The American League Central Division is going to be a battle of attrition this season. The Kansas City Royals will not have as easy of a path as they had to the postseason last year. In fact, it shouldn’t surprise anybody if the Royals finish last. It also shouldn’t surprise anybody if the Royals return to October to defend their World Series title. The Royals have a low floor, a high ceiling, and could fall absolutely anywhere on the spectrum. After winning 95 games, securing the best record in the American League, and going to the World Series for the second straight year, the detractors are out in full force for 2016.

For me, somebody who studies sabermetrics and analytics, I was stunned to see what Kansas City did for the second straight season. I did pick their season win total over last season, but I never anticipated another deep playoff run. This team defies a lot of sabermetric measures for success. They don’t walk. Their starters don’t strike anybody out. But, they make a ton of contact, play the field extremely well, and found a big MLB inefficiency with the way that they shortened games with a dominant bullpen.

All of those things are still true of this team this season. It’s hard to put aside my sabermetric biases and appreciate the Royals for what they are. It has brought them tremendous measures of success over the last two-and-a-half seasons and the hope for Royals fans and over bettors is that the same things will continue this season. Sure, the Royals overachieved last season in that they won five more games than suggested by their Pythagorean win-loss. The reasons some people don’t like sabermetrics are because of teams like the Royals. The Royals were an 84-78 team by BaseRuns, a standings metric created by the amount of runs a team should have scored compared to the runs that they should have allowed. Per BaseRuns, the Royals were tied for the biggest overachiever in baseball last season.

Personally, I don’t understand how a team that uses Alcides Escobar in the leadoff spot and Alex Gordon in the eighth spot has playoff success. The Royals are unconventional and it works for them. Teams around the league have taken notice. There’s a lot more attention paid to defense and relievers enjoyed some very lucrative offseason negotiations.

The Royals are out of my comfort zone. They’ve forced me to reevaluate some of the baseball beliefs that I hold near and dear. The true test is to see how this team can respond from being the hunter to the hunted. To see how they respond to two very long seasons that included deep playoff runs. To see what they have in store for an encore. It’s tough to say that the Royals are any worse off than they were at the start of last season. What does that mean for 2016?

Season win totals:

BetOnline: 84.5 (-115/-115)

5Dimes: 84.5 (-110/-120)

Bovada: 85.5 (-115/-115)

 

Key additions: Ian Kennedy, Joakim Soria

Key losses: Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist, Ryan Madson, Alex Rios, Jeremy Guthrie

One key addition could very well be Alex Gordon, who returned to the Royals on a pretty team-friendly deal. The Royals took advantage of their recent prosperity by retaining a player that they otherwise would have had a hard time getting back in this market size. They also went out and spent some money on pitching, getting Joakim Soria to replace injured closer Greg Holland and departed setup man Ryan Madson.

The big splash was Ian Kennedy, who came at a reasonable price because there wasn’t much of a market for him. Kennedy has the unenviable task of replacing Johnny Cueto, who was not good in the regular season, but proved his worth in the postseason. Alex Rios and Jeremy Guthrie could probably be considered addition by subtraction.

 

Why bet the over?

Well, what did the Royals lose of consequence? When they walked off on Houston on July 25, the day before Johnny Cueto was acquired, the Royals were 58-38 and had a 6.5-game lead. Outside of the trade deadline rentals that helped to push them over the hump, the offseason losses are mostly inconsequential, except for Madson, who was a lottery ticket that paid a big jackpot. The Royals were on pace to fly over last season’s win total anyway and would have even without those deadline deals.

Except for right field, every position player starter from last season is back. We’ll start with Lorenzo Cain, whose career year could not have come at a better time for Kansas City. Cain hung a 129 wRC+ with 16 homers, 28 stolen bases, improved K/BB rates and 18 defensive runs saved in center field. Cain was a 6.6-win player after a 4.9-win campaign in 2014 and it’s hard to see any big regression coming here. He traded batted ball luck for power and still hung a .347 BABIP. The power may come back down, but the high BABIP should be a staple of his offensive profile. He’ll be one of the most valuable position players in all of baseball again this season.

An injury that could have been a lot worse for Alex Gordon kept him from his fifth straight season worth three or more wins, but he’s back in the fray and his skill set is one that the Royals desperately needed. Gordon is one of the few regulars in this lineup that draws walks and extends pitchers. He does it while posting decent batting averages and solid power numbers. The defensive metrics were nowhere near as favorable towards him in 2015 as they were in 2014, but he’s still a well above average left fielder and better health fortunes could push him near four wins above replacement player this season.

Projection systems are rather bullish on Salvador Perez, who dropped offensively for the second straight season last year. His quality defensive metrics weren’t enough to salvage the loss of on-base percentage, but he hit 21 home runs and is one of those players that sabermetrics seem to struggle with. His walk rate is anemic and the starting point for offensive value in advanced metrics is not making outs. Perez, who puts the ball in play a lot, is a sub-.300 OBP player. But, he’s a plus defender and has good power, so he’s going to be better than these numbers will suggest. Now, he has a new contract to live up to.

