Sam Mellinger

Rebuilding Royals embark on The Process 2.0: ‘We’re going to change the game again’

They’re older now. They’ve coached each other’s kids, exchanged Christmas presents and attended graduations. They dreamed together. They failed together. And they found the ultimate success together.

Now comes the part where they try to do it again.

Professional sports offer little if any precedent for this. The Royals, three years and four months removed from a parade, are trying to build the foundation for the next party. Just four players remain from the 2015 World Series roster. Roster turnover is common. Here’s the strange part:

Nearly every top executive is still here — the general manager and all three assistant GMs as well as the scouting director and most assistants and advisers.

They are a little grayer. They’re a little closer to retirement. Many of their kids are choosing colleges now. Their simpatico has never been more in tune.

“It’s a family,” said Gene Watson, the club’s head of pro scouting since 2009. “Our wives are friends. Our kids are friends. Our kids have grown up together. We’ve had opportunities to go other places and we’ve turned them down. Kansas City is a special place. This is a dream scenario for all of us.”

The reasons to hope are in those words, with the same leadership group that built from the bottom up the last time still here to try again.

You can see the industry’s skepticism, though, in the fact that they’re all still together. There’s a reason front offices don’t often stay whole this long. The bad ones are fired. The good ones leave for promotions. Even now, more than a decade and two pennants after they started, the broader baseball world isn’t quite sure what to make of this group.

Labels are hard and imperfect, but these are the reluctant Moneyballers — their specific methods could not be more different than the ones made famous in the movie about the Oakland A’s of the 2000s, but their general operating philosophy is strikingly similar.

They are here to fish the waters other teams skip, one more time to do what few think is possible in a way nobody else is attempting.

“We have to,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “We can’t go head to head with what everybody else wants. We’ll lose every time when it comes to the free-agent market.”

“Nobody does this,” manager Ned Yost said. “We’re the only team going into this year with this much speed focusing on that type of game.”

“No, this couldn’t be further from Moneyball,” Watson said.

Yes, this story is complicated.

The revolution surrounds them and they know it. Actually, some parts of this they created. Relievers have never been more valued, especially those who miss bats, and the Royals won a World Series championship with a line of high-velocity, high-strikeout relief pitchers.

Other parts the Royals have to sit out. The game has gone toward launch angles and home runs. Mike Moustakas is now a second baseman, for crying out loud. Teams want the best nine hitters possible, damn the defense. Hit home runs, even at the expense of base hits and strikeouts.

The Royals aren’t stupid. They like home runs, too. They also sit in baseball’s second-smallest market, with attendance that ranked 23rd last year and an archaic television deal that will finally expire after this season.

“If we had money to sign the elite free agents, we wouldn’t be talking about this as much,” said J.J. Picollo, a Royals vice president and assistant GM for player personnel. “The players that fit our financial window, let’s go get those guys.”

This is where it’s worth pausing to define the Moneyball approach. Because Watson is right, in a sense, that the specifics of the Royals’ plan (athleticism, defense, power bullpen arms) is diametrically opposed to how the A’s kick-started baseball’s use of data (on-base percentage and home runs).

But that’s the micro view. A’s GM Billy Beane was never married to on-base percentage. He hunted for undervalued baseball commodities. Now everyone prioritizes on-base, so Moore and the Royals are merely updating the specifics.

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Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore (left) and assistant general manager J.J. Picollo during spring training in February 2015 in Surprise, Ariz. JOHN SLEEZER jsleezer@kcstar.com

When Moore talks about chasing what other teams are undervaluing, he is speaking the true gospel. In this way, the Royals are the ultimate Moneyball franchise. The A’s made the playoffs with it. The Royals won two pennants and a World Series with it.

The Process 2.0 is similar in leadership, and also in philosophy. The Royals got away from this for a few years, most notably when they chased power with Brandon Moss. But here they are, back to speed and athleticism, with a few important updates.

Primarily: The baseball operations department believes it can, will and must do a better job of developing starting pitchers. They covered that with a rocket-ship bullpen the last time, but now the rest of baseball has copied that part of the plan. The specifics change, but the broader charge remains: Do what others aren’t.

