You'll often see baseball writers refer to "The Cardinals Way," an homage to ... well, winning, I guess. As Tracy Ringolsby wrote last fall on MLB.com, "And if it rubs some people the wrong way, sorry. The Cardinals aren't apologizing."
The Cardinals Way seems to be about drafting on production as much as physical tools, winning with midrange payrolls, not overpaying for superstars (see Albert Pujols), not valuing power at the expense of other talents, and excellent player development. Of course, all teams would love to win with smart drafting and midrange payrolls and excellent player development.
1. A bullpen with multiple closers, or multiple pitchers with closer-like ability.
2. Spectacular defense.
3. An offensive philosophy that went against the "Moneyball" model of walks and home runs.
"The game veered and they adjusted more quickly than perhaps any team in the league," Posnanski writes. "I suspect they won’t be the last team to try and build a hard-throwing bullpen, a defensive behemoth and a lineup that puts the ball in play. Thing is, by the time that happens, the game will undoubtedly shift again."
What I'm curious about though: Did general manager Dayton Moore set out to build this type of team, or did he stumble into it in some fashion? I think it's a little of both. Posnanski mentions the Zack Greinke trade with the Brewers after the 2010 season, in which the Royals acquired Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain. That would certainly fit the "defense first" criteria, as neither player was viewed to have big upside on offense (although Cain has exceeded those expectations, especially this season).
Let's take Posnanski's items one at time, from the bottom. As even he admits, the Kansas City offensive model -- few walks, few strikeouts, put the ball in play -- hasn't necessarily created a powerhouse attack. The Royals are last in the AL in both walks and strikeouts and next-to-last in home run rate; but they're second in batting average and have the lowest strikeout rate. Overall, they rank seventh in the AL with 4.37 runs per game, just above the AL average. Still, that's an improvement from 2014, when they were below average at 4.02 runs per game. It's a good offense, not a great one.
Is this the type of offense Moore wanted to build? He took over as GM right before the 2006 draft. The pick that year -- the first overall pick -- was right-hander Luke Hochevar. In 2007, the team took bat-first high school shortstop Mike Moustakas with the second overall pick; in 2008, they took high school first baseman Eric Hosmer with the third pick. Drafting fourth overall in 2010, the team took college shortstop Christian Colon, whose skills graded average except the bat, which projected as plus.
Those picks are sort of tied into the concept that Moore wasn't initially trying to build around defense. He drafted Moustakas and Hosmer because the Royals projected big-time offensive production. Moustakas was moved to third base early in his pro career. And if you're building around defense, you don't take a high school first baseman with the third pick. Colon had led the Big West Conference in home runs. Even 2011 first-round pick Bubba Starling, a raw athlete the Royals bought out of a college football scholarship, was selected based on his big-time power potential. It seems to me these early drafts were much like any other team's. To be fair, these weren't one-dimensional players, but they were all drafted for their upside at the plate, not in the field.
Maybe the Greinke trade did signal a change in philosophy. Moore's early Royals teams were a disaster on defense:
2007: +44 runs (5th)
2008: -66 runs (30th)
2009: -100 runs (30th)
2010: -95 runs (30th)
2011: +25 runs (7th)
Moore's first team was actually pretty good on defense, at least according to defensive runs saved. Then it got really bad, and as the team started to develop some young pitching it undoubtedly wanted to support them with better defense. But they also got a big break starting in 2010. That was the year Alex Gordon, drafted as a third baseman, moved to left field after struggling to hit in the majors. Reading the stories at the time, it's pretty clear the team had no inclination that Gordon would become the best defensive left fielder of the decade.
"We need Alex to play. He is going to go down and do some work in left field, get some playing time in the field, some at first base," then-Royals manager Trey Hillman said. "Not going to ditch third entirely, but I'm hoping that a change in position will give him an opportunity to swing the bat a little bit better."
It was really a move of desperation, Gordon's last chance to remain in the Royals organization. He was so good there he won a Gold Glove in 2011, his first full year in left.
There was also some luck in building the bullpen. Give Royals scouts and player development folks credit for Greg Holland, a 10th-round pick in 2010. Likewise, Kelvin Herrera was groomed primarily as a reliever in the minors. But remember that when Wade Davis was included in the James Shields trade prior to 2013, he was a starter most of that season. He was moved to the bullpen only because he was so ineffective in the rotation (5.67). If he'd been merely adequate, he'd probably still be starting.
In fact, even entering 2014, the Royals were still giving Davis a shot at the rotation. He made one spring training start and moved to the bullpen only after Hochevar blew out his elbow in early March. In fact, Hochevar's own career suggests the Royals weren't necessarily thinking of building the pitching staff unconventionally, starting backward from the bullpen. They tried him for five seasons as a starter, hoping he'd figure things out. He never did, with a 5.45 ERA in 127 starts from 2008 to 2012. Finally moved to the bullpen in 2013, he was terrific (1.92 ERA). Davis took his spot and has put together back-to-dominant seasons.
My point isn't to discredit Moore. He's done a great job building the Royals into more than a one-year wonder. His blueprint is a terrific way to build a small-market team, because starting pitchers and home runs are expensive on the free-agent market. His moves this year -- dumping Billy Butler for Kendrys Morales, signing Edinson Volquez, trading for Ben Zobrist -- have helped make the Royals better than the 2014 squad. They're fun, they're exciting, they're unique and they have a chance to go back to the World Series. But -- like many good teams -- there also has been a lot of good fortune to go with smarts and scouting in creating the Royals Way.