What Changed for the Royals In the Middle of the Year?

Earlier today, in my chat, I noticed in the queue a bizarre question about the Royals and playing video games. It got my attention and I ran a quick Google search, but I couldn’t find anything so I moved on without issuing an answer. Then, when I was all finished, I happened upon this article from Andy McCullough, and he explained what the commenter had been referring to. A quick excerpt:

When Kuntz walked inside the room, he saw a scene that had become all too familiar in recent weeks: a collection of Royals with their heads down, eyes locked on their iPads. The game was called “Clash of Clans,” and for a period of time this summer, its excessive usage by members of this club exasperated the coaching staff.

After some talks and some meetings, the Royals found themselves re-focused. They sought fewer diversions and more productive off-field activity, and as you understand, the Royals’ season turned around near the middle. Using the convenient All-Star break split, the first-half Royals were 48-46, and the second-half Royals were 41-27. The first-half Royals were 12th in baseball in WAR, and the second-half Royals were fourth. This says nothing about the eight straight playoff wins; this just touches on how the Royals reached the tournament in the first place. There’s something that seems like it clicked.

And this is one of the reasons I’m not so concerned about a wild-card team like the Royals potentially winning the World Series. So you only want good teams to be eligible for the championship. The Royals, early on, weren’t so good. But they’ve been real good for months. Arguably — very arguably — they’ve been the best team in the American League for months. Doesn’t that make them deserving potential champs? It’s been a remarkable year for Kansas City, given the midseason turnaround, and I thought it could be useful to see what drove the change in fortunes.

This post is built upon a foundation of pre-All-Star break/post-All-Star break splits. It’s not a perfect dividing point, but it’s mighty close so nothing significant should be too obscured. The first-half Royals were on an 83-win pace, and a 37-WAR pace. The second-half Royals played to a 98-win pace, and a 47-WAR pace. Those are very different numbers! I also understand how ridiculous it is to refer to first halves and second halves when the halves contained an unequal number of games. That’s language for you. Let’s take a closer look at the splits by going to WAR components. This table contains WAR figures, multiplied out to 162 games to make for easier comparison.

WAR/162

Players Pre-ASB Post-ASB
Position Players 21.4 24.1
Starters 10.9 16.2
Relievers 5.0 6.9

All right, so that’s not super interesting. How did the Royals get better? Well, their position players got better, and their starters got better, and their relievers got better. That’s dumb. Let’s get more detailed!

Stat Pre-ASB Post-ASB
wRC+ 94 93
SP FIP- 106 95
SP xFIP- 106 107
RP FIP- 89 82
RP xFIP- 99 86
BABIP against 0.298 0.284

Now we’re cooking with statistical gas. In the first table, we noticed that the position players did a little better in the second half. What we see here is that the hitting was almost exactly the same. If anything, it was a tiny bit worse. So that indicates a defensive improvement, which is supported by the fact that the Royals’ BABIP allowed dropped by 14 points. As you probably know, we don’t have easy DRS or UZR splits, but while in the first half, the Royals were second to the Orioles in AL Defense rating, in the second half they were first by a good margin. So a good defense played better, benefiting everyone! Except the opponents. Someone has to lose every encounter.

So that explains the position players. Now for the starting pitchers. You see that? You see that. After the All-Star break, the Royals’ rotation FIP- dropped an amazing 11 points! The same group’s xFIP- dropped an unamazing -1 point. Between halves, the strikeout rate was basically unchanged, and the walk rate was basically unchanged. The groundball rate was basically unchanged. But, in the first half, the Royals’ rotation was 8th in the AL in homers per fly ball. In the second half, they were first, dropping from 9.7% to 6.6%. Want to do better as a group of pitchers? Give up home runs hardly ever. The Royals never hit the longball, but down the stretch they also stopped giving them up.

And then we also get to the relievers. You know, the backbone of the pitching staff, and here you see a more sustainable kind of improvement. The FIP- got better. The xFIP- got better. The strikeouts went up, and the walks went down. The occasional fly ball left the yard, but there were fewer fly balls, and Wade Davis didn’t give up a dinger. Neither did Greg Holland or Kelvin Herrera. In the first half, those three combined to allow 22 runs. In the second half, they allowed 11, in 80% of the innings. And then there was the welcome addition of Jason Frasor, who solidified the innings that didn’t go to the flame-throwing monsters.

I know I didn’t mention baserunning, but that hardly changed. So the position players performed better on defense. The starters got better about homer suppression, and the relievers just got better. There’s one last element to address, and it’s been a critical part of the Royals’ storybook run: clutch performance. It feels like the Royals have won the clutch jackpot, but it wasn’t always quite that way. As with the rest of the team, the clutchness picked up somewhere around the middle of July.

Split Clutch Clutch/162 MLB Rank
Pre-ASB 2.8 4.8 6
Post-ASB 5.3 12.6 3

This is the Clutch statistic, if you’re unfamiliar. The Royals ranked well in both halves, but they were far better in the second than the first, and it’s the magnitude that stands out. This is probably the biggest reason why the Royals finished eight wins above their BaseRuns record, and even though there’s basically no evidence that Clutch is a team-wide repeatable skill, that doesn’t mean it can’t be said to have helped in retrospect. As the Royals caught fire, they were a more timely baseball team, at the plate and on the mound, and probably also in the field if you consider Jarrod Dyson substitutions. As the Royals are constructed, they’re going to play a lot of close, low-scoring games. So one clutch play can turn a loss into a win, and the Royals got themselves enough of the breaks.

For the most part, the Royals’ second-half model has been the postseason model. The defense has been outstanding, the bullpen has been untouchable, the rotation’s been just good enough to get to Kelvin Herrera, and the timeliness has continued. As an added bonus, the Royals have also hit a little bit, and when you add that to the mix, that’s how you get an 8-0 record. October has seen the Royals play like the best version of themselves. No team is as good as the best version of itself, not the Royals and not the Giants and not anybody else, but you can see why the Royals have this air of invincibility. And you can also see why, if the Giants win the World Series, it won’t come as a shock in hindsight. There are reasons to be skeptical of some of the things that’ve gotten the Royals this far. But, holy hell, what a run it’s been.





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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daniel cumings
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daniel cumings

So does this post mean that if I spent less time playing video games, I’d do better at sports, at school, at work, and maybe even with women?

TKDC
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TKDC

No, no, no, yes.