“Rooting for the Royals has always been a battle between wanting them to win and wanting to be right.”
Everybody knows about Moneyball and how the first guy through the wall always gets bloody. Billy Beane exists as a folk hero in my imagination, and I have often drifted off to sleep these past ten years to dreams that he would plop himself down in Kansas City and work for my Royals some of the movie-worthy magic he’s worked for the Oakland A’s.
In my hand as I’ve floated on these dreams has been an iPad lit up with some baseball blog excoriating the Royals for their stubborn refusal to embrace Beane’s Moneyball reason and their stupid loyalty to baseball conventions like “intangibles” and “grit.” For seven seasons now Royals fans have been treated to a vision of General Manager Dayton Moore’s “Process” and promised that patience would be rewarded with a winning franchise. “The Process,” among Royals fans, has been a squat thumb in the eye.
Only now they’ve posted consecutive winning seasons, each one better than the one before. Now they’ve made the postseason. Now they’ve won the American League Wild Card. Now they’ve beaten the Oakland A’s in the playoffs, but not just in the playoffs–six of the last eight times they’ve played. The Process has defeated Moneyball.
Not really. I still fantasize about Billy Beane running my team. He’s crazy smart, and he’s always going to be thinking one step ahead of the industry. The team the Royals just beat is a team full of players that had failed everywhere else they’d played. But they won in Oakland. Moneyball magic.
The Process seems to me a slight variation on Moneyball’s genius. Moneyball is known for its advanced metrics, for On Base Percentage and platoon splits, and The Process has no apparent interest in any of those things. But, at bottom, Moneyball is about exploiting market inefficiencies. It’s a way of seeing the world and your competition in it. Some things are not highly valued by your opponents and are therefore readily available to you. Collect enough of the same kind of devalued commodity and you’ve got something valuable. For the A’s of 2004 it was OBP. For the Royals of today it’s contact, even weak worm-burner contact.
The Royals strike out less than any other team. They also walk less than any other team and hit fewer home runs than any other team. They strike out so infrequently because they swing at lots of bad pitches and make lots of weak contact, which is also why they hit so few home runs.
That’s a recipe for futility. Only that team just beat the team with the most walks in baseball. And they did it with a hailstorm of weak ground balls. This is the Royals formula: chopper on the infield for a hit. Bunt the runner to second. Steal third. Score on another chopper on the infield. This team won a game last month by scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth without hitting a ball out of the infield.
Are weak contact and stolen bases the new market inefficiencies in baseball? Is Dayton Moore the new Billy Beane? He seems to have built a successful organization around the kinds of commodities Moneyball loyalists disdain. It’s not the death of Moneyball, though. It’s the next chapter.