If there is one thing I have learned about my eight-plus years living in Kansas City (and 10+ years living in the Midwest in general), it’s that Kansas City and St. Louis folks tend to butt heads, even though the chip is bigger on the shoulders of Kansas City natives than St. Louis ones.
And that “rivalry” is especially relevant in the baseball world.
Though the Royals and Cardinals are located in the state of Missouri, the two fan bases can’t stand one another (though as stated before in regard to cities in general, the “chip” is a whole lot larger on Royals fans’ shoulders). That is especially true whenever the Cardinals come to visit Kauffman Stadium, as the stadium is not only clad in mostly red (especially during “down” Royals years), but Royals fans have to endure the “pomposity” of many Cardinals fans who like to live up to the appointed moniker of “best fans in baseball” (I say many but not all, because I think there are some really cool Cardinals fans who just enjoy baseball and don’t get caught up in all of that). In fact, when I chose my partial season ticket plan for the Royals this year, I avoided the plan that included the Cardinals game, mostly because of how infuriating the experience was the previous couple of times I watched the Cardinals-Royals play in person at the K.
That being said, even as a Royals fan who tends to support other Royals fans who have that “chip on their shoulder” toward the Cardinals and their fanbase (what can I say, I love sports rivalries), I do highly respect the Cardinals organization on a baseball-end. The Cardinals, as much as it pains me to say this, are the epitome of how a small to mid-market baseball should be built. They strike the right balance between scouting, player development, and analytics, and it’s not a surprise that the Cardinals haven’t had a losing season since 2007.
Granted, the Cardinals are the main game in the city of St. Louis, which makes it different from other small Midwestern markets that have baseball teams (i.e. Kansas City, Cincinnati, and even Milwaukee). That is evident in the Cardinals’ franchise valuation, as they are the seventh-most valuable organization in Major League Baseball, according to Forbes (comparatively, the Royals are 28th, Reds are 27th, and Brewers are 24th). The Cardinals can afford to spend a bit more in free agency than other Midwestern small-market clubs, especially when they rake in more money than big-market teams like the Phillies, Angels, and even World Series champion Braves. However, when looking at the “Cardinals Way“, there are a lot of principles or methods that other organizations, including the Royals, could take away and apply.
Surprisingly, the Royals and Cardinals over the past couple of years have more similarities than differences, especially when baseball fans take a look at how their organizations are currently being built on a baseball-end in both the short and long term. Thus, in this post, I am going to take a look at three ways the Royals and Cardinals are similar clubs when it comes to building winning clubs in 2022 and beyond, and why this is an encouraging sign for Royals fans, even if being compared to St. Louis may grind the gears of Royals fans from Western Missouri and Eastern Kansas.
Both the Royals and Cardinals’ main core of talent on the 40-man roster is homegrown
When fans take a look at the Royals’ organizational depth chart and the Cardinals’ depth chart, via Fangraphs’ Roster Resource, a large percentage of the rosters for both clubs consists of “homegrown” players, which are players who were originally drafted or signed by the organization. Though the Cardinals’ 40-man roster is currently at 36, they have 22 “homegrown” players on the roster, which is roughly 61 percent of their roster.
As for the Royals, they have a full 40-man roster as of now (which prevents them from participating in the Major League Rule 5 Draft, though who knows when that will be). That being said, 26 players are considered “homegrown”, which is nearly 65 percent of the roster. Thus, the Cardinals and Royals rosters are pretty similar when it comes to composition.
And to compare, the Cubs and White Sox, two teams who have had a history with the Cardinals and Royals, respectively, only have 17 and 18 homegrown players, respectively, on their current roster. Those numbers make up 44 and 49 percent of the Cubs and White Sox’s 40-man rosters, respectively, which is over 10 percent lower than the homegrown player percentages of the Royals and Cardinals.
When digging deeper into the lineups, rotations, and bullpens of the Royals and Cardinals, it is obvious that the future of both organizations is being built on “homegrown” players. When it comes to the Royals’ projected Opening Day lineup in 2022, Roster Resource projects that seven of the nine players in the batting order will be “homegrown” players, with Andrew Benintendi and Michal A. Taylor being the lone exceptions. As for the Cardinals, they project that six of the nine players in the batting order will be “homegrown”, with Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, and Tyler O’Neill being the exceptions (though O’Neill didn’t play in the Majors for the Mariners, who drafted him).
Of the projected rotation, three of the Royals’ five projected starters are considered “homegrown”, which is one more than the Cardinals’ projected five-man rotation. The main difference however is that the projected Royals bullpen consists mostly of pitchers who were acquired by trade or free agency, as Josh Staumont is the only “homegrown” reliever projected to be in the bullpen on Opening Day. This is a far cry from the Cardinals, who are projected to have five “homegrown” relievers on Opening Day. That being said, the Royals have a lot of “homegrown” relievers, such as Tyler Zuber, Collin Snider, and Nathan Webb, who could replace some of those “outside” relievers, should they have impressive Cactus League campaigns.
