PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’ “Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm,” once again forecast a disappointing year of baseball in Kansas City.
But this shouldn’t be a red flag for fans, as the system has greatly underestimated the Royals win total for eight straight seasons.
For a variety of reasons, advanced sabermetrics just hasn’t been able to understand the Royals. PECOTA has never once predicted the Royals to finish with 80 or more wins in each of the past five years, only to see Kansas City finish with 80 or more wins in five straight seasons.
Even in 2017, a disappointing season for everyone involved, the Royals finished nine wins above their PECOTA projection.
The most obvious example comes in 2015, when the system forecasted 72 wins for the Royals after the team’s AL pennant-winning season, only to see Kansas City race out to 95 wins and a World Series crown.
Kansas City’s 2018 team doesn’t figure to have the talent to outpace its total by a staggering 23 whole wins, but with the 2010-2014 rebuilding seasons as a guide, when the team exceeded projections by an average of 6 wins, the precedent is in place for KC to again exceed expectations.
The reasoning behind the system’s historical inability to predict the Royals is a complex situation with hotly debated thinking throughout the industry.
PECOTA was not designed to predict team success over a season, rather individual performances over a season. Its fundamental definition is to predict player performance based on comparison with historical player-seasons.
That means, it may have accurately predicted Eric Hosmer’s RBI total but when exactly in a game those RBI’s occur, it does not account for.
As the Royals have shown in the playoffs and even in the past two regular seasons, there’s always been a little bit of magic late in games.
While Hosmer may only finish a game with one RBI, the fact that it came in the 9th inning instead of the 3rd, leads to more wins and flaws in the system.
Hosmer really is the poster child for this, as the franchise’s playoff RBI leader has 34 career postseason hits, and somehow, 29 career postseason runs batted in. For whatever reason, his hits came in the most clutch of situations, something PECOTA does not put as much weight into.
Credit as well to teammates for getting on in front of him, as the entire team’s ability to maximize production in high leverage situations and score late in games is something the research side has undervalued for years.
Part of that ability to come through in the clutch comes from the winning team culture that was built in Kansas City in General Manager Dayton Moore’s ongoing tenure. Again, the metrics estimate individual success, not team success, something the Royals value very heavily.
The value of a strong clubhouse, with strong character guys that constantly promote a winning environment, has perhaps never been more underappreciated than it is now. But with perhaps many of those key figures gone in 2018, this advantage may slowly slip away.
Undervaluing younger players was especially true in the earlier years, but still holds true today as the team enters its second rebuild. PECOTA uses minor-league equivalencies to project MLB stats and comparable player changes over time to predict a player’s ascension as they get older.
While the system is in place for predicting how much of an increase in production each player will take in the majors, that’s easily the hardest thing to predict. Every player finds their groove at a different age. The margin for prediction error is generally larger for younger players, as it’s never a sure thing as to when and how they’ll respond to adversity, success or what the league throws at them.
The Royals will have a lineup of predominately unproved big-league commodities, and the system doesn’t predict breakout seasons for the likes of Cheslor Cuthbert or Jorge Soler. But, just as those two former prospects now enter the prime of their careers, Hosmer and Mike Moustakas were also two examples of late bloomers that found their stride at about the same age.
The architect behind it all has surprised many with one successful reclamation project after another.
PECOTA bases projections on past seasons and similar career paths, which has led to low projections for the likes of former Royals’ Kendrys Morales, Jason Vargas, Ryan Madson, Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana and so on.
Moore has also churned value out of in-house players that others couldn’t have predicted, like Wade Davis’ transformation from a below-average starter to dominant relief pitcher.
The Royals have consistently built their style of play against the grain, as the “Moneyball” style of getting on-base and walks became prominent, they looked for value in contact hitting and athleticism.
The projection systems very much favor the analytical style, and Kansas City has always been near the bottom of the league in walks and home runs, as many predicted. But the newfound value in other areas like contact, defense and bullpen pushed the Royals past many predictions.
Still, 2018 is a very different situation than any of the past four seasons.
Much of the core responsible for the team’s recent success will probably be gone and new players will have to defy the critics yet again.
But with two pennants and a World Series trophy to Moore’s resume, Royals fans should have some degree of faith that this trend of surprising success will continue through 2018.
Copyright 2018 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.