Royal Revolution

November 5, 2015
 
Imagine a dart board.
 
At the center, you have the smallest circle, which is worth the most points. You have a second circle around that, which is pretty valuable, too, but not quite as valuable as the first circle. Then you have the outer rings…3 and 20 and 7 and 18. Some of those are valuable, and some of those exist because you need to put something there. In most games of darts throwing a 3 or a 7 isn’t going to matter at all, but the board would look silly without ‘em.
 
It is possible to imagine all of the various skills or components that go into winning a baseball game, and place them on the dart board. What is most important to a winning team? What’s the bull’s eye?
 
Three things: Getting guys on base. Getting guys around the bases. Starting Pitching.
 
You know how you can tell that those are the Most Important Skills? Because that’s what teams pay for. Joey Votto is the best player in baseball at getting on base. He makes a good living. Miguel Cabrera is a pretty good slugger, and well-paid for it. Clayton Kershaw makes a million dollars per start.
 
Second circle…second ring of the bulls-eye: defense and speed, the kissin’-cousins of baseball skills. Who your closer is. Who your manager is.
 
A team pays for these things, but they don’t pay as much. A very good closer, someone like Aroldis Chapman or Wade Davis or Craig Kimbrel, will make about a third of what a good starter makes on the open market. A player like Aldrelton Simmons or Kevin Kiermaier probably won’t see a nine-figure contract, not unless they count after the decimal point.
 
Everything else…all of the other stuff…are the numbers on the dart board. Bunting. Middle relief. Fifth starter. How your pitchers do at holding runners. How your pitchers hit. Contact rates. Your first-base coach. Having a burner to pinch-run with. Pitch framing. Defensive alignments. Shifts. How much your pitchers truth your catcher. Pitch calling. Analytics. Game preparation.
 
All of these things have to be on the board. You have to have a ‘1’ and a ‘13’ on your dartboard, just like a team has to practice bunting. Some of the skill count for something, but they’re not at the center of the board. They’re skills of occasional importance, but they’re not in the inner circle.
 
Putting all of that a little differently: if you asked a random fan about their team’s chances coming into a season, they’d mostly talk about the stuff in that first circle. Do we have enough bats this year? Who is setting the table on offense, and who is bringing the runners in? How does the rotation look?
 
They’d talk a little about the secondary stuff. Our closer has to stay healthy. The infield is going to turn the double play. Don’t know if Player X can handle centerfield. I like the skipper. I don’t like the skipper.
 
And they’d pretty much ignore the third circle. That’s not because they’re incapable of understanding the subtleties of baseball. It’s because that stuff just doesn’t matter as much. How are we doing on bunting this year? Do we like the new third-base coach? What can we expect from Jon Lester’s bat? The average fan doesn’t talk about those things. Hell, the average analyst doesn’t pay attention to those things.
 
Speaking of analysts.
 
*             *             *
 
At the start of the 2015 season, ESPN asked eighty-eight of their staffers to pick who would win the AL Central. Here’s who they picked:
Cleveland – 43
Detroit – 25
Chicago – 17
Kansas City – 3
 
For every one writer who picked the Royals to win the Central Division in 2015, fourteen picked Cleveland to win the division. For every one writer who picked KC, five picked the White Sox.
How about FanGraphs? FanGraphs asked thirty-eight staffers to pick the AL Central. Here’s who they picked:
 
Cleveland – 28
Detroit - 14
 
None of the FanGraphs writers picked Kansas City to win the AL Central. To their credit, none of their writers picked the White Sox, either, so they did a bit better than the ESPN folks. 
 
Please know I'm not mocking either group: I didn’t expect the Royals to keep winning either. I’m only bringing this up because the clear majority of baseball analysts didn’t think that the Royals team were going to repeat their successful 2014 campaign.
 
If you want to know why all of us pundits thought the Royals would lose, the dart board analogy becomes very useful. The reason all of us were skeptical about Kansas City’s chances in 2015 is because we thought that the Royals would be pretty mediocre at all of the things that are most important to winning baseball games.
 
