Royals, 2014 World Series: The value of building a team that’s just barely better than mediocre.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

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Oct. 20 2014 10:23 AM

Where I Was Wrong About the Royals

I underestimated the value of building a team that’s just barely better than mediocre.

Photo by Peter G. Aiken/USA Today Sports/Reuters
Kansas City Royals outfielder Terrance Gore celebrates with teammates after Game 4 of the ALCS playoffs against the Baltimore Orioles.

Photo by Peter G. Aiken/USA Today Sports/Reuters

This article originally appeared in FanGraphs.                       

Over the last few years, I’ve been pretty down on the Royals as a contender, most notably writing a pretty harsh review of their side of the James Shields trade. Then, before the season began, I stated that I didn’t see the Royals as legitimate contenders this year, even though they were becoming a trendy pick in the national media. And finally, on July 21, I suggested that the Royals punt on 2014 and trade Shields before he gets to free agency, given that they had fallen into third place and were seven games behind the Tigers in the AL Central.

Since that last piece was published, the Royals have gone 49–24, including their current 8–0 postseason run that has led them to the World Series. A moribund franchise has been rejuvenated, and the Royals have achieved the exact result they were hoping for when they made the Shields trade in order to speed up their timeline. If the Royals had listened to me at any point along the way, they probably wouldn’t be in the World Series right now, so it’s time for some self-examination. What did I miss? Is there a lesson to be learned here?

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To be clear, I’m not suggesting that when the results of the postseason don’t align with expectations that our expectations were clearly wrong to begin with. The playoffs—like most short tournaments between competitors of mostly equal stature—are mostly random, with the outcomes swinging wildly on things that simply couldn’t have been predicted in advance.

There’s a decent chance that the Royals don’t even make it out of the wild-card game if Geovany Soto doesn’t get injured on a play that began when Billy Butler screwed up a stolen base attempt. The Royals’ postseason run has been amazing, but it was also six outs away from not happening, and we don’t want to treat results that could have legitimately gone the other way as evidence that this was a probable outcome. Sometimes, the answer really is just that an unlikely event occurred.

But that can also be a cop-out. We can’t take every example of our expectations not being met as an unlikely event occurring without at least asking if we got the odds wrong. If we just write off all unexpected outcomes as randomness, we’ll create a bubble in which a false sense of our own understanding thrives without being challenged. The Royals’ World Series run doesn’t inherently mean that we should have all seen this coming and my analysis of their team over the last two years has been entirely wrong, but it’d be folly to not at least consider that possibility. Maybe this was randomness shining on the Royals, or maybe I missed something.

So, let’s see if we can figure out where my analysis could have been better. For instance, this assumption:

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Even with Shields, the Royals were still a mediocre team.

This was the crux of my argument when the trade was made; deals like that can be justified at times, when you have a very high likelihood of reaching the postseason—I’ve defended the A’s use of Addison Russell to acquire Jeff Samardzija because of their position at the time of the trade, for instance—but I didn’t think the Royals were a 90-plus-win team even with the upgrade. And I’m not sure that part was wrong. They won 86 games last year and 89 this year, and the 89 wins required outperforming their BaseRuns expected total by eight wins, the biggest difference in baseball this year. Since Shields was acquired, their BaseRuns winning percentage is .517, pretty much the definition of mediocre.

But while I think I can defend my analysis of the Royals’ talent level, that doesn’t make the overall argument correct. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen essentially unparalleled parity in MLB, and this year, we have a World Series matchup between two teams that made the playoffs via the wild card. In 2012, the Tigers got to the World Series with 88 regular season wins; in 2011, the Cardinals won it all after winning just 90 games. While better teams are still more likely to win out in the postseason, the structure of the playoffs gives a real chance to every team who simply qualifies, even if they sneak in via the wild card. So maybe I underestimated the potentially positive returns from being on the good side of mediocre.

After all, our calculations on when to make a bet shouldn’t just include the probability of that bet winning, but the magnitude of the results of each outcome. Let’s use a poker analogy to make this point.

