The Royals Way: Speed, defense and a top-notch bullpen
SURPRISE, Ariz. — The first thing Dayton Moore makes clear is that he never set out to change how baseball clubs are built. He simply wanted to win games, something the Kansas City Royals had repeatedly failed to do for nearly three decades.
Never once did Moore think he’d become the next Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics’ general manager whose use of advanced statistics revolutionized the game.
"We were just trying to put ourselves in the best position to win," Moore said.
Like the A’s, the Royals are a small-market team operating within very narrow margins. They can’t spend big on key free agents. But rather than search for undervalued players by putting a premium on things such as on-base percentage — the "Moneyball" approach of Beane — Moore chose to identify specific players and skillsets for the wide expanses of Kauffman Stadium.
The result was The Royals Way: Invest heavily in speed and defense at the expense of power, and build the game’s best bullpen to take pressure off the starting rotation.
"In a market like ours, we may not be able to afford top-of-the-rotation pitchers, or a power bat," Moore explained in an interview with The Associated Press. "But what helps your starting pitchers? A good bullpen. What makes them better? Defense. So what we tried to do was make sure we have as many quality defenders and speed-type players as possible."
Makes sense, right? Speedy, weak-hitting outfielders come cheaper than someone who pounds 30 homers. And you can get a bushel of relievers for the price of a starting pitcher.
Yet the approach was initially met with derision. Many fans still could not understand why the frugal Royals never made runs at pricy power bats like Albert Pujols. It hardly quelled their voices when the Royals continued to languish near the bottom of the standings.
But something strange happened last year, when Moore’s long-term vision finally matured.
It wound up working.
The Royals grinded out runs one at a time. They stole bases, went first to third on infield hits, scrapped for the lead. Once they got it, they turned it over to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, a trio of relievers whose 100 mph fastballs were nearly unhittable.
"They’re always putting pressure on you," Indians manager Terry Francona said of his club’s division rival. "Sometimes you play a team like Detroit and they kind of pummel you. But they’re not stealing bases. So it’s a different way of contending."
That’s exactly what the Royals did, too: They started to contend. And when folks looked at the standings in October, the long-suffering franchise was headed for the playoffs.
The Royals made the trip count. Relying on that winning formula, they beat the A’s in a dramatic wild-card game. They swept through the Orioles and Angels and all the way to the World Series, where they took the playoff-tested San Francisco Giants to Game 7.
By that point, folks around baseball were trying to figure out how the Royals had done it.
Then, some of them started trying to replicate it.
The market for high-end relievers exploded this past offseason, the White Sox throwing $46 million at David Robertson, the Yankees tossing $36 million toward Andrew Miller.
A bear market made heavy hitters as pricy as ever, but money lavished on defensive dynamos also started to rise. Gold Glove winner Nick Markakis signed a $44 million deal with the Braves, and Gold Glove finalist Adam LaRoche inked a two-year, $25 million deal with the White Sox.
All of those players fit the Royals mold.
"As an industry, we’re always looking for what is the next competitive advantage," said Thad Levine, the assistant general manager of the Texas Rangers. "I think people feel as if when power abates, is speed the one thing that could be the true differentiation?"
In fact, the Rangers acquired two players in the offseason specifically for their speed: former Yankees prospect Antoan Richardson, an outfielder, and utility man Delino DeShields Jr.
There are dangers in trying to follow The Royals Way, though.
The numbers that Kansas City’s bullpen posted last year were historic, and history portends that relievers have the shelf life of fresh fruit. Injuries and ineffectiveness invariably set in, and guys such as Eric Gagne and Joel Zumaya offer cautionary tales.
An offense that churns out runs one at a time may help a team win enough games to make the playoffs, but what happens when that club runs into a shutdown starter? The Royals certainly could have used someone who could change the game with one swing of the bat when they trailed the Giants by a run in Game 7 of the World Series, and Madison Bumgarner was mowing them down.
"There is a danger in the copycat mentality," said Cubs GM Jed Hoyer. "You see it a lot after a team has a really good postseason run. I mean, the Royals have done it their way and I think they should be commended for it. But we all have to sort of decide where we put our emphasis."