(Speaking of Webb, it would be an awesome story if he could debut for the Royals in 2022, especially after reading this tremendous article from Baseball America.)
Hence, the Royals and Cardinals are both banking on their scouting and development to help carry their organizations in the near and far future, which is what small-market clubs need to do to compete.
They both are prioritizing defense in 2022
The Cardinals and Royals may not have been the same on a record-end in 2021. After all, the Cardinals went 90-72, finished second in the NL Central, and made the postseason as a wild card. As for the Royals, they finished 74-88, good for fourth in the AL Central, the third-straight year they finished in that place.
However, both teams performed well on a defensive end in 2021, and that is demonstrated in their Gold Glove awards, in addition to their collective advanced metrics.
According to outs above average (OAA) data via Baseball Savant, the Cardinals were the best defensive team in baseball with an OAA of 46. As for the Royals, they were the seventh-best defensive team in baseball with an OAA of 24.
In terms of comparing their defensive prowess to division opponents, in the NL Central, the Cubs ranked 11th (8), the Pirates ranked 16th (-8), the Brewers ranked 24th (-18), and the Reds ranked 29th (-36).
In the AL Central, the Guardians ranked 9th (19), the Twins ranked 14th (3), the White Sox ranked 15th (-8), and the Tigers ranked 19th (-10). Therefore, both the Cardinals and Royals were the best defensive teams in 2021 in their respective divisions, though to be fair, the AL Central was a much better defensive division than their NL counterpart last year.
When it came to Fangraphs’ defensive runs above average metric (Def), the Royals and Cardinals also profiled similarly, as they ranked 5th (29.1) and 3rd (37), respectively. They also shared some similarities in some other defensive metrics (DRS, UZR, etc.) as evidenced in the table below, though the gap is much wider between the two, in comparison to OAA and Def.
That being said, the Royals did employ some “extremely negative” defensive players at a couple of positions last year, with Jorge Soler in right field, and Hunter Dozier at third base, being the most glaring examples. Soler is no longer with the Royals, and it seems like the Royals have moved on from Dozier at the hot corner, as Adalberto Mondesi saw time there during the last month of play, and Bobby Witt, Jr. is projected to compete there as well in Spring Training. Furthermore, Kyle Isbel could compete for the starting right field position in 2022, and if he does play there, he’ll be a vast improvement defensively over Soler.
Thus, while the Royals were slightly behind the Cardinals defensively in 2021, with certain changes at a couple of positions in 2022, it’s possible that the Royals could close the gap and be a version of the Cardinals on a defensive end in the AL Central.
And that will lead to a lot of improvement as well in the win-loss column for the Royals next season and perhaps beyond.
The Royals and Cardinals still have question marks on a pitching-end
While the Royals and Cardinals compared favorably on a defensive end last season, they also profiled similarly on a pitching end, but not in a good way.
Last season on a pitching fWAR end, the Royals ranked 20th as a pitching staff (12.5 fWAR) while the Cardinals ranked 21st (12.1 fWAR). The Royals and Cardinals also compare very similarly in other pitching metrics, as evidenced in the table below, via Fangraphs:
When diving deeper into the Royals and Cardinals metrics, it was obvious that the two organizations struggled to throw strikes and limit walks on a consistent basis a year ago.
When it came to starting pitching K-BB percentages, the Royals ranked 23rd (11.8 percent) while the Cardinals ranked dead last (9.5 percent). On a bullpen end, it was pretty much the same result, as the Royals bullpen ranked 21st in K-BB percentage (13 percent), while the Cardinals ranked 29th (11.2 percent). Thus, while many Royals fans knew about the club’s need to improve their command and control overall as a staff, it should also be an area of concern for the Cardinals as well, especially considering the Cardinals were lucky on a BABIP (.272) and strand rate (73.2 percent) end in 2021.
Now, the Cardinals were able to overcome their lackluster pitching in 2021 mostly because of their superior defense, which contributed to the low BABIP and strand rates to a degree. Furthermore, the Cardinals were much better than the Royals in terms of inducing groundballs and limiting flyballs, as evidenced by their GB/FB ratios and HR/FB rates, which is demonstrated in the table below via Fangraphs:
As Royals fans can see, the Cardinals ranked 9th in GB/FB ratio (1.26) while the Royals ranked 18th (1.15). Furthermore, while the Royals were still adept at preventing home runs (12.6 percent HR/FB rate), they still were not as good as the Cardinals, who had the lowest HR/FB rate in baseball at 10.8 percent.
Therefore, both the Cardinals and Royals pitchers need to work on either increasing their strikeouts or decreasing their walks (or a combination of both) this offseason and Spring Training, should they want to make runs in their respective Central divisions. The Royals have some further work to do, as adding some more groundball-inducing pitchers to their rotation or bullpen would also go a long way, and would also help the pitching staff benefit from the solid Royals defense in 2022.
The Cardinals proved that an elite defense can mask mediocre pitching in 2021.
Let’s hope the same approach can be true for the Royals in 2022.
Photo Credit: KC Kingdom/Fansided