The Kansas City Royals haven’t made the playoffs since the last time they won the World Series. That year was 1985 and after just the second winning season since the start of the new millennium, expectations are high in Kansas City. The Royals improved by 14 games last season, finishing third in the AL Central behind a couple of 90-game winners in the Indians and Tigers.
Years of high first-round picks have helped the Royals into a period of contention and it’s their position player strength that makes them a very intriguing team in the American League. The Royals were a very streaky bunch last season with five winning streaks of four or more games and five similar losing streaks. The Royals had a season-high winning streak of nine games to go from 45-51 to 54-51 in late July that carried over into the first day of August. From July 22 on, the Royals went 41-25, one of the league’s better records over that span. It was during that time that expectations rose for the 2014 team.
The Royals suffered through an 8-20 month of May that eliminated them from contention. The other five months all had records above .500. The Royals were the only Central Division team to have a winning record against the Tigers and their patchwork pitching staff came together in the second half to hold opponents to just 3.25 runs per game.
BetOnline and Bovada seem to have adopted a wait-and-see approach with the Royals in 2014. BetOnline has an 82 posted for their win total with the over at -120, while Bovada is at 82.5 with the under at -125. In terms of the AL Central, they are ranked second in terms of projected wins by the oddsmakers.
Key additions: Jason Vargas, Norichika Aoki, Omar Infante
Key losses: Ervin Santana, David Lough, Emilio Bonifacio
Royals General Manager Dayton Moore hasn’t been applauded for many of his offseason moves in the past. The Royals filled a big hole at second base by signing Omar Infante. Emilio Bonifacio didn’t work out for the Toronto Blue Jays and the Royals gave him a shot in August and he was a decent contributor. Infante, the 12-year MLB vet, cashed in on the free agent market after a career-best season with the Tigers.
Norichika Aoki was one of the earliest noteworthy transactions of the offseason and Moore spun his bullpen depth into a very intriguing player. Aoki came over from Japan prior to the 2012 season and was a good contributor for the Milwaukee Brewers. Aoki puts the bat on the ball and uses his speed to get on base. Aoki has 18 more infield hits than any other player over the last two seasons. That, coupled with tremendous plate discipline, makes Aoki a great under-the-radar acquisition.
Jason Vargas replaces Ervin Santana in the Royals rotation. While Vargas is clearly a downgrade to Santana, the Royals are desperate for competent, experienced Major League arms. With a dire need for innings, Vargas, who did miss some time last season, threw over 600 innings from 2010-12. Santana remains unsigned and could very well return to the Royals because of the draft pick compensation attached to signing him and a dwindling amount of options.
Why bet the over?
The second half of last season gave the Royals plenty to be excited about entering 2014. Their 43-27 record and +55 run differential were among the best in baseball. The pitching staff went from allowing 4.05 runs per game to just 3.26 runs per game and the offensive overall numbers rose.
The biggest asset for the Royals was their defense, which remains in tact this season. The Royals do have some pitching questions, but their defense saves runs and prevents hits at an incredible rate. The Royals were the league’s top team in defensive runs saved with 93 according to Fangraphs and 95 according to Baseball-Reference. The next closest American League team, the Rangers, saved 39 (Fangraphs). The Royals did it all from throwing out runners on the bases, second in the league with 40 outfield assists, to having the league’s top Ultimate Zone Rating, a defensive metric that determines how much above or below average a fielder is.
Of the 20 pitchers that appeared in games for the Royals last season, 17 of them had better ERAs than their FIPs. Keep in mind that FIP is a variation of ERA that only factors in what pitchers can control – walks, strikeouts, hit by pitches, and home runs. What the 17 out of 20 stat is telling you is that the Royals defense was exceptional in preventing hits and runs on balls put in play. From a psychological standpoint, pitchers can relax knowing that they don’t have to locate perfectly to get outs. From a statistical standpoint, it’s clear that the Royals team defense can hide some of the pitching shortcomings that are the concern for this season.
