In a time when analytics and advanced stats play a larger role in baseball than ever before, the 2015 Kansas City Royals — the World Series champions, in case you forgot — were a fascinating case study in how old-school baseball thinking can still be relevant. The Royals outplayed their Pythagorean record by five wins in 2015, relying on unbelievably timely hitting and an uncanny ability to put the ball in play to generate runs. To prevent them, they meticulously positioned their defence and relied on good old-fashioned reconnaissance to pick up tells and hints in the approaches of opposing players.
As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci reported last October, Kansas City’s advanced scouts felt they had the book on the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS. We’ve also heard plenty from the Royals about the clubhouse chemistry and never-say-die tenacity they claim is behind the team’s ability to string hits together in late innings against elite relief pitching. But can they carry those kinds of intangible advantages into a new season and once again prove they’re better than they look on paper?
Consider that Kansas City was already working with a below-average starting rotation in 2015 that finished in the bottom 10 in ERA, FIP and WAR. That group likely hasn’t improved much with the subtraction of trade-deadline acquisition Johnny Cueto. The Royals are banking big—to the tune of a five-year, $70-million free-agent contract—on former San Diego Padres starter Ian Kennedy figuring out whatever it was that led him to surrender 31 home runs while pitching his home games in spacious Petco Park last season. It’s a big gamble, and the fact that Kennedy sports a 4.19 ERA and 4.06 FIP over his past four seasons doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that it will pay off.
Then there’s the Royals offence, which was one of the best in the majors at making contact in 2015, with an MLB-low 15.9 percent strikeout rate. Ben Zobrist and Alex Rios are gone, but much of the Kansas City core remains, including Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez. Hosmer is a great player entering his prime, and Gordon is a tireless worker who provides solid production. But Cain and Moustakas both had unprecedented years at the plate in 2015. Meanwhile, Perez has caught a major-league-high 422 games since 2013 (plus 31 more in the post-season) and has seen his wRC+ decline steadily during that time—a sign he may be wearing down.
Finally, the Royals enjoyed much of their success in 2015 by shortening games with one of the league’s best bullpens. Kansas City relievers threw the fifth-most innings of any MLB bullpen and still managed the second-best ERA at a remarkable 2.72. But the 3.85 xFIP the unit carried suggests there were some elements of luck at play. Kansas City’s bullpen stranded a league-high 80.4 percent of runners thanks in large part to a league-low .258 BABIP, which helped compensate for the bullpen’s below-average strikeout ability (8.38 K/9 as a unit) and pedestrian walk rate (3.19 BB/9). You could put the ball in play against Kansas City relievers, but that led to an abnormally high number of outs.
On paper, the Royals bullpen is markedly weaker in 2016, with Ryan Madson leaving via free agency and Greg Holland lost to Tommy John surgery. Wade Davis remains one of baseball’s elite closers, while Kelvin Herrera and Joakim Soria will form a fine setup tandem, but past that, the team’s relievers aren’t nearly as imposing.
Simply put, the most statistically likely scenario is that the Royals will take a step back. That would explain why they’re projected to finish dead last in the AL Central by both Baseball Prospectus (76-86) and FanGraphs (77-85). And yet anyone who wears Kansas City blue will tell you those projections don’t matter to them. This is a franchise that values traditional scouting and intangible team chemistry; that boldly fields a leadoff hitter in Alcides Escobar who managed a .294 on-base percentage last season and admits his plan at the plate is to always swing at the first pitch, because their manager, Ned Yost, just thinks it feels right. The Royals care not for your spreadsheets predicting their demise. They believe there’s still a place for the old school in today’s game. This season, we get to find out if they can defy the odds yet again.