Royals and Spiders
Now, of course, we are dealing with a small sample size — you should always make the small sample size point when you are talking about barely a quarter of a baseball season — but I still want to show you something:
The Cleveland rotation has a 3.49 FIP. For those of you who have forgotten or never cared to know, FIP — Fielding Independent Pitching — is essentially an ERA based entirely on the three things that many believe are greatly within a pitcher’s control: Walks, strikeouts and home runs.
The Spiders lead the world in strikeouts, and they are right around league average when it comes to walking hitters and allowing home runs. Because of this, the Spiders staff has the lowest FIP in the American League — more on this in a minute.
And, yes, I know that you didn’t read any of that because I kept calling them “Spiders.” I’m just trying it on for size.
So the Spiders have a 3.49 FIP.
The Kansas City Royals have a 3.85 FIP. This is still pretty good, but obviously not AS good. Cleveland leads the American League … the Royals are sixth in the league.
Now, let’s look at offense — again using FIP. So once again, we are only talking about walks, strikeouts and home runs.
Best I can tell doing some quick calculations, the FIP against Cleveland is 4.34.
The FIP against Kansas City is 3.91.
In other words, Cleveland hitters walk more than the Royals (they actually lead the league in walks), and they homer more than the Royals. Kansas City strikes out less than Cleveland or any other team in baseball, but all in all by Fielding Independent Pitcher numbers Cleveland has both:
(a) a more effective pitching staff and
(b) hitters who are winning the pitcher-hitter battle more often.
And yet, somehow, Kansas City is WAY BETTER than Cleveland. It’s not even close. The Royals have the best record in baseball at the moment and Cleveland has among the worst.
— The Royals have scored 28 more runs.
— The Royals have allowed 52 fewer runs.
— The Royals have a plus-69 run differential while the Spiders have a minus-11.
— The Royals have a nine-game lead over the Spiders in the American League Central.
Is this Spiders thing distracting?
So what gives? I’ve been thinking about this a lot since my buddy, Chardon Jimmy, went through the Cleveland and Kansas City 25-man rosters and basically determined that, player-for-player, Cleveland’s talent was every bit as good. I’m not sure I can go with him all the way on that one, but I will say that Corey Kluber is better than any Royals starter. By those FIP numbers I mentioned earlier, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer are also better than any Royals starter.
I said above that I had something to add about FIP — the Cleveland starting rotation FIP is 3.26, best in the league. This is because they, as a group, strike out 10 batters per nine innings and have a crazy four-to-one strikeout to walk ratio. Those are legendary numbers — it’s likely that no starting rotation has ever been that overpowering.
On the offensive side, I will agree that Michael Brantley is ridiculously great, I don’t think I would trade him straight up for any Kansas City player. And Jason Kipnis is a fantastic player having another fantastic year — the Royals don’t have anyone hitting the ball the way he’s hitting it overall. Of course, those are only two players.
Which leads to the obvious statement: Baseball is more than FIP, and it’s more than having a couple of top-end hitters. If Moneyball made so many of us fall in love with the idea of hitters who walked and pitchers who stuck people out, Daytonball can help us fall in love with hitters who do not strike out and fielders who go out there and catch baseballs.
Of course, that’s oversimplifying the differences between Kansas City and Cleveland. But what the heck — let’s oversimplify.
The defensive contrast is striking; it seems to be the biggest difference between the two teams. By John Dewan’s runs saved statistics, the Royals defense has saved the team 33 runs while the Spiders defense has cost the team 22 runs.
That’s a 55-run difference which, you will note, is almost exactly how many fewer runs Kansas City has allowed this year (52).
But let’s break it down a little bit more.
Kansas City this year has allowed 1,076 balls in play — and they have turned 796 of those into outs. That’s 74% of the balls hit become outs. That’s fantastic, the best number in baseball.
Cleveland this year has allowed just 981 balls in play — so they’ve allowed 100 fewer balls in play than Kansas City. It’s one of the lowest totals in baseball. But the Spiders have turned only 658 of those balls into outs. That means they’re recording outs only 67% of balls in play, the lowest percentage in baseball.
