Are the Royals Smarter Than Everyone Else?

August 19, 2014
  
Jerry from Kansas City writes:
 
 
Dave,

Read your June 17 article about the Royals. You weren't very positive about the Royals holding on to first place. I would have agreed with your comments at the time.  But the Royals have had a pretty decent record since the All-Star break and Detroit has faltered. Have you changed your opinion?  Why do the Royals keep winning? Is it possible that at the end of the day it's about intangibles - heart, chemistry, luck, good karma - and not statistics and logic? If so, how do you measure these qualities? 
 
I started writing a reply to Jerry’s e-mail, but it spiraled into a wider conversation about the Tigers, Royals, and the general subject of intangibilities, so I thought I’d make it an article instead.
            Jerry is correct: I wasn’t too optimistic about the Royals chances of staying in first place in the American League Central. My pessimism stemmed from two observations: 1) that their pitchers were a little lucky on earned runs, and 2) they kept running out batting orders that would make Tom Tango wince.
            These two things haven’t changed. Here’s the lineup they put up Sunday, against the dreaded Minnesota Twins:
Lineup
Player
OBP
OPS+
1
Aoki
.338
89
2
Infante
.296
80
3
S. Perez
.304
96
4
Butler
.325
95
5
Gordon
.356
117
6
Cain
.340
107
7
Ibanez
.252
55
8
Moustakas
.264
77
9
Escobar
.313
88
 
Lorenzo Cain has finally moved up a bit in the order, though the Royals continue to slot Alcides Escobar in the #9 spot, presumably because the Royals make their lineup decisions based on how much they’re paying their hitters, instead of how well their hitters are hitting.
            It is unlikely that the Royals crummy lineup is hurting their team’s chances significantly. Putting out a not-so-statistically-optimal lineup over the course of a season might cost the Royals two or three games in 2014. While three wins is a significant amount for a team in a division with the Detroit Tigers, Ned Yost has to live with these guys and I don’t. It’s certainly possible that he has good reasons for putting up this lineup.
             Which gets us to Jerry’s questions. Let’s break them down:
 
 
1.Have you changed your opinion (on the Royals’ chances of holding onto first place)?
 
No, I haven’t. I don’t think that the Royals are a better team than the Detroit Tigers, and I would be very surprised if they held onto first place. They have, at this moment, a one-and-a-half game lead over the Tigers, with forty games left to play. The Tigers added David Price, one of the best pitchers in American League not already on the Tigers, to their rotation. The Royals added Josh Willingham. Then they added Raul Ibanez. I think the Tigers remain the better baseball team, by a comfortable margin.
 
 
2.Why do the Royals keep winning?
 
I’ll come back to this one.
 
 
3.Is it possible that at the end of the day it's about intangibles - heart, chemistry, luck, good karma - and not statistics and logic?
 
The problem with this question is that it frames the two factors as if they existed in isolation; as if a team could win either by logic and statistics, or win by intangibles and teamwork. This isn’t true: the most intangibles-reliant team in baseball would still use statistics to make decisions, just as the most math-minded team in baseball would still be sensitive to the ‘karmic’ state of their players.
            A better way to phrase this question is whether or not I think that intangibles like ‘heart’ and ‘chemistry’ are a component to how well a team plays, and whether I think they are a significant component, one that could explain the surprising success of the 2014 Royals.
            It happens that I do think that intangible elements like team chemistry can influence a team’s performance, though I have no idea whether or not that influence is significant or negligible. I tend to think it’s negligible....I don’t know that a good clubhouse nets a team more than a few extra wins a season.
 