Did Mike Moustakas figure it out? Moose was 24 percent above league average last season with a .284/.348/.470 slash. We expected some offensive gains coming off of his putrid .220 BABIP in 2014. Considering his batting average climbed 72 points and his OBP climbed 77 points, it looks like a better BABIP was mostly the cause. He also put more balls in play and started to drive some fly balls with authority. If the defense stays about where it is, Moustakas could very well eclipse 3.5 fWAR once again.

Like Moustakas, Eric Hosmer had some more luck with balls in play, but it was the return of his power and a spike in walks that created his offensive value. Hosmer’s line drive rate increased by 6.5 percent and that increase in contact quality took him from a league average offensive player to a well above average offensive threat. He continued to be league average defensively, so the offensive increases turned him into a 3.5-win player. Most of those gains seem sustainable.

One thing that could really create surplus value for Kansas City is the right field platoon of Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando. Both guys are burners on the basepaths and can cover a lot of ground in the field. They are guys with the capability of getting on base with high BABIPs and will create a lot of defensive value. This is a nifty little platoon that could produce two wins or more on defense alone, let alone any offensive gains from stealing bases or posting high BABIPs.

The rotation certainly has some worries, but elite defense and a phenomenal bullpen can elevate a pedestrian group of starters. You know, which is exactly what has happened the last two seasons. Yordano Ventura increased his strikeout rate and quietly put together a really good second half. Ventura’s 3.27 FIP and 3.32 xFIP were a direct result of limiting long balls and getting more punch outs. The Royals actually intended to send Ventura to Triple-A, which was asinine because his issues were nothing more than sequencing with men on base. He had a 67.3 percent strand rate in the first half and that elevated his ERA. When Jason Vargas went down, Ventura was spared and he was terrific down the stretch. Expect him to keep growing this season, with a live fastball and improving secondary stuff.

Whatever Ray Searage did to fix Edinson Volquez wound up being sustainable. Volquez did trend in the wrong direction in some areas, but still ate up 200 innings and did so at better than a league average clip. His 3.82 FIP is certainly passable with a defense like this and his changeup command was an equalizer against lefties. A similar performance should be expected.

Ian Kennedy is a very interesting addition. Kennedy was hurt in April last season, so he basically had to go through Spring Training all over again to build up arm strength and command. The early returns were not good, as Kennedy gave up 20 home runs in just 84.1 innings. He still gave up too many long balls in the second half, but he had a 3.50 FIP and a 3.28 xFIP. He also struck out 27.7 percent of the batters he faced. At worst, Kennedy should be about league average and that’s good enough with this defense and this offense.

There’s some depth here with guys like Kris Medlen, Danny Duffy, and Chris Young. We’ll see how long Medlen lasts in the rotation, but Duffy can run it up in the mid-90s as a lefty with a different look and Young is an extreme fly ball guy that couldn’t have a better fit with Gordon-Cain-Dyson/Orlando running balls down. It’s passable.

The bullpen will undoubtedly be a strength of this team once again. Wade Davis will assume the closer role with Greg Holland sidelined. Davis has put together one of the best two-season sample sizes in MLB history for a reliever. He’s amassed five fWAR and has posted ERAs of 1.00 and 0.94. His 87.5 and 92.2 percent strand rates are well out of the normal range for that stat, but he strikes out a ton of hitters and has an elite arsenal in this role. That shouldn’t change.

Joakim Soria is reunited with the Royals organization to be one of the primary setup men alongside Kelvin Herrera. Soria comes from that Ray Searage pitching factory in Pittsburgh and should be a solid move, if he stays healthy. Herrera runs it up there in triple digits and is a power pitcher in every sense of the word. Luke Hochevar missed all of 2014 with Tommy John rehab and showed some iffy command in 2015, but he has a lot of upside now that he’s healthy.

 

Why bet the under?

Part of the reason why the Royals have such a wide range of potential outcomes is because a lot of guys put together career years to push this team back into the playoffs and on to a World Series title. Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer all set new career highs in fWAR. Those metrics mentioned in the intro showed that the Royals overachieved in both Pythagorean win-loss and BaseRuns.

Cain, Moustakas, and Hosmer are unlikely to suddenly bottom out, but if we start looking at career averages and individual statistics, we’re sure to find some surplus value that will drop off. Hosmer’s .336 BABIP was the highest of his career. In 2013, it was .335. The normal range for BABIP is between .290 and .310. His contact quality is very good, but he had a .312 BABIP in 2014 and posted a 99 wRC+. He also had a lower walk rate that season. Which Hosmer are we more likely to see this season?

Mike Moustakas’s BABIP gains seem to come out of nowhere. His batted ball distribution was pretty similar to his career numbers. Look deeper and you’ll see that his production against lefties was the big reason why. After posting wRC+ stats of 91, 49, and 55 against lefties, Moose posted a 124 wRC+ against southpaws last season. His .273 BABIP was 98 points higher than 2014 and 44 points higher than 2013. Was this a sustainable adjustment? Will he adjust as pitchers adjust? It will be very interesting to see.

