Imitation is the Sincerest Form of the Peter Principle
Congratulations to the 2015 World Series Champion Kansas City Royals. A team picked by many to finish 3rd or 4th in their own division, and with striking agreement among most projection systems, has shocked the baseball world and inspired a great deal of commentary about what teams should and shouldn’t take from their success. With two consecutive AL Pennants, one Series title and a highly idiosyncratic, instantly recognizable approach, the Royals seem like a good team to learn from, or out-and-out copy.
You probably know a lot of what makes the Royals so seemingly unique: their possibly historically great contact skills helped them in the playoffs when they faced good/high K% pitching. Their team speed put pressure on opposing batteries, while providing their own pitchers with an elite run-preventing defensive unit. Finally, they have an incredible bullpen that’s been consistent for a period of years, defying the volatility that’s sunk other groups (and proved to be a key issue in the M’s disappointing 2015). The M’s new front office and manager have alluded to or mentioned a few of these directly – from Jerry Dipoto noting that the M’s minor leaguers had serious whiff problems and Scott Servais saying he’d like to spend on bullpen improvements this offseason.
This post isn’t about copying the Royals, though. The pieces linked above are all much better on that topic than anything I could wring out, if you’re interested in the Royals Way and how to make it our own. What I’d like to talk about is the problem with Grand Theories of Roster Construction, or the idea that the first step in organizational change is adopting a bulleted list of the attributes of successful rivals. This isn’t to say that a team should go full Zen and let go of any and all theories about the game, how to win, and what attributes to scout for. Rather, the point is that baseball keeps telling us that it’s the particulars that matter, not the sweeping theories. We get fixated on the theories because it’s fun, because humans always love finding patterns in things, and because GMs sometimes talk about them and because writers – from beat writers to basement-dwellers like me – like talking about GMs talking about them. The Cubs are the dingers and strikeouts team. The Mets are the fast-fastballing team with all the hair. The Royals are the put-it-in-play and catch it team. None of this is wrong, but it’s limited, and that means it’s of limited use when trying to copy it.
The Royals offensive K% was the lowest in baseball this year at 15.6%. Despite the league-wide rise in strikeouts, the Royals cut their rate by a little less than one 1 percentage point from 2014 – when they were *still* the hardest team in baseball to strike out. But look at #2 on the 2015 (and 2014, actually) list: the Athletics. The A’s offense wasn’t completely terrible – they left that to their bullpen – but then, neither the A’s nor the Royals offense was all that great. The Royals position players excelled not because they didn’t strike out, but because they combined contact skills with defense.
The difficulty of combining the two won’t come as a surprise to M’s fans, of course. In 2008, the M’s offense put up a K% of 14.4%, lowest in the big leagues. They had one elite defender and baserunner in Ichiro, but many of the other low-K guys were defensively-challenged: Jose Vidro, Miguel Cairo, Jose Lopez. Still, this was clearly a priority for the front office at the time, and one that drove many of us crazy at the time. I won’t lie and say this isn’t a bias; I hear about collecting contact hitters and the advantages of a “relentless” lineup and I think about the Jose Vidro trade, or about Yuniesky Betancourt starting at SS for what felt like decades. No one that I know of is saying that contact rates, on their own, are the key to success in the low-scoring run-environment we find ourselves, but *recent* history shows just how limited it can be.
Contact hitting has gotten all the recent press, but any team is, by its structure and complexity, pretty hard to sum up in 3-4 bullet points. One of the most striking things to me about the Royals, and one I haven’t seen mentioned as much, is their patience. Not at the plate, of course. I mean: the Royals acquired, developed and then waited on several key members of their offensive core. Most teams, I suspect, would have cut bait on one or more of Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain. The Royals didn’t, and the players in question matured and improved substantially in the majors. Is patience the next market inefficiency? Is it impossible to develop players *in the majors* in a world of hot takes and hot seats?
