Can the Royals Pull Off an AL Central Upset?

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Believe it or not, we’re almost 10% of the way through the 2024 season. While baseball always offers myriad surprises, especially this early, one of the ones that most intrigues me is the success of the Kansas City Royals, who stand at 10-6, just a half-game behind the Cleveland Guardians in the AL Central. Naturally, as the resident spoilsport of the baseball analytics community, my job is to dig into the unexpected and see if it has some meat on its bones. And the Royals winning the division would definitely count as unexpected. Justin Mason was the only member of our staff to pick them to win the Central before the season started, while our playoff odds had KC with about a 1-in-14 chance to stand atop the division; ZiPS was even lower, pegging them at a 5.9% chance of taking the division.

So how good are the Royals’ chances? I just finished a late Sunday night ZiPS update, so these projected ZiPS standings are hot off the presses silicon motherboard:

ZiPS Median Standings – AL Central (4/15)
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% 80th 20th
Cleveland Guardians 86 76 .531 40.5% 20.6% 61.0% 3.8% 94.8 79.4
Minnesota Twins 85 77 1 .525 32.1% 20.4% 52.5% 4.2% 93.3 77.4
Kansas City Royals 80 82 6 .494 16.4% 17.9% 34.3% 1.4% 88.9 73.8
Detroit Tigers 79 83 7 .488 11.0% 14.0% 25.0% 0.8% 86.6 71.3
Chicago White Sox 57 105 29 .352 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 64.5 49.1

This isn’t the flashiest set of projected standings for the Royals, but it represents an impressive jump after just 16 games. While they’ve banked some extra wins, they also haven’t run away with an early divisional lead because the Guardians and Tigers are also playing well. But Kansas City’s 80 projected wins represents the 76th-percentile outcome in the preseason projections. To put the team’s improvement in context, here are the changes in ZiPS division and playoff probabilities for all 30 teams:

ZiPS Preseason and Current Division/Playoff Probabilities
Team Pre Div% Div% Difference Pre Playoff% Playoff% Difference
Kansas City Royals 5.9% 16.4% 10.5% 12.5% 34.3% 21.8%
New York Yankees 24.1% 36.1% 12.0% 59.3% 74.2% 14.9%
Pittsburgh Pirates 8.9% 12.7% 3.8% 17.9% 28.1% 10.2%
Milwaukee Brewers 14.7% 19.0% 4.3% 27.3% 37.3% 10.0%
Cleveland Guardians 38.4% 40.5% 2.1% 55.1% 61.0% 5.9%
Los Angeles Dodgers 49.3% 56.8% 7.5% 79.0% 84.4% 5.4%
Chicago Cubs 27.9% 28.2% 0.3% 43.5% 48.1% 4.6%
Baltimore Orioles 37.2% 37.3% 0.1% 72.1% 75.8% 3.7%
San Diego Padres 12.7% 12.3% -0.4% 41.2% 43.3% 2.1%
Cincinnati Reds 20.8% 19.2% -1.6% 35.1% 37.1% 2.0%
Texas Rangers 28.4% 36.9% 8.5% 55.5% 56.0% 0.4%
Detroit Tigers 13.2% 11.0% -2.2% 24.8% 25.0% 0.2%
Tampa Bay Rays 11.9% 10.0% -1.9% 41.1% 41.2% 0.1%
Atlanta Braves 62.6% 65.4% 2.8% 84.0% 83.8% -0.2%
Arizona Diamondbacks 20.5% 18.4% -2.1% 55.5% 55.2% -0.3%
Oakland A’s 0.2% 0.2% 0.0% 1.1% 0.5% -0.6%
Washington Nationals 0.3% 0.2% -0.1% 2.3% 1.5% -0.8%
New York Mets 12.9% 14.0% 1.1% 41.1% 40.3% -0.8%
Philadelphia Phillies 17.9% 19.2% 1.3% 51.2% 50.3% -0.9%
Chicago White Sox 0.6% 0.0% -0.6% 1.5% 0.0% -1.5%
Colorado Rockies 0.2% 0.0% -0.2% 2.1% 0.6% -1.5%
Los Angeles Angels 6.9% 8.9% 2.0% 21.6% 19.7% -1.9%
Boston Red Sox 4.4% 2.9% -1.5% 22.0% 19.3% -2.7%
St. Louis Cardinals 27.8% 20.9% -6.9% 43.8% 40.1% -3.7%
Minnesota Twins 41.8% 32.1% -9.7% 57.5% 52.5% -5.0%
San Francisco Giants 17.2% 12.4% -4.8% 49.4% 43.7% -5.7%
Toronto Blue Jays 22.4% 13.7% -8.7% 58.3% 49.6% -8.7%
Houston Astros 37.0% 33.3% -3.7% 63.2% 52.6% -10.6%
Seattle Mariners 27.4% 20.7% -6.7% 54.7% 38.3% -16.4%
Miami Marlins 6.3% 1.2% -5.1% 26.6% 6.3% -20.4%

In terms of playoff percentage, the Royals have experienced the biggest jump in baseball, more than other surprising teams like the Pirates and Brewers. Meanwhile, only the Yankees have seen a larger bump in divisional win percentage.

