Sunday, March 30, 2014

Opening Day Preview 2014.


I have two predictions regarding the Royals’ finish in 2014:

1) They will finish 85-77.
2) Prediction #1 is almost certain to be off, probably way off; I just don’t know if I’m on the high side or the low side.

That’s just the reality of predicting the sum of what are essentially 162 weighted coin flips. Even if I knew the exact quality of the 2014 Royals – how likely they were to win each game – mathematics dictates a limit to the accuracy of my projection. A fair coin should land heads 50% of the time, so 162 coin flips should yield, on average, 81 heads – but the standard deviation of that number is 6.36. By the laws of the bell curve, 16% of the time a .500 team will finish more than one standard deviation above the mean – more than 87 wins – and 16% of the time they’ll finish more than one standard deviation below the mean – fewer than 75 wins.

If you find this hard to believe, remember that the 2012 Orioles – which were a .500 team on paper (they outscored their opponents by seven runs all year) – won 93 games. That works out to almost exactly two standard deviations above normal, an outcome which should occur about 2.3% of the time. (And 2.3% of the time a .500 team will finish two standard deviations below normal, meaning 69 or fewer wins.)

So my lucky success last year notwithstanding, there would be huge error bars on that 85-win projection even if I knew exactly how every player on the Royals would perform this season, which I don’t. (The new FiveThirtyEight site has a good article on this phenomenon.)

I could easily see a best-case scenario for the Royals, which goes something like this:

- Eric Hosmer builds on his success last season with a breakout, MVP-caliber performance.

- Salvador Perez builds on his success last season with a breakout, MVP-caliber performance.

- Mike Moustakas patches the holes in his swing from last season and hits .270 with 25 homers.

- Alex Gordon and Billy Butler both bounce back significantly, with Gordon approaching his .303/.376/.502 line from 2011, and Butler his .313/.373/.510 line from 2012. (By the way, I hadn’t appreciated just how similar those lines were until now. Very different players, but at their best, very similar performances at the plate.)

- Alcides Escobar bounces back at least somewhat from the disaster of last year; maybe he doesn’t hit .293 like he did in 2012, but he hits .270, and even with no power and few walks, .270 combined with his speed and defense makes him a valuable shortstop.

- Lorenzo Cain stays healthy, and wins a Gold Glove.

- Norichika Aoki’s BABIP finally befits a player with his speed and extreme groundball tendencies, and he hits .310 with a .380 OBP, making him one of the game’s best leadoff hitters.

- Omar Infante stays healthy enough to play 145 games and hits a solid .280 with solid power and solid defense, making him an enormous upgrade at second base.

- James Shields does James Shields things, throwing 220 innings with an ERA in the low 3s.

- Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie do Vargas and Guthrie things, combining for 400 innings with an ERA in the low 4s.

- Yordano Ventura wins Rookie of the Year.

- Danny Duffy takes over for Bruce Chen at mid-season and, finally harnessing his command, finally pitches up to his potential. Kyle Zimmer comes up in August and is so dominant that he beats out Vargas and Guthrie as the Royals #4 starter in the playoffs.

- The bullpen isn’t quite as dominant as last season, but is close enough, finishing with an ERA around 3. Greg Holland is fantastic if not as otherworldly as he was last season; Wade Davis replaces Luke Hochevar without a glitch; Kelvin Herrera makes The Leap with 70 innings, 100 strikeouts, and an ERA around 2.

- The Royals win 97 games and the AL Central, and are the biggest story in baseball from August 1st on. They defeat the Rays in the ALDS, with Wil Myers striking out in all 14 of his at-bats, then wipe their feet with the Yankees in the ALCS when Hosmer hits a crushing homer into the right-field upper deck at Yankee Stadium to ice the final game. The Royals then sweep the Cardinals in the World Series, the lasting image of the series being a weeping Will Leitch sitting all alone at Busch Stadium.

- After the season, Dayton Moore is rewarded with a five-year contract extension.

Aside from my slightly creative take on the playoffs, I don’t think anything that I’ve proposed is all that unlikely. Unfortunately, here’s the worst-case scenario:

- Hosmer hits about as well as he did last season, which is to say he’s a perfectly acceptable, average first baseman, but not a star.

