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Why the Royals will continue to outperform projections

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Ned Yost tells a story about Alex Gordon, meant to illustrate his affection for his left fielder and how Gordon turned his career around, but I think it reveals a lot about Yost, and in return, it reveals something about the success of the Kansas City Royals.

Gordon had been the second pick in the 2005 draft, a sweet-swinging third baseman from Nebraska unfairly hailed as the next George Brett. Gordon performed well enough his first two seasons but then struggled and found himself back in the minors in 2009. General manager Dayton Moore had hired Yost as an advisor, and there were discussions about what to do with Gordon.

Yost's logic was simple: "This kid was a first-round pick. You can't give up on him. If you're ever going to win here, you need him to succeed."

Gordon again scuffled at the start of the 2010 season and returned to Omaha in early May. Yost replaced Trey Hillman as manager a few weeks later. When Gordon returned to the majors in July, he was a left fielder. He hit just .215 for the Royals that season, but Yost kept playing him every day, and when the 2011 season opened, Gordon was still Yost's left fielder. Then Gordon had his breakout season.

Mike Moustakas was another first-round pick. He hit .263 as a rookie ... and then .243, .233 and .212. Eric Hosmer had his ups and downs after a strong rookie season. Lorenzo Cain was a .266 hitter through age 27, then he hit .300 the past two seasons. A lot of organizations would have sought new solutions or traded these guys.

"Dayton and I both had the same mindset," Yost told me recently while sitting in his office at the team's spring training facility. "We knew that if we had the patience, these kids would develop into players, into All-Star-type players, but we had to have the patience, we had to fight against the noise. That's why we got stuff like 'You're an idiot' and 'Dayton doesn't know what he's doing,' but I knew that if we stayed patient with these guys, that we'd put ourselves in a position somewhere down the road to win a championship."

Yes, that faith stemmed in part from the small-market status of the Royals. What other choice did they have? But it also came from Yost's own major league career, in which he spent parts of six seasons as a backup catcher.

"When I was playing, especially when I struggled, I always felt if you just leave me alone and let me work through it, I can work through it, but in those days they never left you alone," he said. "If you struggled for a couple days -- bam -- your butt was back on the bench. They never gave you an opportunity to work through things. I thought that was vitally important. You take a guy like Mike Moustakas. He's talented enough to figure it out, but he's not going to figure it out if you bail on him and put him on the bench, so you continue play him, continue to believe in him."

Sure enough, Moustakas made some adjustments to his swing last season. He finally quit trying to pull everything and hit .284/.348/.470 with 22 home runs. There's a good chance those numbers will improve in 2016. In the first half of 2015, Moustakas focused on going the opposite way and hit .297. In the second half, he hit 15 home runs and slugged .522. Given his contact ability -- just 76 strikeouts in 614 plate appearances -- his ability to combine power and average moving forward seems likely.

Yet the projection systems all forecast regression for Moustakas. They see 2015 as more of a blip than a new level of ability. The computers don't know about the changes he made at the plate. The computers see regression in the bullpen. They see a poor starting rotation. What they mostly see is a losing team.

Baseball Prospectus, a year after predicting the Royals would win 72 games, forecasts the Royals to be the worst team in the American League Central, at 76-86, with odds of making the playoffs at less than 10 percent. FanGraphs projects the Royals to go 77-85, the worst record in the AL. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS is a little more optimistic, predicting an 83-79 record. Joe Sheehan doesn't use a computer, but he takes an analytical approach, and he has the Royals going 80-82. Even Vegas had the Royals' over/under at 84.5 wins.

"We don't worry about what everyone projects about us," the always quotable Jarrod Dyson said. "They projected a lot of stuff about us, and we ended up in the World Series the past two years. Tell everyone that their projections do not matter over here on the Kansas City side."

At this point, Yost appears slightly exasperated. He has had to answer these questions the past two seasons.

"You go down the list of stats that people look at: they love walks, they love power, they love slugging percentage, they love OPS. But we're a different type of team," he said. "It's hard to quantify defense. It's hard to quantify a lockdown bullpen. We play in a huge park, so we know we're not going to sit back and mash, that we have to manufacture runs, and we know if we're a run ahead from the fifth inning on, we're probably going to win that game."

Of course, the projection systems attempt to quantify all of that. Yet they see a team likely to finish under .500. I believe the projection systems, once again, will be wrong. I've learned my lesson.

You read these things -- almost excuses to explain away the Royals' success. If only Bob Melvin had pulled Jon Lester earlier back in that wild-card game in 2014. If only the Astros' bullpen hadn't melted down. If only Jeurys Familia doesn't give up that home run to Gordon. If only Lucas Duda makes a good throw ...

Well ... sure. Except all of that did happen. Even if you chalk it up to the randomness that can happen in the postseason, consider this: The Royals lead the American League in wins the past three seasons, with 270, eight more than the Orioles. Can you have three seasons of good luck? Was it simply good fortune that the Royals won 95 games and outperformed their Pythagorean W-L total by five wins, that they outperformed their BaseRuns W-L total by 11 wins, a figure matched only by the Cardinals?

The computers say yes. The Royals, of course, say no.

"The intangibles we have are so strong that you can't always put a stat on it," Yost said. "The trust they have in each other. The chemistry they have in the clubhouse. The durability and will to win. They never stop competing or believing they can win that game. They all play fearlessly. They're not afraid of making a mistake. If you're afraid of making a mistake, you're not playing winning baseball."

The stat guys say that's just talk. Maybe it is. But with seasons of 86, 89 and 95 wins, the computers seem to be missing something.

