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Royal whiff: What did we all miss about AL Central champ Royals?

No one believed in them before the season, but with the Royals cruising to an AL Central title, Jay Jaffe examines just what baseball experts missed about Kansas City.

With Thursday night's 10–4 win over the Mariners, the Royals not only became the first team this year to sew up a division title, but they also clinched their division for the first time since they won the World Series in 1985. Remarkably, despite the fact that the team came within 90 feet of tying Game 7 of the World Series against the Giants last fall, almost nobody predicted they would return to the postseason this year, either as a wild card or as the AL Central champion, raising questions as to what everybody missed about a team that has matched last year’s 89 wins with 10 games still to play.

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By everybody, I don't just mean the six writers at who participated in this year's staff predictions (myself included). Our group was equally split between the Tigers, Indians and White Sox for the AL Central crown and collectively named eight different AL teams as wild-card participants. At ESPN, just two out of 15 experts picked the Royals for the division, with two more tabbing them for a wild-card berth. At CBS Sports, one out of five picked the Royals for the division, with one for the wild card. At Fox Sports, none of the 12 writers tabbed them for the division or the wild card. Nobody among the staffs at the analytically-minded Baseball Prospectus (45 participants) or FanGraphs (38 participants) named them for a postseason berth. The Kansas City Star's Pete Grathoff, who scoured the internet for even more predictions than the aforementioned, tallied a total of 149 sets of picks and found that the Royals were tabbed for the division just seven times, with six more for a wild card spot.

Even removing the human element from the equation didn’t help much, as the various projection systems didn't like the Royals either. BP's PECOTA system forecast the team for 72 wins, FanGraphs for 79, and Dan Szymborski's ZiPS for 81.

That's quite a whiff, so much so that Five Thirty Eight's Neil Paine and Rob Arthur published an article on Aug. 7 titled, “Is 2015 The Year Baseball Projections Failed?". While noting that collectively, such systems have trended toward less accuracy at the team level over time, the authors noted, for example, that PECOTA has gotten better at projecting individual rate stats for pitchers and hitters, and even for playing time, but that at the team level, its big misses were getting bigger. They also noted that the game's youth movement may have something to do with it, as the systems collectively found larger projection errors among hitters age 24 and younger, but also proposed explanations involving teams' internal analytical departments doing a better job of identifying underrated players as well as sheer random variance.

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None of that exactly explains the collapse of the heavily-favored Nationals in the NL East or Royals' success, but on the latter front, it's worth noting that one component of the industry's collective failure was its overrating of other AL Central teams. Across all of the aforementioned sites, the Tigers and Indians tended to be the top picks, with the White Sox occasionally drawing mention as well. With four straight division titles plus a rebound of Justin Verlander, better health from Miguel Cabrera, the addition of Yoenis Cespedes and a full season of David Price, the Tigers made for a very plausible pick for another flag. Likewise for the Indians, given their strong second half, the maturation of their young core of starters as well as position players such as Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall and Yan Gomes, and the expected rebound of Jason Kipnis from a season beset by injuries. You could also see how the White Sox, with their big off-season additions of Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche plus the arrival of Carlos Rodon, could draw support as well. I myself tabbed Detroit to win the division with Cleveland securing a wild-card berth. Whoops.

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Much of the resistance to picking the Royals likely had to do with the perceived strength of their offense, which despite ranking second in batting average in 2014 (.263) was ninth in both on-base percentage (.314) and scoring (4.02 runs per game), 11th in slugging percentage (.376) and dead last in homers (95). Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain were the only regulars to post an OPS+ of 100 or better; Mike Moustakas (75) and Omar Infante (76) were abysmal, and while catcher Salvador Perez (91) and shortstop Alcides Escobar (93) could be excused coming from defense-first positions, the same couldn't be said for first baseman Eric Hosmer (99). Even general manager Dayton Moore's changes, such as moving from Nori Aoki (99) to Alex Rios (97 with the Rangers) in rightfield or Billy Butler (96) to Kendrys Morales (75 with the Twins and Mariners) at designated hitter, appeared to be shaky bets on 30-something players returning to form after down seasons.

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Lo and behold, Kansas City's offense has improved dramatically, ranking fifth in scoring at 4.53 runs per game, first in batting average (.273) and sixth in both on-base and slugging percentages (.324 and .417, respectively) even while still ranking 13th in homers (132). While Rios (93 OPS+), Perez (89), Escobar (68) and especially Infante (49) have again been laggards, Cain (129), Morales (127), Hosmer (125), Gordon (123) and Moustakas (120) have all been forces to reckon with. Versatile July 28 acquisition Ben Zobrist (139) has been a huge addition, helping to cover for Gordon's absence due to a groin strain and then taking over second base from Infante.