- Perez gets hurt and misses two months, and afterwards the Royals openly talk about moving him out from behind the plate to keep him healthy. In his absence, Brett Hayes hits even worse than his career averages of .220/.266/.374.

- Like last year, Moustakas’ spring training is a mirage. By mid-season Danny Valencia is getting most of the playing time; after the season Perez will make news by taking a few reps at third base in winter ball.

- Gordon and Butler hit about as well as they did last season, which is to say not that great. Gordon is still a valuable player because of his defense, but the Royals decline to pick up Butler’s option after the season.

- Escobar doesn’t have the lowest OPS of any qualifying hitter in baseball again, but he’s in the bottom five.

- Escobar bats second for half the season because Infante misses half the year with assorted injuries resulting from playing second base. In his absence the Royals alternate Johnny Giavotella and Christian Colon every two weeks; neither one hits.

- Cain doesn’t stay healthy, and doesn’t win a Gold Glove.

- Aoki, now 32 years old, loses a step, and hits .270 with a .340 OBP, which is just okay, and his lack of power makes him barely an asset in right field.

- Shields does Shields things, just not quite as often, finishing with 220 innings and an ERA in the high 3s.

- Vargas and Guthrie pitch the way their road performance (Vargas) and peripherals (Guthrie) suggest they’ll pitch, combining for 300 innings and an ERA around 5.

- Ventura is unable to hold up over a major league season and tails off badly in the second half.

- Duffy continues to walk the ballpark and is finally moved to the bullpen for good in August.

- Zimmer continues to battle arm problems and stays in the minors all season.

- The bullpen regresses massively. Holland finishes with an ERA close to 3, and no one matches Hochevar’s performance as the set-up man last year.

- Felipe Paulino, who has been named the White Sox’ #2 starter, wins AL Comeback Player of the Year honors. (Seriously – this is the guy I fear the Royals will really regret letting go. Remember: he was under contract for this season; they just flat-out released him.)

- Will Smith moves into the Brewers’ rotation at mid-season and is lights-out the rest of the way.

- Jake Odorizzi wins Rookie of the Year. (Am I a bad person for rooting for this to happen? No. Am I a bad Royals fan? Maybe.)

- Wil Myers finishes in the Top 5 of the MVP race. The Rays win the World Series.

- The Royals finish with 73 wins, dead last in the AL Central.

- After the season, Dayton Moore is rewarded with a five-year contract extension.

This scenario is a little melodramatic, but again, none of the individual results are that far-fetched.

I think the season will wind up a balance between Column A and Column B, which is why I’m projecting 85 wins. And look: projecting 85 wins is not an insult. I realize that this would be a one-win drop from last season, after the Royals made a bunch of moves this winter to go for it this year. But teams that improve by 14 wins from one season to the next, as the Royals did between 2012 and 2013, tend to drop back significantly the year after. The standings aren’t an escalator; you don’t just keep getting better and better. Regression to the mean is a bitch, and like Mondays, you can’t avoid her.

Back-to-back 85-win seasons would actually be quite the accomplishment. Last season, as you know, the Royals won 86 games for the first time since 1989. Well, do you want to know the last time the Royals won 85 games in back-to-back years? Try 1979 and 1980. In fact, aside from doing it six years in a row from 1975-1980, the Royals have never had consecutive seasons with 85 wins. That would be an achievement worth acknowledging, if not celebrating.

(And if you think 85 wins is pessimistic, consider that PECOTA is projecting the Royals to win just 79 games. But then PECOTA projected the Royals would go 76-86 last year, so screw him.)

It’s just that 85 wins and another playoff-free season would have to be considered a disappointment given what the Royals have been building towards, and given what they sacrificed to make this year possible. They would then be looking at 2015 without Shields, without Aoki, with Gordon and Butler going into the final year of their contracts, and with free agent signees Vargas, Guthrie, and Infante a year older and more expensive.

If the Royals really are an 85-win team on paper, in other words, variance is their friend. If they fall a few wins shy of that total, well, there’s not much difference in the consequences of being an 82-win team versus being an 85-win team. But if they end up a couple of wins above that total, well, 88 wins just might be enough to sneak away with the division this year.

