The 2014 Royals are the 2013 Royals

In ways, the 2013 Royals were both a success and a failure, but I’ll probably always remember them for one particular thing. Around the All-Star break, general manager Dayton Moore said that he wasn’t going to sell, and his big reason, paraphrased, was that there was no reason the Royals couldn’t win 15 of 20 games. Everybody made fun of Moore for being irrational and getting carried away, and shortly after that, the Royals began a run during which they won 17 of 20 games. They didn’t make the playoffs, but they were playing interesting baseball well into August.

This year’s Royals kind of backed into the All-Star break, and a few days later, they were a couple games under .500. There were reasons, legitimate reasons, for them to look into trading James Shields, but Moore never really entertained the idea, electing to charge ahead with the roster he’d built. Since then the Royals have won 15 of 18, including seven in a row, and not only are they the current second wild card — the Royals trail the Tigers by no wins and one loss. When the Tigers added David Price, it seemed to be a maneuver to prepare for the postseason. It’s far from clear now the Tigers will even sniff a play-in game.

Two years in a row, then, the Royals have surged after the break, playing themselves right into the race. It’s exciting, because it’s meaningful Royals baseball within the final two months. And what’s funny, if unsurprising, is that this isn’t the only parallel. What’s the strength of the 2014 Royals? Look to the strength of the 2013 Royals.

It’s important to understand that the race for the second wild card is a race for the flawed. The elite teams are on another level. The second wild card is for the best of the rest, so all the teams in the mix are going to be in some way perplexing as potential postseason teams. And the Royals aren’t just playing for the wild card, but I think it’s more than fair to look at the Royals and think, “how?” It’s a team that definitely doesn’t hit. It’s a team with a fine pitching staff, but not an amazing pitching staff. The bullpen has a couple of baseball’s best relievers, but that can’t be the whole explanation. And, naturally, it isn’t.

This year’s Royals confuse like last year’s Royals. And now here is a table, showing their American League ranks in four different categories:

Category AL, 2013 AL, 2014
Offense 10 11
Defense 1 1
Rotation 6 9
Bullpen 2 4

Offensively, the Royals haven’t been any better. The rotation’s been something like average, while the bullpen’s been considerably stronger than that. The strength of last year’s Royals is the strength of this year’s Royals: defense. And, more specifically, the strength of both Royals clubs has been outfield defense.

Of course the two teams are similar — they’ve been run by the same guy in consecutive years, and the organization doesn’t operate with a big budget. So, there hasn’t been an awful lot of turnover. Last year’s Royals had Ervin Santana. This year’s Royals have Jason Vargas. Last year’s Royals had David Lough. This year’s Royals have Omar Infante. The two rosters have been strikingly similar, putting together strikingly similar performances, and this whole time, statistically, the outfield defense has been absolutely magnificent. It can sometimes be a difficult thing to notice, but that’s where the Royals have made up a lot of ground.

As I write this, the Royals lead the majors in outfield Defensive Runs Saved, by six runs over second place. They lead the majors in outfield Ultimate Zone Rating, by 28 runs over second place. StatCorner’s team rating puts the Royals’ outfield at +40 runs, and that doesn’t include arm value. It’s always interesting when the defensive numbers disagree; it’s just as interesting when they convey the same thing. The numbers agree that the Royals defend like no other outfield defends.

We’ve got DRS data stretching back to 2003. Here are the top ten defensive outfields, determined by DRS per 162 games:

Team DRS/162
2013 Diamondbacks 72.0
2005 Braves 64.0
2013 Brewers 64.0
2007 Braves 59.0
2013 Royals 59.0
2012 Braves 55.0
2011 Diamondbacks 52.0
2009 Mariners 51.0
2008 Mets 51.0
2014 Royals 50.7

In tenth, we find this year’s Royals. Tied for fourth: last year’s Royals, with most of the same players. In all, this is out of 360 team-seasons. Now here are the top ten defensive outfields, determined by UZR per 162 games:

Team UZR/162
2005 Braves 72.1
2014 Royals 69.3
2009 Mariners 62.4
2007 Braves 56.7
2013 Royals 52.5
2004 Braves 51.1
2003 Mariners 49.5
2004 Cubs 48.5
2012 Braves 48.4
2003 Angels 46.9

Now this year’s Royals are second, while last year’s Royals are fifth. This data stretches back an extra season, to 2002, so by one calculation the Royals are tenth out of 360, and by another they’re second out of 390. This season isn’t over, of course, so those are on-pace numbers, but it’s stunning how well these Royals rank, and those sorts of run totals go a long way toward explaining how an otherwise unremarkable team can be looking to playing in October.

For the most part this is all the work of Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson, and Lorenzo Cain. By UZR, they’re three of the top ten outfielders on the year. By DRS, they’re three of the top six, and by overall Defense rating, including all players at all positions, they’re three of the top 20 defenders. Gordon’s a sabermetric MVP candidate in a season that doesn’t include Mike Trout, and he’s having one of the better defensive seasons in recent history, given his range and throwing. Dyson has made literally almost every play possible in semi-regular time, and Cain has been valuable in both center and right. Norichika Aoki is third in outfield innings, and he’s neither good nor bad, but Dyson has still been collecting opportunities and seizing just about all of them.

