Where do the 2024 Kansas City Royals rank among the all-time turnarounds?

May 11, 2024; Anaheim, California, USA; Kansas City Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. (7) celebrates
May 11, 2024; Anaheim, California, USA; Kansas City Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. (7) celebrates / Jonathan Hui-USA TODAY Sports

One quarter of the way through the 2024 season, Mid-America may be witnessing one of the greatest turnarounds in all of MLB history.

The Kansas City Royals, 56-106 last year, are winning at a .595 pace, which would bring them to 96 victories by season’s end. It’s still early, but if the Royals can even approach a 40-game rise, it would arguably represent the best season-to-season improvement in the game’s 144-year history.

The credit for this upturn belongs to the team’s drafting and development led by general manager J.J. Picollo. The heart of this Royals team is comprised of an entire string of players – Bobby Witt Jr., Kyle Isbell, MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino, Michael Massey, Felix Fermin, Maikel Garcia – who were either drafted by or brought to the majors during Picollo’s tenure.

Royals' incredible turnaround falls on JJ Picollo's shoulders

In just the first 40 games, that cadre of system products has generated +3.4 games worth of value as measured by Wins Above Average. WAA is a cumulative stat, meaning by season’s end, those system products project to add about 13.5 games of stepup all by themselves.

A 40-game season-to-season pace over the course of a full season is virtually unsustainable. Only twice in all of MLB history has that kind of improvement occurred, and both of those involved chicanery…more on that in a moment.

But even if the Royals cool down to just a 30-game improvement – 83 wins – it would still rank among the all-time best. Only nine times in baseball history – not counting seasons shortened by war, strike or Covid – has a team improved its win total by 30 games from one season to the next. Here’s the full list

Team                                     Seasons            Gms. Imp.

1 Brooklyn Dodgers          1898-99                 47

2 St. Louis Cardinals         1898-99                45

3 New York Giants            1902-03                36

4 Arizona Diamondbacks 1998-99               35

5 Philadelphia Phillies      1961-62                34

6 Baltimore Orioles           1988-89                33

6 Boston Red Sox             1945-46                33

8 Tampa Bay Rays             2007-08                31

9 Detroit Tigers                 1960-61                30

If the Royals maintain their 40-game improvement pace, they would climb to third place on this list. But that stat involves a major footnote. The 1899 season was the high point of what was known as syndicate baseball, when multiple teams were owned by the same people. This led to the practice, soon made illegal, of owners shifting their best players from one roster to another. Imagine the same person owning both the present day Orioles and Red Sox -- then trading all of Boston’s best players to Baltimore – and you get the idea.

The Brooklyn and St. Louis franchises – not yet known as the Dodgers and Cardinals – were both part of syndicate ownerships, and both benefitted from the infusion of talent from ‘cousin’ teams over the winter of 1898-99. That explains their extraordinary improvements.

So if you discount those outliers created by disreputable practice, the Royals are actually on pace to break the major league record for season-to-season improvement.  And even if they ‘only’ improve by 30 games, they’ll still be one of just four teams to do so since the 1960s.

Given their hot start, a 30-game improvement is totally within reach. The Royals could get to that level merely by playing slightly over .500 (61-59) baseball in their remaining 120 games.  

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