IThe KC Royals won the 2015 World Series for a reason. Along with a strong roster, smart coaching, and a little luck, the team was also constructed according to a smart front-office plan.
After watching Billy Beane put sabermetric theories into practice on his way to four consecutive playoff trips between 2000-03 in small market Oakland, their rivals took notice. When the big market Boston Red Sox broke an 86-year World Series curse in 2004 after hiring 28-year-old sabermetrics acolyte Theo Epstein as GM in 2003, baseball was convinced.
Michael Lewis published the best-seller “Moneyball” in 2003, taking the sabermetrics revolution to the masses.
Ever since the Moneyball era, most teams have followed a new conventional wisdom that prized On Base Percentage (OBP) and home runs on offense, while ignoring strikeouts when building their lineups.
The 2015 Kansas City Royals have turned this approach on its head.
The game has changed since the Moneyball revolution. Instead of being undervalued, OBP became very expensive on the free agent marketplace. With hitters working deep into the count to take walks, and teams deploying more power arms from the bullpen than ever before, strikeouts took off around 2009—also aided by an expanding strike zone due to the introduction of Pitch f/x technology in every major-league ball park.
While the walk and bash model from the early noughts still works, teams loaded with whiff-prone hitters pile up more harmless outs than ever before. Such teams are also extremely vulnerable to the new wave of power-arms coming from bullpen, which allowed the 2014 KC Royals to dominate the late innings with their famed HDH trio.
Instead, the Kansas City Royals understood that the ability to make contact had value that was largely being ignored in the marketplace. Indeed, ever since the 2009 spike in strikeouts, the better contact-hitting team has gone 35-14 in playoff series. That’s a 71.4 percent success rate in 49 trials.
As a result, the KC Royals not only focused on adding players with natural contact-hitting skills to their system through free-agency and the draft, they continued to teach contact hitting skills in their minor league development. As a result, the Kansas City Royals hitters hack at pitches early in the count.
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While this approach flies in the face of the Moneyball strategy of taking pitches to burn up starters and get into the opponents bullpen, the KC Royals tendency to swing at hittable pitches early in the count prevents pitchers from using two-strike “out” pitches that tease the edges of the strike zone before moving out of reach.
Instead, Kansas City Royals hitters’ goal is to end the at-bat before the pitcher can deploy his most effective stuff.
This lineup construction means the KC Royals might not wear down starters as effectively as many other teams. But, with dominant relief arms now coming in waves, getting into the bullpen isn’t such a great strategy anymore.
The end result is the 2015 Kansas City Royals fielded what might have been the best contact hitting team in major-league history, relative to league-wide strikeout rates. This lineup ended up becoming the most devastating comeback force in playoff history, pulling off eight comeback victories in the 16 post-season games it took for the Royals to win the 2015 World Series.
This winter, KC Royals general manager Dayton Moore is receiving the greatest compliment his peers can give: multiple teams are attempting to copy his winning blueprint.