Most of the questions about the Royals come from the starting rotation. As good as the stuff is for Yordano Ventura, a lot of people wonder if he can put it all together and sustain it for a full season. Also, durability is a big question. There was some concern of UCL trouble for Ventura last season and he missed a few starts along the way. Injury concerns are slapped on any short-statured right-hander and Ventura fits the bill at a wiry six-feet, 190 pounds. After being pushed deep into the postseason again, will those injury concerns come to fruition this season?

Ian Kennedy returns to the American League and that’s worrisome. The generic expectation is for a 10 percent regression in pitchers’ numbers moving from the NL to the AL. Kennedy was throwing batting practice in his early 20s for the Yankees in the AL, though that’s hardly worth considering for his return to the Junior Circuit. Facing an extra hitter capable of taking him deep is a concern for Kennedy. The Royals have a great defense, but it’s impossible to defend gopher balls.

Edinson Volquez is a league average type of guy, which would be the ceiling for guys like Kris Medlen, Danny Duffy, and Chris Young. League average has been good enough for the Royals over the last couple of seasons, but it’s fair to wonder just how sustainable that is.

I have big worries about the bullpen this season. Wade Davis has worked 139.1 regular season innings and 25 postseason innings over the last two years. Kelvin Herrera has worked 139.2 regular season innings and 28.2 postseason innings over the last two years. This is back-to-back offseasons that are a month shorter than everybody else’s and those are a lot of additional times to get up and pitch. We’re talking about 160 appearances for Davis and 166 for Herrera. The turnover for bullpen pitchers tends to be very high. These guys also throw a ton of high-stress innings. Both are elite relievers, but any time the workload is this high, you have to be concerned.

Joakim Soria is a nice add, but the Royals got really fortunate with Ryan Madson, whose injury history looked like a Carfax report from a chronic drunk driver. The same can be said of the Mexicutioner, who missed all of 2012 with Tommy John, made just 26 appearances in 2013, 48 in 2014, and is coming off of his highest workload of his career. The way to make a bad rotation worse is to start taking away bullpen pieces. There are a lot of high-risk pitchers in every bullpen, but this one seems to be one of the most worrisome.

There could be some situational regression for the Royals offense. They were 18th in wOBA with the bases empty at .307, but eighth in wOBA with runners in scoring position at .327. When teams perform that much better in run-scoring situations, the idea is that the outlier will regress a bit. Now, to be fair, they make a ton of contact and pitchers are more prone to making mistakes in these high-leverage situations. It may not be a big regression, but the margins are thin with this starting rotation and the bullpen questions.

Will we see a postseason hangover from the Royals? Recent World Series champions have had mixed results and some have had significant injury troubles that following season. Ben Lindbergh wrote about this very thing for Grantland (RIP) after the 2014 World Series. After winning the World Series, San Francisco had a .518 win percentage.

It’s a long season and extending it by a month can be pretty tough. That’s why I believe that the Royals have a wide range of possibilities. They could regress and win 80 games. They could continue to defy sabermetrics and win 95 games. There are a lot of strengths on this team, but there are a lot of weaknesses. There are a handful of guys coming off of career years that could regress and there are others that could continue to take steps forward. It makes the Royals one of the hardest teams to peg for this season.

 

Pick: Kansas City Royals Over 84.5 (-110 – 5Dimes)

I’m going a bit contrarian here, in the sense that I'm going against really smart people that I respect. I’m also going against my convictions and beliefs. As a student of sabermetrics, there’s very little for me to like about the Royals. One thing I do like is that their outfield is projected for more defensive runs saved than any other team in baseball. Not just among outfielders. Among entire teams. Defense is an overlooked commodity by oddsmakers and you cannot say Kansas City Royals without saying defense in the same breath.

That’s how you elevate a terrible starting rotation. One thing that benefits the Royals is that most of the AL Central is filled with bad defensive teams. The Indians made big strides, but Detroit, Chicago, and Minnesota are going to be bad defensively again. That’s how the contact-based offense has success. I don’t think this is a 95-win team, but I’m also not sure how they fall apart to the tune of 11 games worse. This is a team with a high floor and luck and variance favor those that put the ball in play.

 

-END OF 2016 PREVIEW-

 

The Kansas City Royals became the hope for all championship-starved teams during their incredible 2014 run. The Royals ultimately fell short thanks to an incredible effort from Madison Bumgarner in Game 7, but they made the most of their first playoff appearance since 1985, when they really made the most of making the playoffs by winning the World Series. The Royals had their second consecutive winning season for the first time since 1988-89, but they are still in search of their first Central Division title since both leagues split into three divisions in 1994.

