Yes, the Royals Can Win the AL Central

If you pulled up the AL Central standings today, you’d find that the team currently sitting at the top isn’t the favored Chicago White Sox or the Minnesota Twins, but the Kansas City Royals. While 90% of the season remains, it’s hard to object to the notion that it’s better to be in the lead at this point rather than the basement. It’s still reasonable to believe that the two preseason favorites are better teams than the Royals overall, but that doesn’t mean the season can’t end with Kansas City in possession of a golden ticket to the AL Division Series.

Long-time readers will know that I’ve never thought the Royals were particularly well run, at least not since Ewing Kauffman, the team’s owner from the 1969 expansion, passed away in 1993. During Kauffman’s tenure, Kansas City was arguably the most successful team created in the expansion era, ranking eighth in winning percentage (.517). By 1993, only two other expansion-era teams were even at .500: the Blue Jays at .511 and Houston at .501. At the organization’s peak, from 1975 to 1989, only the Red Sox and Yankees won more games, and at one point, the Royals went to the playoffs in seven of 10 seasons.

Since 1993, the organization has generally been unsuccessful. In about a quarter-century, the Royals have only had four winning seasons. While they bagged a World Series title in 2015, they only made the playoffs twice, despite playing in what was arguably baseball’s weakest division. Under Kauffman’s successor, team CEO, and eventually full owner David Glass, the team fared much worse. In 1993, Kansas City had a $40 million payroll, the fourth-highest in baseball. By the post-strike 1995 season, they ranked 21st. There they stayed, usually in the bottom third of the league and frequently in the bottom five. Since Dayton Moore’s first full season as the general manager in 2007, Kansas City has ranked 28th in wins and 22nd in payroll:

Payroll vs. Wins, 2007-20
Team Payroll Rank Wins Rank
New York Yankees $2,627,925,259 1 1246 1
Los Angeles Dodgers $2,236,600,402 3 1237 2
Boston Red Sox $2,302,517,441 2 1194 3
St. Louis Cardinals $1,617,713,889 10 1192 4
Tampa Bay Rays $818,419,932 30 1157 5
Los Angeles Angels $1,895,334,206 4 1148 6
Cleveland Indians $1,173,731,244 23 1140 7
Atlanta Braves $1,350,971,318 16 1128 8
Chicago Cubs $1,841,202,419 6 1124 9
Milwaukee Brewers $1,170,308,270 24 1117 10
Texas Rangers $1,556,372,185 12 1115 11
Oakland Athletics $949,971,231 27 1113 12
Washington Nationals $1,508,462,694 13 1103 13
Philadelphia Phillies $1,772,042,700 8 1098 14
San Francisco Giants $1,818,498,586 7 1092 15
Toronto Blue Jays $1,460,943,858 14 1078 16
New York Mets $1,728,971,294 9 1073 17
Arizona Diamondbacks $1,160,462,372 25 1068 18
Minnesota Twins $1,281,364,017 19 1061 19
Detroit Tigers $1,861,840,063 5 1060 20
Houston Astros $1,268,250,697 20 1058 21
Colorado Rockies $1,289,221,972 18 1040 22
Cincinnati Reds $1,246,221,968 21 1039 23
Seattle Mariners $1,589,181,892 11 1030 24
Chicago White Sox $1,425,636,018 15 1027 25
Pittsburgh Pirates $894,015,615 28 1016 26
San Diego Padres $1,006,395,416 26 1013 27
Kansas City Royals $1,185,768,401 22 1003 28
Baltimore Orioles $1,343,310,329 17 989 29
Miami Marlins $880,285,243 29 988 30

The lack of team investment certainly doesn’t help matters, but the Royals can’t say it’s the sole cause of their failures. Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and Milwaukee are all in the top 10 in wins, and Oakland missed by only a hair. None of those teams had a World Series victory, but all four played quality baseball, year-in and year-out, in divisions stronger than the AL Central, while spending even less money.

But the tide might be turning. While we have to wait for October to see if the first three weeks of the season constitute an oasis or a mirage, there’s no denying the Royals have played quality baseball so far. And it’s hard to not root for them, given baseball’s current state. In the dark early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when baseball was squeezing savings out of its poorest employees, the Royals quickly announced that they would pay their minor leaguers and wouldn’t cut even their non-prospect, organizational players. They didn’t go out and spend massive amounts of money this winter or anything, but they did keep the team’s core together while making additions, most notably signing Carlos Santana and Mike Minor and acquiring Andrew Benintendi from the Red Sox. If I had run the organization — or any number of analytics-driven people a billion times more qualified than me had — I’d have traded off the team’s remaining core after 2017, a strategy I still think would have led to more wins over the long haul. But I can’t deny that is a much more cynical plan than Moore’s indomitable optimism as he hung on to players like Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifield.

