(Ed's note: Max Rieper is the managing editor of Royals Review. He is also a lawyer. However, possibly due to his Midwestern residency, he remains almost exclusively a charming, kind, and helpful lad. We are grateful to Max for taking the time of answer our questions.)
NB: The Royals' players are not, erm, quiet about their distaste for many projection models and advanced statistical analysis. As a writer with interest in the numbers of the game and in the way they advance our understanding is there any cognitive dissonance you experience rooting for the team? I mean I assume not because WORLD SERIES !!!11!
MR: Absolutely, winning cures all. But while the players are quick to dismiss stats (as most players do) I think the Royals get underrated in their use of analytics to win ballgames. Their success has come since they hired four highly qualified analysts headed by Mike Groopman. There is reason to believe that perhaps they have had a hand in molding the organizational philosophy, especially when it comes to maximizing the value of the bullpen.
The Royals have been confounding the projections for years now, to the point that even those behind the projections admit that the Royals do something the models can't quite capture, whether it be getting more out of their bullpen than any other team, using a dominant defense to prevent fewer runs that would be expected, or sequencing hitting with a high-contact approach that would lead to a greater offense than expected. Rather than attribute this to grit or heart or dumb luck, I think it is more likely the Royals are on the cutting edge of analytics and have discovered a formula that works for them. But it does confront some of us that grew up with "Moneyball" philosophies to face the fact that a team that doesn't necessarily fit our model of what a successful team should look like can still win ballgames.
NB: Ok, look, you guys win all the time now and you're super fun yay yay everyone is happy for you look at ol' George Brett what a fine gentleman. Can we please just have Grass Creek, WY now?
NB: How are you feeling about the Royals so far? Are there stark differences between the 2014-15 teams or is this the same "never strike out, single them to death, play good defense, chloroform them after the sixth with the bullpen" we've seen work so well the past two seasons?
MR:The core is basically intact from the 2014-2015 teams, so I expect the formula to still be the same. Despite overpaying for Ian Kennedy, the starting pitching is still underwhelming, yet they have been able to overcome that by asking their starters to go six, sometimes even just five innings, before handing things off to their bullpen. The signing of Kennedy was done primarily to give them someone that can go a bit deeper in games, even if his numbers weren't fantastic in San Diego, to give the bullpen a bit more rest.
The defense and bullpen, their strengths of the last two years, have the potential to be even better this year. They replace sleepy Alex Rios in right field with the speedy Jarrod Dyson, which gives them an unbelievably great defense of ballhawks out there. The bullpen loses Ryan Madson and Greg Holland, but gain Joakim Soria (who has struggled thus far but has an established track record) and a full season of Luke Hochevar, who has looked fantastic. They are also hoping moving Danny Duffy to the bullpen can give them another hard throwing relief options, and who knows, maybe Dayton Moore's magical bullpen pixie dust will work on Dillon Gee and Chien-Ming Wang.
The team has looked pretty good so far using that same formula, although there are concerns the offense will regress after many players - Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer - had career years last year. Cain has looked lost at the plate so far, but Hosmer has hit well and Mike Moustakas is looking like one of the best power hitters in the league.
NB: Where are Royals fans with Yordano Ventura these days? It feels like he's the classic "huge stuff, dominant in spurts, frustrating in others" young mega-talent we've seen with players like Taijuan Walker. He's off to a fairly good start in 2016, although the walks are certainly concerning. Is Kansas City still hoping for a top of the rotation pitcher there?
MR: Yordano was a mixed bag last year, although he underperformed his peripherals in the first half. While many credited his 24 hour demotion in July to turning his season around, it actually looked like he was just getting BABIP unlucky in the first half, with luck on his side in the second. He really ended the season strong, with a 3.10 ERA over his last 14 starts. That performance has carried over into this year, although his command has been a bit off at times. He seems a lot more composed this season, and has gone a whole month without any kind of confrontations with other teams, unlike last year when his immaturity got him into a mess seemingly every time out. Yordano still has electric stuff, so if he can stay healthy, we could see an All-Star season out of him.
NB: What, really, is the temperature of the fanbase right now? We as Mariner fans serve as a pretty good proxy for the "before" pic of the Royals fans but we really have no idea what to expect should this encouraging start play out and lead to playoffs and, god forbid, a World Series. What is it like in Valhalla, Max?
MR: In 2014, the feeling was "we're just happy to be here." Any post-season win was icing on the cake, and even though Game 7 of the World Series might have been a soul-crushing way to end the season, we all still had "golly gee, October baseball is fun!" looks on our faces.
In 2015, fans were much more serious about winning a championship, but when the team got off to such a great start and really coasted the whole season to a division title, there was little adversity to get through. The team was down and almost out in Game 4 of the ALDS, but the comeback was so swift, it hardly gave us time to panic. After that, a championship seemed inevitable at that point.
This year, you can definitely tell the expectations have changed. Fans expect a win every night, and even the smallest slump gets amplified. It is great to have a team with higher expectations now, but you sometimes wish fans would take the long view a bit and gain some perspective. But yes, having a great team is so choice. I highly recommend having one if you have the means.
NB: Let's close with a quick game I like to call "Royal or Mariner?" in which you tell me which uniform a certain player belongs in more:
MR: Willie Boom-Boom seemed to exemplify the Royals of the 2000s. They took scant resources and used it to overpay for replacement-level talent that exuded gritty veteran leadership. So while he had some endearing seasons in Seattle, he is the face of Royals baseball 2009-2010 to me. (Ed's note: Well holy shit.)
NB: Raul Ibanez
MR: Raul is a piece of junk we found at your flea market, like on American Pickers, and re-built into a nice artisanal apothecary table, to re-sell back to you for use in your living room for years. You're welcome. So he's a Mariner, but don't forget who gave him a fresh coat of paint.
NB: Kendrys Morales
MR: I don't get how Kendrys was so bad in Seattle, and so good in Kansas City. Too much coffee gave him the jitters? (Ed's note: No the problem was that he was the damn worst and I hate him.)
NB: Gil Meche
MR: Gil Meche is the founder of the Royals Dominican Academy, so he is a Royal for life.
NB: Jason Vargas
MR: Jason Vargas. I forget he's still on the team sometimes. He's a pitcher, right?