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American League Two-a-Days: Kansas City Royals

LiveBall Sports Previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Kansas City Royals

2013 record: 86-76
2013 runs scored: 648
2013 runs against: 601
2013 pythag. record: 87-75

No American League team gave up fewer runs in 2013 than the Kansas City Royals.  Not coincidentally, there has not been a better defensive unit since 2005 than this past Royals’ team.  Most of the projections for the 2014 Royals center around pitching-based arguments.  Can you win games with a pitch to contact rotation and a strong bullpen?  This really does miss the point of the 2014 Royals: how much like the 2013 Royals can they be without falling into a trap of not participating in the modern game of baseball.

From a power-arms and power-bats perspective, the Royals have not quite arrived yet.  2014 is expected to be an improvement on 2013 in this regard, but the bottom of the lineup is still weak, the middle of the rotation still weak.  Problem is, looking at baseball through a narrow prism doesn’t explain why the Royals would wander aimlessly for two decades since the strike, and then turn around and win 86 games last year.  And if you mis-apply the reasoning for that on “veteran pitching” (the Royals led the AL in team ERA last year), you’ll miss on your projection from the team this year.

Who is having a good spring?

3B Mike Moustakas is the only player with four spring homers and sports a 1.658 OPS in 31 PAs.  SS Pedro Ciraco may be on the outside looking on this roster at the moment, but his spring line will have other organizations paying attention.  C Sal Perez is crushing the ball, as are OFs Alex Gordon and Justin Maxwell.  The top three guys in the rotation: RHPs James Shields and Yordano Ventura, and LHP Jason Vargas, have looked great.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Royals

The Royals have not put this much established talent on a roster since the 80’s.  James Shields and Greg Holland lead the pitching staff, while OF Alex Gordon, DH Billy Butler, C Sal Perez, and 1B Eric Hosmer are the top players on the roster.  The Royals picked up RF Nori Aoki and 2B Omar Infante in the offseason.  That’s a strong core to build a roster on.

Defensively, the Royals are the best in the business.  It starts behind the plate with Perez, but SS Alcides Escobar, CF Lorenzo Cain, and Gordon are also better at their positions than any in the AL.  Moustakas is an excellent defensive third baseman, and the Royals made a defensive upgrade at second with Infante.

Last year, the Royals had three pitchers throw 200+ innings.  The common refrain is that the Royals’ success here simply isn’t sustainable. But James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, and Ervin Santana combined for just 8.1 rWAR a season ago.  In fact, with none of those players contributing, the Royals could have easily still gone over .500 with their elite defense.  Shields and Guthrie are back, and Santana’s 3 WAR won’t be that difficult to replace.  The Royals, quietly, got below replacement production from the rest of the rotation, something they can improve on easily.  Even with a lot of projection systems betting the under on the Royals rotation to repeat 2013, you should be smart and take the over.  This rotation is better than a year ago.

The Royals should post their best team on-base percentage this season since 2000 when Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon played for them in an offense-heavy environment.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Royals

Though the starting rotation is underprojected, the Royals’ bullpen is going to have a ripple effect resulting from Luke Hochevar’s season ending injury.  The assumption a lot of observers are making about the Royals is that they have a ton of bullpen depth and can just replace Hochevar’s innings with similar production, but sub-2 ERA relievers aren’t particularly common.  When you add to this the inevitable regression on Greg Holland’s sub-2 ERA 2013 season (Holland has been hit hard in the spring), the Royals bullpen depth is going to get tested early in the season.

The depth is also overstated, based on a year ago.  The Royals carried three relievers all year who struggled and tried to hide them in low leverage situations: LHP Tim Collins, RHP Luis Mendoza, and RHP Aaron Crow.  Crow is likely to rebound this season, but Collins isn’t the same pitcher he was two years ago, and Mendoza is pitching in Japan.  Of the relievers who the Royals relied heavily on last year, only RHP Kelvin Herrera is likely to get better.  Hochevar’s out, Holland is the closer and closers can be volatile, LHP Will Smith was dealt for Aoki, and Wade Davis is sliding to the back of the bullpen to take his spot.  Davis, Herrera, and Holland will be a strong back end of the pen, but that’s not necessarily better than what Oakland, Boston, or even Detroit are running out there.  For all the talk about Kansas City’s pitching depth, they might need to acquire a left handed relief arm at the deadline to catch the Tigers.

