The Kansas City Royals are World Champions. Last night, they finished off another spectacular playoff run, this time pushing the envelope on a play at the plate instead of having the tying run get stranded at third base. Despite being continually underestimated — including here, frequently, in things I’ve written over the last few years — the Royals ran away with the AL Central, aggressively loaded up on reinforcements at the trade deadline, and then trounced everyone in their path during the postseason. After years of enduring criticism during the building of this roster, Dayton Moore and his staff can certainly feel a significant amount of vindication this morning; they won with exactly the kind of team they believed could win.
Because baseball is a copycat industry, we are almost certainly going to see the other 29 teams look at KC’s success and try to figure out which parts of it can be reproduced. Certainly, they aren’t the first team to win with mostly home-grown talent, but they are a bit unique in that they refined a certain style of play until that model became synonymous with their organization, so it might be a little easier to copy “the Royals way” than if they just won while playing a more conventional style. So let’s see if we can tease out some lessons from Kansas City’s roster construction that other teams might be able to learn from.
The Royals basic blueprint is to keep the game close for the first five or six innings, getting just enough work from their starting pitchers to turn as many contests as possible into games decided by the relief pitchers. And never was this plan more obviously successful than this postseason, where the differences in late game scoring between themselves and their opponents proved to be the difference in three of their four victories.
At MLB.com, they have some postseason pitching splits, including one that shows the performance of each team in the seventh inning or later, which basically sums up why the Royals are World Champs this morning. Here is how KC fared, and how their three postseason opponents fared, after the seventh inning began.
|Kansas City Royals||0.200||0.244||0.300||0.544||1.73|
|New York Mets||0.218||0.272||0.374||0.646||4.56|
|Toronto Blue Jays||0.352||0.396||0.455||0.852||8.23|
And here’s how those same offenses fared once the seventh inning began.
|Kansas City Royals||0.325||0.392||0.485||0.877||242||51||0.21|
|Toronto Blue Jays||0.197||0.254||0.280||0.534||142||10||0.07|
|New York Mets||0.161||0.241||0.213||0.454||178||11||0.06|
The Royals scored 51 runs in 242 plate appearances from the seventh inning on; the other nine teams to qualify for the postseason combined to score 55 runs in 687 plate appearances in those same situations.
Now, a large part of that is simply not a plan that can be put in place by another organization. Their late-game offensive success was remarkable, but there just isn’t much evidence that it’s something that can be planned on; KC hitters had a .691 OPS and averaged .11 runs per plate appearance from the seventh inning on during the regular season. While there was a lot of talk about contact hitters providing a huge advantage in those situations, the Royals were basically the best contact team ever during the regular season and didn’t see it translate into success against elite relievers for the first six months of the year. “Hit the crap out of the ball in clutch situations” is a great recipe, but not a very easy one to follow.
But it’s not a coincidence that the Royals opponents had a hard time putting together late-game rallies, because Kansas City’s bullpen was about as good as it gets in baseball. Even after losing Greg Holland, the team had three shutdown relievers, and Luke Hochevar played the part of one in October as well. While their opponents pushed starting pitchers into middle relief roles in order to try and bridge the gaps between their trusted starter and a closer they believed in, the Royals had arms on arms, giving them the ability to keep their relievers fresh without sacrificing at-bats with a guy on the mound they didn’t trust.
Relievers are still notoriously difficult to predict, but if there’s one significant change in roster construction that I think the Royals may usher in, it will be to emphasize the number of quality relievers in a bullpen rather than simply having a closer and a setup guy you believe in. Stocking the bullpen full of quality arms, giving a team the ability to put out rallies before the closer ever warms up, proved to be a huge advantage for the Royals in the playoffs. The Royals realized that games can and are won in the innings before the closer gets to the mound — or after the closer leaves, if the game goes to extra innings — and made sure they weren’t vulnerable in those situations. I’d expect a number of teams to try and and figure out how they can build themselves a Royals-esque bullpen this winter.
