Imitation is the Sincerest Form of the Peter Principle

marc w · November 3, 2015 at 5:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.


17 Responses to “Imitation is the Sincerest Form of the Peter Principle”

  1. BackseatGM on November 3rd, 2015 6:42 pm

    Im not going to pretend that Jose Vidro was the 2nd coming of Edgar or anything but I do get amused when I see him ripped so badly knowing his .314 BA tied Cano for the highest non-Ichiro average since Bret Boone in 2001 and was 100 points higher, give or take, than some of the ones put up by guys like Ackley and Smoak. But then, the favorite Mariner of all time to roast over the coals is Richie Sexson and all he did his first 2 years here was hit 73 HR’s, 228 RBI’s and bat .263 and .264. Yeah, he died in years 3 and 4 but until Cruz came along last year we hadn’t seen power numbers like that since ARod and Junior.

  2. Westside guy on November 3rd, 2015 8:06 pm

    “The Royals offensive K% was the lowest in baseball this year at 15.6%.”

    In units we Mariners fans can understand: That’s 1/3 of a Zunino.

  3. eponymous coward on November 3rd, 2015 10:41 pm

    I do get amused when I see him ripped so badly knowing his .314 BA tied Cano for the highest non-Ichiro average since Bret Boone in 2001 and was 100 points higher, give or take, than some of the ones put up by guys like Ackley and Smoak.

    Because it was empty batting average based on luck, and it was very obvious he was going to not stay lucky for two years, and he didn’t.

    But then, the favorite Mariner of all time to roast over the coals is Richie Sexson and all he did his first 2 years here was hit 73 HR’s, 228 RBI’s and bat .263 and .264. Yeah, he died in years 3 and 4 but until Cruz came along last year we hadn’t seen power numbers like that since ARod and Junior.

    So, you’re all in favor of overpaying obvious collapse candidates who will be millstones on the roster when their deals turn out bad. You must have wept tears of joy when we signed Washburn and Silva.

  4. Notfromboise on November 4th, 2015 12:39 am

    Or Cano and Cruz…

    The concept of empty batting average reminds me more of Endy Chavez and Willie Bloomquist, to be perfectly blunt.

    The concept of copying the Royals is certainly an interesting thought. On a broader spectrum, you can argue the Royals got a fair share of luck and health along the way, and a team on the come-up like the Mariners could be copying any playoff team, not just the one who ended up winning it all.

    For example, Imagine if the Mets won the World Series. Would teams wanting to copy strive for signing rent-a-dingers (Cespedes)? Second basemen ready to lull you to sleep with consistency then going Ruthian for two timely weeks? A slew of young team-controlled Doc-Gooden prototype starters? etc. etc. you get the idea.

    Copying the Cubs would be insane. Big Ticket free agent pitchers, the best young hitters in the game.. etc.

    I think teams will copy the Royal prototype not because they won, but because their system is attainable… It’s worlds cheaper to assemble of lineup of contact hitters with B+ talent and bringing in bullpen help. Lets remember the starting pitching the Royals started the season with wasn’t envied by ANYONE.

    Enough rambling, lets just say I’d rather see Dipoto, Servais, and co. look to the Astros and Pirates as much as the Royals.

  5. Longgeorge1 on November 4th, 2015 8:50 am

    “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”

    The point is in order to execute your strategy you need players capable of executing that strategy. The M’s present roster could no longer become a contact/defense/bullpen team than a lion could become a tiger.
    You can take a long term plan and build a roster to fit your strategy or in the short term adjust your strategy to fit your roster.

  6. Westside guy on November 4th, 2015 9:56 am

    … and to tack onto what Longgeorge1 said – if things don’t work out, be sure to draw your conclusions based on what actually happened versus what you thought was supposed to happen.

    I remember Jack Z’s 2009-2010 clubs. They were supposedly all about “good defense and high OBP”. When the 2010 club tanked, I kept reading about how the model had failed – but the problem was, while the team was supposed to be good at getting on base, it actually sucked at it. So it wasn’t the model that had failed, it was the execution.

    I’ve sometimes wondered if Jack Z had bought into that narrative, and that was part of what drove the dramatic change of attitude he obviously had.

  7. mksh21 on November 4th, 2015 4:07 pm

    I’ve been reading with interest the building of the Royals for years on BP. What’s interesting is that their blueprint for success seems to not match up at all with their intended blueprint.

    Hosmer- Expected to crush the ball and struggle in the field becomes the exact opposite.

    Gordon- was a cant miss power hitting third baseman who becomes a doubles machine and Ichiro in the outfield… except left field.

    Moustakas- Another can’t miss prospect, terrible hitting along for the ride playing gold glove defense, then after 2,000 major at bats turns in a 120 OPS+ in 2015

    The starting pitching drafted to set the rotation for years pretty much all flamed out and they end up with an amazing bullpen instead.

    The Royals have a plethora of players who seem to have blazing speed and nothing else and try to turn them in to baseball players. Lorenzo Cain actually did (17th round Milwaukee) Dyson isn’t an ideal player but he helps them.

    I’m trying NOT to say the Royals lucked into back to back World Series’ but Dayton Moore’s “process” turned out a lot different and a lot weirder than he or anybody could have anticipated.

    He acquired the proper players they worked out in ways nobody thought they would.

    Jumping on and recognizing the opportunity and some ballsy moves (Shields-Myers trade in 14), getting Cueto, they got themselves to the playoffs 2 years in a row and then baseball happens- back back world series with a title.

  8. Transient Gadfly on November 4th, 2015 4:21 pm

    This is seriously one of the most insightful things on this subject that I’ve read in awhile.

