The Team of the Decade

December 31, 2019
 
Which team was the Team of the Decade?
 
What team best encapsulates the last ten years of baseball? Which team are we going to point to, decades from now, when we want someone to understand this period in baseball history? Which team did the best job of winning over our hearts and minds? Which teams astonished us? Which teams brought us joy? 
 
Let’s consider a few contenders.
 
The Giants of San Francisco won three championships, the only team to do that this decade. They have a good claim as a dynasty, as the three titles happened across five seasons. But they get dinged for not having any consecutive pennants, and they get dinged for not being a particularly dominant regular season club, winning just 92, 94, and 88 games during their title years. They have memorable players (Posey, Bumgarner, Panda), but only Buster figures to make the Hall-of-Fame.
 
The Boston Red Sox can claim two World Championships this decade, and the 2018 team was, by just about any advanced measure, the strongest team of the decade. The 2018 Red Sox ran through a juggernaut of playoff opponents (Yankees, Astros, Dodgers) to win their championship. Mookie Betts is one of the great stars of the era, and Chris Sale, J.D. Martinez, Craig Kimbrel and Xander Bogaerts are all terrific, memorable players.
 
The Northside Chicago Cubs ended decades of suffering by storming through the 2016 season and then coming back to win an epic Game 7 against Cleveland. Houston was similarly dominant in 2017, winning a championship against a tougher slate of teams than the Cubs, and they get a bit more credit for returning to the World Series in 2020, losing a memorable battle with the Nationals.
 
All of them are worthy contenders. None of them would be my ‘Team of the Decade.’
 
Instead, I’d select for honor a team that merits far more retrospective analysis than it has received. It’s a team that took all of the dominant trends of the decade and tossed them out the window on their way to success, baffling anyone with a sabermetric background and then baffling us all over again a year later. It’s the team that managed to remind all of us who pretend to know anything about baseball – the WAR Warriors and Launch-Angle Evangelicals both - that we know far less about the game than we think we know.  
 
My Team of the Decade were the baffling, brilliant, and utterly bizarre Kansas City Royals of 2014-2015.
 
*             *             *
 
Let’s start with WAR.
 
The emergence of Wins Above Replacement has been the single most significant statistical shift of the last decade. At the start of the decade, it was a curiosity. Now it is the first metric most of us look at when we start talking about evaluating baseball players.
 
WAR is a jewel of a discovery: it is an attempt to codify all of a player’s positive and negative contributions into a single unified metric that adjusts for all the pesky contexts that the human brain cannot adjust to. It is the Holy Grail of sports statistics, and its prevalence in sabermetric discourse has been so totalthat even skeptics have had to cede to its significance.
 
If you want evidence of this, look at the most recent MVP votes. If you once complained that Runs Batted In held too much significance in the minds of voters, consider the nearly total correlation between the players who top the leagues in WAR and the players who top the end-of-year ballots from BBWAA voters. It’s a WAR World, and we’re all just along for the ride.
 
Which is one way the Royals are fascinating.
 
The best player on the 2014 or 2015 Royals, by FanGraph’s version of WAR, was 2015 Lorenzo Cain, who tallied a WAR of 6.1.
 
That’s a very good year, of course: Cain finished 9th among offensive players in WAR. It wasn’t a historically great season, but it’s great enough. Teams don’t trade away that kind of player (they just don’t, Boston Red Sox).  
 
The next best player that the Royals had, according to WAR, was 2014 Alex Gordon, who tallied a 5.4 fWAR. After that is Lorenzo Cain’s 2014 season (4.4).
 
Here are the top offensive players on the Royals two World Series teams:
 
Player
Year
fWAR
Lorenzo Cain
2015
6.1
Alex Gordon
2014
5.4
Lorenzo Cain
2014
4.4
Mike Moustakas
2015
3.8
Al. Escobar
2014
3.5
Eric Hosmer
2015
3.1
Alex Gordon
2015
2.7
 
For a team that made consecutive World Series appearances, their offensive players didn’t tally any MVP-level performances. They didn’t tally too many All-Star level performances, even: if we use 5.0 WAR as the baseline for an All-Star player, the Royals had…two All-Star players.  
 
This year’s Astros had seven position players with a WAR above 3.0. The Royals had six players above that mark…over two seasons.
 
In a way, this shows, at least a little, the inadequacy of WAR as a metric.
 
Consider the case of Salvador Perez, the catcher and beating heart of those Royals teams. Salvador Perez does not show up on the table above: he is credited with an fWAR’s of 2.0 in 2014, and 0.8 in 2015.
 
The other side of the coin is that Salvador Perez was the starting catcher for All-Star games, a nod to the consensus opinion that he was the league’s best backstop. He provided excellent defensive, receiving Gold Gloves both years and pacing the majors in games caught by a wide margin, He guided a pitching staff of marginal talents to consecutive pennants. He was a sparkplug offensive player, batting fifth mostly and posting a stronger better batting line in high leverage situations. Besides Cain, Perez was perhaps the most integral player on the Royals, a detail that WAR fails to recognize.  
 
