The Kansas City Royals are a Madison Bumgarner away from being back-to-back World Series champions. As you’re well aware by now, the Royals do not play baseball like most teams, but it works for them. Kansas City does not walk or hit home runs. Their leadoff man swings at the first pitch more times than not. Player steal bases, and the manager trusts them to determine the right time to lay down a sacrifice bunt — yes, even the number three batter has the green light to sac bunt whenever he sees fit.
Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, should we expect the rest of Major League Baseball to jump on the contact-hitting, aggressive baseball bandwagon?
Not so fast.
What the Kansas City Royals have created will be virtually impossible to duplicate elsewhere. The Royals have a lineup, one through nine, that makes contact on nearly 90-percent of pitches in the strike zone. When at the plate, they are not waiting around for much of anything. The Royals see strikes and hit strikes. It’s about as simple as that. Only two players on the roster struck out more than 100 times. Kendrys Morales and Eric Hosmer combined to strike out 211 times. Chris Davis struck out 208 times for the Baltimore Orioles. Across the rest of the league, this approach has mostly been beaten out of players starting in high school. Finding nine players willing to take this approach at the plate is about as difficult as locating the next Bryce Harper. Every minor league system around the league is stocked with first basemen who take their walks, hit home runs, and strike out. Left and right field? Same thing.
Three former first round picks dot the Royals lineup — Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and Hosmer. Each endured their fair share of struggles upon arrival to the Major Leagues. Gordon bottomed out hitting .215 in 2010 and had to be converted from third base to outfield. Moustakas batted .212 in 2014, and was at one point demoted to the minors. He came back with a vengeance in the playoffs last year, and finally posted his first full season batting above .250 in 2015. Hosmer’s struggles were not as severe, but he did bat .232 in his second full season. Hosmer batted in the heart of the Royals lineup this year, and did not slug above .500. In the trio’s combined 19 total Major League seasons, they have produced only four 20-homer seasons. Most teams would have given up on Moustakas and Gordon, but the Royals always stayed patient.
The Royals are one of the lucky few teams to see a deal of an ace for prospects turn into a winning trade. Zack Greinke brought back Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain, as well as Jake Odorizzi who was later traded to help bring in James Shields and Wade Davis. It’s a crap-shoot trading away an ace for prospects, and most teams are lucky to get a passable big league player when they try and flip a player. Most teams would not have been willing to take a chance on Cain, a very raw prospect, in a swap involving their best pitcher.
Then there’s the bullpen. Where to start? How about with Wade Davis (failed starter) and Luke Hochevar (also failed starter). Davis and Hochevar were supposed to be leading the Royals rotation, but that never worked out. Instead, these two are lights-out in the bullpen. As with Moustakas and Gordon, many teams would have tried to move on from their struggling young pitchers, or worse, just kept running them out there in a role they were not best-suited for. Again — not the Royals. Davis and Hochevar could have been sent to the scrap heap, but the Royals were willing to be creative and allow them to grow into a role that was not in the original plan.
The Kansas City Royals do not have a true ace (time will tell what Yordano Ventura turns into). They do not walk, hit homers, or take pitches. The Royals steal bases and bunt. It’s scandalous that they are nearly two-time World Series champions! This franchise, which was downtrodden for so many years, got everything right. With a big home park, the Royals built a lineup of players who could put the ball in play with regularity. There’s no chasing of home runs here (talking to you Seattle with your Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, Robinson Cano, and Nelson Cruz signings, or you San Diego with your trades for Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, and Wil Myers).
The Royals play baseball like a team from the 1930’s. It’s not an approach that is terribly difficult to replicate with the right group of players, but the type of player capable of attacking baseball this aggressively just does not exist in today’s game. Kansas City’s patient, measured approach is easily duplicated with smarts and a willingness to think outside the box, but can anyone else actually pull it off? Doubtful.