Warm-Up Tosses: For all of my Bay Area/San Francisco-based friends, I’m thrilled to announce an author event next Wednesday, March 20 at 7:00pm. At that time, I will be appearing at Books, Inc. on Chestnut St. in the Marina District for a reading/book signing.
DVR Alert: After getting bumped by Caroline Kennedy last Friday and the Pope this Friday, there aren’t many more high-profile Catholic figures that can prevent me from appearing on The CBS Morning News this coming Monday, March 18. (Note to God: I think my past-due bill for having had a giggling fit during my First Communion ceremony as a young boy has now been paid in full.)
This morning, I taped an appearance on the nationally syndicated, On the Money with Maria Bartiromo. I believe the show airs at various times over the weekend in different markets as well as at 7:30pm on Sunday on CNBC.
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Kansas City Royals
What They Did: 72-90, 3rd Place AL Central.
Actual Runs: Scored 676 runs, Allowed 746.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 73.7 (1.7 above actual)
Restated: Scored 677 runs, Allowed 783.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 70.3 (1.7 below actual)
(Glossary: Expected wins, based on a modification of Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem, are the amount of wins a team should win in any season based on the amount of runs it actually scored and allowed. Deviations will be explained in the appropriate team capsules.
Restated Runs Scored and Runs Allowed are the amount of runs a team should have tallied based on its actual components of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging achieved/allowed. In the case of the Royals, if they posted exactly the same stats in 2013 as 2012, they should expect to win 70 games.)
Sabermetric types – at least those who are attacked for working out of their mother’s basement – are frequently scolded by baseball insiders as not understanding the softer skills that are needed to run a baseball team. “You can’t run a baseball team treating your players like Strat-O-Matic cards” and “this isn’t fantasy baseball” are two commonly heard refrains. While I don’t dispute that – I’ve yet to encounter a workforce that is immune to the effects of a positive or negative workplace environment – that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be gained by listening to the boxer-clad, out-of-work, “When is dinner ready, Mom?” crowd. For instance, fantasy players (especially in auction leagues) know that to win your league your players as a whole must produce more points-per-dollars than other teams’ players do. Everything you do as a manager is done with an eye on that metric.
When a major league baseball team operates under a salary cap – either league- or self-imposed – it is faced with the same constraint. A fixed amount of money will be spent on talent and it is imperative that some of those players produce at a level that exceeds their cost. Otherwise it’s impossible for your team to be any better than league-average. For instance, for the Los Angeles Angels it is extremely unlikely, bordering on impossible, for Albert Pujols to provide the Angels with more value than he costs. His ten-year contract (at an average of $24 million a year) pays him as if he will perform at the MVP-caliber level he performed at in the prior ten years. There is little to no upside – in terms of performance per dollar spent – for the Angels in that agreement. Additionally, thanks to an egregious error in judgment, the Angels will be paying Vernon Wells, who will and should spend most of the year on the bench, more than $24.6 million this year. And yet, in terms of the Angles ability to compete for the pennant this year, none of that matters. Why? Because Mike Trout makes $510,000 and he’ll produce runs that will easily pay for the cost of Wells’ salary. The existence of Mike Trout covers up every previous salary allocation error the Angels have made.
If the Angels need a Mike Trout-like over-performer – and they don’t operate in anything that resembles the revenue shackles that Kansas City does – think about how much the Royals need one.
That is why trading #1 ranked minor league prospect Wil Myers to Tampa Bay for James Shields, as the Royals did this winter, was such a mistake. It was probably the most high-profile trade of the off-season and while there were some other parts to the trade (the Royals gave up additional minor-league talent and also picked up starter Wade Davis) the trade boiled down to swapping the best hitting prospect in the entire minor leagues for a borderline ace starting pitcher.
Are the Royals better this year as a result of the trade? Without question. Will they be better next year? Almost certainly, yes. Why is it a bad deal? Because with Shields on board at a cost of more than $23 million for two years, there is very little upside in terms of production (in this case, runs suppressed rather than runs created) per dollar spent. And the Kansas City Royals have traditionally had very limited dollars to spent compared to the rest of the teams in baseball. Wil Myers is now a cost controlled asset for the Tampa Bay Rays. In financial market terms, the Kansas City Royals have given away their upside – and that’s a mistake no veteran of fantasy baseball would ever make.