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Let’s say you’re playing a hand of poker, and you’ve got four cards to a straight, with one card to still be drawn. This gives you about a 16 percent chance of making your hand on the final card and an 84 percent chance of going bust. Basically, you have about the same success rate as a pitcher hitting. You’re probably going to fail. However, let’s say the pot is at $1,000, and your opponent only bets $100. Now, even with the likelihood of failure being the overwhelming expected outcome, folding is a mathematically incorrect decision—to the extent that we’re covering all poker strategy in one analogy, which we’re obviously not, since this is just an example—because when the cards do fall your way, you win enough to cover all of the times you lost making that same play and still come out ahead. Betting on an expected loser can be a good play when the outcome is strongly positive when you do win.

I think it’s possible or even likely that I’ve been underestimating the potential rewards for being decent enough to have things break your way, especially for teams that haven’t been good for a long time. This playoff run is going to pay dividends for the Royals for years to come. It likely created fans for life out of kids in Kansas City who didn’t care at all about the Royals before a few months ago. The long-term benefits of this kind of run are substantial, and the Royals are likely going to generate more in future revenue from this playoff run than they would have saved by underpaying Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi for the next half-decade.

In other sports, where the value of a top draft pick is so much higher than it is in MLB, the correct decision is often to either be great or terrible, with mediocrity as the awful middle ground. Perhaps too much of that sentiment crept into my own thinking about the upside of building an 85-win team, because in today’s baseball world, 85 wins and a little bit of luck can turn a franchise around. I’ve argued against losing on purpose, but perhaps I’ve argued too strongly for wins in the 88 to 95 range and not strongly enough for wins in the 80 to 88 range. The win curve is a real thing, and some wins are more valuable than others, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve correctly evaluated the marginal benefit of pushing yourself from 82 to 86 wins.

Not every team in the Royals’ situation has this outcome, of course. I made similar comments when the Mariners pursued Robinson Cano last winter, for instance, and the Mariners’ wild-card run fell short, so they’re not getting the same benefit from their big bet as Kansas City did. But even then, with a failed wild-card run, the Mariners saw their TV ratings go up 20 percent this year, and they drew 300,000 extra people to Safeco Field. That creates real revenue gains for the franchise, which likely wouldn’t have been in place if the team hung around .500 or had yet another losing season.

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We’ve seen similar boosts for the Pirates and Orioles lately, two other franchises that got themselves back on track after long stints of losing and have rejuvenated their base of fans in the process. And neither of them had to win a World Series to do it. The Pirates haven’t even won a playoff series, and yet they’re still reaping the rewards of a couple of wild-card berths.

The Royals made a bet that I’ll still maintain was likely to not work out more often than not, but it’s quite possible (and probably even likely) that they did a better job of anticipating the potential returns to their organization if it did work out. And that has to be part of the calculation when deciding whether to exchange future value for a short-term upgrade. Given the parity in MLB and the randomness involved in the postseason, perhaps the goal shouldn’t be to build a great team anymore, but to build a decent team as often as possible.

The Royals could have waited another year or two to push their chips in and really go for it, and they probably would have had better odds of the move working out when they did so. Instead, they went for quantity in years of contention, and perhaps that’s the better model right now. Given what we know about the postseason, maybe it doesn’t pay to give up a couple of longshot years in order to move the needle a little bit more in your favor in the future.

I’ll still defend my position that the Royals overpaid for James Shields and that there were other paths to try to reach this same goal that could have been pursued. I don’t think we should throw away logical conclusions when unexpected results occur, and I’m not going to start encouraging results-based analysis. I still don’t think the Royals are a great team, and I’m not sure I was wrong about their moves simply pushing them into mediocrity.

But I think there’s a pretty good chance that I’ve underestimated the positive returns on mediocrity in Major League Baseball. That isn’t a goal to be derided anymore. The sport rewards it, especially if a few things break your way. The Royals put themselves in a position to take advantage of a few lucky breaks. Their decision isn’t any smarter because it paid off, but perhaps the size of the payoff should cause us to reconsider the relative costs and benefits of a decent but not great team going for it. While I think we’ve done a pretty decent job on the cost side of things, perhaps we’ve underestimated the upside.

I’m sure Royals fans wouldn’t trade this run to get Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi back. And maybe I need to do a better job of accounting for the upside of outcomes like this one.