How the Kansas City Royals Defied the Odds (Again!)

With improved hitting and sustained excellence on defense, the Royals have outperformed pessimistic projections and are in position to get back to the World Series.

The Royals are doing it again, guys.

While Kansas City rode timely defense and hitting to a World Series berth last season, projection models and Vegas were not buying in heading into 2015.

In the months that followed, the Royals have made these numbers look silly, owning an American League-best 83-56 record (the similarly stat-defying St. Louis Cardinals are the only team in baseball with a better winning percentage).

(Stats moving forward are as of Tuesday's games.)

In one sense, Kansas City is up to its old tricks again, outperforming its pythagorean record by five games and third-order winning percentage by eight games, per Baseball Prospectus.

The Royals’ 22-13 record in one-run games is third best in baseball, and they rank fifth in “cluster luck,” according to The Power Rank (“cluster luck” is an estimate of runs produced or prevented due to sequencing).

Then again, unlike last year, the Royals’ underlying stats are those of a team that is actually good at baseball. Their 78-60 pythag record is second best in the American League, and by third-order winning percentage, their 75-63 mark is fifth in the AL.

Last season, Kansas City went 89-73, despite an 84-78 pythagorean record and 79-84 third order record.

The Royals are a better team than they were last year, regardless of how they fare in the October random number generator MLB postseason.

We’re just left to ask one question: why?

Still “Clutch”

Whether you attribute it to clutch, heart, grit, luck or random sequencing, Kansas City has once again excelled in high leverage situations relative to its overall performance.

One of the best ways to observe this is to look at a team’s win probability added (WPA) relative to context-neutral WPA.

Kansas City’s offense ranks second in WPA but 18th in WPA divided by leverage index, according to FanGraphs. The difference is over seven wins above average (or nearly three standard deviations above the mean).

The Royals are tied for sixth in MLB in park-adjusted offense (with a 101 wRC+), posting a .272/.323/.412 slash line.

With men on base, their wRC+ is 111 (fourth in baseball), thanks to a .288/.340/.438 slash line.

Kansas City has put 3063 men on base, ranking 17th in baseball and just below the league average of 3070. 16 percent of them have scored, and only Toronto has driven in a higher rate of runners.

As a result, Kansas City’s offense ranks fourth in offensive cluster luck, at 17.6 runs above average.

The Royals have also been better in the most important spots in games, with a 113 wRC+ in high-leverage situations (again, second only to Toronto).

Same High Contact, New Power

While the Royals are pulling this off for the second straight year, there is still little evidence “clutch” is a skill a team can possess. Fortunately for them, they also have good numbers from a context neutral perspective, and have played good baseball throughout the season, as opposed to just the most important moments.

As mentioned, the Royals have been a top ten hitting team, a drastic improvement from last year, when they ranked 18th with a 93 wRC+.

They still profile as a contact-based offense, one that rarely strikes out and rarely walks (last season, they had both the lowest walk and strikeout rates in the majors; the same is true this season).

The difference has been power, as this season’s Royals have a .412 slugging percentage, compared to .376 in 2014.

After ranking last in isolated power (extra base hits per at bat) with a .113 rate last season, they now rank 21st (.140). It’s nothing special on its own, but combined with Kansas City’s MLB-best batting average and top-10 OBP, it has been the difference between a below average and above average offense.

Lorenzo Cain has led the way, posting a career-high wRC+ (135) and ISO (.177) in 522 plate appearances, and leads the team in offensive runs above replacement.

Alex Gordon (139 wRC+), Eric Hosmer (130),  Kendrys Morales (127), and Mike Moustakas (120) have been the other key components. Ben Zobrist, who has a .314/.395/.482 line (144 wRC+) in 157 plate appearances since joining the Royals in a midseason trade has helped as well.

All exceeded their preseason Steamer projections, though considering how most of their 2015 performances are out of line with their previous career production, it is hard to find fault with Steamer or any of the models that lowballed the Royals offense (the 29-year-old Cain came into the season with a career wRC+ of 97, Moustakas had never eclipsed 90 wRC+ in his previous four big league seasons, and Hosmer is also setting a career-high).

More Elite Defense

In addition to the strong offense, the Royals have again excelled at keeping opponents off the board.

Kansas City has allowed the sixth-fewest runs per game in baseball (3.85) and is tied for fifth in park-adjusted ERA (with a 91 ERA-).

Since it’s the Royals, you may assume some sequencing fortune has helped, and you would be right: Kansas City is fourth in defensive cluster luck and fifth in strand rate.

Still, even by filtering out context, the Royals have done well to keep down opposing offenses.

They have allowed a .248/.311/.393 slash line, and their .704 OPS-against is 11th-best in MLB.

Their pitching staff has a collective 100 FIP-, meaning they have been exactly league average, so it seems the fourth-lowest BABIP in baseball (.284) is the main factor here.

Royals pitching is tied for the fifth-highest hard-hit ball percentage allowed (per Baseball Info Solutions data via FanGraphs), so good luck may be a component of the low BABIP.

A bigger one, though, seems to be the Royals defense, which is once again among baseball’s best.

Kansas City defenders lead the league in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and have been worth 52.5 runs above average. The gap between the Royals and second-ranked Giants (27.7) is larger than the gap between San Francisco and 14th-ranked Boston.

The Royals are also best in terms of UZR per inning, FanGraphs’ defensive runs above average (UZR with a positional adjustment), and Defensive Runs Saved.

The career offensive years for Kansas City’s hitters explain much of why the Royals outperformed preseason projections, but this excellent defense is probably a factor as well.

Defensive metrics tend to be less consistent than other stats, so projections will tend to regress them. Kansas City had an MLB-best 61.1 UZR last season, ninth-best out of the 420 seasons on record (dating back to 2002).

It makes sense to view this performance in a statistic prone to variation as unsustainable, leading to lower projections (FanGraphs, for example, projected the Royals to post a team UZR of 34; tied for best in the league, but significantly lower than their 2014 rating).

We know that while certain Royals individual defensive stats have regressed (including Gordon, the poster child for the debate over fielding metrics, who has seen his UZR/150 drop from +22.6 to +13.5), the team has maintained its overall level of performance.

Perhaps the Royals coaching staff deserves some credit for putting players in good positions to make the plays, as this would partially explain their consistent excellence (the Royals also had a 79.9 UZR in 2013, the second-best mark ever recorded).

Rob Neyer wrote last season that sorting positioning from individual skill is one of the main hurdles remaining for defensive metrics to clear, given how coaching has the potential to impact these stats.

Whether it is positioning or skill (it is almost certainly some combination of both), defense probably explains why the Royals have exceeded preseason projections, and has definitely been a key component of their success.

Looking Ahead

The Royals are a virtual lock to win the American League Central, as they lead second-place Minnesota by 11 games. While they have not actually clinched, we give them a 100% chance to finish first in the division.

Our model seems them going 13-11 the rest of the way (a .547 winning percentage or 88-win per 162 games pace), and gives them a 12.0% chance to win the World Series. Only Toronto and the Dodgers have a better chance to win it all, so while the Royals have embarrassed all preseason projection models, the computers may slowly be coming around.