"The cool thing about our offense is you don't hear anybody saying we're going to go out and hit 30 home runs or try to drive in 100 runs this year. It's all team-oriented offense, and that's why we're so successful and so successful against ace pitchers. I know we beat a tremendous amount of ace guys because our offense has truly bought into a game plan each and every day."
Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer

Maybe they're missing one of the hidden keys to the team's success: The Royals can hit fastballs. That's not a bold statement -- every hitter in the majors is there because he can hit a fastball -- but the Royals are especially good at it.

According to ESPN Stats & Info data, Kendrys Morales led the majors with a .385 average against fastballs in 2015 and ranked fourth in wOBA behind only Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson. Cain ranked fourth in the majors with a .368 average, and Hosmer sixth at .354. Against fastballs of 95-plus mph, Hosmer hit .400, third overall, and ranked first in woBA; Alcides Escobar hit .395; Moustakas hit .333.

The Royals were last in the AL in walks? OK, but they also ranked 27th in fewest pitcher's counts seen in the majors. What does that mean? Pitchers throw more offspeed stuff in pitcher's counts. Overall, they threw fastballs 54.4 percent of the time, but that figure jumps up to 59.5 percent on the first pitch and 63.5 percent in hitter's counts and drops to 46.3 percent in pitcher's counts. By avoiding deep counts, the Royals can see more fastballs. And they're good at hitting fastballs -- .319 as a team in 2015, 21 points higher than the Tigers, the No. 2 team.

"In our approach, we're swinging at every pitch like it's going to be a fastball, so when they do throw one we're ready for it," Hosmer said. "I think it's just about staying on the offense and staying on the attack."

This gets back to another Yost philosophy: Don't make his players something they aren't. "The thing that amuses me most is that two years ago, all everyone wanted to talk about was our approach. 'How come we don't take more pitches? How come we don't take more walks?' For me, if you're going to get the most out of your group, you have to let them be who they are instead of trying to mold their game."

This approach produced some good "clutch" hitting results in 2015. The Royals hit .269 overall but .281 with runners in scoring position, .286 with men on, .278 with two outs and runners in scoring position, and .297 when the game was tied (with corresponding improvement in more analytical numbers such as wOBA). In what Baseball-Reference.com classifies as high-leverage situations, they hit .284. Their numbers improved in all those clutch categories. The projection models would call that luck -- you can't expect the same numbers again.

Maybe not. The interesting thing, however, is that the Royals were actually less aggressive at the plate with runners in scoring position. Although they had the ninth-highest swing rate overall, that fell to 15th with RISP, and against fastballs, their swing rate went from third overall to ninth with RISP. One of the key plate appearances of the World Series came in Game 4 during the Royals' three-run rally in the eighth, when Lorenzo Cain worked an eight-pitch walk against Tyler Clippard to put runners at first and second preceding Daniel Murphy's error.

"The cool thing about our offense is you don't hear anybody saying we're going to go out and hit 30 home runs or try to drive in 100 runs this year," Hosmer said. "It's all team-oriented offense, and that's why we're so successful and so successful against ace pitchers. I know we beat a tremendous amount of ace guys because our offense has truly bought into a game plan each and every day."

All this doesn't get into the pitching staff, a staff without a No. 1-caliber starter. Even so, the Royals survived last year without an ace. They won 95 games, even though Edinson Volquez was the only starter to make 30 starts and Jeremy Guthrie made 24 starts with a 6.10 ERA. Volquez says he's a different pitcher after Ray Searage worked with him in Pittsburgh. Yordano Ventura is capable of improving his 4.08 ERA. Kris Medlen is a wild card, but he was a good pitcher for the Braves and looked solid in returning from Tommy John surgery last year.

They signed Ian Kennedy for $70 million in a much-maligned move. But Kennedy has made 30-plus starts six seasons in a row, the Royals believe he's a good fit for their park, and his strikeout and swing-and-miss rates were still high in 2015 (he ranked 21st among starters in miss rate, higher than Jon Lester, Carlos Martinez or Gerrit Cole). Yost said Kennedy has three quality pitches. Yost likes his command and likes that pitching coach Dave Eiland knows him from when both were with the Yankees.

Maybe the bullpen will be hard-pressed to repeat what it has done the past three years. Sure, it would seem impossible for Davis to post a sub-1.00 ERA for a third straight year, but Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar and newcomer Joakim Soria provide excellent depth.

"He's back to throwing the same jack when I first signed here, and he had 39 consecutive saves one year for me," Yost said of Soria. "His stuff might even be a tick better than it was then. We have four guys down there who can close on a lot of major league teams."

Then there's this admittedly most anti-sabermetric argument: This is a team that isn't satisfied with one World Series title. In one game I watched, Moustakas tried to beat a shift with a two-strike bunt. He bunted it foul to strike out, and you can argue the analytics of trying a bunt there, but the bigger point is that even in a meaningless spring training game, Moustakas was trying anything to get on base. On the morning I was in Surprise, the Royals were taking batting practice in the cages outside the clubhouse. Cain popped up one pitch and let out a loud expletive. Even in a morning BP session, some 10 days before the start of the season, missing a pitch was enough to create that burst of frustration.

"They know they have the ability to make history," Yost said. "They want to make history, and they love playing together, they love our fans in Kansas City, they love the city of Kansas City, they saw the party we had last year.

"Not only do their play their hearts out for each other, but they play their hearts out for our fans. It's not about the money -- it's about the winning, and that's why we're successful. We don't have one selfish player on our team. We don't have one player who is worried about his contract. They only worry about, 'Can we win today?'"

That parade drew an estimated 800,000 fans in a city with a population of 467,000.

"We'll try to bring 2 or 3 million this time," Dyson said. "You see something like that, you gotta want it again."