Projections & Predictions: The Royals Mortal Enemies

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We all know the story of the Kansas City Royals and projections the last couple seasons. Before 2014 Kansas City was projected to finish 79-83 by Baseball Prospectus, in a tie for second in the American League Central with the Cleveland Indians. The Royals did ten games better, finishing 89-73, earning a Wild Card berth and ending up one game short of winning the World Series. In 2015, the Royals were projected to finish(once again by Baseball Prospectus) even worse, 72-90, the second worst projected total in the American League. The Royals would easily eclipse this projection, finishing 95-67, winning the American League Central, claiming home field advantage throughout the playoffs and eventually winning the World Series. So with pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training in less than two weeks, once again the Royals are once again projected to finish 79-83, this time by Fangraphs. Last year, Royals fans were in an uproar over this, feeling like the team was being overlooked and not given the respect they earned after the 2014 World Series. Even into the summer, when Kansas City steamrolled past the 72 win mark, fans would make snide remarks and mock BP, questioning the website and the way they came to their results. But the real problem isn’t Baseball Prospectus or Fangraphs; no, the real problem is that fans(and analysts alike) put too much stock in projections and predictions.

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Let’s start with the PECOTA projections. I actually had no issue with the Royals being projected so low, as it made sense to me. Most of their projections are taken off of a players’ past performance and the Royals had a number of players who accumulated poor seasons in 2014. A lot of people just remember the playoffs, when Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer looked like beasts and the Royals looked like an unbeatable locomotive. The truth was that Moustakas had an awful 2014, Hosmer’s wasn’t great and they weren’t alone. A good chunk of the Royals lineup did not fare well, so of course the projections would be lower. Even offseason acquisition Kendrys Morales was coming off of a lackluster campaign, one in which he put up worse numbers than the man he was replacing, Billy Butler. PECOTA puts a lot of stock in past performance, so this made sense. Sam Miller of BP wrote a great article about how they came to these results, in which Miller even admits that they need to work on improving the weight of a good bullpen and excellent defense can have on a team winning. The final paragraph speaks volumes about the projections and why they aren’t perfect:

While PECOTA aspires to be perfect, what it really does is this: It projects players, individually; it converts those performances into expected runs, based on how baseball usually works; then it converts those runs into expected wins, based on how baseball usually works. At each step along the way, it gets harder to be perfect, and the Royals demonstrate that challenge well. Some players did better than we expected; some offered incomplete data on which to project them; some were added to the roster at midseason; some found the right fit. None of us is arrogant enough to think that projection systems are magic; baseball is impossible to predict with the sort of precision that avoids situations like 2015 Royals. We all know we can’€™t outrun the bear

To sum this up, the projections are based off of projected numbers put up by each player on the team. If you calculate the players who will get injured or the players who will be acquired within the season, these numbers are bound to be off. In fact, as much as I use BP quite frequently during the season(the yearly projection book is normally right beside my desk), I also know that the projections are just that, not a definite. Just look at last year’s projections: only three teams were expected to win over 90 games. Yep, three total for both leagues. Instead, seven teams finished with over 90 wins while three alone were in the National League Central. So it becomes very obvious that BP’s projections are a starting point, not a literal interpretation of how the season will actually unfold.

World Series - New York Mets v Kansas City Royals - Game One
Game One of the 2015 World Series-October 27, 2015

Predictions are different than projections in that predictions are purely one person’s opinion. Projections you can actually go back and check the numbers and see how you ended up with the finished results. It’s like when you would show your math homework; if your answer is ‘C’, all you have to do is go back and look at ‘A’ and ‘B’ to figure out how you got to your final answer. Predictions are literally just guesses. Granted, these predictions hold more weight when it is a respected baseball analyst, but at the end of the day they are still guesses. I respect the hell out of guys like Ken Rosenthal and Jayson Stark, and both of them are around the game every day and are about as knowledgeable as they come in the game. But…their predictions are still just guesses. So why are fans, most notably Royals fans, getting upset that someone essentially has a different opinion than they do?

