Judging the Royals

The Kansas City Royals: The anti-Moneyball team

Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost during Thursday's season ending press conference on November 5, 2015 Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost during Thursday's season ending press conference on November 5, 2015 Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. jsleezer@kcstar.com

In 2003 Michael Lewis published the book “Moneyball” a look at the 2002 Oakland A’s and how statistical analysis was changing big league baseball.

If teams with limited budgets were going to keep up with the rich kids, they’d need to find undervalued players, players they could afford. When they looked for undervalued players the Oakland A’s emphasized on-base percentage and this quote from the book helps explain why:

The number of runs a team scored bore little relation to that team’s batting average. It correlated much more exactly with a team’s on-base and slugging percentages. A lot of the offensive tactics that made baseball managers famous — the bunt, the steal, the hit and run — could be proven to have been, in most situations, either pointless or self-defeating.”

The first time I read that line I thought it sounded like a great way to win 90 games during the regular season and lose in the first round of the playoffs; which is pretty much what happened.

According to the team’s website, the Oakland A’s have won 90 or more games in eight of the last 15 years, been to the postseason eight times starting in 2000, but have won exactly one playoff series.

Under General Manager Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s are 15-23 in the postseason ... small wonder Beane has been quoted as saying: "My “s--- doesn’t work in the playoffs.”

What works over 162 games might not work tonight.

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The playoffs are played and managed differently. You go from running a marathon to an all-out sprint. You can’t let a game get away and say our strategy didn’t work tonight, but over a long season it will.

You need to win right now.

Whatever kind of game you find yourself in that night — say a pitching duel — you need to win. So if an opposing pitcher is painting the corners and you haven’t worked on small ball strategies — if you haven’t been laying down bunts or stealing bases, if your game plan is walking and then hitting home runs — you’re in trouble.

History shows the Oakland Athletics devised a good strategy for getting to the playoffs, but it has not been a winning strategy for them once they got there.

The Kansas City Royals take a different path

So if walks and slugging percentage are the keys to scoring runs, and scoring runs is the key to winning ballgames, how do you explain the Kansas City Royals?

During the 2015 regular season the Royals ranked 29th in walks and 11th in slugging percentage, but they also struck out less than any other team. After the Royals won the World Series, a champagne-soaked Rusty Kuntz said: “We showed the value of putting the ball in play.”

The hitting philosophy: get the ball in play

Along with a whole lot of other critics, I had negative things to say about the Royals approach at the plate; they rarely took a called strike two and I interpreted that as a fear of hitting in two-strike counts. If you’re not good at it — if you don’t choke up or shorten your swing or look to go the other way — you want to avoid being in that two-strike situation.

But I was wrong. There was a method to their madness.

Before Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, Rusty Kuntz told me that if Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher David Price was at 108 pitches after six innings, the Royals had screwed up; if Price was at 80, the Royals would be in good shape.

That’s about as counter-intuitive as it gets; unlike the teams trying to get the starting pitcher out of the game early by making him throw a lot of pitches, the Royals proposed to attack Price early in the count — they wanted to avoid two-strike “put-away” or “chase” pitches.

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They didn’t want to see those two-strike breaking pitches that lure a hitter into swinging because he has to protect home plate. The Royals wanted to hit the fatter pitches Price would throw to get ahead in the count. After six innings, Price was at 87 pitches. He eventually gave up three earned runs and the Royals won the game 4-3.

If you strike out, nothing more can happen; runners don’t advance, the defense doesn’t make errors — and that brings us to base running.

The base running philosophy: be aggressive

Anything that increases the offense’s chances of making an out is bad, anything that decreases it is good.”

That’s another quote from Moneyball and explains the Oakland A’s base-running philosophy. In 2014 the A’s ranked 21st in stolen bases; in 2015 it was 18th.

In 2015 the Royals stole 104 bases during the regular season; good for fifth most by a big league team. Their numbers were down from 2014 when they led all of baseball with 153 stolen bases, but those numbers were down because opposing pitchers were throwing out of a slide-step to get the ball to home plate quicker. Pitchers were also throwing fastballs for the same reason.

