Sam Mellinger

Royals were best poised to capitalize on recent trend in baseball

The Royals have a different breed of runners in the likes of Lorenzo Cain and some of his speedy teammates.
The Royals have a different breed of runners in the likes of Lorenzo Cain and some of his speedy teammates. The Kansas City Star

The Royals are in the World Series, which doesn’t make sense, so the baseball world reacts by trying to make sense of it. Here come the questions and the stories about whether they are the new model for how teams might navigate the various pitfalls of building a winner. Most of them miss the point.

What the Royals have done, and are doing, is a bad model to try to copy. At least in the way that the questions most often seem to be implying.

Because if the new way to win baseball games is to accumulate the greatest outfield defense in the history of upright man, well, good luck. And if the new way to win baseball games is to bunch three closers together at the end of games, striking out everyone in sight, well, it’s good to keep in mind that a lot of teams have enough trouble finding one closer — and that’s not even meant as a joke about the Tigers.

But the Royals are uncovering a bit of a blueprint in a way that’s easy to miss. It’s being talked about by people inside the sport, but so far mostly overlooked by fans and media.

The Royals, for reasons both planned and accidental, may have discovered themselves a sort of loophole to make up for their deficiencies and succeed in the modern game.

The plan all along has been to build around pitching and defense. They did that because of their ballpark and their budget. They are benefiting from it in large part because of how the sport has changed.

In the American League, home runs dropped by nearly a third this year. Overall, AL hitters were like a group of middle infielders from the 1980s: they hit .253 with a .316 on-base and .390 slugging percentage, the lowest marks in each category since at least 1976.

It follows, then, that if base hits, base runners, and home runs are harder to come by than virtually any point in the last four decades that teams need to make the most of what they get.

Executives from three American League clubs who spoke for this column said that teams are now discussing how much of the Royals’ approach here to emulate.

Who could’ve predicted that — the Royals as a model for how to score?

Now, before we go any further we should be clear that the Royals would prefer to be at the top of the league in scoring and do it with an endless barrage of home runs. In that way, the Royals would love to emulate the Angels or Tigers. But for teams without Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera, the Royals can serve as a model of sorts for how to make the most of a clear trend of declining offense in baseball.

And in this way, the Royals made chicken salad better than perhaps any other team in the league. This was critical to the Royals finishing in the middle third of the league in scoring (though barely, at 10th) instead of the bottom, which is where they otherwise would’ve been.

The Royals were last in walks and last, by a lot, in home runs. Fifteen years ago, that would’ve been a killer.

But for a lot of reasons — steroids testing, an expanding strike zone, better relief pitching, etc. — it's becoming less and less productive to wait for a three-run homer.

The Royals squeezed every drop of run production that could be expected from a lineup that finished with the worst adjusted OPS in the league. They did this two ways, basically: They were the league’s best base-running team, and they hit better when it mattered more.

The Royals stole 31 more bases than any other team in the American League, and by the advanced metrics at both Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus, were the league’s best base-running team when considering steals as well as more hidden moments like taking an extra base on a single or tagging up on a ball when other teams might sit.

Studies typically find that “clutch” hitting is either non-existent or unrepeatable, but overall the Royals’ batting average, on-base and slugging percentages were between 5 and 8 percent higher with runners in scoring position than not.

The clutch hitting is mostly unexplainable, but the base running can be traced to the club’s emphasis on athleticism (as well as their indefatigable base-running coach, Rusty Kuntz).

Here, the Royals mostly got lucky. After a year or two of watching how games are won in Kauffman Stadium, with the biggest outfield in the American League, general manager Dayton Moore put an extreme emphasis on speed and defense, particularly with his outfielders. Even some of his assistants thought Moore was more focused on this than he needed to be, but they ended up building perhaps the fastest team in baseball.

The importance of getting on base will never go away, for a lot of reasons, but with a fast team and a big ballpark the benefit of the Royals putting the ball in play and pressuring a defense is amplified. It’s a loophole of sorts, found in equal parts by accident (the game’s trends) and design (hoarding speed).

That’s all been highlighted in the playoffs. The Royals have basically doubled their home run rate in the postseason, but overall their slugging percentage isn’t that much higher now (.390) than in the regular season (.376). They are averaging 5.25 runs in eight postseason games, compared to 4.02 in the regular season.

The consensus from scouts seems to be that the Royals have greatly improved their pitch selection in the postseason, and as an example, one mentioned that Billy Butler stopped swinging at balls off the plate in.

It all works together, and a good example here is Eric Hosmer’s home run in the 11th inning of game two of the Division Series. Lorenzo Cain was on first, which influenced Angels reliever Kevin Jepsen to throw a fastball. Hosmer hadn’t seen a first-pitch fastball in the series, but expected this one and hit it over the fence.

The Royals, of course, hope the emergence of home runs — particularly from Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, in whom they’ve always projected power — continues through the World Series and beyond.

But if not, the Royals have shown themselves more capable and equipped than most to navigate baseball’s trend of declining run production with success. It’s a plan that teams around the American League are now wondering if they should steal.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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