Last week, I wrote an article about the fact that no Baseball Prospectus staffer picked the Rangers to be serious contenders this year. (Neither did anyone else I could find.) Because the Rangers lead the race for the second Wild Card spot, the question was whether we, as a sabermetric community, missed something that ought to have allowed us to forecast Texas’ success, or whether they were a true fluke. I concluded, in the end, that we underestimated the value of the team’s organizational depth, suffered from recency bias that unfairly diminished our expectations of once-great players, and undersold the degree of variance possible in a league with many teams on the edges of contention.
The Rangers were a good first case study in this area, but the best and most important team on which to challenge our views is the Royals.
As with the Rangers, no BP writer picked the Royals to finish first in their division this season. That’s an even more glaring error than it was in Texas’ case, because the Royals are coasting toward the easiest division championship of any team in baseball this year. No one pegged the Royals for second in the AL Central, either. Eleven of us pegged them to finish third, a rather rude way to treat a defending pennant winner. Then again, with a sub-.500 third-order winning percentage in 2014 and a disappointing winter under their belts, we weren’t really thinking about the Royals as a pennant winner. Rather, we considered them a team of the times, a pop-up powerhouse without true excellence or staying power.
Were we wrong? I’ll restate the caveats I gave in the Texas article: Not all doomed predictions are failures of the science of prediction. Some are simply done in by the violent vicissitudes of chance and variance, which aren’t the same thing but work in devilishly close harmony. Others are made with incomplete information; we can’t call for a mulligan every time new data emerges.
Did we fail by not predicting that the Royals would be really, really good? Or did they simply outrun any reasonable prediction?
Possibility #1: We missed on the Royals, and there’s no excuse.
Last time, I began by laying out the case that the Rangers were a fluke. I feel confident that I drew my own conclusions without being influenced by the order in which I presented the scenarios (not least because I came to my conclusion before I did the writing, as I have this time, as well), but just to head off as many mental blocks as possible, we’ll start this time with the premise that we ought to have seen Kansas City coming.
Supporting Evidence: In essence, the support for this side of the argument boils down to the fact that the Royals were the hottest team in baseball in the second half last season, carrying into the playoffs. They were not just hot, but hot in a culminating sort of way, finally meeting the lofty expectations pinned on them a few years earlier, when the organization was hailed as having perhaps the best farm system ever assembled.
The Royals’ best starting pitcher for much of last season was Danny Duffy, and Yordano Ventura finished sixth in a strong Rookie of the Year race. (He should have finished higher.) From the All-Star break on, Eric Hosmer had a 124 OPS+. Mike Moustakas continued to battle slumps and struggle hitting against the shift, but got really hot in October. While James Shields and Norichika Aoki were important cogs in the machine, the majority of the Royals’ 2014 success was the result of their prospect power finally coming to bear. Heck, even Shields’ contributions, and those of Wade Davis, can be traced back to the team’s impressive accumulation of high-upside minor-league talent during Dayton Moore’s reign as GM; they were acquired for Wil Myers, our no. 7 overall prospect the year of the trade.
If we’d bought into the Royals, we would have been buying the idea that while development isn’t linear, guys don’t often un-break out. We’d have been investing in the futures of Lorenzo Cain, Hosmer, and Moustakas, all of whom have been excellent this season. (We’d also have been investing in the futures of Duffy and Ventura, who have added nothing this season.) Given what the analytical community most prizes these days (young, cost-controlled players with growth potential), picking against the Royals represented not only questionable judgment, but uncharacteristic cynicism about a team built in what we typically consider the right way.
There’s also an argument that saber sorts have been too slow (much too slow; embarrassingly slow) to come around to the idea that some bullpen performances are sustainable. The Royals thrived on their bullpen last summer and fall, as has been so well documented, but instead of admiring the strength and depth of that unit, the majority of us kept our expectations quite tempered. Maybe we’re not giving this set of exceptional relievers (the Royals lead MLB in relief DRA, at 3.43) enough credit.
Possibility #2: The Royals came from nowhere, and to nowhere shall they return.
Supporting Evidence: Kansas City has a 102 cFIP, meaning that their pitchers’ true talent level is below average. They’re 10th in park-adjusted Defensive Efficiency, seventh in baserunning runs, seventh in True Average. All four National League powers have higher third-order winning percentages than the Royals, as do the Blue Jays, Astros, Indians (!), and Yankees. These are just stats, but they move one slowly toward the conclusion that the Royals aren’t having quite as strong a season as they appear to be having.
The Royals have given Paulo Orlando and Jarrod Dyson over 400 plate appearances, and gotten roughly a .700 OPS out of them. That’s utterly unexpected and wildly valuable, given the defense those guys play, and that helped them weather the prolonged absence of Alex Gordon. So, too, did the addition of Ben Zobrist. Zobrist and Johnny Cueto are Royals because of their organizational depth and their ability to trade from it without denting the big-league roster; that is to their credit. It would have been very hard, though, to somehow foresee the team trading for a player at the deadline and having him hit .336/.421/.520 over his next 145 plate appearances.
We didn’t anticipate Moustakas hitting .281/.347/.446, and I’m not sure we could have been expected to do so. Moustakas had batted .236/.290/.379 in nearly 2,000 big-league plate appearances prior to this year, and despite showing some serious pop last October, he only had a .259 OBP in the postseason. Most of us didn’t assign any projected value to Edinson Volquez or Chris Young, which was probably myopic, but their uneven track records would have made it folly to place much faith in them.
Verdict: I’m unable find fault with our collective inability to see the Royals coming. To me, this is a distinctly different case than that of the Rangers. In their case, we allowed a mixture of injuries and down seasons from proven players to blind us to their strengths. In the Royals’ case, on the other hand, we erred by underestimating the sustainability of their bullpen dominance, and we failed to foresee the remarkably strong performances they would get from some very unlikely places.
Going forward, those are things we should remember, and build into future predictions. I wrote a piece in May about the strength of the Kansas City positional roster, but I was wary about what would happen if and when some core position player got hurt. In retrospect, I overstated the risk there. As Dyson and Orlando have shown (and as Kelby Tomlinson has shown in San Francisco, and as Ryan Goins and Chris Colabello have shown in Toronto, and are you starting to see a pattern?), even guys with very little established offensive ability can hit pretty well over what feel like long stretches. One of the fundamental truths of baseball, and one we too often forget, is that no single player can win a team a title, so the absence of one can’t take a team out of the running, either. Variance can allow even bad players to look good for two or three months at a time.
More importantly, bullpens aren’t what they used to be, and we shouldn’t project them the way we used to project them. There’s still a problem of establishing a sample size we can consider reliable, but relievers aren’t wild cards, and the regression factors we use to account for the variance we expect over those small samples need to be modified in light of the way pitchers are now trained and deployed.
We couldn’t have fairly assumed the Royals were going to carry their dominant late-season relief efforts from 2014 not only into 2015, but all the way through it. We had to see this sort of thing happen a few times before it could possibly be rational to expect it, even in an extreme case. From now on, we might assign more weight to bullpen quality when projecting a team’s season, but back in April, we were working with the best information we had.