The question of the day: Why do baseball’s projection systems hate the Kansas City Royals?
They do, you know. Three years ago, in 2013, PECOTA — Nate Silver’s ingenious system for projecting players’ futures based on similar players’ career paths — predicted that the Royals would win 76 games. The Royals won 86 instead, their best season in a generation.
Well, OK, that first year is always easy to miss. In 2014, though, PECOTA predicted that the Royals would win 79 games and flounder near the bottom of the American League Central division. Clay Davenport, a founder of Baseball Prospectus and a smart baseball thinker, predicted 77 wins. Other projection systems more or less predicted the same.
The Royals won 89 games, won the American League pennant, and came with within a Madison Bumgarner of winning the World Series.
So, you know, that happened. Surely the projection systems would be a bit more optimistic about the Royals in 2015. Instead, they bitterly fought back. PECOTA dropped its projection all the way down to 72 wins. Fangraphs chipped in with a 79-win guess. The consensus of advanced projections was that the Royals would go 76-86 and finish either last or just ahead of Minnesota in the division.
The Royals won 95 games — best record in the league — won the AL pennant and won the World Series.
Do we need to go through this all again in 2016? The Royals have been good three years in a row, and they, more or less, have the same team returning. This time around, finally, you might expect the projections to appreciate the team’s pluck and defense and …
Yeah, never mind. The PECOTA projections are out again, and though Baseball Prospectus’ Sam Miller does all he can to cushion the blow, well, yeah, the system picks the Royals to win 76 games and finish dead last in the American League Central. Fangraphs has the Royals with 79 wins. Clay Davenport is back predicting 74 victories.
Yes, of course, this time the projections could be right. There have been World Series champions who immediately flopped. The 2014 Red Sox went 71-91. The 2013 Giants won just 76 games. The 2007 St. Louis Cardinals had a losing record. You can’t overlook the possibility of a Royals backslide.
But the issue is this: Why do these projections keep kicking the Kansas City Royals?
Sam Miller explained PECOTA’s whiff last year like so:
1. PECOTA projected reliever Wade Davis to regress into a blah reliever. There was some reasonable logic behind that. Davis was a horrific starter before he turned into an android terminator of bullpen destruction. But, logical or not, the regression didn’t happen. Instead, Davis toyed with hitters again in 2015.
2. PECOTA projected outfielder Lorenzo Cain to regress into a blah outfielder. There was some reasonable logic behind that, too. Cain was coming off his first full season, and there were some holes in his game. He played great defense, sure, and he hit .300, but he also had a middling on-base percentage, a middling slugging percentage and so on. But, logical or not, the regression didn’t happen. Instead, Cain blossomed into an MVP candidate.
3. PECOTA projected starter Edinson Volquez would stink. Logic? Sure, you can find the logic. But it was wrong. Volquez threw 200 innings for the first time in his career and was solid throughout.
4. PECOTA could not project that the Royals would pick up Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto late in the year. Well, it COULD have projected that, but that would have been pretty impressive.
5. PECOTA did not project that the Royals would hit like crazy in the clutch. There is a contentious baseball corner where people argue about clutch hitting, its genesis, its reliability and so on. In that corner, some will say the Royals hit in the clutch because they are clutch hitters. Others will say the Royals hit in the clutch because it was just their year — randomness and all — and it’s unlikely they will repeat that.
And with those PECOTA misses, you have the difference between a lousy team and a World Series champ.
It has become common to mock the projection systems because all they do is crunch numbers without considering the humanity of sports. But I don’t buy that. For one thing, numbers do reflect the humanity of sports. More, predictions based on gut feelings and observation are certainly no more reliable (and almost certainly LESS reliable) than the number systems. Lots of people around baseball thought the Royals were a fluke based simply on what they saw.
See, the future is tricky. True, I did pick the Royals to win the 2015 World Series five years before it happened (and I plan on never, ever letting anyone forget it) but more recently I picked the Carolina Panthers to destroy the Denver Broncos. This stuff keeps surprising us. That is the best part of sports.
The Royals had the best record in the American League last year even though they probably didn’t have one of the league’s 15 best starters. They had the best record even though the finished sixth in runs scored, 14th in home runs and dead last in walks. They had the best record in the league because they caught everything, and they hit in the clutch, and they won the close games, and they kept scraping together comebacks, and Wade Davis was Superman. That’s not an easy formula to predict.
So what now? A lot of people have been ripping the Royals for giving $70 million to starter Ian Kennedy. I see the logic of their criticisms. The Royals also gave some money to reliever Joakim Soria, a Kansas City favorite who turns 32 years old and has been injured and beat up over the last three or four years. I see the logic of their criticisms. Many see Kendrys Morales declining. They see Lorenzo Cain not being able to back up his amazing 2015 with another great year. They see Mike Moustakas and Edinson Volquez and others regressing. Heck, they might even see a bit of a tumble for Wade Davis.
There logic to all of that.
But the future doesn’t follow today’s logic. Ian Kennedy could win the Cy Young Award. Soria could be the essential piece to locking down baseball’s best bullpen. Cain might improve again. Or all three of those players might have down years, and the Royals might STILL win.
The Royals have consistently beaten the projection systems in the same way that they have beaten the American League. They have put together a team of players who do their jobs, believe in the mission and score more runs than the other guys. The percentages might be against them. But, as the great Eddie Felson said in the movie “The Hustler:” “Percentage players die broke too.”