Kansas City Royals: Lucky, Good, Or Both?


The Kansas City Royals have the best record in the American League at 77-49, and the second best in all of baseball. They hold a six-game margin over the Blue Jays in the race for home field advantage throughout A.L.’s playoffs. The KC Royals also lead the Twins by 12 games in the A.L. Central. Yet, a number of advanced metrics suggest that the Royals true talent level isn’t quite as good as their record.

According to sabermetrics creator Bill James‘s Pythagorean Wins formula, based on correlations between run differentials and team wins going back to 1901, the 2015 Kansas City Royals should only have a 72-53 record.

Bill James believes that run differential is the best indicator of relative team strength, since his research suggests that teams sequence hits (which result in runs), and runs (which result in wins) mostly by chance rather than design. Thus, a team that “bunches” hits and runs can win more games than a similarly talented, but less lucky squad.

In other words, teams don’t really “turn off” the offense if they have a lead, or “turn on” the offense if they need to come from behind. According to Bill James’s analysis, overall run differential is a better true indicator of relative team strength rather than the number of wins a team accumulates.

The Kansas City Royals run differential of +80, while good, only ranks third in the A.L. behind fellow division leaders Toronto (+173) and Houston (+98). If we include the National League, the KC Royals also trail the Cardinals (+128) and Pirates (+82). That’s five teams that have better run differentials than the Kansas City Royals, which doesn’t exactly align with their second-most wins in the major leagues.

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Even Mike Groopman, the head of the KC Royals analytics department, admitted at last weekend’s Saber Seminar that the team has exceeded their own internal projections. Groopman  believes the Royals have been a bit lucky.

The bottom line is: the best stat-head modelling suggests KC Royals really aren’t the best team in the American League, and aren’t the second-best team in baseball (which is were most power rankings rate them).

Yet, Las Vegas betting lines from Bovada and VegasInsider.com disagree. They, in fact, have installed the Kansas City Royals as World Series favorites.

So, why do the handicappers in Las Vegas disagree with the stat heads? Are they saying bettors are stupid, and they’re trying to balance the money? Or, do Las Vegas gamblers know something that sabermetric projections do not?

I think the answer can be found in Joe Posnanski’s piece trying to explain why the KC Royals have far exceeded most projection systems, including PECOTA. The Kansas City Royals shutdown bullpen. plus best-in-baseball defense, makes Kansas City unusually good at holding late-inning leads.

The KC Royals are 53-3 when ahead going into the sixth inning. According to Posnanski, major league average in that situation is 82% rather than KC’s 94%. That works out to about seven extra wins for the Kansas City Royals this season (I re-did Posnanski’s math myself since the Royals have won three more games after leading going into the sixth since he wrote his article).

This stat alone appears to explain the discrepancy between the Kansas City Royals actual record, and their Pythagorean projection.

Now, a sabermetric-inclined skeptic might dismiss this late-inning record as a small sample artifact, except the KC Royals also dominated the late-innings in 2014.Note that I also attributed the Kansas City Royals late-inning success to BOTH their bullpen and defense, rather than the bullpen alone. That’s because the Royals relievers have enjoyed significantly better results over the last three seasons with a 2.32 ERA than their adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP is Fielding Independent Pitching adjusted for park factors and opponent quality) of 3.66 would suggest. Only the Cardinals pen has showed a bigger gap in expected results versus actual over this time span.

I think Las Vegas has it right. The Kansas City Royals are winning games according to a team design that naturally results in a lower run-differential than current sabermetric systems expect. Observation suggests manager Ned Yost uses his bullpen arms more aggressively when protecting a lead than when trailing in the late innings.

Thus, the KC Royals not only are the best team in the American League; I think they’re the best in baseball.

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