Are the Royals becoming the “Moneyball” team of the pandemic era?

As profiled in Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball”, the Oakland Athletics in the early 2000’s zigged while the rest of the league zagged. While other clubs valued traditional scouting as well as flawed statistical analysis to evaluate players (such as batting average to measure hitting; ERA to measure pitching; and fielding percentage to measure defense), the Oakland A’s instead focused on advanced statistical analysis and sabermetrics, even if the process broke with traditional norms. The results didn’t produce a championship, nor a bunch of Hall of Fame players. However, “Moneyball” did produce some consistent success despite limited financial means, even if it set a bad precedent for owners of small-market teams in the future (i.e. it gave owners the excuse to pinch pennies and not pay star players).

The key takeaway of “Moneyball” was this: every now and then, the baseball world will undervalue some aspect of the game, and it is just a matter of time before a minute number of MLB teams discover it and exploit it for on-field and financial success. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, it was the A’s leveraging high-OBP and “non-athletic-looking players”. In the 2010’s, it was technology and player development, as utilized by the Houston Astros (and players like Trevor Bauer and Justin Turner, as discussed in the “MVP Machine”).

As we near the end of 2020, the new aspect of baseball being undervalued may be the Minor Leagues and the employment of area scouts. This has been especially evident with the cancellation of the 2020 Minor League season; the contraction of many Minor League clubs (including the Burlington Royals of the Rookie Appalachian League, which was converted into a wood-bat college league); and the shortening of the MLB Draft this year, mostly due to the pandemic. As a response to all these factors, most organizations invested less in talent in the draft, and let go of Minor League players and scouts in their system in an effort to cut costs.

However, the Royals have been the exception during the pandemic-afflicted season. Not only have they tried to keep as many Minor League players and scouts as possible, but they have been adding veteran scouts to their ranks who were recently let go by other organizations due to team budget concerns, as evidenced in the Tweet below:

And that is just the tip of the iceberg of the Royals’ renewed “focus” as an organization during this time of COVID. The Royals held fall instructional camps at TWO locations this fall: one for upper-level minor league players in Kansas City, and another one for lower-level Minor League players in Surprise, Arizona. Their reputation for paying Minor League players through the pandemic helped them acquire some of the best available amateur talent during the undrafted player signing period. And their front office members are even being sought after around the league, as assistant GMs JJ Picollo and Scott Sharp are being considered for vacant GM positions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles (well Anaheim to be specific).

The Royals have been building a clear identity over the past year, especially since John Sherman took over as the new owner last Fall. And that identity is this: they are going to prioritize their farm system, player development and scouting, even if other teams around the league are cutting their own investments in those respective areas.

Hence, Sherman, Dayton Moore, and the Royals front office are zigging while other MLB teams are zagging, much like Beane and the Athletics did, nearly two decades ago.

Photo credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Granted, the Royals have not had the kind of success in the past three years that the Athletics did during that “Moneyball” era. While the A’s did not win a World Series title, they made frequent playoff visits, and continued to be one of the more competitive teams in the AL West, even though they were at a significant disadvantage in comparison to the division competition (the Rangers, Angels, and Mariners were all known for having high payrolls during that time). The Royals on the other hand, have not had a winning season since capturing the 2015 World Series, and they were coming off back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons in 2018 and 2019 before improving their record to 26-34 during this most recent, COVID-shortened campaign. In terms of Major League success, the Royals and A’s comparisons are lean to say the least.

However, the investment and success in scouting and the Minor League system show that the Royals are indeed on the right track to finding success again at the MLB level. From 2018 to 2019, Royals affiliates accumulated 5 championships and 1 runner-up finish. Furthermore, in an article by Lynn Worthy of the KC Star about the Royals advances in combining analytics and scouting, the Royals are not just trying to increased their number of scouts, but also find ways to make player scouting and development more analytically effective, especially at the Minor League level.

While the Royals have been cast as having an old-school front office because of the shared roots in traditional scouting among many of their top executives, Moore bristles at the notion that KC’s scouting and analytics are framed as separate and competing entities.

Moore dismisses such narratives as “old and tired,” because data and technology are tools to validate an individual’s judgment.

“That’s an old and tired debate because every scout that I’ve ever known in this game has used the technology that is available to him, whether that be a radar gun or a stopwatch, and used that information in innovative ways and ways that have tried to give him an edge,” Moore said. “We just have more of it available to us today.”

“Could this major-league draft tip the scales overwhelmingly in favor of analytics?” by Lynn Worthy; KC Star

The Royals are banking that this emphasis on scouting, player development, and the players in their farm system will eventually lead to MLB success sooner rather than later. Honestly, the emphasis on scouting and player development was always a calling card of Moore when he arrived to Kansas City as GM in 2006, but he seemed to abandon it temporarily during the Royals’ successful seasons from 2013-2017. That seems to have changed now, and I doubt that Moore will put his chips in too aggressively again during the “Process 2.0” for the sake of the short-lived Major League success. That is not to say Moore and Sherman won’t make big moves in the future, but I imagine they won’t do so at the cost of gutting the farm system as before, for the Royals had to take a couple of years to re-stock after the 2017 season.

I felt this Tweet from Kiley McDaniel said a lot about the Royals and how their approach really is a “Moneyball” approach:

As you can see, only the Rockies value scouting as much as the Royals, and I imagine that the Royals aggressive moves toward investing in scouts and player development this off-season has only separated the organization from Colorado, and other “scouting-heavy” organizations.

This Royals focus certainly is a risk: the Royals system still isn’t a Top 10 one yet in the eyes of many prospect experts. But it has grown rapidly since 2017, and with some shrewd players acquisition (i.e. continued acquisition of undervalued prospects from other teams, which they did aggressively last year), as well as continued development of their own players in their system, it is possible that this could be a Top-10 system by season’s end in 2021.

The only difference is that unlike the Royals in 2011, when they Royals had the top farm system in baseball, this 2021 squad could be competitive, even if it may not be playoff-bound just yet. And thus, the Royals could replicate that “Moneyball A’s” mold in 2021 and beyond in which they have a great farm system, but are also competitive at the MLB level.

And maybe this time around, the Royals can have a good balance of competitiveness and depth at both the Minor and Major League level for an extended period of time. In many ways, the Royals could be like the Atlanta Braves or St. Louis Cardinals, two teams who have been able to do both of those things over the past few decades.

Just think what baseball fandom could be like in KC if the Royals had that kind of lasting success as the Cardinals in the next 8-12 years…

Let’s just say the I-70 Series would get a whole lote more interesting.

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