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August 26, 2014

Baseball Therapy

How Billy Beane Built the Royals

by Russell A. Carleton

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Yes, I know.

***

It’s downright amazing what Billy Beane has done with the Kansas City Royals this year. They play in the sixth-oldest stadium in baseball and in the second-smallest media market. The Royals also play in the same division as the Tigers, who, despite already having two Cy Young Award winners on their staff, traded for David Price. Yet despite these major handicaps, the Royals are in first place in the AL Central.

Billy Beane is a genius! How did he do it? He followed simple sabermetric principles and thought differently about how to build a team. By doing so, he was able to find hidden value to power his team’s run at the playoffs.

The first part is a rather boring, tried-and-true method for building a winner, but it should be pointed out that the Royals' core is homegrown. Aaron Crow, Eric Hosmer, Greg Holland, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Yordano Ventura, Kelvin Herrera, and Salvador Perez (get well soon!) were all either signed internationally or drafted by the Royals. And by locking up Alex Gordon to a team-friendly deal early in his career, Beane banked significant value and could add around it. (Gordon is on his way to another six-win season, his third in four years, and is making $10 and $12.5 million this year and next.)

But how did Beane know that Gordon, who signed his extension after his breakout 2011 season, would be a worthwhile investment and not just a flash in the pan? For one, Beane likely noticed that in 2011, when Gordon was shifted full time to left field, he became an elite defender. Doubling the benefit of the position switch, Gordon was free the pressure of playing third base and could focus more on improving his hitting. In 2011, he tried a new approach in which he stopped being as passive with pitches out of the strike zone and began to swing at more of them. A breakout can be the sign of something real or something really lucky, but Beane was able to dig deep into the numbers and figure out that Gordon really was a different player ... and it was working for him.

The underappreciated Gordon aside, Beane looked for hidden value where he could and found it in the form of outfield defense. While other teams stuffed their outfields full of big bats and let the hits fall where they may, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson have both put up solid years in the pasture. In addition, Salvador Perez has consistently rated as one of the best defensive catchers in the game over his short tenure, and he’s not bad with the bat either.

It can perhaps be forgiven that the expected impact bats in the system (Butler, Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas) have had mixed results. Just about everyone was fooled by them. The Royals, however, realized that power isn’t everything. While the team is 15th in the American League (last, in other words) in home runs, they rank fourth and fifth in doubles and triples, respectively. Even when the home runs went away, Beane had signed players who specialized in the kind of extra-base hits that drive less conversation but remain immensely valuable. No one will confuse the Royals with your cousin’s MLB: The Show team after he spends all night setting everyone to 99, but they do okay.

And that brings us to the issue of timing. Beane was smart enough to realize when he had a window of opportunity for the Royals to make a run. While he probably expected the offense to be a little more well-developed, he also recognized that division rivals like the White Sox and Twins were in a downward cycle and that the Tigers, while hard to beat, were mortal. All playoff runs come with an element of luck. The trick is to make sure that if the wind starts to blow, your sail is unfurled to catch it.

And that’s when Beane made one of the more controversial trades in team history, dealing Wil Myers and others to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis. The trade was panned at the time (what kind of idiot trades a consensus top prospect for two pitchers on shorter-term deals?), but Beane clearly knew what he was doing. He knew that Myers would be a good player, but that the team needed starting pitching. Shields, also underappreciated (except by BP’s own Jason Parks and R.J. Anderson), was signed to a very Tampa Bay contract and was the sort of pitcher capable of providing a four-win season at the top of a rotation. This meant that Beane’s top position player and top pitcher were two bona fide stars whom no one ever brought up in the “best in the league” discussions. It was a superb way to operate under the radar.

Beane found other underrated starters through the free agent market. Despite the common wisdom that teams like the Royals shouldn’t shop in that market, Beane was not deterred. He paid market prices for Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, and Jason Vargas. While none of the three sniffed the Cy Young race, Beane knew how to pick his spots. The common theme among Shields, Guthrie, Santana, and Vargas is that they are not strikeout machines. Beane knew that the Royals were trying to put together a pitching staff, not sell radar guns. He noticed that these three also had the twin talents that they rarely walked anyone and pitched a lot of innings. He saw that while the market went gaga over big strikeout numbers, it wasn’t as good at valuing things that didn’t happen, like walks. Beane also learned the lessons of 2012 (also known as the year of Bruce Chen, staff ace), when the Royals were regularly getting four- and five-inning starts. They had some stellar bullpen arms on the rise, but it was hard to win when they were constantly asked to pitch half a game per night.

So the Royals hatched a plan. The starters didn’t have to be world-beaters, just reliable. The bullpen would be there to shorten games. In addition, Beane saw (along with everyone else) that Wade Davis made a much better reliever in 2012 than he had a starter. In 2013, the Royals tried to remake Davis as a starter (it didn’t work), so by signing Vargas to take Davis’ place, they not only got Vargas’ good-but-not-spectacular performance, they also turned Davis from a pumpkin back into a top-shelf reliever. On the surface, the moves might have been questionable, but Beane was thinking two moves deep.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that an organization helmed by Beane would have a very robust analytics department. Nor that the manager, Ned Yost, would consult them on issues like lineup construction. Then again, Beane is probably smart enough to know that even a tactically awful manager can make up for those shortcomings in other ways. And looking at the moves Beane has made over the past few years, it shows that he is operating the team according to sound analytical principles, exactly the way we would expect a modern general manager to do.

Sure, there’s been bad luck along the way. Injuries happen. The acquisitions of Nori Aoki and Omar Infante, two players with a history of high OBPs, to lead the lineup haven’t gone well, but they show a shrewd approach. Beane knew he needed OBP. He knew he had extra bullpen arms (Will Smith went to the Brewers for Aoki) and thus, he gave value to get value. Let’s not judge a trade by its results, but rather the process that led to it. In this case, the Aoki trade was not stealing from someone else, but rather efficiently allocating resources that the team had to fill a need.

Even if Aoki didn’t work out completely, a lot of other moves did. It’s hard to argue with first place, but looking back over the past few years, it’s not a fluke that the Royals are at least positioned to end their 29-year playoff drought. They made an analytically based and well-constructed plan and Beane executed it well. Someone should write a book.

***

There are no stupid general managers.

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

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