The Royals had seven different players steal a base on Tuesday night. That's a playoff record, and an incredible figure considering that most teams would have become gun-shy after a disastrous failed double-steal in the first and a four run deficit after six innings. The Royals are not most teams.
There's a great anecdote from the low point of that game in Andy McCullough's look at the Royals' reliance on speed:
"Should we stop running?" a coach asked. The conventional offensive wisdom called for the brakes. In this situation, an out is considered more valuable than an extra base. This team, of course, does not rely upon conventional offensive wisdom. As the question hung in the air, one voice piped up.
"Heck no!" shouted Rusty Kuntz, the team's first-base coach and running coordinator.
This has been the Royals' and M.O. for a while now, but only in the past couple seasons have they embraced it to this extent. "That's what speed do" was just a Jarrod Dyson quote from a few years ago, when his legs were the only thing keeping him on the roster, but now it's a clubhouse motto—you even heard the plodding Salvador Perez use it after getting the winning hit in the 12th.
The Royals stole a league-leading 153 bases this season, and stole successfully nearly 81 percent of the time. No other team has stolen that many, while being thrown out as rarely, since the 2007 Mets, who were paced by Jose Reyes's 78-steal year. More importantly, that stolen base percentage is well above the point where stealing bases makes mathematical sense.
The break-even rate is the percentage at which a team needs to successfully steal bases to make it worth the risk. And not surprisingly, that rate is different from team to team based on power. The more home runs a team hits, the higher the opportunity cost of giving up an out, and the higher the break-even rate.
The Royals hit the fewest home runs in baseball this season, and are, in all, a terrible offensive team. Because of that, and because they have a terrific pitching staff, and because baseball generally is in a low-scoring era, they're in a very low run environment, which actually means that running makes a lot of sense, mathematically. Their break-even rate, using a formula from Fangraphs' Bradley Woodrum, sits at a meager 64.22. So not only are these Royals stealing bases more efficiently than just about everyone else, but each stolen base carries less risk and more potential value for them than it does for any other team.
Kuntz, the team's base-running coordinator, understands this, at least on a visceral level.
"You constantly have to weigh that," Kuntz said. "If the reward outweighs the risk, then you go. If we've got a legitimate situation, we jump on it."
Baseball's changed a lot from the era in which statheads started to pay attention to this stuff, even in recent memory; the leaguewide break-even rate is down significantly from its peak at baseball's home-run apex in 2000. It's sort of baffling that anyone thinks running is somehow anti-sabermetric. For a slap-hitting team like the Royals, stealing isn't just a weapon. It's almost a necessity.
You can make fun of Ned Yost's stubbornness on pitching changes, and the futility of the Royals' propensity for bunting, but this is a team—with Alcides Escobar, Nori Aoki, and Lorenzo Cain at the top of the lineup, and Dyson and Terrance Gore off the bench—that is specifically constructed to run, and to be good at it. What Kansas City does isn't small ball for small ball's sake; it's playing the percentages. And, not incidentally, it's what makes them a blast to watch.
The Angels know what's coming. Players and coaches have talked about the need to limit the damage the Royals do on the basepaths, through a combination of pitchers shortening up their deliveries, varying their looks to first base, and liberally tossing over there to keep runners honest.
"You have to pay attention to some things," Mike Scioscia said. "We'll do what we can do. Obviously, with that much speed they are going to put it to use, and we'll have to contain it the best we can."
Good luck with that. Actually, no. Bad luck with that. Royals baseball is sexy as hell, and I want to watch it for as long as possible.