Since we’re near enough the subject, how does the Royals pitching look according to WAR?
 
Pitcher
Year
fWAR
James Shields
2014
3.4
Wade Davis
2014
3.1
Y. Ventura
2015
2.7
E. Volquez
2015
2.7
Y. Ventura
2014
2.6
 
                  &nbs​p;                        &nbs​p;         
Eh…that’s not an obvious strength, either. The Royals had a couple of excellent bullpen years from Wade Davis, but their starting pitching was adequate at the top, and less adequate below that.
 
So how did this team win two consecutive AL pennants?
 
*             *             *
 
Returning to the subject of trends of the decade, it is worth noting where baseball stood at the poles of the period.
 
The start of the 2010’s saw the end of baseball’s steroid era, a period of lumbering louts mashing taters into the stratosphere. The end of the decade was marked by a re-emergence of a new generation of home run hitters, more limber and more learned on the subject of lift and launch.
 
Two more trends: the post-Moneyball era has seen walks gain greater appreciation for even casual fans. Strikeouts, on the other hand, didn’t matter much for a hitter: it was the cost of the launch, and anyway you can’t ground into a double play on a strikeout. Stolen bases have been mostly an afterthought.
 
In the middle of all of that, the Royals bucked the prevailing trends…not just slightly, but in the extreme. Here are KC’s AL ranks in homeruns and walks:
 
Year
HRs
AL Rank
Walks
AL Rank
2014
95
16th
380
16th
2015
139
15th
383
16th
 
That ‘16th’ rank is the worst in the league, of course. The Royals didn’t hit home runs, and they didn’t draw walks. They were the inverse of an Earl Weaver offense, the antithesis of the three-run homer. They were Billy Beane the player, not Billy Beane the GM.   
 
So what did the Royals offense do? Where did they excel?
 
They did the things baseball mostly stopped caring about: they stole bases, and they put the ball in play. Here are the team ranks in stolen bases and batter strikeouts:
 
Year
SB
AL Rank
K's
AL Rank
2014
153
1st
985
1st
2015
102
2nd
973
1st
 
This turned out, against all expectations, to be a winning strategy. It was an especially effective strategy when the playoffs rolled around.
 
I don’t know if this is remembered sufficiently, but the Kansas City Royals were an incredibly good playoff team. Counting the Wild Card game, the 2014-15 Royals played in seven playoff series, and they won six of them. In the one series they lost, they pushed the Giants to seven games, losing a nail-biter final by a score of 3-2.
 
The Royals W-L record in the playoffs was 22-9, good enough for a remarkable .710 winning percentage. For context, the San Francisco Giants – a team that never lost a playoff series during their three runs – had a .708 playoff winning percentage. The Giants were Giants…but the Royals were slightly more…well…Royal.
 
Their starting pitching was average. They had pitchers who didn’t give up homeruns and didn’t give up walks, but there was nothing excellent about their rotation.
 
Their bullpen was excellent, of course: if there is a legacy to this team, it was their capacity to shorten games by having a bullpen that gave opponents nuthin’.The Royals were hard to beat from behind, and their starting pitching and offense was good enough to keep them in close games. They are the logical precursors to the big bullpen Yankees and the ‘opener’ Rays of 2019.
 
But they are, despite this legacy, an anonymous team, notable for a cast of good-but-not-great players. Alex Gordon was a franchise player, and Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain were the heart and soul of the team. Wade Davis was a star. But no one on the team received significant hardware. No Royals from this team will make the baseball Hall-of-Fame.
 
Their legacy is undercut by that, and it is undercut further because they just didn’t make sense in the contexts of the baseball happening around them. They certainly had me fooled: the first time the Royals reached the playoffs I figured them for an early exit, and they just never died. I was convinced, a year later, that Ned Yost’s stuff wouldn’t work again…it couldn’t work because everything I understood about baseball was focused on everything the Royals didn’t do, and on the kinds of players they didn’t have.
 
Except it did work.
 
Two pennants in a row counts as a dynasty in this era of extended playoffs, and the Royals have to be the most surprisingly success story I’ve ever had the pleasure to follow. I didn’t understand them then, and I have only a little more understanding of them now. I’m glad for the humility.
 
Happy 2020, all.
 
 
David Fleming is a writer who lives in western Virginia. He welcomes comments and questions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 
 
 
 

COMMENTS (14 Comments, most recent shown first)

shthar
fwah and Ks are not what a pitching staff is trying to do. A pitching staff is trying to not give up runs.

Those things are tools to try to understand WHY a team gives up or doesn't give up runs. They are not the GOAL in of themselves. No one ever says, 'well, we scored more runs, but your strikeout % was higher, so I guess you win'.

The Royals starting pitching WAS above average those 2 years. What they did in thier careers after that means as much to 2014-15 as how much Bill Pecota hit in 1992.

'but they didn't pitch alot of innings'. They threw just as many innings as every other team in baseball did. And they gave up fewer runs in those innings. If fwah cannot explain that, don't blame the Royals.

