I have three thoughts about the Kansas City Royals, your new American League Champions.
Actually, I have many more than three thoughts about the Royals. But some of them aren’t interesting, and others won’t be appropriate for public consumption until after the World Series. So for now, anyway, just three …
1. History’s not been kind to teams like the Royals.
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There might be a downside to sweeping your League Championship Series. As Scott Lindholm so helpfully points out, the six teams that have swept a best-of-seven LCS have not fared well in the Series. They’ve actually fared quite poorly. Only one of those six teams — the ‘95 Braves, who beat the Indians in six games — actually won the World Series. And the other five didn’t just lose; they lost badly, somehow combining for just two wins and 20 losses.
2. History’s been kind to some teams like the Royals.
There have been very few teams like the Royals in the World Series. But we can find some commonalities if we think hard enough, right?
Congratulations to the 1990 Cincinnati Reds on winning the 2014 AL pennant.
Let’s look at those 1990 Reds! In 1989, they finished in fifth place, just 75-87. That was the year when manager Pete Rose got suspended. The Reds hired Lou Piniella after the season, and I don’t think anybody knew what to expect in 1990. Well, the Reds won 91 games. Like the Royals, the Reds enjoyed good-but-not-great starting pitching, plus three tremendous relief pitchers. The infamous Nasty Boys consisted of usual closer Randy Myers (2.08 ERA), Rob Dibble (8-3, 1.74) and Norm Charlton (6-4, 3.02 as a reliever). Oddly, they’ve all got rough comparables on the Royals: Myers/Greg Holland, Dibble/Wade Davis, Charlton/Kelvin Herrera.
But there’s little similarity on the hitting side of the equation. The Reds finished third in OPS, fifth in scoring; the Royals were 10th in OPS, ninth in runs.
But the pitching, yeah. Except the Royals don’t have a starting pitcher quite as good as Jose Rijo.
We might also consider the 1987 Twins, who were actually outscored by 20 runs in the regular season before crushing the heavily favored Tigers in a quick ALCS. And the 2006 Cardinals, who outscored their opponents by only 19 runs but still won their division, then beat the Padres and (barely) the Mets on their way to the World Series.
One more thing about all three of these comparable clubs: They won the World Series.
3. Let’s not make too much of this quite yet, OK?
"The last big-league club to reach the World Series while finishing last in home runs, but first in swipes, was the 1987 St. Louis Cardinals. Those Cardinals teams of the 1980s played an exciting brand of "small-ball" throughout the decade: The ‘82 Cards finished second in steals, and last in home runs, and won it all (the ‘82 Oakland A’s finished first in steals, thanks to Rickey Henderson’s 130 swipes, a modern-era, single-season record that still stands).
"For the Royals, that speed pays off in the field, too. According to FanGraphs.com, Kansas City players collectively finished with the highest Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) — an advanced metric that measures defensive value — in the majors. Kansas City’s outfield, with three-time Gold Glove winner Alex Gordon in left, Lorenzo Cain in center, and defensive replacement Jarrod Dyson shoring up center field in the late innings (Cain then usually moves to right), have baseball analysts raving. "Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here," wrote Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus. "We’re not just talking about a good outfield, or a great outfield. We’re talking about what one might decide to argue is the greatest defensive outfield of all time."
"The Royals have found a winning formula. These days, if you swing for the fences, you’re more likely than ever to strike out. So just put the ball in play — Royals hitters have both the lowest strikeout rate in the majors, and the lowest walk rate — and take your chances with your legs. Steal bases to eke out those diminishing runs."
There’s at least one little problem with comparing the Royals to the Whiteyball Cardinals: THEY ACTUALLY GOT ON BASE A LOT. The ‘82 Cardinals led the National League in on-base percentage. The ‘87 Cardinals led the National League in on-base percentage. They had a ton of baserunners, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they finished fifth (‘82) and second (’87) in scoring. Oh, and there were also the ‘85 Cardinals, who didn’t finish last in home runs but did reach the World Series after finishing first in steals … and on-base percentage, and scoring. There’s this lingering notion that Whitey Herzog’s teams just ran wild on the bases, but the only reason that worked is because Whitey and the management team also valued high-OBP guys.
The 2014 Royals finished first in steals, last in home runs, 10th in on-base percentage … and ninth in scoring. Funny how that works.
Granted, the Royals would presumably love to have players who reach base more often. Just last winter, they acquired Omar Infante and Nori Aoki for essentially that very reason. It just didn’t work out so well, as Aoki got on base reasonably often but Infante didn’t. But again, they tried. And they’ve got a budget, if not nearly as restrictive as just a few years ago.
My point isn’t that the Royals are poorly run, at all. My point is that just getting a bunch of fast guys is not a tremendous market inefficiency, because you still have to get on base if you’re going to score many runs. And on-base percentage is not, and will probably never be, cheap. Too many people read "Moneyball" (and all the rest saw the movie).
On the other hand, it might be true that speed is becoming slightly more valuable with each new season that brings fewer home runs, and the Royals’ outfield defense is certainly a big part of their story. I just don’t believe it’s a duplicatable model yet. Especially considering there are fewer balls in play every season (coughSTRIKEOUTSCOURGEcough), which might actually mean that outfield defense is becoming less important.
More than anything, it just seems a little bizarre that someone would look at a team, playing in a weak division, with the seventh-best run differential in its league … and figure that is the model for future success?
Hey, I hope so. It would be one hell of a story. Even better than a team with the seventh-best run differential winning its first eight postseason games.