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The Best Royals Team Ever Played Best When It Mattered Most

The Kansas City Royals seemed an unlikely champion in the preseason. One projection machine (PECOTA) forecast a paltry 72-win season for the team. FanGraphs predicted 79 wins and a 0.8 percent chance of winning the World Series.1 But after a dominating, 95-win regular season, the 2015 Royals not only won the World Series, they also became the best Kansas City baseball team in history.

The way the Royals defied the projections is almost without precedent. A composite of many preseason projections2 shows that the collective wisdom of the forecasters predicted that the Royals would achieve 76 wins, which they beat by 19 wins. From the 1996 season3 through 2015, only six teams (out of a total of 596) have beaten their projected wins by as much. The Royals didn’t luck into their performance, either; based on their offensive and defensive output, they should have been expected to win 90 games. From Lorenzo Cain to Edinson Volquez to Eric Hosmer, the 2015 Royals players seemed to all take a step forward at once.

Despite their projection-defying ways, according to Elo — FiveThirtyEight’s ranking system for MLB — the 2015 Royals aren’t an especially overpowering group. The maximum rating they achieved — 1568.7 — has been exceeded by 319 teams since 1901, putting them in only the 86th percentile. Roughly one in six teams matched or surpassed Kansas City’s best mark this year.4

But compared to other Kansas City outfits, these Royals excel. In only two seasons in the 47-year history of the Royals did a team achieve a higher Elo rating: 1977 and 1980. Neither of these seasons ended with a championship, though the 1980 team took the Phillies to six games in the World Series.

The most storied Royals team is probably the 1985 crew, which did take home a World Series win. Led by Cy Young-winning pitcher Bret Saberhagen and future Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett, those Royals defeated the cross-state rival St. Louis Cardinals to take the crown. But as even Brett agrees,5 those Royals fall well short of 2015’s version, with an Elo mark of 1546.4. More traditional measures including run differential and winning percentage agree with Elo in tagging this year’s Royals as the better team.

One area where the 1985 Royals team fared better was in the talent of its star players. Analysis of a multiyear average of wins above replacement shows the 1985 team beating the 2015 team substantially (in Elo terms, the ’85 Royals rated a 1567.9, versus 1551.1 for the ’15 version). Between Brett and Saberhagen, those 1985 Royals had the fourth-best pitcher and the third-best hitter in MLB that season.6

The 2015 squad doesn’t have a player on par with either of those superstars, but it does have a special skill. The 2015 Royals excelled in the clutch, posting a .349/.405/.450 line with runners in scoring position this postseason. Not only were their hits timely, they also came late in the game, when the stakes were highest. In fact, the team scored a majority of its postseason runs after the seventh inning. That’s especially impressive in the current era of reliever dominance and speaks to the tenacity of these Royals.

The same clutch factor that served the Royals well in October (and November) was foreshadowed during the regular season, as Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote. FanGraphs computes a measurement of high-leverage performance, appropriately called “Clutch.” By this measure, the 2015 Royals rode a high-contact approach to the most offensively clutch performance in franchise history, and their pitching staff was also the second-clutchest to ever wear KC uniforms. Overall, the champions were propelled by the fourth-clutchest regular season of any team since 1974.7

Although there has been some debate over the possibility that “clutch” is related to contact-hitting (a skill at which the Royals are historically adept), many sabermetricians look down on clutch performance as unsustainable.8 The Royals don’t have to sustain their performance under pressure anymore, though — there are no games left to be played. And while I would have bet against them continuing their clutch execution throughout the postseason, I would have been wrong.

So the Royals’ clutch performance isn’t likely to continue into 2016. But that shouldn’t matter to the 2015 World Series champions, or their place in history. These Royals combined a dominating performance (by Elo) with a World Series win and some of the most ferocious clutch hitting we have seen in the last 40 years. Here’s to the best Royals team in history.

Neil Paine contributed reporting.

Footnotes

  1. The projections overall had a bad year.

  2. Pulled together by Neil Paine from Vegas World Series odds, over/unders and PECOTA (when available).

  3. The first year for which the composite preseason rating is available.

  4. Accounting for the decreasing spread of team talent makes the Royals a little bit more exceptional, putting them in about the 95th percentile.

  5. Brett told The Kansas City Star that this year’s team would have beat his. “I really believe they’re a better team,” he said. “They have more depth throughout the lineup, they have better speed, defensively they’re better. We could beat them in some positions, but they’re a better ballclub.”

  6. Lorenzo Cain is the Royals’ best player, but he’s only about the ninth-best position player in baseball.

  7. This time window, which goes back as far as FanGraphs computes the Clutch statistic, covers most of the Royals’ history, since they were founded in 1969.

  8. Importantly, “unsustainable” is not the same thing as “lucky.”

Rob Arthur is FiveThirtyEight’s baseball columnist and also writes about crime.

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