The KC Royals have exceeded PECOTA performance projections for seven straight seasons. Will they make it eight in a row in 2017?
The Kansas City Royals have clowned Baseball Prospectus’ respected PECOTA projection system over the last seven seasons. They’ve not only exceeded PECOTA‘s projection each year, they’ve done it by an average of 7.85 wins per season.
In sabermetric terms, Baseball Prospectus has been off by a mile. Missing by an average of almost eight wins per season is like over-looking Mike Trout every year. That’s insane.
YEAR PECOTA ACTUAL DIFF
2016 76 81 +5
2015 72 95 +23
2014 79 89 +10
2013 76 86 +10
2012 70 72 +2
2011 66 71 +5
2010 66 67 +1
PECOTA has been particularly horrible over the last four years. It has underestimated the KC Royals talent level by a whopping 48 wins. That’s 12 wins per season.
In what has become an annual rite of spring in the baseball world, PECOTA has once again projected a terrible 71 wins for the Kansas City Royals in 2017. That’s worse than EVERY team in the American League—including the horrendous Chicago White Sox, who have pretty much given up on the 2017 season by trading away superstar pitcher Chris Sale and center fielder Adam Eaton for prospects. The only team with a lower PECOTA projection for 2017 is the lowly San Diego Padres at 68 wins. PECOTA expects even the rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies to win more games than the KC Royals in 2017 (74 wins and last in the NL East).
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It’s pretty bad when a projection system thinks you’re worse than organizations who don’t expect to win.
Meanwhile, Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore has added free-agents to buttress a core that won two consecutive pennants in 2014-2015. He clearly believes his team has a least one more year in their contention window. Kansas City thinks they can win despite the tragic death of young starter Yordano Ventura, whom they had hoped would produce his long-awaited breakout as a dominant starter in 2017.
That’s a wildly different outlook than PECOTA, which is based on so-called “objective” data.
Many observers have tried to solve the mystery of why PECOTA consistently underestimates the Royals. One line of thinking has been that Baseball Prospectus’ algorithms have undervalued a bullpen full of dominant relievers and KC’s horde of high contact hitters. Perhaps the cause is the interaction between exceptional defense AND top shelf relievers.
If these three factors are the underlying cause, then 2017 should be the year PECOTA gets it right. Kelvin Herrera is the lone survivor of Kansas City’s once vaunted “HDH trio” comprised of Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland. The KC Royals have also added low-contact rate sluggers in Jorge Soler, Brandon Moss, and Peter O’Brien to the offense. The defense, which was more good than great in 2016, is another year older.
However, there’s another correlation that we might have to give credence if the 2017 KC Royals significantly exceed their PECOTA projection despite a mediocre bullpen, near league average contact rates, and unexceptional defense. Kansas City’s ability to surpass projection systems has also coincided with Ned Yost taking over as manager in 2010. That might be a bitter pill to swallow for many stats-oriented pundits, who largely ridiculed Yost as a “dunce” before he won two consecutive AL pennants.
At a more granular level, projection systems tend to see pitcher Danny Duffy‘s strong 2016 season as something of an outlier. They also don’t seem to buy into Mike Moustakas‘ 2015 season as a true breakthrough in his on-field skill set. Lorenzo Cain also played a mere 103 games due to various injuries, while Alex Gordon never really recovered from breaking his wrist in a collision with Moustakas in May.
Using the Royals Fan Eye Test (RFET) I happen to believe that Duffy wore down late in 2016 after preparing to pitch in the bullpen in spring training. Instead, he moved into the rotation in May due to injuries, and pitched like a true no. 1 for nearly four months. I also expect a big year from Moustakas, who put up an OPS over .900 in each of his last three months of play (going back to the end of 2015). Healthy seasons from Cain, Gordon, and Moustakas should return KC’s defense to the elite level. Further, the Royals aren’t going to waste another 149 at bats on Omar Infante in 2017.
Of course, the RFET test is prone to excessive wishing thinking. Hey, it’s no accident that ESPN’s Chris Berman turned the phrase “That’s why they play the games” into a tag line. With early workouts beginning in Surprise, Arizona on Tuesday, the 2017 season will soon be upon us.