History is full of great rivalries. If one were trying to conceive of the Mt. Rushmore of animosity, it might just be Mozart vs. Salieri, Burr vs. Hamilton, Coke vs. Pepsi, and Stone Cold vs. the Rock. However, the past few years have introduced us to a bitter new conflict. Lets call it “The Kansas City Royals vs. PECOTA.”

In 2013 PECOTA predicted 76 wins for the Royals. They went on to win 86 games. In 2014 the projection said 79. Kansas City won 89 games, and made it to game seven of the World Series. Surely after outperforming the system for two seasons PECOTA would give Kansas City its due. However, the 2015 projected win total fell to 72. Kansas City won 95 games and the World Series.

Yes this has been a battle, but so far it has been a lopsided one. Kansas City 3 – PECOTA 0.

Knowing this, baseball fans anxiously awaited PECOTA’s projections for 2016. The fateful day came, and many of us looked on in astonishment.

PECOTA’s win projection for the 2016 defending world champion Kansas City Royals: 76.

BP’s editor-in-chief Sam Miller went on the offensive. “This is the projected win total that nobody wanted.” After three seasons of outperforming the system, PECOTA is still unwilling to give the Royals their due. Many have attempted to show why this is the case. A projection system can’t measure intangibles. You can’t put a metric on how much guys enjoy playing the game with one another (although I’m sure someone from BP will eventually figure it out). Can a projection system that focuses on individual performances ever truly appreciate a team that is the “sum of its parts”?

Yet there’s a reason people continue to read the BP Annual. For all of its faults, there are still things that PECOTA does better than any other system. It isn’t perfect, no projection system ever is, but there is a lot that it gets right. There are a number of times that the unfeeling machine has challenged how I thought about baseball and won.

The question still remains. How can PECOTA possibly be so wrong about this team over and over again?

Well…what if it isn’t? Before I proceed, let me make absolutely clear that I think PECOTA is wrong about the Royals. They’re my pick to win the AL Central. I’ll likely even pick them to return to the World Series. However, there are still legitimate questions to be asked about this team. Even if PECOTA gets the win total very wrong it is still asking the right questions about the Royals. Instead of doing a full team preview, I wanted to look at these questions that PECOTA raises. Before that, here’s a quick look at the last three years:

KC Record wRC+ SP ERA- RP ERA- DRS UZR BsR Pay – $M
2013 .531 (12)  89 (24)  96 (9)  63 (1) 93 (1) 80 (1)  18 (3) 89 (16)
2014 .549 (7)  94 (18)  93 (6)  85 (8) 40 (4)  61 (1)  3 (10) 99 (18)
2015 .586 (4)  99 (10)  107 (18) 67 (1)  56 (2) 51 (1)  0 (19) 127 (14)

 

If the Royals were to stumble this year, what would be the reasons? In what follows we’re going to look at the three biggest questions hanging over Kansas City.

Can Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas keep it up?

Last year Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas led the Royals in BWARP. They were likely the Royals’ two most important position players in terms of their on the field performance. One of the major issues that PECOTA has with this year’s Royals team is that it does not expect Cain and Moustakas to be able to maintain that level of production.

2015 BWARP

2016 Projected

Lorenzo Cain

6.7

3.5

Mike Moustakas

4.7

1.4

Just between those two players PECOTA, projects a six win difference for the Royals in 2016. Is this a fair assessment to make?

Cain will be good, but it’s unlikely that he will be as good as he was a year ago. Sam Miller broke down some of the reasons PECOTA struggles when projecting this specific player. Cain was a late bloomer, and doesn’t have the same elite track record that other superstars do. However, it’s not as if this year’s projections treat him like a scrub. He projects to be the fifth ranked CF in WARP (behind Trout, Kiermaier, Buxton, and McCutchen). You could easily put him in the top three given Kiermaier’s dependence on defensive numbers, and Buxton’s struggles last season.

In 2015 Cain tallied career highs in almost every counting stat, and he cut his K% under 20% for the first time since playing in the majors for a full season. His average, OBP, and SLG were all career highs (.307/.361/.477), and he added to that mix well above average defense in centerfield (he finished in the top three of UZR and DRS for center fielders). Some might point to Cain’s .347 BABIP as a reason to expect regression. However, he’s always run a high BABIP. His 2015 number was actually lower than the .380 BABIP he carried in 2014, and for his career it sits at .345.

While it’s unlikely Cain will be as good as he was last year, there are no real reasons to expect him to fall off a cliff. He should continue to give the Royals elite defense at a premium position, and above average offensive production. The clock is definitely ticking on center fielders once they get on the wrong side of 30, but for now he should hit a mark somewhere between last year’s BWARP and this year’s projection.