“Dayton changed the game four or five years ago when he decided spending money on starting pitching was not going to be productive for our situation,” Yost said. “So he built the greatest back of the bullpen he could and it shortened games. Nobody was doing it at that time. It changed the game.

“I believe we’re going to change the game again, and guys are going to start looking for speed and athletic guys and play a more pressure-packed offensive game than standing back and waiting for home runs.”

The 2019 Royals might be the fastest team in recent baseball history. Whit Merrifield led baseball in steals each of the last two seasons, and he is no better than the fourth-fastest man on this roster. Adalberto Mondesi had the game’s fastest 90-foot sprint time last year, and Billy Hamilton was 11th. Terrance Gore might have both of them beat in a foot race but didn’t have enough attempts to qualify. Brett Phillips, Alex Gordon, Hunter Dozier, Chris Owings and Brian Goodwin are also above-average runners.

This is a bottom-up approach. One of the Royals’ highest priorities in the minor leagues is to lead all organizations in stolen base attempts and success rate. Last year they achieved the former by a wide margin, and finished second in the latter by a few points. This is key in explaining how they ranked eighth in runs despite poor marks in on-base percentage, slugging, strikeout rate and walk rate.

The Royals are encouraged that their top-20 prospects rank in baseball’s top half in most of those categories, and believe that this overriding emphasis can help squeeze every drop of production while not chasing what other organizations chase.

“That’s the advantage now,” Picollo said. “Speed, athleticism, defense. That stuff plays better in our ballpark.”

Other challenges remain, because the leadership’s familiarity with each other comes with potential pitfalls. Meetings can be more efficient, with everyone involved speaking the same language. But club officials and coaches are constantly reminding each other to, in Picollo’s words, “still act like this is the first time we’ve worked together.”

That means hiring staffers to double check that basic fundamentals are taken care of, and to not settle for what worked the last time without first searching for a better way.

It’s a heck of an experiment, and it will largely define whether club officials can put a knife through the heart of the one thing they sometimes hear that irritates them more than anything else — that their success in 2014 and 2015 was luck.

The result will be determined by one fundamental question: In a world ruled by launch angles and four-seam velocity, can a team really win with speed?

Two years ago they gave Terrance Gore two instructions:

1. Pinch run.

2. Do not steal.

This was in a spring training game, and Gore was being used as baseball’s fastest decoy. The Royals had an intriguing prospect named Peter O’Brien who attracted crowds on the backfields with mammoth home runs.

“Most pop I’ve ever seen,” outfielder Alex Gordon said that spring.

The Royals wanted to see it in a real game, or as close to a real game as spring training offers. Gore would be the bait — the best way the Royals could ensure that O’Brien saw a fastball to whack. He did, and hit it over the right-field fence.

“People don’t notice that,” Gore said. “But if someone hits a home run and I’m on first, when we get back to the dugout, I’m like, ‘Hey, can I get an assist on that? Like half an RBI or something?’”

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Kansas City Royals’ Terrance Gore is greeted by first base coach Brian Poldberg after Gore reached on a single in the eighth inning during Saturday’s spring training baseball game against the Texas Rangers on February 23, 2019 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, AZ. John Sleezer jsleezer@kcstar.com

This is the heart of the Royals’ push. They have a bigger analytics staff than is generally perceived (more on that in a minute), but no existing metrics would’ve supported signing Hamilton.

Over 292 games the last two seasons, Hamilton has been worth 1.3 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. Over 44 games last year, Ryan O’Hearn was worth 1.1. Lucas Duda was worth 1.5.

The numbers are easy to explain. Hamilton’s greatest deficiency is the game’s most important measurement. He is one of only 14 players with 1,000 or more plate appearances the last two seasons and a combined on-base percentage less than .300. Hamilton has just eight homers over that span, despite playing in Cincinnati’s small ballpark. That’s the fewest on the list. The others average 40.

