By all accounts, Clay Davenport is a bright guy. Co-founder of Baseball Prospectus? Meteorologist by day? Sounds pretty smart to me. So this is not intended to diminish Davenport or his workâ€”BP is a fantastic site and really, every baseball fan (stathead or not) should be paying attention to their work.
As you may have heard, Davenport released his 2014 projections the other day, and they were not kind to our Kansas City Royals. Now, most Royals fans are probably used to this sort of thing; if theyâ€™ve had any sort of reality-based thinking over the past 20 years, they would have realized that those teams were not going to magically win 95 games in some sort of Major League scenario.
However, these projections were a bit stunning. 77-85? After an 86-win season? After all, even assuming Ervin Santana does not come back for 2014, itâ€™s hard to see how the Royals are nine games worse than in 2013.
So what gives? Well, for one thing, while I donâ€™t necessarily disagree with Davenportâ€™s methods, the fact is that running a simulation many times (I donâ€™t see a precise number on his website) will by nature cancel out the outliers. Note that there are no teams projected to win more than 91 games or lose more than 95. We know in practice that a few teams will get to 95 wins this year, and the chances are good that someone will lose 100. Although I am a big believer in the usefulness of stats, I am no statistician. But my guess is that the Royalsâ€™ numbers got flattened out a bit.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the Royals have some players who may not â€œprojectâ€ well. For example, Jeremy Guthrie is oneâ€”if you look at his peripheral numbers such as walk rate, strikeout rate, and hits allowed, you would never expect him to be successful. Yet, so far, heâ€™s had a fine career (103 ERA+ lifetime, so essentially a league-average starter). Davenport projects him to post a 5.01 ERA in 189 innings (individual player projections can be found here), which would be a little bit surprising. Guthrie will be 35 in April, so some regression is likely, but he has made a career out of outperforming what youâ€™d expect.
Other projection problems might arise from the Royalsâ€™ relative lack of veterans. Although this aspect might be a little overblown; after all, we do have three seasonsâ€™ worth of data on Eric Hosmer, almost that much on Mike Moustakas, and two seasonsâ€™ worth on Salvador Perez. But those can still be small sample sizes for the purposes of a simulation like this, especially when Hosmerâ€™s disastrous 2012 season (and first two months of 2013) are included. Davenport has Hosmer hitting .273/.335/.432 this year, which frankly would be a disappointment. From a simulation standpoint it makes senseâ€”compare that projection to Hosmerâ€™s lifetime .277/.332/.425 lineâ€”but based on what we saw Hosmer do for the last four months of 2013 (.318/.367/.494), itâ€™s odd. At age 24, Hosmer is likely to improve, and my guess would be somewhere quite a bit better than his career line.
Also, I do wonder how much defense plays into these projections. Davenportâ€™s website says that â€œDefense trickles back into pitchers hits (and runs) allowed.â€ I donâ€™t think itâ€™s any big secret that an excellent defense was key to the Royalsâ€™ winning record last year. It may be tough to sustain that standard of defense in 2014, but since most of the key players are still young, I wouldnâ€™t expect a big dropoff. I think itâ€™s very possible that the defense is not getting enough credit here (and as a bonus, excellent defense is probably going to make non-strikeout pitchers like Guthrie and Jason Vargas better than projected).
Davenport has already answered some of this criticism on his website:
“With the Royals, the big concern for me is the pitching. I expect Shields to come back about a half run in ERA, and I donâ€™t see quality replacements for Santana and Chen, who surprisingly put up over 400 IP @ 3.50 ERA. Two things I will concede â€“ there is some evidence, looking at the last two years of projections, that I under-count defenseâ€¦or rather, that teams with good(bad) defense donâ€™t get their runs allowed moved down(up) enough. The Royals and Orioles are two teams who might be suffering from that biasâ€¦if it is real. It didnâ€™t show up in the 2011 data with nearly the same effect as in 2012-13.
Now, Guthrie at a 5.00-ish ERA. Iâ€™m perfectly comfortable with that projection. He was 20 runs above average in the DR component â€“ my way of saying he gave up 20 runs less than expected, base don his other stats. He doesnâ€™t have a history of putting up that kind of number, and even if he did, that component score heavily, heavily trends towards zero in future years. The issue I have with the projection, in retrospect, is that thereâ€™s no way he gets 30 starts with that level of performance. Its not as though thereâ€™s a ton of depth there, though, so its not going to make a big difference, but future iterations are liable to come up a a couple of wins for them. It IS a process to run these stats, and this was just an opener.”
Thereâ€™s no need to get bent out of shape over these projections, or to get wildly excited that Fangraphs has the Royals at 41.4 WAR for 2014 (those projections donâ€™t come with a win-loss record, but if a replacement-level team is 47 wins, that puts the Royals at 88 wins). For one thing, we donâ€™t know if the Royals are done adding piecesâ€”another starting pitcher would be nifty. For another thing, 88 wins might not be enough to reach the playoffs; it certainly wasnâ€™t in 2013. And letâ€™s face facts: trading Wil Myers for James Shields is a statement that you WILL make the playoffs while you have Shields.
Of course, ultimately this will all be decided on the field. I tend to think the Royals are an 85- to 88-win team. To me, 77-85 is what happens if two or three key players miss time with injuries. I expect the Royals to be competitive. We can argue a different time about whether thatâ€™s enough.