Towards the end of the fourth Die Hard movie, an aging John McClane faces off against an F-35 Lightning fighter jet whilst driving a cumbersome truck. Naturally, McClane wins this battle. While the movie was an entertaining diversion, this may have been the point at which it became clear that the creators had run out of ideas for both action sequences and plausible obstacles for McClane to overcome. Maybe it’s the theme of winning against the odds, or man against machine, or the apparent inevitability of the final outcome, but for whatever reason, the recurring triumph of McClane over a series of increasingly ludicrous challenges is what came to mind when I saw that once again, PECOTA is down on the Royals.
PECOTA wasn’t interested in Kansas City after an 86-win season in 2013, nor was it buying in after their 89 wins and a run to the World Series in 2014. 95 wins and a World Series title in 2015? Nope, that’s still not going to buy them a good PECOTA projection. Comically, an 81-win year in 2016 didn’t move the needle all that much either. The system was determined to see the Royals as about the same clearly sub-.500 team no matter what they did. Hans Gruber falling off Nakatomi Plaza had about as much impact on Royals projections as their record did.
Year after year, the Royals outperformed PECOTA’s expectations, by varying orders of magnitude. It was a modest six wins in 2016, and a whopping 23 in their World Series winning season the year before. The Royals also beat their PECOTA projection by eight wins in 2017, a fact as unsurprising and yet forgettable as the existence of a fifth Die Hard movie. There was a fifth Die Hard; it was, by most accounts, truly horrendous.
Whether or not missing by six wins actually counts as a loss for PECOTA is a far less interesting topic than considering whether the Royals are going to beat PECOTA for the sixth year running. I’m not sure that Pecota Gruber is that plausible a name for Hans and Simon’s long-lost cousin who’s just come out of a coma and wants revenge for his dead brethren, but then this is also a good time to point out that Ned Yost is the same age as Bruce Willis (62), who has signed up for one more film in the series. Die Hard Kansas City also doesn’t seem all that ridiculous a direction for the franchise to take in its sixth film, given that the fifth apparently used the tagline “Yippee-ki-yay, Mother Russia“.
So here we are again: PECOTA projects the Royals to go 66-96 in 2018. Unlike previous seasons, though, all but the most optimistic Royals fan could have seen this coming. There was still the possibility that Kansas City would move Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, or Eric Hosmer as their team control neared its end, but the longer they waited, the less tempting that return would be. Now they’ve all hit free agency and the most the Royals are getting out of it so far is the compensation pick for Cain signing with the Brewers.
PECOTA also isn’t out on a Royals-hating island to the same extent as it has been in previous seasons. The FanGraphs projections are more optimistic, although optimistic feels like the wrong word for a 70-win projection. Those extra four wins might also have something to do with the fact that FanGraphs projects the Tigers for a truly atrocious 61-101 record. Clay Davenport’s system agrees with PECOTA at 66 wins. The Royals are bad. 66 wins is bad. They still have a real shot at beating PECOTA once again.
Of course, even if Kansas City had moved any of that departing trio, it’s hard to imagine they would have obtained major league ready talent that would have made a big difference to their short-term win total. Without three of their core stars, it becomes a lot harder to make the argument that the Royals are going to prove PECOTA wrong once again. It’s not just the absence of Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain which makes it difficult, however. Here’s a list of all the Kansas City players projected to be league-average (two wins) or better by PECOTA:
That’s it. Zero. Salvador Perez is perhaps the most recognizable name left on this roster, and has a World Series MVP award to his name. Despite his good reputation, the Royals catcher has rarely rated well by WARP as a result of his poor framing skills. The 27-year-old has been worth more than a win only once in his career, when he hit .292 in 2013 on his way to a 3-win season.
Alex Gordon was arguably the league’s best left fielder for several years running up to the Royals’ playoff success. He was one of the worst regulars in all of baseball in 2017. While UZR and DRS still rate him as a clearly above-average fielder, Statcast’s Outs Above Average and FRAA both have Gordon closer to average than elite these days. Almost no level of fielding talent can turn Gordon into a truly useful player as long as he hits .208 with a .223 TAv and a 62 wRC+.
It doesn’t get much better looking at the rest of the roster. Another core member of that World Series run has been brought back in the form of Alcides Escobar, who hasn’t had an OBP over .300 since 2014 and now gets to block prospect Raul Mondesi at shortstop. At least Yost finally stopped using Escobar in the leadoff spot mid-way through 2017 in favour of one of the few potential bright spots on this team: Whit Merrifield. Kansas City’s surprise breakout second baseman slashed .288/.324/.460 with 34 steals in his first full season as a major leaguer. Merrifield also just turned 29, which makes that breakout incredibly unusual and his long-term prospects considerably less long-term than you might expect.
