2004 Preview Part 1- Looking Backward, Looking Forward
Before discussing the 2004 edition of the Royals, the responsible critic must point out one thing: the 2003 Kansas City Royals were lucky. As was occasionally (thank you Rob Neyer) noted throughout last season, the Royals were getting outscored in aggregate (836 runs scored, 867 allowed), but still managing to win more games than they lost. Even more striking was the teams performance at home: finishing 40-40 despite being outscored 433-512.
Pause for a moment and think about that. Where did all those runs go? Hmm... 40-40 at home, bad guys touched the plate 79 more times than the Boys in Blue... how? Well, you see Will, baseball is a game of strategy, and obviously, you've got to know how to win close games and how to throw in the towel and let the scrubs soak up some playing time when it is out of reach. Tony Pena knew how to win close games, save his pitchers during blowouts and generally was capable of squeezing wins out of a very mediocre lemon. Mix in some 2-8 loses against a backdrop of lots of inspiring 4-3 wins, and you end up with a team that went 83-79 but was outscored 867-836.
Except, that didn't really happen either. The Royals, quite amazingly, don't even appear to be lucky/good/clutch along these lines, managing a to-be-expected .500 record in close games, extra inning games and blowouts (games decided by +5 runs). Overall, the Royals went 18-22 in one-run games, 25-28 in blowouts and 5-4 in extra inning games. In every other kind of game (i.e. "normal" not too-close, not too-tight games) the Royals went 37-27.
To be nice and clean, let's use a table:
1- Run Games: 18-22
+5 Run Games: 25-28
Games decided by 2-5 runs: 40-29
Again, this isn't in and of itself remarkable. What is remarkable is that the Royals a) won more games than they lost AND b) were outscored AND c) didn't exhibit the simplest explanation for A and B --- winning a ton of close games and being badly blown out here and there. Glancing at the game log, the really big blowouts (8+) also largely balance out as well.
Why does this matter?
Returning to the initial issue --- being lucky --- there just isn't any reason to believe that whatever it was that helped the Royals in 2003 is also something that can be counted on as a repeatable entity. Which, in a general sense is a good way of thinking about the concept of "luck". Tony Pena coasted to the 2003 MOY award, but there is not much evidence to suggest that the team's coaching staff did anything to account for their anomalous win total.
This being said, there is a danger in taking this luck theme too far. Looking towards 2004, it is important to remember that the Royals only out-performed their Pythagorean record by 5 games. The fact that this over-performance was made manifest in a certain kind of game (2-5 run games) is definitely curious, but also, really not indicative of anything going forward.
What is a predictor going forward is the run totals, and the Royals are over 100 runs behind the White Sox in that category (-31 to +76) and nearly as far behind the Twins (-31 to +43). Given that the Royals, in a luck-aided "miracle" season, still finished in 3rd place anyway, there is good reason to be cautious about the prospects for a central division title in 2004. Indeed, this is something of the consensus concerning the Royals in the analytical community. Crucially, the team's brass appears to realize this, and has taken significant steps to improve the team, resisting the seductive option of chalking the entire season up to pre-planned genius and "team chemistry" and hoping for a repeat (see Angels, Anaheim 2003).
Of course, in a more general sense, the team experienced lots of luck in 2003 that can be repeated: they still play in a very weak division (now minus Milton Bradley, hurrah for the myth of team chemistry), they got a season of positive development from many young players (Ken Harvey the glaring exception), Carlos Beltran hasn't been traded or injured yet, and they did some good work reviving fan interest in Kansas City.
Tomorrow, while watching the Opening Day games, I'll look at the 2004 roster, and offer my predictions for the season.
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