Bucksense

The Royals found their own formula for success en route to their first title in three decades

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KANSAS CITY — Some years ago, the U.S. Army hired me to be a Moneyball consultant. I would go into detail but, unfortunately, it’s classified. OK, no, that’s not true at all. It’s just that going into detail would make the job sound way less impressive, so let’s stick with “Moneyball Consultant.” My job was to talk with red teams that were devising tactics from the perspective of insurgents, or so I was told. I just talked about baseball.

Of course, I learned way more from them than they did from me. Mainly, I learned that Moneyball, as a concept, has nothing at all to do with on-base percentage or abandoning the bunt or putting a catcher at first base because of his bat. Those were small themes in the book and the eventual movie, but the army didn’t care about any of that. They cared about the underlying principle, which author Michael Lewis helpfully put into his subtitle:

“The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”

“I wrote this book because I fell in love with a story,” Lewis wrote at the start. “The story concerned a small group of undervalued professional baseball players and executives, many of whom had been rejected as unfit for the big leagues, who had turned themselves into one of the most successful franchises in Major League Baseball. … How’d they do it? What was their secret?”

This was (and undoubtedly still is) the interest of the Army: How can underfunded, understaffed and underdog teams win? In the case of the United States Army, of course, the question revolves around how to counter against those underfunded, understaffed and underdog armies. That’s a much bigger issue than baseball.

But baseball is the symbol. Major League Baseball is the game most like American life. Nobody goes undefeated in baseball. Unlike football and basketball and hockey, baseball has no salary cap (though there is a luxury tax that somewhat mitigates things). Baseball is the only major professional sport where one team (say, the Los Angeles Dodgers) can make and spend many multiples of another team (say, the Miami Marlins). So, how do you win if you are the Oakland A’s in the early 2000s? That was the question of Lewis’ superb book, and to this day it has a huge effect on the way baseball is run.

“So,” a reporter asked Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore after his team won the World Series, “would you consider yourselves the anti-Moneyball team?”

“No,” Moore said. “Not at all.”

* * *

Maybe the Royals should have come up with a catchy name for what they did. Daytonball. Royalball. Bucksense. I particularly like Bucksense because it incorporates two Kansas City legends — Harry Truman and his “Buck Stops Here” philosophy alongside of Buck O’Neil, who represented the soul of Kansas City baseball.

But the Royals — particularly general manager Dayton Moore and assistant general manager J.J. Picollo — do not know how to self-congratulate. It just isn’t in their nature. There are some big talkers in baseball like in every other business, some self-promoters, some blowhards … and like in every other business, baseball blowhards often move up or get too much credit because arrogance can come off as conviction and bluster came come off as innovation. It’s like the saying goes: Sometimes to be a star all you have to do is tell people you are one.

Moore and Picollo, the rest, they just can’t do it. Throughout the Royals’ incredible run from baseball’s depths to an 800,000 person parade in downtown Kansas City, the Royals’ public persona built around Moore’s basic philosophy: “We’re not smarter than anyone else. We don’t work harder than anyone else. We just have to care more than anyone else.”

“Our feeling is that, if you do your job well, you let other people talk about it,” Picollo says, and this certainly sounds good. But is that true? Have the Royals gotten enough credit for their stunning accomplishment? If you think about it, Picollo should probably be the hottest GM prospect in baseball. Who can match the resume? He’s 44 now, he was briefly a minor-league catcher, then he worked in college baseball and then he became a scout for the ultra-successful Atlanta Braves.

Then he came to Kansas City shortly after Moore, and he has been intimately involved in every step of the Royals’ turnaround, from the analytics department to the scouting department, from the draft board to the construction of the Major League roster. He has been, Dayton Moore will tell you, as important as anyone in this Royals minor miracle, and you would think that his phone would be ringing off the hook.

But, so far, it has not led to offers, and here’s a theory: People around baseball are not blown away by the Royals’ turnaround. People are still thinking about Moneyball.

Look: A couple of weeks ago, Picollo interviewed with the Philadelphia Phillies for their general manager position. Picollo grew up a Phillies fan, his entire family still lives near Philadelphia, the Phillies rebuilding project is almost as daunting and unnerving as the Royals climb, it seemed a perfect fit. Picollo did not get a second interview. The Phillies eventually hired Dartmouth whiz kid Matt Klentak, who at 35 is the youngest GM ever for the team. Klentak was working with the Angels and has a strong background in analytics, something the Phillies desperately wanted.

Klentak might be a fantastic choice, but he is also part of a trend — a trend to hire out-of-the-box, ultra-educated, quote-unquote “Moneyball” GMs. The Brewers hired 30-year-old Harvard grad David Stearns. Atlanta hired John Copolella, who reportedly was offered a job by Intel out of Notre Dame but instead took an internship with the Yankees. Cleveland hired Princeton graduate Mike Chernoff. The Dodgers last year hired Farhan Zaidi, an MIT grad with a Doctorate from Berkeley, perhaps the smartest person I know.