I wouldn’t have said that at the end of last season. But since the end of last season, here’s what the Tigers have done:

1) Traded Doug Fister, maybe the best #4 starter in baseball, to the Nationals for a non-Top-100 prospect in Robbie Ray, a lefty specialist in Ian Krol, and a utility infielder in Steve Lombardozzi. It is the consensus around baseball that this was the most inexplicable move of the winter. Honestly: you can make a strong case that Fister should have had as much trade value this winter as Shields had last winter.

(Fister, like Shields a year ago, has two years left before free agency. He’s making $7.2 million this year; Shields made $9 million plus incentives last year. In the two years before the trade, Shields had 7.9 bWAR; over the last two years, Fister has 7.4 bWAR. If we go back three years, Fister has considerably more bWAR than Shields. Shields brought back a Top-10 prospect and a Top-100 prospect; Fister brought back flotsam and jetsam. As much as the Royals bought high, the Tigers sold low.)

2) Let Jhonny Peralta leave – they had already traded for his replacement in Jose Iglesias, but still, Peralta hit .303/.358/.457 last year.

3) Let Omar Infante walk as a free agent, then…

4) Replaced him by trading Prince Fielder – and $30 million in cash – to the Rangers for Ian Kinsler. I actually liked this deal for Detroit at the time, because while I think Fielder is a better player at this time, the money they saved gave the Tigers the opportunity to sign a premier free agent, like Shin-Soo Choo. Instead, they…

5) Signed Joe Nathan for two years and $20 million. Nathan is the second-best reliever of the century, and had a 1.39 ERA last year. But he’s 39 years old, and while paying $10 million to a reliever might not be a bad move, it’s hard for it to be a good move.

6) Lost starting left fielder Andy Dirks for half the season after back surgery.

7) Lost Iglesias for possibly the entire season with tibial fractures in both legs. Iglesias is a brilliant defender who was the key to the Tigers’ radically improved defense; now he’s gone.

8) Traded the aforementioned Lombardozzi to the Orioles for Alex Gonzalez – does it matter which one? – to replace Iglesias. They could have signed Gonzalez to a minor-league contract earlier in the off-season.

9) Let Joaquin Benoit, their best reliever last year, leave as a free agent to the Padres, then...

10) Lost Bruce Rondon, who throws 101 and was supposed to be Benoit’s replacement as the set-up man this year, to Tommy John surgery.

11) Had Max Scherzer turn down their offer of a long-term contract extension.

12) Had Miguel Cabrera accept their offer of a long-term contract extension, which doesn’t improve their chances to win this year or next year at all – they already had him! – but does guarantee that they’ll pay $32 million to a bat-first player when he’s 40 years old.

Dave Dombrowski is arguably the most underrated GM in baseball – I may have an article for Grantland next month on this subject – and he deserves the benefit of the doubt for now. But let’s be honest: if Dayton Moore had this offseason, I’d be in either a penitentiary or an asylum right now.

Meanwhile, the Royals' worst news of the spring was losing Luke Hochevar, essentially matching #9 above. And Hochevar’s loss was made up for and then some by the show Ventura put on in March.

I still think the Tigers are the favorites, so long as they have Cabrera in their lineup and so long as their top three starters in Justin Verlander, Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez stay healthy. But their margin for error has been reduced significantly. And unlike the Royals, they don’t have much in their farm system to help out if need be. (PECOTA projects the Tigers, who won 93 games last year with a Pythagorean total of 99 wins, to finish just 85-77 themselves.)

Even if the Tigers stumble, the Indians might be there to catch them. But the Twins and White Sox would need a miracle to win more than 85 games. This is a three-team race, and I give the Royals about a 25% chance to win the division. I give them one-in-six odds of snagging one of the wild card spots if they don’t win the division, which puts their chances at playing at least two playoff games at one-in-three.

Every game matters, and every slight edge is important. Ned Yost has yet to prove that he won’t be a tactical liability for the Royals. On the one hand, the Royals are sensibly opening the season with a backup middle infielder and only 11 pitchers; on the other hand, it took an injury to Louis Coleman to make it happen. On the one hand, Yost planned to elevate Alcides Escobar – who had the lowest OPS of any qualifying hitter in the majors last year – to the #2 spot in the lineup if Infante started the season on the DL; on the other hand, Infante has made it onto the active roster, forestalling that calamity at least for the moment.

