Entering the 2015 Major League Baseball season the talk was that the Nationals and Red Sox were favorites to win the World Series. Fast forward six months and the Royals are crowned World Series Champions. How were the Royals able to accomplish their goals?
Here are how the two teams compared last season in runs above replacement level.
Using this lens, we see a league average offensive team that played great defense and used a great bullpen to cover for the lack of a starting rotation.
Does the league average offensive team that plays great defense sound familiar? That's been the basic formula the Rays have been using except, in this case, their pitching come with a strong rotation and highly volatile bullpen, not the other way around.
The Royals (-5.4 runs below average) and the Rays (-12.8 runs below average) are teams that are just a tick below average in offense, checking in at sixth and eight in the American League respectively.
While they produced similar runs the two teams got there in much different ways. The Royals use a league leading strikeout rate with less power to manufacture runs, conversely the Rays strikeout more but hit for more power. The Rays hit 28 more home runs than the Royals.
The Royals also have a more favorable offensive home environment than the Rays are afforded. The Rays and Royals both have a 95 factor for HR, but the Royals have an overall park factor of 101 versus the Rays at 96.
Missing from the Rays offense last season were several important bats: DH John Jaso, RF Steven Souza Jr, and LF Desmond Jennings barely played for the Rays, and pushing through pain, the normally consistent James Loney was not his self on either side of the ball in 2015.
Where has the Rays calling card gone? Even if UZR is not your cup of team, (second base and catcher are wonky with this metric) it works in this scenario of comparative performance.
Some of these failings can be attributed to injury, as the Rays compiled a disabled list to rival most starting line ups. Consequently, the performance in the corner outfield positions are quite glaring.
But the worst performing defensive positions for the Rays last season were first base and shortstop. These positions just so happen to be where the Rays have upgraded this off-season.
The acquisition of Brad Miller (+1.1 UZR/150 at SS over 2,235.1 innings) to replace Asdrubal Cabrera (-10.4 UZR/150 over 1,141 innings) should help shore up the middle infield defense.
As for first base, this was truly a dumpster fire in 2015 as James Loney struggled through a swath of his own injuries. Nine players played first base for the Rays for at least some time, and for his share, Loney did not perform up to his defensive standards posting a -5.4 UZR/150 over 815.1 innings. The other eight (Rivera, Shaffer, Nava, Krauss, Franklin, Dykstra, Forsythe, and Elmore) performed significantly worse posting a combined -16.1 UZR/150 over 638 innings.
Of the non-Loney group of players who occupied first base for the Rays, only prospect Richie Shaffer was remotely close to average defensively; he posted a -0.7 UZR/150 over 75.1 innings. Every other player performed worse than Forsythe who posted a -9.9 UZR/150 over 138.1 innings despite being a well regarded defender.
The Rays also acquired Logan Morrison who performed to his career norms posting a -3.1 UZR/150 over 1,104.2 innings last season, compared to his -3.5 UZR/150 over 2,621.1 innings. With this addition we shouldn't have to witness almost 400 innings of Rivera, Krauss, Franklin, and Elmore try to cover first base.
The Rays and Royals relied heavily on their bullpens to cover innings, and the the Rays actually got quality out of the innings their starters were able to throw.
The difference between the two staffs was equivalent to replacing Chris Archer (5.3 WAR) with a replacement level pitcher. The Royals averaged 1.6 WAR per 180 innings pitched compared to the Rays at 2.8 WAR per 180 innings.
To think, the Rays rotation put up those numbers without a healthy Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, or Matt Moore too.
The Rays and Royals have very similar K% and BB%s, but the problem for Rays relievers was giving up home runs.
After some early over-performing, the Rays bullpen was not a strength in 2015, but they have removed most of the under acheivers from the bullpen already: Grant Balfour, C.J. Reifenhauser, Brandon Gomes, Ernesto Frieri, and Kirby Yates combined to produce -2.1 WAR over 121.2 innings in 2015, and they're all gone.
The bullpen as currently constructed will have much more variance, but the upside in a Jake McGee, Brad Boxberger, and Alex Colome back end could rival other great bullpens in the league if they get some help from the middle and low leverage arms.
The Rays compared favorably to the 2015 World Series Champion Royals, and thus far, have kept the majority of the team together while upgrading their two worst fielding positions (starting short stop, back up 1B) and have a much better rotation to rely upon.
The relievers the Rays have might have a higher variance, but as currently constructed the Rays could be a more balanced team than the Royals had this past season.
The Rays do not have the advantage of playing in the AL Central, but if they can lean on their strong defense and starting pitching, this team already looks built for the playoffs.