It might seem a little ridiculous to publish a season preview after the opening series of the season, but then, my life has been a little ridiculous lately. Before Friday’s first pitch, I put out my prediction on Twitter for an 81-81 season. I’d like to explain that projection in a little detail.
As much as I would have loved to predict a postseason run for the Royals this season, I could not in good conscience do so. Maybe if they had signed Edwin Jackson, and maybe if Salvador Perez and Joakim Soria hadn’t been hurt, and maybe if the Tigers hadn’t signed Prince Fielder, I would have been tempted to. I certainly think the Royals could win the division – if we were setting odds on it, I’d put the Royals around 15% to win the AL Central, which is probably three times higher than those odds would have been in any of the last seven seasons. But I still think the Tigers have to be the favorite, and I felt that way even before they opened up an entire case of whoop-ass – and a couple of cans of last-at-bat magic – on the suddenly hapless Boston Red Sox this weekend.
But I think .500 is a very reasonable expectation for the Royals this season. Most objective projection systems out there don’t agree. Dan Szymborski, who does his ZIPS projections for ESPN these days, projects the Royals to finish 74-88 and in fourth place. Szymborski is an incurable optimist compared to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections, which have the Royals tabbed for a 68-94 record.
No, seriously: 68-94. PECOTA thinks the Royals are the second-worst team in the major leagues, ahead of only the Astros.
It is perhaps for the best that you can’t actually wager on the lines that PECOTA sets, as that would sorely test my religious convictions against gambling. (I mean, that’s not gambling – that’s taking candy from a baby. Totally different.) The real Vegas lines, from what I understand, are somewhere in the 77-80 range for the Royals’ win total. That’s certainly more reasonable, but I expect the Royals to do better. Here, in a nutshell, is why.
1) They were a lot better last year than their record suggests.
The Royals were 71-91 last season. They were outscored by just 32 runs all season.
In 2003, the Royals were 83-79. That team was outscored by 31 runs all season.
We’ve known for over a quarter-century now that an estimation of a team’s win-loss record by looking at its runs scored and runs allowed, is a better predictor of the following year’s record than looking at its actual wins and losses. Bill James invented what he called the Pythagorean Theorem to express what a team’s record should have been based on how many runs they scored, and how many they allowed. By that formula, the Royals shouldn’t have finished 71-91; they should have gone 78-84.
That’s a pretty big difference. The Royals were ten games under .500 in the standings, but just three games under .500 on paper. I don’t think predicting the Royals to improve their underlying performance by three games is all that big a deal.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that the Tigers, who won 95 games last season, only outscored their opponents by 76 runs, and had a Pythagorean record of 89-73. The Tigers were nearly as lucky as the Royals were unlucky. The Tigers were 29-17 in one-run games, the Royals were 25-32. What looks like an insurmountable 24-game gap in the standings is cut by more than half simply by looking at the runs each team scored and allowed.
That doesn’t mean it’s likely the Royals will close the entire gap this season, but it’s certainly a lot more likely than you would think simply by looking at win-loss records.
That’s also why I think the Baseball Prospectus prediction is so…weird. Somehow, PECOTA thinks that the youngest team in the majors last season, a team with one of the game’s best farm systems, is going to decline by 10 wins in terms of actual team quality. I find this unlikely.
2) I believe in Kevin Seitzer.
I haven’t done my front office/coaching grades for 2011, but it won’t be a spoiler to tell you that Seitzer grades very highly. I loved his approach to hitting when he was a player, I loved his philosophy when the Royals hired him to be their hitting coach, and I loved the results last season.
One of the biggest reasons the projection systems are relatively down on the Royals is that they foresee regression – in some cases, massive regression – from many of the Royals’ best hitters last seasons. PECOTA’s weighted mean for Alex Gordon, for instance, is .262/.348/.432 – almost identical to his career numbers, which is to say that it doesn’t believe in last season’s breakout at all. Jeff Francoeur is projected to hit .270/.315/.411 – actually a touch worse than his career line of .270/.313/.433.
I don’t think that either Gordon or Francoeur will hit quite as well as they did last season. But I do think that the dramatic improvements in their performance were at least partly structural. I think that Seitzer altered their approach and their swing, and I think that was at least partly responsible for their improvement. And I think much of that improvement will hold this season.
PECOTA, by the way, projects the Royals to score 671 runs this season – fewer than every other AL team except the A’s and Mariners, both of whom play in pitchers’ parks. The Royals finished sixth in the AL in runs scored last year, with an offense that was nearly two years younger than every other team in the league. (Royals’ hitters averaged 25.8 years of age. The Minnesota Twins, at 27.6 years old, were the second-youngest offense in the AL.) Sorry to bite the hand that once fed me, but the idea that an offense that was both the youngest in the league and above-average in production should suddenly fall apart strikes me as unlikely. Very unlikely.
Speaking of youth and offense…
3) I think Eric Hosmer is about to go off.
He might have already gone off, actually, with two home runs in the season’s opening series. But even before that, all signs were there. The swing that lures scouts into thinking sinful thoughts. The statistical beauty of a .338/.406/.571 line in the minors at the age of 20. The .439 average in a month of Triple-A. The .293/.334/.465 line, with 19 homers, as a 21-year-old rookie.
I’ll say it again: rarely has any prospect compared to a former elite player as closely as Hosmer has compared to Will Clark. As a sophomore, Clark hit .308/.371/.580 with 35 homers. That slugging average may be a little optimistic for this season – particularly playing in Kauffman Stadium – but I don’t think Hosmer will be far off the pace.
4) I don’t think the starting pitching will be quite as bad as people think.
