Anatomy of a surprise champion: How the Royals won the American League
Thanks to an unprecedented 8-0 run through the postseason thus far, the Kansas City Royals are American League champions for the first time in 29 years. It's an accomplishment that few saw coming, one that underscores the unpredictability of the postseason as well as the differences between that and the regular season. That said, it's also one that undersells the job that general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost — two polarizing figures who have gotten their share of criticism in this space and elsewhere — have done, the former in assembling this team and the latter in managing to its strengths.
As they await the winner of the National League Championship Series, the reasons for the Royals' success — and why so few saw it coming even as the playoffs dawned — are worth a closer look.
From among the SI staff, none of the six experts who submitted preseason predictions (myself included) picked the Royals to win the pennant. That's understandable, given that they hadn't done so since 1985. Even coming off an 86-win season — their first above .500 since 2003 and their second since the 1994 players' strike — and a good haul from the winter (Cliff Corcoran gave them an A- on their Winter Report Card), they didn't look like the league's strongest team on paper. Three of our six did forecast them as a playoff team: Tom Verducci picked them to win the AL Central, while Albert Chen and Ben Reiter picked them as a Wild Card team.
Collectively, even that was more optimistic than the analytically driven staffs at Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs. Between the two, 13 out of 71 staffers picked them for a Wild Card and two as division champions. BP's PECOTA forecasting system projected them as a 78-win team, and the ZiPS system pegged them at 83 wins with a 38-percent chance of making the playoffs. So it's fair to say that some saw them contending, but few saw them winning.
The Royals finished with 89 wins, but it was a bumpy ride to get there. While they posted winning records in April (14-12) and June (17-10), they were lousy in May (12-17) and July (12-13). Thanks to a 10-game winning streak in June that culminated with taking the first three games of a four-game series against the Tigers in Detroit, they claimed first place in the Central. But that run lasted just three days, as a 1-6 stretch knocked them back down to second place. They were just 48-46 at the All-Star Break, and thanks to a 1-7 skid that bridged the first and second halves, they were 48-50 through July 21; their actual winning percentage (.490) was a dead ringer for their Pythagorean percentage (.493) at that point
From there, the Royals went 41-23 for the remainder of the season, one game off the pace of the Orioles for the league's best record. They did so while playing way over their heads, a .641 actual winning percentage versus a .561 Pythagorean percentage — a gap of five wins over those final 64 games. From Aug. 11 through Sept. 11, they spent 29 days with at least a share of first place in the division, though their lead never expanded beyond three games. Even so, they split their final 20 games, not only losing two series to the Tigers but one to the lowly Red Sox. Thanks to Oakland's 16-30 slide, the Royals did claim the top Wild Card spot, but they were still just one game better than the Athletics and two better than the near-miss Mariners.
A weak offense that nonetheless overachieved
The Royals ranked 10th in the AL in scoring (4.02 runs per game, 0.16 below league average). While second in batting average (.263), they ranked just ninth in on-base percentage (.314) and 10th in slugging percentage (.376). Dig a little deeper, and Kansas City had both the league's lowest isolated power (.113) and walk rate (6.3 percent).
It's not even as though Kauffman Stadium was a particularly hostile environment for runs; the one-year and three-year park factors at Baseball-Reference.com peg the K as elevating offense four or five percent. Via the component park factors at BP, it did suppress home runs by eight percent for lefties and six percent for righties, but even so, the team was substantially outhomered at home (59-43) and away (69-52) by similar margins.
Adjusting for park, the team's 91 OPS+ ranked as the league's lowest mark, as did their -71 batting runs (using Baseball-Reference.com's measures). Just two regulars, Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain, had an OPS+ of at least 100, though both Eric Hosmer and Nori Aoki were at 98, and both Salvador Perez (90) and Alcides Escobar (92) were around the AL positional averages.
For all of that, the Royals did score more runs than projected by their offensive stats. The linear weights-based BaseRuns formula used at FanGraphs, which puts a value on each offensive event, projected them to score 635 for the season, 16 fewer than they actually scored. BP's run element-based measures used in their Adjusted Standings placed them at 622 runs, 29 fewer than expected.
The small stuff helped
Where did they make up those runs? At least in part via baserunning and sequencing. On the baserunning front, they ran away with the league lead in stolen bases (152, 31 more than the second-place team, Houston) and were caught just 36 times, tied for the sixth-highest total; their 81-percent success rate was second in the league by a whisker to the Yankees (81.2 percent). Jarrod Dyson (36-for-43), Escobar (31-for-36), Cain (28-for-33) and Gordon (12-for-15) were all particularly effective in that department.
