The 2014 Royals are the 2013 Royals

In ways, the 2013 Royals were both a success and a failure, but I’ll probably always remember them for one particular thing. Around the All-Star break, general manager Dayton Moore said that he wasn’t going to sell, and his big reason, paraphrased, was that there was no reason the Royals couldn’t win 15 of 20 games. Everybody made fun of Moore for being irrational and getting carried away, and shortly after that, the Royals began a run during which they won 17 of 20 games. They didn’t make the playoffs, but they were playing interesting baseball well into August.

This year’s Royals kind of backed into the All-Star break, and a few days later, they were a couple games under .500. There were reasons, legitimate reasons, for them to look into trading James Shields, but Moore never really entertained the idea, electing to charge ahead with the roster he’d built. Since then the Royals have won 15 of 18, including seven in a row, and not only are they the current second wild card — the Royals trail the Tigers by no wins and one loss. When the Tigers added David Price, it seemed to be a maneuver to prepare for the postseason. It’s far from clear now the Tigers will even sniff a play-in game.

Two years in a row, then, the Royals have surged after the break, playing themselves right into the race. It’s exciting, because it’s meaningful Royals baseball within the final two months. And what’s funny, if unsurprising, is that this isn’t the only parallel. What’s the strength of the 2014 Royals? Look to the strength of the 2013 Royals.

It’s important to understand that the race for the second wild card is a race for the flawed. The elite teams are on another level. The second wild card is for the best of the rest, so all the teams in the mix are going to be in some way perplexing as potential postseason teams. And the Royals aren’t just playing for the wild card, but I think it’s more than fair to look at the Royals and think, “how?” It’s a team that definitely doesn’t hit. It’s a team with a fine pitching staff, but not an amazing pitching staff. The bullpen has a couple of baseball’s best relievers, but that can’t be the whole explanation. And, naturally, it isn’t.

This year’s Royals confuse like last year’s Royals. And now here is a table, showing their American League ranks in four different categories:

Category AL, 2013 AL, 2014
Offense 10 11
Defense 1 1
Rotation 6 9
Bullpen 2 4

Offensively, the Royals haven’t been any better. The rotation’s been something like average, while the bullpen’s been considerably stronger than that. The strength of last year’s Royals is the strength of this year’s Royals: defense. And, more specifically, the strength of both Royals clubs has been outfield defense.

Of course the two teams are similar — they’ve been run by the same guy in consecutive years, and the organization doesn’t operate with a big budget. So, there hasn’t been an awful lot of turnover. Last year’s Royals had Ervin Santana. This year’s Royals have Jason Vargas. Last year’s Royals had David Lough. This year’s Royals have Omar Infante. The two rosters have been strikingly similar, putting together strikingly similar performances, and this whole time, statistically, the outfield defense has been absolutely magnificent. It can sometimes be a difficult thing to notice, but that’s where the Royals have made up a lot of ground.

As I write this, the Royals lead the majors in outfield Defensive Runs Saved, by six runs over second place. They lead the majors in outfield Ultimate Zone Rating, by 28 runs over second place. StatCorner’s team rating puts the Royals’ outfield at +40 runs, and that doesn’t include arm value. It’s always interesting when the defensive numbers disagree; it’s just as interesting when they convey the same thing. The numbers agree that the Royals defend like no other outfield defends.

We’ve got DRS data stretching back to 2003. Here are the top ten defensive outfields, determined by DRS per 162 games:

Team DRS/162
2013 Diamondbacks 72.0
2005 Braves 64.0
2013 Brewers 64.0
2007 Braves 59.0
2013 Royals 59.0
2012 Braves 55.0
2011 Diamondbacks 52.0
2009 Mariners 51.0
2008 Mets 51.0
2014 Royals 50.7

In tenth, we find this year’s Royals. Tied for fourth: last year’s Royals, with most of the same players. In all, this is out of 360 team-seasons. Now here are the top ten defensive outfields, determined by UZR per 162 games:

Team UZR/162
2005 Braves 72.1
2014 Royals 69.3
2009 Mariners 62.4
2007 Braves 56.7
2013 Royals 52.5
2004 Braves 51.1
2003 Mariners 49.5
2004 Cubs 48.5
2012 Braves 48.4
2003 Angels 46.9

Now this year’s Royals are second, while last year’s Royals are fifth. This data stretches back an extra season, to 2002, so by one calculation the Royals are tenth out of 360, and by another they’re second out of 390. This season isn’t over, of course, so those are on-pace numbers, but it’s stunning how well these Royals rank, and those sorts of run totals go a long way toward explaining how an otherwise unremarkable team can be looking to playing in October.

For the most part this is all the work of Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson, and Lorenzo Cain. By UZR, they’re three of the top ten outfielders on the year. By DRS, they’re three of the top six, and by overall Defense rating, including all players at all positions, they’re three of the top 20 defenders. Gordon’s a sabermetric MVP candidate in a season that doesn’t include Mike Trout, and he’s having one of the better defensive seasons in recent history, given his range and throwing. Dyson has made literally almost every play possible in semi-regular time, and Cain has been valuable in both center and right. Norichika Aoki is third in outfield innings, and he’s neither good nor bad, but Dyson has still been collecting opportunities and seizing just about all of them.

This year’s Royals are last year’s Royals, and last year’s Royals were arguably led by a fantastic outfield defense that ranked among the best in recent history. This year the same players are doing the same things, making the pitching staff look better and partially making up for the offense being so consistently, aggravatingly mediocre. Now, I don’t know if the Royals are the best team in the race. I don’t know if they’re going to win the wild card, or the division, or the World Series, or one more game for the rest of the season. There’s so little of the year left that there’s going to be crazy variation around the calculated true-talent estimates. Last year’s similar Royals team didn’t win enough games; this year’s model might manage to pull it off. Regardless of whether it does, the team’s success shouldn’t be that much of a mystery. Part of the team is amazing. It’s just a somewhat unconventional way to be amazing.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

Who do you consider to be these elite teams that are on another level besides Oakland?

The Ancient Mariner
9 years ago
Reply to  Toothpick

The Angels come to mind.

My echo and bunnymen
9 years ago

Yeah, in the AL it is the Angels and Athletics. In the NL, most likely the Dodgers and Nationals.

9 years ago

Royals 12.8 WAR
Angels 11.9

Royals 11.1 UZR/150
Angels 2.4

Angels are #1 hitting WAR but Royals somehow are 6th in the AL.

Those #’s make the Angels an elite team? Hitting wise sure overall no better than most of the teams fighting for wild cards.

9 years ago
Reply to  Toothpick

The Royals have a team wRC+ of 92, which ranks 12th in the AL. They don’t rank 6th at “hitting”

9 years ago
Reply to  Toothpick

My guess is Toothpick is just looking at the WAR for position players, so he is double counting the Royals defense in his analysis.