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Last Year's Darlings Are This Year's Disappointments? 2015 Royals Preview

Perfect luck was part of "The Process"

The Royals' biggest offseason acquisition - Alex Rios
The Royals' biggest offseason acquisition - Alex Rios
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014 the Royals made one of the more improbable, unexpected, and interesting runs to (and through) the playoffs in recent memory.  The team was under .500 as late into the season as July 22 (at 49-50), had a negative run differential until they evened it that very same day, hit the fewest HRs in MLB by a good margin, had the worst ISO, and drew the fewest walks.  On September 20, the Royals were 13 games over .500, and 13 runs over breakeven, which is kind of the story of their season.  Somehow, they just kept winning, even though underneath the surface they didn't actually seem to be that good of a team.

Most people attributed this to the Royals' incredible bullpen, and indeed it was historically good at the back end.  Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera combined for a 1.28 ERA in over 200 innings pitched!  The Royals took the lead into the 7th inning 69 times last year, and the Royals relinquished the lead twice.  Twice!  And never when leading going into the 8th or 9th.  The clutch performance at the back end of the bullpen is mind boggling for the 2014 Royals, and no doubt it was easily the strongest aspect of the team.

On the other hand, the offense was notoriously one of the weaker units in baseball.  In addition to the MLB worsts listed above, they were also bottom 5 in the AL in OBP and SLG.  And these rankings are despite the fact that the team enjoyed an above average BABIP in 2014, too.  So how did this group manage to be in the top half of MLB in runs scored?  They were one of the better baserunning teams in MLB, which certainly helps, but barely begins to explain the divide between their batting performances and their runs scored.  The rest of the answer?  Clutch.  The Royals had easily the best clutch performance in MLB in 2014.  Their OPS shot up 59 points in medium- and high-leverage situations compared to low-leverage last year.

The starting pitching in some ways was a lot like the offense - namely in that it should neatly separate the two camps of baseball observers who can't agree on the clutch-when-it-counts versus the they-definitely-got-lucky spectrum of performance.  The top five starters in the rotation (who accounted for all but 47.2 of the starter innings) all had lower ERAs than FIPs.  They all had BABIPs less than .300.  4 of the 5 had LOB% above league average and HR/9 below league average.

So why am I spending so much time in a 2015 Royals preview talking about the 2014 team?  First of all because the 2015 is certain to be less interesting, but also because the borderline ridiculous nature of the 2014 team's results is important if you're trying to decide how the 2015 team will do.  The 2014 offense was lucky/clutch by ~20 runs, the pitching by about ~60 runs, and on top of that, they beat their Pythagorean record by 5 wins!  Let's give full credit to the bullpen and say it wasn't even a tiny bit lucky, then the pitching was still ahead of expectation by about 45 runs.  If none of this luck/clutch repeats itself, then the team loses 11 wins from its total last year and doesn't sniff the playoffs (where the luck/clutch gods perhaps went even a little bit crazier with the Royals than the regular season, but that's another story).  So if you think last year's team was lucky rather than having crazy clutch skills, then the additions and subtractions of the offseason are working against a baseline of more like 78 wins than 89.

Main Additions and Subtractions for 2015

Billy Butler and Norichika Aoki were three of the top five regular hitters for a bad Royals offense, and they departed this offseason.  Alex Rios is a reasonable replacement for Aoki on offense if not on defense.  Kendrys Morales replaces Butler's bat on offense and if healthy should be again a pretty even replacement.  However, Morales was downright atrocious last year, so the Royals are betting on something of a return to form.  Casey Kotchman was brought in the fold just in case Morlaes has a repeat performance of last year.  AAAA type Johnny Giavotella was traded to the Angels.

On the pitching side, the loss of Aaron Crow should be more than made up for in the bullpen by the addition of Jason Frasor, as long as Frasor stays healthy.  Edinson Volquez was brought in to strengthen the rotation, and Chris Young is also new to the team and ostensibly fighting to break the rotation this spring.  Dayton Moore also made an interesting signing in Kris Medlen, who should be quite the steal if he can ever get on the diamond.  That's a big if, though: Medlen will start the year on the 60-day DL as he is recovering from his second TJ surgery since 2010.  Ryan Madson was brought in as a similar reclamation project.  Joe Blanton and Franklin Morales fill the bill for veteran depth brought in to stash in the minors.

Overall, it looks like the Royals covered their main offensive losses rather well, and added great depth to their pitching, if not any impact talent.  That was important because the rotation is unlikely to repeat its nearly perfect health from last season.

The Royals definitely have interesting talent.  Alex Gordon is a perennial RR trade target and an All-Star caliber player.  Lorenzo Cain is in the running for best defensive CF in baseball.  Salvador Perez is one of the better and more dependable catchers in baseball.  James Shields is rock solid and Yordano Ventura is young, already good, and has room to get even better.  The back end of that bullpen is still terrifying for opponents who haven't jumped on the starter for a lead.  But, the Royals didn't really go out and do anything to make the team better than it was last year. They might reasonably hope for a better performance from Mike Moustakas, but then again his track record of mediocre-to-bad hitting is now four years long.  They might hope for improvement from Eric Hosmer, but again his four-year track record is mixed.  Basically, it looks like they are bringing back a new version of the same team.

That's why FG projections have them at 79-83 this year, third in the AL Central.  And unless you buy the major clutchiness of last year's team, it's really hard to argue against that.  PECOTA has them much worse than that even, at 72-90.  Their bullpen probably will buy them a few wins over what their raw stats suggest, but it's also basically impossible for the bullpen to be as good again as it was last year, and that bump alone isn't going to put them in the playoffs even in a weak division.  Especially if Ned Yost has his Royals near the top of the league in sacrifice attempts again (and near the bottom in success rate again), the offense is going to have a serious uphill battle to fight just trying to match last year's run scoring.  And even the very solid defense played by the Royals isn't likely to keep every single starter outperforming his peripherals again.

The Royals were a great story last year - a very easy team to root for, especially given the very long suffering the fanbase endured.  An underdog that took out a number of heavyweights on a magical run that seemed to be destiny.  But as much as I like the Royals, I definitely would not put my money on a repeat.