The slide step takes a few miles an hour off a fastball and can cause the pitch to stay up in the strike zone, so opposition pitchers end up trying to stop the Royals runners from stealing bases by giving the Royals hitters better pitches to hit.

Batting average — the stat that Moneyball distained — was helped by the Royals running game. In 2014 the Royals were fourth in team batting average, the A’s were 21st. In 2015 the Royals were fifth, the A’s were 18th. And when a team bunts, steals or uses the hit-and-run, the opposing defense has to adjust where they stand. The corner infielders have to play in for the bunt, the middle infielders have to pinch second base to guard against the stolen base or hit-and-run. If you do not use those tactics, the other team can stand where they like and play at the pace they like.

And aggressive base running causes errors.

As baseball fans saw in the 2015 World Series, taking the extra base and using speed can cause the other team’s defense to rush — and rushing leads to errors. Just ask Daniel Murphy and Lucas Duda.

The pitching philosophy: get it to the pen with a lead.

“We’ll go as far as our starting pitching takes us” has been said so often it’s a baseball cliché. Here are the Royals starting pitchers’ ERAs in 2015 postseason:

Chris Young: 2.87

Edinson Volquez: 3.77

Johnny Cueto: 5.40

Yordano Ventura: 6.43

(Young was used as both a starter and reliever in the regular and postseason.)

Now here are the Royals relief pitchers and their postseason ERAs:

Wade Davis: 0.00

Luke Hochevar: 0.00

Kelvin Herrera: 0.66

Kris Medlen: 3.00

Ryan Madson: 5.40

Danny Duffy: 6.00

Franklin Morales: 19.29

The Royals did not need their starting pitching to be stellar, they just needed to have the starter give the ball to the bullpen without the game being out of hand. If the Royals were at least close, in most cases the bullpen could hold the opposition down while the offense scrambled to get back in the game.

If the Royals had a lead when the starter left the game, they could hand the ball to their best relievers and it was unlikely that they’d give that lead back.

Even without closer Greg Holland, the Royals had a killer back end of the bullpen; which is why the Kansas City pitching staff is considered to be built back-to-front. The arms at the back end of the pen could make up for less than All-Star-level starting pitching.

In the World Series, the New York Mets had three starting pitchers with a regular season ERA under 3.00 and a fourth with an ERA of 3.24, but had difficulty holding onto leads once the ball was turned over to their bullpen.

The defensive philosophy: be athletic

Moneyball describes how Sandy Alderson, former A’s GM, wanted to think about the game in new ways and commissioned a pamphlet by a man named Eric Walker. Walker concluded fielding was: “at most 5 percent of the game.”

Walker was an aerospace engineer.

In their search for undervalued players, the Royals decided athleticism was a commodity they could afford. They knew that signing legitimate home-run hitters would be expensive and a guy who makes his living hitting a baseball over a fence wants the fence to be as close as possible. So the Royals would have to overpay to get a home-run hitter to come to Kansas City and then they wouldn’t get what they paid for.

Athleticism would show up on defense and on the base paths and anyone who watched the Royals on a regular basis knows that defense is a hell of a lot more than 5 percent of the game.

In 2014 three Royals won Gold Gloves: Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon.

Anyone who pays attention knows Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain should be in the conversation. When six of your eight position players might be the best defenders in the league, it makes a difference.

Defensive metrics are still struggling to record what a good fielder is worth, but when you see a team rob the opposition of hits night after night, you know it’s more than 5 percent.

In conclusion

Dayton Moore and the Royals organization took a beating from some critics for not emulating the Moneyball formula for success. But Dayton Moore and the Royals had a formula of their own; one that has proven to be more successful than the Moneyball approach.

Here’s one more quote from Moneyball:

There was a truly astonishing discrepancy between Billy Beane and every other general manager in the business. There was no question that Billy was the best in the game.”

GM Dayton Moore has been criticized and GM Billy Beane has been lionized, but only one of them has led his team to two American League titles and a World Series championship.

It ain’t Billy Beane.