So, how do the Royals stay atop the division? First, let’s have ZiPS re-roll its projections of the final AL Central standings, based on games played through Wednesday:

ZiPS Projections – AL Central (Through 4/21)
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Chicago White Sox 90 72 .556 56.6% 17.7% 74.4% 8.2%
Minnesota Twins 87 75 3 .537 30.4% 23.5% 58.8% 4.7%
Kansas City Royals 82 80 8 .506 8.1% 11.7% 19.8% 1.3%
Cleveland 80 82 10 .494 4.9% 8.0% 12.9% 0.8%
Detroit Tigers 68 94 22 .420 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

Having a one-in-five chance to make the playoffs and an 8% change to win the division still leaves the Royals an underdog, but that’s a big jump from the final preseason projections, which had them at 6% and 2%, respectively. The games already in the hopper only represent about 10% of the season, but it’s 10% of the season in which the Royals have a small lead on the White Sox and a healthy margin over the Twins. The rest of the season can still be classified as a marathon, but starting a bit ahead of your competitors sure is nice.

It’s also more than just their existing lead that makes ZiPS more positive about the Royals than it was at the start of the season. Taking the schedule out of the equation for the moment, under current roster assumptions, ZiPS sees the Royals as a .495 team, compared to .475 before the season, a difference of 20 points of winning percentage. That’s the largest change for any team in the majors:

ZiPS Preseason Rosters vs. Current Rosters
Team ZiPS Preseason Roster ZiPS Current Roster Difference
Kansas City Royals .475 .495 .020
New York Mets .562 .577 .015
Chicago White Sox .545 .558 .013
Seattle Mariners .445 .457 .012
Los Angeles Angels .520 .530 .010
Boston Red Sox .495 .503 .008
Pittsburgh Pirates .402 .410 .008
Milwaukee Brewers .497 .501 .004
Oakland Athletics .543 .547 .004
Miami Marlins .435 .438 .003
Cleveland .485 .487 .002
Los Angeles Dodgers .601 .603 .002
San Francisco Giants .465 .467 .002
Minnesota Twins .555 .556 .001
Colorado Rockies .400 .399 -.001
Houston Astros .540 .539 -.001
San Diego Padres .596 .595 -.001
Arizona Diamondbacks .430 .428 -.002
Baltimore Orioles .418 .416 -.002
Cincinnati Reds .485 .483 -.002
Philadelphia Phillies .501 .499 -.002
Toronto Blue Jays .540 .537 -.003
Detroit Tigers .431 .426 -.005
Texas Rangers .410 .405 -.005
Atlanta Braves .563 .557 -.006
St. Louis Cardinals .521 .515 -.006
Chicago Cubs .490 .483 -.007
New York Yankees .584 .577 -.007
Tampa Bay Rays .542 .535 -.007
Washington Nationals .515 .507 -.008

The difference is largely due to the pitching. With the offense, the sunnier ZiPS outlooks for Perez, Jarrod Dyson, Santana, and Michael A. Taylor are largely canceled out by grumpier estimations for Benintendi, Hunter Dozier, and Jorge Soler. But on the pitching side, ZiPS only really frets over Greg Holland, who has been awful so far. While the projection system only sees a 0.08 improvement in projected ERA for Danny Duffy, the more robust season-to-season model sees nearly quarter-run improvement already thanks to his bump in velocity and some of the best contact data of his career. It’s just three starts, but Duffy finding his 2016-17 form again was one of the elements that could make for a surprising Royals season.

And there’s an important thing that may help the Royals more than the competition that ZiPS can’t really factor into the mix: the desire to be aggressive at the trade deadline. My gut is telling me that the Royals will value making a single Wild Card appearance more than the average team — their offseason makes zero sense otherwise — which means that the team may be more willing than most to chase one come July. Back in 2015, when smelling a return to the playoffs for the second straight year, they gave up solid prospects to rent the services of Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist. If I tell ZiPS that the Royals win two more games this year than their current projections, their playoff probability jumps to over one-in-three (35%). The NL would be a tougher nut to crack, but there are no juggernauts in the American League, at least at the moment.

Are the Royals likely to play postseason baseball this year? Not really. But there’s a realistic chance, and, let’s be honest, it would be fun to see them pay homage to Ewing Kauffman and Royals past.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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1 year ago

Seriously how good has Sal Perez been since the start of 2020?!? The man has been hitting the cover off the ball.