This year’s Royals are last year’s Royals, and last year’s Royals were arguably led by a fantastic outfield defense that ranked among the best in recent history. This year the same players are doing the same things, making the pitching staff look better and partially making up for the offense being so consistently, aggravatingly mediocre. Now, I don’t know if the Royals are the best team in the race. I don’t know if they’re going to win the wild card, or the division, or the World Series, or one more game for the rest of the season. There’s so little of the year left that there’s going to be crazy variation around the calculated true-talent estimates. Last year’s similar Royals team didn’t win enough games; this year’s model might manage to pull it off. Regardless of whether it does, the team’s success shouldn’t be that much of a mystery. Part of the team is amazing. It’s just a somewhat unconventional way to be amazing.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

36 Responses to “The 2014 Royals are the 2013 Royals”

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  1. Toothpick says:

    Who do you consider to be these elite teams that are on another level besides Oakland?

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    • The Ancient Mariner says:

      The Angels come to mind.

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      • My echo and bunnymen says:

        Yeah, in the AL it is the Angels and Athletics. In the NL, most likely the Dodgers and Nationals.

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      • Toothpick says:

        Royals 12.8 WAR
        Angels 11.9

        Royals 11.1 UZR/150
        Angels 2.4

        Angels are #1 hitting WAR but Royals somehow are 6th in the AL.

        Those #’s make the Angels an elite team? Hitting wise sure overall no better than most of the teams fighting for wild cards.

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  2. DanBC says:

    I wish that the Royals didnt hit when Kazmir, Iwakuma Bauer and Shoemaker took the mound against them. Each of them got mauled by the Royals’ Punch and Judy offense.

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  3. Jim says:

    I guess Royals fans are thankful they didn’t take Dave’s brilliant advice and trade Shields at the trade deadline.

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    • Cave Dameron says:

      LOL I had to go back and re-read that article again. Classic.

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    • Doug Lampert says:

      When I first started paying attention to Fangraphs Dayton Moore, Brian Sabean, and Omar Minaya were the three people almost universally decried here as bad GMs.

      Since then Sabean’s team has won two WS titles. Once could easily be coincidence, but twice? I deduce that making trades that look good to stats people probably isn’t all there is to being a good GM and IIRC it’s pretty well always been agreed that Moore is good at scouting, he has a useful skill as a GM, and one that’s hard to measure the effects of.

      So it’s possible he knew something about their playoff chances the rest of us didn’t. OTOH this site still only gives his team a 31% chance of making the division series even after a phenomenal run and he’s outspending the very SABR inclined Oakland A’s and getting consistently worse results year after year. So ignoring stats people probably isn’t a good idea either.

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      • Ruben Amaro says:

        Don’t forget me!

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      • AC of DC says:

        Crediting the GM with all the successes and failures of a team — or frankly any fixed portion of the team’s fortunes — is very common and simply unreasonable. Maybe it began as a figure of speech, but now blame is thrown on one pair of shoulders the same way people construe every act of government and every spasm of the economy as the direct consequence of (US) presidential decisions. Management obviously exerts a lot of control, and we can critique the moves made, but we must not suggest that wins are proportional product of GM skill.

        World Series championships are hardly a reliable measure of a GM’s ability. For all the guff he gets, I’d say Brian Cashman is a pretty good GM, but he’s also a GM with a bottomless budget, so I could not say that the rings prove my point; nor would I suggest he’s the best. Even acknowledging that management can build for the playoffs, they’re still playoffs.

        Omar Minaya is indefensible.

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        • PackBob says:

          Agree with this and get tired of all the armchair rating of GMs. It’s the same as saying that managers are totally responsible for a team’s W/L record.

          KC gave its fans something to root for, which is a good thing. It’s important to remember that following what the statistical odds say doesn’t guarantee anything. That can flop just as easily.

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      • Ruki Motomiya says:

        I like the Shields trade. I thought it was a good idea. It doesn’t make Dayton Moore less of an idiot: Jeff Franceour is the most memorable example of this, flipping a good one year deal into a bad multi-year deal. Not trying to eat you alive here or anything, but Moore has made a lot of questionable descisions. (I’m just in the group that doesn’t believe Shields was one)

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        • jim fetterolf says:

          I doubt Moore was thrilled with it, but Frenchy was coming off a good year, the testosterone-laced Melky declined the offer, and David Lough hadn’t impressed anyone in Omaha in ’11. Dyson hadn’t learned to hit. Not like he signed Carlos Beltran to three years or something really idiotic.

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  4. Steve says:

    So…you might say Dyson is a vacuum in CF?

    I’ll show myself out.

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  5. Jim says:

    I think we can all agree that Kevin Towers and Ruben Amaro are the two worst GMs in baseball whether you are SABR minded or not.

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  6. redsoxu571 says:

    “It’s important to understand that the race for the second wild card is a race for the flawed”.

