Going into the season, the Kansas City were the trendy pick to – if not win the AL Central – at least be the Detroit Tigers most dogged competition. Right now – those talented young Royals are an abysmal 3-14… the worst record in the major leagues, not just the AL Central.
The question is… did folks massively overestimate how good that team was likely to be? Do they have any chance at all to contend in this division? There might be a little of that – while the Royals are a young team that figured and figures to get some gains through the development of the players already on the roster, they also got some amazing years from players in 2011 that weren’t likely to be repeated. In particular I’m thinking of the production that they got from Jeff Francoeur, Alex Gordon and Melky Cabrera – Cabrera is gone and the other two have gotten off to cold starts this April. And bear in mind, that 2011 team did some good things but they only won 72 games. In KC they hoped that shutdown closer Joakim Soria would be a big part of the teams push to respectability – and he’s lost for the year.
It seems that most of what has been going on isn’t a Royals team that is unexpectedly bad but rather a team that has not come through in the clutch. Some guys aren’t playing well – this is true in KC and elsewhere – but there are other guys that are hitting and pitching much better than expected, like Alcides Escobar, Yuniesky Betancourt and catcher Humberto Quintero on the offensive end Danny Duffy, Aaron Crow and Jonathan Broxton on the mound. In composite stats, the team is 9th in the AL in xFIP and 6th in the AL in wOBA (significantly better than those Tigers mashers). In both cases – probably quite what the teams fans were hoping for, but not really far off from unvarnished expectations.
While the team is getting hits and they are getting outs, they aren’t necessarily doing either at the right time. If we look at Win Probability Added (WPA) for the Royals, Win Probability adjusted by Leverage Index (WPA/LI) and the composite ‘clutch’ stat generated by subtracting the latter from WPA/pLI (and I really don’t want to get into unnecessary details) we get a sad picture that fully explains the Royals deviation from the expected. WPA/LI is a decent measure of how ‘good’ a batter or pitcher has been, WPA is the best available measure of how much they have actually contributed to their team’s record by doing those good or bad things. In terms of WPA/LI the Royals as a team score -0.08, zero is ‘average’ so the Royals are trivially close while they might not be on the right side. In unadjusted WPA they score a -3.09. That’s about a 3 win difference if we simply compare the two – so the Royals clutch stat is a league worst -2.57.
The same is true on the pitching side, unfortunately (for a Royals fan, not for a Tigers fan): the team’s WPA/LI suggests a team that is, indeed, below average (-0.83) but a raw WPA far worse at -2.43 giving a clutch stat of . While some Royals starters have pitched pretty poorly so far (Jonathan Sanchez and Luis Mendoza) that is fully reflected in their WPA/LI – the real culprits as far as bad clutch pitching have been members of the bullpen (Broxton and Greg Holland in particular) who have struggled at exactly the wrong times. Bear in mind that while the Twins are also a bad team, as they were last year, their WPA and WPA/LI stats come and came much closer to matching – they aren’t getting outs at the wrong times, they aren’t getting outs. If you ask me which team will do better from here on out, I’d say the Royals will and I’d be surprised if they did remain in the cellar for long. That said – they don’t quite look like a team surging to the top at this point and digging out of such a big early hole wouldn’t be easy for anyone.