(And while a lot of people dislike Yost’s lineup because Hosmer or Gordon would make for a much better #2 hitter, I have to do the unthinkable here and defend Yost. I like this lineup a lot. In modern baseball, NOTHING is more important in lineup construction than left-right balance. Nothing. You can not, can not, CAN NOT bat three lefties in a row, or four righties in a row, because you will be eaten alive by second-tier specialist relievers in the middle innings. The Royals’ current lineup goes L-R-L-R-L-R-L-R-R, and they literally can’t do better than that. Maintaining left-right balance doesn’t justify batting Escobar 2nd, especially since you could get the same thing by moving Lorenzo Cain into that spot. But it does justify batting Infante there.)

It all starts tomorrow, and it ends in late September the way it did last year, with a four-game series here in Chicago. Last year’s series was rendered irrelevant just before it started, and if the Royals wind up with 85 wins this year, this year’s series may suffer the same fate. But it takes just a little wind behind their sails to make that series the most important series the Royals have played since I was ten years old. I haven’t bought my tickets yet. But only because I’m hoping a couple thousand of you will join me there.

---

This seems as good a place as any to put this: while I’m not making any promises, this is very likely the last season I’ll be writing Rany on the Royals. I’m not announcing this ahead of time because I want a retirement tour or anything – although gifts are always appreciated – but because if the Royals suck this year I don’t want people to think I’m giving up out of despair, and if they kick ass this year I don’t want people to think I’m giving up because I hate the front office and can’t stand to see them be successful.

And again, I reserve the right to change my mind on this. If the Royals win the World Series, I’ll probably have no choice to stick around if only to profusely apologize to Dayton Moore every chance I get. If the Royals collapse and everyone gets fired, I’ll probably stick around to see what happens next. But most likely, this is my last go-round.

I wish I could give you some really awesome or poetic reason why this is likely it; I was really looking forward to my farewell piece if I had gotten that job with the Cubs. But the real reason is blessedly banal: life and family. I started this blog before the 2008 season, when I had two children; now I have four. My medical practice has grown and so have my responsibilities. I never wanted this blog to feel like a job, which is why I stayed away from running advertisements – a decision which in retrospect probably cost me more money than I’m comfortable admitting to myself – but as my free time has dwindled, it’s felt more and more like a job anyway. An unpaid job at that.

And beyond that, as hard as this may be to believe, I really don’t like criticizing other people. Dayton Moore and his front office seem like good people trying to do their best. They know that criticism is part of the job, but as much as I’ve tried to restrict my criticism strictly to their baseball decisions, I can’t deny that many times I’ve driven past criticism and into the land of insults and mockery. Even if they were deserved, that hasn’t been very nice of me. And they haven’t all been deserved.

Besides, it’s just baseball. When presidents make terrible decisions – and both the current and previous one have – hundreds of thousands of people can die. When Moore makes a bad decision, I have to watch Yuniesky Betancourt wave at routine groundballs. But I’ve written hundreds of times more words about the latter than the former. Maybe in time I’ll balance that ratio out a little.

I’m not planning to stop writing about baseball entirely after this season; I just need to tame this obsession with writing thousands and thousands of words about the same team every month, an obsession which has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion. And anyway, we’ve still got a long way to go this year. I would love to go out on a winner. And if it means this blog’s final words will be, “I was wrong, Dayton. Forgive me.” – well, that’s a trade-off I’ll be happy to make.

26 comments:

Jazzbumpa said...

I really enjoy your blog. Discovered it around mid-season last year and have been a regular reader since. I'm also a Tigers fan, looking forward to tomorrow's game with a mix of anticipation and anxiety.

I don't understand the Cabrera deal. It's not horrible, but the timing seems very strange, and dealing with Scherzer is more immediate.

I sort of understand why Fister was expendable, but they did sell him way too cheaply.

Sure hope that Pecota prediction is wrong.

Good luck Royals - starting with game 4.

