May 24, 2018

Does the Royals’ Success Signal a Paradigm Shift in Baseball Strategy?

November 12, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Joaquin Benoit’s trade today is just the first in what has been described as a cascade of relief additions that MLB teams will commence once Darren O’Day lands somewhere. The success of the Kansas City Royals has translated to a new paradigm wherein late inning arms are valued equally to those of starters. It was only a few years ago that Billy Beane’s strategy was to accumulate batters who worked deeper into the count consistently enough that the opposition had to resort to their inferior bullpen arms early in the game. Cue the rolling tumbleweeds music, cause that ship has sailed.

And what do we call this new brand of baseball? Whitey Ball was all the rage when the Royals won their last World Series. Is there a brand name for the new approach?

Before the presses start rolling, it might be worth examining exactly how important the Kansas City bullpen was to their World Series win. Johnny Cueto’s complete game shutout in Game Two was an important component in their dominance of the Mets. And the Kansas City offense scored 27 runs in five games, so this was no feat accomplished solely by the guys who don’t even sit with everyone else.

Kansas City starters worked 28.1 innings during the five games of the Series and allowed thirteen earned runs for a lackluster 4.13 ERA, By contrast the Kansas City relief corps pitched 23.2 innings and allowed only six earned runs for a sparkling 2.33 ERA. Without Cueto’s Game Two heroics the numbers would be much worse for the starters. Edison Volquez pitched reasonably well for Kansas City, but in what may have been the crucial game–Game Four–Royals starter Chris Young went only four innings and against the superior New York Mets starters, the momentum could have well switched to New York’s favor.

Kansas City countered with four relievers who allowed only one run over five innings including a two-inning scoreless save by Wade Davis.

Yes the Royals bullpen was essential in deciding the World Series in Kansas City’s favor. But the paradigm shift is hardly described by examining the Kansas City bullpen alone. Dayton Moore’s deep bullpen was able to withstand season-ending injury to their bullpen stalwart Greg Holland. But their emphasis on a deep bullpen is just part of a strategy that values every player on the roster.  And the value of those players is computed not in their home run and RBI totals. Whether it is World Series MVP Salvador Perez, or 34-year old right fielder Alex Rios, the Royals deploy a relatively complete player at every position.

At four of the eight positions on the field, Kansas City has a Gold Glove defender, or at least one nominated for the award. Alex Gordon, Sal Perez, Alcides Escobar and Eric Hosmer were nominees in the AL this season. Defensive metrics favor Lorenzo Cain as one of the three best outfielders in the American League according to FanGraphs. The bottom line for the Royals is that they put complete ball players on the field more than anyone else and as a result their defense is the best in the game today.

As headlines about steroids use and PED cocktails fade in the rear view mirror for Major League Baseball, new methods of achieving dominance are being sought by all teams. Kansas City has found one that is not unlike Billy Beane’s from several years ago. Small market teams need an equalizer and Kansas City is maximizing value by deploying a complete team, one that is solid in the batter’s box as well as on the field. Their pitching staff depends on excellence not just from one or two highly paid starters, but with a staff that is deep and talented from one to twelve.

Baseball has not been played this way in a long time. Babe Ruth defined the new modern era where the emphasis has been on power hitting. That may not be changing completely, but the Royals had almost 100 fewer home runs than the Toronto Blue Jays who led the AL. Kansas City’s offense was hardly anemic and scored 4.47 runs per game, ahead of the league average of 4.39. Their defensive metrics were far better allowing only 3.96 runs per game, bested only by Houston in that category.

There are no doubt other explanations, but the one that the media and many in the baseball world generally seemed to have seized upon is their bullpen. Who would argue with them? Those lonely guys need some love and it appears their 15-minutes of salary maximization has begun with this year’s off-season. Good On-ya!! Let the Hot Stove Games begin and lets all get us some of those strange bullpen dudes who have to work twice as hard.

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