 
4. If so, how do you measure these qualities? 
 
This is the crux of the problem: there is no way to measure such qualities. There’s no way to tell whether or not the Kansas City Royals have better chemistry in their clubhouse than the Houston Astros. Even if you were to imbed yourself with the Royals for a full season, hanging out in the clubhouse before games and taking notes on how the players interact with one another, you’d have no baseline to set the chemistry of the Royals against, no way to determine if the chemistry on the team was better or worse than it was on other teams.
            And we don’t know what, exactly, qualifies as effective team chemistry. It could be that the ideal clubhouse is the 2004 Red Sox model: a band of chummy idiots united in a common cause. But it could just as easily be true that some tension in a clubhouse is useful. The Yankees have never seemed like a particularly close-knit team, but they do pretty good every year.  
            And, even if you did find a baseline for chemistry…even if you came up with a Team Chemistry Quotent, you’d have a hard time trying to calculate just how many of a team’s wins could be credited to that metric.
            We can, of course, measure luck: that is the one ‘intangible’ Jerry brought up that we have a great way to measure. You can find this out with just one click on the Baseball-Reference front page, which teams are lucky and unlucky.
Here are the luckiest teams in baseball:
 
Team
W-L
Pyth W-L
Luck
Cardinals
65-56
60-61
5
Yankees
61-59
56-64
5
Royals
67-54
63-58
4
 
That ‘Luck’ count is each team’s actual win-loss record, measured against their expected win-loss record estimated by the number of runs the team has scored and allowed.
            Here are the un-luckiest teams in 2014:
 
Team
W-L
Pyth W-L
Luck
Rockies
47-75
54-69
-7
Mariners
66-55
72-49
-6
A's
73-49
79-43
-6
 
The A’s, baseball’s best team in 2014, have actually been fairly unlucky. 
            It is tempting to look at this list and say that the ‘lucky’ teams have good chemistry…that their ‘luck’ has less to do with a fluke of math, and more to do with intangible qualities like leadership and heart. Certainly, the Cardinals and Yankees are two teams that get credit for playing baseball the ‘right’ way.
            Except the ‘luck’ scores don’t carry over year-after-year. While the 2014 Cardinals have been very lucky, the 2013 Cardinals were very unlucky, notching four fewer wins than their expected record. The Royals were at -1 last year. Among the three luckiest teams in 2014, only the Yankees had similar luck in 2013. And the Bronx Bombers were neutral in 2012 and in the negatives in 2011.
             Luck is a factor, but it’s not an indicator of a team’s intangible qualities. If anything, it is an indicator that a decline can be anticipated. The Royals aren’t really a .554 team…they’re more accurately a .520 team. Over the final forty games of the season, it’s more likely that they’ll play like that team, which means that the Tigers should slip past them.
 
*          *          *
 

So, coming back to the question I dodged earlier: why do the Royals keep on winning?
            While I’m happy that Jerry brought up the subject of the Royals, it seems a stretch to assume that the Royals are winning due to some unseen and impossible-to-measure factors of heart, chemistry, and karma, when there is at least one measurable factors that might explain the success in Kansas City.
            Let’s consider the two teams vying for the AL Central.
            The Detroit Tigers have a better offense than the Kansas City Royals. A quick glance at the Royals lineup posted above should be enough to convince you that the Royals don’t have the offense to match up with the Tigers, but I’m happy to throw in some numbers:
-The Tigers have scored 4.59 runs per game, the third-best total in the AL.
-The Royals have scored 4.08 runs per game, 9th in the league.
A baseball fan who has been paying attention this season would know this. A casual fan could guess that the Tigers, with Miggy and Kinsler, Hunter and V-Mart, and the emerging J.D. Martinez, would have a better offense than the Royals.
A casual baseball fan would probablyhazard that the Tigers have better starting pitching than the Royals. That’s true, too, though the difference is pretty thin. Royals starters actually have a lower ERA than their Detroit counterparts this year (3.69 to 3.81), though the Tigers pitchers have a better strikeout-to-walk ratio. The addition of David Price, who outdueled Felix Hernandez Sunday evening, certainly gives the Tigers an edge in this category.
Lastly: any baseball fan who has been paying attention knows that the Royals have had an exceptionally strong bullpen, while Tigers have had problems finishing games. Detroit closer Joe Nathan has a 5.11 ERA on the year, while recently acquired Joakim Soria, brilliant for the Rangers this year, struggled mightily in five appearances with Detroit, and is now on the DL.
The Royals bullpen has posted a 3.24 ERA this season, good enough for third in the American League. The Tigers bullpen has been more than a run worse, posting an ERA of 4.38, ahead of only Chicago and Houston in the Junior Circuit.
If you wanted to understand why the heavily-favored Tigers are scuffling, and why the light-hitting Royals are ahead in the standings, I think this is the most obvious difference: Kansas City has a better bullpen.
            And here’s where we trip down the rabbit hole: all of the surprising teams in baseball have good bullpens.
            Okay…that’s not exactly true. But there seems to be a strong correlation between having a good bullpen and having a good record. Here are the top five teams in the A.L., by bullpen ERA:
 
