Franco and Matheny show that there is a new analytical focus in Kansas City

Oftentimes, when it comes to talking about “analytical” baseball teams, the Royals are often not mentioned. The Tampa Bay Rays, the Oakland Athletics, and the Houston Astros have a reputation in baseball for being organizations that rely heavy on advanced data, and let it drive everything they do as an organization. Even across the state of Missouri in St. Louis, the Cardinals are known for being a more analytically-focused club than their western Missouri counterparts.

And that is a bit unfair to the Royals. While Michael Lewis will not write a book about Dayton Moore or the Royals anytime soon (unless he wants to talk about the “new drug” or something), the Royals have low-key been one of the more active teams when it comes to data under Moore’s tenure.

Back in 2015, ESPN wrote a feature that rated the analytic-friendliness of MLB teams, and the Royals ranked in the “Believers” category, signifying that they used data and analytics for player and team decisions more than the average baseball club. Here is what ESPN writer Ben Baumer said about the Royals’ use of analytics in his piece:

“[Dayton] Moore quietly assembled one of the most talented analytics departments in baseball…The Royals have shown marked improvement on the field, becoming leaders in formerly tough-to-quantify areas. Over the past two years, they’ve led all of baseball in both runs gained via baserunning and defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs, and they’ve been among the most frequent deployers of defensive shifts.”

“The Great Analytics Rankings” -Ben Baumer, ESPN, February 23rd, 2015

Defense and baserunning have been the calling cards of the Royals, especially during the Moore-Ned Yost partnership which lasted about a decade. From 2010-2019, roughly Yost’s time as manager, the Royals have stolen the most bases in baseball (1,256). And with speed demons like Jarrod Dyson, Lorenzo Cain, Terrance Gore, Adalberto Mondesi, and even Whit Merrifield, it made sense that Yost utilized his talents in such a fashion. Over his tenure as manager, Yost’s teams had a stealing 2nd base rate of 8.3 percent, and a stealing third base rate of 2.2, higher rates in comparison to other managers.

That being said, while the stolen bases provided some exciting play for Royals fans at Kauffman Stadium and away, it is questionable if the strategy yielded positive results long term. Yes, the Royals won two pennants in 2014 and 2015, and a World Series title during the second pennant run, but Yost’s record as manager was sub. 500, and was marked by back-to-back 100-loss seasons during his final two campaigns. And while the Royals led in total stolen bases over the past decade, it didn’t necessarily correlate to more runs, at the Royals ranked 21st over the past decade in term of BsR, which is baserunning runs generated over that 10-year span, according to Fangraphs.

While the Yost tenure certainly had its highs, this past Winter may signify that Moore may be shifting the Royals’ identity a bit in this new era under first-year manager Mike Matheny. And this priority shift is not only evident by the Matheny hire and what Matheny has preached this Spring, but also in the signing of Maikel Franco, the Royals’ main free agent acquired this off-season.

Because if the Royals still prioritized defense and fielding, then Franco would have made little to no sense for the Royals.

I talked about Moore signing Franco this off-season as a sign that the Moore and the Royals may be shifting their analytical focus in 2020 and beyond. The Royals, who have been known for employing strong defensive outfielders such as Dyson, Cain, and multiple Gold Glove winner Alex Gordon, just to name a few, were expected to perhaps go after another outfielder in that mold, or perhaps give Brett Phillips or Bubba Starling a chance, since their defensive tools were the strongest aspects of their game.

Instead, the Royals made Franco their prized off-season signing. As a result, the Franco acquisition shifted third baseman Hunter Dozier to right field and Whit to center (Gordon was re-signed and thus is slated to play left field for at least one more season). While Dozier is not the caliber of infielder that previous Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas was, he was serviceable at the position and better metrically than Franco.

According to Baseball Savant’s outs above average metric from 2019, Franco rated seven runs BELOW average at third base, which was the second-worst mark of qualified third basemen (only Vlad Guerrero, Jr. was worse). Dozier on the other hand was exactly average, as he was zero outs above average in 2019, and ranked 25th out of qualified third baseman. Thus, not only could the Royals be getting worse defensively at the hot corner, but they are also putting the outfield at risk, as it will be interesting to see how Dozier’s fielding translates to the outfield full time, especially at Kauffman, which has sparse dimensions (and a big reason why the Royals employed athletic outfielders under Yost).

Considering Franco’s obvious defensive shortcomings, and him coming off a year where he struggled at the plate (he posted a 70 wRC+ over 428 plate appearances with the Phillies in 2019), many Royals fans may be scratching their head when it comes to understanding what Moore sees in him. But it’s not about the player Franco was in Philadelphia, Moore is banking on the player that the Royals envision him (and others in their system) to be in Kansas City in 2020.

