2013 is where “Trusting the Process” began to pay off (Royals “Easter Seasons” Part 3)

This is the final part of the three-part “Royals Easter Seasons.” Click on the link to read part 1 and part 2.

“Let’s just trust the process. If other people don’t want to trust the process, that’s fine. If other people want to abandon the process, then abandon it. I’m not abandoning the process. I believe in the process.” -Dayton Moore, 2009

“Dayton Moore Tells Fans to Trust the Process, Ignore Reality” by Freneau; Royals Review

In 2009, Royals fans were told by general manager Dayton Moore to “Trust the Process” when it came to the future of the Royals. At that time, Moore was in his fourth season as general manager, and much like his predecessor, Allard Baird, he had not found much success with the Royals at the Major League level. While they showed improvement in 2008, winning 75 games, their most since 2003, they were in the midst of an eventual 65-97 season in 2009, a 10-game regression from the previous year, when Moore made that statement to the Kansas City fans and media. Hence, one can understand how Kansas City was feeling not just about Moore, but the state of the Royals in general: a whole lot of promise with a new GM and a new manager at first, but eventually, the same lackluster results that had plagued the club since David Glass took over as owner.

The “Trust the Process” manta from Moore wasn’t all “hollow” talk. Moore was hired to replace Baird as general manager due to his scouting and player development expertise that helped general manager John Schuerholz build a consistent winner in Atlanta in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Moore’s mission when hired was to build the Royals through the draft, and convince ownership to put the proper money and resources into player development, with the hope that the Royals would be a competitive club in 5-10 years, ready to bring a World Series championship back to Kansas City. Moore wasn’t interested in quick fixes at the Major League level, or at least that’s what he told Royals fans early in his tenure.

However, even after his statement, the years were lean for Kansas City baseball fans, and many wondered if the payoff of the “process” would ever come to fruition under Moore’s leadership. From 2010-2012, the Royals won 67, 71, and 72 games respectively. It was modest improvement, but not exactly records that made Royals fans feel confident that the playoffs were on the horizon.

Despite the meager record, Moore’s “Trust the Process” plan began to mature a bit during that three year span. The Royals started to call up their young, talented, homegrown players during this three-year period, which included Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, highly-rated former first round picks drafted early in Moore’s tenure. Furthermore in the Winter of 2010, the Royals traded Zack Greinke to the Brewers in a package that brought outfielder Lorenzo Cain, shortstop Alcides Escobar, and pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress, and by the end of 2012, all four players, promising prospects in the Brewers system, had made their debuts in Kansas City.

“The Process” was moving, but it moved too slowly or not significantly enough initially to really capture Kansas City’s attention or optimism. Thus, as Moore entered his seventh year as GM, the train of thought among Royals fan and media circles that offseason was that the “Process” needed to show significant progress. Another sub-80 win season just was not going to cut it.

And then Moore “expedited” the process with James Shields.

The James Shields trade polarized Royals fans, to put it nicely. After preaching “patience” and the transition of players in the Royals’ farm system to the Major League level, Moore suddenly mortgaged his future on the Rays ace as well as a middling-starter (Wade Davis) at the time in exchange for six Royals prospects, including top prospects such as Wil Myers and Odorizzi.

When looking at the reactions, many in baseball felt that the move did not move the needle for the Royals much at the time. Yes, Shields was an ace who would improve the Royals’ rotation, but it seemed doubtful that he could make a major impact on a club that hadn’t won 80 or more games in almost a decade. Furthermore, the loss of Myers, who was supposed to be the Royals right fielder of the future, felt like a direct contradiction to the “Trust the Process” mantra that Moore had been harping since 2006.

In many ways, the Shields acquisition did feel more like a “Gil Meche acquisition” in the sense that the Royals acquired a big name to bolster the rotation, which was pretty lousy in 2012. Yet in the end, much like the Royals with Meche, the feeling was that Royals would continue to be a 70-75 win team, maybe an 80-win one at best (which still wouldn’t be good enough to make the playoffs), and the deal would fail to live up to the hype.

Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated expressed this kind of widespread dissatisfaction with the deal below in his analysis of the trade:

While the trade isn’t a complete mismatch in terms of assets exchanged, it represents a fundamental misreading of the Royals’ current station. Coming off a 72-90 campaign, their 17th losing season in the past 18 years, they simply weren’t a front-of-the-rotation starter away from contention even when one factors in the other improvements they’ve made this winter, or the ones they can expect from a nucleus of young talent that itself serves as a reminder that success isn’t 100 percent guaranteed for Myers. Instead, the move expresses Moore’s desperation for positive results at the major league level.

“Myers-for-Shields trade won’t be enough for Royals — or Rays” by Jay Jaffe; Sports Illustrated.

So with feelings mixed in KC, a lot of pressure rode on Shields going into Spring Training in 2013. Shields had to be an “ace” for this Royals squad and live up to his “Big Game James” reputation. The young players who had struggled with consistency in their first two years, such as Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, and even Escobar, had to show significant signs of progress. And manager Ned Yost, who had a questionable reputation as a manager after his flameout in Milwaukee, needed to prove to Royals fans that he could manage a winning club.

Safe to say, there was a lot going against the Royals as they entered camp that Spring.

But somehow, they bucked those challenges and then some during the “Easter” baseball season of 2013 in Kansas City.

The Royals went 86-76 in 2013, their first winning season since 2003, and their most wins as a franchise since 1989, which they won 92 games. The Shields pick-up paid huge dividends in year one, as Shields led the Royals in WAR with a 4.7 mark, and also posted a 13-9 record and 3.15 ERA in 228 innings of work. Though the Royals gave up a lot to only get two years of Shields, he proved to be the workhorse the Royals needed at the top of the rotation in 2013.

However, while Shields lived up to his billing, the Royals pitching staff as a whole went from a liability to one of the league’s better staffs. According to Fangraphs, the Royals ranked 7th in pitching WAR in 2013, an improvement from their 15th ranking in WAR a year ago. In addition to Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, who was acquired in 2012 after being batted around in Colorado, had a stellar season, as he posted a 15-12 record, 4.04 ERA, and 1.6 WAR in 211 innings of work. Furthermore, Ervin Santana, who was coming off a rough 2012 with the Angels (5.16 ERA and -1.1 WAR), also surprised in his lone season in Kansas City as he posted a 9-10 record, 3.24 ERA, and 3.2 WAR in 211 innings pitched. The fact that the Royals had three 200-plus inning pitchers proved to be a big reason why the Royals pitching staff as a whole improved from 2012 and 2013.

While the Royals rotation improved from 2012 thanks to Shields and the underrated acquisition of Santana, the strength of the staff was in the bullpen. Greg Holland thrived as the Royals closer, as he saved 47 games and posted an ERA of 1.21 in 68 appearances. In addition, the Royals’ decision to move former starter Luke Hochevar to the pen also proved to be a wise move, as Hochevar posted a 1.92 ERA and 4.82 K/BB ratio in 70.1 innings pitched. And lastly, Kelvin Herrera continued to emerge as a dependable setup option in the Royals pen, as he accumulated 20 holds in 58.1 IP. Lefty Tim Collins and Right-hander Aaron Crow also posted 21 and 19 holds, respectively, in 2013, in perhaps their final “above average” campaigns in Kansas City.

Offensively, the Royals were helped by breakout seasons from catcher Salvador Perez and first-baseman Hosmer. Perez had good, but limited seasons in 2011 and 2012, as he hit .331 and .301 respectively, but only played 39 and 76 games, respectively. However, Salvy made the jump from a good to great catcher in 2013, as he not only posted a 105 OPS+ over 138 games and 526 plate appearances, but he also made the All-Star game and earned his first Gold Glove as well.

As for Hosmer, after finishing 3rd in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2011 when he posted an OPS+ of 118, he struggled in his sophomore year, posting an 81 OPS+, which included declines in every offensive category (HR, Avg., OBP, SLG, and OPS) despite 35 more plate appearances. However, Hosmer stepped up and then some in his third year as he hit 17 home runs and posted a .302 average and 118 OPS+ in 680 plate appearances. And if that wasn’t enough, the 23-year-old also earned his first Gold Glove in 2013.

