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2012 Preview: Kansas City Royals


Kansas City Royals 

What They Did:      71-91, 4th Place AL Central

     Actual Runs:      Scored 730 runs, Allowed 762.

                               Expected wins based on RS and RA:  77.8 (6.8 above actual)

           Restated:     Scored 731 runs, Allowed 775.

                                Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA:  76.8 (5.8 above actual)


Before I opened the spreadsheets and ran a single projection for 2012, I suspected that the Kansas City Royals were going to be an undervalued gem in the AL Central, and perhaps my out-of-consensus, or sleeper, playoff pick.   I considered a branded marketing campaign, something along the lines of the Serta Perfect Sleeper-Team-of-the-Year.  After all, in 2011 the Royals had a better runs scored/runs allowed differential (-32) in 2011 than both the White Sox (-52) and Indians (-56) despite finishing behind both teams in the standings.  Their best player last year, Alex Gordon, finally shed years of unfulfilled potential that had dogged him even since Royal fans dubbed him the next George Brett five years ago.  For a year or two, analysts across baseball have universally regarded the Royals’ farm system as the best in baseball, and the best of that promising crop of players started playing full time in the majors in 2011.  Surely, I figured, the age curve would be very kind to the Royals projection in 2012.  So why are they the fifth AL Central team previewed in a top-to-bottom series?

For one, the model sees something that contributed mightily to the excitement surrounding the 2011 edition of the Royals, and it doesn’t think it’s repeatable in 2012.  These repeatability doubts center on the Royals’ defensive efficiency.  Defensive efficiency is a very simple concept.  It measures a team’s ability to convert batted into outs, while excluding home runs, since those were never in the field of play.  When it’s computed in its most basic form it’s simply 1 – Opponent Batting Average of Balls in Play ("BABIP") with an adjustment of BABIP for errors committed.  If opponents hit .300 on balls in play, which is roughly league average each year, then a team’s defensive efficiency is said to by .700.

(If you just asked yourself, “how is a .300 batting average, normally elite, league-average, excluding home runs no less?” it’s because BABIP does not include strikeouts, which, of course, never result in a ball hit into play.)

Using this very basic definition, in 2011 the Royals had the 4th worse defensive efficiency in the AL and ranked 24th, out of 30 teams in all of baseball.  That, obviously, is not a good ranking but in the Royals case they didn’t get hurt by this lack of fielding prowess, nearly as much as expected.  To understand this, I began to adjust the traditional calculation of defensive efficiency and uncovered something I think is pretty cool. 

As I played with the standard defensive efficiency calculation for a section of my book, two limitations of the calculation became apparent.  First defensive performance after the ball hit the ground, or when the ball wasn’t in play, goes uncredited.  Secondly, double plays were ignored.  Accounting for both the factors leads to a big difference in true defensive efficiency, or what I label, Effective Defensive Efficiency. In the case of double plays consider the following sequence, single, strike out, ground ball double play.  The traditional calculation would credit the defense with a defensive efficiency that inning of .500.  (2 batted balls in play, 1 which was turned into an out.)  However, that’s not really what happened, as two balls were actually hit into play and the defense recorded two outs.  The same sort of distortion also occurs when batters are thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double.  The batted ball may not have been caught when it was hit into play, but the fielders still were responsible for erasing the baserunner.  I adjusted all teams’ standard defensive efficiency to account for these and other events (some obscure like catcher’s interference, others more common like pick-offs and caught stealings) to create Effective Defensive Efficiency.  In doing this, I learned something amazing about the Kansas City Royals – they recorded a league leading 35 batter kills and their outfielders had an astounding 51 assists, including 25 at home plate.  Royals' outfielders threw out as many or more baserunners at home plate than 14 other outfield trios threw out at all bases combined!

