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:
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.
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.