The case is probably somewhat similar for Moustakas. Last season was easily his most productive offensive season in the majors. His .294 TAv was well above his previous major league seasons (.234 and .233). Ken Funck noted in the BP Annual that “his newfound ability to drive the ball the opposite way helped Moustakas beat the shift and post career highs in virtually every offensive category.” It looks like Moustakas has figured something out at the plate that has taken him from disappointing prospect to solid big leaguer. Will he stay this productive? Like Cain it’s probable his WARP will fall somewhere in between his 2015 total and 2016 projection.

Conclusion: PECOTA has rightfully questioned whether or not Cain and Moustakas can reproduce career seasons. However, it might be stretching it to see a six-win drop-off from these two combined.

Which starting pitcher will over perform this year?

The biggest question mark for the Royals heading in to last season was the starting rotation. It’s part of the reason they went out and got Johnny Cueto prior to the trade deadline. On paper this was a group with a lot of question marks. So what allowed this group to help Kansas City win a world title? Edinson Volquez and Chris Young both had unexpectedly successful seasons. PECOTA never stood a chance.

Volquez looks to be the number one starter in the rotation with the departure of Cueto. His first season in Kansas City continued the rebuild that began during his one season in Pittsburgh (I hear Ray Searage gets 5% of all his future earnings). Nothing about Volquez’s performance last season was eye popping, but it was solid. Over 200 innings he ran a 3.55 ERA (4.15 DRA) with 7.0 K/9. It doesn’t hurt that he plays in one of the most run suppressing ballparks in all of baseball with one of the best defenses in the game behind him. It also didn’t hurt that at 32 his average fastball velocity climbed to 96.3 mph (it was 95.1 in 2013).

Even more unexpected than Volquez’s production was the success of the Royals 6’10 flame thr…soft tosser? Chris Young’s BP Annual comment summed up the reasons for his unlikely success well: if you put one of the league’s most extreme fly ball pitchers in a cavernous ballpark with a stellar defense behind him, then you’ve got a recipe for a solid starter.

For the Royals to win the AL Central again they’ll either need Volquez and Young to be just as good as last season (unlikely), or have another pitcher produce at an unexpected level. One factor that could offset this is the addition of Ian Kennedy. He’s projected for 1.5 WARP this season. Last year he pitched in one of the best pitchers parks in baseball, and he still surrendered the 4th most home runs in the league. While his HR/9 rate doubled from 2014, none of his other stats were that far off his career averages. His K/9 rate was actually the highest of his career (9.30).

Clearly the hope for the Royals is that his home run numbers regress, and he benefits from the Royals’ ballpark/defense combo. If he can be a 1-2 win pitcher (WARP), he can make up the difference if Volquez or Young struggle. For the amount of money that the Royals paid for Kennedy, plus the draft pick, this seems to be what they’re hoping for.

Is this the year the Royals luck runs out?

For this final point I’m going to make an appeal to Fangraph’s “clutch” stat. Why bring up a Fangraphs stat in a post about PECOTA? I’m a bridge builder at heart, and if we’re never going to get Carson Cistulli on an episode of Effectively Wild again then this will have to do.

In essence Fangraph’s clutch stat measures “how well a player performed in high leverage situations.” Last season the Royals added five wins to their season total on the basis of their high leverage hitting alone. The next highest team in this category was the Twins with 3.81. Kansas City finished the year 23-17 in one run games, and 10-6 in extra inning games. Stats Inc. noted that this was a major area of improvement for Kansas City in 2015.

Yes, some of this can probably be attributed to luck. However, it also might be a byproduct of the Royals’ ability to consistently put the ball in play. It was a well known fact, by the time of the World Series, that the Royals had a well below league average K% (15.9). If you put the ball in play more often than other teams, then it’s probable you will have more opportunities to succeed in high leverage situations. Will Kansas City be able to keep up their good fortune in 2016? It’s hard to believe they could be that successful in similar situations again, but It would go along way toward helping them lay the smack down on PECOTA.

Conclusion

Will the Royals be as bad as PECOTA projects? I will never believe that until I see it. Will they be as good as last season? There’s reasons to believe they might win a few less games. PECOTA has raised the right kinds of questions about this team, but if we’ve learned anything over the past few seasons, it’s don’t bet against Kansas City.

 

Check out Effectively Wild‘s season previews and the schedule of our own companion previews.

2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs. Salaries via Spotrac.

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