As the Kansas City Royals roll into spring training with the residual optimism from two straight World Series appearances, general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost have no reason to change the formula that has carried the franchise to such an enviable position. They'll continue to abide by their internal compasses and play to the roster's inherent strengths -- conventional wisdom be damned.
As 29 other clubs arrive at camp, it's natural to wonder: Will any of them try to beg, borrow or steal the Royals' model for success?
Major League Baseball, like any sport or business, has a built-in copycat element, so it stands to reason that some of Kansas City's competitors will look long and hard at the roster construction and approach that have carried the Royals to back-to-back World Series and made it impossible for Yost to visit his local Starbucks without attracting a crowd of admirers.
The Royals have thrived with a mediocre starting rotation, a lockdown bullpen and a lineup that disdains patience and thrives on putting the ball in play quickly in an age of deep counts and high strikeout totals. Even teams at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum have reason to admire Moore's steadfast vision and consistent commitment to players who can carry out the organizational mandate.
"At the end of the day, they've built a model that works perfectly well in their ballpark,'' Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto said. "It took time to gestate in a test tube. They've got a wonderfully athletic team. Twenty-nine other clubs, ours included, would love to have a group that is so athletic and defensively gifted and predisposed to the hand-eye coordination that these guys have shown. It's not easy to do.''
Strong bullpen, free swingers
As ESPN.com's Jayson Stark recently observed, the Royals aren't the only team opting for "bullpen mania'' amid nine-figure deals for the likes of free-agent starters David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann. The New York Yankees had a lockdown pen in 2015 led by Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, yet their primary offseason acquisition came in December, when they sent four minor leaguers to the Cincinnati Reds for four-time All-Star Aroldis Chapman.
The concept of a dominant bullpen propping up a so-so rotation is rare but hardly unprecedented among championship clubs. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the 2015 Royals joined the 1976 Cincinnati Reds and 1996 New York Yankees as the third team in the expansion era to win a title with a rotation that ranked in the bottom 10 in the game in starter innings and ERA. In recent years, the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals and 2014 San Francisco Giants (Madison Bumgarner notwithstanding) won it all with starting fives that were less than overwhelming. And it's hard to overlook the 1990 Cincinnati Reds, who won behind a rotation that included one starter with 200 innings (Tom Browning) and a bullpen led by the "Nasty Boys'' triumvirate of Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton.
Kansas City's free-swinging, high-contact approach at the plate is more of an outlier in an era when strikeouts abound and walks are revered. The last World Series winner with such a strong reliance on putting the ball in play was the 2002 Angels, with a lineup that included contact hitters David Eckstein, Scott Spiezio and Adam Kennedy and only one slugger (Troy Glaus) who was a massive swing-and-miss guy. The Angels struck out an MLB-low 805 times and ranked 26th in baseball in walks.
Last year, the Royals took that concept to a different level. They struck out a baseball-low 973 times, and the Atlanta Braves were second with 1,107 whiffs. Kansas City also ranked 29th in the game with 383 walks. Eric Hosmer's team-high 61 walks tied him for 32nd most among qualifying MLB hitters. His team-high 108 strikeouts ranked 84th.
Yost, who has admittedly never been a sabermetrics devotee, is simultaneously baffled and amused at how the Royals' penchant for free-swinging has suddenly become acceptable, if not exactly fashionable.
"For a long time I kept hearing, 'Your team's approach is horrible. Why don't you take more walks and get in better hitting counts?''' Yost said. "And I would say, 'We're working on it.' Now I keep hearing, 'You guys are great. You don't walk, but you put the bat on the ball.' And I'm like, 'What do you want?'''
A major factor in the Royals' success is the patience the team showed with former hot prospects who needed time to develop. Alex Gordon has evolved into the embodiment of professionalism and a strong and silent team leader, but no one was talking about him in such glowing terms in 2010 when he hit .215 in 74 games and spent half the season with Triple-A Omaha. The same applies to Mike Moustakas, who got off to a terrible start in 2014 and needed a refresher course in the Pacific Coast League to regain his confidence and get his swing in order.
