We love our sports forecasts here at FiveThirtyEight, but one of the things that make the games great is when a team comes along and takes prognosticators by surprise. So along with our Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players, we want to appreciate these unsung teams that nobody saw coming, in a series we’re calling the Little Teams That Could.
Before their magical playoff runs of 2014 and 2015, the Kansas City Royals had not exactly been a fixture in baseball’s postseason.
OK, talk about huge understatements …
Although K.C. had ranked among baseball’s best from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, the 1990s and 2000s were not kind to the franchise. Team cornerstones like George Brett, Willie Wilson and Frank White gave way to stars who didn’t stay long — Carlos Beltrán, Johnny Damon, Zack Greinke, etc. — and a host of lesser players who filled in the gaps. After winning the 1985 World Series, Kansas City missed the playoffs for the next 28 seasons in a row.1 And worse than merely being mediocre, Kansas City was almost always straight-up bad. From 1997 through 2013, the Royals finished better than 20th in our final Elo rankings just three times (19th in 2000, 18th in 2008 and 14th in 2013).
The mid-2010s weren’t supposed to change that. Though an impressive prospect pipeline and a surprising 86-76 finish in 2013 had raised expectations some, Kansas City was not viewed as a serious contender going into 2014. FanGraphs gave K.C. just a 2.7 percent chance of making the World Series, and the Vegas odds implied only a slightly better 4.7 percent probability. With few household names (did Alex Gordon, James Shields and Salvador Pérez count?) and no recent history of playoff success to call upon, there was little reason to think the Royals would suddenly turn into a powerhouse.
|2014 Odds to…||2015 Odds to…|
|Projection via||Make WS||Win WS||Make WS||Win WS|
And yet, the Royals started out steady in 2014 and exploded in the second half of the season — going an MLB-best 52-272 from July 22 onward (including playoffs). K.C. got an All-Star-level season (4.4 wins above replacement)3 from the late-blooming Lorenzo Cain in center field and an improved rotation, to go with manager Ned Yost’s core Royals formula: contact hitting, great defense, blazing speed and a lights-out bullpen. Kansas City made the playoffs for the first time since that 1985 championship and knocked off the A’s in an unforgettable wild-card game, then swept the Angels and Orioles to give themselves a perfect 8-0 postseason record en route to the World Series.
Granting that the postseason was expanded by an extra round in 2012, no team had ever won each of its first eight playoff games until the 2014 Royals visited the World Series, nor has it happened since. (The 1976 Cincinnati Reds won all seven of their postseason contests.) And they did it mostly out of nowhere. According to our Weighted Average Loss Total (WALT) metric, which looks at a team’s average losses per 162 games over the 20 preceding seasons — placing more emphasis on recent seasons — the Royals were the fourth-most-unsung pennant winner since the divisional era launched in 1969. And only one team in that span (the 1995 Cleveland Indians) had gone straight to the World Series on the heels of a longer playoff drought than Kansas City did in 2014.
|Most avg. recent losses||Longest playoff droughts|
Though the Royals lost to the dynasty San Francisco Giants in the Fall Classic, they came about as close as a team can get to winning without hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy — falling in seven games with the tying run stranded 90 feet away in the bottom of the ninth, after Gordon had delivered one of the most iconic near-game-changers in baseball history.
With that unfinished business in mind, Kansas City reloaded for another run in 2015. But despite coming off a World Series appearance, they carried only +3300 championship odds at the end of spring training, according to SportsOddsHistory.com — which was tied for just 18th-best in baseball. (After adjusting for the cut, +3300 odds would translate to a mere 2.2 percent chance of winning the World Series.) Since 1985, only two World Series teams were ever disrespected so much by the oddsmakers going into the following season: the fire-sale 1998 Florida Marlins (+8000) and the 1999 San Diego Padres (+5000).
