One Enduring Reason Why The Royals Are Still Playing

Much has been made of the supposed mediocrity of the two teams currently battling for the World Series championship. Not only are the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals both wild card teams, they’re the first pair of Fall Classic combatants to both win fewer than 90 games in the regular season. That said, there are a number of reasons why these clubs are worthy title competitors. The core of this Giants team, after all, has won two of the past four titles. The Royals, while a very poor offensive club by postseason standards, are clearly a strong run-prevention unit — riding defense and speed and a stellar bullpen into October. Very quietly, though, there is something else that truly stands about this Royals team: the durability of their core nine position players whose names are written into the lineup almost every day.

While perusing the Royals team statistics the other day, something jumped out at me. All nine of their primary position players (including their designated hitter) had at least 500 plate appearances this season. This might seem like a fairly arbitrary cutoff, but it is a nice round number, and one that is in very close proximity to the minimum 502 required to qualify for a batting title. I also noticed there was a total of two other players who cleared even the very low 100 plate appearance barrier — one being fourth outfielder/speed merchant/guided missile Jarrod Dyson, the other being Danny Valencia, who isn’t even on the club anymore.

A quick look of the rest of the American League’s team stats made it clear the Royals are the only club even close to having all nine primary position players reach the 500 plate-appearance plateau. I decided to go back to the beginning of the DH era to see how many AL clubs that reached the postseason did the same, omitting strike-shortened seasons in 1981, 1994 and 1995. In that time frame, 119 different clubs have made the playoffs. Below you will find the regulars for the six teams that met this criteria:

2014 KC 2007 BOS 2003 BOS 1996 TEX 1982 CAL 1975 OAK
C Perez Varitek Varitek Rodriguez Boone Tenace
1B Hosmer Youkilis Millar Clark Carew Rudi
2B Infante Pedroia Walker McLemore Grich Garner
SS Escobar Lugo Garciaparra Elster Foli Campaneris
3B Moustakas Lowell Mueller Palmer DeCinces Bando
LF Gordon Ramirez Ramirez Greer Downing Washington
CF Cain Crisp Damon Hamilton Lynn North
RF Aoki Drew Nixon Gonzalez Jackson Jackson
DH Butler Ortiz Ortiz Tettleton Baylor Williams
% TM PA 84.9% 83.8% 84.2% 85.6% 86.8% 88.3%
AVG AGE 27.8 30.4 29.9 29.3 32.8 28.8

Only 5% of the AL playoff teams in the DH era had nine 500 plate-appearance players. It’s pretty eclectic group, to be sure. The 1975 Oakland A’s were coming off of three consecutive World Series championships, and tried to pull off a modified rebuild while still contending for a title, plugging rookies Phil Garner and Claudell Washington into second base and left field, respectively. Their starting nine racked up an amazing 88.3% of their total plate appearances, with no backup accumulating more than Ray Fosse’s 147 plate appearances.

The 1982 California Angels are by far the oldest of these clubs. Each regular was at least 30 years old, with an average age of 32.8. Reggie Jackson was the right fielder on both this club and on the ’75 A’s. This was one of manager Gene Mauch’s many near-misses, along with the 1964 Phillies and 1986 Angels and predictably, this over-the-hill gang that backslid significantly to 70 wins in 1983.

The 1996 Texas Rangers were an offensive-oriented club, perhaps the polar opposite of the 2014 Royals. They are probably the most unlikely collection of players on this list: Kevin Elster, Dean Palmer, Juan Gonzalez and even Will Clark and Rusty Greer aren’t names you’re often going to see associated with the word “durability.” For this one season, however, they all stayed healthy. This may have been a byproduct of their era.

Next are the 2003 Boston Red Sox, which got Aaron Booned out of the playoffs, only to have their day in the sun the next season. Outside of their core starting nine, Shea Hillenbrand was next in line for plate appearances, with only 200. Along with the 1975 A’s and 1982 Angels, these were the only three American League playoff teams on with six 600 plate-appearance players.

The 2007 World Series champion Red Sox are next, with three holdovers from the 2003 group — Jason Varitek, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz — still in place. This also was a fairly old group. The core nine’s average age was 30.4. Interestingly, the 2008 Red Sox were the only AL playoff club since 1973 to have only three 500 plate appearance players. Boston began the season with the same core group, plus Jacoby Ellsbury, but injuries and midseason trades intervened, including the three-way deal that sent Manny Ramirez packing and brought Jason Bay to Fenway Park.

Then there’s the 2014 Royals. They didn’t platoon at any position, and the only notable extended absences among their core nine position players were caused by Eric Hosmer’s hand injury and Mike Moustakas‘ brief demotion to the minor leagues. They are by the far the youngest of these six clubs, with an average age of 27.8, and with as many — three — regulars ages 25 or younger as over 30.

