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Learning From the Royals

The Kansas City Royals won the World Series last night. I'm guessing you already knew this if you read this blog, but in case you didn't, there you go. Hope you didn't DVR game five and avoided all sports news only to stumble upon this information here.

The Royals won the World Series in what seemed to be typical KC fashion. They trailed deep into the ballgame, got a runner aboard, then ran with reckless abandon as line drives and ground balls of many shapes and sizes dropped in, or at least dropped far enough away from a defender to justify running. The most dramatic play came when Eric Hosmer sprinted for home with two outs in the ninth inning, forcing Lucas Duda to make a throw to the plate. Duda's throw was far from perfect. Tie game. Advantage: Royals, eventually, when they blew the game open in the 12th inning.

Kansas City, without a doubt, is a good team. They had the seventh best team WAR total - a quick estimate for how much underlying talent is on an entire roster. Their WAR total this year did not change much from their WAR total in 2014. Perhaps this makes sense, since both years they ended up in the World Series.

However, what are the odds of the seventh best team making it to back-to-back World Series? Even the best of teams struggle to pull off such a feat. It's the kind of a thing a budding dynasty does, or at the very least a great team over the course of a few seasons.

So, are the Royals great? Or, maybe more specifically, have the Royals found a sustainable way of winning games that is not accounted for in current statistical analysis?

I don't have a firm answer in my own head. This is an open question. I only have a few thoughts to consider. If I were to build a team capable of beating projections year in and year out, I would think that it would look something like the Royals.

For starters, the Royals field an incredible defense, anchored by four legitimate Gold Glove contenders - Salvador Perez at catcher, Alcides Escobar at shortstop, Lorenzo Cain in center field, and Alex Gordon in left field. Catcher, shortstop, and center field are easily the most demanding defensive positions on the field, so having such amazing defenders in ALL those spots might be a good way of improving defense across the board.

Perez, Escobar, and Cain could cover lots of sins - if there were any sins to cover. The Royals don't have amazing defenders anywhere else, but they have solid to good defenders everywhere else. This is rare. There is no black hole in Kansas City's defense, just shining stars in critical areas and capable players everywhere else. Unsurprisingly, the Royals ERA beat its FIP projection. This could be considered lucky, but with KC's defense, it's more likely a tangible outcome of their defense. There is no soft spot an opponent can exploit, and the best parts are up the middle where they are just about impossible to avoid.

The Royals offense excels at relatively obscure skills, particularly given the way their skills blend together. To start with, most of their players are solid to good hitters for their positions. Again, the lack of a gaping hole is not sexy, but worth noting. It lowers the need for superstars to cover up for gaps.

The one hitter who was truly awful was Alcides Escobar (except for his incredible run through these playoffs, which is about the only luck the Royals got but nonetheless luck). However, Escobar's hitting is palatable given his incredible defense. Furthermore, Escobar is a terrific baserunner, meaning his hitting went farther than the raw numbers suggest.

In fact, if I had to guess the main reason that Kansas City has surpassed expectations two years running, I would point to the combination of their baserunning with their lineup depth. Baserunning only matters if the hitters behind a runner are good enough to advance them with some regularity. Kansas City's mix of good/great baserunners with capable hitters up and down their lineup creates a relentless pressure that would be hard to quantify in statistics.

Maybe the best way to understand Kansas City's brilliance is to think in terms of their opponent. The typical team, over the course of a game, will make good and bad pitches, good and bad throws, take good and bad routes to balls, and so on. Most teams have strong and weak points in their lineups, defense, and pitching staff, so every now and then a team lucks out with their lapses (they happen against a weak spot) and every now and then they don't.

The Royals lack weak spots, both on offense and defense, which gives them a better chance to capitalize on a team's mistakes. Moreover, their aggressive baserunning allows them to make more of a team's defensive mistakes, or perhaps even force mistakes more regularly.

The Royals, I am convinced, win by waiting for their opponent to screw up. This is an underrated strategy because baseball is far from a sport of perfection. Batters are considered great if the only fail 7 out of 10 times. Pitchers have had an excellent outing if the only throw a ball every three pitches or so. Failures are easy to find in baseball, so creating a team that is able to extort the most out of an opponent's errors might find success in ways that are hard to quantify.

Then again, maybe the Royals are lucky. They were a few outs away from certain elimination in the 2014 play-in game before a miraculous comeback against the A's. There is no run to the 2014 World Series without that stunning comeback. This year, Jeurys Familia became the first pitcher to ever blow three saves in one World Series. The flip side of that is that the Royals came back extremely late in three of their four victories. It is not all that hard to dial up an alternate universe where the Royals are not on this little championship run.

Still, the fact remains that Kansas City has been much better than they should have been on paper for two years running now. They somehow survived the playoff meat grinder two years in a row to make the World Series in back-to-back seasons. They have surpassed their expected win totals, based either on team WAR totals or run differential, in both of those years.

There are plenty of examples of one-year-wonders in baseball. Two-year wonders are more rare. The Royals are at least worth pondering. They might help us understand what it takes to win ballgames just a little bit better.