The Recent History of Teams Like the Royals

As you probably have heard by now, our projection systems don’t like the Royals, again. Our Playoff Odds page has them forecasted for just 77 wins, with only an 8% of reaching the postseason, the lowest of any team in the American League. ZIPS and Steamer just aren’t that high on the team’s individual players, and since the projections are context-neutral, there’s no adjustment being made for the fact that the team has won more than expected in recent years. The Royals have relied heavily on context-specific performance to reach the postseason, and projection systems assume that’s not a sustainable skill, wiping it away at the start of each season.

On Friday, I posed a question to you guys, based on the crowd’s overwhelming response that they believe the projection systems are underrating the 2016 Royals. The response to my question was also overwhelming; you guys believe that the Royals are going to significantly outperform their BaseRuns record once again. The top four answers selected in the poll were the four options that had them beating their BaseRuns record, with 78% of those voting selecting one of the options that suggested the Royals have an inherent skill that BaseRuns isn’t accounting for.

Overall, by weighting the results by the proportion of people who voted for each option, you guys project that the Royals will beat their BaseRuns expected record by 3.4 wins in 2016, accounting for about three-fourths of the difference that Jeff Sullivan found when he polled the crowd about expected record versus the projections. Given that the Royals have beaten BaseRuns by an aggregate 25 wins over the last three years, our readers believe that there’s some real skill there. You don’t expect that they’ll get the same type of bump as they have the last few years, but you’re willing to assume that, at this point, BaseRuns is just missing something about how they play, and the forecasts are low by 3.4 wins because of it.

To follow up on that expectation, I wanted to look at how other BaseRuns-beaters have done, and not just teams that have had an outlier year here or there. The Royals are now on a three-year run of significantly outperforming their context-neutral expected records, and so I wanted to see how other teams who had put up similarly strong performances over three-year periods performed in the fourth year. To do that, I took our BaseRuns data — which stretches back to 2002 — and created three year rolling totals for every team, which gave us results for the 11 seasons from 2002 to 2015; 330 three-year stretches in total. Of course, the ones that run 2013-2015 don’t give us any information on the 4th year yet, so we’re really looking at 300 data points that tell us how the team did in the year following a three-year run of crushing their BaseRuns record.

Of course, because what the Royals have done is pretty amazing, there aren’t that many teams that have put up a +25 win difference over a three year stretch in our sample. In fact, teams had only eclipsed that mark four times, and three of them came from one team; the mid-2000s Angels. Over a four-year stretch from 2007 through 2010, the Angels beat their BaseRuns record by a whopping 46 wins (topping out at +17 in 2008), so the rolling averages that include those years all show up at the top of our leaderboards. So, if we just tested the Royals against other teams that won 25 more games than their BaseRuns record over a three-year period, we’d really just be testing how the Royals stack up against the Angels from a few years back, plus one Astros team that managed to go +30 over 2008-2010.

That’s not a particularly big sample, and wouldn’t really give us much of an answer, so instead, let’s break things down by deciles. Taking the 300 data points we have, we can look at them in blocks of 30, and compare how they did in their three-year run to the fourth year. The results of each deciile are in the table below.

BaseRuns 4th Year
Decile 3 Year Average 4th Year
1 to 30 19.0 3.2
31 to 60 11.2 1.1
61 to 90 6.7 -0.5
91 to 120 3.2 1.0
121 to 150 0.2 -0.1
151 to 180 -2.0 -1.4
181 to 210 -4.3 -1.8
211 to 240 -7.0 0.2
241 to 270 -10.6 -0.5
271 to 300 -16.5 -1.4

I can’t imagine a much better result for the crowd; the average BaseRuns differential for the top decile was almost an exact match for what you guys projected the 2016 Royals to beat their context-neutral numbers by. The 30 teams who beat their BaseRuns record, by an average of 19 wins over the prior three years, do indeed show that there may very well be a sustainable trait that these teams had in common that allowed them to continue carrying their BaseRuns-beating ways into the future. Certainly, there’s some pretty strong regression to the mean, as the top decile lost about half of their per-season ability compared to the prior three years, but they didn’t regress back to zero.

