It’s become an annual event in Kansas City.
In the weeks before spring training begins, the preseason baseball predictions come out, and the forecast for the Royals is a losing record and/or missing the playoffs (FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus in particular haven’t been kind).
Then the season begins and the Royals beat those projections. It happened in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Even winning a World Series title didn’t change things. Before this season, Baseball Prospectus predicted a 76-86 record for the Royals, while FanGraphs forecast a 79-83 mark.
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That’s worth noting, because when the Royals struggled in May and dropped below .500, some people pounced. The Royals were sitting at 20-20 when Neil Greenberg, who writes for the Washington Post’s Fancy Stats blog, penned a piece with the headline: “The naysayers were right about the Royals.”
… (I)t’s been a disappointing season for a team that has made consecutive World Series appearances, which includes a championship ring after last year’s victory over the New York Mets. The Royals are now 4.5 games back of the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central and Fangraphs projects them to win 78 games, good for fourth place in the five-team division.
Some thought this would never happen, but there were signs this was coming.
A funny thing has happened since then: The Royals have caught fire, winning eight of 10 and moving 1 1/2 games up in the Central.
Here are a few of the arguments Greenberg made in his Royals obituary and how the numbers have changed in just 10 games:
Kansas City ranked second in contact percentage in 2014 (82.7 percent) and led the majors with an 81.9 percent rate in 2015. This year, it isn’t making contact as often — putting the ball in play just 78.8 percent of the time, the 12th highest rate in baseball. As a result, the Royals’ on-base percentage has slipped from .322 in 2014 to .314 in 2015 to its current .305. Only the Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics get on base less often in the American League.
The Royals have now jumped to seventh in baseball in contact percentage (79.5 percent) and are seventh in the American League in on-base percentage (.317), which is now ahead of last year’s pace.
In the 10-game span, the Royals also have seen a jump in creating runs after adjusting for park and league effects (89 wRC+ when the blog was written to 96 wRC+ today).
The Royals’ pitching has improved as well since Greenburg wrote this:
(M)ore concerning is the Royals’ deteriorating command of the strike zone, striking out 1.8 batters for every hitter walked. Those ratios were 2.7 and 2.2 in 2014 and 2015, respectively. No major league team is walking more batters per nine innings (4.3) this season than Kansas City’s starting pitchers. In fact, you’d have to go back to the 2006 Chicago Cubs (4.4) and 2007 Texas Rangers (4.3) to find starting rotations that were issuing this many free passes to first base. Those teams finished last in their respective divisions in those seasons.
The number of walks per nine innings has dropped to 3.96, which is still the third-worst in baseball, but an obvious improvement in a short time. The number of strikeouts to walks has increased to 1.96.
Are there concerns? Sure. But today is the last day of May, a month when the Royals have struggled (8-20 in 2013; 12-17 in 2014; 14-12 in 2015). This year, they are 16-11 in May and there are four months left to go in the regular season.
It’s too early to say they’ll stay atop the Central from here on on out, but also too early to write them off.