Rank
Team
Bullpen ERA
1
Mariners
2.35
2
A's
2.83
3
Indians
2.91
4
Royals
3.19
5
Orioles
3.29
 
These are some surprising teams. The Mariners are eleven games over .500 right now, which no one in the world saw coming. Most people thought the A’s would be good, but I don’t know that many people thought they’d be ‘best team of the decade’good. Baltimore and Kansas City are on top of their divisions right now, and even Cleveland, who shipped off their shortstop and their #1 pitcher before the trade deadline, find themselves on the good side of .500.
            The NL side of the coin is a bit less impressive:
 
Rank
Team
Bullpen ERA
1
Padres
2.35
2
Giants
2.64
3
Nationals
2.83
4
Braves
3.20
5
Mets
3.20
6
Marlins
3.36
 
There are fewer surprises here. The Padres have been playing great since the All-Star break, but it’s a little early to call them a successful team. The Giants, Nationals, and Braves are each about where you’d expect them to be, thought the Giants had a terrific start to the year. The Marlins are certainly a surprise, but the big shocker in the NL are the Brewers, whose bullpen ERA ranks just 8th in the NL.  
            Acknowledging that this isn’t definitive of anything, the success of the Royals still raises an interesting question: is there a higher correlation between bullpen strength and team success than is generally assumed?
            This is what Jerry’s e-mail got me wondering: have the Kansas City Royals, a franchise whose macro (trading Wil Myers) and micro (their batting orders) decision have seemed not only random and senseless, but deliberately antagonist to anyone whose understanding of the game is even casually inclined towards sabermetrics….has that team somehow lucked into some secret formula for winning. And it that formula something as obvious as: "just have a really good bullpen"?
            The Tigers and the Royals and the 2014 AL Central race is compelling, to me, because it seems an interesting test of that possibility. The Tigers have a much better offense, and they have slightly better starting pitching...and they have a much worse bullpen. Is that enough to keep these teams even? Is a one-run difference in bullpen ERA as significant as a half-run difference in runs scored per game? Is that one-run difference in bullpen ERA more significant?
            I don’t know. But if I wanted to figure out why the Royals are ahead of the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central race, that’s where I’d be looking. 
 
David Fleming is a writer living in New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com
 
 

COMMENTS (10 Comments, most recent shown first)

DaveFleming
Wait...who am I taking a pot-shot at? What are you talking about?


6:13 PM Aug 26th
 
those
Having a better run differential doesn't make the A's a "surprising" team. Even the Royals, when you wrote this, were on a pace to improve from 86 wins last year to 90 this season (granted that it would be surprising to most fans if they beat out the Tigers -- although I think the surprise would be more that the Tigers won 89 or less).

It's always debatable, but my list of surprising teams on the positive side would be the Brewers, Mariners, and Marlins. The fact that the Marlins were 6th in NL bullpen ERA and the Brewers were 8th when you wrote this doesn't do anything to support your main question (and you didn't bother to look at any other seasons), which means all you really wrote was that the Tigers have a better offense than the Royals and the Royals have a better bullpen than the Tigers -- not exactly ground-breaking analysis.

I may sound like I'm being harsh, but it's frustrating to watch you take potshots at people when you can't even get basic info correct in your articles.
2:41 PM Aug 23rd
 
steve161
It's almost never only one thing. The bullpens are certainly a factor, but you might also look at team defense. The Royals' would seem to be significantly superior to the Tigers'.