While Perez and Hosmer were the biggest offensive stars, the 2013 Royals had a solid mix of production and stability that would obviously pay dividends in 2014 and 2015. Alex Gordon led the Royals in home runs (20) and plate appearances (700). Billy Butler hit 15 home runs, had 82 RBI, and posted a .787 OPS as the Royals’ primary DH. Outfielder David Lough ended up replacing Jeff Franceour in right, as Lough posted a .724 OPS in 96 games (as for Franceour, he posted a .571 OPS in 59 games and was eventually let go by the Royals mid-season). And though Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, and Lorenzo Cain didn’t have great offensive seasons, they flashed excellent defense in the field, and ended up getting the plate appearances they needed to have much better campaigns in 2014.

The Royals in 2013 started slow, as they went 43-49 in the first half, which included an 8-20 mark in the month of May alone. However, the Royals surged in the second half, going 43-27 after the All-Star break. In fact, the Royals did not have a losing month with the exception of May, which makes one wonder what the season could have looked like had they not done so poorly that month.

The Royals finished 10 games over .500, and were the darlings of Kansas City during the last couple months of play. Unfortunately, the Tigers and the Indians had such a stranglehold of the division, and the Royals just could not catch up by season’s end, as they finished third in the division. While the Royals’ rotation was boosted by Shields, the Royals struggled to find consistency at the end of the rotation. Wade Davis, who was also acquired from the Rays, struggled as a starting pitcher in 2013. He posted a 5.32 ERA and 1.68 WHIP in 24 starts and was eventually demoted to the bullpen by the end of the year, though that would end up being a blessing in disguise by 2014. Bruce Chen provided some nice swing work as a reliever and starter, as he posted a 3.27 ERA and 9-4 record in 121 innings of work, but he didn’t have a major impact in the first half. And lastly, though Yordano Ventura made his Major League debut in 2013, it was a limited stint, and he wouldn’t have a major impact on the Royals rotation until 2014. (Though to be fair, his debut was fun to watch.)

While 2013 didn’t produce a long-awaited postseason appearance, it gave hope to Royals fans that major success was close, and it gave them a blueprint of where they needed to improve at the Major League level for 2014 and beyond. The Royals boosted their rotation with free agent Jason Vargas and Ventura the following season. They upgraded at second base with Omar Infante replacing Chris Getz (though the Infante contract would hamstring the Royals post-2104). And they replaced Lough with the speedier, higher-contact Norichika Aoki in right field. And the addition of Davis to then pen not only saved Davis’ career, but also began the trio of HDH (Herrera-Davis-Holland) that dominated opposing AL hitters in the 7th-9th innings over the next two seasons.

Going into 2013, many Royals fans were skeptical of Moore and the “process” that he preached in 2009. At the time, it felt like the Royals were going to be perennially rebuilding, as it seemed like the prospects being touted by Moore were either going to be let-downs, or they would live up to the hype, but fail to have a major impact on the record of the team, much like Carlos Beltran, David DeJesus, Johnny Damon, and Mike Sweeney in the recent past. After all, the Royals were a 72-win team in 2012, and even a 4-8 win improvement would have been cause for major celebration in Kansas City.

And yet, they improved by 14 wins. They surprised everyone, but unlike 2003, where the success was fleeting and isolated, the 2013 success actually sparked a run of baseball in Kansas City that won’t ever be forgotten. They snapped their playoff drought and won a Pennant in 2014. In 2015, they won their first World Series since 1985. The 2013 team may not have the accolades of those two teams, but they were the first ones to not just bring back winning baseball to Kansas City in over a decade, but also show that winning could be built on and sustained over multiple years. And the Royals did so in an era of Royals baseball which was dark and somewhat hopeless. After all, between 1995 and 2012, the Royals had only one winning season. Not a lot of, if any, other teams in baseball suffered through that kind of ineptitude over that time span.

Four years into his tenure as GM, Moore preached to Royals fans to “Trust the Process” and much to the surprise of Royals fans, the Boys in Blue came through.

Now, Moore is telling Royals fans again to “Trust the Process” again. It will be interesting to see how long it will take before a 2013-esque season happens again…

If it happens again, of course, under Moore’s tenure.

Sometimes…you don’t find the same magic twice…especially in baseball.

3 thoughts on “2013 is where “Trusting the Process” began to pay off (Royals “Easter Seasons” Part 3)

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