KC Royals: Breaking down the question of contention

When will the KC Royals finally start seeing some success and could their contention window get here sooner than we think? If so, what will it take?

There has been plenty of discussion regarding the KC Royals’ window of contention. Is this the year they finally compete? Most fans resoundingly negate that statement. How about 2021? Eh, maybe. 2022? Now we’re getting real. 2023? Yes, that’s the one for sure.

“Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today.” – Benjamin Franklin

Baseball is unlike the other major sports in the country. If Mike Trout was an NBA player, he probably would make the playoffs at a higher clip than his current rate (once in eight seasons, and got swept in the 2014 LDS by who else? The KC Royals). Only in baseball can the sports’ greatest player in a generation or maybe ever, finish 43 games behind first place in their division (and still win league MVP, but that’s another subject).

The 2001 Texas Rangers assembled (on paper) one of the best offensive teams in MLB history, and ended up last in the AL West. The Rangers employed All-Stars Alex Rodriguez, Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Michael Young, Ken Caminiti, Andres Galarraga, Ruben Sierra, among others. Pundits were ready to hand them the World Series trophy, and they faltered catastrophically.

These Rangers would’ve won multiple titles in the NBA, instead they finished 43 games behind the Seattle Mariners (the team A-Rod exited from the previous season, and oh, by the way also lost Ken Griffey, Jr. and Randy Johnson only two years before). This is like LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Chicago Bulls and finishing 40 games behind them the following year while also playing along Anthony Davis and Zach LaVine.

Let’s look at a different example more closely related to the KC Royals in terms of financial resources.

The Tampa Bay Rays had never won over 70 games until 2008 – ten years after their existence. In 2008, they won a whopping 97 games. What changed? Not much. Well, that’s not true, the club hired manager Joe Maddon two years prior, but the roster was basically the same in 2006-2007 as in 2008, with the only key difference being rookie Evan Longoria – and are we willing to say he made up for a 31-win difference? Since 2008 (11 years), the Rays have enjoyed seven winning seasons in a division they share with the New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox, while consistently ranking among the lowest teams in terms of attendance, revenue, and overall payroll.

Teams that have money to spend struggle to reach their goals. The New York Yankees outspent every team this last decade, and had no World Series appearances to show for it. They seek the best talent, and often obtain such talent, but they don’t reach their goals. So what’s the Royals’ excuse?

If we were in the army, and commanded a platoon, we couldn’t give our soldiers permission to fail, regardless of the personnel we may have on our team. We can’t just say “we’re losing this next war because congress didn’t provide us enough funds, we don’t have the talent to fight, and we’re going through a rebuilding phase.” We couldn’t do that, we’d find a way to win no matter what, and that must be the expectation.

I don’t think people understood what it was I was doing at Shaffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any (expletive) moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong. The next Charlie Parker. I told you about how Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker, right? – Terrence Fletcher, Whiplash (2014)

This quote is by way of the 2014 film Whiplash. I highly recommend it if you haven’t watched it already. The Terrence Fletcher character is more of a Bobby Knight type coach, and this example isn’t to promote that leadership style. However, their intent, although wild, toxic, and dangerous, was to push their students to the maximum and getting the most of their talents. Leaders do this in various ways, but there’s more than simply “conducting” as the above quote mentions, and in the case of baseball, it’s more than just managing.

If we give our teams permission to be mediocre, then they’ll collect a paycheck and perform according to those expectations. Part of being a great leader is pushing players’ talents beyond their capabilities, and plant a vision of success.

The Royals’ current roster isn’t made up of players that were picked up off the street (as often is the case with the military). These are professional baseball players that earned the right to make it to the highest level of their craft. It’s ineffective to tell an entire professional team that they’re not good enough, and we’re just waiting until the right time to win, which time may not include their services, as we’re using them to collect better players in the future.

There was a recent article from the Royals Review written by Max Rieper titled “What does it take to build a sustainable winner?” Max did an excellent job breaking down different aspects of actions that could lead to lasting success. He mentioned avoiding signing long-term free agent contracts, trading good players away before they decline, letting players leave, drafting college pitchers after the first round, and identifying underrated gems in other organizations. All valid points, and essential to placing the team in position to compete.

However, there’s something missing with this list when we talk about sustained success. These are all administrative-focused factors. Can the Royals win on the field based solely on successful management of administrative matters? Does the military win wars because they have a strong administrative process? Not at all.

Of course, it’s important to avoid mismanagement of personnel and available assets, but what drives a successful organization? The military has who they have, and they train them, develop them, deploy them, and believe in every single one of them to do the job that needs to be accomplished to win today – not tomorrow or three years from now.

Speaking of the military, here’s another example. In a league that is mainly driven by talented players and big city glamour, San Antonio Spurs head coach and Air Force Academy grad Gregg Popovich has found tremendous success operating under small market San Antonio, Texas – arguably the most successful organization in sports over the last two decades. His leadership is second to none, and here’s what he says about what he looks for in his players:

Dr. Warren Bennis, Founding Chair of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California made key distinctions between leaders and managers. He said that managers administer, maintain, and control, and leaders motivate, develop, and inspire. Everything highlighted in Max’s argument had to do with a manager’s scope of responsibility. Where’s the constant motivation, development, and inspiration of the Kansas City Royals?

If we get of the mindset that the conditions must be perfect to have a decent season, then we’ll continue to get trapped in mediocrity. The conditions won’t always be perfect. Administrative decisions such as drafting, trading, and signing free agents might as well take place at a fancy hotel in Las Vegas. Despite all the research, scouting, and late nights endlessly crunching numbers, these decisions are close to gambling because it’s difficult to predict future individual performances in baseball (see Jason Heyward in Chicago, Albert Pujols in LA, Mark Teixeira in NYY and many more).

All the pieces must fit within the construct of a baseball team. It’s like an orchestra, where everyone is part of a bigger puzzle and is responsible for operating within their scope of responsibility to the best of their abilities. Baseball is not dependent on brute athleticism, or incredible speed, or wild displays of strength. Baseball is strategic, it’s not necessarily slow, but requires certain pace, and the most successful teams operate as a single unit understanding their exact role needed for the team to win.

The truth may sadly be that contention in Kansas City will happen in spurts. Perhaps the team will start winning in 2022 as projected based on not having the right personnel, but the question then becomes, who are we talking about when mentioning “the right personnel?”

Mike Matheny thankfully arrives from operating under a winning organization with the St. Louis Cardinals, and knew that underperforming was not an option. Is that the same understanding as he takes over the Royals, or will he also be given a chance at mediocrity?

Next: Breaking down the 2020 projection stats

The only constant that an MLB organization has any control over is the way they go about leading their people, and how they motivate, develop, and inspire them. Can the Kansas City Royals shake their “win-later” mindset and begin establishing a culture of sustained excellence and perpetual contention come spring training? Yes, this spring training. We’ll see.

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