While the Royals deserve a ton of credit for their success, it would also be irresponsible to ignore the fact that they got some breaks along the way; specifically, including a host of hugely important defensive mistakes from their opponents. If Carlos Correa fields a relatively easy ground ball, the Royals might have been eliminated in the fourth game of the ALCS. If Daniel Murphy gets his glove down on Saturday night, the series may very well have been tied at 2-2. If Lucas Duda makes a reasonable throw home last night, Eric Hosmer is out at the plate, and the series is going back to Kansas City.
Throughout the playoffs, broadcasters were falling all over themselves to credit the Royals contact hitting and aggressive baserunning, and that absolutely is a hallmark of the the Royals style of play. We just shouldn’t get too caught up in thinking that the Royals have figured out how to force their opponents into errors, however. Per Baseball-Reference, here are the league’s reached-on-error totals during the regular season.
|Team||Reached on Error|
The Royals reached base on two more errors than the average team during the regular season, and realistically, this isn’t something where the spread in talent between teams is going to be noticeable during a game. Even the gap between the top and bottom teams in ROE is only .22 extra bases reached per game, or one extra baserunner per five games. If the Royals had some kind of error forcing skill — which they didn’t appear to have during the year — and they played a series against teams that were the absolute most passive teams who hardly ever forced their opponents into mistakes, we’d expect that to add up to one extra baserunner during the entire series.
There’s nothing wrong with admitting that part of winning in October is getting some breaks. The Royals benefited from their opponents making some crucial defensive lapses at huge moments in various games, and there’s not a lot of reason to believe the Royals forced those errors. We can and should give them credit for not making those same errors and limiting the opportunities they gave their opponents, but it doesn’t appear that there’s much evidence to suggest that another team that copies the Royals style of play should expect their opponents to make a similar number of defensive mistakes in the future.
Of course, part of the reason the Royals were able to capitalize on their opponents miscues, and not vice versa, is that the Royals were a better defensive team than anyone else they played. They sacrificed some offensive production to put above average defenders all over the field, and feature a few spectacular defenders in guys like Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, and Alcides Escobar. Regardless of what method is used to evaluate defensive abilities, these guys grade out exceptionally well, and the Royals consistently turned more balls in play into outs than their opponents, both in the regular season and the postseason.
Over the last two years, the Royals have put up a +112 UZR; the second best mark during that stretch is +63. Even with the error bars on fielding metrics, it’s pretty safe to say that the recent versions of the Royals are some of the best defensive teams we’ve ever seen, and the quality of their defenders helped turn run-of-the-mill pitchers into pretty good run preventers. Rather than paying a premium for pitching, the Royals stocked up on defensive value, and were able to put together a unit that could keep opponents from scoring at an elite level.
Like with bullpens, there’s more variation in year to year defensive performance than offensive performance, so betting on defense is a riskier strategy that won’t always pay off. And to get elite defense, you usually have to sacrifice some offense in the process, so building a team around good fielders with okay bats isn’t a guarantee of greatness. But for a team with budget constraints, betting on defenders and relievers may become the en vogue strategy, since you generally develop elite defenders and relief pitchers at young ages, and they won’t see their prices rise as quickly in arbitration and power hitters and frontline starting pitchers. If you build a defense-and-bullpen oriented team out of your farm system, you can probably keep the group together at a lower overall cost than if you build around power hitters and aces.
The Royals blueprint isn’t an easily copied one — and like every other blueprint other teams have followed, it isn’t guaranteed to work — but I would expect that the Royals success will lead to a bit more emphasis on depth, defense, and bullpens. The Royals are basically the exact opposite of a stars-and-scrubs team — though they do have some legitimately great players as long as defensive value is taken into account — and I wouldn’t be surprised if other teams started to see their success as a reason to push more towards a higher quantity of good players rather than attempting to ride on the backs of a few great ones.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.