The other day, I received a tweet saying 72 wins is the new #6org. It was in response to a Jon Heyman article that ripped a Royals preseason 72-win projection. This is just about the best possible time to do that — the only better time, maybe, to write that article could be next week. Now, a difference: the #6org thing is ours. The 72-win Royals projection came from Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system. So, this could be their own version of #6org, but it’s not like PECOTA was all that exceptional. All the systems pretty much agreed. Our own systems projected the Royals to go 79-83. That looks better than PECOTA, but it still looks bad. The Royals have made the numbers look silly, is the point.
They were projected to go maybe .500, and they’re close to winning the World Series. A year ago, they were projected to go something like .500, and they came close to winning the World Series. The year before that, they were projected to go something like .500, and they won 86 games, up 14 from the year previous. Right now the Royals are being described every 10 seconds as relentless. They look like they’re unstoppable, and though they’ve come very close to being stopped, and though they were stopped just last October, there’s still something of a special feeling. The Royals, we’re told, do things differently. On observation, it’s hard to disagree.
What I want to know is how the community feels about what I’ll call Royals magic. Some of you don’t like the word “magic” and that’s perfectly fine. It’s not like it’s actual magic. Royals magic is just intended to describe whatever it is the Royals do that the usual numbers have had trouble taking into account. You get into the alleged relentlessness. Related to that is the clutch hitting. And, of course, there’s the run-prevention side, with a strong team defense that helps the rotation get the ball to an outstanding set of relievers. What makes the Royals so interesting is that we couldn’t easily see them coming. We all want to know why, so we can improve in the future. The Royals might be able to teach us a few things.
To review some information: though, the last three years, the Royals have been projected as mostly a .500 team, they’re fourth in baseball in actual wins. They took one World Series to the very end, and they’re threatening to complete this one before half the country knows it started. This is a golden era for Royals baseball. I know exactly how ridiculous that would’ve sounded some years back, but there’s no denying the circumstances.
Over the three-year span, the Royals rank first in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved. Conveniently and unsurprisingly, they rank first in baseball in Ultimate Zone Rating. You know about the defense. We all know about the defense. It was right in the spotlight last October, when the focus was more on what the Royals’ position players did with their gloves. This time around, it’s mostly about the bats.
And, the position players — over three years, they’re 17th in baseball in OPS, and 15th in runs scored. Yet they’re first in batting Clutch, and they’re first by a mile. The 2015 sense of timing wasn’t an entirely new thing. The hitters have stepped up more than you’d think.
On the pitching side, the Royals are 11th in OPS allowed, yet fifth in runs allowed, and fifth in Clutch. By looking at OPS, defense is already folded in — this isn’t like looking at team FIP. There have been fewer runs than you’d think, and some of that’s timing, and some of that’s getting the ball to the right relievers at the right times. It’s amazing how many different strengths have been celebrated over just the past two postseasons. At the moment, it’s all about the Royals hitters making contact. But it used to be about the position players catching everything, and the bullpen being impossible. (The defense is still good.) (The bullpen is still almost impossible.)
This post is a little scattered, but I wanted to get you the information in advance of a poll. What makes the Royals odd is how they force us to question certain reasonable assumptions. On one side, the Royals have clearly over-achieved, relative to team projections. People put some of that on the clutch hitting. They put some of that on the terrific defense. They put some of that on the shutdown bullpen. So much of the Royals’ identity is basically clutchness. Their hitters look the best at big times, and their best pitchers get the most critical innings.
On the other side: baseball history that’s been examined. No one’s ever demonstrated sustainable offensive clutchness, and no one’s ever shown a link between clutch hitting and not striking out. Based on precedent, or the lack thereof, this doesn’t seem like it should be a thing. And then, you know, the Royals didn’t invent the good and deep bullpen. It seems like we have a good understanding of the defense. We have one team showing how it might be something special, and then we have all this information showing how teams aren’t special. Not dependably so. Weird teams, given enough time, tend to become normal teams, and so we’re led to the argument that never shuts up — small sample size. Ultimately, it’s just a few years of one baseball team. Why overreact to that? Why make so much of an N of 2 or 3?
The Royals don’t make anything easy for anyone. And so we’re finally at the poll. I want you to imagine a hypothetical Royals projection. The Royals have all the same players, and in this hypothetical, they’re projected to win 84 games over a full year. Where would you then mentally put them, knowing just the projection, and having observed all the supposed unkillability? How much do you think the numbers are missing? Or are you a skeptic, happy to put them right at 84, as you would any other team? In short — are the Royals special, or is it just that the Royals have been special? The rest of this is up to you.
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.