"When you look at their team, it was built with the long view in mind,'' Dipoto said. "I give Dayton and the Glass family extreme credit, because they had to live with a great deal of pain to get to this point. When you're cultivating those type of high-upside athletes, a lot of them come with high risk. They had to remain patient and keep giving those guys opportunities. That's a credit to their culture. You can't do a better job of drafting, signing and developing than the Royals have done over the last six to eight years and stay true to your process.''
Playing to Kauffman Stadium
Kansas City also has thrived while pounding square pegs into seemingly round holes. The Royals posted a regular-season record of 82-49 last year with shortstop Alcides Escobar in the leadoff spot, even though he hit .259 with a .296 OBP out of the No. 1 hole. After briefly switching to Gordon in the top spot in late September without much success, Yost threw up his hands and reverted to Escobar in October. All Escobar did in 16 postseason games was bat .329 (23-for-70), win the ALCS MVP award and prompt Mets starter Noah Syndergaard to send a loud and controversial message with the opening pitch of World Series Game 3.
The Royals' focus on contact at the expense of power is in stark contrast to two other up-and-coming teams that made impressive runs in 2015. The Chicago Cubs won 97 games with a lineup that ranked fifth in the NL with 171 homers and struck out a major league high 1,512 times. The Houston Astros, who ranked second in the majors in home runs and strikeouts, gave Kansas City a major scare in the division series and were on the verge of advancing before their bullpen imploded in the eighth inning of Game 4.
"We didn't go into the season saying, 'We're gonna get a bunch of guys that hit home runs and strike out,''' Houston GM Jeff Luhnow said. "Those were the best players we could access at the time, so our team ended up reflecting that. To a certain extent, that may have happened to the Royals. You want good players, but what 'good' means is different each year, depending on what's available through the draft, free agency and trades.
"They happened to pick up a lot of guys over the years who make solid contact and produce runs in that format more than hitting the ball out of the ballpark. And it's worked for them. It especially worked for them in the postseason when they were able to get back in games by stringing together two or three or four or five singles in a row. It's a very different formula from ours.''
The Cubs, in contrast to Kansas City, have established themselves as serious contenders with an array of young hitters who are long on power. It's only fitting that the first news flash from 2016 Cubs spring camp came when Kyle Schwarber launched a batting practice homer through a fan's car window earlier this week.
"We're never gonna be the Royals,'' Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "We're always going to strike out a lot. We have to get better situationally and cut down a little bit, but with that comes power. There are multiple ways to win. The Royals have obviously been great. They got to October the last two years, and their way is certainly effective. But we've also seen teams in the past with a ton of power and strikeouts win too. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat.''
Prudent teams tailor their rosters to their ballparks, and the Royals' approach works well at Kauffman Stadium, which has the largest outfield square footage of the 30 MLB parks. Rather than collect bashers who would only get frustrated hitting long fly balls that die at the track, Moore has focused on collecting players who can run, field and get the bat head on the ball.
On the pitcher's mound, Kansas City spent $70 million this winter on a five-year deal for Ian Kennedy, who should benefit greatly from playing in a spacious yard with Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson chasing down balls behind him.
But what works for the Royals might not fly for everyone else. When general managers are dealing with ballpark quirks, budgetary issues and the uncertainty of the player acquisition process, it's tough to simply follow someone else's road map to success.
"I think it's a simple and easy narrative that breaks down when you get down to the details,'' said Matt Silverman, the Tampa Bay Rays' president of baseball operations. "There are lessons to be learned from the success the Royals have had, but I don't think it's as simple as 'high-contact, low-strikeout, athletic players.' We look at all 29 clubs and try to find nuggets of wisdom, and we've certainly spent a lot of time thinking about how Kansas City has done it. We've hoped to be able to borrow a little bit from the playbook they've put together.''
It's an impressive playbook, for sure. But while the Royals defied the skeptics and won a title in 2015, it might take a while before they establish a trend.