The Royals 2021 season met expectations

The road the Royals traveled was wild in the season's first half, but when they settled down and reached their destination, the final win total felt right.

Just ahead of Opening Day, I predicted the Royals would win 77 games. It was an admittedly optimistic number, but one that seemed within reach. They finished with 74 victories, so while I didn’t hit the mark exactly, it does feel to be within the margin or error.

It’s how the Royals got there that was wild. They sprinted out of the gate and found themselves in first place as late as May 5. They did so by winning 15 out of 24 games in April, a .625 winning percentage that translates to a 101 win pace. What the San Francisco Giants did this summer means we have to put the “you saw the decline coming” comments on ice for a bit, but the writing was in fact on the wall. The Royals were outscored in that winning April by two runs—they tallied 105 runs, their opponents 107.

Sure enough, the patented Royals extended losing streak started just a day into the month of May. Despite losing 11 in a row, they still finished the month with a .500 record with 26 wins and 26 losses. Those first two months provided a microcosm into their 2021 season. They weren’t as good as they played in April, nor were they as poor as they played in May.

A mini five-game winning streak pushed them back over the .500. mark in early June, but they immediately gave those gains back, losing 11 of 12 and never had a winning record after June 8.

As bad as May was, June was worse. Much, much worse. But then something strange happened and it probably flew under the radar. The Royals gradually started playing a little better. While Mike Matheny was promising “something special” in the season’s second half, the Royals instead just kind of played like a functional baseball team. They finished with a .500 record in each of the season’s final three full months. From July 1 to September 30, they went 40-40. They scored 346 runs and allowed 376, a -30 run differential that indicates that they probably caught a few breaks to get to that .500 record over that span. In fact, they never had a month in 2021 where they scored more runs than they allowed.

The danger (or perhaps more accurately, the fear) of closing out the season like this is it can warp the expectations for the coming season. The Royals have fallen into this trap before where a strong September closing kick serves as a basis for not-quite-enough change. But this time around, the Royals are in a position where change isn’t about a new mix of personnel. Change is about the improvement of the young players (specifically the pitchers) already in the majors and the arrival of various minor leaguers.

Back to this season, PECOTA projected 71 wins for the Royals. I know, I know. Personally, I feel PECOTA is cautious for almost every team, underselling the better ones and tacking on a few too many wins for the chronic underachievers. The result is a kind of lumping together of the entire league with not much separation, except in a couple of extreme cases. ZiPS has a bit more optimistic for the Royals, projecting 77 victories.

If you were the gambling type, Vegas generally had the Royals over/under on the victory total at 71.5 games when the betting opened. That line shifted quite a bit. That was the preseason optimism. Bovada closed at 74.5. (Sorry if you got your bet in for the over late. That’s a bad beat.)

Based on their final run differential (686 runs scored and 788 runs allowed), the Royals Pythagorean win-loss mark was 71-91. So they finished three wins better. Maybe you can chalk that up to good fortune. I’ll mark it up to being again within the margin of error. The runs scored and runs allowed is a simple snapshot into what needs to improve. The short answer: everything. Everything needs to improve. The lineup needs to get better beyond the top three or four hitters. The starting pitching needs to improve, especially when navigating that tricky first inning. And the bullpen needs to find a little more consistency in closing out games.

As the offseason unfolds, it will be interesting to see the Royals’ plan. Will they buy into their record over the season’s final half, or will they see beyond the wins and losses? They definitely possess an analytical bent in the front office they may have lacked previously, so I would bet on the latter. That would be very promising for the future of the organization.

The consensus for the Royals’ season was a win total somewhere in the mid-70s. They hit that mark. Expectations may have fluctuated wildly based on outcomes in the moment, but once the dust settled on 162 games, they finished about where most everyone expected them to. The season has a way of doing that.

As noted on Monday, this was the third year in a row where the winning percentage improved. Meeting expectations are fine, but improvement is expected. We just finished the fourth year of the rebuild. The minor league player of the year is ready for his major league debut. The pressure only builds from here.

The not-so-wild AL Wild Card game

Tuesday night’s Yankees-Red Sox tilt was just kind of…OK? That’s phrased as a question because, even though I watched the game as a largely impartial viewer, it just didn’t seem to have that drama that a winner-take-all postseason game usually packs. The Red Sox banged Yankee starter Gerrit Cole around in the first three innings and cruised to a 6-2 victory. The outcome never seemed to be in doubt.

Large credit for the extraction of the potential tension goes to Nathan Eovaldi who, for 5.1 innings, absolutely shoved. His fastball was humming along at the upper 90s and, as I’m certain Mike Matheny noticed from the comfort of his home, the command of the pitch was spot-on. Added bonus: He was throwing it about 1.2 mph faster than his seasonal average. The four-seamer was complimented by a curve the Yankees couldn’t touch and a slider that kept them guessing.

A reminder that this is October: Eovaldi was lifted after 71 pitches and allowing a home run around the Pesky Pole to Mike Rizzo a batter prior. You’re going to hear a lot about the Times Through The Order penalty this month and indeed, Eovaldi had just made that turn. I get it, and Giancarlo Stanton had made good swings all night and was due up. It took an amazing defensive relay and a boneheaded decision to send Aaron Judge in an attempt to score from first on a Stanton single.

Once that happened, whatever drama had been left was effectively excised from the game.

I’m glad. Even though I personally don’t care for the Red Sox, my disdain for the Yankees runs deep. Plus, I really didn’t want to watch a series where they popped fly balls into that right field jet stream in their corporate stadium.

Now the ALDS is set. The Sox will face the Rays and the Astros will play the White Sox.

I already miss the Blue Jays.