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Three of the players setting career highs are in the 25–29 range during which hitters tend to peak. Hosmer and Moustakas, both of whom were top-three draft picks and top-10 prospects, are in their age-25 and 26 seasons, respectively. Both have made adjustments that allow them to approach their considerable potential; the former, for example, is swinging at fewer pitches, particularly outside the strike zone, and the latter has become significantly less pull-happy. Cain, in his age-29 season, has avoided the disabled list for the first time in his career and has already set career highs in most of his counting stats (including 16 homers, up from five last year) and slash stats (.307/.363/.482). Meanwhile, Morales had the benefit of a full spring training this time around; the qualifying offer he received following the 2013 season cooled interest in him to the point that he did not sign a contract until June of last year.

On the other side of the ball, some of the resistance to picking the Royals likely had to do with the departure of staff leader James Shields, whose acquisition in a December 2012 blockbuster had indeed heralded the team's turn towards contention. Replacing his 227 innings of 3.21 ERA work was no trivial matter, and while some (myself included) expected youngsters Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy help to pick up the slack, that's not the way it's gone down. Both have been slightly below league average and struggled to stay in the rotation due to injuries and underperformance. Ventura was even briefly optioned to Triple A, and while his performance has trended upward, his 4.40 ERA is nothing to write home about. Neither is Dufy's 4.22 mark; he has been moved to the bullpen in anticipation of a postseason role, as he served last year.

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Indeed, where the rotation as a whole ranked fourth in the league in ERA (3.60) and ninth in FIP (3.89), this year they're 12th (4.45) and 13th (4.40), respectively. Free agent Edinson Volquez, who enjoyed a strong rebound in Pittsburgh last year after an abysmal 2013, has been the only starter to stick in the rotation for the entire season while preventing runs at a better-than-average clip, with a 3.62 ERA (113 ERA+). It's worth noting that fellow free-agent additions Chris Young (3.49 ERA in 16 starts) and Kris Medlen (3.93 in six starts) have been effective in shorter bursts; the former was moved to the bullpen in August out of workload concerns, and the latter joined the rotation later that month as he rounded into form while coming back from his second Tommy John surgery. Among the rest, Jason Vargas was lost to TJ after nine starts and Jeremy Guthrie has been blitzed for a 5.95 ERA. Late July acquisition Johnny Cueto, expected to serve as staff ace heading into the postseason, has been erratic, pitching to a 4.99 ERA in 11 starts.

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On the other hand, the vaunted Royals bullpen as a whole has actually improved over last year, at least in terms of ERA; they've gone from fourth in the league at 3.40 to first at 2.70. Their FIP, on the other hand, has slipped from 3.29 (second) to 3.58 (fifth) and their strikeout rate (23.0% last year, 22.6% this year) has remained sixth. What's more, the big three of closer Greg Holland and setup men Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera has regressed from last year's record-setting feats. This week brought the news that Holland was not only out of the ninth-inning job but has also been shut down and may be headed for Tommy John surgery. Davis has actually approximated last year's showing in terms of ERA (from 1.00 to 0.99) even while his FIP has doubled (1.19 to 2.44). Even so, the unit is deeper thanks to the performances of righties Ryan Madson, Luke Hochevar and Young and lefty Franklin Morales. Manager Ned Yost may not have the luxury of the same type of push-button choices as he did last October, but he has the weapons to match up batter by batter if he so desires.

One thing that hasn’t changed: The team does have an above-average defense. Last year, the Royals ranked second in the AL in Defensive Runs Saved (+41 runs) and sixth in defensive efficiency (.693), while this year, they’re first in the former (+54) and fifth in the latter (.700).

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Particularly in a year that’s been noted for its parity, with no team winning 100 games and with five of the six division leaders yet to reach 90 wins, I’m not sure there’s a lesson here other than, “Don’t put too much stock in preseason predictions.” In the case of the Royals, their bullpen and defense remained strengths despite shifting casts of characters, while an area of strength (the rotation) became one of weakness, offsetting the opposite from the offense. What can be said is that while Moore didn’t spend a ton of money over the winter, he hit on more of his major additions (Morales, Volquez, Young, Madson, Morales) than he missed (Rios), and neither Shields nor Butler has given much reason to lament their departures given their 2015 performances elsewhere. Likewise, the GM’s addition of Zobrist has been a huge win, and that of Cueto may yet pay off.

Despite their thrilling October run last year and the league’s best record this year, the Royals are by no means guaranteed to get back to the World Series. Still, the AL Central champs deserve hearty congratulations for overcoming the collective doubts about their fitness to defend last year’s pennant, and—by avoiding the do-or-die wild card and positioning themselves for home field advantage for the duration of their postseason run (they have a two-game lead over the Blue Jays for the league’s best record)—for giving themselves an even better chance at capturing a championship this time around. You can’t ask for much more than that.