Royals Proving There are Many Paths to Success in Baseball

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Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

As sports fans, we have a tendency to overreact to the most recent outcomes we see. It’s a sort of recency bias, in that we may see what just happened as the best game, or the best team, or the new strategy of the sport. We’ll observe something that has probably happened many times before, but attempt to place it on some sort of pedestal, as if it is unprecedented. It can be fascinating to watch.

For instance, Time published an article a couple of weeks ago that suggested the Royals are the future of Major League Baseball. The author saw how the team was winning games with blazing speed on the basepaths and an immaculate defense, and how their strategy of putting the ball in play with a bit of small ball led to a World Series appearance. This author then attempts to paint this method of winning baseball games as the next big thing.

It is true that the Royals followed a different plan in getting to the World Series, and it is true that they won games using a high-contact, low-power offense, along with a whole lot of speed and a whole lot of defense. There’s no question that this strategy got the Royals to, and through, the playoffs.

But it’s at this point I must disagree with the author’s premise. The Kansas City Royals are not the future of baseball.

I don’t want to make it sound like this playoff run wasn’t incredible, and it’s certainly not impossible for a team to follow that blueprint and find success. There are already teams trying to take some lessons from the Royals in an attempt to win more games in the future. However, this isn’t a strategy that will be prevalent around baseball simply because it worked for the Royals. And if we’re being honest, what worked for the Royals wasn’t even their exact plan.

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The Royals were banking on having a league-average offense, but that didn’t happen. Their most consistent hitter had the worst season of his career. Their first baseman struggled mightily for three months, and spent another month on the disabled list. Their third baseman had to be demoted to the minors. You think they wanted to scratch runs across by stringing singles together every night?

The team didn’t plan on hitting the fewest home runs in the majors, and even if they thought it was possible, they didn’t plan on hitting just 95 of them all year. The team probably wasn’t expecting to lead the league in walks, but they also didn’t plan on finishing dead last in that category, either. This wasn’t their plan, at least not exactly. It would be very difficult to replicate the 2014 season’s offensive production and still get back to the World Series.

Make no mistake, the Royals and their below-average offense are not the future.

But they’re not the past, either.

Shortly after the Giants won Game 7, I read a few pieces with an “I told you so” vibe, that essentially said the Royals lost because their method of winning games was unsustainable and it was bound to catch up with them. This, also, was nonsense. It ignored the fact that the Giants were even more reliant upon BABIP and their defense than the Royals, and that a couple of bounces in the other direction would have resulted in a Royals’ victory. Ending the season 90 feet from tying Game 7 of the World Series doesn’t invalidate anything.

If there is one thing this Royals’ season should have taught us, it’s that there is more than one way to build a winning team. The Royals may not be the model of winning baseball, but they absolutely are a model.

The 2014 Royals showed that you don’t necessarily have to have a high-octane offense to win games, as long as you make up for it in other ways. This team made up for that lack of power by putting the ball in play, having a lot of speed, and keeping the other team from scoring many runs. I’m sure they would have liked to hit more home runs. Who wouldn’t want to hit more dingers? It’s the quickest way to score a run, so of course the Royals wanted to hit more of them.

Their reliance on so-called “small ball” was borne out of necessity, but it was only possible because of the skillsets of the players Dayton Moore acquired and developed. The Royals made it work because they had players who could make it work. They didn’t have the most talented lineup, but the players possessed characteristics that allowed them to find other ways to score runs instead of the home run.

The Royals’ front office deserves a ton of credit for finding players with undervalued skillsets, and building a roster that worked so well together. In this low-scoring era of baseball, teams must look for whatever advantage they can find, and with the best power hitters and pitchers in the highest demand, it’s necessary to find value elsewhere.

Moore found value in players who defend extremely well, and who made the team’s pitching look even better. This kept the Royals’ opponents’ scoring down. On offense, the Royals had players who put the ball in play, a rarity in today’s high-strikeout game. In a way, this trait is connected to the first. Some teams placed a premium on offense, sacrificing defense to collect the best bats they could find. The Royals took advantage of other teams’ weaknesses by forcing defenders to make plays.

This strategy obviously still has its pitfalls. Putting yourself at the mercy of the BABIP Fairy can be a risky proposition, and not all contact is good contact. Some of the balls put in play – probably too many – were struck weakly and had a very low chance of turning into a hit, but that’s the way the Royals preferred to operate.

A strikeout results in an out nearly 100% of the time. Even if a weak grounder results in an out 92% of the time (random guess), there are still 8 positive outcomes out of every 100 balls in play. That’s not a lot, but it’s also not nothing.

While some teams would rather sell out for power and live with the strikeouts, the Royals wanted to make sure they gave their mostly powerless offense every chance to succeed, which meant putting the ball in play as often as possible.

Again, I’m not saying this is the new best way to score runs in baseball. This is simply a strategy that worked for the Royals, and one that could work for other teams. I still expect to see organizations try to acquire the best hitters and pitchers available, since that does allow for a large margin for error. But for the teams that are unable to bring in players with elite skillsets, targeting players with good contact skills and/or speed may be a way for them to compensate some.

Since elite defenders don’t exactly grow on trees, teams are using shifts more and more frequently in an effort to make up for some of their defensive shortcomings. This could limit the effectiveness of a high-contact plan to some extent, but even the best shifts won’t be successful all of the time. And as I mentioned earlier, even the Royals don’t want to rely on singles in every game.

Home runs will beat a shift every time, no matter what. It’s just that home runs are becoming increasingly rare these days, so teams may need to have a fallback strategy.

So no, the Royals of October are not the future of baseball. There are too many variables to factor in to suggest that singles and stolen bases are going to become the preferred method of scoring runs around the league. However, the Royals proved that there is more than one way to win games, in the regular season and in the playoffs. The Royals found an area of the game in which they could excel, and they did so at an elite level. If you’re looking for one surefire way to win, I suppose that’s probably it.

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