Is Royals' Shocking 2014 Rise a 1-Year Wonder or the Real Deal?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterOctober 28, 2014

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Down 3-2 to the San Francisco Giants, the Kansas City Royals could lose the World Series Tuesday night. Either that, or they'll fight back in Game 6 and decide their fate Wednesday in a Game 7.

What's true either way is that the Royals' dream seasonone that began on the heels of 28 straight October-less years and will end in the World Series—will soon be over. So let's get a jump on the question that will soon be on everyone's mind:

Have we witnessed the start of something big, or will the Royals' 2014 season prove to be a fun-while-it-lasted one-year wonder?

The easy answer involves pointing out that the Royals are in the World Series. Only elite teams make it that far. Elite teams don't happen by accident, nor do they vanish overnight. 

But that's the thing about the Royals. It's only recently that they've become an elite team, and them remaining as such hinges on a repeat of the formula that made it possible.

And that leads us to two more things: The Royals' formula is a tenuous one, and it will not be easy to repeat.

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In the first half of 2014, the Royals were just 48-46. And they might have overachieved slightly, as their expected win-loss record (per Had2Know.com) based on their runs scored and allowed was 47-47.

But then the Royals snapped out of it with a 41-27 record in the second half. That surge pushed them to 89 wins, but it would have been a 98-win campaign, over a full season.

Did something click? No. A lot of things clicked.

Kansas City Royals Pitching by Half
HalfStarters ERARelievers ERA

Jeff Sullivan looked into it at FanGraphs and found the Royals did more after the break than simply get over their Clash of Clans addiction. Their starters, relievers and defense all improved, and their offense avoided going from bad to worse.

The Royals have stuck to this formula in October. They've benefited from some extra offense, but their starting pitching has been good enough otherwise, and they've outclassed everyone with their relief pitching and defense. Much to our viewing pleasure, of course.

But you know how the expected win-loss record wasn't so sure about the first-half Royals? Well, it's even less sure about the second-half Royals.

Though the second-half Royals rode their formula to a 41-27 record, their expected win-loss record puts them at more like 37-31. Still good, but not great.

This is not to suggest the Royals couldn't win 41 games if they were to go back and try it all over again. They needed things to go their way in close games, but they're indeed designed to have things go their way in close games.

However, that disparity should go to show that the Royals' formula doesn't come with much of a margin for error. For it to work, things need to be just right.

In itself, that makes it a flimsy formula for consistent success. And if we look at how the Royals are shaping up going forward, the flimsiness becomes even more real.

Among the more pressing matters at hand is the future of James Shields.
Among the more pressing matters at hand is the future of James Shields.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

One area where things aren't necessarily grim is how Kansas City's lineup is shaping up for 2015.

The Royals stand to lose designated hitter Billy Butler (assuming his $12.5 million option is declined) and right fielder Nori Aoki to free agency, but either or both could be brought back on affordable deals. If they are, the 2015 Royals lineup will look exactly like the 2014 Royals lineup.

That would work fine from a defensive standpoint, as Royals skipper Ned Yost would keep getting solid right field play out of Aoki. And at the least, it would keep the Royals' power- and OBP-challenged offense from getting worse.

The Royals offense actually improving in 2015 would then become a matter of in-house options stepping up. To that end, there's an obvious candidate: Eric Hosmer.

Hosmer has indeed looked like a different hitter this postseason.
Hosmer has indeed looked like a different hitter this postseason.Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Hosmer has a 1.057 OPS this October, and FanGraphs' Drew Fairservice argued at Fox Sports' Just a Bit Outside that the 25-year-old first baseman's "new swing, a more mature outlook and invaluable experience" are reasons for optimism. 

But while Hosmer's bat could elevate Kansas City's offense, it's also possible it will only come in handy mitigating losses.

If Butler leaves, Lorenzo Cain will be the Royals' only dangerous right-handed batter. And if Cain's batting average on balls in play declines from .380, he may not be so dangerous either way.

If Aoki leaves, the bonus of having Jarrod Dyson's defense in center field would likely be cancelled out by him being exposed to left-handed pitching more often.

And no matter what happens, the Royals aren't leaving the offense-suppressing environment of Kauffman Stadium. Take that with the other issues, and their offensive ceiling probably isn't destined to budge any higher.

That means they'll need to continue to get the kind of pitching they got in the second half of 2014. And that could prove to be a challenge.