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This is where I laugh at the fan who gets visibly angry that analyst ‘x’ predicted that the Royals won’t get to the playoffs or that they won’t compete at the level they did the year before. To me, all predictions are guesses and more than anything are done for fun. Most analysts(yes, the Rosenthal’s, Stark’s and Gammon’s of the world) would even tell you their guesses are normally way off. So if we all acknowledge the fact that predictions shouldn’t be taken super serious, why do some fans get all worked up about it? The only logical answer is that they want an analyst(or you or me) to agree with them. There seems to be some underlying issue with people who view something like preseason predictions as the expected result and the end all be all of final answers. They are not. If anything, these last couple seasons have proved that with the way the Royals have gone out there and over-exceeded results. I couldn’t tell you if Kansas City used such “guesses” as bulletin board fodder or not, but I’m sure they were aware and promptly did what every other team did: go out and play the games.

MLB: JUL 22 Orioles at Royals
July 22 2013

At the end of the day, that is what it all comes down to; actually playing the games. You see, we can estimate what someone like Alex Gordon will do, and we might even be closely accurate, but the players have to go out there and actually play on the field. I am proud to say I absolutely love stats and I freely will admit to being a ‘stat nerd’, but I also realize that these are humans that go out there and play baseball. I say let all the ‘experts’ predict and project that the Royals won’t do this, or won’t do that. Let them say that they don’t hit enough home runs or make too much contact. Because if we have learned anything these last two years, it’s that this Royals team determines their own fate. The unpredictable is almost the norm for this team and that can’t be predicted. So remember that when more projections and predictions pop up soon; the numbers unfortunately can’t measure a player’s heart or will. It can’t predict a five run 8th inning or a mad dash to home with two outs. It can’t measure a team that has an out of this world defense and a cyborg for their closer. Love the numbers, but realize that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

 

The Little Hump in the Middle of the Field

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Many a quote from many a great baseball man has stated that nothing is more important in the game than pitching. If you have it you can make up for weaknesses elsewhere. If you don’t, then don’t expect to be playing in October.  The Kansas City Royals knew this and spent last off-season fixing their pitching problem. Pitching is still an issue with the Royals and this past week a couple of notes related to the Royals pitching arose.

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The most obvious note was the restructuring of Jeremy Guthrie’s contract. Sure, at first I wondered if there was a deeper meaning for Guthrie to restructure his dollars. Maybe he felt a greater need for shoes in 2015 rather than this year. Maybe the Backstreet Boys are planning to come out with a new album next year and he plans to follow them on tour. Speaking of, I don’t really understand his fascination with boy bands. I mean, if he was more old school, maybe more into New Kids on the Block, that would make sense. Hey, if he loved New Edition I would totally get it. I used to love New Edition, until Bobby Brown left and Johnny Gill took his spot. I know, I know, Gill wasn’t that bad. But he was no Bobby, as Whitney used to attest to…wait, I was discussing Guthrie…

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If you are anything like me, once this was announced alarms went off. Big alarms. You normally only restructure a contract for two reasons: to free up room on the payroll because you are over or to make another addition. My thought was the addition of another starting pitcher. With the Royals seemingly set in their starting lineup, it only makes sense that Kansas City would go after another starter. I’ve felt(even after the Vargas signing) that the Royals needed to add another starter, at least for insurance. For one, there isn’t a lot of proven depth. You have James Shields, Guthrie, Vargas and then….well, it gets dicey from there. Sure, the Royals are hoping Danny Duffy or Yordano Ventura step up this year (and as far as we know they could) but it’s not assured. Wade Davis is still lingering around and (God help us all) they’ve even mentioned giving Luke Hochevar another (last) shot. Still, none of these guys are certain locks nor good replacements for Ervin Santana. So the idea of the Royals going out and bringing one more starter to Spring Training seems like the logical way to go. Although, speaking of Santana…

