Opening day is nearing. Will the 2019 Royals stick to the game plan?

Royals’ Yost wants to see the young guys play and learn to win

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost is wanting the young guys on the team to see more playing time, in different positions, for the rest of the 2018 season.
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Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost is wanting the young guys on the team to see more playing time, in different positions, for the rest of the 2018 season.

Royals general manager Dayton Moore stood behind a curtain in January, waiting to take the main stage at the team’s annual FanFest at the convention center, when I spotted him and walked over to ask a question.

Were the 2019 Royals going to get back to the style of play that got them to two World Series and provided their only winning month of the 2018 season?

Just in case you showed up late to the party, here’s what I meant:

In 2014 and 2015, the Royals were known for speed, defense and a great bullpen. Some thought they got off track in 2018 when they signed free agents Jon Jay, Lucas Duda, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar.

Until those signings, I thought the 2018 game plan was to play the kids and get them big-league experience. That would have made sense, because the Royals had done it before and it worked: The core of the team that went to two World Series first showed up in 2011.

That year the Royals went 71-91, and critics were calling them the same old Royals. Most of us couldn’t see it at the time, but the team was on right on track.

Ask players how long it takes to figure out how to succeed in the big leagues and the answer hovers around three years. It made sense that the players who showed up in 2011 had a winning record in 2013 and went to the World Series in 2014.

It also made sense that if the Royals were going to let their prospects play in 2018, they’d talk about being ready to win again in 2021.

But before the 2018 season the Royals signed those aforementioned free agents and appeared to get caught with one foot on the dock and another one in the boat — a great way to get wet.

Signing veterans to prevent a 100-loss debacle didn’t work. It was the worst of both worlds, actually. The Royals still lost 104 games and those veterans cost the prospects at-bats and innings.

Last season’s Royals actually got better when some of the veterans departed and Adalberto Mondesi took over as the full-time shortstop. They had just one winning month in 2018: September. That was also the month that the Royals stole their most bases: 39. For comparison’s sake, the Royals stole nine in April.

It’s never just one thing — the Royals also pitched better that last month — but their stolen base totals showed the team was getting younger and more athletic after the departure and reduced playing time of some of the older guys.

Boys just want to have fun

Outfielder Alex Gordon told The Star’s Sam Mellinger he just wants to have fun in 2019. Gordon was also quoted as saying the first half of 2018 was terrible: “Then, I don’t know why, but it just switched. We were having fun,” he said.

Here’s a theory: The clubhouse atmosphere got better after some of the veterans departed.

We talk about the importance of veteran leadership, and that’s 100 percent true, but it also matters which direction the veterans are leading. If the veterans are positive and upbeat, that helps immensely. But if the veterans are grumpy about losing and stressed about being traded, they can make a clubhouse worse.

By September it was pretty much the kids’ clubhouse and they seemed happy just to be in the big leagues. That might be part of why the team had more fun, played with more energy and won more games in the final month of the season.

Eliminate power

If you’ve forgotten where we started, it was me asking Moore a question about the Royals’ style of play. Here’s what he said back in January.

“You can eliminate power, but speed and defense show up every day.”

That’s an unusual attitude in a sport that’s gone home-run crazy, but it’s how the Royals have to look at it. When you play half your games in a park the size of the Grand Canyon, power is a poor investment, and speed is a good one.

Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore wants to continue to rebuild the farm system by being aggressive in the Rule 5 draft, and expects to also acquire young talent through the baseball draft.

In 2018, despite ranking next-to-last in team ERA, only four American League teams allowed fewer home runs and only five American League teams allowed fewer home runs in their home park than the Royals. Even when facing below-average pitching, it wasn’t easy for opposing teams to hit the ball out of Kauffman.

So The K can do its part to eliminate power and the Royals’ pitchers can do the rest: If a power hitter comes to the plate with a chance to do damage, walk him.

That’s what Moore was suggesting.

A few seasons ago, the Toronto Blue Jays were loaded with power threats and Ned Yost’s Royals beat them. In one sense, the Royals did so despite walking seven batters. But look at who they walked and it was clear the Royals beat the Blue Jays because they walked seven batters. The Royals didn’t pitch to the guys who were hitting home runs.

You can eliminate power by refusing to let power hitters hit. And most power hitters don’t run well, so that walk can clog the bases and force a power-hitting team to play the game 90 feet at a time.

Take advantage of the herd mentality

“Buy low, sell high” is a simple and logical philosophy and yet people can’t bring themselves to use it. There’s comfort in being part of the herd; surely all these people running in the same direction can’t be wrong. Going it alone is scary, but oftentimes that’s exactly what smart investors — and smart baseball teams — do.

Largely because of analytics, teams are currently overvaluing home runs; they’ll put up with strikeouts and lousy defense as long as a player hits enough homers.

If everybody else is investing in power, the Royals can find value in speed.

If everybody else is striking out, the Royals can find value in making contact.

If everybody else is playing power hitters who can’t catch the ball, the Royals can find value in defense.

Now guess which World Series Championship team had terrific pitching, a great closer, was below the league average in walks and home runs, above the league average in stolen bases and struck out less often than 17 other big-league teams.

If you said the 2015 Kansas City Royals, you were in the ballpark, but it was the 1985 Kansas City Royals. It’s no surprise that similar teams had success in Kauffman. And when the Royals get away from being that type of team, things don’t seem to go well.

I once heard Dean Vogelaar, a Royals front office executive at the time, talk about the difference between good and bad teams. He said bad teams will not stick with a game plan. It takes years to draft and develop players that fit a particular style of play, and bad teams are not patient. Someone panics — the owner, the GM, the fans — and bad teams abandon their current game plan, fire people and start over.

Constantly switching course is a good way to go nowhere.

Good teams have a philosophy and stick with it. They know they won’t win every year, but they also know what works in their ballpark and settle in for the long haul.

The Royals have won two World Series championships with similar teams, and if they want to win a third it would seem logical that they need to put together a new team with the same qualities.

But to do that, the Royals need to stick to the plan.

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