  9. Longgeorge1 on November 4th, 2015 8:33 pm

    Imitation almost always turns out more expensive than the original. Demand always raises the price of the product.
    The comic book version of what Beane did with the A’s shows him turning OBP and WHIP into a winning formula. Many interpreted that to mean he had found a secret. While those numbers and the many more sophisticated numbers to follow are certainly a better way to understand baseball than the old Triple Crown and ERA numbers. Beane’s real secret is he bought low. He found and still does find skillsets that are out of favor but useful and buys. The Royals developed a team that emphasized contact/speed/defense and bullpen. Not exactly revolutionary but skills that were out of favor with the current crowd. To copy the Royals will become more expensive as more customers go shopping in that aisle. Cost effective success will go to the GM that can spot skill sets that are effective but not in current fashion. It also allows you to browse a talent pool that no one else is draining. Being different in itself does not guarantee success, but you cannot become a leader if you are content to follow.

  10. Notfromboise on November 5th, 2015 12:00 am

    Longgeorge1- Very good breakdown of the economics of rolling with the trends. Following is indeed expensive if you are surrounded by other followers.

    I’m actually really glad for Beane that he struck lightning twice, and the A’s surged to a second block of successful seasons. It would have been too easy to dismiss that first incarnation of the money ball A’s as them simply hitting home runs with Mulder, Zito, and Hudson. The fact that once his underpaid team controlled trio got paid and/or left and got paid, that he still defied the odds proved that his system worked is amazing. And THAT was when the infatuation with OBP, OPS, and other metrics truly began.

    The real mystery variable in the Beane story is finding young talent en masse that actually pans out. Us Mariner fans (all of MLB, frankly) understand how truly difficult that kind of success is to obtain. Its even harder than the ccrapshoot of getting an expected level of production out of signed free agents, who actually have documented histories against MLB pitching/hitting.

  11. LongDistance on November 5th, 2015 6:08 am

    Yep. The Mystery Variable of having players actually do what is expected or hoped. On one hand, you can have players with such excellent numbers that the margin for underperformance is so huge that they’re worthwhile even in a slump. But with guys who have to ride tight on their sabremetric stat expectations, the margin is slim. At which point … uh … Angel Dust? Maybe something systemic? Something deeply baseball which Billy Beane seems to represent which seeps down through the ranks, but which Jack Z. didn’t or couldn’t possess.

    The strange, Dark Side of baseball. Which, I have to admit, I do love watching in this Brave New World of baseball where off-season analytics confronts in-season performance, and theory runs smack into practice. Like some sort of pragmatic Jamesian Truth Proof being shock tested.

  12. Eastside Crank on November 5th, 2015 1:59 pm

    The Royals also rebuilt their minor league system. They have become an elite team as their minor league players have filled in their roster. I am hoping the Mariners will do the same and not be in such a rush to put minor league players on the major league roster.

  13. Longgeorge1 on November 5th, 2015 7:32 pm

    Years ago I had an interesting talk with an upper management type regarding training for employees. He flat out stated that training was the easiest and first thing to cut. It saves money and the results don’t manifest for awhile. By then hopefully you have been promoted because of your “expertise” in controlling cost and the poorly trained staff was the next guys problem. Our last two GMs ( Z and Dip) have taken over a club with nothing on the farm. HMMMM!

  14. Dennisss on November 5th, 2015 8:43 pm

    I suppose we will have a post on the Miller trade sometime. Meanwhile, I like the idea. I have thought for a while that it makes more sense to trade Miller than to teach him to play outfield, as he has more certain value as an infielder.

    Dipoto didn’t waste a lot of time deciding that was the way to go.

  15. MrZDevotee on November 5th, 2015 9:38 pm

    The “strategy” the Royals used was to outscore their opponents in the post season by 40 runs after the 7th inning. The Royals would be hard pressed to copy the Royals 2015 model, much less anyone else.

    In fact, the Royals post season, much like the Giants string of 3 wins in 5 years, is the epitome of ‘baseball’… It CAN’T be quantified. You can’t build a stat predictor that will win you a division in the regular season, and then make you an unstoppable run machine after the 7th inning throughout the playoffs.

    It’s hard to remember “way back when” they were 1 out away from being bounced by the Astros. So their amazing roster construction was a miraculously lucky moment away from being a failure.

    Baseball shares some of its math with gambling. Odds are you’re gonna fail– but given a good string of luck, you can defy those odds and show some good fortunes that will have other people trying to figure out what your unique “skill” is…

  16. Notfromboise on November 5th, 2015 9:51 pm

    Taken right from the AP:

    “(TB Prez) Silverman said parting with Karns was made easier by the emergence of former Seattle pitcher Erasmo Ramirez”

    Ouch. That part i didnt like, but i do like the idea of getting a quality starter and a solid hitting prospect out of the swap.

    Boog Powell is interesting. Had a .295 BA / .385 obp (61 walks!) in double AA last year. Also pulled a Montero by racking up a 50 game suspension for PED abuse (Amphetamines) in Single A, so we’ll see. He’s an outfielder with leadoff potential. Exactly what we are looking for if he pans out.

  17. Notfromboise on November 5th, 2015 9:59 pm

    Here’s the real question:

    Forgetting the fact that JackZ was in office and would have screwed it up terribly..

    Doesnt it seem we traded Miller over a year too late? His value as a legit young SS with Pop was worlds stronger than some poor kid who spent a year plus getting yanked from position to position trying to learn the outfield on-the-fly.

    Is Brad Millers real crime here the fact that Seattle signed Cano? That Taylor hit September 40man roster pitching well enough to inspire his outfield move?

    Thats the more interesting talking point, for me. Miller was worth more to just about any other team than ours.

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