Interestingly, the results aren’t symmetrical; the teams that underperformed BaseRuns by the largest degree didn’t continue to underperform at the same rate as the overperformers. While the fact that bottom deciles continued to underperform shows that there is some deficiency that these teams weren’t able to fix entirely, they regressed much closer back towards neutral than the top decile did. These results suggest that teams that dramatically underperformed their BaseRuns last year — the Reds, A’s, and Astros being the three most prominent examples — shouldn’t be expected to diverge by more than a win or two this year. And while the Reds are rebuilding, so they might not get a big boost in the standings from this regression, the A’s and Astros could both appear to be significantly better this year simply by not being quite so terrible in clutch situations.

But this post isn’t about the A’s and Astros; it’s about the Royals, and the crowd’s remarkable ability to eyeball something very close to what the data confirms. Based on the last decade or so of teams who have beaten their BaseRuns performance in a substantial way, we should probably expect the Royals to do so again in 2016, and the +3 to +4 win margin that you guys suggested appears to be in the right ballpark. They won’t get as big a boost as they did in 2015 — only four of the 30 teams from the top decile put up a +10 or better season in the 4th year — but these results do suggest that these teams have found something that allows them to outperform by a decent margin after they’ve been identified as teams that might have this skill.

What might that trait be? There have been lots of suggestions, mostly centering around contact ability and bullpen makeup, and so tomorrow, we’ll investigate the 30 teams from that top decile and see if we can find some commonalities. We might not find anything, and this might remain a bit of a mystery for the moment, but least this initial look at the data suggests that you guys are right to be skeptical of the idea that the Royals are going to perform at their BaseRuns record in 2016.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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8 years ago

You cite the Reds, A’s, and Astros as notable examples of teams that underperform their BaseRuns. Their team offensive K% were 12th, 2nd, and 29th best (lowest) respectively while their pitching K% were 17th, 21st, and 12th best (highest) respectively. While I would not be surprised to find that contact rate is a factor, clearly it’s hardly deterministic.

I took a quick look at the standard deviation of batters with 300+ PA and found the Royals were not more “consistent” throughout the lineup than the underperformers as some might suspect (they were actually comparable to the Vottos… err Reds!). I also looked at bullpen performance in high leverage and while the Royals were good (2nd), the other 3 teams were all over the map (11th, 23rd, 30th). It will be interesting to see what you come up with!

8 years ago
Reply to  RedsManRick

Thank you for your own quick look here, RMR. Very helpful. Well, maybe not for Dave. 🙂

8 years ago
Reply to  Richie

I think the reason why there’s not symmetry between the Royals and the BaseRuns underperformers is that they’ve constructed a team going against the prevailing grain by focusing on guys whose value comes mostly from non-TTO talents. So for the underperformers, the results are mostly random variation, but for the Royals it’s a combination of random variation and intentional design.

8 years ago
Reply to  tz

I have said it before and I’ll say it again – TTO baseball is failing baseball on the offensive side. I researched it, I proved it, and I created HEWCO, CCR, and BSM to replace the slash line, BA/OBP/SLG/OPS. Its a better predictor of what is going on and how to set your lineup.

Ozzie Albies
8 years ago
Reply to  tz

I have said before and I’ll say again to attack the cancellation baseball baseball. I was wondering, do I have to prove myself and HEVC, which would reduce the time and BSM, three times / / SLG / OPS instead I created. It is a better idea about what is happening and how to adjust the settings.

Jason Bmember
8 years ago
Reply to  tz

I mean, he ain’t lyin’. Alcides Escobar had a league-leading 16.8 HEWCO’s last year. Did you ever hear about that on any baseball broadcasts? HMMM?

Jason Bmember
8 years ago
Reply to  tz

John Fogerty is still the all-time leader in CCR, though.

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
8 years ago
Reply to  tz

You should have seen me getting out of bed this morning. Now that’s a bad moon rising.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
8 years ago
Reply to  RedsManRick

I think part of the Royals’ craziness is the combination of a lineup full of contact hitters with a lockdown bullpen, not just one or the other.

8 years ago

May sound simplistic, but many blogs and thinkpieces assert that ‘there has never been a team like the Royals’. So, how would you go about predicting a team like that?

Ernie Camachomember
8 years ago

Why would there be any special synergy there?