This team capsule will be light on actual player discussions because the Royals return virtually the exact same roster of everyday players. The only changes are to back-up catcher and back-up shortstop, and this from the team that had an extremely stable lineup last year with only 14 players getting 100 or more plate appearances. The entire starting lineup is on the right side of 30 and they’ve all been together for a while. That’s a nice formula for a possible breakout year for the offense. The problem is, despite fielding a youthful team that once possessed huge upside in the minors, there are only three starters which have demonstrated above-average offensive skills in the major leagues – and the Royals are fast running out of “small sample size” defenses. Alex Gordon, after two stellar years at the plate, is a bona-fide star in left field. Salvador Perez, based on his 450 plate appearances in the majors over the last two years, replaces Buster Posey as the most exciting young catcher with enormous upside potential in baseball. (I do not mean to imply he’s better than Posey by any means, only that the reigning MVP, a legitimate superstar for the Giants, no longer fits the “potential” description.) Designated hitter Billy Butler, a modern day rarity in that he possesses power and a low-strikeout rate, is one of the more underrated players in the game. Beyond that, most of the production was well-below average. That does leave a lot of upside but given that they’ve had ample chance to display that upside the last two years, from a projection standpoint, it’s hard to see a team that was 20th in runs scored last year suddenly get into the top quartile.
Even if everything does go right on offense and a number of the twentysomethings have breakout years, the pitching staff is still a problem. It’s better, for sure, anchored by Shields. The Royals were only one of five starting rotations with an ERA above 5.00 last year. In the trade with the Rays, the Royals have replaced the worst offenders in the rotation with Davis and Shields and also signed free-agent Ervin Santana to a very questionable, very large contract. He makes them better, but the Royals seem to think they were just a couple of starters away from contending.
If that’s the way the front office is thinking, I think they’re mistaken. They see a young lineup about to make “the leap” but upside explosion would be more likely if they were starting from a higher baseline, like league-average. The bullpen may have had the 5th best ERA in baseball, but based on the skill sets of the underlying pitchers, they only had the 15th best expected ERA suggesting material regression in 2013. Finally the entire pitching staff was, for the second year in a row, made to look better by a quirky fielding factor.
Last year I pointed out that the 2011 Royals – despite being a below-average fielding team overall – managed to record 51 outfield assists, essentially twice the MLB average. Outfield assists are undoubtedly skill-based but similar to fumble recovery in the NFL are extremely volatile from year-to-year. I pointed out that outfield assists have a huge impact on runs allowed because they remove players that are about to score or at least have a high-probability of scoring. I also showed that like NFL teams that limited the interception of say, Deion Sanders, by not throwing his way, opponents had a say in reducing outfield assists. That’s why previous teams that led the league in outfield assists, especially those with such a huge number, always showed sharp drops the next year. The 2012 Royals mocked me by recording another 51 outfield assists last year. (Three of the other top five teams from 2011 were below-average in 2012.) Yes, it’s skill-based but I still contend it won’t happen again this year, and it’s a large reason why the Royals actual runs allowed in 2012 look so much better than its restated runs allowed at the top of this essay. I would not count on that happening again this year.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: With their total wins set at 79 games last year, I opined the Royals were one of the easiest unders on the board last spring. Even with the help of what I considered unsustainable help from those highly-variable outfield assists, the Royals were an easy under. To give you an idea of how wildly unrealistic last year’s expectations were, Kansas City is much better this year, thanks to upgrades to the starting pitching. And yet their opening total wins market in 2013 is just 77 ½. That’s pretty much exactly where I have them finishing. I will acknowledge however, the outlook is very different from last year. Last year, I thought the Royals upside was where others had their as their consensus. This year, I see their potential to finish above or below consensus skewed significantly to the upside, but I still can’t see them realistically contending for a Wild Card spot late in the season.
77-85 – Fourth in AL Central
709 Runs Scored 750 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) publication currently available wherever books are sold. Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:
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