What do the Royals know?

Finding the secret to building a World Series champion

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SURPRISE, Ariz. — Baseball, like all sports, is a game of imitators. When someone figures out a better way of doing something, everyone follows. When Dick Fosbury perfected a new way of high jumping — and won Olympic gold with it in 1968 — well, the Fosbury Flop almost immediately became the dominant jumping technique. When Lawrence Taylor began devastating offenses as a blitzing linebacker, every team in the NFL tried to get their own Lawrence Taylor (with mixed results). After Michael Lewis wrote the book “Moneyball” about the Oakland Athletics’ use of data to find inefficiencies in the marketplace, every team hired Ivy Leaguers and built their own analytics department.

So the question: When will teams start copying the Kansas City Royals?

And: How would they even go about doing that?

Right now, when you talk to people around baseball, you just don’t hear much about the Royals, even if they are defending World Series champions and two-time defending American League champs and all that. Everyone is respectful. Everyone praises the Royals’ defense and their bullpen and their spirit. But few people around baseball seem to see the Royals as a blueprint for success: They won those back-to-back pennants without great starting pitching, they won it while hitting the fewest home runs and drawing the fewest walks in the league, they won it with almost-impossible-to-believe late-inning comebacks.

Nobody I’ve talked with uses the word “luck.” But almost everybody dances perilously around the word.

“I do wonder,” one baseball executive told me, “when people around the game will figure out that maybe the Kansas City Royals know something that we don’t.”

* * *

What do the Royals know? To this, Royals general manager Dayton Moore shrugs; he is uncomfortable with the question.

“You know, we’re not smarter than anybody else,” he says. “This game has a lot of really smart people in it — a whole lot smarter than me. Let’s not kid anybody. We are not going to outsmart anybody.”

We are sitting in a dugout by one of the practice fields at the spring training home of the Royals in Surprise. Everything is upbeat and, yes, a bit surreal. After all those dark years, yes, that World Series against the Mets really happened. Moore goes about his days, though, as if nothing has changed. He wears the same Royals sweatsuit every day; he has it washed nightly. The only difference for him is that it now the sweatsuit says “World Series Champions” on it.

“We work hard, but I certainly would not say we work any harder than anybody else,” he continues. “People all around this game live it just like we do.”

He continues along this modesty thread for a while. The Royals do not have a better plan than other teams, he insists. The Royals do not have better judgment than other teams. The Royals have no “I told you sos” for all those who have and continue to doubt. Hey, those doubters are pretty smart too.

Then, Moore stops talking about a moment and watches a couple of Royals clubhouse guys get into a golf cart and head over to run some errand. He watches them as they ride off.

“Look at those guys,” he says. “They do their job. They’re out here, they are moving fast, their body language is good. You watch these guys, and you know how the organization is going. If people are treating them poorly, treating them with disrespect, using them basically, then they’re beaten down. Their attitude and their body language is very poor. That tells you everything about your organization.

“But when you see them like that, just ready to go, upbeat, good body language, that’s everything. They’re focused, but they’re having fun. It’s baseball. It’s supposed to be fun. We all got into this game because it’s fun. It’s the one thing every one of us shares. And your team morale — people think it begins with the players and the manager. No. It begins with your clubhouse guys, your groundskeepers, your medical team, your strength and conditioning coaches, your hitting coaches. When they’re having fun and doing their jobs enthusiastically, that’s when you have something.”

He smiles sheepishly: Here endeth the lesson.

“We just wanted to build a good organization,” he says. “Winning the World Series, you know, that was great. But that’s not success. Success is building a good organization.”

* * *

1. Signing Gil Meche to a five-year, $55 million deal

What do the Royals know? Dayton Moore discusses five moves — all of them somewhat contentious — that he thinks were the most important. He begins with his first high-profile move: The signing of pitcher Gil Meche almost 10 years ago.

The Meche deal was the largest free agent deal in Kansas City history … and it was roundly mocked. Two reasons, really. One: Meche had a career 4.65 ERA in six years with Seattle, and he had never thrown 200 innings in a season. He was walk-prone, home run-prone, somewhat injury-prone, and there did not seem much reason to believe he would be a particularly effective starter.

Two, the Royals were preposterously bad. They had lost 100 games three years in a row. They were coming off a season when their lone All-Star pick was pitcher Mark Redman, who finished the year with a 5.71 ERA. What possible good could come from giving Gil Meche all that money? It seemed about as useful as buying a diamond necklace for a party on the Titanic.

Well, sure, the critics had a field day. Jon Heyman’s line that “Meche might be French for ‘Money down the toilet'” is representative.