And we were right. The Royals were mediocre at all the things that are Important to Winning.
 
Getting on base is important. The Royals finished 7th in the American League, which is about as mediocre as you can be in a 15-team league. The same holds for the team’s slugging percentage: while Kendrys Morales boosted their power hitting, KC finished 8th in the AL in slugging percentage. Their offense wasn’t very good at getting on base, and it wasn’t good at guys around the bases.
 
And the starting pitching was pretty mediocre. The Royals Opening Day starter was Yordano Ventura, who had to endure a stint in Triple-A to get his stuff together. Danny Duffy and Jeremy Guthrie performed exactly as you’d expect them to perform. Edison Volquez was the ace of the staff, but that’s using the term ‘ace’ pretty loosely: Volquez posted a 3.55 ERA and walked 72 batters in 200 innings. Johnny Cueto came over at the deadline and posted an ERA of 4.76. Chris Young, recently graduated from the Greg Maddux School for Old Men Who Can Win With Guile and Craft, was the most reliable starter for the Royals this year.
 
It didn’t matter. They won 95 games.
 
Adding insult to injury, the Royals beat three teams that were good at the middle-of-the-dart-board skills. The Houston Astros are a great slugging team, and they couldn’t beat the Royals. The Blue Jays had the most potent offense we’ve seen since the Cleveland teams of the mid-90’s. Toronto also had a Certified Ace David Price. The Royals beat ‘em. In the World Series, the Royals faced a team with an incredibly deep rotation, and a surprisingly potent offense, and they beat ‘em in five.
 
If we were only looking at the 2015 season, I would be tempted to chalk the Royals success up to the vagaries of playoff baseball. After all, the Astros were in a good position to put them away, and Toronto held their own. The Mets were in a position to win three of the four games the Royals won. We could call it ‘luck.’
 
But the Royals also beat the A’s in last year’s insane Wild Card game. Then they swept the Los Angeles Mike Trouts in the ALDS. They beat Baltimore in the ALCS…sweeping them, too. They came within 90 feet of tying Game Seven of the World Series, against a Giants team that had Madison Bumgarner putting up the best postseason performance we’ll ever see. The Royals have posted a 22-8 record in playoff games, which is very good.  
 
And they’re not slouching in the regular season: KC won 89 games in 2014 and 95 games in 2015. They didn’t win those games in a soft division, beating up on a lot of rebuilding teams. The Tigers and Indians are good teams. Chicago has Chris Sale pitching every fifth day, and Jose Abreu batting. Even the Twins were pretty good this year.
 
The Royals win a lot. They are very hard to beat.
 
So what does it all mean? How do we make sense of the Royals success?
 
*             *             *
 
We should start by asking where the Royals do stand out.
 
Their biggest advantages are a bunch of second- and third-circle skills. They are a good defensive team. They’re great on the base paths. They have a great closer. Their hitters never strike out: they are historically great at making contact with pitches. They have terrific middle relief. They have a catcher who by all accounts is pretty good at a lot of the hard-to-pin down things a catcher does.
 
These are interesting characteristics, but they don’t seem like the kind of skill that should make them a winning team. It would be like expected the Yankees to win next year because they hit a lot of groundballs, have great range at foul pop ups, and never give up runs in the fourth inning.
 
The characteristics that most define the Kansas City Royals don’t seem like successful characteristics, not until you look at them through the context of the larger trends in baseball. Then the secret of their success gets a little clearer.
 
Let’s consider the ‘contact’ thing. The Royals hitters never strike out. Their offense is historically good at making contact.
 
That shouldn’t matter. Historically speaking, making contact has never been a particularly valuable skill. The important measure of a hitter has always been what kind of contact they make. Hit doubles and homers? Great. Line drives? Terrific. Slap grounders and weak flairs…..that’s okay if you’re Ichiro, but it’s not going to be enough for most players.
 
Throughout history, what is valuable is good contact: the kind of contact that results in hits, in doubles, and in homeruns. There is much less value in pure contact….in just getting the bat on the ball.
 
