The Process of Building the Kansas City Royals

The process of rebuilding a storied franchise takes unlimited patience with little margin for error for a general manager. Expectations are reduced to mediocrity as the pressure mounts for a quick turnaround. Praise is seldom. Victories attributed to the talent around you. Defeats are met with the scrutiny and become attributed to incompetence. Interest dwindles as apathy sets in. For nearly three decades the Kansas City Royals were mired in the malaise of the doldrums of lowly irrelevancy in Major League Baseball. Aspirations of postseason play were laughable until Dayton Moore, a former Atlanta Braves scout, implemented a philosophy, referred to as “the process” to revamp the Royals into the American League’s premier franchise each of the past two seasons.

The Royals last trip to the pinnacle of the baseball world prior to 2014 occurred in 1985 in a highly contested and controversial seven game World Series against the St. Louis. A controversial call in the Royals at first base in Game 6 by umpire Don Denkinger forced a winner take all Game 7, as a young Bret Saberhagen shut out Whitey Herzog‘s Cardinals in convincing fashion to claim the world title. While the baseball world centered around Kansas City, internal changes would place the club in a prolonged decline. A farm system which once produced the likes of George Brett, Steve Busby, and David Cone became barren by the end of the decade with the exceptions of Bo Jackson and Kevin Appier. General Manager John Schuerholz, the architect of the 1985 World Series club would flee to Atlanta to take on a similar rebuilding challenge. The Royals would turn to the quick fix and pay dearly. After an anomalous 92 win season in 1989, the Kansas City Royals inked the reigning National League Cy Young award winner Mark Davis to a four year, $13 millon contract as the team’s closer. Heightened expectations and ineffectiveness forced Davis to surrender the closer’s role to Jeff Montgomery in 1992. As the team faded into obscurity in the middle of the decade, the health owner Ewing Kauffman began to decline, leading to Kauffman’s death and the sale of the team to Wal-Mart CEO David Glass.

The success of operating the country’s most renowned department stores did not translate to the baseball diamond. Structural changes in the game’s economics created a sizable gap between the affluent and destitute franchises. The Royals sought to rebuild through the farm system with cost efficient talent but with mixed results. While Johnny Damon and Mike Sweeney would develop into undervalued commodities in Kansas City, highly touted prospects Bob Hamelin and Jose Rosado faltered swiftly after achieving early success due to injuries. By 2003, the Royals had suffered twelve losing seasons out of a possible fourteen, including a 62-100 finish one year earlier. Longtime major league catcher Tony Pena began to change the clubhouse, rallying behind youngsters such as Mike MacDougal and Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa. The Royals stormed out of the gate to win their first nine games of the season and a cumulative 83-79. The crippling economics of baseball would ultimately negate the success of the 2003 season. Centerfielder Carlos Beltran, a perennial All-Star and product of the Royals farm system would depart in 2004, resulting in three 100 loss seasons and effectively end any hopes of an impactful rebuilding effort in Kansas City.

Perception bores awareness and by 2006, the Kansas City were a perennial bottom feeder. The glory days of the 70s and 80s resonated exclusively though the lenses of the baby boomer generation. Individuals in college and younger had never experienced a Royals team in the postseason. The franchise was in dire straits. General Manager Allard Baird would give way to longtime Atlanta Braves scout Dayton Moore. Under his tutelage, Moore developed future stars Andruw Jones, Kevin Millwood, and Jeff Francoeur. Owner David Glass believed Moore would be the man capable of handling this monumental task. After years of depleted farm systems and empty results, Moore heavily emphasized trusting “the process” and its potential benefits

The rebuilding effort would be arduous and painful at times, but not competely devoid of existing talent. The outgoing Baird drafted Nebraska’s Alex Gordon as the second overall pick in the 2005 amateur draft and high schooler Zack Greinke in the first round of the 2002 amateur draft. Realizing the necessity of stockpiling the farm system with cost efficient talent, Moore dealt Grienke just one year after winning the AL Cy Young Award to the Milwaukee Brewers, in exchange for shortstop Alcides Escobar, outfielder Lorenzo Cain, and pitchers Jeremy Jeffress, and Jake Odorizzi. As the major league club continue to struggle on the field, the minor league system gradually developed into one of the league’s finest. Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas would headline the organizational pipeline. The sudden surplus of talent allowed Moore to deal prized prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi to the Tampa Bay Rays in December of 2011 for pitcher James Shields, hastening the rebuilding effort.

Incremental improvements would emerge beginning in 2011 as the Royals advanced from 71 victories to consecutive World Series appearances by the middle of the decade. Dayton Moore’s process began to solidify, but not without scrutiny. Unlike many successful franchises, the Kansas City Royals did not rely on the teachings of Moneyball or any form of Sabermetics. Manager Ned Yost would resort to stealing bases and bunting over runners, exploiting inefficiencies in the game’s marketplace during the past decade. Unlike on-base and slugging percentage, defensive value and run prevention is difficult to quantify, due to subjectivity. Surmising a correlation between pitching and defense, the Royals would emerge with a 5.8 defensive Wins Above Replacement in 2014 and led the majors with 56 defensive runs saved in 2015. The Royals would also lean on a bullpen capable of shortening games to six inning affairs, featuring Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland. The return of Luke Hochevar and the acquisition of Ryan Madson complimented their impressive relief depth, while Davis and Holland emerged into the most prolific strikeout pitchers in baseball the past two seasons. Distinct advantages in each of the game’s traditional metrics would empower the Royals to consecutive World Series appearances, their first in three decades, captivating both a city and a nation.

Since the advent and awareness of statistical analysis, a “war over WAR” has ignited the baseball world, with opinion belittled and opposition ridiculed. Traditionalists view analytics as a departure from prevailing wisdom with less focus on scouting and intangibles. Analytic types on the other hand, believe their traditional brethren are behind the times, failing to recognize why mathematical formulas can produce the most efficient franchises. Both sides would come to a proverbial standstill agreeing to disagree as each side attempts to support their claim with the most boisterous voice hoping to prevail. The Kansas City Royals journey from the abyss and doldrums of the American League to the summit of the circuit prove the most efficient method of developing a perennial contender is through the amateur draft, combining analysis and old-fashioned scouting to compile a team’s roster. Acceptance of varying ideas and principles enabled the Royals to operate at an organizational peak. Thriving off differences and conviction in beliefs are the true remnants of Dayton Moore’s process and the process of developing a championship contender.

Leave a Reply