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Inbox: Role of analytics in the Royals' future

Beat reporter Jeffrey Flanagan answers questions from fans
@FlannyMLB
October 21, 2019

KANSAS CITY -- On this day in 2014, the Royals opened the World Series with a 7-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants. They came back to win the next two games, then grabbed a 4-1 lead in Game 4 in San Francisco. A possible turning point of the series

KANSAS CITY -- On this day in 2014, the Royals opened the World Series with a 7-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants.

They came back to win the next two games, then grabbed a 4-1 lead in Game 4 in San Francisco.

A possible turning point of the series may have come in the third inning of that Game 4. The Royals had the bases loaded with two outs when starter Jason Vargas took a pitch about a foot inside, thus an apparent walk that would have forced in another run to make it 5-1 and also brought up the top of the order. But Vargas was called out on strike three instead, and the rally ended.

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I still wonder what that game would have looked like if Vargas indeed had walked. Could the Royals have really blown that game open and demoralized the Giants? And with a 3-1 edge in the series, could the Royals have grabbed the title?

These are some of the random thoughts that sometimes roll around my brain. Sorry.

But with that, let’s get to this week’s Royals Inbox:

Soon-to-be new owner John Sherman, I’ve heard, is a big fan of Dayton Moore, so don’t expect any change in the Royals’ front office. An extension certainly is possible.

As far as analytics go, Moore is not anti-analytics by any stretch. He meets with his analytics staff regularly and makes decisions based on their recommendations. Not that long ago, he made catching coach Pedro Grifol also a quality control coach to serve as a conduit between the analytics department and the coaching staff.

Analytics are without doubt a part of the game, and they are a noteworthy part (just as is scouting, Minor League development, overall instruction, etc., are) of the Royals’ approach. But truth be told -- and this has been reported numerous times elsewhere -- the gap in analytics usage from team to team is not nearly as big as many assume.

As one rival executive told me this summer, “Everyone has the same data, everyone uses the same data. What separates teams in terms of analytics is, what is useful data and what is throw-away stuff. Too often, the term ‘analytics’ gets thrown around like it’s some great panacea to all problems. It’s not. You have to be smart about it, smart about what you use, use what is relevant.”

Plenty of analytics have been around for decades -- pitchers’ time to home, pop times, heat maps, spray charts, pitcher-hitter matchups. Teams have been using those since the 1990s. And some of the analytics data once heralded is now recognized as antiquated -- BABIP, DZR, etc. -- and has been replaced by more scientific methods used in Statcast, such as expected batting average and Outs Above Average.

The Royals are much more interested in Statcast data, such as Outs Above Average, because it utilizes route efficiency for outfielders and therefore is a useful teaching tool. They tend to frown on some analytics data, especially framing statistics, which too often are subjective-based on how good the umpire is on any given day. Grifol, a former catcher, prefers to make his own framing statistics for his catchers.

And recent fascinating innovations, such as Rapsodo -- which measures pitchers’ spin rates and hitters’ exit velocity -- have intrigued the Royals, but tend to tend to serve more as confirmation to coaching staffs than anything revolutionary.

I still believe Mike Matheny is the leading candidate to be the next Royals manager. As far as his relationship with players goes, several Royals veterans have told me they inquired about Matheny by talking with players who played for him, and the responses were almost all positive.

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And yes, I think there was some concern about Matheny’s lack of interest/understanding in analytics, but that is why he spent a lot of 2019 meeting with Royals scouts and coaches and analytics people, and getting to know what makes the Royals tick in that regard. If Matheny is hired, he likely will be required to use the same analytics approach the team has been using in recent years.

A great question. The Royals set a club record for strikeouts in 2018 with 1,310. They broke that record in '19 with 1,405. This is not who they are, at least not who they were when they went to back-to-back World Series in '14-15 and were known as a team that didn’t strike out. They want to return to being an action team that puts the ball in play, steals bases and creates havoc.

This is what makes the Astros so tough to beat because they’ve adjusted from the old “Moneyball” thinking that strikeouts aren’t that bad and that stolen bases are a poor risk. The Astros struck out the least of any team in Major League Baseball and were a threat to steal (17th in stolen bases), making them hard to defend because, if needed, they also could manufacture a run.

Yes, that’s who the Royals want to be again.

Another really good question. No doubt that Adalberto Mondesi, when healthy, is the shortstop of the future. Whit Merrifield, yes, would prefer to play second base. He once told me “outfield is boring.” But Merrifield will do what is best for the team -- he always has. He came up as an outfielder, but when they asked him to learn second base, he did. When they asked him to move back to the outfield, he didn’t squabble.

The big question is if Nicky Lopez can hit enough to play every day at second base. He finished strong, hitting .308 with eight doubles, one triple and one homer in his last 27 games. And no one on the team is a more accurate thrower than Lopez, as infielders coach Mike Jirschele has told me. Lopez is turning into a superior defender.

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Merrifield probably starts in the outfield in 2020 (depending on Mondesi’s recovery time from left shoulder surgery). But if Lopez struggles offensively, the Royals have a solution at second base with Merrifield.

I’ve answered this before, but I don’t think payroll jumps significantly in 2020. What would be the point? The Royals realistically are looking at '21 (maybe '22) before they have enough young guns coming up through the system to have an impact. Why spend a bunch of money on free-agents to win 74 games instead of 60 in '20?

Bubba Starling will compete for the center field job along with Brett Phillips. Ryan O'Hearn will compete for the first base job along with Ryan McBroom.

I’ve mentioned this before, but Cheslor Cuthbert and Jorge Bonifacio are candidates to be non-tendered or designated for assignment, then possibly re-signed. Bonifacio has fallen behind the other young candidates in the system, and it was telling that he didn’t get a September callup.

Cuthbert is somewhat of an enigma. After a strong start when he was called up in late May, he hit .119 in his final 29 games. He is slightly above serviceable defensively at third and first base, but he is one of the slowest guys on the team. Not sure how he fits into the future. As one rival scout told me, “He would be much better in a smaller park because he does have some pop, just not enough at Kauffman Stadium.”

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