The Royals Haven’t Been the Projections’ Biggest Miss by Jeff Sullivan January 20, 2016 No team has more conspicuously made us look silly than the Royals. Not in the last few years, for all the reasons you already know. Not many things more visible than consecutive trips to the World Series, and when you look at what the Royals did against what the Royals were expected to do, statistically, it’s natural to wonder what’s up. It’s normal to find comments like this one, left earlier today: Dave, if the Royals once again reach the post season, or even the world series, is it time to re-calibrate the predictive model? In other words weight some of the production measures differently? 4 years in a row isn’t luck. For some, “projection” is a dirty word, and for others there’s just a certain skepticism. The Royals are the “face” of this feeling, if that makes any sense, because after all, they’re the defending champs, and they were projected to not be very good. There’s absolutely no question the Royals have exceeded statistical expectations the last few years. What might surprise you is another team has done that even more. The Royals have completed three years of this. Clearly, they surpassed expectations in 2015. But it also happened in 2014, and even in 2013, when they fell just short of the playoffs. The three years prior, the Royals were pretty well pegged, but they only more recently came into their own, and the projections have lagged. One year, you can buy as a fluke. When you’ve got three years, people wonder, and they’re not wrong for doing so. We’ll play around with three years of information. As I’ve written about before, I have a spreadsheet of projection information stretching back to 2005, but for now I’ll keep the focus on 2013 – 2015. We know the Royals have blown projections out of the water, but then I also just saw this post by Travis Sawchik, on the Pirates. That was good timing on his part. Here’s a plot of how all 30 teams have fared, compared to their preseason projections, the last three years combined. This shouldn’t be complicated. The Rockies have won 17 fewer games than they were projected to win. The Royals have won 30 more games than they were projected to win. The Pirates have won 33 more games than they were projected to win. (My numbers differ very slightly from Sawchik’s.) So while the Royals have been more conspicuous about this, getting to two World Series and winning one of them, the Pirates have them one-upped in the regular season, leaving aside their early playoff eliminations. And only the regular season gets projected, anyway. It’s not a coincidence that, the last three years, the Pirates rank first in baseball in bullpen WPA, and the Royals rank second. That doesn’t explain everything, but it’s amazing how many games you can win if you don’t let late leads slip away. The Pirates have also been progressive with their defensive alignments, which numbers have trouble with, and then there’s all their time-sharing and the Ray Searage stuff. If you’d like, you can throw in some health, and some midseason additions that forecasts don’t consider. There are plenty of reasons why a team might beat its projection. The Pirates have done it more than anyone else of late. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be limited to three years. Four years ago, they beat their projection by seven wins. Five years ago, they beat their projection by two wins, if that counts for anything. Six years ago, things were ugly, but they were also unrecognizable. This is at least a four-year trend. It just looks the strongest if you focus on the three most recent seasons. Going back to 2005, now, I have a sample of 270 team stretches of three consecutive years. The last three years, the Pirates have exceeded their projected wins by 33. That ranks them in second place for greatest positive three-year difference, behind only the 2012 – 2014 Orioles. The Royals, at +30 wins, rank in sixth place. Obviously the effect has been big, but what could this mean as far as 2016 goes? For fun, look at the following table. I grouped the best and worst three-year stretches, and then found the average win/projected-win differences in Year 4. 3-Year Projection Misses, And Year-4 Performance Teams 3-Year Difference Year 4 Difference Top 10 30 -4 Top 20 27 1 Top 25 25 1 Bottom 10 -31 5 Bottom 20 -29 0 Bottom 25 -27 1 Difference = actual wins – preseason projected wins To explain: the top 25 averaged +25 wins over the three-year window. In the fourth year, they averaged a difference of +1 win. The bottom 25 averaged -27 wins over the three-year window. In the fourth year, they averaged a difference of +1 win. It strongly suggests the three years aren’t actually predictive, in terms of beating or falling short of projections. If you look only at the top and bottom 10, you see an opposite effect, if anything. The 2012 – 2014 Orioles had the greatest positive three-year stretch, and in 2015 they beat the projection by two wins. After the Angels ripped off a great run of overachieving, the 2010 team beat the projection by two wins. The 2011 Twins, though, followed their stretch by missing the projection by 21 wins. The 2011 Marlins fell short by 10 wins. The 2015 A’s fell short by 15 wins. History, viewed in this way, doesn’t indicate the Royals and Pirates should be considered special in the year ahead. There’s also common sense: it’s unlikely one or two teams have just figured something this critical out, given the competitiveness of the industry. But you can never completely close the door. After all, every team and every situation is different. And after all, the Royals have done this for three years. And the Pirates have done it for four. History didn’t love Dallas Keuchel, until he unlocked what he could do. People, at least, will be watching the Royals closely. They should also be watching the Pirates closely. In every such situation, there could be something real, and the longer it goes on, the harder it is to dismiss. We’ve had so many conversations about how maybe there’s something about the Royals. It’s good that we’ve had those conversations, and many of them have been enlightening, but there’s been a sort of bias, because of how far the Royals have gotten in the playoffs. Even now, we know the playoffs are pretty random, and with that in mind, we should be having the same conversations about how maybe there’s something about the Pirates. They’ve earned it just as much. I guess you could say even a little more.