But there is an equalizer between ‘good’ and ‘pure’ contact. That equalizer is the strikeout.
 
If you are in a league where one-in-ten at-bats ends in a strikeout, there is little value to making contact. We can look at it in pure terms: in a league with a 1-in-10 strikeout rate, a player capable of always making contact would be 10% better than the league average. Extrapolated over a 600 at-bat season, our Ichiro Gwynn would be putting the ball in play 60 times more than an average player. That’s some gain, but it’s not a significant value if you’re sacrificing good contact.
 
If, however, you’re in a league where one-in-three at-bats ends with a strikeout, there is significant value in having a player who never strikes out. An average player in the new league would strike out 200 times in 600 at-bats, which means that contact superstar Ichiro Gwynn would be putting the ball in play 200 more than the average player. That is a significant advantage, even if you’re sacrificing good contact to get it.
 
Another way to describe this is to imagine your standard slow-pitch rec game, and contrast it to major league baseball. In a slow-pitch league, no one strikes out, so there’s no value in being extremely talented at putting the ball in play. All of the value is on the quality of contact.
 
But in the majors, where lots of players strike out, there’s some value in just putting the ball in play. The balance between quality of contact and quantity of contact is more in flux.
 
Maybe you know where this is going.
 
Major League baseball is trending to more and more strikeouts. This year was the second straight year when 20% of plate appearance ended in a strikeout.
 
Year
MLB K%
2005
16.4%
2006
16.8%
2007
17.1%
2008
17.5%
2009
18.0%
2010
18.5%
2011
18.6%
2012
19.8%
2013
19.9%
2014
20.4%
2015
20.4%
 
The higher the strikeout rate goes, the more the pendulum of value swings away from the quality of contact, and towards just making contact.
 
This is what the Royals are capitalizing on. What makes the pitchers on a team like the Mets so good is that they can count on getting a lot of strikeouts. The Royals took that away from the Mets: they didn’t give the Mets pitchers easy punch-outs. They said: "If you want to get out of this jam, you better make plays." The Mets didn’t, and they lost the series.
 
The Royals are winning because they’ve hoarded players with a skillset that isn’t historically valuable, but it is valuable in the current contexts of how baseball is played today. The value of contact correlates directly with the strikeout rate: the Royals have found themselves with the most contact-prone team in baseball, at a moment when it actually matters.
 
That’s one trend that the Royals are vanguard on. The other is their bullpen.
 
Permanently
 
The second trend that the Royals are capitalizing is the game’s gradual movement away from starting pitching, and towards a more aggressive use of bullpens. While most contending teams have responded to this trend by throwing big dollar contracts at the few pitchers capable of throwing 200 effective innings, the Royals have focused on a) building a bullpen deep with quality arms, and b) using those arms in less standardized roles.
 
This makes the Royals a particularly tough late team: a starting matchup of David Price versus Danny Duffy certainly seems lopsided, but the Royals bullpen won’t give an inch in the late innings, and their offense is particularly tailored to hit against whatever 100-mph gunslinger their opponents bring in.
 
If Kansas City is fighting against baseball’s rising strikeout rate, they are at the forefront of the pitching revolution: the Royals have realized that baseball in the future is going rely less and less on who starts your games, and more and more on who is ending them.
 
*             *             *
 
Should the Royals continue to be successful?
 
The biggest concern, going forward, is whether or not baseball steps in to do something about the strikeout rate. If the strikeout rate in the majors stays at 20%, then the Royals brand of contact-first offense should continue to be effective. But if baseball starts tinkering with the rules to bring that rate down, the Royals offense is going to lose its effectiveness. The value in contact exists in parallel to the percentage of at-bats that end with a ball in play: if all hitters start making more contact, the Royals will lose their advantage.
 
That is to say: the rising strikeout rate does not seem an inevitability, and so I would not predict that contact-first modes of offense will spread through the game. Eventually the powers that be will realize that baseball is less interesting when 20% of hitters strikeout, and they’ll adjust things until we get a more satisfying balance.
 