And how did the deal turn out? Well, that’s the interesting part. As a pitcher, Meche turned out to be a mixed bag. He had two very good years at the beginning of his contract — the two best years of his career. He made the All-Star team in 2007, and he finished among the league leaders in innings, strikeouts and wins above replacement in 2008. Then he struggled with injuries and inconsistency and retired one year before his contract expired, forfeiting $12 million. The last part was odd, but it will be important later. Meche said he gave up the money because: “When I signed my contract my main goal was to earn it. … Making that amount of money from a team that’s already given me over $40 million for my life and my kids, it just wasn’t the right thing to do.”

So from a pure baseball perspective, it was probably a break-even deal. Fangraphs has Meche’s value at about $52 million, and he got paid about $41 million. Of course, in the bigger picture, the Royals were terrible before they got Meche, they were terrible with Meche, they were terrible after Meche. It didn’t seem to change anything.

Only one thing did change. While people watched Meche’s contract, the young Zack Greinke emerged.

“We knew that if we ever were going to get Zack Greinke back, a lot of things had to go right,” Moore says. “That’s why we were so aggressive and maybe overpaid to bring Gil Meche in. We felt like Gil could take the pressure off of Zack. We felt like Gil could be a bit of a mentor for Zack. We obviously thought Gil could help us a lot as a pitcher, but Zack was the big reason for the move. We needed Zack Greinke.”

Understand: At the time, there was no reason at all to believe that Greinke would come back. He was a mega-prospect for the Royals, their best pitching prospect in decades when they rushed him up to the big leagues at age 20. As a rookie, he pitched pretty well for a terrible team. But then it all fell apart. In 2005, Greinke had a staggeringly bad season, going 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA — the league hit .309/.363/.483 against him. It was a disastrous season on the field, but more to the point, Greinke was struggling with still-undiagnosed anxiety issues. At spring training the next year, he walked away from the game. He considered becoming a professional golfer. He considered trying to come back to baseball but as a shortstop. His pitching future was very much in limbo.

As he came to grips with his social anxiety disorder and began taking medication, he hesitantly returned to baseball. The Royals put him in the bullpen, and he liked that a lot better; that way he could pitch more (Zack always felt more comfortable on the mound than just about anywhere else). The Royals tried him back in the rotation at the start of 2007, and it was disastrous. Greinke made seven starts, the Royals lost six of them and the league hit .338 and slugged .579 against him. The Royals rushed him back in the bullpen.

By the end of 2007, though, Greinke was back in the rotation and pitching well. Moore believes — will always believe — that Gil Meche was a key part of that. Meche insisted on taking the pressure off Greinke. He served as a mentor. He led by example. In 2008 Meche and Greinke combined to be among the better one-two combinations in baseball. And then in 2009, Greinke had a season for the ages and won the Cy Young Award.

“Zack did it,” Moore says. “He gets all the credit. But I don’t think there’s any question that Gil took a lot of pressure off him. Gil was just a pro, came to the ballpark every day, ready to pitch, ready to perform. He was upbeat. He set a great example. We think he played a major role in helping Zack get back. … You can say that there’s no way to prove that, and you’re right. We can’t prove it. It was just something we instinctively felt. And we’re obviously happy with how it turned out.”

How it turned out: Greinke was probably the most sought-after young pitcher in the game, and the Royals traded him to Milwaukee for a couple of players — shortstop Alcides Escobar and outfielder Lorenzo Cain — who are now the heart of the championship Royals.

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2. Putting the Royals’ future on the backs of Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer.

There was nothing at all controversial about the Royals drafting Moustakas (with the second pick in the 2007 draft) and Eric Hosmer (with the third pick in 2008). Both were big-time prospects that were high on every draft board around the Major Leagues.

What was somewhat unusual, though, was that Moore and scouts gave both of those players a little bit of a Royals history lesson.

“You might not know this,” Moore would remember saying, “but the Kansas City Royals used to be a model franchise. And you are the player who is going to make us a model franchise again.”

Royals history had been a bit of a contentious subject in Kansas City in the 1990s and 2000s. It is true; the Royals were once a dominant franchise. They made the postseason seven times in 10 years, won a couple of pennants, took the World Series title in 1985. They were led by Hall of Famer George Brett, but the team overflowed with the sorts of players that John Updike once called “gems of slightly lesser water:” Frank White played balletic second base; Willie Wilson blazed around the bases; Bret Saberhagen pitched with the command of an orchestra conductor; Hal McRae hammered doubles into the gap and took out second basemen who did not get out the way fast enough.

The trouble was that after a couple of losing decades, nobody wanted to hear about those Royals anymore. Even Frank White himself used to say, “I’m sick of the stories, and I lived them.”

“I had a lot of people tell me that I shouldn’t talk about the old days,” Moore says. “They said, ‘you need to divorce yourself from ’85 (the last time the Royals had won the Series). You’ve got to move forward.’ I said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to embrace our history.’ I want these guys to know our past. I want them to be proud to be Kansas City Royals. I want them to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves.”