The B-Ref baserunning values peg them at a league best +7 runs when considering all of their exploits (steals as well as advancing on outs and hits of all types), while the BP numbers place them at +18.5, more than 10 runs better than the second-best team. Of that latter figure, their success at steals was worth 8.8 runs, and their advancement on hits (taking the extra base) was worth 5.2 runs. On the sequencing front, they hit .271/.332/.399 with runners in scoring position, a 103 sOPS+ (split relative to the league) and 112 tOPS (split relative to their overall team numbers).
Because of Yost's longstanding reputation for playing small-ball and his team's high-profile penchant for bunting down the stretch — think of those four sacrifice bunts in the Wild-Card Game — people overestimate their reliance on those tactics. In fact, the Royals' 33 sacrifice bunts during the regular season ranked just seventh in the league, two fewer than the Orioles, 10 fewer than the Rays and 18 fewer than the Indians — teams with reputations for being sabermetrically savvy. They weren't tremendously good at it, either, with a .600 success rate that was just 10th in the league. Even considering all of their bunt attempts as a whole, Kansas City's 85 ranked fifth in the league.
A solid rotation, a bullpen for the ages
The Royals were better at run prevention than at scoring, ranking fourth in the AL in runs per game allowed (3.85) and third in ERA+ (114, on a 3.51 ERA). They were among the league's best at preventing homers and walks, third and fourth on a per-plate appearance basis, though they were just 11th in strikeout rate.
Their rotation ranked fourth in ERA (3.60) but just ninth in FIP (3.89); still, their 59-percent quality start rate was the league's second-best mark. The unit was particularly stable, with just 11 starts made from outside their top five. Danny Duffy (157 ERA+), Yordano Ventura (125 ERA+) and James Shields (124 ERA+) were all strong at run prevention, finishing between 3.3 and 3.5 Wins Above Replacement (B-Ref version). Even Jason Vargas (107 ERA+) was above average, while Jeremy Guthrie (96 ERA+) made for a particularly effective fifth starter.
Consider this: The Royals were one of just four teams with at least four regular starters (140 innings plus) with an ERA+ above 100. The Nationals had five, while the Orioles and Brewers each had four as well; Washington was the only other team to have a fifth with at least an 80 ERA+.
As for that bullpen, the Royals' 3.27 ERA was fifth in the league, and they were one percentage point worse than average (29 percent) when it came to allowing inherited runners to score. That said, the bullpen's 3.29 FIP ranked second on the strength of their league-low home run rate, but even that doesn't hint at the quality of the A-list group — Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland — with whom America has now been acquainted.
Thanks to Herrera (1.41 ERA), Davis (1.00) and Holland (1.44), the Royals became the first team in baseball history to finish the season with three relievers carrying ERAs of 1.50 across at least 50 innings. Neither Herrera nor Davis allowed a single homer all season — the first time a pair of relievers from the same team has done that — while Holland allowed just three (0.4 per nine). Davis didn't even allow an extra-base hit until July 31, and for the year allowed just five en route to a .151/.229/.179 line against; his 3.7 WAR was a staff high. Thanks to sky-high strikeout rates (at least 13 per nine apiece), Davis (1.19 FIP) and Holland (1.83 FIP) made the Royals just the second team to finish the season with multiple relievers with FIPs below 2.00; the 2013 Pirates' tandem of Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon were the first.
With Yost adhering to a rigid — at times overly so — recipe of Herrera for the seventh, Davis for the eighth and Holland for the ninth, the Royals went 65-4 in games they led through six innings, and 72-1 through seven. The fewest losses by any other AL team on the former front was five, on the latter, four — which is to say that the Royals were the best at protecting their leads. Such strong work in high-leverage situations was the major reason why the team outdid its Pythagorean projection by five wins.
A word for Moore’s work
Count me among those who didn't believe that the December 2012 trade centering around Shields and top prospect Wil Myers was merited, given how far from contention the 2012 club (which went 72-90) appeared to be. It still didn't look good when Myers went on to win AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2013, but that evaluation undersold the value of Shields' 220-plus innings of above-average work in both subsequent seasons, particularly when it came to preserving Duffy and Ventura. It also didn't see Davis' shift from a sub-replacement level starter (-2.1 WAR in 2013) to shutdown setup reliever coming.