|Year||Team||Prev. Season||Preseason WS Odds||Season Outcome|
|1998||Florida Marlins||Won WS||+8000||No playoffs|
|1999||San Diego Padres||Lost WS||5000||No playoffs|
|2015||Kansas City Royals||Lost WS||3300||Won WS|
|2006||Houston Astros||Lost WS||3000||No playoffs|
|2015||San Francisco Giants||Won WS||2500||No playoffs|
|2004||Florida Marlins||Won WS||2500||No playoffs|
|2008||Colorado Rockies||Lost WS||2200||No playoffs|
|2020||Washington Nationals||Won WS||2000||No playoffs|
|2012||St. Louis Cardinals||Won WS||2000||Lost LCS|
|2011||Texas Rangers||Lost WS||2000||Lost WS|
Most of the other teams on that list had good cause to be dismissed. The Marlins sunk to an abysmal 54-108 record a year after their 1997 championship, and the Padres fell to 74-88 after their 1998 World Series bid. But the Royals beat their odds yet again — this time, even more convincingly than before. They improved by six games in the standings, more than tripled their run differential from 2014 and had an MLB-high seven players named to the All-Star Game (thanks in part to some fun balloting shenanigans). Rather than regressing to the mean like most teams do after a meteoric rise, Kansas City just kept getting better.
(We should note that the statistical systems fared no better than Vegas in predicting the 2015 Royals — to the point that we wondered whether they had broken our beloved projection algorithms.)
And the Royals did it their way, playing small ball even as the rest of baseball moved away from that style. We can measure just how “Royals-y” the 2014-15 Royals really were by looking at their percentile rankings in contact rate, speed, and defensive and relief-pitching WAR,4 and adding them up to create what we’re calling an ESCOBAR5 Rating, after speedy shortstop Alcides Escobar (who perhaps most embodied the Royals’ brand of winning baseball). With an ESCOBAR of 397 (out of a possible 400), the 2015 Royals were indeed the Royals-iest team in baseball during the expansion era (since 1961), while the 2014 Royals’ 393 ESCOBAR ranks second on the list:
|1985||Blue Jays||Lost LCS||84||92||100||84||360|
|1967||White Sox||No playoffs||100||58||100||95||353|
|2017||Red Sox||Lost LDS||90||72||97||93||352|
|1964||White Sox||No playoffs||95||79||100||74||347|
|1966||White Sox||No playoffs||74||89||100||84||347|
Armed with more talent than the year before — like starters Johnny Cueto and Edinson Vólquez, and all-purpose icon Ben Zobrist — the Royals thrived again in the 2015 postseason. They outlasted the Astros in the AL Division Series, sprinted past the favored Blue Jays in the ALCS and finally took care of the upstart Mets in a five-game World Series, coming from behind to force extra innings in the deciding game thanks to a heads-up, aggressive base-running gambit by first baseman Eric Hosmer:
That play — Hosmer’s Mad Dash, as ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian later immortalized it in this oral history — represented everything special about Kansas City’s playoff runs in 2014 and 2015. Nobody saw it coming, and by the time they did, it couldn’t be stopped. “That’s what I’m most proud of, how aggressive and fearless [Hosmer] was,” Yost said. “He was not afraid to make a mistake. He played to win. He saw a way to win the game. That is what we do here — we play to win.”
When the Royals scored five in the top of the 12th inning and shut down the Mets with lights-out closer Wade Davis a half-inning later, Kansas City had gone from an out-of-nowhere playoff oddity to world champions.
“The way the Royals defied the projections is almost without precedent,” my colleague Rob Arthur wrote at the time, noting that Kansas City was no fluke, either — its core simply began playing better all at once, maximizing the potential of its playing style (and, like most champions, excelling during the most important moments). It didn’t last beyond 2015 — K.C. is currently mired in a five-year postseason drought — but for two magical seasons, the Royals were one of the quintessential Little Teams That Could.
Sara Ziegler contributed research.