    And there in a nutshell is the reason why the second WC stinks. The previous playoff version had the right balance, as in a typical year there would be around four quality, championship caliber teams per league. Sure, some were stronger than others, and sometimes a weak team made it into the dance or a strong team was left out, but by and large that system rewarded the best teams with a shot at the title (as it should).

    Now, we arbitrarily penalize some really strong teams, prop up some weak teams, and in the end everything is a mess. We would still have two good division races in the AL this year under the old system, and in the end we would probably feel pretty good about the four teams that make it. Now, the AL West loser (likely the Angels) will have to entertain a massively worse team that also does not in any way deserve a title shot, and then the winner will almost certainly have no real chance at winning it all anyways, thanks to the resulting handicap of the one-game playoff. Ugh. Bunch of garbage.

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    • BurleighGrimes says:

      I totally and completely agree with this. The one game playoff thing sucks.

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    • BRH says:

      If you prefer the wild card format from 1995-2011, then you must discount the importance of winning the division. You must have the opinion that after 162 games, finishing second place in a five-team division is the same as finishing first.

      Nine of the 17 wild card teams made it to the World Series in the original wild card format. Of the 102 division winners during that time, only eight made it to the World Series. In the two seasons since the one-game wild card format went into effect, the World Series has been played between division winners. I am sure that soon we will see a wild card team in the World Series again. But the path is tougher, and it should be if Major League Baseball insists upon divisional play.

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      • BRH says:

        I should have said that 25 of the 102 division winners made it to the Series.

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      • RSF says:

        In a situation like we have with the AL this year, one SHOULD discount the importance of winning the division. The two best teams in the AL are in the same division. One of them will be unduly relegated to a 50-50 game that the winners of the inferior Central and East (inferior in terms of the top teams) will get to avoid.

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        • Cool Lester Smooth says:

          Exactly. Just like how the Red Sox were, by far, the second best team in baseball for several years without ever winning a division title.

          Divisions are dumb. Balance the schedule, and put the top 4 teams in each league into the playoffs.

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    • PackBob says:

      It depends on what you think the playoffs are and should be. Even when the two best teams by record of the two leagues played just a World Series, it only determined which of the two teams played better baseball for a short period.

      Then you have an unbalanced schedule and selective interleague play which skews results when comparing teams by record. A second or even third place team in one division can be better that the winner of another division. That’s not fair!

      Playoffs are entertainment, not some test to determine which team is best, and having a second wildcard provides late-season hope for quite a few teams.

      But personally, I don’t like it either, or even the first wildcard, expect that it solves the odd number of teams problem.

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    • Go Nats says:

      boo to the large market fan! the second wild card exists to the small market teams have a better shot at making the playoffs! You would like it if your team played in a small market where you have to overcome the other teams abilities to spend every year.

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    • bmarkham says:

      I agree I do not like the second wild card, even though my Cardinals were the 2nd wild card in 2012 and beat the Braves. The AL this year is a perfect example why.

      Baseball created the wild card to make the playoffs easy with the creation of the central divisions in both leagues. But the benefit to it was that the best team that didn’t win a division was usually better than at least one of the division winners. Very rarely is there two non-division winners that are better than the winner of another division, and rarely are there ever two non-division winners that are world series caliber teams.

      But also the second wild card is ridiculous because you’re basing whether you get to the NLDS on one game rather than the previous 162. Honestly if I had my way we’d just go back to two divisions in each league, with just two rounds of playoffs. And I would lengthen the playoffs to at least best of 9, possibly more for the WS. And no days off so that you have to use your fifth starter and more of your bullpen and bench.

      Of course that stuff doesn’t sound nearly as exciting to the average American sports fan, so I wouldn’t ever expect the MLB to adopt such a model.

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    • Big Texx says:

      I wouldn’t say Detroit is a massively worse team, and the Angels are 3-6 vs Seattle and 3-3 vs KC this year.

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      • jim fetterolf says:

        Oakland’s not exactly feasting on the Royals, either. Way it’s played the last few weeks, Royals and Angels are tag-teaming so both can win their divisions.

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  7. Rauce says:

    Just to add to the two tables on outfield defense…
    Whenever we hear sabrmetricians talk about UZR and DRS a caveat usually accompanies defensive data saying something to the effect of “these numbers are much more reliable over multiple seasons.”
    If that principle applies here (and maybe it doesn’t because this is team data rather than individual), I see only one other franchise with consecutive seasons on either list. So would it be fair to say that these Royals possess the best (or at least second best) OF defense since 2002-2003?

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    • Bip says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      No, there can be other reasons for variation of defensive statistics. A team having a good rating one year and a less good rating the next does not mean we can conclude that the first good rating was the beneficiary of measurement error. There can be many legitimate reasons, most notably player turnover and variation player performance.

      I think the issue is this: Defensive stats as a record of what happened may be more accurate than we give them credit for. It is when we use them as a measure of a player’s true talent that we must be very cautious, simply because it’s totally possible that the same player is “on fire” on defense one year and just doesn’t perform as well the next year. In both cases, the defensive stats will be accurate to what the player did, but neither will tell you exactly the player’s true talent level.

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  8. joe says:

    PArk factors play a role I’m sure.

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