At some point back in the dark ages, when The Process appeared aimless and the Royals were losing games in all possible fashions, I remember reading a quip from a scout saying ‘the Royals just want athletes’. It was not a complimentary observation and, at the time, seemed valid as well.
The widely held perception was that the Royals drafted for looks, not for baseball skill and did little to develop the athletes they were collecting. In 2009, both Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas struggled in A ball, while Alex Gordon was on the verge of playing his way out of the game. Sure, Zack Greinke won the Cy Young, but by 2010 was disinterested and demanded a trade.
The Greinke trade netted the Royals – you guessed it – more athletes.
The organization by then had handfuls of prospects. The best farm system in the history of whatever, but it didn’t matter. They lost 91 games despite having the new and improved Alex Gordon joined by Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar. They lost 90 games the next year, when Hosmer and Moose could not hit, Cain could not stay healthy and Perez hurt his knee in spring training.
Just a bunch of athletes on a baseball field. Potential? Sure. Production? Not so much. The Royals were last in the league in walks, but also struck out the least and were 12th in runs scored.
Then the Wade Davis trade was made. Off went Wil Myers, in came James Shields and Davis. Sure, there were others (notably Jake Odorizzi), but the deal really would come down to what Wade Davis would be. We hoped he might become a serviceable starter, no one expected him to become a cyborg. In 2013, he was neither.
That year, even as the Royals flirted with contention on their way to winning 86 games, they still had a third basemen and shortstop with on-base percentages below .300. They had an athletic centerfielder who could not stay on the field and a got a total of just 33 starts from pitchers under the age of 29. At the plate, with a few exceptions, the Royals hacked away. Only two teams walked less than Kansas City, but once again they struck out less than any other team.
It continued into 2014 when the Royals were predictably last in walks, last (in a good way) in strikeouts and last in home runs. They did, however, climb to 9th in runs scored and rode a now dominant bullpen and better than you might think starting pitching all the way to Game Seven of the World Series. Those athletes, by the way, could also play a little defense. Actually, they could plan a whole lot of defense.
You, of course, know what happened in 2015. Last in walks, second to last in home runs, fewest strikeouts (by a mile) and third in stolen bases. Now, however, the Royals were sixth in the AL in runs scored, somehow even better in the field and deeper in the bullpen. The result, despite choppy starting pitching, was a championship.
That championship came, in no small part, by playing the numbers. An organization that seemed to thumb their noses at sabremetrics for years either intentionally or by chance, was betting that batting average of balls in play (BABIP) was real. With the highest contact percentage in baseball, Kansas City very simplistically became a team that put more balls in play than their opponent. When the Royals swung at pitches in the strike zone, they made contact 89.9% of the time – best in the game. When they hacked out of the zone, they had the second best contact rate in the game. Somewhat surprisingly, eight teams swung more often than the Royals in 2015, but only three swung and missed less than Kansas City.
This was the same group of athletes, playing the same way they always had….only better. And those athletes could field. I suppose one could make a case that there were better defensive teams in baseball in 2014 and 2015 – you’d be wrong, but go ahead. It was all part of the Royals’ numbers games. They would put more balls in play than you and, when in the field, make more outs on balls in play than your team.
Just a bunch of athletes making contact, catching and throwing and, oh yeah, they had five or six guys in the bullpen that threw 95 or better. Welcome to the new world.
Dave Cameron at Fangraphs wrote a great piece on the Royals in which one of the premises is that it would be rather difficult for another team to replicate them. That makes one wonder if this is the team that Dayton Moore thought he was building or it just delightfully morphed into this current juggernaut? Without a doubt, Moore wanted athletes and high velocity arms. He preached pitching and defense, but did he (or any of us) really imagine that the pitching was mostly bullpen arms? Did Moore really think he could put a plus – and usually plus-plus – defender at every position on the diamond? Hey, who are we to wonder?
This is the GM who we watched sign Jose Guillen, trade for Mike Jacobs and acquire Yuniesky Betancourt…twice. The same guy who, when forced to trade Zack Greinke got two All-Stars in return. The same guy who traded his number one prospect for 400+ innings of James Shields and the best reliever in the game. The guy who somehow went back in time and signed the 2011 version of Kendrys Morales in 2015. The guy who signed Chris Young and Ryan Madson when no one else really wanted them. The former ‘stand-pat’ GM who got Ben Zobrist AND Johnny Cueto at the trade deadline. My God, boys and girls, Dayton Moore traded for Johnny Gomes ‘just in case’. At this point, Mr. Moore could seemingly bring Ryan Shealy out of retirement and have him turn in positive WAR.
Not only did this group of athletes change and not only did their general manager change, but so did Ned Yost. Do I want Ned Yost designing the rocket that will take me to Mars? I do not. Do I want him managing my baseball team? I do.
Would the Yost of a few years back have sent Kelvin Herrera out for a third inning in a World Series game? Would he have used his close for multiple innings? Go back to the early days of Yost and tell me if he would have routinely benched a veteran like Alex Rios for a defensive replacement in the seventh inning. Yost’s team got better and that makes any manager look better, but I believe Ned himself got better, too.
The organization got better and, dare I say it, the ownership got better. Salvador Perez and Kelvin Herrera play for someone else if Moore had been hamstrung by the same conditions as Allard Baird had to work under. The past is hard to forget. David and Dan Glass spent much of their early ownership years gutting and flat-out wrecking this franchise and they don’t get forgiveness for that, but they do get credit for changing.
The payoff for having just a bunch of athletes, for sticking with a manager who seemed lost, for allowing a GM to follow a Process that took twice as long as he said it would and for becoming an ownership group that spent money and operated their team like a real franchise all came to fruition when Wade Davis froze Wilmer Flores for a called strike three.
On August 6th, 2005 we took our oldest daughter to her first Royals’ game. That team lost to Oakland 16-1 on their way to losing 106 games. Joe McEwing, Angel Berroa, Denny Hocking, Donnie Murphy and Jimmy Gobble played in that game. In the late innings, Kaitlin looked at me and said “Daddy, this is pretty bad.”
Sunday night she texted me from college: “WORLD CHAMPIONS!”