TORONTO – There are no perfect baseball players. Dayton Moore started with that inviolable truth when he took over as general manager of the Kansas City Royals. There are mediocre players with clear deficiencies, good players with subtle flaws and great players who are too expensive, especially in a small market such as Kansas City. Moore knew he needed to align priorities in order to maximize the Royals’ roster, to figure out how to build a contender with limited resources and undervalued assets.
Books have been authored written about similar baseball executives solving similar challenges. The Royals receive little credit as innovators, but their plan and execution has been impeccable. When the Royals take the Kaufmann Stadium field Friday for Game 6 of the American League Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays, they will stand one victory from their second straight pennant. They have won 201 games, postseason included, since the start of last season, most in the majors. They may not be viewed as visionaries. They must be reckoned with as winners.
“We came up just short last year,” Royals Owner David Glass said. “I haven’t gotten over Game 7 last year. I’m still struggling with that. This year, we believed we had a chance to do it and do it right and to fix what we didn’t get done last year. We just collectively said, let’s go for it.”
In a game dominated more than ever by strikeouts, the Royals play at the extreme end of the other pole. The ball ends up in play after 84.1 percent of their plate appearances, by far the most in the majors. Their starters struck out 16.8 percent of batters faced, sixth-lowest in the majors. It is by design, the result of a strategy to covet speed and defense above power.
The Royals, through Moore’s plotting, are a product of their environment. Their spacious ballpark inhibits home runs and forces outfielders to cover a huge swath. With a relatively small payroll, the Royals do not have the resources to sign elite starting pitchers or home run hitters. Power from hitters and strikeouts from starters are the most expensive assets in baseball. So Moore looked elsewhere. If he couldn’t find a perfect pitching staff, he would make them better with the defense behind him.
“If we’re not going to have a rotation of ones and twos starters, we’re going to have to make sure we play defense,” Moore said. “We were going to go after pitches who throw strikes, work quick, field their positions, hold runners, compete, prepare. And if we can put a defense behind those guys, perhaps they can give us 200 innings. If we put our money into the bullpen, that’s where we’ve got a chance to dominate. That’s kind of how we tried to do it.
“But our ballpark demands defense and speed. And the offense that is most expensive is power production. It doesn’t play big in our ballpark. And power production historically comes a little later in a player’s career, when they’re the most expensive.”
Moore and the Royals sought players with “usable speed.” He believed if an athletic player possessed the awareness and aptitude to play strong defense, those qualities would help him develop as a hitter.
“Players have to have the ability to concentrate, focus, prepare,” Moore said. “That same skill, that mental skill, will allow them to get better offensively.”
The approach allowed the Royals the assemble a roster of complete players. Catcher Salvador Perez, first baseman Eric Hosmer and left fielder Alex Gordon have all won Gold Gloves. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain has not, but he’s widely regarded as one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. According to FanGraphs.com, the Royals led the majors with 56 defensive runs saved. The Giants were second, at 28.
“You can go drafting. You can go offseason signs. You can go trade-deadline trades,” Hosmer said. Moore “hasn’t missed on very many moves he’s made all year. He’s been lights out. He gave us the pieces to be in a position like this.”
The qualities the Royals covet makes for an ideal postseason formula. Pitchers wear down and hitters go into slumps or run into bad luck, but defense remains consistent. On offense, the Royals can withstand power pitchers who typically dominate in October. If the Royals win the ALCS, it will be fascinating to see their contact-heavy lineup match up with the New York Mets’ young stable of flamethrowers.
“When you get into the playoffs and you face power pitching, they’re going to strike a lot of guys out,” Moore said. “You got to be able to put the ball in play. If you’re striking out a lot against power, you’re in trouble. With runners on base, you got to put the ball in play. If you don’t, in my opinion, that’s not going to work.”
The Royals have a unique edge in their playoff roster. Because all nine of their regulars can hit both left-handed and right-handed pitching, Manager Ned Yost never pinch hits – the Royals had 40 pinch-hit plate appearances in the regular season, fewest in the majors. The wrinkle allowed Moore to create a bench of specialists.
In Game 4, the Royals emptied their bench in a 12-2 game. The replacement left the Royals with a defensive outfield of Gordon, Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando – a Gold Glove winner and two players with Olympic-level speed. And remaining on their bench they still had Terrence Gore, who is faster than both Dyson and Orlando and only appears in the majors as a pinch hitter. He has appeared in 27 games in the majors, all in September or the playoffs, and taken six plate appearances. He’s stolen 12 bases.
“All those years when I was with the Braves, Bobby [Cox] and John always wanted a base stealing threat off the bench in the playoffs,” Moore said. “Every year, we try to sign as many guys of those guys as we could. It’s an important element. It’s an important weapon.”
The Royals rely primarily on player development, but in July they sacrificed their farm system to make a pair of major acquisitions. They shipped three pitching prospects to the Reds for Johnny Cueto and dealt two others to Oakland for switch-hitting second baseman Ben Zobrist. Cueto gave them a temporary ace, and Zobrist gave them a replacement – and a significant upgrade – for injured Omar Infante.
“We have so much confidence in Dayton,” Glass said. “If he believes that’s what we need to do, and that will make the big difference for us, then we just need to support him. You need to let the general manager make those decisions. That’s his job. If you’re going to make them or veto them or whatever, then you probably don’t need the general manager.”