Even in our cynical and analytical online sports society in 2014, people sometimes drop their guard to allow for a little room in their cold, dead hearts for a warm-and-fuzzy feel good type of story. The Kansas City Royals reaching their first World Series since Back to the Future was in theaters and “Careless Whisper” topped the charts (1985) seems to fit the bill.
You’d probably have to be the cynic’s cynic (or Orioles fan) to grouse about the Royals making the World Series or getting mad about all the fun the team’s fans are having this month at Kauffman Stadium. In truth, good for the Royals, or least their long-suffering fans like our own Jason Lisk and Hollywood’s Paul Rudd to everyone in between.
A couple thing are (maybe) getting a little lost in Royals fever. Ned Yost managing a team to eight-straight postseason wins might have that effect on people.
For one, since everyone loves a good trend piece the Royals’ bunt-happy, speedy ways make for good copy. Time magazine already boldly proclaimed the Royals “the future of baseball.” The headline — surprise, surprise — is a little bolder than the more rational story itself, which touts in the post-steroid/PED era of baseball, speed, defense and pitching will be present a smarter way to win games than waiting for a 3-run home run. As we know run-scoring was down across the board in 2014 and, theoretically, if teams can manufacture runs via small ball it will only behoove them going forward. However, a team looking to build around power pitching arms is hardly a new concept.
Yes, the Royals only hit 95 home runs in the regular season while leading baseball in steals. Yes, the team has 13 stolen bases in eight 2014 playoff games, but let’s look a little further into the numbers. Seven of the Royals’ steals came in the extra-inning Wild Card game vs. the Athletics, aided greatly because Geovany Soto injured his hand and his replacement, Derek Norris, had a very rough night to say the least. Of course Soto injured said hand in the first inning when Billy Butler was picked off first base, resulting in Eric Hosmer dashing toward the plate and making contact with the Oakland catcher while being tagged out so let’s attribute this to Yost-ian voodoo or something that you can’t calculate within a spreadsheet.
Here’s a stat that is probably being over-looked for the small-ball Royals narratives. In the seven games of the ALDS and ALCS Kansas City has six stolen bases … and eight home runs. Those two counting stats doesn’t tell the whole story, obviously, since team speed also means taking an extra base or covering more ground in the outfield or, in the case of Terrance Gore, terrifying the opposing pitcher simply by entering the game as a pinch runner at first base. The Royals did, also, win the final two games of the ALCS by 2-1 scorelines without the benefit of the home run.
Bigger picture, collectively the Royals might actually be underrated — as much as a team that hasn’t been to the World Series in 29 years with a modest $90 million payroll can be underrated, but hear me out.
Kansas City finished below .500 every year from 1995-2012 and in turn received high draft picks. Yes, former GM Allard Baird whiffed with the No. 1 overall pick in 2006, taking Luke Hochevar ahead of Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer, among others. But the Royals high picks over the last decade have produced the core of the current American League champs including: Billy Butler (2004, 14th overall); Alex Gordon (2005, 2nd overall), Mike Moustakas (2007, 2nd overall) and Eric Hosmer (2008, 3rd overall).
Granted these players might not fit the “household name” cliché, but that’s a product of baseball’s decreased status in America and Kansas City’s geographic positioning in America. Readers of Baseball America and the like certainly were aware of the hype and promise surrounding Hosmer and Moustakas, while Gordon was a standout college player at Nebraska. Maybe it’s because everyone grew accustomed to the Royals losing, but high draft picks developing into the core of a good team shouldn’t be all that novel of a concept, either, right?
Take that core, mix it with two good trades by Dayton Moore — Zack Greinke for Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar/Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi for James Shields and Wade Davis — and you’ve got solid foundation for a team, albeit one without a stable of high-priced, stud starting pitchers which the Royals have managed to get around quite nicely.
If there’s one worthwhile template for emulating the Royals moving forward, it’s the bullpen. In the ALCS the trio of Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland threw 14 2/3 innings, allowing one run. As the great Yankees teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s showed, if you can turn a game into a six or seven inning affair thanks to a lights-out bullpen, you’re going to be in great shape in a short five or seven game baseball series. Look no further than the 2013 Detroit Tigers, you can have great starting pitching but you still need 2-3 guys who can get outs in the late innings of a game. By the same token you can build a nice, statistical bullpen and end up like some of the San Diego Padres teams of recent vintage.
The baseball regular season is 162 games. Yes, teams want to go 162-0, but unlike the playoffs there isn’t the immediacy and pressure to score. From April-September teams knew the Royals had a great pen, but there was always another game the next day. Come the playoffs, opponents probably know that if they’re not ahead going into the sixth they’re facing an uphill battle which has to affect a player’s at-bats early in the game.
Of course for Moore — or any other MLB GM — building a good bullpen isn’t like following the instructions that come in a box when assembling a Lego castle. Holland was a 10th round pick, Herrera was signed as an international free agent and Wade, acquired via trade, is a converted starter. Or how’s this? The Royals have gotten important outs in the playoffs from Brandon Finnegan — a first round pick in 2014 — as well as Jason Fraser, an 11-year journeyman who’d never thrown in the postseason before this year.
The Royals’ crazy, fun postseason ride began on Sept. 30 vs. the Athletics in a game they were on the brink of elimination in both the ninth and 12th innings yet came back to win. Oakland GM Billy Beane, he of Moneyball fame, has long bemoaned the playoffs in baseball being a crapshoot. Kansas City’s eight-game run once again shows that there isn’t a tried-and-true method to guarantee winning … you just need to figure out a way to win by any means necessary. This October those means include sac bunt, outfielders with the range to cover an outfield the size of a football gridiron and a bullpen that probably needs a better descriptor than the clichéd “lights out” tag.
These Royals might fit the proverbial Cinderella tag, but don’t do them the disservice of pretending they’re not a very good baseball team, either.