A lot has been made so far about projection systems hating the Royals, read here, or listen here if you want to here more about them. If any of the sub-500 finish projections are correct, it implies that the chances of October baseball in Kansas City this year are quite low. Not everyone is down on this team, Buster Olney and Jayson Stark talked about them as playoff contenders on the Baseball Tonight Podcast yesterday (a little after 45 minute mark). Now that I have looked over the Tigers and Indians in detail, here, here, here, and here, I really disagree with the pessimism from stats projections. Let’s look at one more projection and talk about what I think is true for the Royals as far as making the playoffs 8 months from now.
Every system has the Tigers winning the AL Central, and they should. The Tigers rotation might be the best in baseball. That being said, the Tigers have made a habit of slow starts, and there are a lot of question marks and older players littering their offense, defense, and bullpen. Fangraphs has put out their projection for 2014, and it is more favorable to the Royals.
Fangraphs has the Royals at 82 wins, one less than Cleveland, and six behind Detroit. They also project runs scored and allowed. Offensively the Royals are projected to take a step forward to 4.31 runs per game after scoring 4.00 last year. That seems fair, and there is a lot of opportunity to outperform there if Eric Hosmer blows up, Mike Moustakas finally hits some, Alcides Escobar bounces back, etc. Runs allowed is where the Royals are hurt versus last year being projected at 4.27 runs per game after holding opponents to 3.71 in 2013. That is more than a half run difference, and I would guess that is based on the difference of Ervin Santana and Jason Vargas, and with some regression to advanced defensive numbers which the Royals were amazing in last season.
Cleveland did not get a similar penalty for losing Ubaldo Jiminez, and their offense is being projected for the same number of runs as the Royals, which I don’t agree with. They are being projected as basically being the same team as the Royals (saving only 9 extra runs), but their rotation is being projected in what I believe is an overly optimistic manner.
Detroit has a slightly higher runs scored (0.12 more per game), and an advantage in saving runs (0.21 runs per game). On paper, as I have said before, this team does look better than KC so I think this is probably about right.
These projections end up being converted to playoff percentages that look like this:
I encourage you to go look at other divisions to get a feel for the odds. Having over a 50% chance to win a division is not very easy with only the Tigers, Cardinals, and Dodgers at that level this year. There is a lot of variation in wins from expectation due to performance aberrations, injuries, etc. Off the top of my head after matching the teams up I probably would have split it 45% Tigers, 30% Royals, 20% Indians, and 5% or less for the White Sox and Twins (if it’s 2% like Fangraphs has just bump Indians to 23%). Either way, the Royals have a real chance of winning this division.
Then you add in the wild card spots and even Fangraphs says the Royals will make the playoffs as constructed about a third of the time. I also think all three central contenders have a higher wild card shot than is being calculated here for two reasons, they get to play a lot against Chicago and Minnesota a lot. Look at the other divisions. No one in the AL East is a pushover with the Orioles being the worst team. Only the Astros in the AL West are at the same level of awful as the two bottom dwellers that the Royals get.
Add it all up and I think we are looking at a coin flip currently. Somewhere approaching 30% chance of division and somewhere near 20% of wild card based on what I think things look like. Having a 50% chance to make the playoffs may not sound great, but Fangraphs has the Cardinals as the highest at 78.2%, so even the best teams only have a three out of four shot. I’ll take it since I am used to the Royals having playoff odds in the single digits for most of my life.
This is obviously going to change some between now and opening day with the most likely change being Ubaldo Jimenez ending up in Cleveland again, but injuries or position battles in spring training could affect things too. For the Royals the biggest thing will be what the rotation solidifies into. For now though, I like what I see and only wish Mr. Glass would have gotten out of the way so that I could be even more optimistic.