Welcome to the new Moneyball

Peter Morgan / AP

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NEARLY 150 BASEBALL analysts, writers and bloggers across sports media forecast the AL Central this season, and barely half a dozen predicted the Royals would win their division, never mind the World Series. (Among the 88 analysts at ESPN -- wait for it -- three picked KC to win the Central.) And now that Kansas City has earned its first championship in 30 years, many of those same prognosticators are back to explain the deeper meaning of a team they failed to appreciate in the first place.

If you watched the postseason, or you've been reading the post-postseason, you know the narrative: The Royals, a notoriously anti-sabermetric franchise, tossed aside decades of egghead advice and swung aggressively at everything they saw. They fouled off pitches relentlessly, slapped hits to all fields and took extra bases maniacally. It didn't matter that they finished last in the league in walks and next to last in home runs; the Royals' hustle enabled them to wear out opponents and stage comeback after comeback in the playoffs and World Series.

The Royals are, as the headline of a story in the Kansas City Star read, "The Anti-Moneyball Team." Or as Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci proclaimed: "Moneyball is dead." Wrong. Moneyball is alive and well, and Kansas City has quietly become one of the smartest organizations in baseball. As a result, the Royals have plenty to teach other MLB teams. It's just that the lessons are different from what most people have been talking about.

LET'S START BY clearing away some persistent misconceptions. Contrary to popular belief, the Royals did not have a good offense in 2015. It's not just that they didn't hit for power or draw many walks. Even some of KC's supposedly signature characteristics are mirages, seemingly obvious in the glare of a few postseason games, but unsustainable. It turns out, for example, that Royals hitters were actually below average this season in foul balls as a percentage of total pitches. As for baserunning, yes, Royals runners were aggressive but not particularly productive. Overall, KC lost a net 3.5 runs on the bases this season, according to UBR (ultimate baserunning), a comprehensive stat developed by sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman.

The bottom line: Despite all the talk about the Royals' old-school, go-for-broke offense, Kansas City scored 724 runs this year, just 14 more than the AL average. And it's scoring -- not contact or aggressiveness or intangibles -- that wins games. Even if we credit the Royals for smart or timely hitting (and we should -- they scored 32 percent of their runners who reached base, the fourth-highest rate in MLB), their offense simply wasn't championship level. Their pitching wasn't so hot either. KC starters ranked 12th in the AL with a 4.32 FIP, a measure designed to separate pitching performance from defense and scaled to resemble ERA. As a staff, the Royals ranked sixth in the AL with a 4.04 FIP, behind teams such as the Indians, White Sox and Rays -- none of whom won more than 81 games.

SO WITH ALL those decidedly average stats, exactly how did Kansas City win the World Series? By assembling undervalued players to form a devastating weapon: defense.

Over the past two seasons, Royals fielders produced 96 defensive runs saved, good for almost 10 wins. No other AL team had more than 50 DRS. Their defense has sustained the team's World Series campaigns, from the 2014 season, when the Royals ranked just ninth in the AL in runs scored, through this one, when the team's hitting improved but its pitching declined.

The club's defensive prowess is no accident. In fact, it's what the Royals have been working toward for almost a decade. When owner David Glass hired Dayton Moore as GM in 2006, Moore told him: "We want an above-average defender at every single position."

Moore, a traditionalist, knew defense had value in the Royals' roomy ballpark and was a link to the great George Brett-Amos Otis-Willie Wilson teams of the late 1970s and early '80s. About five years ago, Moore and his lieutenants realized they had tapped into a serious market inefficiency -- though they might not have worded it that way -- and have been mining it ever since.

In 2010, speedy outfielder Jarrod Dyson (who was selected in the 50th round of the 2006 draft) played his first game for the Royals and Jose Guillen his last. Alex Gordon moved from third base to left field, clearing the way for Mike Moustakas the following year. And when the Royals traded Zack Greinke, a homegrown-yet-soon-to-be-unaffordable ace, they acquired center fielder Lorenzo Cain and shortstop Alcides Escobar. At the time, other teams didn't regard KC's haul that highly, but Cain and Escobar were both young, cheap and, as Moore noted after the deal, superior defenders.

