Why Is the Kansas City Royals' Vegas Win Total So Low?

Despite reaching the World Series last season, the Vegas oddsmaker think the Kansas City Royals could be a sub-.500 team in 2015. Why?

Hopefully long-suffering Royals fans enjoyed Kansas City’s run to the World Series last season, because the oddsmakers don’t foresee a repeat performance.

Bovada has set the over/under for Kansas City’s 2015 win total at just 80.5, one year after the Royals won 89 games and the American League championship.

What’s going on here?

Sure, James Shields, who led the team’s starters in ERA, FIP and wins above replacement last season, is now in San Diego, but much of last year’s team remains in place.

The other four starting pitchers return, as does the relief trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera (which had a combined ERA of 1.28 and anchored a bullpen that tied for the major league lead in fWAR). Seven of the team’s starting position players return as well, so it is apparent there are other factors behind the low over/under total.

An 89-Win Team?

First of all, saying the Royals were an 89-win team last season is probably the wrong way to approach this issue.

Yes, the Royals actually won 89 games in 2014, but nearly any set of underlying metrics you want to look at will imply Kansas City overachieved and had a true-talent level closer to .500.

At 89-73, Kansas City had the seventh-best record in the majors, despite the 11th-best run differential. This +0.2 average margin of victory translates to an 84-78 pythagorean record, and even this is probably flattering.

While simple pythagorean record is a good predictor of future success, it is influenced by sequencing “luck.”

Filter this out by using metrics that incorporate context-neutral hitting and pitching stats, and the Royals look even more like a .500 team.

Our own nERD ratings here at numberFire had the Royals as the 16th best team in baseball last year, with a slightly below average score of -0.09.

The BaseRuns metric at FanGraphs ranked Kansas City 14th, with an implied record of 81-81.

The most damning stats here are probably the second and third order winning percentages at Baseball Prospectus, which both say the Royals' 2014 production translated to roughly a 78.5-83.5 record.

No team in the majors outplayed their BaseRuns win total (Kansas City was eight wins better), their second-order winning percentage (+10.5 wins) or third-order winning percentage (+10.6) more than the Royals. Why were the underlying metrics so down on them?

Without getting into the specifics of each stat, the Royals were a below-average hitting team with a roughly average starting rotation.

Kansas City tied for 17th in the majors with a 94 wRC+ (a stat which measures total offensive production, adjusts for league and ballpark and scales it so 100 is average), and its starting rotation had a 101 FIP- (fielding independent pitching, adjusted for league and opponent, and again, 100 is average).

The Royals were quite good as a whole in terms of run prevention, ranking fifth in team ERA- (91), thanks in part to a bullpen that tied for second in FIP- (86) and one of baseball’s better defenses (Kansas City led the league in team UZR and was fourth in defensive runs saved).

Still, these factors were not enough to make up for the pedestrian offense and average starting pitching.

When looking at projections for 2015, it would be prudent not to merely view the Royals’ over/under as something that is predicting a nine-win decline, but rather a total that is more reflective of the team’s true performance in 2014.

Clutch Performance Is Not Predictive

Of course, the Royals did win 89 games last season, so how can we explain the sizable disparity between the team’s actual record and its underlying metrics? And if there is one factor explaining this difference, should we expect it to be in play again in 2015?

It seems that the biggest reason Kansas City overachieved in 2014 was that the team was at its best in high-leverage situations. The Royals offense ranked 14th in total win probability added, yet just 27th in context-neutral win probability added (measured by dividing win probability added by the team's average leverage index).

The 4.81% difference between the two stats, which we can attribute to “clutch performance,” was the highest in baseball, according to FanGraphs.

While Kansas City’s overall on-base percentage of .314 tied for 15th in the majors, in high-leverage situations, this rose to .327 (tied for seventh-best), according to Baseball-Reference.

Its pitching, while solid overall, also overachieved in the most pressure-filled spots, ranking fifth among pitching staffs in FanGraphs’ clutch rating.

FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan wrote in August that a team’s “clutch” score explained 67% of the variance in teams' actual and BaseRuns winning percentage differentials last season.

Unfortunately for Royals fans, this kind of overachievement in clutch situations is not exactly predictive.

Sullivan’s article goes on to say there is virtually no relationship between a team’s clutch performance in one half of the year and the other. Chris Mitchell takes things a step further at FanGraphs, noting there is not even a relationship between clutch performance on a month-to-month basis.

The 2014 Royals certainly deserve credit for “stepping up” in the most critical situations, but that is not evidence this will continue in 2015, so we should not factor this into projections for the coming season.

The Starting Rotation

While the departure of Shields is not the sole factor behind the low projected win total, it certainly is part of the story.

Yordano Ventura was the only other Royals starter with a FIP- below 100 in 2014, and he will now be expected to lead a rotation various projections models are (to varying degrees) pessimistic about.

FanGraphs’ projections (which combine the ZiPS and Steamer models) indicate the 2015 Royals rotation will produce a combined 7.7 WAR, which would rank 25th in the majors.

That is nothing compared to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections, however, which project the Royals rotation will be below replacement level, producing a combined -0.4 WARP (BP subscription required).

ZiPS on its own is more optimistic, projecting Ventura to be worth 3.6 WAR and Danny Duffy to produce 2.2 WAR. Between ZiPS, Steamer and PECOTA, ZiPS is the only system that says the Royals will have two starting pitchers worth more than 2.0 WAR (roughly what we should expect from an average major league starter).

Here is what ZiPS, Steamer, and PECOTA say about the Royals starting pitchers for the coming season (note: Kris Medlen is currently on the DL and is not expected to return until the second half of the season).

PitcherSteamer WARZiPS WARPECOTA WARPAverage
Yordano Ventura2.
Jason Vargas1.51.6-0.30.93
Jeremy Guthrie0.81.5-0.70.53
Edinson Volquez0.91.1-0.70.43
Danny Duffy1.22.211.47

Some of the the comparably low projections may seem surprising, given Vargas was a 2.6 fWAR pitcher and Volquez had a 3.04 ERA (86 ERA-) with Pittsburgh last year.

In the case of Vargas, the systems seem to be expecting regression to his career averages (107 ERA-, 110 FIP-, 1.85 fWAR per 200 IP).

As for Volquez, there are indicators his 2014 ERA was a fluke, given his 116 FIP-, .263 BABIP allowed, and 77.5% strand rate. His career BABIP is .298 and career LOB% is 71.7%, so it is probably safe to assume there was a good degree of luck involved in his low ERA last year.

When you couple that with a career 114 ERA- , 111 FIP-, and 1.2 fWAR per 200 IP, Volquez’s modest projections are pretty easy to understand.

Guthrie, meanwhile, has a career FIP- of 111, while we only have 306.2 innings worth of big league data on Duffy (whose career ERA- is 91 and career FIP- is 104).

The projections seem to be in agreement that the Royals bullpen will be a strength again (FanGraphs, for example, projects the Kansas City relievers to post an MLB-best 4.6 WAR), but the starting rotation looks to be a major weakness.

Overall Projections

The projections are better in terms of the Royals position players, but again, they are not great.

FanGraphs projects the Royals position players to produce 22.9 WAR (12th best in MLB; keep in mind this factors in hitting and fielding), led by Alex Gordon (4.4 WAR) and Salvador Perez (3.6 WAR).

PECOTA is once again less optimistic, projecting Gordon (3.8 WARP) to be the only player to produce more than 2.1 WARP, five players to be within 1.7 and 2.1 WARP, and three Royals starters to be worth 1.4 WARP or less.

On the team level, the FanGraphs projections have Kansas City going 80-82, while PECOTA has the Royals at 72-90 (the fourth-worst record in MLB).

At first glance, it may seem to strange to see the over/under for the reigning American League champions set so low. After taking a closer look at the statistics, though, we can clearly see where Vegas is coming from.