When you look at the overall performance of the Royals rotation, it’s not special. They had the third-fewest strikeouts per nine innings of the 30 MLB teams. Their walk rate as a group was right in the middle, as was their home run rate. Because of the defense, Royals starters stranded the third-highest percentage of runners and had the 12th-best starter ERA. As a side note, 92 of the 162 games the Royals played went under the total in 2013, something to keep in mind throughout the year and another mark of how good the defense was.
In today’s Moneyball generation of baseball, the Royals don’t rate highly in sabermetric categories because they don’t walk very much. It’s a lineup that scores runs based on doing the little things like advancing runners and stealing bases. The Royals led the league in stolen bases with 153. Perhaps more impressive, the Royals were only caught 32 times. For the value of a stolen base to outweigh the negative value of a caught stealing, a runner must be successful around 75 percent of the time. The Royals successfully stole on 82.7 percent of their attempts, which is significant enough to create a lot of value.
Offseason addition Norichika Aoki fits that mold and is the reason why he should be considered one of the most underappreciated moves of the winter. Aoki slots ideally into the Royals lineup as the projected leadoff hitter, allowing the Royals to move Alex Gordon down to second or third, where his line drive and power abilities can generate more runs for a Royals team that could use some more offense.
Eric Hosmer removed some doubts spawned from his atrocious 2012 season to put up a very strong .302/.353/.448 slash line and a .350 wOBA to lead the team among players with more than 150 plate appearances. Hosmer is just entering his prime in his age 24 season, so expect his production to continue. Another player nearing his prime is catcher Salvador Perez. While the Royals have some positions that will be below average offensively, Perez is very solid for a backstop. Perez has a very level swing that generates top spin on ground balls and leads to solid contact for line drives. He’s not a big power threat like most catchers, but he’ll hit for a much higher average than nearly everybody. Like most of the Royals, he’s also strong defensively.
Omar Infante fills a huge need for the Royals. In the 42 games Emilio Bonifacio played for the Royals, he accumulated 1.0 fWAR at second base and it was 60 percent more fWAR than any other Royals second baseman contributed last season. Even though Infante is likely due for a little bit of offensive regression with a .333 BABIP and a move to a park that suppresses home runs, he has proven to be far more effective as an everyday player at this stage of his career rather than a utility guy. Asking Infante to repeat his 3.1 fWAR season from last year is a lot, but at around 2.0 fWAR, Infante is already a full win upgrade at second.
James Shields will be the ace of this staff and continued to be one of the game’s most unheralded starters. For the seventh straight season, Shields threw over 200 innings. Even though he regressed back to his career averages in strikeouts, ground ball rate, and had a slight bump in walks, Shields was still tremendously effective and saw a drop in his home run rate with a friendlier division to pitch in. Shields will be looking for a new contract after the season, so the consummate professional may take it up another notch.
Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie will be the biggest benefactors of the Royals defense. Throw Bruce Chen into that mix as well. These crafty veterans don’t possess overpowering stuff, but they don’t issue many walks, which makes them serviceable in a decent park to pitch in given the defense behind them.
What to really look for in the Royals rotation is the development of Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura. The Royals would be wise to go with both in the rotation, but the veterans probably hold an inside track on roster spots. Duffy, who had to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2012, made just five starts last season for the Royals after his return. Control problems have hurt him at the Major League level, but that could easily be attributed to the discomfort in his elbow that eventually led to Tommy John and his small sample size at the end of 2013 as part of his rehab.
Yordano Ventura is proof that big things come in small packages. A lot like division counterpart Danny Salazar, Ventura would generously measure at six feet tall, but has a cannon attached to his arm. Ventura sits at 97 with the fastball and regularly touches triple digits. He became more of a pitcher than a thrower last season and his velocity gives him plenty of margin for error as long as he’s around the plate.