"We didn't expect returns, necessarily, right away," he told The New York Times last year. "But with another 1,000 at-bats or so, we felt we could have some well-rounded players, with plus-defense being the commonality."

There were still bumps ahead. It has taken Moore almost a decade to overcome his affection for replacement-level retreads like Yuniesky Betancourt and Jeff Francoeur. But as Kansas City built an impressive team of analytics researchers and integrated its work into the team's scouting and decision-making, the Royals moved ahead of the curve in evaluating fielding. They have drafted and developed players for defense. And by targeting athletes who fit their vision but are undervalued by other teams, they have assembled a title-winning roster with a below-average payroll.

That's as Moneyball as it gets. And value-hunting, KC-style, offers areas for prospecting in each phase of the game.

FOR STARTING PITCHERS, to a surprising extent, it's about defense. Kauffman Stadium's distant fences (330 feet down the lines, 410 to center field) and vast gaps cut home runs by about 15 percent a year while boosting doubles and triples. The Royals' long rebuilding effort really took shape when the team started stocking up on outfielders who could cover the wide terrain of their home field. Cain led all MLB outfielders in putouts plus assists per game this season, while Gordon ranked second among left fielders and Alex Rios third in right field.

With athletes like that on patrol, KC had the confidence to acquire James Shields and Johnny Cueto, who give up a lot of fly balls. Just as important, the Royals have zeroed in on fly ball pitchers with rocky tenures, like Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas and Chris Young, and signed them on the cheap knowing they would benefit from a big ballpark and rangy outfielders. In the end, those plays made in the field helped the Royals register an ERA 31 percentage points better than their FIP -- the second-biggest gap in MLB this year.

FOR RELIEVERS, IT'S about times through the batting order. With reclamation projects filling their rotation for most of the 2015 season, the Royals could not count on dominance from their starters, who threw only 912 innings, the fewest in the AL. But Kansas City has developed an extremely deep and effective bullpen by reaching even further for castoffs, bringing each in to throw his best pitch for strikes and then yanking him before he suffers the drop in effectiveness that pitchers incur when they face opposing batters more than once.

Wade Davis is a prime example: Ineffective as a starter using five pitches, he almost completely stopped throwing sliders in 2013 and changeups in 2014, added 3 mph to his fastball and cutter, and has become one of the game's most dominant relievers. Similarly, in 2013 Luke Hochevar cut his use of sinkers, sliders and changeups from 32.4 percent of his pitches to 7.3 percent, according to PITCHf/x, and increased his reliance on his cutter (9.9 percent to 36.8 percent). He too added 3 mph to his fastball. Same story with Ryan Madson and Franklin Morales: fewer changeups, more fastballs (cutters for the former, two-seamers for the latter). And the results -- and value -- have been astounding. The Royals' top seven relievers this year included three former starters and two guys who didn't even pitch in 2014. Cumulatively, they posted a 2.59 ERA.

FOR HITTERS, WELL, it's still about on-base percentage. A team filled with good defensive players who don't walk or hit home runs, such as the Royals, just wouldn't score enough runs to stay competitive if they didn't hit for average. So while focusing on defense, Kansas City has taken care to develop athletes who smack line drives. As a result, KC had the third-highest batting average in the AL this year (.269). Five Royals who played at least part time (250 or more plate appearances) had an OBP of .360 or better, tied for the most of any team since 2010. That's where contact hitting matters: when a hit is as good as a walk.

MLB'S SHARPER TEAMS are already catching up with the Royals' approach. Jason Heyward, who sports a .268 career batting average, is set to snag one of this winter's richest free agent deals, in part due to defensive stats that mark him as one of the very best corner outfielders in baseball. And as organizations improve their understanding of player value, it will be harder to exploit old market gaps. "For a little while, defense might have been one of those inefficiencies," Pirates GM Neal Huntington recently said. "Now ... it's being valued more than in the past." Eventually, though, overspending by other clubs will give the Royals -- if they stay shrewd -- new chances for bargain shopping. Championship teams make successful investing look like destiny. Dynasties never stop searching for the next place to make their bet.