Recent AL Champions have had a mixed bag of results the following season. The 2013 Boston Red Sox went from first to worst in the AL East. The 2012 Detroit Tigers improved and won the AL Central again. The 2011 Texas Rangers were knocked out in the Wild Card play-in game in 2012 after tying with Baltimore. The Rangers also represented the AL in 2010.

The Kansas City Royals made it to the playoffs because of what they did in interleague play. Nobody had a better record than Kansas City’s 15-5 mark, which meant that they were just six games above .500 against AL competition. Ironically, though Royals fans won’t find it funny, Kansas City swept San Francisco during the regular season. They also had the league’s best record away from home at 47-34. Only the Angels and Indians had more wins against teams with losing records. Kansas City was 45-28 during the regular season against bad teams.

There are a lot of skeptics out there about the Royals. They were the AL’s 11th-ranked offense by wRC+ and 10th by wOBA. They had the fourth-highest ERA-FIP discrepancy, but two of the teams around them play in extreme pitcher’s parks. The Royals aren’t going to get respect for their flash in the pan season and their 2015 season win total is certainly evidence of that.

Oddsmakers at the Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno have the Royals set for 83 wins this season. The Westgate Superbook had a much different idea with an opening total of 79.5. BetOnline opened the offshore market with a line of 80.5.

Key additions: Edinson Volquez, Alex Rios, Kris Medlen, Kendrys Morales, Ryan Madson, Brian Flynn

Key losses: James Shields, Nori Aoki, Billy Butler, Raul Ibanez, Josh Willingham, Aaron Crow

Dayton Moore did not sit on his hands this offseason, but his acquisitions are high-risk players. Edinson Volquez lands in a good situation with another solid defensive team, but he still has spotty command and posted a 4.15 FIP while making half of his starts in one of the league’s premier pitcher’s parks last season. Kris Medlen is coming off of his second Tommy John surgery.

The loss of James Shields is big for the Royals. He threw 227 well above average innings for the Royals and somebody is going to have to pick up that production. The hope would be that Volquez can, but that’s a major risk. Brian Flynn adds depth to the rotation and a different arm angle as a 6’7” southpaw.

Alex Rios is a significantly different player than Nori Aoki. Rios was terrible defensively and Aoki, while a bit of an adventure in the outfield, wasn’t that bad. Aoki makes contact a lot more often than Rios and Aoki, with his one home run, was a better offensive player than Rios. Rios hit four home runs in a good hitting environment, but he does not walk and his skill set is regressing.

Kendrys Morales was one of the league’s worst players last season and he’ll likely step in for the DH at bats vacated by Billy Butler’s absence. Morales was 28 percent below league average offensively last season. Butler was three percent below league average. This is a clear downgrade, though Morales is a year removed from a pretty good offensive season.

Why bet the over?

Just as last season’s article began, the defense is the biggest asset for the Kansas City Royals. A good defense can hide a lot of problems with a mediocre pitching staff and that’s what the Royals did last season. Guys like Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie weren’t terrible because of the Royals defense. The Royals saved 40 runs defensively last season, which was a big drop from the 93 that they saved in 2013, but this is still an elite defensive team.

Every single pitcher that appeared in 20 or more games, except Francisley Bueno, posted a better ERA than FIP for the Royals last season. Bueno was released for bucking that trend. Defense matters, defense helps, and it’s hard to say that oddsmakers accurately account for defense, both with win totals and throughout the season. As mentioned in one of the previous win totals, I found some interesting stuff about unders and top defensive teams over the last five seasons that will be posted next month.

Defense is not a cure-all, as teams like the Reds and Padres fell short of their win totals last season because of a complete lack of offense. But, for teams like the Royals and Orioles, and also the Athletics, that lack big name starting pitchers is a big deal and an inefficiency in the market. Because of that, I’m far more likely to lean towards the more optimistic projection of a team. The defensive runs saved metric doesn’t have a great correlation from year to year, but it’s not hard to see who will be good defensively and who won’t be with some simple research and a knowledge of the players.

The Royals aren’t completely devoid of offensive talent. Alex Gordon is a fantastic player in the box and in the field. Gordon is one of the few Royals hitters willing to walk and that helps his offensive performance in the advanced metrics. Gordon is a good all-around offensive threat capable of a 20/20 season with a batting average in the .270s and an on-base percentage in the .340s.

There are a couple of key cogs in the lineup that are due for some better fortunes this season. The first of them is Salvador Perez. Perez is an extremely underrated player in all facets of the game and his offensive numbers should spike nicely in 2015. Perez posted a .260/.289/.403 slash, but he had a .278 BABIP. Perez hit 17 home runs and doesn’t have much speed, but his BABIP should be closer to the .290 range and that should elevate him into the .270/.300/.410 category and that’s very good for a high quality defensive backstop with a bit of pop. He doesn’t walk, so sabermetric projections are going to be pessimistic, but there’s value in an offensive catcher like Perez.

