March 16, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
Kansas City Royals: Failure is an Option
Welcome to the Baseball Prospectus 2015 season previews. For the next three weeks, BP authors will be writing about what each team does best in pursuit of wins. We will parse statistics, transactions, news, and quotes in an effort to identify the market inefficiency each team is taking advantage of. Wins are the end goal, but all of the 30 teams are obtaining them in different ways by prioritizing certain initiatives. Today, we begin the series with last year's World Series players, the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals.—Andrew Koo
Baseball is a sport defined by failure, and Moneyball is a book about baseball that is defined by failure.
It may be commonly viewed as a triumphant treatise on a low-budget, small-market team’s quest to beat a system that favors organizations in the opposite circumstances. There is certainly success in this story: The 2002 A’s won 20 games in a row. They made the playoffs. Billy Beane went on to be portrayed by Brad Pitt. You could do much, much worse, is what I’m saying.
But you could do much better, too. Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton, the A’s two top draft picks that year, turned into productive major leaguers, but Jeremy Brown and Brant Colamarino, two somewhat unconventional draft prospects Beane advocated for, combined for 11 major-league plate appearances. (All of those were Brown’s; Colamarino never made it past Double-A.)
And the strategies detailed in Moneyball haven’t made the A’s truly consistent winners: They’ve just made them competitive. The A’s lost to the Twins in the ALDS in 2002. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2006. And in 2014, after a scorching hot first half, they skidded into the American League Wild Card, where they lost to the Kansas City Royals.
Now, that’s a convenient segue. This is a preview of the Royals, despite what those first four paragraphs suggest.
PECOTA, which takes its name from former mediocre Royals utilityman Bill Pecota, really doesn’t like this squad. It projects Kansas City for 72 wins, which is the second-worst projected total in the American League. Just two Royals position players are projected for more than two WARP, and three starting pitchers are projected for negative WARP.
Failure is in the proverbial cards, if our unfeeling computer overlords are to be trusted. They usually are. Failure, however, is something of a defining factor for the Royals as an organization. Before 2014, they had missed the playoffs for 28 straight years. Their roster has an appropriately spotted history.
Start with the bullpen, the team’s most dominant unit last year and perhaps the main reason they outshot just about every projection, human and computer. Wade Davis put up a 4.49 FIP in his career as a starter before moving to the bullpen and lowering that number to 2.03. Luke Hochevar, who missed the 2014 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery but put up 1.1 WARP for the team in 2013, put up a 4.44 FIP in his years as a starter. Both Davis and Hochevar tried to play certain roles as pitchers and both failed, at least by the standards of the Royals. But when they failed at one thing, they had to start doing another thing, one which Davis and Hochevar happened to be very, very good at. The Royals’ bullpen is better because of Davis and Hochevar’s failure.
Eric Hosmer has failed, too. First in his sophomore season, when he put up an .241 TAv, but more broadly in relation to what he has projected to be. “Hosmer has the kind of bat speed and raw power that can’t be taught,” said Baseball America, ranking Hosmer the no. 2 prospect in the Royals organization in 2008. “Hosmer has the bat speed, selectivity, strength and leverage to hit for power and average,” the same publication said when ranking Hosmer the no. 2 prospect in the Carolina League in 2010. But Hosmer’s .127 ISO in 2014 was below the league average of .132, and his .262 TAv was just two points above league average. The most current iteration of Eric Hosmer is a below-average power hitter. Then there’s Mike Moustakas, who has hit .236 for his career, most recently .212 in 2014. There’s not much more to be said there.
But those two, somewhat improbably, played key roles in the Royals’ run to the World Series last year. Hosmer had a .983 OPS in the postseason, including three hits in the Wild Card win over Oakland. As a whole, he has been quite good since his sophomore season, and that could be due to the changes he made after his wakeup call of a sophomore season, like putting on muscle, outfitting his house for practice and working on his swing with his brother. “I can take the positives and learn from it,” he told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick. “This year, I’ll know how to break out of a slump better and do the little things like that. It all comes with experience.” Experience of failure, we can presume.
Moustakas had a .817 OPS and league-best five dingers during the postseason. The pitches—two fastballs, a slider, a changeup, and a curveball—that Moustakas hit for dingers came on the middle-to-inside part of the plate. Moustakas’ failings at the plate have largely stemmed from his inability to turn on pitches in that very spot, as we can see in this picture from BrooksBaseball.net:
It’s not a stretch at all to hypothesize that the pitchers the Royals faced in the postseason tailored their offerings to Moustakas with this weakness in mind, resulting in them attacking the inside corner, resulting in pitches that didn’t quite get there, resulting in pitches that Moustakas whacked over the right-field fence. Moustakas’ failure in the past likely led to his, and his team’s, success in the postseason.
One can’t speak of Alex Gordon’s career without mentioning failure. In his first four seasons as a major leaguer, Gordon just once recorded a True Average above .250. He got demoted to the minors in 2010. But since that low point, he has rebranded himself as a stud left fielder, winning the AL Gold Glove at the position for the past four years, and hitting for a .288 TAv during that time, too. For Gordon to turn into perhaps the best left fielder in baseball, one who formed a third of what in 2014 was one of the best defensive outfields of all-time, was an improbable outcome that the Royals are very happy with. And if Alex Gordon hadn’t failed as a third baseman, it’s an outcome that likely wouldn’t exist.
And we can’t forget about the trade, you know, That One. It was a trade that garnered reactions ranging from half-hearted optimism to outright hatred. It reeked of desperation, people said; that the Royals were so desperate to win right now that they forced a trade that would by no means put them in the position to do so and, in the process, shipped off the keys to possible future success. It was a trade that only a team that had been failing for a really, really long time (29 years, for example) would make. And it worked. Though James Shields was the opposite of valuable in the postseason, his steady regular-season innings and veteran locker room presence pushed them through an up-and-down regular season. And the other pitcher who came in that trade has done okay, too.
When building a team, nobody tries to fail. Despite their best efforts, the Royals did that for a long time. The players failed, the front office failed, the team failed. And that failure has beget moves and adjustments that made the Royals winners.
Compositionally, the Royals aren’t very different from last year. The lineup is basically intact, with the signing of Alex Rios giving them a potential power bat in right, and Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen providing some extra arms to try to fill Shields’ void. Obviously, Dayton Moore doesn’t want these new acquisitions to fail. But all have, in the not-so-distant past, and all were available to the Royals because of it. Further, failure leads to introspection, and introspection leads to adjustments, and adjustments can lead to improvement. It did for the Royals, all the way to a pennant.
So maybe, for the Royals, failure wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen. It might be the best.