Offensively, the Royals are aggressive to a fault, and have a lot of young talent that doesn’t always consider patience at the point when it is most virtuous.  The Royals are adept at taking themselves out of innings with little assistance from the pitcher through bunts, pickoffs, baserunning errors, and bad plate approaches.  Normally, a team like this can lean on some home runs to take the edge off, but the Royals do not hit for a lot of power, and don’t seem to care all that much, despite periodic please from manager Ned Yost.  The Royals failed to slug .400 as a team last season.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Royals is 38.6, 7th in the American League.  Their 22.6 Batters WAR projection is 9th in the AL. Their 16.0 Pitchers WAR projection is 6th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Royals to win 81 games, a 5 win decline over last season.  James Shields is the Royal with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 4.1.  Salvador Perez is the position player with the best average projection at 4.1 WAR.

The Royals vs the rest of the AL Central

The AL Central is an above average division this year.  The Tigers enter the season with one of the best statistical profiles of any team.  The Royals and Indians are above average opponents with some downside potential.  The Twins should be improved, and have the consensus best farm system, which should help avoid a repeat of the end of last year when they were running a sub-MLB lineup out.  The White Sox are more volatile this year than last, and will have some upside to go with the worst downside in MLB.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Kansas City Royals

It’s going to be tricky trying to catch the Tigers over 6 months, but one of the projection quirks is that the schedule ratings between the Royals and Tigers are so vastly disparate, that it is throwing off a lot of projections.  The team’s play more or less the same schedule, minus the 19 games they play against each other.  Those matter, but Kansas City went 10-9 against Detroit last season.  These teams are not equivalents, but 19 contests against each other is not enough to completely throw off the projections the way strength of schedule is affecting them.

You can convince me that the Tigers have the AL’s easiest schedule, but the Royals play the Indians, White Sox, and Twins just as many times.

Against an average schedule, the Royals 79-81 win projections sit closer to the 84-87 win range they were in last season.  This is a tick above where the vegas odds have them at.

I implored people above to take the over on those projections.  I’m skeptical that the Royals bullpen can repeat it’s performance from last year, but I also said the same thing about the 2013 Royals, and that bullpen got even better.  The offense looks problematic, but the projections are pretty friendly to most players (Moustakas, in particular).  It’s possible that Billy Butler and Alex Gordon are overprojected if you want to paint the scenario where the Royals fail to win 80 games: if both continue the decline they suffered last season, this team isn’t sniffing the playoffs.  Then again, if you don’t think the players on the Royals are any good, you should be picking them to be below .500.

The official LiveBall Sports prediction is 90-73, including a loss to the Tigers in a division tiebreaker game.  The Royals just don’t have enough to break through in the AL Central, though they will fall short by the slimmest of margins.  90 wins may very well break the Royals 28 season playoff-less streak, but it would have come up short by a game last season.  Whether this prediction is evidence of the Royals coming up short is entirely open to interpretation.

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American League Two-a-Days: Detroit Tigers

March 13, 2014 1 comment

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Detroit Tigers

2013 record: 93-69
2013 runs scored: 796
2013 runs against: 624
2013 pythag. record: 99-63

The Detroit Tigers shot themselves in the foot so many times last season that they ended up with a one game margin of victory in the AL Central.  It should never have been that close.  The Tigers were the best team in baseball from April 1 through the ALCS.  They were the best run scoring offense in baseball, and the best pitching team in the American League.  Only the Kansas City Royals gave up fewer runs.  Even their maligned bullpen was a team strength by the end of the season.

So why and how did the Tigers lose helplessly to the Red Sox in the ALCS?  The answer will foreshadow a weakness of the 2014 team: the lineup wasn’t that good in the playoffs.  So did they cramp up in the clutch?  Hardly.  The Tigers lineup was unproductive in September and late August as well.  All of the run scoring the Tigers did was concentrated in the first five months of the season.  That’s when Miguel Cabrera got hurt, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson started to really struggle, and Torii Hunter cooled off.  Without the benefit of a great lineup, the Tigers weren’t a true talent 99 win team in the playoffs.  They very nearly got caught in the division race by the Cleveland Indians.

And then they dealt Prince Fielder in the offseason to Texas for Ian Kinsler, which is going to to little to help the offensive problem.  Luckily, Detroit returns 4/5 of their rotation from last year.

Who is having a good spring?

