Copying the World Champs

Over the past two seasons, the Royals have gained a reputation for smart baserunning, lethal relief pitching, a contact-heavy offensive approach and excellent defense. Now that they’ve appeared in two consecutive World Series and are the reigning champions of baseball, it’s time for other teams to recognize the value in that formula and do the only thing they can: copy them! Home runs are out. Ace pitchers are out. It’s singles and relievers from here on out, folks. Or until a different team wins next season.

Copying the Royals isn’t too difficult in theory because they have such a well-defined style of play. It’s all those things I just mentioned in the first sentence. If you were watching the World Series you probably noticed how the announcers talked on and on about how the Royals never strike out, play great defense, run the bases with aplomb, and possess a bullpen full of great relievers. So now that the goal is clear, and the means are known. Who is in the best position to copy the Royals?

To find out, I went through this year’s team stats and foudn the top 10 teams in each of the Royals’ favorite categories: team defense, relief pitching, baserunning, and, on offense, fewest strikeouts. Then I assigned each a value based on the ranking (first place in a category received 10 points, second place 9, and so on). Then I added up the value for each team over the category. Is this scientific? No, not close, but it’s hopefully a good shorthanded version of who might be closest to being as Royalsy as the actual Royals. So, who was most like the Royals?

The Royalsyest Team
Defense Relief Base Running Avoiding Ks TOTAL
1 Royals 10 6 0 10 26
2 Indians 8 5 5 3 21
3 Cubs 2 7 9 0 18
4 Rangers 6 0 10 0 16
5 Diamondbacks 5 0 8 0 13
6 Astros 0 9 4 0 13
7 Giants 9 0 0 2 11
8 Orioles 0 10 0 0 10
9 Blue Jays 0 0 6 4 10
10 Angels 4 0 0 5 9
11 Yankees 0 8 0 1 9
12 Braves 0 0 0 9 9
13 A’s 0 0 0 8 8
14 Rays 7 0 0 0 7
15 Marlins 1 0 0 6 7
16 Reds 0 0 7 0 7
17 Red Sox 0 0 0 7 7
18 Pirates 0 4 0 0 4
19 Tigers 3 0 0 0 3
20 Cardinals 0 3 0 0 3
21 Mets 0 0 3 0 3
22 Dodgers 0 2 0 0 2
23 Padres 0 0 2 0 2
24 Brewers 0 1 0 0 1
25 Rockies 0 0 1 0 1

As it turns out, the Royals were most like the Royals. If you just listened to the media then it’s perhaps a bit shocking that this isn’t all a media-created narrative. It’s been written about and blabbed about seemingly forever, but if you watched the postseason then you likely know the Royals really are excellent defensively, fantastic at avoiding strikeouts, and they do have an incredibly strong pen.

Even so, the Royals aren’t exactly the Royals, at least not according to what we’ve been told. They weren’t in the top 10 best base running teams this season and in fact, they weren’t close. They finished 19th in our Base Running category (a combination of UBR with wSB and wGDP). They weren’t particularly fantastic last season, either — though they were better, finishing 10th. The Royals ran the bases effectively during the postseason, and especially so during the World Series, but it’s not not hard to envision a world where Lucas Duda’s 90-foot throw wasn’t put-me-at-DH-now level awful and Eric Hosmer was out by about five feet.

The Royals get credit for the play because they made it, because they pushed the proverbial envelope, and also because they were cognizant of the competition they were up against. Maybe against the Dodgers and Adrian Gonzalez Hosmer doesn’t try to score. Or maybe he does and he’s out by five feet and we’re not talking about the Royals’ great propensity for chance-taking and seizing the moment. Instead we’re marveling at what a boneheaded play Hosmer made to get thrown out at home to end a World Series game.

But even with all that, even with some #Narrative thrown in for flavor, as the chart shows, the Royals are the real deal. They play great defense, have great relievers, especially towards the back of the pen where it matters more during the postseason, and they do put the ball in play more than any other team. The value of that was discussed by  Ben Lindbergh in a piece at the (dearly departed) Grantland recently, but the short version is high-contact players might play better against power pitchers, like say how the Royals did against the Mets.

So on to the chart. As you can clearly see, the non-Royals team with the highest Royalsyiest score is the Indians. What’s more, unlike the Royals themselves, the Indians score across the board in every category, just not quite as high. They’re a top defensive team and likely to get better with full seasons of Francisco Lindor, Lonnie Chisenhall, and potentially some more from Roberto Perez and Giovanny Urshela. Their bullpen features top relievers Cody Allen and Zach McAllister, who could potentially stand in for a Wade Davis or a Luke Hochevar come playoff time, and a bunch of their regulars are plus baserunners. On top of that, the Indians feature something the Royals don’t — or didn’t for most of the year, depending on what you think of Johnny Cueto: ace-level starting pitching with Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber.

The thing is, though, I’ve assigned numbers based on rankings which doesn’t quite do justice to what the Royals have accomplished in 2015. For example, by our defensive metrics, the difference between the first-place Royals and the second-place Giants is greater than the difference between the second place Giants and the 16th-place Mets. With regard to relief performance, by which category the Royals are further down the list, the opposite is true, as there is a large bunch of teams with similarly effective bullpens generating similar value. The second-place Astros, for example, had 5.3 WAR while the third-place Yankees had 5.2, and the fourth-/fifth-place Cubs and Royals had 5.0. There’s not much in the way of difference there.

Team strikeouts are the same way, as the Royals struck out just 973 times this season, the fewest in baseball. The team with the next fewest strikeouts was the Braves, but they struck out 1107 times, 134 more than Kansas City. Being the best at one thing is great, but if you’re only marginally better than your competition the value is muted. The Royals did what they did and they did it, for the most part, much better than any other team in baseball.

Of course, as we are likely to forget amidst all the fawning over the most recently crowned World Champs, speed, defense, and relief pitching isn’t the only formula to building a World Series-winning team. The Mets finished third from last on only one of those lists and it was base-running, the least valuable of any, and they made the World Series. Heck, they even beat the Royals once! Last season the Giants did it with hitting and Madison Bumgarner. The year before, the Red Sox did it with hitting, starting pitching, and Jonny Gomes‘ magic team happy powder.

Still, if you were to pick a team that might be able, through a few slight additions to its roster, to best emulate this year’s championship Royals squad, the Indians are probably that team. Perhaps adding Darren O’Day while moving Carlos Santana to DH to bring in a better fielding first baseman would yield greater benefits for Cleveland than we know. With a little tweaking Cleveland could be the next Royals. That is, unless the Royals do it again.

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Dayton Moore
8 years ago

When do I get my kudos?

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
8 years ago
Reply to  Dayton Moore

Sorry, ate them all.

But you can have all the Double Bubble that was left over from Halloween.

Balls Up
8 years ago
Reply to  Dayton Moore

Congratulations. Your team was terrible enough that you had year after year of early 1st round picks which you used to acquire all of your core players.

Except your shortstop/lead-off man, who amassed a superstar worthy .293 OBP.

You’re a freaking genius, Dayton.