarkable looking at the starting staff. They shaved over a run off the starting staff’s ERA, but none of their top-5 starters had an ERA under 3.49 in 2008. They brought up Matt Garza whose 3.70 ERA took the place of Jason Hammel’s 6.14. Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine matured into roughly league average seasons—4.42 and 4.38 respectively—after playing much worse the year before.  Their bullpen took a giant step forward as well, which is bound to be the case when it’s historically bad. The improved bullpen was a big chunk of the puzzle, but as we know, the Royals bullpen is already pretty stellar, which is probably why they managed to win 72 games instead of just 66.

Do I think the Royals rotation has what it takes to get them into the top-five in the league? I’m not sure. I won’t say no. I think Shields is capable of an ERA around 3.00-3.20. I think Santana and Guthrie are capable of ERAs in the 3.70-4.00 range, and I think Wade Davis is capable of getting into the 3.50 range if he learned from last season. On the flip side of that, each could be the bad versions of themselves.

This is all in the way of saying that we shouldn’t discount the similarities between the Rays circa 2007-2008 and the Royals 2012-2013. They’re actually developing in fairly similar ways. I know as a fan base we’re trained to see only what might go wrong, but we should at least be aware of exactly what and how things might go right.

In a week or so, I think I’m going to come out with my prediction for the 2013 season. Don’t be surprised if it’s higher than some of the others.

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  • jimfetterolf

    Two points: The comparisons with the Rays have been kicking around for awhile, including appeals to BP and the stats, and last year’s 72 wins were more a reflection of injuries and under performance than actual talent. The ’12 team reasonably healthy looked more a low 80s win team than low 70s, so with the same position players staying healthy and a much improved rotation and assuming the ‘pen stays solid, a jump of eight or ten wins isn’t a reach, putting the team in the upper 80s. In a division that has gotten stronger, that’s striking distance of a Detroit team that no longer looks a lock for 95 wins.

    One other similarity, when the Rays finally broke through after years of high draft choices and a brilliant FA signing, they stayed competitive for the last five years as the team matured and expensive stars were traded for hot prospects, a pattern for the Royals the next few years. We can see this year as the effort to make a big money break through and go outside tendency in order to win now, then rely on the continuing production of the farm system to maintain competitiveness and allow beneficial trades in the future.

    • Marcus Meade

      I very much agree with you, Jim. And after thinking on it more and more, I wonder why so many are so conservative on their predictions for 2013. I understand that it’s the Royals and conservative is always the safe bet, but 2013 was a train wreck of one unforeseeable disaster after another: Duffy, Paulino, Cain, Soria, Perez (injuries), Francoeur, Hosmer, Sanchez (extreme ineffectiveness). And that team still managed one more win than in 2011 when the team was nearly completely healthy and featured career years from every outfielder and a very strong rookie season from Hosmer. Maybe it’s my eternal optimism, but I feel like it’s more likely that this season is very positive than it is very negative. I feel like 90 wins is more likely than 75. Of course, that great unpredictable injury bug could prove me a fool, but if this team stays healthy, things should get exciting.

      • jimfetterolf

        This year your optimism, which I share, is supported by reason. I look forward to your predictions.

  • Eric Akers

    I am excited to see what Wade Davis has to offer. He seems to be the biggest unknown in all of this.

    It seems like everybody is now predicting the Indians to be better than the Royals and that they do not have to follow the same rules of physics that the Royals do. Being that, even though the Royals had a better record than the Indians, the Indians are not limited by last years totals.

    I do like your thoughts on the Indians being better actually helps the Royals chances. On MLBTradeRumors and other places, the thought is that the Indians improving means that the Royals have no chance anymore, rather than hurting the Tiger’s chances at getting to their predicted 95-100 wins. More parity may actually be the best for the Royals.

    • Marcus Meade

      Yes, Davis is an intriguing guy. He’s got solid #2 stuff but has only been average as a starter. He showed last year that he has the ability to dominate hitters. If it translates to the rotation, look out. He might have a very good season. If it doesn’t, he’s probably a league average starter again, which still isn’t awful. But it’s not what the Royals were looking for. He walks a few too many, but if he can strike out somewhere in the neighborhood of 7.5-8 hitters per nine, he should be in good shape.