Dayton Moore's vision validated

Sometimes the definition of leadership is sticking with a plan and putting one foot in front of the other when things aren't going well, your job security is being questioned, and people are widely mocking you for your reliance on certain buzzwords.

Dayton Moore has been general manager of the Kansas City Royals for 8½ seasons now, and he's never wavered from a commitment to what he calls "the process," even when his beloved process failed to yield results as quickly as he or anyone else who follows the Royals would have preferred.

As Kansas City prepares to host Oakland in the American League wild-card game on Tuesday, fans will revel in the franchise's first brush with October relevance in three decades and players will enjoy their spot on the national stage. But the Royals' postseason berth also brings a validation of sorts for Moore and his vision of how to build a winner in a small market.

From the moment Moore took over for Allard Baird in 2006, he stressed certain core tenets out of necessity. The Royals haven't ranked higher than 19th in Opening Day payroll among the 30 MLB teams during Moore's tenure, so they needed to do more than just pay lip service to the concept of grassroots development. Kansas City's wild-card roster could include at least a dozen players who began their careers with the organization through the first-year player draft or as Latin American free agents, so the Royals can claim success on that front.

From day one, Moore also made it plain that the team would emphasize speed, athletic defenders, control pitchers in the rotation and gas-masters in the bullpen. Baseball economics and the spacious outfield dimensions at Kauffman Stadium helped dictate that philosophy.

"We've got to play defense," Moore said. "Power is expensive and power comes later, and our ballpark just isn't conducive to home runs, anyway. So we asked ourselves, 'What can we control?' We said, 'Let's get pitchers who can command the fastball, try to have power in the bullpen and play great defense.' Of course, we're trying to develop good hitters, but hitting is tough."

The Royals earned a wild-card berth this year with an offense that made a lot of games a teeth-grinding, hair-pulling ordeal. They're the only team in baseball history to qualify for the postseason while ranking last in the majors in both home runs and walks.

Amid all of those 2-1 and 3-2 games, small-ball fans rejoiced in the team's small victories. The Royals struck out a major league low 985 times, led MLB with 153 stolen bases and ranked second in the American League with 158 infield hits.

In a year marked by a baseball-wide offensive downturn, Kansas City compensated for its deficiencies with an emphasis on run prevention. The starting rotation ranked fourth in the AL with a 3.60 aggregate ERA and posted the league's third-highest innings total (986 2/3), behind Detroit and Oakland.

While James Shields and the starters generally pitched to contact, the bullpen overwhelmed opposing lineups. Greg Holland and Wade Davis combined to strike out 199 batters in 134 2/3 innings, and Davis and Kelvin Herrera were two of three relievers in baseball (Brandon League of the Dodgers was the other) to log 60 or more innings and not allow a home run. Fritz Ostermueller and Jack Wilson of the 1935 Boston Red Sox were the previous teammates to achieve that distinction.

If a ball goes up, chances are it's going to come down in a Kansas City glove. The Royals ranked second in the American League to Baltimore in Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved rankings, and much of that total came in center and left field, where Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon recorded an aggregate DRS of plus-55. Barring a major surprise, Gordon will collect his fourth straight Gold Glove from AL managers and coaches, so he's one of those elite defenders who passes both the eye test and the statistical smell test.

It wasn't expected to play out this way when the Royals chose Gordon, out of Nebraska, with the second overall pick in the 2005 draft. But he never developed into the second coming of George Brett, and he shifted to left field in 2011 to accommodate Mike Moustakas at third. Through a combination of hard work, athletic ability and the same nose for the ball he showed as a high school wide receiver, Gordon has become one of the poster boys for new-age defensive metrics -- even if they remain a mystery to him.

"I don't know how it works," Gordon said, "but I think it's cool. Back in the day it was always about offensive stats, and defense and baserunning were overlooked. A lot more people appreciate good defense now, and our good pitching and defense go hand-in-hand."

If Gordon is the leading candidate for team MVP, the most indispensable player on the Royals' roster might be Salvador Perez, who continues to burnish his reputation as the best defensive catcher in baseball not named Yadier Molina. Perez has soft hands, a strong and accurate arm and an agility that belies his 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he leads the majors with 11 catcher pickoffs and ranks fourth with a 32 percent stolen base success rate in the past three seasons.

Perhaps more impressive, Perez plays the game with a rare joie de vivre. He bounces up after foul tips and responds to the success of his pitchers with a spirited body language that reflects his emotional investment in their performance. Yes, Perez endured a second-half slump, hitting .229 with a .596 OPS after the All-Star break. But he also ranked second to Milwaukee's Jonathan Lucroy among catchers with 150 games played, and he started Kansas City's last 34 games of the regular season.

"He's like a little kid in a gorilla body," Gordon said. "He's huge, but he's the nicest guy. He's always joking around and having fun. With as much negative attention as we get for failing in this game, it's nice to have that kind of personality out there when you're doing well or not doing well."

Perez's team-oriented mindset symbolizes the cohesiveness that Moore was looking for when he acquired Shields and Davis in a seven-player trade that sent Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi to Tampa Bay in December 2012. Moore has had to dole out votes of confidence to his manager, Ned Yost, deal with growing pains and injuries to Eric Hosmer and Moustakas, and remain patient this season when it appeared the lack of offense might prevent his team from accessing its "window of opportunity." But the Royals finally got there.

"We liked this team in spring training, but it wasn't a push-button club," Moore said. "We knew we were going to have to continue to make adjustments to the roster throughout the season, whether it was health or underachieving by certain players.

"No plan is perfect. If you could script it out, it would be great, but you can't. Baseball is a very tough, challenging game, and it requires mentally tough people at all levels. We didn't expect it to be all rosy. That's why it's a team. Players have to pick each other up."

That mantra might sound hokey or old school, but it's carried the Royals to October for the first time since 1985. Their challenge now, against Jon Lester and the Athletics, is trying to make the euphoria last for more than one game.