You wrote your article to fit your prior beliefs. You ignored or mis-stated things that did not support your conclusion.

This is a perfect example of the kind of baseball writing that made Bill James start publishing his own work.
10:09 PM Jan 7th
 
DaveFleming
To shthar's point about the Royals pitching: it is true that the Royals gave up the 4th fewest runs in the AL in 2015, and the 3rd fewest in 2015.

Is runs allowed a measure of the quality of a pitching staff? Certainly, it is A measure, but we have to consider it within contexts. The Royals played in a pitcher-friendly park, which helped. They had a great defense...that helped, too. And they played a softer schedule than their opponents in other divisions.

The various iterations of WAR attempt to address those contexts. The statistic ain't perfect, as I'll be the first one to admit (or the second, behind Maris). It's not great, but it helps a little.

Among all major league teams....thirty teams now...the Royals ranked 9th in pitching fWAR in 2014, and 14th in 2015. That's not terrible, but it's not exactly 'elite.'

Strikeouts are a solid measure of pitching quality, because a strikeout can't be credited to defense or park effects. How did the Royals do by strikeout percentage? They ranked 24th and 25th in strikeout percentage. That's not good.

They were good at avoiding walks in 2014 (9th in BB%), but they ranked 20th a year later, so it wasn't as if they were terrific at avoiding free passes.

And the claim that they had elite pitching doesn't pass the smell test. The team leader in innings pitched from 2014-15 was Jeremy Guthrie. Then it was Yordano Ventrura, who was a good pitcher...the best starter the Royals had. Then it's Danny Duffy (286 IP), Jason Vargas (230), James Shields (227) and Edison Volquez (200). After that we get to the bullpen guys, who are great.

But those guys...Guthrie and Duffy and Vargas and Shields...those guys have had careers that show exactly what kind of pitchers they are, and they're not elite. Ventura was good, and Volquez has had his moments, but the contention that this was some elite pitching team seems a stretch.

8:52 AM Jan 6th
 
villageelliott
Whereas the San Francisco Giants are the only team to win three MLB World Series in the decade (2010, 12, 14), the Tokyo-Kitasuna All Stars of Tokyo, Japan, is the only team to win three Little League World Series in the decade (2012, '15, '17) and likewise deserves consideration.
6:38 PM Jan 3rd
 
OldBackstop
Great piece, Dave, and HNY!

Just a note about the mention of All Stars....the Royals were in the midst of a "scandal" of sorts on that one.....

https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2015/05/26/mlb-all-star-game-ballot-results-five-royals-starters/27975487/
2:57 PM Jan 3rd
 
ksclacktc
Nice job Dave!
12:51 PM Jan 3rd
 
ksclacktc
"I believe it to be an accurate statement that sabermetric analysts do not understand and cannot explain the success of that team. The fool, when confronted with a situation in which his expertise has misled him, will put his fingers in his ears and squeeze tightly his eyes and shout "NO NO NO We DO UNDERSTAND IT!!! WE DO WE DO WE DO." The wise man asks "what is it that we are missing here? What are the factors of success that drove this team, which are not accounted for in our analysis?"

From Bill

I wish that more people would heed this advice. We have more "know it alls" than ever before, and the over-confidence they possess is alarming.
12:51 PM Jan 3rd
 
shthar
Like Moneyball, this article is a false narrative. And it's the same false narrative, ignore the team's great pitching.

The royals 'average' starting pitching, gave up the 4th fewest runs in the AL in 2015, and the third fewest in 2015.

Next time, look at real #s, not some gobblydegook.



8:52 PM Jan 2nd
 
arnewcs
It's hard to argue against the Giants. Sure they were not great in the regular season, but it's supposed to be about championships. I believe the Yankees had the most wins in the decade.
6:05 PM Jan 1st
 
lazer
How could the Royals finish 16th in HR and BB in a 15-team league?
3:33 PM Jan 1st
 
77royals
Excellent choice. I couldn't agree more.
6:43 AM Jan 1st
 
steve161
You start the year with the usual quality, Dave, but I'm a bit surprised that you don't even mention the Dodgers. I wouldn't call them the team of the decade, but they completely dominated their division, reached two World Series and won only one fewer than the Cubs and the Astros.

As for the Royals: few strikeouts, few home runs, few walks. Surely they were the least boring winner of the decade. Pity it didn't last.
5:34 AM Jan 1st
 
evanecurb
That team played great defense, didn’t they? Their pitchers kept the ball in the park, and their defenders caught it. Fun team to watch.
4:51 AM Jan 1st
 
ventboys
Nicely written, Dave, and who cares if it's true. It's true to you, and you presented your case as well as it can be presented. Thanks for another worthy piece to read, and happy new-decade to you and yours!
8:15 PM Dec 31st
 
jfenimore
Nice try, but sorry.
7:02 PM Dec 31st
 
 
©2020 Be Jolly, Inc. All Rights Reserved.|Web site design and development by Americaneagle.com|Terms & Conditions|Privacy Policy