“Finding good players is easy. Makin’ them play like a team is another story” – Casey Stengel
Here we are, the proverbial “dog days” of the baseball season. Where the first brush strokes of the playoff picture start to take shape on the canvas of the season, and the dreaded term “next year” starts to become a more regular utterance in dugouts and fan sites across the country. For many franchises, this is almost an annual tradition, and August and September just become the months of cheap tickets, and getting to know the team of the future. Due to it’s roots in our history, probably the greatest of all baseball stories are the epic title droughts that teams experience, and the tangled, heartbreaking plot twists that seem to insinuate there is some malicious, spiteful, celestial being that has it out for your home team. If you think about it, baseball is, at its very core, a game based on failure in varying quantities. A 70% failure rate at the plate is a hall of famer. One pitch out of 100 can lose an entire game (or series), and one error in the field in 1238 chances (namely, a ground ball behind the bag) can scar a team, (and a career) for decades.
It’s easy to pontificate on the failures of the game, because it is an American game, and Americans are the worlds greatest complainers. But lost in the seemingly endless opining is the evolution of the sport, and the birth of new and exciting landmarks. Since the turn of this century, only 4 teams have won multiple World Series titles (Yankees, Giants, Cardinals, and Red Sox), and every team in the majors except one (Toronto Blue Jays) have made the playoffs in some variety or another. It has become an era of such parody, that we have turned to mathematicians and accountants to help our teams gain that little edge to inch over the finish line for the world champion trophy.
Baseball has always been a numbers game. When Henry Chadwick began keeping records of players performance in the 19th century, he created a tangible way to evaluate a player using the cold, hard, objectivity of numbers. It gave merit to names like Nap Lajoie (657 career doubles), Walter Johnson (110 Shutouts), and Ty Cobb (.367 career Batting Average). They also created monsters. Numbers that are so controversial, that they have blurred into the subjective: 762 (Career high for Home Runs), 61* (most Home Runs in a season), 4,256 (total career Hits). With the advent of free agency in the 70’s, the personal statistic became almost an employee review, tied directly to ones compensation. It is suddenly not a big deal to play for a non-contender, as long as you are getting paid for it, and if things really get dire, you can simply test free agency, or demand a trade. The “team” aspect of the sport as a whole, is fading. The focus has shifted from between the lines to behind the desk, where players are paid using complicated analysis and projections, rather than usefulness and cohesion. The art of building a “team” has faded into which names will draw the most ticket sales.
Faded, but not gone. There is one team in particular right now that seems to be bucking the trend of piecing together parts and putting them all in the same uniform, and building a singular, cohesive unit. The Kansas City Royals are a team that is accomplishing this by implementing a style of play that is foreign to most, because it hasn’t been done in more than 80 years. It is a style of play that values each player on equal ground, and requires all around skills across the board, since it requires the player to adapt to the situation, rather than the player trying to just do whatever they were hired to do. It respects the statistics, but does not live and die by them. It is aggressive, fast paced, fundamental, and exciting, and was perfected by a team that once represented the same city, the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. It’s not easy to do in this climate, as it requires an “all-in” level of belief from the players, the manager, and the General Manager in order for the system to work, with an understanding that sacrifice bunts, solid defense, and placement hitting doesn’t make many highlight reels, or get many players the big dollar contracts.
The evidence of this is such: The 2014 KC Royals ranked dead last in home runs, but 14th in runs scored. They ranked dead last in walks and strikeouts, but 4th in batting average. Of course, they lead the league in stolen bases.. by a lot (153, the LA Dodgers had 138… half of those were Dee Gordon). They got intentionally walked an astounding 22 times the entire season (Only the Yankees got walked less). This tells us that no one is really intimidating pitchers at all enough to walk them, but given their speed, no one is willing to just give them a base either. This creates a very confusing and frustrating situation for a starting pitcher. It takes conventional pitching strategy, and basically negates it. Gives further credence to the age-old phrase “speed kills”.
The 2015 Royals? Dead last in walks, strikeouts, 4th in stolen bases, 4th in batting average, and 20th in intentional walks. Sounds pretty familiar right?
Part of building a dynasty is settling on a particular formula, tweak it to make it successful, and repeat. A franchise has to have a firm grip on it’s identity and stick to it. This is especially difficult in baseball given the length of the season, and the volatility of free agency, but Dayton Moore and his crew are truly on to something here. If you look at the 2015 landscape, there’s not really a team that one can stands out as a true match against them. One could argue with the recent developments in Toronto, a contender may emerge, but there’s still work to be done there, in a division chock full of teams that could take them down. That’s what makes this team so special now, and going forward. Last year, no one saw it coming, they had teams on their heels, and then tipped them over with a final push. This year, everyone knew the deal, but can’t seem to match up anyway.
Baseball is not known as an agile game. Trends and change come about slowly, deliberately, and only succeed unless they literally beat the establishment into submission. That is why the Royals are the next great team in baseball, because what makes them successful, is that no one is taking this as seriously as they should. They’re a step ahead of the curve, and no one is in their rear view mirror. All the while the powers that be in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, and Seattle continue to pile up big contracts to more of the status quo, Dayton Moore will gladly sit back and watch, as he continues to establish the Royals as one of the future powerhouses in the game, and begins his ring collection.