Mike Moustakas has been a breakout player waiting to happen for quite some time now. It may not happen, but Moustakas hit 15 home runs last season and wound up with a pathetic BABIP of .220. Moustakas’s strikeout rate was well above league average, so he ran into a lot of batted ball bad luck. He won’t set the world on fire with a .300-25-100 season, but there’s a lot of room for improvement with some a positive regression of his BABIP.

As a sabermetric guy, it’s hard for me to love a lot of things about the Royals and their offense. From an advanced metrics standpoint, they’re pretty much the opposite of what people with my baseball philosophy look for. They do steal bases, and they do it well at 81 percent, which is well above the break-even point for a stolen base to have value. They also hit for a high average and there is something to be said about a team that can avoid strikeouts and put balls in play. It’s not sexy, especially from an advanced stat standpoint, but it does have practical value. In trying to put my biases aside because of how I analyze and evaluate the game, I have to respect the fact that the Royals struck out 1.4 percent less than any other team and should do something similar this season. Even though defense is a point of emphasis as the baseball world continues to quantify defense better every day, a lot of teams aren’t very good at it and balls in play can wreak havoc. The Royals didn’t walk much and still ranked in the middle of the pack in runs scored.

What the Royals may lack in offense, from a power and walks standpoint, they make up for with a team of guys with good bat-to-ball skills and a lot of added value in terms of baserunning and defense. There’s value in there and it tends to be “hidden”, so a team like the Royals can certainly be undervalued by oddsmakers and overlooked by a lot of people, just like they were last season.

Yordano Ventura is pure filth. In his first full season as a Major League starter, Ventura didn’t disappoint with his upper 90s cheddar and developing changeup. The right-hander also got a crash course into high-pressure playoff baseball and that should be helpful for his future. He also learned how to pitch to contact after being able to blow his fastball by minor league hitters. That’s going to lead to some additional length, which the Royals will need to replace James Shields’s innings. He should be good for another sub-3.50 ERA and a FIP in that same area.

Jason Vargas has made a career out of throwing strikes and falling into good situations. Vargas is the kind of guy that finds a lottery ticket on the ground and it’s worth a few hundred bucks. He benefitted, again, from having optimal pitching conditions. Kauffman Stadium wasn’t the same type of park as Safeco or Angel Stadium, but he was able to pitch to his defense and that gives any pitcher peace of mind. Vargas threw 187 above average innings last season and could very well do the same again if the walk rate is here to stay.

Danny Duffy is the wild card in this rotation. Somebody has to replace Shields’s production and Duffy is KC’s best hope. Duffy is hitting his prime at 26 and will be a full season removed from major surgery. His mid-90s gas tends to move up in the zone, making it tough to center. Duffy had one of the league’s highest pop up rates last season and pop ups are basically an extension of strikeouts. Duffy hasn’t been able to replicate his minor league strikeout numbers, so pop ups are the next best thing. If he stays in tact, he should be above league average without question.

The Royals bullpen is elite. Wade Davis was the league’s best reliever last season, posting a 1.00 ERA and a 1.19 FIP. He struck out 109 in 72 innings. He posted a 4.7 K/BB ratio and his ground ball peaked near 48 percent. He allowed ZERO home runs with 279 batters faced.

Speaking of not allowing a home run, Kelvin Herrera faced 285 batters without letting them touch all four bases. That’s a ridiculous number. Herrera touches triple digits, though he isn’t the strikeout pitcher that you would think. His swinging strike rate suggests an increase in that number and we could see that.

That brings us to closer Greg Holland, who is among the league’s best at nailing down victories. Holland saved 46 games with a spectacular ERA and a sub-2.00 FIP, with nothing in his statistical profile that would suggest major regression. It’s the second straight season that he has posted eye-popping run prevention numbers and that will continue. It’s near impossible to beat the Royals when trailing late into the game.

Why bet the under?

Pythagorean Win-Loss record is a team’s projected record given their runs scored per game and runs allowed per game. One team, the New York Yankees, had a higher disparity between actual win-loss record and Pythagorean Win-Loss record. The Royals were 89-73 with a Pyth W-L of 84-78. Does it mean anything? Maybe, maybe not. It does suggest that the Royals were a bit fortunate to win 89 games and they were more like a mid-80s team, but there is variance in that statistic.

The Royals were 15-5 in interleague play and outscored opponents 99-56. Take away those 20 games and the Royals were 74-68 against the American League and outscored 568-552. That meant that the disparity between Pyth W-L and actual record came against the American League, where the Royals should have gone 69-73 or 70-72. Take that for what it’s worth because interleague records are, by and large, a crapshoot.

How do the Royals replace what James Shields gave them? This was already a subpar rotation that was elevated to league average or better because of the team defense. The defense will still be good, but the Royals lose 227 innings from James Shields. That’s a significant chunk of performance that will be very hard to replace. Danny Duffy has major injury risks and Edinson Volquez comes with a high degree of risk as well. Volquez is changing leagues, moving to a better hitter’s park, and was a major benefactor of Pittsburgh’s defensive philosophy of shifting. The Royals are more of a straight up, and while they have good range, Volquez is probably going to allow more baserunners and his questionable walk rate could lead to some very bad innings.