Again, the Mariner fan in me would argue that “patience” is more or less neutral as a descriptive term for a front office. The Zduriencik regime made a potentially franchise-altering deal of a rent-a-pitcher about 6 months before Kansas City did – both acquired prospects their new clubs expected to become part of an offensive core for years to come. Lorenzo Cain had a brief call-up with Milwaukee, just as Justin Smoak had appeared for Texas. While both had made their debuts just before the trade, the industry was higher on Justin Smoak than Lorenzo Cain or Alcides Escobar; the fact that the Royals went for quantity over quality complicates the neat little parallels I’m drawing.
In any event, the immediate effect on the receiving teams wasn’t a big one. Cain spent nearly all of 2011 in AAA, while Smoak scuffled at both AAA and Seattle. Alcides Escobar went directly to the Royals’ starting lineup, but produced a 70 wRC+. The defense was nice, but a .290 OBP is tough to stomach on a team that hit for average and tried (and failed) to hit their way past an abysmal pitching staff. Escobar and Cain made huge strides at the plate the next year. While Escobar’s glove was a bit shakier, he actually hit, and Cain was solid in about half a season. 2013, though, was a disaster. In the year after the big Wade Davis trade (it seems pointless to keep calling it the Shields trade), Cain slumped to an 80 wRC+, while Escobar utterly collapsed, posting one of the worst non-Zunino years in recent memory* with a line of .234/.250/.300 (a wRC+ of 49) over 642 plate appearances. Defense up the middle is great, but we M’s fans remember Jack Wilson and Brendan Ryan, and know that there’s a minimum level of offense required, and I’d argue that Escobar was comfortably short of it. If the Royals looked for upgrades between 2013 and 2014, they didn’t pull the trigger. Escobar started at SS again in 2014, and the Royals decided to stick with both Cain *and* homegrown defensive ace Jarrod Dyson. You know what happened.
The M’s, too, showed remarkable patience with both Justin Smoak and his fellow future star, Dustin Ackley. Ackley’s debut was brilliant, and while Smoak was up and down, there were signs of life, especially after a decent 2013 campaign. Both Ackley and Smoak would tantalize with a brilliant month. They’d work on something with hitting coaches in Tacoma, or they’d change their diet and/or their swing. You can understand why the M’s were loathe to either sell low on either, and conflicted over whether this or that stretch of 50 at-bats was the one where something clicked permanently. The M’s stuck with their youngsters as long as they could, and it cost the front office their jobs. The M’s, more than any other team in the AL West, was a draft and wait team. With Oakland and Houston constantly making trades, and with Anaheim using free agency and a few trades to work around a thin system, the M’s were remarkably dependent on drafted players. The Royals and M’s were perhaps the two most patient teams in the game, and it’s taken them to very, very different places.
The point here is fairly obvious, but, at least to me, worth repeating. How WELL you implement your strategy is more important than your strategy. If a team wants to copy the Royals by cribbing a set of high-level traits, they will most likely fail, just like a team trying to copy the Cubs dingers-and-Ks strategy will fail as bad as the M’s attempts at slugging their way out of the basement did. The one positive thing about being an M’s fan in the past decade is that we’ve had a long, painful object lesson in the meaninglessness of grand strategies that aren’t connected to on-the-ground competence in the core activities of player development. So you want to build around young sluggers, great: which ones are Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant and which ones are Jeff Clement and Justin Smoak? Contact and defense? OK, but you need to differentiate Escobar from Betancourt, and you need to trade for Coco Crisp and not Jose Vidro. The M’s efforts in re-making their player development group matters more – hopefully much more – than the vision of the specific type of MLB team Jerry Dipoto wants to build.
* For all of their successful moves and their remarkable 2-year run, this year’s Royals managed to give 455 PAs to Omar Infante, who produced a 44 wRC+ this year – .220/.234/.318, which is pretty amazing. It’s superficially a bit better than Zunino’s .174/.230/.300 line, but park effects give Zunino the edge in wRC+, 47 to 44. We’re [not] #1!!! Patience got Infante a heck of a long rope, but it did not get him on a postseason roster.