The fact that just about every baseball team is now looking beyond the playing field for brilliant and analytical people to run things is encouraging. Baseball used to be so closed off, and for many decades just about every hire was a so-called baseball person who chewed tobacco and spewed expletives and gave everybody nicknames (usually their names but with a “Y” at the end of them). Yes, it’s good to open up the game to so many brilliant minds with analytical bents.

But at the same time, the fact that JUST ABOUT EVERY BASEBALL TEAM is doing so might miss the whole point of Moneyball. The reason Moneyball worked for the Oakland A’s is that, for the most part, other teams weren’t doing it their way. In a time when a lot of teams cared too much about batting average, players who walked were an inefficiency in the market. In a time when a lot of teams gave away outs with bunts and failed stolen base attempts, not bunting and not trying to steal was was a way to beat the market. In a time when many people around the game sniffed and held their noses around advanced baseball statistics, using those stats to create a winning team was an advantage.

Here were are, a dozen years later, and the market has shifted. Everybody’s read “Moneyball.” Everybody is pushing the limits of their analytics. Every team has brilliant, open-minded analysts and economists and psychiatrists reading code and studying trends and looking for secrets.

But … are they all looking in the same places?

Or, to put it in riddle form: If every team is playing Moneyball, which one is the Moneyball team? Holy barbecue Batman, could it be: The Kansas City Royals?

* * *

The Royals did several things on their road to back-to-back American League pennants and the World Series championship that most other teams would not have done. None of these things seem quite as exciting or conclusive as properly valuing on-base percentage or drafting college pitchers to minimize the risks of the amateur draft.

You can decide if any of these are the new Moneyball tenets:

1. Patience and stability.

The Royals stayed with the program even when it appeared to be failing miserably. Dayton Moore called the team’s efforts to turn things around “The Process,” and he used those words so many times that it became a dark joke in Kansas City. But the Royals stayed with The Process through many, many losses. Few teams in sports today have the restraint to see that many losses without firing everybody and starting over. Owner David Glass stayed with Dayton Moore as general manager. Moore stayed with Ned Yost as manager. Yost stayed with some of the young players through terrible slumps — this includes third baseman Mike Moustakas, who had an OPS+ of 82 through his first FOUR seasons.

And, in time, the Royals became the best team in baseball.

2. Making starters into relievers.

Kansas City moved several potential starters — Aaron Crow, Brandon Finnegan, Luke Hochevar, Kelvin Herrera, and Wade Davis to name only a few — into the bullpen to take advantage of their power arms. Each situation was different (some were moved in desperation, some by choice), but in the end the Royals built one of the great bullpens in baseball history.

The story of Wade Davis is representative of the Royals’ learning curve. They traded for Davis to be a starter; if Dayton Moore had known Davis would fail as a starter, he probably would not have made the trade. In Davis’ one year as a starter with Kansas City, he had a 5.32 ERA and the league hit .307 against him. The following spring — against Davis’ wishes and their own preferences — the Royals moved him to the pen to fill in for an injured Hochevar. He transformed into an unhittable Cyborg who, as much as anybody, carried the Royals through their remarkable playoff runs in 2014 and 2015.

I’ve talked with several baseball executives around baseball who said that because of the Royals success, they are now looking hard at some of their starting pitching prospects to see if they might be suited to become dominant relievers instead.

3. Embrace the uncertainty of baseball.

The Royals are not anti-analytics. Moore and Picollo will admit that early on they were somewhat resistant to some of the new ideas. But over time the Royals have built one of the better analytics departments in the game. “Those guys teach me something every single day,” Picollo says.

In other words, the Royals KNEW from an analytical standpoint that hitting Alcides Escobar in the leadoff spot was an unsound strategy. You obviously want your leadoff hitter to get on base. Escobar has a fairly dreadful .298 lifetime on-base percentage. For lineup construction purposes, he was more or less the Royals’ WORST choice for leadoff hitter.

But, crazy thing, the team somehow played better when Escobar hit leadoff. They won more. It didn’t make any sense. At some point late in the year, Dayton Moore and Ned Yost talked and decided to drop Escobar in the lineup. “I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Moore said. “And Ned was in agreement.” For three weeks, the Royals hit Escobar at the bottom of the lineup.

And the Royals were TERRIBLE. Three weeks is a small sample size, of course, but small sample sizes are what drive the baseball postseason. You have to be great in small sample sizes or else you go home. The Royals went 7-11 during the span, scored two or fewer runs in eight of those games, lacked energy and enthusiasm. The Royals moved Escobar back into the leadoff spot for the last five games of the season and won all five. They had Escobar in the leadoff spot throughout the playoffs, and won 11 of 16 and took home the World Series trophy.

“The general manager almost ruined it,” Moore says. “That’s why general managers should stay out of lineup decisions.”

Why did hitting Escobar in the leadoff spot lead to the team playing much better? Moore and the Royals don’t know. They just know it worked, and they embraced that. “This game is too big for us to understand and control every single thing,” Moore says. “We feel like sometimes you just say, ‘That works.’”