The Royals don’t have a lot of pitching depth and many of their starters and key relievers posted large workloads because of the deep playoff run. Yordano Ventura is the big worry there. Ventura experienced some elbow discomfort in the middle of last season, but was able to pitch through it. There’s always concern about a short-statured pitcher capable of reaching back to throw upper 90s. Shae Simmons of the Braves, who stands 5’11”, just underwent Tommy John surgery. Ventura is more of a fastball/changeup guy, which could spare his elbow, but there’s no true rhyme or reason for UCL trouble. He threw a lot of innings last year in his first full season as a Major Leaguer.

There’s a high level of variance in offenses that don’t walk or hit home runs. The Royals are an old school type of team that scores runs with situational hitting and stolen bases. It has value, perhaps value because not many other teams try to score runs that way, but it also has a lot of variance. The Royals are reliant on balls in play finding holes and that doesn’t always happen. They likely benefitted from the AL Central having four of the worst defensive teams in the American League. The Indians were the worst and the Twins were the second-worst. Any improvement defensively from those teams is going to negatively impact Kansas City’s ability to score. Nobody hit fewer home runs than the Royals and they only walked 6.3 percent of the time.

Wade Davis ended the season with 86 appearances. Greg Holland made 76. Kelvin Herrera made 81. These three guys were elite and should stay that way, though regression is coming because a 1.00 ERA is just unsustainable in any context. That’s what Davis posted last season. Herrera is probably the biggest worry of that group, but the Royals may also have fewer leads to protect without a horse like Shields in the rotation. Also, the Royals no longer have a guy that can reliably work deep into a game, except for maybe Ventura. That’s going to mean a lot of innings for a bullpen that threw a lot of them last season.

The best example of this is the Indians bullpen from 2007. The Indians pen worked a ton and their key guys were severely overused during their 2007 playoff run. The bullpen posted a 3.75 ERA and a 3.77 FIP in 2007. The next season, the bullpen posted a 5.13 ERA, a 4.39 FIP, dropped in strikeout rate, and jumped immensely in home run rate. Bullpens are volatile, regardless of talent level, and a long season can increase the chances that a bullpen fails to live up to expectations. The Royals are undoubtedly in danger of that happening this season.

Pick: Over 80.5

Sorry, Kansas City, but there’s too much variance in the way that you win games for me to expect a repeat performance of returning to the World Series. However, this is still a good team with a great bullpen and enough chops on defense to elevate a bad rotation into something that resembles league average.

The Royals were 69-14 when they scored four or more runs last season and that’s good because it’s unlikely that they will score much more than that on most nights. Defense is the overlooked component of win totals and the Royals are still good in that area. Alex Rios patrolling right field is a little scary, but that shouldn’t be enough to make the Royals drop off in a big way.

Initially, I went under when the 83 came out at Atlantis, but this does look like an 81 or 82-win team that’s probably not going to bottom out, so I’ll tentatively go with the over in this situation. I think the Royals take a step back and it’ll be hard to replace Shields’s quality innings and replace those three wins, but I also don’t see a team that is nine wins worse than it was last season.

 

-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-

 

The Kansas City Royals haven’t made the playoffs since the last time they won the World Series. That year was 1985 and after just the second winning season since the start of the new millennium, expectations are high in Kansas City. The Royals improved by 14 games last season, finishing third in the AL Central behind a couple of 90-game winners in the Indians and Tigers.

Years of high first-round picks have helped the Royals into a period of contention and it’s their position player strength that makes them a very intriguing team in the American League. The Royals were a very streaky bunch last season with five winning streaks of four or more games and five similar losing streaks. The Royals had a season-high winning streak of nine games to go from 45-51 to 54-51 in late July that carried over into the first day of August. From July 22 on, the Royals went 41-25, one of the league’s better records over that span. It was during that time that expectations rose for the 2014 team.

The Royals suffered through an 8-20 month of May that eliminated them from contention. The other five months all had records above .500. The Royals were the only Central Division team to have a winning record against the Tigers and their patchwork pitching staff came together in the second half to hold opponents to just 3.25 runs per game.

BetOnline and Bovada seem to have adopted a wait-and-see approach with the Royals in 2014. BetOnline has an 82 posted for their win total with the over at -120, while Bovada is at 82.5 with the under at -125. In terms of the AL Central, they are ranked second in terms of projected wins by the oddsmakers.

Key additions: Jason Vargas, Norichika Aoki, Omar Infante

Key losses: Ervin Santana, David Lough, Emilio Bonifacio

Royals General Manager Dayton Moore hasn’t been applauded for many of his offseason moves in the past. The Royals filled a big hole at second base by signing Omar Infante. Emilio Bonifacio didn’t work out for the Toronto Blue Jays and the Royals gave him a shot in August and he was a decent contributor. Infante, the 12-year MLB vet, cashed in on the free agent market after a career-best season with the Tigers.

