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.