In addition to the six aforementioned clubs with nine 500 plate-appearance guys, the following seven clubs had eight such players. The ninth position — the one that fell short — and the player who primarily manned it is listed for each club:

– 1977 Yankees (DH, Lou Piniella)
– 1990 Red Sox (SS, Luis Rivera)
– 1999 Rangers (CF, Tom Goodwin)
– 2005 Yankees (1B, Tino Martinez)
– 2007 Yankees (1B, Doug Mientkiewicz)
– 2008 White Sox (3B, Joe Crede)
– 2009 Yankees (C, Jorge Posada)

The 119 AL playoff teams in this study had an average of 6.02 players with 500 or more plate appearances. Interestingly, this average has fluctuated a bit over time:

1970s 6.14
1980s 5.50
1990s 6.08
2000s 6.32
2010s 5.74

The fairly significant climb in the average number of 500 PA regulars per AL playoff team from the 1980s to the 2000s is quite interesting. In fact, eight of the 13 instances that AL playoff clubs in the DH era had eight or nine 500 PA guys occurred between 1996 and 2009. Eight occurrences in those 14 seasons; only five in the other 27. This would seem to roughly coincide with the bulk of what most would consider the peak of the game’s steroid era. While increased strength is perhaps the most obvious impact of performance enhancers, reduction in recovery time for minor injuries is arguably as significant. The game has also made a conscious effort to root out amphetamine use in recent years. The primary reason a player would take amphetamines would be get through the grind of the regular season, both by increasing focus and allowing them to play through the symptoms of wear-and-tear injuries that otherwise would cost them playing time. Though we’re just halfway through the current decade, the decline in 500 PA players per American League playoff team has been quite stark, making this year’s Royals that much more of an outlier.

So how does the historic durability of the 2014 Royals help explain their success?

– They have a pretty good starting catcher. Only nine catchers in baseball had the requisite 502 plate appearances to qualify for a batting title this season. Salvador Perez, obviously, was one of them. This is the position that weeds out a bunch of clubs that wind up with just six or seven ironmen. The list of catchers on the six teams with nine 500 PA guys is an impressive one. You have to be athletic enough to handle the daily grind, and must be a strong two-way player, unless you are an extremely proficient defender, like Bob Boone, or an extremely impactful offensive player, like Gene Tenace.

– They possess a solid combination of youth, athleticism and — yes — some luck. Injury avoidance is a skill, both from a player’s and an organization’s perspective. Youth is obviously on the Royals’ side, and while they grade low in power production overall, each member of their everyday lineup with the exception of Billy Butler is clearly a better than average athlete for his position. As for the role of luck? Take another look at the 1982 Angels lineup. I have no idea how that group held up for an entire season.

– Their regulars have diverse skill sets and are at least respectable against same-handed pitchers. Teams platoon because of specific offensive strengths and weaknesses of individual members on the roster. The Royals get so much complementary value — via speed and defense — from their regulars that it compensates for their offensive shortcomings. While Hosmer and Moustakas continue to struggle at times with lefty pitching, they’re showing signs of progress, and they bring enough to the table to warrant remaining in the lineup.

– They have a pretty good, patient manager. For all of the heat Ned Yost takes — much of it for good reason — for his game management tendencies, he has proven to be an exceptional player-development manager at the big league level. Before his tenure in Kansas City, he managed a very young club in Milwaukee, with the likes of Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart and J.J. Hardy, to name a few, simultaneously cutting their teeth in the majors. Yost will ride out the hard times and see the good in the player, showing much more patience than the typical manager. It’s good to see him finally getting some postseason payback in return for his labor.

– Their steady, everyday lineup has enabled them to put together a fairly unique postseason roster. The benefits of platooning are obvious. One of the downsides is the number of moving parts involved and the number of roster spots they can chew up. The Royals were able to play their small-ball, speed-oriented game to an extreme in the early stages of the playoffs by having not one, but two guided missiles on their bench: Dyson and Terrance Gore. While Gore’s role is an extremely limited one, he did have an impact. Back in the days of four-man rotations and 10-man pitching staffs, clubs were able to stock their benches with a diverse portfolio of offensive players — like Olympic sprinter Herb Washington — in the postseason. Now, with frequent lefty-righty matchups and deep pitching staffs as the norm, teams have had to do more with less on offense. The Royals’ heavy reliance on their core nine has enabled them to add a niche player that no other 2014 playoff club would have been able to have.

The 2014 Royals are not great. In my article earlier this week, I picked the Giants in five, and I’m feeling good about it. Still, this has been a great season for a slightly above average Kansas City club. The future doesn’t look so bad either. Their position-player core is young and affordable, enabling them to potentially open the wallet for necessary upgrades in right field, possibly at third base and eventually at second base. American League regulars with 500 or more plate appearances slashed .269/.332/.418 in 2014. Everyone else slashed .237/.299/.360. The Royals are far from an offensive juggernaut, but as long as the team continues to minimize the number of plate appearances given to players in that second group, they have a chance.

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Big Daddy V
9 years ago

Because they win the games.

Tim McCarver
9 years ago
Reply to  Big Daddy V

The Kansas city club continues to get more runs than the other team. This is why they are still in it. If they continue, they will be the champions.

Harold Reynolds says
9 years ago
Reply to  Tim McCarver

They have pitchers who know how to win!