World Series, Game 5, tied two apiece in top of the 12th inning with a man in scoring position. Christian Colon, Kansas City’s 26-year backup infielder is down 1-2 in his only at-bat of the postseason. With two strikes the pitcher winds and throws – a slider – and Colon does what Royals hitters have been doing all season. He flings his hands through the strike zone, quick to the ball, and pokes it into left field.
Colon’s at-bat is indicative of the Royals lineup as a whole – a team that is far from an offensive juggernaut but who put up an average of 5.4 runs per game against one of the best pitching staffs in the game. But Colon’s at-bat is also indicative of something much more. Baseball is changing and the Royals are leading the charge.
Over the past few decades, a certain mentality has gripped major league baseball’s front offices. Based on the usage of advanced statistics or Sabermetrics, this mentality is a function of Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane and his“Moneyball”, a concept captured by the 2003 Michael Lewis book. As a result, a vast destigmatization of strikeouts has occurred, K’s held in no lower regard than a groundout to shortstop. Instead, walks, OBP and power, regardless of whiff rate, are valued above all else.
But the Royals? They do it differently. “We swing early and attack,” said Hitting Coach Dale Sveum in an interview with Time magazine. “And we never really get away from that mode.” As a team, the Royals put no premium on walks, and the stats back this up – this year Kansas City ended the season tied of the lowest walk rate in the majors. Instead, the Royals value aggressive, contact hitters, and those who rarely strike out.
The Royals might be the most anti-sabermetric team in the game and even conventional baseball wisdom runs contrary to some of their strategies. Take for example their leadoff man, Shortstop Alcides Escobar, who is encouraged by Manager Ned Yost to swing away. Conventionally, the role of a leadoff man is to see pitches and get on base to be driven in by the bigger bats behind him. The Royals openly disregard this. In fact, during the Royal’s ALCS matchup with the Blue Jays, Escobar never even saw a ball three, his free-swinging ways catalysing a Royals offense that simply didn’t strike out and securing him the ALCS MVP trophy when all was said and done.
The approach makes sense, at least conceptually. In the Time interview, Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer put it best saying, “If you take pitches and get behind, it’s almost like you’re playing the defensive side when you’re in the box.”
Yet, if shunning walks defies the analytical blueprint popularized by Moneyball, why are the Royals so successful? That’s because the real point of Moneyball has been distorted. Moneyball was never about walks, OBP or even Sabermetrics. Moneyball is an economic concept at its core – find assets that are undervalued by the rest of baseball. In Billy Beane’s heyday, it was walks. Today, the Royals may have found the next asset.
The case can be made that contact hitting, aggressive approaches, and an emphasis on putting the ball in play were factors that directly lead to a Royals world series title. It is no accident that Fangraphs have called them the Best Contacting hitting team ever. Almost the perfect antidote to a Mets team built around three of the best pitchers in baseball, the Royals prevailed. Also, it’s no coincidence that Billy Beane, the master of finding undervalued assets, has transformed his Oakland A’s into the second best contact team in the MLB, trailing only the Royals.
It’s not by accident that the Royals are left hoisting the Commissioner’s trophy this November. It’s evident that Kansas City have found something – their front office operating on the cutting edge of a new Moneyball, while the rest of baseball is still toils away with the old blueprints.