The headline on the story published in early December required a double take.
“Yankees as Royals Copycats.”
Now, this did appear in the New York Post, the sensational tabloid that gave readers such headlines as “Headless Body in Topless Bar” and “Kiss Your Asteroid Goodbye!”
(Editor’s note: This story will appear in a special 26-page Royals preview section in the Sunday, April 5 print editions of The Kansas City Star)
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But in what universe would the Bronx Bombers, a playoff team in 17 of the past 20 years and winners of five World Series in that time, cast an envious eye at the Royals, who entered last year without a postseason appearance in nearly three decades?
One inhabited by smart baseball people, it turns out.
The Royals hit on a winning formula in 2014, all the way to the seventh game of the World Series, and it wasn’t just the Yankees who took notice.
“Elite bullpen, elite-level defense, and to see some of their guys step up on the big stage, that was fun to watch,” said Jon Daniels, the Texas Rangers’ president of baseball operations and general manager.
Generally, the Royals’ blueprint involves winning in ways that are economical, which led the Royals to stock up on power bullpen arms instead of power bats and understand the dynamic of speed and defense, especially in a spacious home ballpark.
“To be honest,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “We just do what we think is best for our team.”
While the Royals lagged in more traditional categories like home runs — the Royals’ 95 homers in 2014 were not only last in baseball but the fewest by a pennant winner since the 1987 Cardinals — they featured a dominant bullpen that essentially assigned three closers a particular inning: Kelvin Herrera the seventh, Wade Davis the eighth and Greg Holland the ninth.
Who wouldn’t want to try and duplicate that? Not the Yankees.
This year, their one big-money acquisition became Andrew Miller, the tall left-handed relief pitcher with one career save who left the Orioles and signed a four-year deal worth $36 million.
In some ways, it was a conservative off-season for the Yankees, who in previous years added an established hitter with a load of plate appearances, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira.
But the Yankees’ idea is to pair Miller with Dellin Betances, who in his rookie season delivered a Royals reliever-like 1.40 ERA in 90 innings. With last year’s closer David Robertson signing with the White Sox, the closer job figures to go to Betances or Miller with the other as a set-up man.
Calls for the Royals to leverage their bullpen to fill in some missing offensive pieces this offseason went unheeded by the team.
Not only didn’t the Royals break up their pen, they doubled down, bringing back the back end, including Jason Frasor, re-signing Luke Hochevar to a two-year deal worth $10 million and adding Brian Flynn, Franklin Morales and Chris Young.
“The bullpen has always been an area where money goes a little bit further,” Moore said. “So you try to get impact there.”
The Royals apply a similar approach to position players, using the conditions of payroll and ballpark to shape the philosophy.
Kauffman Stadium’s huge outfield puts a premium on defenders covering ground, and in Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain, the Royals have two of the baseball’s top defensive players. When fourth outfielder Jarrod Dyson enters the game, the team has one of the game’s fastest players on the field.
According to FanGraphs.com, the Royals finished with baseball’s highest Ultimate Zone Rating — an statistic that measures defensive value.
Or, as Moore puts it, “We need fly ball catchers in our outfield, and we have them.”
And speed on the base paths. The Royals have led baseball in stolen bases each of the last two years.
The tradeoff is power, and it’s why no Royal has hit as many as 30 home runs in the season since 2000, and that that franchise record for homers in a season remains the 36 slugged by Steve Balboni in 1985.
The Royals historically have not spent money in free agency on power bats.
“If you look the position players who are the highest paid in free agency, it’s the guys who can hit home runs,” Moore said. “Are we going to be able to afford those players? Probably not.
“And power takes time to develop. Very few guys come into the big leagues and hit 25, 30 home runs right away. So we felt that not only was our ballpark conducive to speed and defense, that made it affordable for us, too.”
The Royals are ahead of the curve here as well. In baseball’s post-steroid era, power numbers have decreased. Home runs per game are at their lowest level since 1992. Teams scored 4.07 runs per game in 2014, the lowest figure in 33 years.
Shaping a team based on payroll, ballpark and other factors isn’t a new approach. The Royals went into the 2011 season stoked about improvements made to the defense and a team speed upgrade. They finished 71-91. The team won one more game the next season, stretching the streak of sub-.500 seasons to nine straight and 17 in 18 years.
But an 86-victory season in 2013 was a prelude to 2014’s success, and with October came conformation that the Royals’ formula worked.
“One of the real challenges a team faces is staying true to who you are,” said the Rangers’ Daniels. “The Royals did that.”
And provided an example for others to follow.
Rare company for Royals
The Royals’ 2014 season totals in several offensive categories were among the lowest by a pennant-winning team since the franchise began in 1969, but the bullpen was a different story.
▪ Fewest home runs by a pennant winner since 1969:
▪ Fewest walks by a pennant winner since 1969:
▪ Lowest slugging percentage by a pennant winner since 1969:
▪ Best strikeout per nine inning rate by pennant-winning bullpens:
2013 Red Sox