Norichika Aoki was one of the earliest noteworthy transactions of the offseason and Moore spun his bullpen depth into a very intriguing player. Aoki came over from Japan prior to the 2012 season and was a good contributor for the Milwaukee Brewers. Aoki puts the bat on the ball and uses his speed to get on base. Aoki has 18 more infield hits than any other player over the last two seasons. That, coupled with tremendous plate discipline, makes Aoki a great under-the-radar acquisition.

Jason Vargas replaces Ervin Santana in the Royals rotation. While Vargas is clearly a downgrade to Santana, the Royals are desperate for competent, experienced Major League arms. With a dire need for innings, Vargas, who did miss some time last season, threw over 600 innings from 2010-12. Santana remains unsigned and could very well return to the Royals because of the draft pick compensation attached to signing him and a dwindling amount of options.

Why bet the over?

The second half of last season gave the Royals plenty to be excited about entering 2014. Their 43-27 record and +55 run differential were among the best in baseball. The pitching staff went from allowing 4.05 runs per game to just 3.26 runs per game and the offensive overall numbers rose.

The biggest asset for the Royals was their defense, which remains in tact this season. The Royals do have some pitching questions, but their defense saves runs and prevents hits at an incredible rate. The Royals were the league’s top team in defensive runs saved with 93 according to Fangraphs and 95 according to Baseball-Reference. The next closest American League team, the Rangers, saved 39 (Fangraphs). The Royals did it all from throwing out runners on the bases, second in the league with 40 outfield assists, to having the league’s top Ultimate Zone Rating, a defensive metric that determines how much above or below average a fielder is.

Of the 20 pitchers that appeared in games for the Royals last season, 17 of them had better ERAs than their FIPs. Keep in mind that FIP is a variation of ERA that only factors in what pitchers can control – walks, strikeouts, hit by pitches, and home runs. What the 17 out of 20 stat is telling you is that the Royals defense was exceptional in preventing hits and runs on balls put in play. From a psychological standpoint, pitchers can relax knowing that they don’t have to locate perfectly to get outs. From a statistical standpoint, it’s clear that the Royals team defense can hide some of the pitching shortcomings that are the concern for this season.

When you look at the overall performance of the Royals rotation, it’s not special. They had the third-fewest strikeouts per nine innings of the 30 MLB teams. Their walk rate as a group was right in the middle, as was their home run rate. Because of the defense, Royals starters stranded the third-highest percentage of runners and had the 12th-best starter ERA. As a side note, 92 of the 162 games the Royals played went under the total in 2013, something to keep in mind throughout the year and another mark of how good the defense was.

In today’s Moneyball generation of baseball, the Royals don’t rate highly in sabermetric categories because they don’t walk very much. It’s a lineup that scores runs based on doing the little things like advancing runners and stealing bases. The Royals led the league in stolen bases with 153. Perhaps more impressive, the Royals were only caught 32 times. For the value of a stolen base to outweigh the negative value of a caught stealing, a runner must be successful around 75 percent of the time. The Royals successfully stole on 82.7 percent of their attempts, which is significant enough to create a lot of value.

Offseason addition Norichika Aoki fits that mold and is the reason why he should be considered one of the most underappreciated moves of the winter. Aoki slots ideally into the Royals lineup as the projected leadoff hitter, allowing the Royals to move Alex Gordon down to second or third, where his line drive and power abilities can generate more runs for a Royals team that could use some more offense.

Eric Hosmer removed some doubts spawned from his atrocious 2012 season to put up a very strong .302/.353/.448 slash line and a .350 wOBA to lead the team among players with more than 150 plate appearances. Hosmer is just entering his prime in his age 24 season, so expect his production to continue. Another player nearing his prime is catcher Salvador Perez. While the Royals have some positions that will be below average offensively, Perez is very solid for a backstop. Perez has a very level swing that generates top spin on ground balls and leads to solid contact for line drives. He’s not a big power threat like most catchers, but he’ll hit for a much higher average than nearly everybody. Like most of the Royals, he’s also strong defensively.

Omar Infante fills a huge need for the Royals. In the 42 games Emilio Bonifacio played for the Royals, he accumulated 1.0 fWAR at second base and it was 60 percent more fWAR than any other Royals second baseman contributed last season. Even though Infante is likely due for a little bit of offensive regression with a .333 BABIP and a move to a park that suppresses home runs, he has proven to be far more effective as an everyday player at this stage of his career rather than a utility guy. Asking Infante to repeat his 3.1 fWAR season from last year is a lot, but at around 2.0 fWAR, Infante is already a full win upgrade at second.

James Shields will be the ace of this staff and continued to be one of the game’s most unheralded starters. For the seventh straight season, Shields threw over 200 innings. Even though he regressed back to his career averages in strikeouts, ground ball rate, and had a slight bump in walks, Shields was still tremendously effective and saw a drop in his home run rate with a friendlier division to pitch in. Shields will be looking for a new contract after the season, so the consummate professional may take it up another notch.

Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie will be the biggest benefactors of the Royals defense. Throw Bruce Chen into that mix as well. These crafty veterans don’t possess overpowering stuff, but they don’t issue many walks, which makes them serviceable in a decent park to pitch in given the defense behind them.

What to really look for in the Royals rotation is the development of Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura. The Royals would be wise to go with both in the rotation, but the veterans probably hold an inside track on roster spots. Duffy, who had to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2012, made just five starts last season for the Royals after his return. Control problems have hurt him at the Major League level, but that could easily be attributed to the discomfort in his elbow that eventually led to Tommy John and his small sample size at the end of 2013 as part of his rehab.

Yordano Ventura is proof that big things come in small packages. A lot like division counterpart Danny Salazar, Ventura would generously measure at six feet tall, but has a cannon attached to his arm. Ventura sits at 97 with the fastball and regularly touches triple digits. He became more of a pitcher than a thrower last season and his velocity gives him plenty of margin for error as long as he’s around the plate.

Between Duffy and Ventura, those two probably have the best pure stuff of anybody in the Royals starting pitching mix. Prospect Kyle Zimmer also has big upside, but he’s not going to make an appearance until late 2014 or next season. If nothing else, there’s decent depth in the Royals system in case of injury or ineffectiveness.

Along with the defense, the Royals bullpen is a legit strength of the team. Of the 15 pitchers who made relief appearances for the Royals, seven of them average 93 mph or more on their fastball. This is a bullpen that misses bats and is extremely difficult to generate rallies against.

Greg Holland’s 47 saves were second in the American League and trailed only Aroldis Chapman in percentage of plate appearances ending in a strikeout. Holland struck out over 40 percent of the batters he faced. It doesn’t get much easier behind Holland with converted starter Luke Hochevar, who can also bring it in the upper 90s and Kelvim Herrera who was one-tenth of a mile per hour behind Chapman for the highest average fastball velocity. The Royals were 63-12 when they led after six innings and 13-9 in games that entered the seventh inning tied.

With two elite strengths, the bullpen and team defense, the Royals definitely have the ability to overcome a mediocre starting rotation and an average or slightly below offense.

Why bet the under?

The chief reason to play the under is because the Royals rotation looks extremely marginal. The Royals defense bailed them out on several occasions and the already weak rotation lost Ervin Santana. That’s 211 quality innings that the Royals have to find a way to replace. Vargas could help, but he has pitched the bulk of his career for Seattle and Anaheim in his career, two of the best environments to pitch in of the 15 American League ballparks. Vargas has a career 3.93 ERA and 3.81 FIP at home and a 5.18 ERA and a 5.03 FIP on the road. There’s only so much help the Royals defense can provide for numbers like that. The ball will carry at Kaufmann Stadium on warm summer nights, unlike what happened in Anaheim and Seattle where the cool marine air kept the ball from traveling too far.

Jeremy Guthrie’s ERA has not reflected his true talent over the last two seasons. It’s clear that Guthrie has been the biggest beneficiary of the Royals defense. He’s a good bet to stay healthy, but with SIERAs in the 4.70s and FIPs of 5.10 and 4.79 over the last two seasons, Guthrie is not a good pitcher. His 4.04 ERA last season is all smoke and mirrors, with over 79 percent of runners stranded and a horrible strikeout rate of 12.3 percent. If he lasts in the rotation, he’s a ticking time bomb every five days.

There is a lot of promise with Duffy and Ventura at the back of the rotation, but Duffy remains an injury risk and Ventura threw a career-high of 150 innings last season, with 134.2 of them in the minor leagues. Neither guy is a proven commodity and, while there is upside, there is a lot of injury potential attached to both guys. The Royals rotation is already bad enough and a hit to their depth will hurt even more.

Barring a surprise turnaround from Mike Moustakas, the Royals will be below average offensively at shortstop, third base, and in center field, with second base also a possibility. Most of the team’s position player value came from the defense last season, as the Royals posted a team wRC+ of just 89. They finished tied for 25th in wOBA and were saved from being even worse offensively by their baserunning and ability to make contact. The Royals hit the third-fewest home runs. As great as their defense is, they still need to score enough runs to get by with a rotation that is poor overall.

Pick: Over 82 (-120) (BetOnline)

How’s this for a stat? The Royals were 64-13 when they scored four or more runs in a game last season. The inclusions of Aoki and Infante fill two offensive holes for the Royals and they should be more competent offensively. The defense is still elite by MLB standards and will continue to hide the weaknesses of a very marginal starting rotation. This season’s AL Central, in my mind, is shaping up like last season’s NL Central. I believe the possibility is absolutely there for three teams to win over 90 games. Three teams won 86+ last season and I believe that all three teams are better.

The Royals rotation may be scary, but it’s the only reason to consider the under. With an average lineup, elite defense, and an elite bullpen, the Royals are going to finish off games with leads and rarely get blown out because of their run prevention abilities. This is a very good team that could challenge the Indians and Tigers for the division crown.