You may be aware that before the 2015 season, the various projection systems didn't predict good things for the Kansas City Royals. In fact, at the media session before Game 1 of the World Series, Mike Moustakas was still grumbling about the preseason predictions.
Well ... the Royals may enter 2016 with the same chip on their shoulders. According to the projected WAR totals at FanGraphs, the Royals are the 20th-best team in baseball, below the Indians, White Sox and Tigers in the AL Central and projected as about a .500 team, give or take.
FanGraphs is well aware of this. As Jeff Sullivan wrote in an article last week, "No team has more conspicuously made us look silly than the Royals. ... For some, 'projection' is a dirty word, and for others there's just a certain skepticism. The Royals are the 'face' of this feeling, if that makes any sense, because after all, they're the defending champs, and they were projected to not be very good."
While FanGraphs has missed on the Royals to the tune of 30 wins over the last three seasons, they've missed on another by even more: The Pittsburgh Pirates have won 33 more games than projected. Two others have won 20 more games than projected: the Cardinals and Orioles. As Jeff writes, "It's not a coincidence that, the last three years, the Pirates rank first in baseball in bullpen WPA, and the Royals rank second. That doesn't explain everything, but it's amazing how many games you can win if you don't let late leads slip away."
WPA is Win Probability Added, which in the case of bullpens translates to pitching really well in clutch moments in close games. Since 2013, the Cardinals are fourth in bullpen WPA and the Orioles are sixth. So strong bullpens seems to have a correlation to exceeding a team's projected record, but bullpens can be volatile and difficult to project. You wouldn't predict Wade Davis to have an ERA under 1.00 because that's insane, but he's done it two years in a row. The Royals had great bullpens in 2013 and 2014 and were thus projected to regress in 2015; instead, the pen was even better.
Bullpens don't always explain everything, however The Yankees are No. 3 in bullpen WPA since 2013 and they've more or less matched their projected totals; the Padres have had good bullpens and performed worse than expected.
Anyway, I thought there might be something else that Jeff didn't mention in his article: Health.
Look at the Royals. In 2015, six of the nine regulars played at least 140 games. The only major injury in the lineup was to Alex Gordon. Omar Infante got hurt, but he was terrible and they brought in an upgrade in Ben Zobrist. They did have to shuffle around the rotation a bit but the rotation wasn't the strength of the team. In 2014, however, four starters made 30-plus starts and a fifth made 25. All nine regular position players played at least 130 games. In 2013, they had less stability but four regulars played at least 156 games and their top three starters all made at least 32 starts. The Royals haven't had much depth on the position-player side but they haven't needed it.
The Pirates have had more platoons and moving parts than the Royals, but in 2015, five regulars played at least 150 games; no other team had more than four. Like the Royals with Salvador Perez, they had a durable catcher in Francisco Cervelli, who played 130 games. Their top six starters, including trade acquisition J.A Happ, started 153 of 162 games.
As for the Orioles, they had five regulars play 156-plus games in 2013, plus catcher Matt Wieters (148 games) and another 146-gamer. In 2014, they won 96 games despite the injuries to Manny Machado (82 games) and Matt Wieters (26 games) and PED suspension for Chris Davis (127 games). Certainly a remarkable managing job by Buck Showalter, but six starting pitchers did start 161 of 162 games, so the rotation remained healthy, and it's amazing what can happen when you don't have dig into your seventh, eighth and ninth starting pitchers. Last year, the Orioles battled more injuries and even though the bullpen was terrific, they finished 81-81.
This isn't to suggest that the health records of these teams have been all that unusual (I don't know without a deeper examination). But health is a really another tool alongside hitting, defense, arm and speed.
Of course, projection systems account for the durability of players and the FanGraphs projection has Eric Hosmer, Moustakes, Alcides Escobar, Gordon and Kendrys Morales all batting at least 600 times, with Lorenzo Cain at 574 and Perez with 531 PAs. So in the Royals' case, the projection for 2016 isn't so much about health as ... well, the projections. Here:
Position players: 20.5 WAR (24.9 in 2015)
Starters: 9.6 WAR (8.4 in 2015)
Bullpen: 2.7 WAR (5.0 in 2015)
For the position players, FanGraphs has the Royals hitting .265/.318/.399 compared to .269/.322/.412 in 2015. Basically, it's not buying into the increased offense from Moustakas and Cain in 2015 and projecting both to regress somewhat in 2016. The Royals' bullpen WPA was even higher than its WAR, so I suspect this: If the bullpen is dominant again and Moustakas and Cain hold their gains from 2015, the Royals will be just fine ... assuming good health.