Think about how valuable those plays are.  Those events erase baserunners already in scoring position, they prevent (in KC’s case) a below-average and overworked pitching staff from having to face more batters, and importantly, they mask defensive deficiencies earlier in the inning which allowed those runners to get on base in the first place.  The Royals were not a good fielding team overall but like a golfer who chips in for par from off the green a couple of times in a round, their flaws were masked in spectacular fashion.  I’m not suggesting those plays – in either the case of the golfer or the Royals outfielders – aren’t skill based, but it’s fair to wonder if they are repeatable from one year to the next.

The value of those 51 outfield assists add up to at least three wins above a league-average defensive output, possibly more, and no team going back a decade (possibly much more -- i stopped there) has racked up that kind of value.    In fact only a few even came within 20% of that number.  The two that were closest, Houston in 2003 (47) and Pittsburgh in 2009 (45) recorded 29 and 31 outfield assists, respectively, the following year.

Kansas City also had tremendous health last year, ultimately sporting the most stable starting lineup in the majors.  Five different players played more than 150 games and even that understates the stability because in four other cases, mid-season call ups of prized rookie prospects, Johnny Giavotella, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer didn’t reach 150 games but played virtually every game they were on the roster.  That type of good health isn’t likely to repeat itself from one year to the next and the Royals bench is not deep.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the presence an all-under-30 starting nine, the projection system doesn’t see great things for Kansas City's run scoring, largely due to expected regressions from the near-elite caliber year Alex Gordon had, and the resurgence in 2011 of Jeff Francoeur, who had been written off by no less than three former teams (Braves, Mets, and Rangers.) Gordon hit (.303/.376/.502 – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 690 plate appearances in 2011 after hitting (.244/.328/.433) in his first 1,642 trips to the plate of his career.  He made “the leap”, to be sure, but he needs to repeat that type of performance, a la Jose Bautista, before any projection system will ignore the mean baseline he’s established prior. 

Finally, I may love the fact that the Royals sold high on Melky Cabrera and scored starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez in return from the San Francisco Giants, but the fact is it will be very hard for rookie CF Lorenzo Cain to provide anywhere close to the production Cabrera provided last year (.305/.339/.470 – all way above league average for a CF) and that doesn’t even consider Cabrera’s 13 assists, 2nd in the major leagues.

While the model’s projection sees a sharp drop-off from 2011 in runs scored, it recognizes a big improvement in starting pitching.  Gone are Jeff Francis, Sean O'Sullivan and Kyle Davies along with their 54 starts and respective ERAs of 4.82, 7.25 and 6.75, almost certainly to be more effectively replaced by the aforementioned Sanchez and high-ceiling youngsters Danny Duffy and Aaron Crow.  (Rare fantasy tip on these pages:  I think Felipe Paulino is a potential gem as a last-round pick, sure to be ignored by everyone else in your league.)

Put it all together and despite the significant step forward last year, the Royals need to back and fill in 2012, they look to be a year away.  That’s what the model says.  I’m not going to put my thumb on the scales in any way to adjust it but I suspect, and hope, that the model is too pessimistic on Kansas City’s chances this year and I’ll be surprised if they actually finish in last place as predicted below.  In summary, the model sees the following problems for the Royals in 2012:

o) Defensive deficiencies that were masked in 2011 by non-repeatable events.

o) Good health unlikely to be replicated two years in a row.

o) The loss of a key offensive contributor, Melky Cabrera.

o) Regression from an outlier year by Alex Gordon, the Royals most valuable player in 2011.

o) Forget regression, a flat out dismissal of Jeff Francoeur’s break-out year.

Oddsmakers’ expectations:  It looks like oddsmakers have gotten caught up in the step forward the Royals took last year.  If the model is right in its doubts, there is some real value to the downside.  The over/under markets show the Royals as favored to come in second place in the division.  While overseas markets started the Royals at 78 ½ total wins, the first markets out of Las Vegas, posted by the influential Las Vegas Hilton, stand at 80 ½.  The model confidently calls for an under.  This is really going to be one of the more fascinating developments to watch – if the Royals continually get outscored and give up nearly five runs a game, the model is truly seeing something everyone else is ignoring.


2012 Outlook:

72-90 – Fifth in AL Central

675 Runs Scored       767 Runs Allowed


Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.

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