Cheers!
JzB

Rick Johnson said...

Longer than 2008. I was reading "Rob & Rany on the Royals" ten years before then.

Ryan said...

I've been reading your blog since the beginning, or close to it. I don't even care about the Royals that much.

Rany said...

Rick,

True - Rob and I started blogging about the Royals in 1998 or so. I'm referring to this particular blog, and the commitment I made to it. I imagine I'll still write about the Royals in some capacity; it just won't be here, and it won't be as regularly as I do now.

christian cox said...

I'm going to try to say this nicely, "nope, sorry, you can't quit". Just close the doors on your practice and leave a bunch of SPF 60 pillow packs in a bin out front with a nicely worded letter stating that you'll be back in after KC stops playing over .500 ball. You'll have a large group of stage 3 clingers with out a blog to check every 4 days to see if there's a new article. Just think of all the material you'll have in the next 5 years.
You've got an amazing gift Rany and I want to thank you for all the infortainment that you supplied us 132 Royals fans when our team was a joke but it was still our team.
I grew up in SW MO dreaming of being John Schierholtz not George Brett because I loved baseball more than baseball loved me. I was infatuated with the beauty of what it took day in and day out to put together a million piece jig saw puzzle that when complete was a World Series Trophy.
I wish you the best and now it's time for me to go google 'baseball blog kinda like Rany on the Royals'. They can even be a liberal, Baptist dentist, as long as they write like you.

Ryan Balsiger said...

I don't have much to add to what Christian wrote. I grew up in Northeast Oklahoma, choosing the Royals as my team because my Mom told me fantastic stories of going to the games in KC and talking to the guys in the bullpen and also because all of my elementary school friends loved the Texas Rangers because their parents loved that good ol' boy Nolan. I will absolutely miss reading this blog every few weeks, it is a great distraction from some of the terrible generic sports writing out there, not any of which can match your wit and logic about the KC Royals. Although, part of me will be glad because I don't follow the Royals every day like I used to, so I probably wouldn't know the difference between a 'Betancourt' and a 'Yost', and that might be a good thing. Obviously, I am only slightly serious, I will know these things, but not to the analytical degree some of us have come to cherish at Rany on the Royals. Here's to riding off into the sunset one way or the other...

Christopher Yheulon said...

I recently read that you are a dermatologist. I am currently in my 5th year of general surgery residency and had questions regarding your balance between your passion for baseball and your patients. If possible, could you email me at christopher.yheulon@gmail.com? Thanks so much for your time.

formerbagger said...

To say your insights would be missed is quite the understatement Rany. Your combination of intelligence, accurate analysis and moderate snarkiness is easy to appreciate. I was disappointed you chose to post infrequently this winter, but I still checked nearly every day. Hopefully you will reconsider and continue your musings but if not, we salute you. What if we took up a collection and got you out of that God forsaken dermatology business? Just a thought.

Jason said...

Rany, I have followed you whether it was blogging, podcasting, or radio since I found you and Rob bantering about the Royals in the late 90s.

I wish you and your family the best. A someone who has a wife, 4 kids, and a small business owner as well i can relate to the struggle for balance. Your words at the end challenge me to be a better husband and father.

Wishing you and your family the best.

-Jason

Erik Avery said...

I have always felt it is a pleasure and a privilege reading your blog (and as a Royals fan, there isn't much privilege). Your announcement further adds to my feeling that 2014 will be "an all-in year" that will end, again, disappointingly for us Royals fans.

Michael S. said...

I think your assessment is pretty spot on. While we get a little better offensively, I think our pitching will take a step back. If something unexpected happens, like Hosmer and Moustakas' BOTH break out, then we can dream of playoffs.

JPB said...

Rany,
I am very sorry to hear that you intend to stop writing the Royals blog. This comes from someone who reacted negatively to the focus on who is batting 2nd in the lineup and especially the snarky comments about Moore and Yost. That said, I have read every blog you have written since I discovered your site 3 years ago and every tweet since I joined twitter this year. So thanks for all your hard work and insight. I hope you change your mind but best of luck in whatever you choose to do.

Michael J Buchanan said...