Between Duffy and Ventura, those two probably have the best pure stuff of anybody in the Royals starting pitching mix. Prospect Kyle Zimmer also has big upside, but he’s not going to make an appearance until late 2014 or next season. If nothing else, there’s decent depth in the Royals system in case of injury or ineffectiveness.
Along with the defense, the Royals bullpen is a legit strength of the team. Of the 15 pitchers who made relief appearances for the Royals, seven of them average 93 mph or more on their fastball. This is a bullpen that misses bats and is extremely difficult to generate rallies against.
Greg Holland’s 47 saves were second in the American League and trailed only Aroldis Chapman in percentage of plate appearances ending in a strikeout. Holland struck out over 40 percent of the batters he faced. It doesn’t get much easier behind Holland with converted starter Luke Hochevar, who can also bring it in the upper 90s and Kelvim Herrera who was one-tenth of a mile per hour behind Chapman for the highest average fastball velocity. The Royals were 63-12 when they led after six innings and 13-9 in games that entered the seventh inning tied.
With two elite strengths, the bullpen and team defense, the Royals definitely have the ability to overcome a mediocre starting rotation and an average or slightly below offense.
Why bet the under?
The chief reason to play the under is because the Royals rotation looks extremely marginal. The Royals defense bailed them out on several occasions and the already weak rotation lost Ervin Santana. That’s 211 quality innings that the Royals have to find a way to replace. Vargas could help, but he has pitched the bulk of his career for Seattle and Anaheim in his career, two of the best environments to pitch in of the 15 American League ballparks. Vargas has a career 3.93 ERA and 3.81 FIP at home and a 5.18 ERA and a 5.03 FIP on the road. There’s only so much help the Royals defense can provide for numbers like that. The ball will carry at Kaufmann Stadium on warm summer nights, unlike what happened in Anaheim and Seattle where the cool marine air kept the ball from traveling too far.
Jeremy Guthrie’s ERA has not reflected his true talent over the last two seasons. It’s clear that Guthrie has been the biggest beneficiary of the Royals defense. He’s a good bet to stay healthy, but with SIERAs in the 4.70s and FIPs of 5.10 and 4.79 over the last two seasons, Guthrie is not a good pitcher. His 4.04 ERA last season is all smoke and mirrors, with over 79 percent of runners stranded and a horrible strikeout rate of 12.3 percent. If he lasts in the rotation, he’s a ticking time bomb every five days.
There is a lot of promise with Duffy and Ventura at the back of the rotation, but Duffy remains an injury risk and Ventura threw a career-high of 150 innings last season, with 134.2 of them in the minor leagues. Neither guy is a proven commodity and, while there is upside, there is a lot of injury potential attached to both guys. The Royals rotation is already bad enough and a hit to their depth will hurt even more.
Barring a surprise turnaround from Mike Moustakas, the Royals will be below average offensively at shortstop, third base, and in center field, with second base also a possibility. Most of the team’s position player value came from the defense last season, as the Royals posted a team wRC+ of just 89. They finished tied for 25th in wOBA and were saved from being even worse offensively by their baserunning and ability to make contact. The Royals hit the third-fewest home runs. As great as their defense is, they still need to score enough runs to get by with a rotation that is poor overall.
Pick: Over 82 (-120) (BetOnline)
How’s this for a stat? The Royals were 64-13 when they scored four or more runs in a game last season. The inclusions of Aoki and Infante fill two offensive holes for the Royals and they should be more competent offensively. The defense is still elite by MLB standards and will continue to hide the weaknesses of a very marginal starting rotation. This season’s AL Central, in my mind, is shaping up like last season’s NL Central. I believe the possibility is absolutely there for three teams to win over 90 games. Three teams won 86+ last season and I believe that all three teams are better.
The Royals rotation may be scary, but it’s the only reason to consider the under. With an average lineup, elite defense, and an elite bullpen, the Royals are going to finish off games with leads and rarely get blown out because of their run prevention abilities. This is a very good team that could challenge the Indians and Tigers for the division crown.
Previous team previews:
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.