Why Projections Will Be Wrong About the Royals


The wave of projections showing the Royals taking a large step back in 2015 have started coming in.  Baseball Prospectus doesn’t like the Royals, and neither does Vegas or Dave Schoenfield.  More of these are going to be coming out and I expect almost all of them to be unfavorable to the Royals, especially ones that are statistical projection driven.  This was something I have been expecting, and now I want to spend a little time talking about why they are all wrong.  Computers are better than humans at times, but contextual knowledge of humans mixed with projections is better, read Average is Over if you want to know more about the general theory.

Traditionally a team that is really good has a good offense, a good rotation, or some combination of those two.  The 2015 Royals are not likely to be dominant in either of those ways.  They don’t look like a typical good team, but they have two dominant aspects to their team.  One is their defense and the other is the bullpen.  The first is getting more love over time but is hard to measure, while the second is treated as unimportant most of the time.  What the Royals have in both spots is not your run of the mill good defense and bullpen though, the Royals have exceptional talent in both spots.

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Let’s start with the defense.  I have discussed why what I am going to be talking about matters before here.  You can look at some aggregate rate stats such as UZR/150 and start to see what I am talking about.  This only goes back to 2002 as a stat, so we are talking about 390 team seasons over 13 years.  The Royals of 2013 had the greatest value of them all and the 2014 Royals the 7th best ever.  I don’t think their defense gets enough credit, and it is really having an effect on pitching.

Over the last two years the team has had a 3.45 and 3.51 ERA respectively.  That outperforms their FIP and xFIP numbers by a sizable amount, but projections systems are going to regress them back towards these fielding independent numbers.  That will have a large effect on the overall expectations.  Here for instance is what ZIPS is projecting for the Royals.  I ran a comparison to see how it treated the pitchers with respect to their FIPs last season.

First I grabbed the 12 pitchers who threw at least 10 innings for the Royals last year and are projected to throw for them again in 2015.  The differences between the average ERA and FIP for actual last year versus this projection is .194 and .102 respectively.  In other words ZIPS is projecting them to have on average half the gap between actual results and FIP as before, but that actually is even less than the overall effect.  If we do the same gap again weighting everything for innings pitched the gaps widen to .410 and .150, so we are nearing a difference of nearly three times.

This is important because the Royals over the last couple of years have maintained these large gaps (it was even bigger in 2013), and an ERA difference of 0.35 in that second one has a huge effect on runs allowed expectations.  If it were truly that large of a difference you would be talking about 56.7 runs, so even at the first smaller gap you could be seeing a one to two win difference in your win projection.

Why I believe the Royals will continue to outperform these expectations is purely based on a defense that turns hits into outs for the pitchers on a consistent basis.  When Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson, and Lorenzo Cain are in the outfield together it may be one of the best outfields of all time, though it would be very hard to come up with a fair way to judge such a thing.  They also have a great catcher, first baseman, shortstop, and third baseman, so pretty much great defense all over the diamond.

Onto the bullpen.  After the postseason I’m not sure this is even necessary to discuss.  The Royals only need to win the first six innings or grab a lead in one of the last three.  After that it is nearly in the bag.  Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera are frightening back there.  If Luke Hochevar is anything like he was two years ago this bullpen could cause psychological problems for the other teams, who will be frantic to get an early lead.  Last year they went 72-1 when leading after 7 innings, and this bullpen could be better.

All that said, the Royals are far from a lock for going back to the postseason.  The lineup and rotation do matter for a lot, which is why they are the focus of forecasting much of the time.  This team could have a number of issues in both, and if they do the defense and bullpen will not be able to bail them out.  Still, this is a team that is very likely to outperform their projected win totals from many of the stats outlets, just like they did last year and the year before that.

Next: Royals Pitchers in Winter Ball