Reviews of the December 2010 trade of ace Zack Greinke to the Brewers weren't so scathing, but it's worth remembering that the deal netted both Cain and Escobar — a pair of young, inexpensive, up-the-middle players — as well as Jake Odorizzi, who was sent to Tampa Bay in the Myers deal.
On that note, while recent Royals history is full of sob stories about players who got too expensive and departed Kansas City — Greinke, Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, and so on — the long-term extensions for the homegrown Billy Butler, Gordon, Escobar and Perez have helped keep the team’s largely homegrown nucleus together, even as some components of it (Hosmer and Moustakas, in particular) have come along more slowly than hoped.
Wow, that defense
As the highlight reels have reminded us throughout this month, a key facet of the Royals' run prevention was their glovework. The team's .693 defensive efficiency ranked sixth in the league, their 41 Defensive Runs Saved second. Their infield was actually below average via Defensive Runs Saved, by anywhere from one to six runs, with third base (Mike Moustakas and company) the weakest spot; Ultimate Zone Rating saw them as slightly better, but no more than two runs above average at any of those spots.
Their outfield defense was something truly special, though. Royals outfielders led the majors in both measures; their 46 DRS was two more than the Red Sox and 12 more than the next-closest team, the Marlins, while their 59.8 UZR was 25.5 runs ahead of the Orioles. Gordon, Cain and Dyson all placed in the top 10 in both; the first two were third and fourth in DRS with 27 and 24, respectively. With Dyson often entering the game as the team's late-inning centerfielder and Cain shifting to right, the team's centerfielders combined for the AL's highest totals in both categories to go with Gordon's MLB-best work in left.
Thanks to that, even with their offensive shortcomings, the Royals' lineup featured two players worth at least 5.0 WAR (Cain exactly that, Gordon 6.6), with Dyson, Escobar and Perez all between 2.4 and 3.3. Take all the various facets together, and Kansas City's starters, relievers, catcher, shortstop, and all three outfield spots were above average, with their team WAR of 41.2 ranking fifth in the league behind the Angels (46.8), Orioles (46.1), A's (45.7) and Tigers (41.7) — all playoff teams.
Even before clinching the pennant on Wednesday, the Royals had already joined the 1976 Reds and 2007 Rockies as the only teams to win their first seven postseason games, though keep in mind that it wasn't until the introduction of the best-of-seven LCS format in 1985 that it became possible to reach eight in a row.
First, Kansas City pulled off a thrilling comeback from down four runs in the eighth inning of the Wild-Card Game. Then, the Royals beat an Angels team with the league's highest win total in three straight (twice in extra innings), while trailing for just one half-inning out of a total of 31, to take the Division Series. They finished it off by sweeping four straight from the 96-win Orioles, winning in extra innings in the first game, via two ninth-inning runs in the second, and clinging to two early 2-1 leads in the final two; they trailed for only two innings all series.
None of that was automatic, or inevitable. The team has gone undefeated while outscoring opponents 42-26, going 4-0 in one-run games and extra-inning games. They've risen to the occasion on both sides of the ball, showing unexpected power (eight homers, including four by Moustakas) as well as speed (13-for-16 in stolen bases, including seven steals in the Wild-Card Game and a 9-for-9 showing from the eighth inning onward). Their .721 OPS (on .259/.331/.390 hitting) has been the AL's best if one excludes the Athletics' single-game performance, and likewise for that OBP.
Their starters have posted a 3.80 ERA, but only three times have they delivered a quality start, with just one of those coming from Shields. But Yost showed the good sense to call it a day with Guthrie (five innings, one run) and Vargas (5 1/3 innings) in the ALCS and hand things over to a bullpen that has posted a 1.80 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning and just a .220 slugging percentage allowed. Of their 35 relief innings, 25 2/3 (73 percent) have been handled by their big three — 32 percent of the team's total postseason innings, compared to 14 percent in the regular season. Six times, Yost has left a reliever in for more than an inning; in that context, Herrera (three times, all starting — sacre bleu! — in the sixth), Davis (twice) and Brandon Finnegan (a 2014 first-round draft pick!) have delivered a 1.63 ERA with 14 whiffs in 11 innings. And of course, their defense has put on a show.
All of which is to say that Yost has shown himself to be much more aggressive, and his players have executed in all facets of the game. That's why the Royals are headed to the World Series as deserved AL champions.