About the Athletics: they seem to be declining while the Angels are on the ascent. Did Billy Beane's roll of the dice on deadline day come up snake eyes?
6:34 PM Aug 19th
 
DaveFleming
The Brewers, it should be noted, were pretty good during the second-half of last season, posting a .529 winning percentage.

The Brewers are a Lake Woebegone team...all their kids are above average. I think that's how they're staying ahead. Think about it: where are the holes in their lineup? Jean Segura's the only hitter whose OPS+ isn't close to 100. The rotation has no stars, but no weak spots, either...their starters keep them in the game most nights. The bullpen ain't great, but it's better-than-average, with a few bright spots.

Maybe I'm off on this, but they remind me of the 1984 Tigers. They're not as good as the 1984 Tigers, but they have the same depth. If they avoid the Wild Card Game, it wouldn't surprise me to see them playing in the Series.

* * *

The Oakland A's, in 2013, had a run-differential of +0.9 per game. That's very impressive...that was just behind Boston and Detroit in the AL last year.

This year Oakland's run differential, per game, is +1.3, in a division that's a lot tougher than it was last year. The A's have the same win-loss record in 2014 as they had in 2013, but they're a better team this year than they were in 2013.
4:20 PM Aug 19th
 
those
Also inaccurate in the article:

"Most people thought the A’s would be good, but I don’t know that many people thought they’d be ‘best team of the decade’good."

The A's had a .593 winning percentage last year. They're at .589 this year. And they're one of the surprising teams in baseball? Even giving Dave the benefit of the doubt that the A's were 73-49 when he wrote this, that's still a 97-win pace, versus 96 wins last year.

Dave also lists the Indians as (positively) surprising. Cleveland was 92-70 last year, 62-61 this year. Yet the Giants (65-58 this year after going 76-86 last year) are "about where you'd expect them to be."

Dave makes a bunch of mistakes every article, so it might be worth it for him to double-check things more closely.​
3:48 PM Aug 19th
 
those
The Royals lineup against the Twins was actually Saturday's game.
3:34 PM Aug 19th
 
smbakeresq
BrewCrew,

The Brewers have better pitching than most people think. They are 8th in NL in starting and bullpen era, that's solid. But its actually even a little bit better, since the 7 teams in front of them include the LAD (famous pitchers park) SD (absurd pitchers ballpark) NYM (ask David Wright about hitting there) SFRAN (5th lowest stadium OPS) ATL (4th lowest stadium OPS) WSH (3rd lowest ballpark OPS.)


I am a huge Orioles fan. Watch or listen to every game, so I know how much of a hitters ball park they play in. BAL also gets to play in BOS and TOR, two hitter havens, as well as Yankee stadium, which isn't a bad place to hit, and TBAY, which is a solid pitchers place. So when I know that the bullpen is EXCELLANT, relatively, to teams in huge pitchers ballparks like the SEA and OAK.
10:54 AM Aug 19th
 
smbakeresq
My answer to the bullpen argument, as the gambler that I am, is "Of course, where have you been?" As more IP get shoved into bullpens, the more important they have become.

Go to covers.com, a gambling website. They list bullpen era's and usage charts right next to the starter, its that important now.

BTW, don't tell too many people, its one of the few edges gamblers have left.
10:42 AM Aug 19th
 
brewcrew
I'm biased, but to me the more interesting central division is in the NL. Why do the Brewers keep winning? Most of the comments about the Royals surprising success apply to the Brewers also. The big difference is the Royals did it for a month. The Brewers have been in first since April, in arguably the best division in baseball. That's too long to be a fluke, right? Any thoughts on them, Dave?
I've been excited by their success but don't really expect them to finish in first. But I didn't expect them to be there April-August either
8:22 AM Aug 19th
 
evanecurb
Hi Dave,

Is the distribution of runs per game a factor in the difference between a team's pythagorean record and its actual record? In other words, does a team with a standard deviation of 0.2 run differential per game have a higher or lower probability of beating its Pythagorean record than a team with a SD of 0.4 per game?
6:08 AM Aug 19th
 
 
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