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As of this writing Ervin Santana is still out there and available for the taking. The longer Santana is available, the better chance Kansas City has to bring him back. Now, most believe that Santana is just waiting for Masahiro Tanaka to sign with a team and then the dominoes will fall and Erv will have a new home. But at the same time, a lot of teams aren’t for sure Santana can duplicate his great 2013 season. Add in that to sign Santana you would have to give up a first round draft pick and more teams are leery to sign him to a long term deal. So far the Blue Jays, Mariners and Orioles have all been mentioned in rumors for Erv, but two of those teams seem like a bad fit for a flyball pitcher. So with all that said, there is a very outside chance that Santana could come back to play for the Royals in 2014. Now, it would take him not getting the type of deal he has coveted all winter, but it could happen. I’m sure if he did return, it would be on a one year deal (and Dayton would have to get permission from the Glass’ to up the payroll) for at least $15-16 million. It actually would make some sense for him to go back to the Royals. Let’s say he returns to Kansas City this year and performs at least moderately close to how he did last year. Then he could return to the free agent market and with two straight solid seasons under his belt could probably get the type of deal he has wanted this off-season. But once again, this is a big long shot and I highly doubt it will happen. As far as we know, a team like Toronto will swoop in this week and lock him up for 3-4 years. But the longer he is out there, the greater the possibility that Santana is a Royal in 2014.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Kansas City Royals

With all this being mentioned, Royals fans took a blow to the stomach this week as word came out that James Shields was seeking a “Zack Greinke-like” deal next off-season. Peter Gammons had reported this, as he was looking forward to next year’s pitching crop in free agency and the affects of Clayton Kershaw’s giant new contract. This is about the worst news the Royals could get, as that is money that the Royals just can’t spend on one player, even if that player is the caliber of Shields. Just as a reminder, Greinke’s deal is a 6 year, $147 million contract. Now, if you are like me, this hasn’t affected you much. I always felt the Royals weren’t going to be able to sign “Big Game James” so this was just confirmation that Wil Myers was traded for two years of James Shields. Now, there are warning signs that could hinder Shields being able to get a contract of that magnitude. For one, Greinke was 29 when he signed his deal; Shields will be 33 by the end of this season. Shields has also put more innings on his arm than Greinke has(although after the 2013 season they were fairly close on major league innings). But even if Shields lowers his expectations for his contract, it will still be out of the Royals price range. In theory it would be nice to bring Shields back after next year. But if you really thought about it, would you want the Royals to sign James to that big of a contract? More than likely it will have to be at least a four year deal, which would make him 37 by the end of the deal. At that point, regression would be his name(and game). Don’t be surprised if the Royals deal Shields before the trade deadline this summer if they are out of the playoff race. It would be the smart thing to do to at least get something for him rather than nothing. Even if they keep him for the duration of his contract, his time in Kansas City seems to be winding down.

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With all of this in play, it makes for a very interesting next 9 months.  Without a doubt the starting pitching will be a bit of a question mark and that looks to continue into next off-season. I personally feel that is just another reason to sign another starting pitcher now rather than wait until it is too late. Hopefully by Spring Training we have a better idea of who fits in where and whether there needs to be more concern about the pitching or if it sizes up with 2013. Stay tuned, folks…it’s starting to get interesting.

 

Missed Calls & The Battle for Instant Replay

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So you thought you had a rough week? Try being a Major League Baseball umpire. This week shone a giant light on the element of human error in the umpires and put more emphasis on instant replay. Let’s start with what went on in Cleveland Wednesday night.

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Adam Rosales of Oakland stepped to the plate against Cleveland’s Chris Perez with Cleveland leading 4-3. Rosales hit a blast to left center field and it looked like it hit off the railing in the seats and bounced back onto the field. The umpires called it a double, claiming it hit the wall. Oakland A’s manager Bob Melvin came out to dispute the call, and the umpires reconvened to look at instant replay. After viewing the video(which was blatantly a home run)the umpires came back and the double held up. Melvin was infuriated and rightfully so, as the umpires have more than one angle they can look at the play from and have more than one feed for it as well, with both the Oakland and Cleveland broadcasts available. Somehow, the umpires still felt the ball hit below the top of the wall. Melvin was eventually ejected from the game and Oakland would lose by that 4-3 score.

