Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
This Royals team bears little surface-level resemblance to the 2015 World Series Royals. They still have Salvador Pérez, of course, and Danny Duffy and Jarrod Dyson, and Wade Davis and Greg Holland are a bullpen one-two punch of “Remember Some Guys?” Other than that quintet, however, the roster has turned over entirely. Manager Ned Yost is more than a year into retirement. This is a different squad: These are not your old championship Royals.
Except… they’ve been looking surprisingly similar lately? For one thing, they’re in first place, as they have been for most of the season. (Yes, it’s still early, and they’ve been granted an unexpectedly clear path by the misery of the favored Twins, but first place is first place, no matter how slim the lead.) And they’ve gotten there by playing very much like the 2015 Royals. If you thought that style came from the leadership of Yost, or from the pesky magic of a player like Alcides Escobar, or even from a general baseball culture that was a bit more open to unique strategy in 2015 than it is 2021, this season has looked like a clear rebuke to all of that. Because these first-place Royals of the current moment are very much the Royals. In other words—they don’t rely on power, they boast plenty of speed, and they still play quite a bit of small ball. They look like this:
|Stolen Base Ranking in AL||Home Run Ranking in AL||Sacrifice Fly Ranking in AL||Runs/Game Ranking in AL||OPS+|
This is not to say that these two teams are exactly the same. (In 2015, this scrappy offense was complemented by a solid pitching staff with a lockdown bullpen; in 2021… all of that is iffier.) But the broad strokes of their style are very much similar. The sameness of the clubs shows even in their differences. Those Royals were known for being steadfastly against the modern orthodoxy of the three true outcomes; they were encouraged to swing freely to try putting the ball in play, and so they did not take many walks, but because they were so unconcerned with connecting for power, they did not strike out much, either. This made them notable outliers at the time—near-last in all of the relevant statistics—but in the years since, baseball has ratcheted up its commitment to the three true outcomes even more, which might suggest some degree of similar movement from Kansas City. So the 2021 Royals… are no longer quite so allergic to walks. That’s it! Otherwise? It might as well be 2015. (Or, you know, 1985.)
|Strikeout % Ranking in AL||Walk % Ranking in AL||Three-True-Outcome % Ranking in AL|
The 2015 Royals felt like a bit of a throwback. Their current counterpart feels downright anachronistic. And this, in a sense, presents its own form of outlier energy: Why did no one try to steal their playbook after they won it all?
Baseball is a copycat industry. This idea can hold particularly true with championship teams—the blueprint for a single year of success hardens into a new form of conventional wisdom before the parade confetti has time to hit the ground. But there was none of that with Kansas City. Instead, other clubs looked at the back-to-back World Series trips by the 2014 and 2015 Royals, with their lack of interest in the three true outcomes and their small ball bona fides, and they seemingly just shrugged and kept moving. Which is not terribly surprising! The Royals’ methods of roster construction and on-field management could be interesting, and they could be fun, but they weren’t necessarily smart. (Can you imagine a front-office analyst trying to sell his boss on going after fewer walks and home runs?) For this model to work in modern baseball, a team would need the right manager, a strong defense, and a healthy dose of luck. But the Royals had that in 2014 and 2015. And they might have some version—not a version for the World Series, but a version for a wild-card slot, or, who knows, the ALDS!—in 2021.
Which makes it worth considering how the team got a chance to be in this position in the first place. The club is a testament to a front office that believes in itself to a fault, both on the field and off, even when no one else shares that belief. The Royals could have tried to tear their team down completely after 2017 or 2018 or 2019; they didn’t. (A more cynical general manager than Dayton Moore would have almost certainly sought prospects in exchange for players like Pérez and Whit Merrifield.) They could have sat out this offseason while waiting for their farm to keep developing; they didn’t. (They added Carlos Santana, Mike Minor, and Andrew Benintendi; so far, the only one to pay off is Santana, but it’s still early.) In light of all of that—is it any surprise that they play like they don’t care what anyone else thinks of them?
Even after their hot start, the odds are not in their favor, as FanGraphs still has their playoff chances sitting somewhere around 20%. But the Royals do not need you to believe in them. They believe in themselves, and if there’s any team that knows how to make that work, it’s them.
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