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Royals' focus returns to speed, defense

@FlannyMLB
February 26, 2019

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- One theme Royals fans should expect to read about the 2019 Royals on a regular basis is the team’s return to the type of defense-first, speedy, put-the-ball-in-play identity it had when the Royals went to back-to-back World Series in 2014 and '15. Back then, the Royals were

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- One theme Royals fans should expect to read about the 2019 Royals on a regular basis is the team’s return to the type of defense-first, speedy, put-the-ball-in-play identity it had when the Royals went to back-to-back World Series in 2014 and '15.

Back then, the Royals were anything but an offensive juggernaut. They were last in the American League in home runs (95) in '14 and next-to-last (139) in '15.

Back then, the Royals were a motion team that continuously pestered opponents by putting the ball in play and stealing bases. The Royals struck out the fewest times of any team in the league in both '14 and '15. And they led the league in steals with 153 in '14 and were second (104) in '15.

“We drove other teams crazy,” manager Ned Yost said. “They couldn’t strike us out.”

And the Royals ran and ran and ran, whether it was swiping bases, taking extra bases or defending opponents in the field.

This year’s Royals are positioned to do the same, with players such as Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi and offseason additions Billy Hamilton and (designated pinch-runner) Terrance Gore.

The Royals also seemed poised to have a solid defense, and they will be working diligently on their two-strike approach, hoping to put the ball in play consistently again.

“[In 2014-15] it was speed, defense, putting the ball in play, and having a great bullpen,” Yost said. “Those were things no one else did. Then when it worked for us, everyone else thought, ‘We need to put together a good bullpen.’ But the speed and defense is still an undervalued part. But if you talk to other managers, they will mention how important it is, that pitching and defense is very important to winning a championship.

“You’re not going to win a championship if your defense isn’t good.”

As the industry has become more analytics-driven in recent years, it may still take time for analytics departments to value speed and defense, Yost said. It’s perhaps why the Royals in '14 and '15 were projected by PECOTA’s projection system to be a sub-.500 team each season (PECOTA projected the Royals to win just 72 games in '15, when they won 95 games and a World Series championship).

“I don’t know if we’ve awoken [analytics people] yet to what we do,” Yost said. “I think people still look at us like we’re crazy and we’re stupid. Not our analytical people, though. They’re in with what we’re doing, and they give us suggestions.

“[Our analytical people] don’t buck us. They don’t say ‘Don’t steal!’ and ‘Don’t bunt!’ A lot of those people want to almost outlaw it and completely eliminate it from the game. Our analytical people don’t think that way. They know our style of play.”

The Royals seemed to drift from that identity the last two seasons. They set a franchise mark for home runs in '17 with 193. But their strikeout total jumped to 1,116 and their stolen-base total collapsed to 91.

Last season, the Royals struck out a franchise-record 1,310 times.

And after four straight winning seasons, the Royals dipped below .500 in '17 before losing 104 games last season.

But the shift away toward a power hitting/strikeout team (the industry trend) the past two seasons wasn’t necessarily deliberate, general manager Dayton Moore said.

It is hard to find and develop or acquire speed, Moore said. Over the last two seasons, the Royals lost Jarrod Dyson, Lorenzo Cain and Gore, Paulo Orlando’s success faded and shortstop Alcides Escobar lost a step or two.

“We never wanted to abandon that [speed/contact] philosophy,” Moore said. “It was just a matter of the people available to us.

“We didn’t want to lose Dyson. We felt we needed [Nate] Karns [acquired for Dyson]. But based on all of the stuff our scouts said and all the stuff our analytics people said, it was the deal to make. Everyone in analytics applauded the deal. But it didn’t work out. It’s hard to predict what will happen.”

And, of course, as the Royals prepare to launch speed again this season, there is no guarantee that success will follow. The Royals will have to be a better make contact/get-on-base team, and they have a long way to go to replicate the HDH (Kelvin Herrera-Wade Davis-Greg Holland) bullpen that got them to back-to-back World Series.

But a return to their former identity is the mission.

“How are you going to win in our ballpark without speed and defense?” Moore asked. “I mean, you can try and say that a team that is successful [without speed and defense] in other ballparks could, but then you put them in our ballpark over 81 games, It won’t work.”

Jeffrey Flanagan has covered the Royals since 1991, and for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @FlannyMLB.