Rany, you aren't being held at gunpoint. You can write whenever you feel like it. Keep the blog, post when you FEEL like it. We'll still read.

Jeremy Clemons said...

Why does everything have to change?? I still miss the Royals Authority blog, I do not like Royals Review as much. I enjoy your writing every time. I wish you the best with your endeavors

Sarah said...

Rany, I've enjoyed your musings on the Royals very much over the years. I'll certainly be sad to see you go.

Way back when my husband and I were dating, we lived close to the stadium and could still get GA tickets for $5 so we went to a game or two every week. We read Rob and Rany religiously. We don't make it to quite as many games anymore because we don't live as close and we also have four young children, but we both still read all of your blog posts. Your writing is interesting and your thoughts on the team are always spot-on.

I'm amazed that you have been able to fit this blog into your busy schedule all these years. Even if you stop writing, I hope you'll stay on Twitter. Baseball season wouldn't be the same without you.

thomasj19 said...

Rany - I have enjoyed reading your columns for years. If you do decide to not write after this year I would totally understand. The last time the Royals made the playoffs I live in Kansas City but that was a long, long time ago. I have long since given up hope they will make the playoffs as long as Moore and Yost are there. But it may be they never make the playoffs with the Glass' in charge.

Regardless, you have been a voice of reason for many years. I think you are overly optimistic about this year but hey, that is your right. The future was mortgaged and this year is really their last chance. But Moore and Yost will find a way to screw it up as they always do. Yost blew the first of many games on opening day with his mismanagement of the bullpen again.

But thanks for the time you put in on doing this column.

Tom

Mark said...

You made it possible for an old Orioles fan, out here in Las Vegas for many years, to care about a baseball team again.

I thank you.

KCDC said...

Rany,

I've been reading since the tail end of the R&R days. You've done a great job with this blog.

With regard to hanging up the keyboard, I did want to share a couple quick thoughts.

Regarding negativity, always remember that the VAST majority of readers do not tweet, post blog comments, or call into radio shows. Almost all of your readers silently agree with most of your opinions, and then we navigate onward without comment. We do not find you to be unduly negative or critical. In fact, most of us recognize that you err toward the unduly optimistic end of the spectrum.

Regarding this blog becoming a job, my advice would be to post only when you want to post. We're busy too--we understand that you can't post every week or even every month. Try not to promise future blog posts, so that you don't have self-imposed deadlines to meet. And when you do post after 2 months off, there's no need to apologize. You wrote something, we're interested, it's free. No apology necessary.

I hope you'll reconsider closing shop, and instead find a way to write less and not feel guilty about it. That way, you get to hold onto your microphone when something happens that you really want to write about.

Regardless, we're all looking forward to this season!

nmstar said...

You will be missed. I look forward to reading your insights on the Royals and I'm not a KC fan. I hope you will still be writing about baseball at Grantland and doing your radio spots. Don't leave us altogether! Thanks for all the great material over the years!

Matt Wasso said...

I've really appreciated your writing over the years. As a lifelong Royals fan, I know the struggle. More than that, I appreciate your honesty and convictions on things involving baseball and beyond. Please stay active on Twitter! I'll need your support to survive future Yostings.

pjbronco said...

Game three and I'm already feeling "Yosted."

Rick Schlottke said...

Rany,

I consider your blogs site Kansas Cities site for the KC Royals. I've read your blog site since rob and rany days. It is truly a sad day, I turn to you every day to see what you have to say. I love your passion for the royals.

I do understand the time commitment you have with your practice, family, and all of the blogging. You do have many friends that wish you the best..
Maybe we can convince you hang with it a bit longer...

Thanks for everything..

Rick

Fast Eddie said...

That's the time to get rid of your back up infielder, when Moustakas and Escobar are a combined 0-29.

Fast Eddie said...

Why would Valencia not start against the left hander today? Another one tomorrow (Sale) and I bet he won't start that game either. Yost will cause the Royals to not make the playoffs in 2014.

John said...

I think there's a better chance of the Royals winning 97 games this season than there is of the New York Yankees playing in the ALCS. The Yankee infield is a toxic slag heap.

Fast Eddie said...

I was wrong about Valencia being in the lineup against Sale, but it didn't help the Royals any.