3B Nick Castellanos, with a spot to win in spring training, has an 1.158 OPS in 33 spring PAs.  CF Austin Jackson has laced 10 hits.  Something named Miguel Cabrera has a .455/.571/.773 spring line.  Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer has picked up right where he left off.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Tigers

That rotation, man.  Scherzer.  Verlander.  Sanchez.  Even if Sanchez regresses of his career year, he’s still a nice no. 3 pitcher.  And with Scherzer and Verlander at the top of any rotation, it’s going to be hard to score on the Tigers.  Are they an all-time great rotation?  No.  Scherzer doesn’t make it deep into games consistently, and Verlander has undergone some level of skill decline recently.  But it’s the best rotation in baseball, even after selling high-ish on Doug Fister in a trade to the Nationals.

Defensively, the Tigers are much, much improved.  This is at least an average defensive unit, and a plus unit in the infield.  Alex Avila leaves something to be desired as a defensive catcher, and the outfield is Austin Jackson (above average) and not a lot of help from Torii Hunter and Andy Dirks.  The bullpen isn’t really a weakness anymore, even if the Tigers are overpaying Joe Nathan.  The Tigers have to be the favorite to prevent the most runs in the AL in 2014.

Rick Porcello, the fourth man in the rotation for the Tigers, would be the top pitcher on many staffs.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Tigers

Offensively, this is going to be more than just a problem for the Tigers.  This is a poor offensive team.  Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez are top five hitters on this team, but both have reached the end of the road career-wise.  If they have anything left to give this team, it’s a plus.  And with 2B Omar Infante departed for the main competition in the division, this offense is really just three guys: Cabrera, Kinsler, and Jackson.

That’s probably selling Alex Avila a bit short.  Avila is a nice player, but he’s a lot nicer as an 8 hitter in a power hitting lineup who ambushes pitchers not wanting to put someone on base for the top of the order.  It might be selling Castellanos a but short, as he’s off to a nice start to his spring.  But since he’s been in Detroit, Miguel Cabrera has always been a challenge to work around because he’s an aggressive hitter and you want to make sure you’re not falling too far behind in the count.  This year, there’s not a whole lot in the Tigers lineup beyond him to be concerned about.  In terms of extra base hits, Cabrera has a slugging projection from Fangraphs of .584.  Second on the team is…Torii Hunter at .431.  It’s not even close.

The Tigers don’t run the bases particularly well either.  Kinsler instead of Fielder improves that a bit, but this is a station to station ballclub with no real patience or power.  Basically, if Miguel Cabrera isn’t getting pitched around, it’s because something is wrong with Cabrera.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Tigers is 46.1, best in the American League.  Their 23.8 Batters WAR projection is 4th in the AL. Their 22.3 Pitchers WAR projection is best in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Tigers to win 90 games, a 3 win decline over last season.  Miguel Cabrera is the Tiger with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 5.9.  Justin Verlander is the pitcher with the best average projection at 5.2 WAR.

The Tigers vs the rest of the AL Central

The AL Central is an above average division this year.  The Tigers enter the season with one of the best statistical profiles of any team.  The Royals and Indians are above average opponents with some downside potential.  The Twins should be improved, and have the consensus best farm system, which should help avoid a repeat of the end of last year when they were running a sub-MLB lineup out.  The White Sox are more volatile this year than last, and will have some upside to go with the worst downside in MLB.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Detroit Tigers

Because of their relatively easy strength of schedule, it’s a good bet that the Tigers will win another 90 games this year.  There’s not a lot of collapse risk with this team.  I do think. however, the Cabrera and Verlander projections are a bit high.  It’s not hard to see Cabrera spending some time on the DL this season with one of the many ailments he has as his body wears down.  Verlander has been nothing if not durable, but it’s hard not to remember how hard he got hit at times last season.  This team is great, but it’s best players do seem to be somewhat overprojected.

I’ll flatly side with the numbers here and predict the Tigers to finish 90-72.  That will not be the best figure in the American League this year.  It could be enough to win the AL Central for the fourth consecutive season but that’s not certain either.  At 90 wins, Cool Standings playoff odds give the Tigers a roughly 70% chance of winning the AL Central.  Two-thirds sounds about right to me.  90 wins in almost all likelyhood will get the Tigers into the postseason: it’s hard to see three wild card teams win 91+ games like last year.

Any postseason trip should seal GM Dave Dombroski’s position as one of (if not the) best executives in Tigers history.