When the Royals drafted Moustakas and Hosmer, Moore wanted them to know: The team was counting on them to not only be good players but to bring the Royals back. “It’s your job,” he used to tell them. “We in the front office can talk all about bringing back the Royals, but you are the ones who have to actually do it.”

“I believe in honesty,” Moore says. “I wanted Eric and Moose to know — they were going to be the ones to bring us back. You could say that’s putting pressure on them, but I think those young men appreciate a challenge. They hunger for it. We believed in the leadership qualities of those guys, and so we were challenging them to lead us.”

Moustakas and Hosmer came up in 2011, both went through some difficult transitions, but by 2013, the Royals were a good baseball team. In 2014, they went to the World Series. In 2015, they won the World Series. “We’re the Royals,” Hosmer would say in the aftermath of that World Series championship. “We find a way to win.”

* * *

3. Trading Wil Myers for James Shields … and getting a throw-in named Wade.

Moore knew he would get hammered by some media types — including yours truly — when he traded top-10 prospect Wil Myers to get a couple of years worth of James Shields. The Royals were still dreadful then; they had lost 90 games for the eighth time in nine seasons. Myers, according to many scouts, was the Royals’ BEST offensive prospect, better even than Moustakas or Hosmer. A building team just doesn’t trade away a young player like that for a high-priced pitcher who will undoubtedly leave after a couple of years. Yes, I was among the vast majority that loathed that trade for Kansas City.

But once again, the Royals knew something. For one thing, they knew that the team was ready to blossom; it just needed a boost.

Moore: “We really did think that when we acquired Shields, everyone on the team would look around and think, ‘Now, we can compete with anybody.'”

That worked. Shields pitched well in 2013, and the Royals improved by 14 games, going from a dismal 72-90 to 86-76, their best full-season record since the 1980s.

“He brought a toughness, a swagger, an edge that I really thought we needed,” Moore says. “Our guys wanted badly to win. And here was a guy, in James Shields, who had been a part of winning teams. Again, I know that you can’t quantify it exactly, but we all felt like our team really needed then. They needed to be around someone who knew exactly how to win.”

As it turns out, of course, the real key to the deal was not Shields at all. The Royals expanded the deal so they could get a young pitcher with a chance to be a good starter — Wade Davis.

“I’m not going to lie, what I liked about Wade, what we liked about him as an organization, was that he had a chance to start,” Moore says. “We knew he could dominate in the ‘pen. That was always a pretty good fallback position. But we definitely thought he had the arsenal to start.”

The Royals did try Davis as a starter in 2013, and it did not work out all that well. He was moved to the ‘pen during spring training of 2014, and he put up two of the most dominant seasons in recent memory. In 2014, he pitched 72 innings, did not allow a home run and had a 1.00 ERA. Last year, in many ways, he was even better, holding the league to a .144 batting average. In seven World Series appearances, he had struck out 18, walked zero and allowed zero runs. On a pitching staff with average starting pitching, Davis has been the difference-maker.

“Do I make the deal if I knew that Wade wouldn’t be a starter?” Moore asks. “Probably not. But I still think he can do it.”

“Wait,” I say. “You still think about Wade Davis as a starter?”

“Absolutely,” Moore says. “Not right now. But just like with Zack going to the ‘pen and figuring things out, I think Wade would be a much better starter if we gave him a chance. They’re all evolving pitchers. You never know.”

“Come on,” I say.

“You never know,” he repeats.

* * *

4. Signing Salvador Perez (and then renegotiating the deal)

Dayton Moore loves to say that catcher Salvador Perez was signed for his smile as much as anything else. Perez was a quirky prospect at best (Baseball America named him the Royals’ 17th-best prospect in 2011). He was slow. He was relatively unathletic. He could catch and throw well, but many scouts — even some within the Royals organization — felt sure he would never hit at the big-league level.

But Perez was such an enthusiastic player, so full of life, that the Royals insisted on believing in him. They called him up in 2011, and he hit .331 in a limited tryout. Perez immediately wanted a long-term deal. Security meant everything to him.

“We weren’t sure he was going to hit,” Moore says. “I felt at the end of the day that we all knew he was going to play defense. We knew he had leadership qualities. We knew he had a great heart to play. We also knew that he was very persistent about a long-term deal, to the point where, I’m not going to say it consumed him, but it was very important to him. We felt like a deal would help him become a quality player.”

The Royals offered him a deal that now looks almost comical by baseball terms — five years, $7 million with a couple of very team-friendly club options tacked on at the end. But at the time, the Royals were making a bet. Perez signed a long-term deal after only 34 days of Major League service. Moore is pretty sure that no catcher in baseball history got a long-term deal so soon after debuting in the big leagues.

“I didn’t know he was going to become a three-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, whatever else,” Moore says. “We just wanted him to feel comfortable.”