And it’s more than just the banked wins; ZiPS sees the Royals as having an objectively stronger roster than it did a few weeks ago. In the full-fat ZiPS projections, a handful of the Royals with questions coming into the season have been answering them quite assertively. ZiPS only has the Royals as a .486 team right now, but that’s up 34 points of winning percentage from the computer’s preseason estimate of .452. How large of a swing is that? No other team in the majors has seen a boost of even 10 points in roster winning percentage, with the Nationals second at a mere eight points.

Cole Ragans represents one of the biggest jumps in ZiPS. The Royals may not be racking up wins when he starts, but you can make a reasonable case that he has already outpaced the optimism that many had for him before the season. In four starts, he’s struck out 29 batters while issuing just seven walks and allowing a single homer across 23 1/3 innings. Now, that home run rate is probably too low to be sustainable, but his walk and strikeout numbers aren’t. Ragans’ low rate of free passes isn’t surprising given his boost in first-strike percentage (to 65.3%), which is an important leading indicator of future walk rate. His 68.6% contact rate is also now well below average, and even in these small samples, the difference between that rate and the 78.3% he posted during his unimpressive debut with the Rangers a couple years ago is meaningful. The full model of ZiPS now sees him as a 3.60 ERA pitcher, and he’s already gained just over 1 WAR in 2025 projection.

Meanwhile, Bobby Witt Jr. may have somehow found yet another gear. He already has 13 extra-base hits this season, and just in case you’re remembering that he had a four-game series against the White Sox, only one of those extra-base hits came against a Southsider. His 66% hard-hit rate and 24% barrel rate are borderline video game numbers, and perhaps more importantly, those metrics are far less volatile than more basic stats when we’re talking about small samples. ZiPS gave Witt an aggressive projection coming into the season, but as he’s only turning 24 this June, the computer left open the possibility that he would take another big step forward. Here are Witt’s preseason projection percentiles:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Bobby Witt Jr.
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 45 42 .320 .362 .591 159 7.6
90% 42 36 .308 .351 .558 149 6.6
80% 38 33 .290 .335 .530 137 5.7
70% 36 30 .279 .329 .507 128 4.9
60% 34 28 .271 .320 .489 121 4.4
50% 32 26 .265 .314 .470 116 3.9
40% 30 24 .259 .304 .456 110 3.4
30% 28 22 .250 .297 .439 104 2.9
20% 26 20 .242 .289 .425 98 2.3
10% 23 18 .229 .275 .396 88 1.5
5% 21 16 .221 .263 .374 81 0.9

If Witt has really transformed further, from star shortstop to A-Rod, that naturally has a positive effect on the team projections.

Similar to Ragans, the full-season model sees a bigger bump for Brady Singer than the simpler model. He’s still not exactly Edwin Díaz in the strikeout department, but his contact rate has improved into the low 70s with the commensurate jump in his swinging strike rate, and ZiPS thinks that he’s actually “earned” a strikeout rate of just over 10 strikeouts per nine innings based on how he’s pitched this year. Some of the discrepancy may come from the fact that he’s still tinkering with his repertoire. This spring, Singer was working on some changes to his little-used sweeper and his four-seamer, and the latter has become a significant part of his game plan this year, especially against left-handed hitters. Rather than working as an early-count weapon, the four-seamer is almost used as a change-of-pace pitch in the absence of a really good changeup. That lack of a changeup has likely hurt Singer, who has primarily been a sinker-slider pitcher with low-tier velocity.

Outside of the home runs, ZiPS isn’t as confident about the MJ Melendez breakout, as he’s still a limited defensive player with a rather one-dimensional bat. But it’s worth noting that this wouldn’t be the first time Melendez showed significant improvement after a long stretch of struggling. His .163/.260/.311 season for High-A Wilmington in 2019 pretty much erased him from a lot of prospect lists before his 41 homers in 2021 put him back on.

Given his .483 BABIP, the computer naturally isn’t especially bullish about Nelson Velázquez. But you can’t win them all! Add up all the smaller gains to players like Adam Frazier, Maikel Garcia, Nick Loftin, Seth Lugo, and Michael Wacha, and you end up with the current Royals roster projecting 5.5 wins per 162 better than before Opening Day, which is about as much as one can do in less than a month of the season.

If we now think about the Royals as a .500 team, it’s enough to upset our preconceived notions about the division. The Twins lost Anthony DeSclafani for the season, representing a real hit to their pitching depth, and the injury to Royce Lewis dims another one of the team’s bright spots. ZiPS liked the Guardians coming into the season, but part of that was the computer being a fan of Shane Bieber, who is done for the year due to Tommy John surgery. Suddenly, the Royals are in the mix, and while they aren’t the favorites to take the division, it’s at least a plausible scenario. Wondering who the Royals might get at the trade deadline is certainly a more fun activity for fans than speculating about who they might lose. There’s a long way to go this season and the Royals still have significant holes that need to be addressed if they shift into more of a win-now mode, but for the first time in several years, it could be a fun summer in Kansas City beyond counting the days until Patrick Mahomes reports to training camp.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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ajake57member
1 month ago

Congratulations to the Chicago White Sox for being projectionally eliminated from post season contention. We knew you had it in you!

GoatHerdermember
1 month ago
Reply to  ajake57

Their 80th percentile outcome is only 64.5 wins. If just about everything goes right they might not lose 100 games. How dismal.