Obviously, there's the James Shields conundrum. The veteran right-hander will be a free agent this winter. And though his lousy postseason could make it easier for the Royals to re-sign him, Shields' pricetag will likely still be too big for the eternally cash-strapped Royals.

"We're not going to be big players on the free agent market," Royals general manager Dayton Moore recently granted to Bob Nightengale of USA Today. "We just aren't. We'll take our shot now and then like we have in the past, but it's got to fit in with the current group of talent."

Replacing Shields would mean replacing a guy who pitched 227 innings in 2014. Regarding the Royals' second-half formula, it would mean replacing a 2.62 ERA over a rotation-high 96.1 innings. Basically: lots of quantity and lots of quality.

Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas can eat innings, but the best hope the Royals have of filling Shields' shoes is by Yordano Ventura or Danny Duffy stepping up. And as talented as they are, that's asking a lot.

Ventura has the stuff to be a No. 1 starter, but his 4.3 second-half walks per nine innings is reflective of how he's still more of a thrower than a pitcher. Duffy's 2.23 second-half ERA says he has what it takes, but his 6.4 second-half strikeouts per nine innings is reflective of how he's not as overpowering as he should be.

Either Ventura or Duffy achieving ace status in 2015 will thus require a decent-sized leap. And be it in 2015 or beyond, talent can only do so much to make a guy an innings-eater of Shields' caliber. That Ventura and Duffy have both had their aches and pains throughout 2014 is no comforting thought there.

Elsewhere, there's the bullpen that was so incredibly good in the second half. That happened largely because Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland were simply unreal, each posting a sub-1.00 ERA while combining to give up zero home runs.

Whether the HDH trio can do that again, however, is absolutely in question. 

Kelvin Herrera, in particular, looks like a real regression candidate.
Kelvin Herrera, in particular, looks like a real regression candidate.Elsa/Getty Images

That only nine relievers in history have ever posted an ERA of 1.00 or better over a full season says enough about the likelihood of the HDH trio repeating their second-half excellence.

Beyond that, it doesn't help that ERA estimators like FIP, xFIP and SIERA suggest there's some regressing to be done:

Herrera-Davis-Holland in the 2nd Half
Wade Davis3432.10.871.561.380.84
Kelvin Herrera3031.02.453.012.950.58
Greg Holland2927.21.542.482.130.98

The job of these metrics is to determine what a pitcher's ERA should have been based on things within his control. And while indications are that Davis is actually that good, Herrera and Holland's results were a little too good.

There's also the workload concern. Knowing that Shields is a likely goner and that the HDH trio went from handling 43.0 percent of Kansas City's relief innings in the first half to 45.5 in the second half to 63.1 in the postseason, one or all three of them simply being burned out by the end 2014 is a very real possibility.

All told, it's like this: The Royals' rise to super-contender status in the second half was built on a very precise formula, and there are reasonable doubts as to whether the precision of that formula can be repeated (i.e., more of the same pitching) or suitably altered (i.e., more offense) in 2015.

Now, sure, the Royals don't necessarily have to succeed in 2015 to validate 2014. If they go on to great success in 2016 and beyond, a fall from grace in 2015 will look like a mere blip on the radar.

And there are reasons for optimism with the Royals' long-term future. Brandon Finnegan, their first-round draft pick in 2014, is already a candidate for the 2015 club. Kyle Zimmer could also be along soon. After him could come Sean Manaea, Raul Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier.

Exactly what the Royals will be working with if and when these guys arrive, however, is a good question.

The best player the Royals have is Alex Gordon, and he's likely not far off from his decline years with his age-31 season due up in 2015. At age 32, Omar Infante's decline seems to have already begun. And as much as he seems like a bright young star, Cain is already 28 with a messy track record of injuries.

The Royals might also be headed for a financial mess. Jeffrey Flanagan of Fox Sports Kansas City has already noted that keeping Davis and Holland on the payroll will be tricky, and the Royals will have some tough decisions to make as Duffy, Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain all approach free agency after 2017.

As such, the Royals' long-term future isn't unlike their short-term future. Things will need to line up just right, and it won't be easy to make it happen.

None of this is going to result in me calling what the Royals have done in 2014 a fluke. That implies that they have mainly good luck to thank for their surge, which is doing a huge disservice to the kind of talent Moore arranged for Yost.

But I don't know about the start of a dynasty. Rather than the start of a new path, the Royals' 2014 season looks like the reward at the end of a very long path.

It's a good thing that one is just as worth celebrating as the other.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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