Stat-heads still dismiss Royals despite World Series triumph

SURPRISE, Ariz. (AP) The stat-heads hate the Kansas City Royals.

Most of them, anyway.

They keep plugging numbers into complex formulas, the kind of upper-level math that sends many college kids streaming toward arts and sciences. And they keep getting back results that say the Royals, despite back-to-back World Series trips and a championship last fall, should be awful this season.

To which the Royals say: ''Harrumph.''

All those metrics have predicted similarly terrible records the past two seasons. But the plucky Royals have shot past every one of them, waving with a grin on their way to the playoffs. They won 95 games and the AL Central title last year, when some of those formulas pegged them for 72 wins.

So, maybe it's a good omen that PECOTA - the program statistical guru Nate Silver helped to develop for Baseball Prospectus - projects 76 wins and a last-place finish this year, and that well-regarded FanGraphs is modestly more optimistic with its 79-win prediction.

''It doesn't matter what they say good or what they say bad,'' Royals general manager Dayton Moore said, almost dismissively. ''You have to go out and execute in all aspects of the game.''

The reality is all those statistical formulas are based on quantifiable metrics, easy-to-digest numbers such as homers and batting average. Or complex variations of them, such as WAR - wins-above replacement - that do a marginally better job of spitting out a true value for a player or team.

But what they struggle to evaluate are the areas in which the Royals excel.

They're a team built around speed, not only to swipe bases but to take an extra one. They are arguably the best defensive team in the game, perhaps one of the best ever. What they may lack in pedestrian starting pitching they easily compensate for with a bullpen that's been downright dominant. They pride themselves on manufacturing runs, bunting guys over and delivering key hits at opportune times.

''If you're a team that's built strictly on power, you're going to get your home runs. You'll have your numbers and you'll produce at the end of the season,'' Moore said. ''But when did you hit them?''

In the late innings of a blowout loss? Or when you're trailing by a run in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the World Series, which is precisely when Alex Gordon belted a tying shot last October against the New York Mets.

The Royals went on to win that game in 14 innings. Then won the World Series in five games.

''We have a group that has tremendous makeup, that has tremendous chemistry,'' Kansas City manager Ned Yost said. ''They're not a group that's going to say, `OK, we won. We're going to take the year off.'''

Even though recent history suggests it's easy to do.

Four of the past five World Series champions failed to make the playoffs the following year, the lone exception the 2012 Cardinals. Two of those clubs, the 2013 Giants and 2014 Red Sox, had losing records. And no team has won back-to-back championships since the Yankees' three-peat from 1998-2000.

Success is hard to achieve in the big leagues. Apparently, sustaining it is even harder.

''They're probably never going to pick us to win it, no matter what we do,'' All-Star outfielder Lorenzo Cain said, shaking his head while sitting in front of his spring training locker. ''You'd think after going to back-to-back World Series we'd get some respect, some recognition.''

There is at least one place where the Royals are getting some love: Las Vegas. Various sportsbooks have pegged them to win 87 games, and some have given them the best odds of winning the AL pennant.

Perhaps humans are better equipped to evaluate intangibles than computers

''Listen, it is what it is,'' Cain said. ''Whoever came up with those (projections), they have a job to do. It doesn't mean anything. Those numbers they put together don't mean anything. It's about putting it together on the field, and we've proved that the last couple years.''

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