The core of the department includes a Columbia graduate with an expertise in pattern detection, a Yale graduate with a graduate degree in atmospheric sciences from MIT and a Vanderbilt graduate who has worked in the field of anomaly detection.
You probably don’t know their names, and you certainly don’t know the subject or the goal of their latest project. But their mere existence serves to knock down a long-held perception of the Royals — a perception that, in some ways, is still attached to the organization as it prepares for its second World Series appearance in two years.
The Royals, once thought of as a laggard in the ways of sabermetrics and advanced statistics, have quietly culled together a large and functioning analytics department during the tenure of general manager Dayton Moore. The Royals, once mocked as a baseball relic in an industry of progressive organizations, may just be smarter than you think.
While the baseball stat community looks at the Royals’ success with a mild curiosity and teams like the Oakland A’s, Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays have been lauded for their progressiveness and the ways they use statistical analysis in their decision-making, the Royals have crafted their own in-house version of “Moneyball” — an analytics department that thrives on diverse skill sets and a general integration into the rest of the baseball operations department.
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“Perception,” Moore said, standing in the Royals’ dugout Sunday afternoon, “is not reality.”
Four years ago, for instance, Moore and Royals ownership poured more resources into the analytics department, doubling its size and increasing its budget. But for the moment, let’s deal with that perception. As the Royals prepare to face the New York Mets in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday, that’s a good place to start.
In the years after Moore arrived in Kansas City in 2006, as the Royals rebuilt their farm system and laid the foundation for a contender, a common perception began to congeal around the organization: The Royals did not believe in the value of analytics; they were less sabermetrically inclined than the average major-league club; and the heart of the Moore way — an old-school focus on scouting and player development — was incongruous with succeeding in modern baseball, where a statistical revolution had changed the way clubs operated.
Moore has always greeted this perception with a mix of frustration and ambivalence. The frustration come because Moore does not believe this has ever really been accurate; the ambivalence because the idea of the Royals as some kind of anti-stat organization means the Royals might be doing something right — which is to say they are guarding their organizational secrets and methods quite well.
“We’ve always used it to validate the judgment of scouts,” Moore said. “From the time I was an area scout (with the Atlanta Braves), talking about players and validating my judgment with their numbers.
“As the game continues to evolve, we’re no different than a lot of clubs. You add personnel where it’s needed.”
Moore, of course, will never be confused with an executive born of the sabermetric movement. He was raised as a baseball man in Atlanta, in an organization that valued the core tenets of scouting and player development. But those around the organization say the Royals’ usage of analytics has evolved as the game has evolved.
In the early years under Moore, the Royals’ analytics department consisted of Mike Groopman, a Columbia graduate who had worked briefly at Baseball Prospectus and had experience in other organizations, and John Williams, an MIT graduate who offered a background in forecasting and modeling. In those days, Groopman and Williams dug into the newly available Pitch F/X data, which offered detailed data on pitch types and their effectiveness.
By 2011, the organization earmarked more resources for analytics, hiring more bodies and investing more money into proprietary data, such as an in-house player projection system for evaluating player acquisitions. On most days, the Royals’ analytics staff works hand-in-hand with other facets of the organization, from the scouting department to advance reports for the major-league team. But Moore says he’s purposely tried to keep the analytics department integrated into the rest of the department.
“It’s an important part of what we do,” Moore said, “but it’s no more as important as the judgment of the scout, the judgment of the character read from the development person or the analysis of our medical team and our financial analysis as well.”
For this story, Moore wished to speak for the organization. But in past interviews, Groopman, now the club’s director of baseball operations/analytics, said Moore spurred on the efforts to bolster the analytics department.
“Dayton really challenged us to be creative and progressive in the types of stuff that we were doing, and we think that there was a lot of value in it,” Groopman said in a podcast interview earlier this year. “We think that the rest of the organization saw that, and it kind of worked well with the larger mission of Dayton trying to build a model organization in all aspects of the operation.”
In an industry where proprietary information is the baseball equivalent of black gold, secrecy is both standard operating procedure and perhaps necessary. The Royals work in concealment better than most. In the last decade, the Royals have built an American League power with a focus on athleticism, defense, power pitching, a high-contact rate on offense and a general reluctance to discuss their secrets.
The formula has served to flummox the outside statistical community and break the most advanced projection systems, one of which predicted the Royals would win only 72 games. Maybe the Royals, of course, are just ahead of the curve. Maybe their balanced baseball operations department — a blend of old school and new school — is perfectly suited for this era of baseball. Whatever the case, Moore is not too interested in speculating.
“It doesn’t matter,” Moore said. “You got to go out and win ballgames. The most important statistic in the history of the game is wins. And that’s what you have to do.”