On the other end, I think that baseball is marching inexorably towards bullpens taking on more and more importance in winning baseball games. Though I am not certain of this, I strongly suspect that in thirty years a pitcher going seven or eight or nine innings will seem as strange to future baseball fans as we find the Marichal/Spahn game of 1963. I would bet on that trend to continue, and the Royals should be credited for their position at the extreme edge of bullpen reliance.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.  
 
 

COMMENTS (15 Comments, most recent shown first)

Marc Schneider
I think one problem is people look at "luck" as implying there is no skill involved. No one can honestly say the Royals are not a good team; their records prove that they are. The issue is why they have been so successful in the playoffs and I continue to believe that the playoffs are largely random. Teams get hot or play well in the playoffs for no particular reason. It's not "luck" in the sense that there is NO skill involved, but it's a matter of teams playing particularly well at given times. The argument that, well, it couldn't be luck two years in a row doesn't ring true to me. It's like tossing a coin; the fact that you get heads five times in a row doesn't prove that you have a skill in tossing heads. For all we know, the Royals might lose in the first round the next five trips to the playoffs. I'm not trying to knock the Royals, but I just don't think there is anything there other than a good team has gotten hot at the right time the last two years. Same with the Giants.​
10:48 AM Nov 10th
 
Gfletch
Situational hitting is always very important. I think, though, that just like there is clutch performance (but not clutch skill), there is situational performance, but not situational skill (so much). The two things came together for the Royals.

Any way, it seems clear that the Royals are a pretty good team that played very hard and performed over their heads when it counted. It's a great performance, they've gotten very far...but I don't think they can continue to do this without improving themselves in the more obvious ways...hit better, especially.
12:18 AM Nov 10th
 
MarisFan61
Something that I think has been in the background of some of these comments is, why did these things matter so much more in the post-season than in the regular season? How did this team with a very-good-but-not-great regular season record suddenly become a world beater? At first the points in the article rang loudly true to me, but, after seeing the comments (including those that aren't visible any more) and thinking some more, I think the material here leaves that question unanswered, and actually I think unaddressed.

A possible answer might be that these things on which the Royals are positively outlying are things that simply become more important in the post-season. I can imagine that this might be so. In fact, about a year ago one of our members (Chuck) posted some nice work in "Reader Posts" that I think suggested very strongly that in the last 2-3 decades (and I hope I'm representing this correctly; I'll be asking Chuck to take a look) .....that in the last 2-3 decades, team strikeout differential (i.e. difference between a team's pitchers' K's and hitters' K's) has been very strongly correlated with post-season success, one of the very highest-correlated factors. It suggested that while sabermetrics traditionally has asserted and assumed that K's make very little difference (compared to other outs), they have been highly predictive for post-season.

I can also imagine that the other noted outstanding characteristics of the Royals are more important in the post-season than in the regular season. On the other hand, starting pitching is pretty much assumed to be more important in the post-season, or at least the top-line starting pitching, and the Royals didn't excel there; also, Bill recently said (very convincingly, I think) that home runs are more valuable in the post-season because of there being fewer baserunners and therefore less chance for a long-sequence offense, and the Royals didn't excel there either. So, their lesser top-line starting pitching and low HR rate are factors working against the positives. (BTW the low HR rate didn't work against them that much, because they also gave up relatively few HR's. They gave up more than they hit, but their league standing on them balanced out: next to last in offensive HR's, 2nd best in fewest HR's allowed.)

Actually, I would say ironically, the fact of fewer baserunners would seem to mean that "small ball" also becomes more valuable -- ironic because these things that are essentially opposites, HR power and "small ball," both apparently become more valuable, and due to the same root cause. Anyway, the Royals clearly excelled in "small ball," in large part due to the contact factor -- and particularly, I suppose (don't know the data), due to what Bgorden just said: they were able to do their contact thing even more when it most counted. Is situational hitting more important in the post-season, typically and in general?? I would guess that indeed it is.

