Five years ago, the Kansas City Royals were world champions. It was not a fluke or an accident, but the payoff for implementing a strategy that allowed them to compete despite not having the resources of the Yankees and Red Sox of the world.
The strategy was something I dubbed “Kansas City catenaccio,” after the counterpunching soccer strategy that when it came into play likewise allowed a less explosive team to compete with, and take down, some of the game’s greatest powers. Like the Princeton offense in basketball, a big reason for the success of catenaccio in soccer is that a lower-scoring environment provides a greater chance for a team that might not be as strong to get what it needs on the board to win.
During their four-year run as contenders, from 2013-16, the only years other than 2003 in this century that the Royals have finished .500 or better, Kansas City was anything but an offensive juggernaut. They finished 11th, 9th, 6th, and 13th in the American League in runs scored those four seasons, but outscored their opposition in three of the four years.
Obviously, pitching is going to be key if you’re not scoring, and the teams of the Royals’ contention window had plenty of it, leading the American League in staff ERA in 2013 when they made their leap forward, then ranking fourth and third in their two playoff years before slipping back to ninth in their unsuccessful title defense as things began to crumble.
What we tend to remember about the 2015 Royals is their dominant bullpen with Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar, Greg Holland, and Ryan Madson. It’s true that Ned Yost could use that relief corps to lock down games, and that the championship Royals got fewer innings out of their starting pitchers than any team in the American League in 2015.
Obviously, the Rays have further refined the concept of bullpen reliance for teams building on the cheap, and the Royals absolutely can follow the blueprint of finding as many guys as possible who throw 99 mph and getting a few of them to throw enough strikes to succeed. But you still have to get the lead to those flamethrowers at the end of a game, and that’s where the Royals can recreate what they once had.
In 2020, the Royals had 21 of their 60 games started by the trio of Kris Bubic, Jakob Junis, and the withered husks of Matt Harvey and Ian Kennedy, a group that combined to go 1-13 with a 6.33 ERA. Instead of that mess, Kansas City should be in the market for the kind of pitchers traditionally known as “innings eaters,” Among current free agents, pitchers like J.A. Happ, Mike Leake, and Jeff Samardzija fit the bill, and more will come on the market after the non-tender deadline, when arbitration-eligible players not offered contracts by their teams become free agents.
The pitching part of the equation is pretty simple and not too far off of what the Royals are trying to do already. Scott Barlow, Jake Newberry, Josh Staumont, Kyle Zimmer, and Tyler Zuber all rack up plenty of strikeouts, and there are other promising arms in Kansas City’s system to go with three starters in Danny Duffy, Brad Keller, and Brady Singer who fit the formula.
What really needs fixing is the lineup, where the Royals seem to have forgotten that their previous success wasn’t just based on running a lot, but on doing it smartly. The 2020 Royals stole 49 bases, which is quite good, but did so in 69 attempts, a 71 percent success rate that is anything but nice. Nicky Lopez was 0-for-5, which… how?
Stealing bases is part of what made Kansas City catenaccio click because when you have a fairly limited lineup — the 2015 Royals had team OPS of .734 — you’re just trying to turn as many scoring opportunities as possible into runs, not necessarily play for big innings. Stolen base attempts are unpopular in analytics because the risk of an out lessens the chance of multi-run innings, but when a steal is successful, it’s much easier to push one run across.
To make that work, though, the outs that a team does make need to be in service of the plan. You can deal with caught stealings because they’re factored into the calculus: the 2015 Royals were nabbed 34 times in 138 steal attempts. What can’t happen is strikeouts. The 2015 Royals were the only team in the American League that didn’t whiff at least 1,000 times. In 2020, Kansas City had 527 strikeouts, exactly the league average. Not to pick on Lopez more, but if he’s going to hit .201 with a .552 OPS, he’d better be hitting some dribblers to the right side to move up runners, not striking out 41 times in 169 at-bats, because then the whole thing doesn’t work at all.
The cat has gotten out of the bag on strikeouts, because it’s pretty obvious that making contact is good, But there’s still plenty of hitters who fit the bill at the Royals’ end of the market — they missed an opportunity for a good addition a couple of weeks ago when the Orioles claimed second baseman Yolmer Sanchez off waivers from the White Sox. Sanchez particularly would have been a good fit in Kansas City because of his excellent defense, something else that needs to be a priority for a team trying to succeed on creating a low-scoring environment and starting pitchers whose focus is on keeping the game close enough to scratch out the runs necessary to win and leaning on that strong bullpen to finish games off.
The things that made the Royals a championship team still are within their reach, and their budget. The problem is that for the past few years, Kansas City has been misidentifying what it was that made them successful in the first place.