One of the big changes this off-season for the Royals was that they re-tooled their approach when it came to hitting development, not just at the Major League level, but especially in the minors. In an article by KC Star Royals beat writer Lynn Worthy, Moore named Alec Zumwalt the new director of hitting performance and player development, and one of Zumwalt’s priorities this winter was incorporating more comprehensive data, development and planning for all hitters in the Royals system, as referenced in the segments below:

“After consultation with Picollo, senior director of performance science Austin Driggers, director of performance science/player development John Wagle, and assistant general manager/research and development Daniel Mack, Moore ultimately decided it was important to create a hitting performance department that incorporated more than traditional hitting coaches…

“There’s a player development plan for each hitter in the organization, and the Royals have made some changes to their internal system, called “Monarch,” with how they utilize the system for communication and reports. Nobody will operate blindly or without an understanding of the other aspects of a player’s training..”

Lynn Worthy, “Royals restructure hitting department to get most out of prospects like MJ Melendez”, February 22nd, 2020. Kansas City Star.

While the article was focusing on MJ Melendez, and other top prospects such as Nick Pratto and Seuly Matias, who struggled mightily in Wilmington a year ago, this new Royals approach to hitting is relevant at the Big League level. Hitting coach Terry Bradshaw is working hard not just with Franco, but others this Spring who need to improve to justify playing time, such as Ryan O’Hearn, who is also going through his share of adjustments this Spring.

After a solid performance where he had three hits against the Diamondbacks, beat writer Jeff Flanagan talked about the Royals working with Franco to hit more line drives and fly balls and less groundballs, which often become easy outs. Last year, Franco had a GB/FB ratio of 1.08, an improvement on his 1.46 mark a year ago, but still high for a power hitter with little to no speed. However, it seems like Bradshaw is making strides this Spring with Franco, as evidenced in the quote below:

“From a mechanical standpoint, we are just trying to get him to stay behind the ball a little bit more and stay on his backside a little bit longer so he can drive the ball to all fields,” Royals hitting coach Terry Bradshaw said. “He’s had some success at this level, and we are just trying to get him back to those years that he had success. So far, everything has been great.”

Jeff Flanagan,, “Franco draws a line to success in the box”

Thus, while Franco certainly has his flaws, the Royals seem confident that their new organizational approach to hitting instruction can help improve the fortunes of hitters like Franco and O’Hearn, who also had issues with hitting too many groundballs a season ago (he posted a 1.29 GB/FB rate last year). It will be interesting to see if Franco and O’Hearn will be the first success stories of the Royals’ new analytical focus in 2020. If they do succeed and outperform expectation, it could be likely that Moore and the Royals will continue to chase and develop players with similar flaws to Franco, especially since they will be affordable for the Royals to acquire in free agency.

While Franco is exhibit A that the Royals will be focusing less on baserunning and defense and more on hitting, the hiring of Matheny may be exhibit B when it comes to the Royals shifting away from that previous style of play. While Matheny will still preach strong defensive play and fundamentals, it is likely that he will probably be less active on the basepaths than Yost. Over his career with the Cardinals, Matheny only had a steal 2nd rate of 5.4 percent, and a steal third rate of 1.1 percent, both significantly lower percentages than what Royals fans saw with Yost. While Matheny didn’t have the speed demons in St. Louis that Yost had in Kansas City, the significant difference shows that Matheny may prefer a more conservative approach when it comes to acquiring extra bags.

And honestly, it seems like this club is better suited for a more prudent style on the basepaths. Other than Mondesi, there isn’t as much speed in the lineup in comparison to seasons past, as even Whit, who stole 45 bases in 2018, regressed to only 20 steals in 2019. Thus, those Royals fans who are used to “vroom and zoom” on the bases may see that tempered in 2020, outside of Mondesi, who may be limited as well in order to preserve his health.

At a glance, it seems like Moore and the Royals are trying to build a new style of winner in Kansas City. And it make sense to do so now with a new owner as well as a new manager at the helm. Even last year, the Royals were trying to win with their “Speed and D” combo with the acquisition of Billy Hamilton, and as Royals fans recall, that did not exactly work out. The Royals may have maxed out that previous approach by 2019, especially with those two skill sets more highly valued on the market than when the Royals first started investing in it during the late 2009’s and early 2010’s. Moore understands that the Royals need to do something different in order to turn around their fortunes, and it’s nice to see as a Royals fan that Moore is willing to change, and that ownership is willing to put the proper investment in that change to truly make it work.

Matheny and Franco will be key to watch in 2020. Can Matheny’s new style make an impact and keep the Royals from losing a 100 or more games? Will Franco properly re-tool his approach and find success at the plate once again, like his early days in Philly?

If the answer to those questions are “yes” in 2020, then the Royals may be building a winner sooner rather than later in Kansas City, much to the delight of Royals fans who have been down on this club since 2018.

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