I do have my own theory about why Escobar in the leadoff spot works; lineup construction doesn’t make much difference. Many people have run simulations that show that the difference between the optimum lineup and the worst-conceivable lineup is miniscule — and that’s between the ideal lineup and the stupidest lineup you can conceive (hit the pitcher first, your worst hitter third, etc). The difference between a sensible lineup and the perfect lineup is almost nothing.

On the other hand, Escobar likes hitting in the leadoff spot. That plays on perhaps his greatest trait as as a player: His nonstop passion for the game. Alex Gordon, who by the numbers seems a better fit in the top spot, does not like leading off. Move him to the eighth spot — he’s probably the best No. 8 hitter in baseball.

“We want everything to make sense,” Moore says. “But sometimes, things don’t make sense.”

4. Scout joyfully.

Dayton Moore and J.J. Picollo have the hearts of scouts. Moneyball — especially the movie — made baseball scouts look like out-of-touch witch doctors who eat badly and believe in the power of their guts. Clint Eastwood’s “The Trouble With The Curve,” tried to celebrate scouting — and instead, even more than Moneyball, made them look like out-of-touch witch doctors who eat badly and believe in the power of their guts.

But scouting, when it’s done right, is not about sitting behind home plate with a radar gun and a stopwatch and determining which player has a “good face” or grading their tools on a scale from 20 to 80. Those are obvious things.

But more than that, scouting is about investing in a player, learning about him, trying to imagine how he will handle the bus rides of the minor leagues, how he will deal with the slumps, how he will be changed by the attention. This kind of scouting requires thinking about how well the player will fit into a diverse clubhouse with several languages being spoken all at once, Will he shrink under the bright lights? Will he lead? Will he follow? Will he rebel? Will that hole in his swing fill with time? Does he love the game? Does he play only for the money? Will he work through the low moments? Does he have the talent and willpower to overcome when the league adjusts to him?

Moore and Picollo and the other Royals came up with a simple philosophy on scouting for the Royals: They wanted to acquire players they enjoyed watching play. In this analytical time with all the big data available, that can sound kind of ridiculous — but is it?

When the Royals traded Zack Greinke to Milwaukee for Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain, the doubts howled throughout baseball. Several general managers told me at the time that the Royals had much better offers on the table. They also thought Escobar would never hit and Cain was at best a fourth outfielder. But the Royals loved Escobar and Cain, not so much because of their tools but because of the joyful way they played baseball. The Royals loved watching Escobar go into the hole to make plays. They loved the smooth way Cain outran fly balls in the outfield. They bet that both players would get the most out of their abilities because of their attitudes, and they were right.

The Royals signed Salvador Perez at age 16, largely because the exuberant way he played. The Royals signed Yordano Ventura for $28,000 out of the Dominican Republic and they targeted him early, not only because of his electric arm but because of the fierce way he pitched. The Royals brought in Kendrys Morales coming off a disastrous season because they were impressed by the consistent professionalism he showed even when things were going terribly.

These aren’t “gut” decisions, exactly. The Royals run through all the information they have. They give a powerful voice to the scouts and to the analytics team. But the underlying principle is that they want to bring in players they think will be fun to watch at Kauffman Stadium. And that, as Robert Frost wrote, has made all the difference.

5. Worry about what you are, not what you aren’t.

The Royals wanted to build a great defensive team — this was one of the first things that Dayton Moore told owner David Glass when taking the job. He said, “We want an above-average defender at every single position.”

Well, when you have above average defenders at every position (as the Royals now do) you are probably sacrificing some offensive juice. There are only so many Willie Mays and Mike Schmidts and Mike Trouts who excel offensively and defensively. Usually there’s a choice, and the Royals have made their choice: They hit fewer homers than any team in the American League the last two years combined.

The Royals want aggressive hitters who make contact. This goes back to their philosophy about wanting players they like watching: It’s no fun watching your hitters strike out. The Royals strike out less than any team in baseball by a longshot, but with that aggressiveness comes the counterweight: The Royals also walk less than any team in baseball.

The Royals have a fantastic bullpen that has carried them through the last two Octobers. Well, by putting their best pitchers in the bullpen, they also have a relatively unimpressive starting rotation — the Royals were the first team to win the World Series without a single starter winning 15 games.

“This is what works for us,” Moore says. “We believed that with our ballpark, and with the way the Kansas City Royals won in the past, we needed to be this kind of team — a team that catches the ball, a team that puts constant pressure on the opposition, a team that closes down the late innings. Would we love to hit home runs like Toronto or have a starting pitching staff like the Mets? Who wouldn’t want that? But that’s not who we are.

“I hear people ask, ‘Do you think people will copy the Royals’ style?’ I don’t think that at all. This works for us, in our ballpark, with our fans, with our history. It’s different everywhere. I don’t think you can be successful at this game trying to copy somebody else. You have to be yourself.”