Aggressive approach part of Royals' game

Style that won championship in 2015 a throwback to old-school play

February 29th, 2016

If not for the Herculean 2014 postseason performance of the Giants' Madison Bumgarner, the Royals, beyond reasonable doubt, would be plotting a rare World Series three-peat this spring in their Surprise, Ariz., camp.

What the 2015 champions have done in defying all evaluations, expectations and projections is even more impressive when you dig into how they've done it.

These Royals are as old-school as it gets. They win in October by putting the ball in play, manufacturing runs and stealing them with superb defense behind a pitching staff built around a dominant bullpen.

All along the way, Kansas City has been cheered in the homes of hundreds of old ballplayers across the land as well as in Kauffman Stadium by the true-blue fan base.

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In his recovery last autumn from a near-fatal September heart attack, Hall of Famer Rod Carew watched the Royals with joy, marveling in how they won a World Series after coming oh so close in 2014 by playing the game the way he did: with intelligent aggression at the plate and on the bases.

"They were doing things out there I remember doing," Carew said. "It was all about making little moves to get yourself in position to win games. The last two years, watching that ballclub, I've been fascinated by that."

New Nationals coach Davey Lopes injected fast-break baseball into the great Phillies teams that reached five straight postseasons and two World Series, winning it all in 2008. He also has become a fan of the Royals' style.

"They attack the game -- they don't wait for the game to come to them," Lopes said. "When you put the ball in play the way they do and run the bases aggressively, you force mistakes and errors."

These past two seasons, Kansas City has led the American League in fewest walks, home runs and strikeouts.

If this goes against the popular grain, so do the Royals' stolen bases. They led the Majors in 2014, finishing second to the Astros in the AL last season. Their success rates of 81 and 75 percent, respectively, were well above the norm.

These Royals, assembled by general manager Dayton Moore and managed by Ned Yost, buck trends in so many ways, it's hard to know where to begin.

Starting at the top of the order, Alcides Escobar had the lowest on-base percentage (.296) among all MLB leadoff men with at least 60 starts. He still managed to finish 12th in manufactured runs with 26 while also ranking among the leaders (19th) with 30 productive outs -- two fewer than team leader Kendrys Morales.

One of the steals of the previous offseason, Morales drove in a team-high 106 runs while striking out 103 times. Only four others in the top 15 had more RBIs than strikeouts: Nolan Arenado, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and David Ortiz.

At $17 million for two years with a mutual option for 2017, Morales was one of Moore's astute signings. The veteran designated hitter provides switch-hitting balance in the heart of the lineup around Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Sal Perez.

"We have a really deep lineup now," Hosmer said. "Kendrys being a switch-hitter really helps guys around him, like Moose and myself. It strengthens our left side and adds balance."

Making contact, up and down the lineup, is the Royals' forte. Kansas City led the Majors in percentage of pitches (20.7) and swings (43.2) put in play -- and in fewest number of swings and misses: 19.7.

The Royals were last in the Majors last year in pitches seen per plate appearance: 3.71. The Cubs were first: 3.97. The National League champion Mets were fifth at 3.89.

Since 2010, the start of the Giants' three-championship run, the top three teams in fewest pitches seen per plate appearance are the Brewers (3.74), Royals (3.75) and Giants (3.76). Maybe working counts isn't all it's worked up to be.

In the 2015 World Series, the Royals swung at 30.1 percent of first pitches, trying to avoid getting behind in counts against the Mets' dominant starters. The Mets swung at 22.2 percent of first pitches.

In 2014, according to the Bill James Handbook, the Royals led the Majors in manufactured runs with 204 while giving up only 136 -- the best margin of gain in the game. It was more of the same in 2015: 170 manufactured runs produced, 121 surrendered. Only the Rangers (195) manufactured more, giving up 140.

While teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox are fortifying their bullpens in an effort to emulate the Royals' remarkable late-game success rate, they might also want to consider how Kansas City manufactured those leads for the great relievers to protect.

Make contact, keep the line moving and catch the ball. It's a tried and true formula.