Give them this: the Kansas City Royals sure do get people talking.
The Royals of recent vintage have inspired innumerable column inches reveling in the team’s embrace of “hard-nosed,” “old school” baseball in direct defiance of the supposed statistical revolution.
Kansas City, the narrative goes, is a throwback team that sees your on-base percentage-obsessed, Adam Dunn-loving approach to modern baseball and will kindly kick dust upon it as its players race around the bases with gleeful abandon.
Yes, I’m generalizing.
But, after two-straight pennants and Sunday night’s World Series win over the Mets, the Royals now serve as a bellwether for a certain sect of stat-denying baseball purist that has longed for a team to prove that “Moneyball” is a crock and real baseball is played when you take the bat off your shoulder, junior.
The fact that the Royals beat the big, bad, big-city Mets only strengthened this reductive and overly simplistic view — never mind that the Mets’ payroll was 21st in the league, five spots below the Royals’, and that New York’s roster was constructed primarily of homegrown talent.
New York is New York, facts bedamned.
Where this narrative goes astray, however, is in asserting that the Royals’ approach to team-building eschewed statistics and sabermetric principles — when the Royals simply zigged as the majority of the league zagged, a classic tenet of “Moneyball.”
Finding the inefficiency
Michael Lewis’ seminal 2003 book “Moneyball,” which detailed Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s quest to win without the resources of juggernauts like the Yankees, details how exploiting market inefficiencies is the primary method for less moneyed teams to gain a strategic edge.
For Beane and the A’s of the early aughts, this meant loading the roster with players who got on base as often as possible and disregarding statistics like batting average and runs-batted-in that don’t reflect a player’s true talents.
But, as front offices grew smarter and were staffed with more sabermetrically-inclined thinkers, it became much harder to exploit the “on-base” inefficiency.
Beane’s “zag” had become the main drag.
In the ensuing years, baseball writers and analysts have posited numerous possibilities for the next market inefficiency: fielding, which statistics still struggle to capture effectively; optimal baserunning; catcher pitch-framing or game-calling; and more aggressive bullpen usage have all been floated as the next possible advantage to exploit.
As a 2011 ESPN article titled “People still don’t get ‘Moneyball’” argues, the true thrust of Beane’s strategy is not focusing solely on on-base percentage, but ”stocking up on players and skills that are undervalued at the current time.”
Sure, it was once about filling one’s lineup with lumbering on-base machines like Adam Dunn and Scott Hatterberg. But once a best-selling book and an Oscar-winning movie are released describing your strategy, that market inefficiency has passed.
It just so happens that, through a combination of skill, luck and strategy, the Kansas City Royals landed on an approach that is both cutting-edge in its exploitation of a market inefficiency and old-school and self-evident in its simplicity: put the ball in play.
The age of the ‘K’
For better or for worse, we live in the age of the strikeout.
The 2014 season, which saw the upstart Royals lose in Game 7 of the World Series, set a record for the most strikeouts in a single season. The previous record was set in 2013. The previous record before that? 2012. Before that? 2011. You get the picture.
Since 2008, a record-setting year for strikeouts, major league hitters have struck out more in each subsequent year.
There are numerous reasons for this trend: a more punitive and theoretically effective drug policy, the specialization of pitchers and the larger reliance on relievers, increased pitching velocity and a strike zone that’s ballooned since 2008, when MLB began tracking umpires’ zones using a computerized “Zone Evaluation” system.
The point is, everyone is striking out.
In the Strikeout Era, the Royals are a statistical outlier: this season, Kansas City struck out 144 fewer times than the next best contact team in the league — the second consecutive season that the Royals have tallied the fewest K’s.
In fact, relative to their league, the Royals are the best contact team of all time.
And the 2015 Royals came by this distinction honestly: of their 13 players who accrued more than 100 at-bats, only one — leftfielder Alex Gordon — struck out more than league-average, and he only did so by two percentage points. This season, Kansas City put nearly one-third of all strikes in play.
This emphasis on putting the ball is exploiting a massive market inefficiency — the dearth of contact hitters — while dovetailing neatly with a maxim hollered by Little League coaches the world over: hit the ball and make the defense make a play.
The Royals’ ability to put the ball in play and pressure the defense manifested itself throughout the World Series, as the Mets’ stone-handed infielders biffed and botched routine ground balls and, most famously, when Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer bolted from third on a routine putout at first to force a Lucas Duda throwing error and tie the decisive game Game 5.
A joy to behold
All this talk of market inefficiencies and outliers and percentage points can be a bit dry, and one of the common complaints about sabermetrics is that they suck the joy out of the game.
But what made the Royals’ run eminently watchable was that it took the potentially soporific idea of exploiting market inefficiencies and applied it to a style of play that is frenetic, action-packed and just good fun.
A parade of walks and strikeouts can be mind-numbing, and however fun it is to watch Giancarlo Stanton or Miguel Sano launch a 450-foot bomb into the upper deck, a home run is the most boring scoring play.
We crave action, and the 2015 Royals supplied the most possible action — slapping singles, stealing bases and scoring from first on their way to a well-deserved championship.
Call them “old school” or “hard-nosed” if you’d like.
Just don’t forget to call them champions.