Well, Perez did become those things. Here is a list of all the catchers in baseball history who had three All-Star appearances and three Gold Gloves by age 25:

— Johnny Bench (6 of each)

— Ivan Rodriguez (6 of each)

— Bill Freehan (4 All-Star Games, three Gold Gloves)

— Salvador Perez

Not bad. Perez is also the only one of the four to lead a team to a World Series title by the age of 25 … and he did lead. No one ever doubted that Perez, who has caught more games than any catcher in the American League the last two seasons, was the soul of the Royals. Of course, when you take all of that into consideration, well, suddenly a five-year, $7 million deal doesn’t look all that appetizing for the player. Early in the offseason, Dayton Moore was asked if maybe the Royals would renegotiate even though they were under absolutely no obligation to do so. “I don’t know that there have been examples of restructuring deals like this one,”  Moore said after the World Series title last year. “But you know, we love Salvy. He’s family. We’ll see.”

Three months later, the Royals did restructure that deal, giving Perez a new five-year, $52.5 million contract.

“Of course, he was an underpaid player,” Moore says. “So we realized that as we continue to fight for our culture — every team has to do that, every team has to fight for its culture — we asked ourselves: ‘How are you going to bring other players into the clubhouse if you don’t do right by Salvy?’

“It was the right thing. That’s why we did it. Everybody in the organization believed it was the right thing to do. You can sit here and say players when they underperform they’re not going to give the money back. I don’t expect them to … though Gil Meche did give money back. We’ve been a recipient of this too.

“In the end, I know this: Managers, leaders get paid to make sure that things are done right. I think giving Salvy the new deal right thing for us to do.”

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5. Signing Ian Kennedy to a five-year, $70 million deal

OK, this just happened in January, and nobody knows how it will turn out. But when the Kansas City Royals signed 31-year-old Ian Kennedy to the deal, there were some feelings of déjà vu. The response felt an awful lot like the response after the Royals signed Gil Meche. Why would the Royals give Ian Kennedy all that money?

Kennedy had a strange year. On the surface, it was a bad year. He gave up so many stinkin’ home runs (31 in just 168 innings) that his season was semi-disastrous. His 4.28 ERA was among the league’s worst for starters, and it looked even worse because he pitched half his games in San Diego, annually one of the league’s best pitcher’s parks.

What do the Royals know? When you get through everything, it might just come down to something Moore repeatedly tells his scouts and executives and coaches, something that doesn’t sound especially profound: “I tell our people all the time that it’s our job to LIKE players.”

It’s our job to like players. Now, really, what does that mean? Well, in baseball, it’s easy to dislike players — not personally, but as players. See, baseball is a hard game to play. There are only a handful of celestial beings out there who do everything well, only a few Mike Trouts or Bryce Harpers or Andrew McCutchens. The rest are mortals with lead feet, holes in their swing, limited defensive range, inconsistent changeups and a lack of control.

Almost every player has huge odds against him. Look at Baseball America’s top 10 prospect list from 10 years ago. Remember, these are the 10 BEST prospects, the 10 who looked like they would be stars. How many became stars? One: Justin Verlander (No. 8). Matt Cain (No. 10) became a semi-star in his mid-20s before fading, and Francisco Liriano (No. 6) has been good and occasionally great. But the No. 3 prospect was Brandon Wood, who couldn’t stick. No. 4 was Jeremy Hermida, who couldn’t quite become a big league starter. No. 9 Lastings Milledge flamed out quickly. And the No. 1 prospect, Delmon Young, mostly disappointed. It’s such a hard game, even for those who seem to have the gifts.

In other words, it’s easy to become cynical, easy to check the “No” box on every player. But the Royals’ philosophy is to LIKE players, to see the possibilities. Kennedy had an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio last year (174-52). The Royals say: We can work with that. Kennedy has one of the best changeups in baseball. The Royals say: Kauffman Stadium is a great changeup park because even when you make a mistake, it’s a tough park for home runs. Kennedy is a fly-ball pitcher. The Royals say: That fits because Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson should make up the best defensive outfield in baseball.

And as far as all those home runs last year, well, the Royals have an analytics department too, and those guys crunched some numbers and found that last year was an anomaly season for Petco Park — there were a lot of home runs hit there, especially early in the season. They believe Kennedy’s homer numbers will come down in Kansas City.

When I tell him that many feel the Royals wildly overpaid, Moore smiles. Maybe they did overpay. “But we like Ian Kennedy,” he says. “We think he’s a great fit. We like pitchers who work quick, command the fastball, field their position, hold runners and have good changeups. I’m not saying we’re smarter than anyone else. We just like Ian Kennedy a lot.”

Yes, to hear Dayton Moore tell it, the Royals don’t KNOW more than anyone else. They might just believe a little harder.