The Royals’ motivation with Hamilton symbolizes so much of how they operate. He leads baseball in stolen bases since his debut in 2014, but the real story is what the numbers don’t show.

First, the Royals believe they have the game’s best base running coaches and can help Hamilton be even more effective with his legs than he was with the Reds. They believe his speed will help those behind him see more fastballs, and specifically fastballs up.

If the other 29 teams valued speed the same way, Hamilton would’ve been too expensive for the Royals. As it stands, they see his one-year, $5.25 million contract as an investment in their pitching staff. Hamilton’s range means fewer fly balls will drop, which means more outs and fewer pitches. Maybe that means a starter goes a little deeper, and that the relievers are used in better spots.

“Speed puts tremendous pressure on the opposing defense,” Yost said. “And it takes tremendous pressure off your pitching staff. It allows you to get away with more mistakes as a pitcher, which is very comforting.”

This is where the Royals believe their edge must exist. They must develop more pitching, which is why they used their first five picks in last year’s crucial draft on college pitchers. They also must find the dark corners that the computers have not yet measured.

Yost said the game has changed more in the last 15 years than it had in the previous 120, and he uses Hamilton as an example. He believes that means coaches have to change, and he uses Hamilton as an example. What Hamilton heard in Cincinnati will be different than what he hears now.

“They’ve harped and harped on him to bunt, hit the ball on the ground,” Yost said. “That’s not a philosophy that works. It just doesn’t. If you have speed and you’re focused on hitting the ball on the ground, all they’re going to do is take two steps up and throw your ass out anyway.”

The Royals have to be pioneers here, winning a modern game with subtle updates to a strategy that was popular so long ago that current players can’t remember when it was abandoned.

“Who knows,” Yost said. “There’s a lot of things we gotta do. Speed ain’t worth a damn if you don’t get on base.”

Those words from Yost are meant as an acknowledgment that baseball is too fickle a sport to offer guarantees. The best teams play the margins and try to stack the odds, but a game played by humans with a round ball and round bat is more roulette wheel than mathematical certainty.

Skepticism abounds, and club officials know it. How could they not? Their continued employment together is proof.

This group’s crowning achievement has no match in modern baseball. Depending on how you view the Marlins’ titles in 1997 and 2003, the Royals’ small-money championship (they topped out at 13th in payroll) is rare or unprecedented.

Still, no other owner has been persuaded to raid the Royals’ front office in an attempt to duplicate.

“Candidates have to match what teams are looking for,” said Picollo, who has interviewed for four general manager openings.

Picollo interviewed for jobs with the Astros, Phillies, Twins and Diamondbacks. Scott Sharp had interest from the Orioles. Francisco interviewed with the Blue Jays. None received an offer.

According to The Athletic, the Royals’ analytics staff ranked in the middle of baseball in size last season. They employed seven people in research and development, which tied for 14th among 30 teams. In the AL Central, the Tigers led with nine and the White Sox were last in the majors with two.

That’s an imperfect measurement, but it does back the frustration Royals officials often express at their industry reputation as number neanderthals. But it’s not just metrics, either. The Royals were relatively slow to invest in a computer aid called Rapsodo, which is typical of a conservative approach to technology.

In practice, officials consult the metrics when assessing signings, trades and draft picks. Whether they override the numbers — as they did in acquiring Hamilton — more often than other clubs is inherently subjective.

The truth, like most things, is probably in the middle. The Royals are likely more enlightened than the perception, and more tied to traditional scouting judgments than most teams. But here, perception is what matters.

“The figureheads aren’t seen that way (as analytically friendly),” Picollo said. “So that reflects.”

This push is about more than the Royals, then. They will (again) carry the flag for traditional scouting, and even if they are meshing equations with the eye test more than ever before, this is one more way they are forever zigging while others zag.

This is the only way, the best way they know, and the only way they believe can work in Kansas City. The reluctant Moneyballers, still together, pushing one more time toward baseball’s mountaintop. If they do it again, the same group often bucking computer wisdom, then one more time they will have reset the way richer clubs try to win.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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