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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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