Is this all defense or is part of it that when Cleveland pitchers do allow balls in play, they allow harder-hit and better-placed balls than anyone else? Yeah, I suspect it’s mostly defense: Cleveland is a TERRIBLE defensive team by almost any measure you can use. If you want to use the old fashioned error-based system, Cleveland has allowed 20 unearned runs this year, second-most in the league behind Oakland. Kansas City has allowed nine unearned runs.
If you want to use Total Zone numbers, the Royals are 29 runs better than average. Cleveland is 27 runs below average.
If you want to use UZR — Ultimate Zone Rating — the Royals are by far the best defensive team in baseball (28.7 UZR) and Cleveland is among the worst (-11.1 UZR).
We talk often about the difficulties of quantifying defense, but I think the technical way to say it is this: The Royals are super good at catching baseballs and the Spiders are mega-stinky.
Then there’s the offensive side of things: I have spent about as much time as anyone lamenting the Royals’ consistent and frustrating inability to draw walks. I’ve written this before: The Royals have been below league average in walks every single year for 25 years. Every year. They finished last in the league in walks last year and are so far last this year. They just don’t draw walks and, to be honest about it, I’ve never really believed they were even trying. Royals manager Dayton Moore has made a point of saying he sees the value of walking, but (and I say this with affection) I think he’s just said that to shut people like me up.
In truth, I think Moore has always believed much more in putting the ball in play. I think he believes that putting balls in play creates tension for the defense, gets the action going, puts pressure on teams. He’s consistently gotten players who put bat on ball, players who don’t strike out too much. He has always been somewhat enamored by Omar Infante, who has had that bat-hit-ball knack, and he has been a believer in the offensive potential of Alicides Escobar because of his ability to make contact, and so on.
This year, like last year, the Royals have struck out much less than any team in baseball (their 225 strikeouts is 22 less than Atlanta and 100 plus less than their rival Detroit Tigers). And it just so happens that wWe live in the age of the strikeout — hitters, as you know, are striking out much more than ever before —and the Royals figure that putting the ball in play more than any other team is a winning strategy.
And it’s working. The Royals lead the league in batting average, are second in runs scored, second in doubles, second in triples and tops in slugging percentage even though they don’t hit home runs.
Now, you could argue — and many would argue — that they have been extremely hit lucky so far this year. Their .322 batting average on balls in play is second only to the Tigers. Meanwhile Cleveland’s .287 batting average on balls in play is much closer to the bottom. Are the Royals just having a lot of balls drop in, bleed through, plop over? Is this a sustainable pace?
I don’t know … but I’m not really questioning it anymore. The Royals seem to hit the ball plenty hard. They have a lot of extra-base hits. And, at some point, you start believing what you see. Look, I don’t believe it’s possible for a guy like Mike Moustakas, almost overnight, to learn how to hit the ball the other way but, dammit, he’s hit 100 balls already this year up the middle or to left field, that’s double what he did ALL LAST YEAR. He had two opposite field hits last year, he has 14 this year. This feels miraculous, like some sort of X-Men green screen thing, but like I say, at some point you have to believe what you see.
I think the Royals play the game this way: They will put the ball in play more often than you do. They will reach more balls than you can an turn them into outs. And they will shut down the late innings with their absurd bullpen, led by the indomitable Wade Davis who has allowed one extra base hit (a double) all year.* I just can’t find a whole lot to doubt about that strategy right now.
*Wade Davis has not allowed a home run since August 24, 2013. I say that reluctantly, knowing that people are always ready to jump on the stupid “You jinxed him” meme, but this statistic is so ridiculous that he deserves special mention. Wade Davis was not particularly skilled at avoiding home runs when he was a starting pitcher. He gave up 64 home runs in 513 innings, which ain’t all that great. Put him in the bullpen, give him one inning to pitch, and he turns into Bugs Bunny.
I liked that Cleveland team a lot before the season began. Cleveland might have more a more dominating starting rotation than anyone, but the Royals more than make up for this with the genius of Lorenzo Cain in center field and generally above average defenders at every single position. Cleveland might have a couple of terrific hitters in their lineup (and I expected more from Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Moss) but the Royals batter you with nine guys who put the ball in play and stretch your defense.
Yes, the season is only a quarter done, and a lot will happen between now and October. Still: the other day, I saw that Las Vegas oddsmakers have now made Kansas City the favorites to win the World Series. That’s a long way off. But, I had this strange thought when I saw it. Seriously, at this moment, who else would you bet on?