Judging the Royals

Defying conventional wisdom: how the Royals did it

Last in home runs, last in walks; if on-base plus slugging percentage is the key to winning baseball games, how did the Kansas City Royals become American League Champions and come so close to winning the World Series?

Here are some excerpts (in italics) from a recent article in Time magazine along with my comments:

"The Royals are more than just an enchanting small-market success story. They represent the changing game of baseball.

In the post-steroid era, the game is going through a remarkable transition. Power is out. Pitching, speed and defense are in. Home runs per game are at their lowest levels since 1992. Teams scored 4.07 runs per game during the 2014 regular season, according to stats site Baseball-Reference.com–the lowest total in 33 years. Runs-per-game are down 15% since 2007, and off 21% from their steroid-era high of 5.14 in 2000."

Back when Doug Sisson was the base-running coach for the Royals, he told me that if they got PEDs out of the game, home runs would be less important and there would be a stolen-base revival. And if you have the speed to steal a base you can use that speed to cover ground on defense. Pitch and defend well enough and you need less offense to win ballgames.

So why did the Royals stop stealing bases in the World Series?

Another Time magazine excerpt:

"The Royals had the fewest home runs in the majors this past season, with 95. But no team had more stolen bases, and the Royals have kept running this post-season. The team has stolen 13 bases so far: seven of them came in Kansas City’s wild 9-8 comeback win over the Oakland A’s in the AL Wild Card game."

On more than one occasion I was asked why Ned Yost had shut down the Royals running game once his team reached the World Series, but Ned didn’t shut down the running game; San Francisco pitchers did.

Before every game I try to find Royals base running coach Rusty Kuntz and get the opposition pitchers’ delivery times. During the Series, the opposition pitchers’ delivery times were depressingly low. The average base stealer needs about a 1.4 second delivery time to steal second base and many of the San Francisco pitchers were clocking in at 1.1 to 1.2 seconds.

But the stolen base still had an effect:

Giants pitcher Jake Peavy was varying the time he held the ball in the set position to keep Royals base stealers from timing his delivery. Peavy did not want a base stealer to get a good jump, but holding the ball meant he couldn’t pitch with any rhythm and Peavy struggled in both his World Series’ appearances; the threat of a stolen base can lead to a walk or home run.

Why the Royals don’t strike out or walk

More from Time:

"Players are striking out 7.7 times per game, an all-time record, breaking the prior high of 7.55 set last season. In fact, in each of the past seven seasons, baseball set a new all-time high for strikeouts per game."

"These days, if you swing for the fences, you’re more likely than ever to strike out. So just put the ball in play – Royals hitters have both the lowest strikeout rate in the majors, and the lowest walk rate – and take your chances with your legs. Steal bases to eke out those diminishing runs."

Wade Davis—who might have been the best pitcher on the planet in 2014—told me that if you throw strike one to a hitter, the at bat might be over. Too many big league hitters have no two-strike approach; instead of choking up and looking to hit the ball the other way, they just keep taking the same swing. And big league hitters don’t like to strike out, so they start chasing marginal pitches after only one strike; they’re afraid to hit with two, especially if the pitcher has a devastating put-away pitch. So if a pitcher can throw strike one with a pitch the hitter isn’t looking for, the hitter might take the pitch and then expand the zone in an effort to avoid a two-strike count. That partially explains the Royals low strike out and walk totals; a lot of the time they weren’t at the plate long enough to do either one.

Pitch selection was an issue for the Royals hitters all season and came back to bite them in the final at bat of the year; with Alex Gordon on third base—90 feet away from scoring the tying run—Salvador Perez swung at pitches up and out of the strike zone. Madison Bumgarner said he took advantage of Sal’s aggression; they only pitch that was in the strike zone was the last one; the pitch Perez popped up to end the Royals season.

Isn’t it time to give the Royals some credit?

Here’s Time magazine’s conclusion:

"Small-ball is cheap, and effective. This is where the game is heading. The Royals just do it best."

A Royals’ front-office executive once told me that the lesson of "Moneyball" wasn’t that walks were good; the true lesson was that undervalued players were good. Once teams started paying for walks, those players would no longer be undervalued.

I once asked another front-office guy how many home runs he thought Adam Dunn would hit if he played in Kauffman Stadium and the front-office guy said Dunn wouldn’t want to play here; the park’s too big. It’s not that Dunn couldn’t hit home runs in Kansas City, but he probably wouldn’t hit as many. So if paying a home run hitter to play in Kauffman Stadium wouldn’t pay off, the Kansas City Royals had to go another direction and find a different kind of undervalued player. They went with athleticism—and that did pay off.

For years critics have complained that the team didn’t value walks and Kansas City Royals were behind the times. And now at least one national publication thinks the Royals are ahead of the curve.

Maybe it’s time to give them some credit.