The Royals defense last year was really, really good. If you buy advanced defensive metrics they were historically good in 2013 posting the best team UZR/150 of any team ever per Fangraphs. It is even possible that this team will be better defensively than last year with solid defenders at second base and right field replacing some games from guys who played significant time last year like Miguel Tejada and Jeff Francoeur. This defense will save runs directly, and indirectly that means the pitchers should outperform expectations.
Disclaimer: Before I get started, I am skeptical of how much to trust various defensive metrics, but if you are going to use them they will work best in broad terms rather than for individual player seasons. That means in this application they have higher efficacy in my opinion.
If you believe in defensive metrics, then you would expect there to be an increase in pitcher performance when they have a better defense behind them. For the Royals last year that relationship exists. Of the 20 pitchers who toed the mound for KC last year, 15 pitchers had ERAs that were lower than their FIP and xFIP numbers. What that implies is that their actual results (earned runs allowed) were better than their rate stats (strike out rates, walk rates, etc.) would have predicted. Their team BABIP of .290 backs this up too. Only three pitchers had worse ERAs than FIP and xFIP would have expected, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Luis Mendoza. Herrera gave up a lot of home runs and the other two got hit really hard. Tim Collins and Will Smith had split decisions outperforming in ERA versus one metric but not the other.
As a team the Royals posted a 3.45 ERA versus a 3.83 FIP and 3.90 xFIP. So they were 0.38 and 0.45 runs better than the league average ball in play outcomes would expect. I’m not going to say that the defense should get credit for all of that, but it almost certainly should get some. For last year if your run correlations of team UZR/150 against ERA-FIP and ERA-xFIP, you get -0.58 and -0.45 respectively. This is the outcome we would expect again, higher team UZR/150 is correlates with team ERA being below team FIP and xFIP.
Going into 2014 we should expect Royals pitchers to outperform again based on the defense behind them. Every single position on the field could be better than average defensively. Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon are elite defensively at their position. Eric Hosmer won a gold glove along with those two, so he might be as well though I am not convinced of it yet. Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, and Mike Moustakas have all at times put up gold glove worthy numbers. Then you have nice solid defenders Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki. This team should be very solid across the diamond.
Projections systems are not built to handle this sort of information well, and I think that is contributing to them under forecasting the Royals 2014 win total. For instance, Jeremy Guthrie by Steamer projection will have an ERA of 4.71 and a FIP of 4.49, exactly the opposite of what we are talking about. He is the type of pitcher that benefits most from a good defense as a higher percentage of batters put the ball in play against him due to his low strike outs and walks.
This also means we can maybe do a better job at guessing what new guys like Jason Vargas will do. There will be two main differences for Vargas this year, his home park and the defense behind him. The Angels’ park factor last year was 96 and KCs was 102, so that will hurt him a little roughly 5 to 10% for half of his starts. Kauffman does suppress home runs a little better, but home runs aren’t really the problem for Vargas. His defense last year was not so good. Their UZR/150 was -2.1, slightly below league average overall versus the Royals defense that posted a 14.3, way above average. This would suggest that there is good reason to believe Vargas will improve over last year despite a less pitcher friendly home park and being a year older.
If you were looking for optimism or stats to back your playoff expectations up, then I would start with the improved offense, but the next thing I would point to is this. Defensively the Royals should have a large advantage over everyone, and it will likely make their rotation and bullpen better than it looks on paper.