We’ve already seen a brilliant outing from Bruce Chen, which was gratifying to be sure, but shouldn’t change our perception of him too much – we know that he is capable of keeping a lineup off-balance for six innings. But I am optimistic – maybe hopeful is a more honest word – that we’re seeing a new Luke Hochevar. Or more precisely, we’re seeing the same Hochevar we saw in the second half of last season, which was a different guy than the pitcher we saw in the previous three-and-a-half seasons. He really does seem to have a different approach on the mound, working inside with much greater frequency to left-handed hitters, and his cutter - as Alberto Callaspo told Joel Goldberg yesterday - has become a real weapon.
A full-season of second-half Luke Hochevar, compared to what has passed for a full season of Hochevar in the past, would be worth something like 40 runs. That ain't beanbag.
I don’t know what to expect from Danny Duffy or Luis Mendoza, and I don’t think anyone knows what to expect from Jonathan Sanchez. I don’t know when or whether Felipe Paulino will return to form. But you throw those guys together, and I think that two of the four pitchers will emerge as reliable starting pitchers. The back-end of the rotation may be messy for the next month or two as the Royals sift through their options, but I’d rather have a bunch of high-variance pitchers then a bunch of safe Jeff Francis types. The Royals may take their lumps early, but by June they might have four starting pitchers who are average or close enough to average.
And regarding that fifth spot…
5) I think someone from the minor leagues will step up.
I don’t know who it will be. But the whole point of having depth in your farm system is so you don’t have to know who will step up. It might be Mike Montgomery, if he works out the kinks in his command. It could be Jake Odorizzi, who was brilliant in his season debut (5 innings, three hits, no walks, 8 Ks) and could be ready for the majors late in the season. It could be a complete wild card like Chris Dwyer. But I think that by August, the Royals will have a legitimate starting pitcher on the mound every night. They may not all be great; they may not even all be good. But they will be better than people think.
6) The defense will make the pitching staff look better.
Alcides Escobar. Lorenzo Cain. Salvador Perez by mid-season, and until then, probably a lot more Humberto Quintero than the FDA recommends. Even the Chrisiesky Getzancourt platoon at second base is there in part for (perceived) defensive skills. Gordon and Francoeur with cannons on the corners. Last year’s defensive numbers aside, Hosmer has the reputation of being a well-above-average first baseman. Even Moustakas, having lost a noticeable amount of weight this winter, has been a pleasant surprise so far at third base.
I wouldn’t say this is a great defensive team. But it’s a good one, maybe even a very good one. It’s probably the best defensive Royals squad since 1999, when Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, and Jermaine Dye patrolled the outfield, when Joe Randa and Rey Sanchez and Carlos Febles played the infield. It’s not a panacea for the rotation, but it will make a below-average rotation look slightly less below-average.
7) Bullpens keep taking on a more prominent role in run prevention, and this is a good bullpen.
It’s a universally agreed principle that bullpens have continuously become a more important part of the game pretty much since the NL was founded in 1876. Somehow, though, a lot of people seem to miss the corollary that goes with that: that as bullpens become more important, rotations by definition become less important. We saw it last year in the World Series, when the Cardinals won while getting more innings from their relievers than their starters, and yet people persist in dismissing the Royals in large part because their rotation is so weak.
It is weak, but it’s a weakness that is much easier to overcome when you have a bullpen that 1) should be well above-average, and 2) should throw an awful lot of innings. Last year, the Royals’ starters averaged 5.82 innings a start, and relievers tossed 35% of the team’s innings. There’s no reason to think that the relievers will contribute less this season; given the wealth of options in the pen, and the reinforcements (like Louis Coleman) biding their time in Omaha, they might contribute even more. I mean, it’s annoying that Jonathan Sanchez can’t get through five innings on Sunday without throwing 99 pitches, but on the other hand, if he can go five innings and allow two runs every time out, the Royals have the bullpen depth to take it from there.
They say you can’t win with a terrible rotation, and it’s true – you can’t win with a terrible anything. But even if the Royals’ rotation is as bad as people think, their offense should be average to above-average; their defense should be above-average; their bullpen should be above-average to well above-average. Pitching isn’t 90% of the game; it’s not even 50% of the game. (Run prevention is 50% of the game, but run prevention includes pitching and defense.) This runs counter to conventional wisdom, but starting pitching is probably about 30% of the game. So I refuse to believe that the 30% is going to take the other 70% down with it.
If you’re looking for goals to set for this season, the Royals’ incompetence over the last umpteen years facilitates this task for you. Here is a list of accomplishments the Royals can shoot for, in approximate order of difficulty:
1) Win 76 games, the most by any Royals team since 2003.
2) Win 78 games, the second-most by any Royals team since 1993.
3) Finish in third place, the highest rank by any Royals team since 2003.
4) Reach .500 for the first time since 2003 and the second time since 1994.
5) Outscore their opponents for the first time since 1994.
6) Finish in second place, the highest rank by any Royals team since 1995.
7) Win 84 games, the most by any Royals team since 1993.
8) Win 85 games, the most by any Royals team since 1989.
9) Win the division or qualify for the playoffs, for the first time since 1985.
10) Win 93 games, the most by any Royals team since 1980.
Just shoot me now, by the way.
Royals fans grade on a curve; we evaluate our teams on a different scale than most. Knocking off even just the first item on this list would qualify the season as a modest success, albeit a modest disappointment as well. We’ll see how things go, but I’m confident that by year’s end, you can cross the first four items off. Items #5 and #6 are definitely in play; with a little luck we could get down all the way to #8.
All that really matters, of course, is #9. I don’t think they’ll get there this year. But I think we’ll have a lot of fun watching them try.