Friday, October 17, 2014

The Royals: This Changes...Well, Nothing

With eight straight wins in the postseason--a new record--and their first trip to the World Series since 1985, the Kansas City Royals have become the "it" team of this October. But it's for more than their long playoff drought and low payroll ($89.3 million, 17th of 30 teams). It's because of the way they play, and how they've advanced in the playoffs. Pitted against two slugging teams, the Royals swept the Angels (top scoring team in the AL) in three and the Orioles (top home run team in the majors) in four. The Royals are throwbacks: Last in the majors in homers, last in strikeouts, last in walks. All the things that modern analysis embraces, the Royals reject, and are now four wins away from being world champions.

Here, look at this table:
Tm HR% SO% BB%
Kansas City 1.6% 16.3% 6.3%
League Average 2.3% 19.8% 7.7%
KC's Opponents 2.9% 19.6% 9.8%
Generated 10/17/2014.

The percentages are the percentage of plate appearances. So, for example, while the average AL team hit a homer in 2.3% of plate appearances, the Royals did in only 1.6%, while its playoff opponents--the Angels and the Orioles--averaged 2.9%. (I excluded the one-game wild card game against Oakland because the roster rules allow teams to pack extra hitters for the one game, making the conditions unlike other games). As you can see, the Royals eschewed the strategy of standing at the plate, taking pitches, and waiting for a ball to drive over the fence. And it's worked. Can the Royals' success be a blueprint for other teams in the future?

My answer is clearly no, for two reasons. First, let's not forget the regular season. The Royals won 89 games, playing in arguably the weakest division in baseball. They didn't win their division. As a wild card team, they finished only one game ahead of Oakland, two ahead of Seattle. A couple balls going bouncing differently than they did, and the Royals are traveling to Oakland for that wild card game, or maybe watching it on TV. And let's not forget the wild card game: If the A's don't blow a 7-3 lead with one out and one on in the eighth, or an 8-7 lead with one out and nobody on in the twelfth, and we're not even talking about the Royals.

Second reason: I lied. That table above? The third line of figures aren't combined totals for the Angels and Orioles. They're the numbers compiled by the Royals in their seven wins. Yes, for all the talk about small ball, the Royals have been hitting a bunch of homers, drawing a bunch of walks, and striking out in nearly one of five plate appearances--just like the other teams. It hasn't been a case of the Royals winning because they're playing a new brand of baseball; they're winning because they're playing like their opponents. It's not a case of showing us a new way; it's a case of imitation being the sincerest form of advancing in October. The Royals have won by slugging.

Three aspects of the Royals have endured, though. First, their bullpen, as I explained earlier, has been historically great, and has remained so in the playoffs. But a strong bullpen isn't a new idea. Second, their defense has been airtight, with multiple highlight-reel plays in every game, seemingly. But that's not unique to Kansas City. Every team aspires to that. The Royals' success is one of execution, not strategy. Third, the Royals steal a lot of bases. During the season, they led majors with 0.94 steals per game. No other team had more than 0.85. During the playoffs, the Royals have continued to steal a lot, albeit at a slightly slower (0.86 per game) pace. But those steals haven't been a major factor:

  • Divisional Series Game 1, tenth inning: Terrance Gore steals second, doesn't score.
  • Divisional Series Game 2, second inning: Alex Gordon steals second, doesn't score.
  • Divisional Series Game 2, ninth inning: Gore steals second, doesn't score.
  • Divisional Series Game 2, eleventh inning: Gordon steals second, later scores, due to a throwing error that allowed him to advance to third and score on an infield single.
  • Divisional Series Game 3, third inning: Billy Butler steals second, doesn't score.
  • Championship Series Game 1, seventh inning: Jarrod Dyson caught stealing.
  • Championship Series Game 2, fifth inning: Lorenzo Cain steals second, doesn't score.
  • Championship Series Game 2, seventh inning: Dyson caught stealing.
That's it. For all the noise about the Royals' stolen bases, they led to only one run, and that one was lucky (helped along by an error) after the Royals already had a two-run lead. It really hasn't been a factor.

So when you hear, as you undoubtedly will, that the Royals have won because of a brand of baseball featuring speed and defense with a de-emphasis on homers, walks, and strikeouts, you'll be listening to someone who hasn't been paying attention to the Royals this postseason. They've won because of defense and their bullpen, yes, but also because of an above-average rate of homers and walks, with little upside from stolen bases and little downside from a lot of strikeouts. That's the same brand of baseball as the teams they've swept.

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