Which MLB Team Is Primed to Be 2015's Version of the Royals?
Although the Kansas City Royals finished the 2013 season 86-76, they didn't get a lot of love when it came to pre-season predictions. In fact, when the numberFire writers made their playoff forecasts, only one of the five writers had the Royals advancing beyond the regular season. Welp.
But now it's time to find that team that will duplicate the Royals' successes and shock the world next year. The signs were there that Kansas City was ready to make the leap (although they only won three additional games this year). But what are those signs? And which 2014 teams emulated them? That's what we're here to find out.
The 2013 Royals' Formula
There were three factors that could have indicated that the Royals were bound for success in 2014: their batters were on the cusp of their prime, their pitching was more than acceptable, and their defense was straight nasty.
The thing about the 2013 Royals that made their record so impressive was that they only had 11 plate appearances the entire season by players aged 31-35. They had the fewest plate appearances by players aged 31-plus in the entire league. What they did have is a high volume of players in their in the age 26-30 bracket. Bingo, Batman.
The pitching was already there for the Royals in 2013. They had the lowest ERA in the American League and ranked fourth in the league in collective WAR. A lot of this was due to their bullpen, which, as you saw, was kinda sorta all right this year.
As far as the fielding, it was other-worldly. The Royals had a 87.6 defensive runs saved rating in 2013; the second best team was Arizona at 49.7. That's freaking stupid. It was the best defensive rating since the Mariners posted a 96.9 defensive runs saved in 2009. Basically, don't expect to find a team that's going to equal this in our search for the next Kansas City.
These are the criterion we will use to try to find 2015's breakout team. A team with all three of these traits would certainly be a contender next year; the odds of that team existing, however, appear slim.
Boston Red Sox
Interesting that the team that was celebrating a World Series championship one year ago would be on a list of "break-out" teams for 2015. That's fairly indicative of how 2014 went for the bearded brethren.
There is one big problem with the Red Sox: 71-91 is a bit different than the 86-76 record of the Royals in 2013. But that doesn't stop me from including them on this list.
The category where the Red Sox are most off is in the age. The Red Sox had an average age (weighted for number of plate appearances) of 29.3. The Royals were at 27.0 in 2013. The Red Sox had 2,731 plate appearances from players aged 31 and older, which is more than ten times as high as those Royals. They don't come close to qualifying here.
But, in the other categories, things are a teensy bit different. Boston finished the year ranked fourth in defensive runs saved at 47.0. This was actually far better than their 16.2 runs in their World Series season. Bless you, Jackie Bradley, Jr..
With regards to the pitching staff, the Red Sox were obviously not great this year. They had an ERA north of four, they didn't have a particularly high strikeout rate, and their walk rate wasn't superb. But they did have the fifth-highest WAR of all A.L. pitching staffs. The Red Sox may not be as far from a quick rebound as they would appear at first glance.
San Diego Padres
The Padres were the butt of most jokes for the first half of 2014. The same could not be said about the second half, where they were actually above .500 (36-31) and had the highest offensive walk rate in the National League with the sixth highest offensive WAR. Intrigued?
The Padres had an average age of 27.9 on offense, which was still higher than the Royals. That said, San Diego still had 4,349 plate appearances from players 30 and under as opposed to 1,556 from those over.
The fielding, although not terrible, was not Royals-esque. The team finished the year 12th in defensive runs saved at 5.8. This, however, like the hitting, was much improved in the second half. After heading into the All-Star break at -7.5, the team posted a 13.3 number after. That's still not top-tier, but that is very good.
The pitching aspect is where the Padres fall short. They ranked eighth in staff WAR last year despite having the second best ERA in the N.L. When you pitch in Petco, you had better have the second best ERA in the N.L. They dropped to the 10th-best road ERA in the senior circuit at 4.04. Things aren't great. Ian Kennedy and Tyson Ross are a good start, but they're going to need a lot of help.
I'm not an advocate of limiting a sample size and using it to project to the future. That goes a bit out the window because of all of the changes the Padres made to their roster in July and August. While I don't see San Diego making a push for the playoffs (especially in a division with the Giants and Dodgers), I wouldn't be shocked if they ended up at .500 by season's end.
Of the teams on this list, this is the one that was closest to the 2013 Royals record-wise. Although the Marlins finished 77-85, they were just three games below .500 at 71-74 when Giancarlo Stanton went down. Oh, and that Jose Fernandez guy? Yeah, baby.
Despite giving Jeff Baker, Reed Johnson, Jeff Mathis and Ed Lucas all more than 180 plate appearances, the Marlins still had an average offensive age of 27.4. I'd imagine that there wasn't another team in the big leagues that gave 3,035 plate appearances to players 25 and younger and didn't suck.
The reason I love the Marlins is that their core offensive players are coming into their own all at once. Stanton's already there (duuurh), but when you add in a potential additional off-season of progress for Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, and you got some eye-popping goodness, y'all.
When it comes to defense, the Marlins did not provide the same goodies. They finished 21st in defensive runs saved at -8.4. They definitely don't fit this category of the equation, but all is certainly not lost.
The Marlins, even with Fernandez out, still finished fifth in the N.L. in pitching WAR. Once his production and filth are back in the rotation, the Marlins are a team that can contend. If I'm betting on one team from this list to make a surprising run next year, put me down for the Miami Marlins.
The Marlins have the bats. The Red Sox have the defense. The Cubs have the pitching.
Overall last season, the Cubs had the second highest staff WAR in the National League. Some may contest that having Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel the first three months inflated that; not so. Post-All-Star break, the Cubs also had the second highest staff WAR in the N.L. Giddy up.
Offensively, the Cubs were a wreck. The good news is that their players 25 and under had the highest on-base percentage of any age group on the team. The bad news is that that number was still only .303. While their effectiveness was a question, 91 percent of the Cubs' plate appearances came from players aged 30 and under. That's a high number. If those players take a step forward this year, the Cubs may get to 80 wins. That's probably the ceiling of this team in 2015. But that would mean beautiful things for the 2016 Cubs.
In the field, the Cubs were just meh. Mediocre. Very average. Their -4.6 defensive runs saved didn't swing the team violently one way or another. This seems to be a wash for them in this category.
Basically, the Cubs are a year away from being the team that follows the Royals' model. If they can keep up their plus pitching and develop their youngsters (both fairly large if's for any team), they'll be in contention soon. I just don't see that being in 2015.
The truth is, no team truly followed the Royals' 2013 model. That would be too easy. But these teams do have at least several of the tools necessary to succeed. Whether they are able to fully make that leap is still to be determined, but you'd be mistaken if you didn't at the very least keep an eye on these up-and-comers.