The rest of the lineup is filled with utility players getting more time than they should and youth with extremely uncertain futures. Jorge Soler has by far the most prospect pedigree but little to no defensive ability. The league-average batting line he’s compiled so far in his major league career is therefore simply not going to cut it. Jorge Bonifacio‘s first name isn’t the only identical thing about these two: he’s also a questionable defensive option with power who supplied a batting line eerily similar to Soler’s career numbers. Two average hitters at DH aren’t any better than one unless they have big platoon splits, which thus far doesn’t seem to be the case, and they’re both righties anyway.
Hunter Dozier was a first-round pick in 2013 and has a couple of back-end top 101 appearances on Baseball Prospectus lists. He’s now 26 with only 21 big-league plate appearances to his name and played just 33 games in 2017 as a result of oblique and wrist injuries. Like Soler, he has proven he can hit at Triple-A but is a huge unknown at the major league level. Cheslor Cuthbert is slated for time at both infield corners, the split depending on how Dozier turns out and if the Royals do bring Hosmer back. Cuthbert walks slightly more often than Escobar but doesn’t have nearly the same glove, so the hit tool really needs to play up if he’s going to provide any value. Paulo Orlando is a 32-year-old outfielder who managed to BABIP his way into a .300 average in 2016 and he actually walks less than Escobar. This is so depressing it’s time to talk about the rotation.
Hey, Danny Duffy! Finally, a player on the roster who has actually been good recently. All the metrics agree that Duffy has been at least a three-win player the past couple of years, even with several missed starts in 2017. Duffy can get whiffs and ground balls, also induces pop-ups at a good rate, and has got his walk rate under control, an issue which plagued much of his earlier career. Perhaps because of that mixed history, PECOTA still isn’t all that enthused, because the system actually prefers Nate Karns.
This isn’t a ringing endorsement of Karns, as the system still only projects him for 1.6 WARP. Unfortunately that is the best mark on the Royals. Karns definitely has strikeout stuff, punching out almost a quarter of batters faced so far in his major league career. The surgery he had for the dreaded thoracic outlet syndrome is less encouraging, and Karns has a career high of 157 1/3 innings pitched as a professional over six seasons. If you’re looking for another pitcher to step up and be a number two behind Duffy, Karns might be the best bet, but more by default than any sense of reliability. At 30, he’s also older than Duffy by a full year.
The other three members of the rotation combine for a projected -0.4 WARP. That’s Ian Kennedy‘s fault, though, because Jason Hammel and Jake Junis are both given a shiny 0.1 WARP projection. Junis is actually young, at 25, and has a great slider. He’s also something of a two-pitch pitcher without a great fastball who should probably be a fifth starter or reliever. Kennedy pitches a lot of innings, giving him the opportunity to serve up as many homers as possible: an incredible 98 over 93 starts in the last three seasons, even though he has pitched half his games in Petco Park and Kaufmann Stadium over that stretch. Hammel has been a very dependable league-average starter. At 35, with a rapidly declining strikeout rate, it’s not that much of a surprise that PECOTA isn’t a fan.
After saving the secret weapon for last, it’s finally time to talk about the bullpen. One oft-cited reason for the likes of Kansas City and Baltimore outperforming PECOTA is bullpen strength, which theoretically helps them to win more close games than one might expect. Wade Davis and Greg Holland have provided Kansas City with some of the league’s best relief performances over this PECOTA-beating stretch, often at the same time. Kelvin Herrera has capably backed them up for much of that period. Other surprising performances, often from failed starters-turned-relievers like Davis, have helped too: Luke Hochevar in 2013, or Mike Minor last season, for instance.
Minor, the Royals’ best reliever in 2017, has left in free agency for Texas. The second-best by WARP, Peter Moylan, is also a free agent, although he would like to return. Joakim Soria and Scott Alexander, third and fourth on that WARP leaderboard, were both moved in return for prospects last month. Herrera had the worst season of his career, faltering at times as the closer with a diminished strikeout rate and a few too many home runs.
Teams can build bullpens out of almost nothing, of course: we just saw the Angels do it with very little investment or much in the way of established talent. Wily Peralta could be this year’s converted starter success story, and Burch Smith might translate his exceptional Triple-A production to the majors after barely throwing a pitch for three years. Nonetheless, this is a weak bullpen on the surface that could just as easily prove to be a disaster as the thorn in PECOTA’s side.
Despite all the pessimism, I just can’t bring myself to predict that this is the year the Royals finally fail to meet their PECOTA projection. They still have a potential front-line starter in Duffy, a number of players who have been at least average regulars in recent years, and some similarly bad divisional rivals to beat up on. As with the Die Hard franchise, expectations have been considerably lowered for this club. Ned Yost might be charged with leading an ill-equipped team whose best days are behind it into a seemingly impossible situation, but John McClane once beat a fighter jet with a truck. How hard can 66 wins be?
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