This is the postseason of the underdog. The Angels, Dodgers, Tigers, and Nationals were all bounced in the first round. Both wild card teams advanced, combining to lose one game in the process, despite having burned their best starting pitchers in the play-in game. One of the remaining division winners won just 90 games. These are not the League Championship Series many people expected, and with the little guys advancing in each division series, we should be in for some pretty even match-ups. At least, that’s what one would think.
But if you look over at our Playoff Odds page, our depth chart forecasts don’t exactly see it that way. This is how those projections look right now, before the start of either LCS.
|Team||LCS Odds||WS Odds|
Our projections have the Royals as a significant favorite over the Orioles, even though Baltimore was the better regular season team by just about any measure you want to use. But this isn’t another FanGraphs-just-hates-the-Orioles situation — we don’t, really, I promise — as our forecasts actually had the Royals-Angels match-up as essentially a coin toss, and see them as a legitimately strong contender, not just a Wild Card who snuck past the first round due to the randomness of October.
But the Royals certainly didn’t play like an elite team this summer. By BaseRuns, they were a .500 team, and only managed to snag a Wild Card spot because of their strong performances in the clutch. So what’s the deal? Why do our forecasts love the Royals so much?
Thanks to our Depth Charts overview page and our positional leaderboards we can actually go see exactly where the differences are between projected value and what the Royals produced in 2014. So let’s find out where exactly the projections are bullish on this roster.
Overall, the forecasts are pretty optimistic about the Royals young position players, giving them league average or better marks at essentially every position on the field. But there are two notable forecasts that paint a significantly more positive view than just looking at 2014 performance: third base and designated hitter.
Let’s start at DH, where Billy Butler was a miserable failure, especially when he wasn’t playing the field. His overall .271/.323/.379 line is bad enough for a bat-only player, but even that was pulled up by solid production when Butler played first base; as a DH, Butler hit .259/.307/.335, good for just a 79 wRC+. The guys who filled in when he played first base weren’t a lot better, and overall, the Royals DH’s combined for the second worst total in the AL, with only the Mariners (-3.2 WAR!) getting less from the position.
But the Steamer forecasts — the engine powering our Playoff Odds models — aren’t really phased by Butler’s lousy 2014 season, and think he’s basically still the good-not-great hitter he’s always been. The 119 wRC+ forecast for him is actually slightly above his career average mark, as Steamer is still giving weight to his strong 2012 season, and at 28 years old, he’s right in the sweet spot of the aging curve. This season, Butler was awful, but the forecasts don’t see Butler as an actually awful player, and assuming that he’s classic Billy Butler and not the 2014 version gives the team a significant boost in the forecasts.
The story is similar at third base. Mike Moustaksas had a miserable regular season, posting a 76 wRC+ and getting himself optioned back to Triple-A for a stint, but Steamer sees him as an above average big league third baseman. In fact, his +3 WAR in 586 PA is shockingly strong given that, in nearly 2,000 plate appearances, Moustakas has produced a total of just +5 WAR over his career. Steamer is really bullish on Moustakas despite a poor Major League track record, and so to find out why, I emailed Jared Cross, the gatekeper of the projection system and asked him what was up. His response:
In addition to going into a peak age, I think he’s benefitting from having a slightly better year this year (than his career average) in terms of BB%, K% and a worse year in BABIP. BABIP not only gets regressed more than K% and BB%, but BABIP data from longer ago weighs in more heavily relative to data from the more recent season (although the most recent season still gets the highest weight, of course). So, his rough year in 2014 isn’t quite as bad as it looks, projection-wise, because it’s largely the result of a terrible BABIP.
Jared isn’t kidding; Moustakas had a .220 BABIP this year, the lowest mark of any hitter who hit at least 500 times this season. His high infield fly rate shows that this isn’t just bad luck, as Moustakas makes a ton of weak contact that results in easy outs for the infield. But Moustakas has always hit a ton of infield flies, and he’s never run a .220 BABIP before; his career mark is .260, and Steamer is only forecasting him for a few ticks above that, at .272.
But as Jared notes, if you don’t hold the entirety of his .220 BABIP against him, the rest of Moustakas’ line actually isn’t half bad. His walk rate was the highest of his career, and his strikeout rate was well below the league average, while he also posted a decent-ish .149 ISO. For comparison, Moustakas’ BB/K/ISO numbers are almost exactly the same as Jacoby Ellsbury’s, and actually a little bit ahead of guys like Lonnie Chisenhall, Starlin Castro, and Pablo Sandoval, each of whom were slightly better than league average hitters. This high-contact/some power combination, mixed in with a smattering of walks, is a decent offensive player as long as the BABIP is within the normal range.
And that’s basically what Steamer is projecting for Moustakas; a strong enough BABIP regression to make him a league average hitter, based on his solid enough underlying skills. Add in his defensive skills at third base, and Steamer sees Moustakas as a productive player, not the black hole he was in the Royals line-up for most of the year.
Interestingly enough, this is one of those times when the data and the scouts likely agree. The Royals believed themselves to be contenders this year based in part on their faith in Moustakas and Butler, and both underachieved relative to what the team and the forecasts believed they were capable of. The same could be true, to a lesser extent, of Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, and Omar Infante. The Royals expected to have a productive infield, and the forecasts thought this group should be pretty solid as well, but in reality, they were pretty lousy, especially if you consider Butler part of the infield group. But just as the Royals haven’t given up on their young core, neither have the projections, and their optimism about these young players performing better than their 2014 numbers has the forecasts buying into Kansas City as a legitimate contender.
A total projection of 42 WAR might not sound like a lot, because after all, it’s only 1 WAR higher than their 2014 total, but it’s actually the fourth highest projected total of any team in baseball, a tenth of a win behind the Dodgers. These forecasts look at the Royals and see a legitimately good team, not a .500 club that clutched their way into the playoffs.
If you go to the Royals team depth chart page, you can see how the individual forecasts add up at the runs level. The positive forecasts for the young players turns the Royals from a bad offensive team into an above average one, grading them out at +26 runs above average with the bats. Toss in another +34 runs for their fielding, and Steamer really likes the Royals position players. Pair that with a decent rotation and a great bullpen, and the forecasts think the Royals are clearly the best team left in the postseason, as good as any of the big boys who just knocked out in the first round.
Now, how much emphasis you put on these forecasts is a matter of opinion, and if you think that the only data that matters is what happened in the regular season, then our season-to-date Playoff Odds model probably aligns more with your expectations, with the Orioles as strong favorites to win both the ALCS and the World Series. If you think Moustakas, Hosmer, and Butler are more of what they showed this season than what the forecasts think, then the Royals probably aren’t a legitimately great team.
Personally, I’m probably somewhere in between, thinking the Royals are better than their 2014 performance but not entirely buying into the full improvements that Steamer sees for the Royals young hitters. But then again, I’m also the guy who would have had Anaheim, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington playing in the LCS, so Steamer’s doing better than I am this postseason.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.