Cliff's Notes: I'm suggesting some ways that the things mentioned in this article could be more important in the post-season. But the main thing I'm saying is, I don't think we know, and that seems to be a gap between what is mentioned in the article and how well the Royals did in the post-season.
11:26 PM Nov 9th
 
bgorden
It's not that the Royals never strike out; it's that they don't strike out in contact situations. Once a runner gets on base in the late innings, they change their approach. All the at bats take a long time, there are plenty of foul balls, and eventually contact is made. Their skill is situational hitting.

What is important in baseball is skills that are rare, and in today's baseball, situational hitting is rare. A runner on third base with one out used to score about two-thirds of the time; now it's barely over 50%.
12:30 AM Nov 9th
 
Breckinridge
Very interesting article, Dave.....keep up the good work!

Regards,
Breck
1:57 PM Nov 7th
 
evanecurb
Excellent analysis of why it's important to put the ball in play. You could even develop a stat based on batting average in balls in play times number of balls in play above league average to quantify their value. Which you've pretty much already done here.


9:26 PM Nov 6th
 
billsizer
I thought your article on the Royals' success was excellent. Yes, the Mets hitters collapsed, but KC pitching probably had a lot to do with that. And when a team gets "lucky" in two consecutive post-seasons, maybe it isn't luck. Ask Braves' fans like me. Losing every year in the post-season isn't just luck either.
9:47 AM Nov 6th
 
DavidTodd
looking it up, the Roylas score an above average number of runs, and have an obp and slugging over average​
1:59 AM Nov 6th
 
DavidTodd
the Royals put the ball in play but they are still an average hitting team, with average runs,
it must be the pitching
1:57 AM Nov 6th
 
OldBackstop
Hey Dave,

A nice piece of work.

Believe it or not, I have been pondering the World Series a lot. :-) While there is a lot of flak in the air about the various aspects of each team's skill sets, mostly baserunning and defense and wonderfulness, here are the numbers jumping out at me:

Doubles: Royals 10, Mets 1
ExBH: Royals 13, Mets 7

Mets batting averages:

NLCS: .269
WS: .193

Key Mets in WS:

There were seven Mets who had more than 15 ABs:

Wright: .208
Cespedes: .143
D'Arnaud: .150
Murphy: .150
Flores: .159

Uribe, Niewenhaus, Kelly Johnson, Cuddyer totaled nine ABs without a hit.

So...do the Royals pitching staff really warrant that sort of performance out of the Mets? The Royals ERA during the season was 3.725...in the WS, 2.94. Their WHIP in the WS .942, during the season, 1.282.

I think you can take all the marvelous Kansas City scouting reports, base running, defense, clutch hitting, late rallies, and "intangibles", put them in a box, and it doesn't come close to matching the key Mets unwarranted collapse at the plate.





11:24 AM Nov 5th
 
thegue
I just asked Bill if 20% was the point at which the lost art of NOT striking out becomes valuable again. Thanks.
8:58 AM Nov 5th
 
studes
Oops. That's too bad, David. I think the system retains prior versions of the article, but I don't know about old comments. I'll investigate.

My comment was that the big thing of note about the Royals has been their extremely clutch offense the past two years (as measured in WPA terms). I wondered if contact rate might be associated with clutchiness, and Jeff Sullivan actually posted an article about it today.

www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-evolving-link-between-strikeouts-and-clutch/

Bottom line: there is a small but real relationship.
8:19 AM Nov 5th
 
MarisFan61
(ok -- I see Dave's comment, posted while I was typing)
2:14 AM Nov 5th
 
MarisFan61
werd :-)
The article mysteriously disappeared, along with the several comments, and now has magically reappeared, without them....
(Too bad -- we were saying this was good.)
2:13 AM Nov 5th
 
DaveFleming
Sorry for the article disappearing and reappearing: it was me making an error with something behind the curtain of the site.

Feel free to repost your (very nice!) comments below. I promise they won't disappear again.


2:12 AM Nov 5th
 
 
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