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Major League Baseball declared the next day that it was an improper call made by Crew Chief Angel Hernandez, but the call would stand. But the story doesn’t end there. How can you screw up instant replay, especially when it seemed so obvious what the call should have been? Peter Gammons seems to think this was done on purpose as an objection to instant replay. Make sure you click and read that column. WOW! Now, Gammons doesn’t ever just throw out accusations like that, as it just isn’t his style. So for him to go out in a public forum and say that must mean there is a lot of validity behind that statement. So some of the umpires don’t want instant replay? I’m not shocked, but in the end we will get more instant replay. But Hernandez’s gaffe wouldn’t be the only one by an umpire this week.

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During Thursday’s Angels/Astros match up, Houston manager Bo Porter decided to make a pitching change in the 7th inning. He brought in reliever Wesley Wright, while Angels manager Mike Scioscia decided to use a pinch hitter to combat Wright coming in. Porter then called for another reliever to counteract Scioscia’s move, bringing in Hector Ambriz. The problem is by major league baseball rules that is a no-no.   Rule 3.05b says: “If the pitcher is replaced, the substitute pitcher shall pitch to the batter then at bat, or any substitute batter, until such batter is put out or reaches first base, or until the offensive team is put out, unless the substitute pitcher sustains injury or illness which, in the umpire-in-chief’s judgment, incapacitates him for further play as a pitcher.” To make a tad bit simpler, if you bring a pitcher into the game, he has to pitch to at least one batter before you can take him out and put in a new pitcher. This was, of course, Scioscia’s argument and led to a long heated debate between himself and the umpires. There is normally a four man umpiring crew, yet all four men in blue believed Porter could bring in another pitcher without Wright pitching to a batter. Think about that for a bit. The four guys who are in the game to uphold the rules didn’t know what the actual longstanding rule was! Scioscia would then protest the game, as it continued and eventually the Angels would win in spite of this entire mess.

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Major League Baseball reacted fast again, suspending Crew Chief Fieldin Culbreth for two games and fining Adrian Johnson, Brian O’Nora and Bill Welke. This is almost uncharted territory, as very rarely do umpires get suspended, especially for just a missed call. Granted, this was no normal missed call. But it does show that Major League Baseball is paying attention and realizes that umpires should be punished for their mistakes, just like players and coaches are. But the hot button topic that these two miscues seemed to have elicited is instant replay.

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Instant replay has been maybe the most discussed topic in baseball circles for years now, yet we still see very little actually used during games. The most widely discussed argument is that the human element has been used for years and the percentage of mistakes an umpire actually make are few and far between. There is truth in that statement, but it ignores the main issue that keeps the topic from continually popping up: the actual mistakes. It seems odd that in 2013, with the technology that is available nowadays, that baseball still hasn’t adopted instant replay. When people at home can EASILY tell when a call is blown, it makes no sense to not use the technology out there and make sure the umpires get the call right. It’s as simple as putting a 5th umpire up in the press box and giving him a very short amount of time to look at the play and render a decision. Why it isn’t as easy as that is a completely different conversation.

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So why are we still waiting on Major League Baseball to adopt full blown instant replay? There are two factors. One, Allan H. Selig and the rest of the good ole boys that are the major league owners are very old-school and don’t want to change with the times. Look, I’m an open minded traditionalist when it comes to baseball, but just since Selig has been in office, baseball has added the wild card, started interleague play and added a bit of instant replay. So that reason shouldn’t fly. No, the real reason is money. It cost extra money for the equipment. It cost extra  money for a 5th umpire. The NFL spends about $4 million a year on instant replay, while baseball has ten times the amount of games football does, it would knock that cost well into eight figures. But the sad part is baseball can afford it. Look at the recent TV deals. Baseball is swimming in money, so they have no excuse not to pony up the cash and equipment and make instant replay happen. It makes the sport look bad when everyone else can see what they choose to ignore. Unless somehow they get some sick pleasure from their umpires screwing up calls on a nightly basis. If that is the case, we might be waiting awhile.

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