Craig Calcaterra

Beware of “be more like the Royals” talk

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In the wake of the Royals winning the World Series there will be no shortage of people who analyze their success and attempt to discern some sort of baseball philosophy they employed. A philosophy, it will be argued, which other teams should emulate. They will argue about how teams should “be more like the Royals.” They’ll talk about “high contact, low-strikeout” approaches, defense and shutdown bullpens or what have you. No matter what the specifics are, you can bet your bippy that the Royals formula, however defined, will inform a lot of hot stove chatter and prescriptions for non-Royals teams to follow.

This isn’t surprising, as we have long seen this sort of thing. And not just in sports. We see it in business and politics and pop culture too. Patterns and pattern recognition are pretty important to human beings and their development and the idea of trying to identify some sort of successful template and emulate it is pretty basic to how people operate. When it comes to baseball, though, some serious caution should be taken before playing this philosophical game. Mostly because there are so many ways to play and win actual baseball games.

Here are some various philosophies, such as they were defined at some point by outsiders, of 2015 playoff teams:

  • Mets: power pitching;
  • Cubs: power hitting, Moneyball 2.0 rebuild;
  • Cardinals: The Cardinal Way, whatever the hell that is;
  • Pirates: Some scouting/analytics synthesis;
  • Dodgers: Spend a billion dollars and let GOD sort it out;
  • Blue Jays: Power hitting, going big at the deadline;
  • Yankees: Reanimation of the dead, I guess;
  • Royals: Contact hitters, speed, defense, a shutdown bullpen;
  • Astros: Tearing things down to the studs, losing for a long time, drafting well and promoting players aggressively;
  • Rangers: Um, I dunno. I’m still not entirely sure how they won the division.

And none of these philosophies are wrong! All of these teams had great seasons! Any one of them could’ve won the World Series had some balls bounced just right, had certain players of their own gotten hot or certain players on the opposition gone cold or had some combination of all of this occurred. And, if that did happen, we’d be having a very different sort of offseason conversation. We’d be pointing to that team’s rather than the Royals’ success and talking about their philosophy instead.

If the Astros had one better inning in the ALDS, we’re probably talking about Moneyball a lot. If the Blue Jays had, we’d be talking about power. If the Dodgers did we’d be talking about how high payroll teams have an unfair advantage. If Cespedes, Wright, Duda and Murphy had each made one defensive play instead of muffing it, we’d be talking about how the recipe for success is power pitching and, perhaps, the Royals lack of a True Star Player Who Can Step Up When Needed. Because the Royals did win, we’re going to be talking a lot about how hitting to contract, running aggressively and playing good defense is the formula for success in this era of baseball.

But, really, in what era of baseball would ANY of those things be bad? In what era would making contact, running well and playing good defense not be good things to do on a baseball field? The Royals may have a unique philosophy, but they didn’t win because of the philosophy. They won because they had pretty good players carrying out that philosophy and those players executed that philosophy when it mattered.

That’s the real thing here: good players and execution. That’s always been the real thing. Ten to fifteen years ago there were a lot of teams who attempted to emulate some of the early “Moneyball” strategies encouraging walks, take-and-rake baseball and considering defense to be something worth skimping on if the offense came through. It worked for teams who got players who had skills suited to that and could execute and worked poorly for teams that didn’t. Likewise, the Royals themselves have long talked about defense and speed and stuff like that and, until last year, it didn’t amount to anything because they, largely, had crappy players trying to execute the philosophy. Indeed, as we look at successful teams’ philosophies, we should be well aware that all crappy teams have philosophies too.

As your team enters the hot stove season and “being like the Royals” becomes a topic of conversation, think about how successful they can do that without players like Lorenzo Cain or Wade Davis. Or how a team can be like the Red Sox or A’s of the mid-2000s without patient hitters. Or a team built around pitching except doing it with pitchers who aren’t very good. Or, more realistically, think about a team with a cogent philosophy AND good players who are well-suited to that philosophy but which simply fails to execute good baseball plays when it matters the most.

All of which is to say that, no matter who wins the World Series and no matter how hard experts try to take away some overarching lessons from their success, there is still only one philosophy worth a damn in baseball: sign good baseball players, hope they execute and hope for some good luck. That’s it. Everything else is just blather.

UPDATE: I had missed this before, but Theo Epstein knows what time it is.

The awards you care about will be announced November 16-19

Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper blows a bubble as he steps out of the batter's box during the first inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015, in Washington. Harper flew out on the at-bat. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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The end of the World Series means the beginning of the hot stove league. It also means the beginning of awards season.

There are more award now than ever. The BBWAA awards like the MVP and Cy Young Award we all know and love (and all love to fight about). MLB’s own shadow award that no one really cares about. The Gold Glove Awards which, venerable name aside, are completely irrelevant. Then some sponsored awards we forget exist each year until the moment they’re given and immediately forget again thereafter.

Major League Baseball just announced the timing of the handing out of these awards. At least the ones they broadcast on their television network. Plan your schedule accordingly:

  • Monday, November 9, 8:00 p.m. ET: Players Choice Awards presented by MLB The Show
  • Tuesday, November 10, 6:00 p.m. ET: BBWAA Awards finalists
  • Wednesday, November 11, 6:00 p.m. ET: Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Awards
  • Thursday, November 12, 6:00 p.m. ET: Silver Slugger Awards presented by Louisville Slugger
  • Monday, November 16, 6:00 p.m. ET: BBWAA Rookie of the Year Awards
  • Tuesday, November 17, 6:00 p.m. ET: BBWAA Manager of the Year Awards
  • Wednesday, November 18, 6:00 p.m. ET: BBWAA Cy Young Awards
  • Thursday, November 19, 6:00 p.m. ET: BBWAA Most Valuable Player Awards
  • Friday, November 20, 8:00 p.m. ET: 2015 Esurance MLB Awards

So, basically, November 16-19 is all any of will really care about. And, if you’d like to just avoid watching these shows, check back here about the same time as we’ll be posting the winners. Because no matter how hard MLB tries to make entertainment out of these awards, they’re basically just news nuggets.

It’s official: Dusty Baker is the new Nationals manager

Dusty Baker
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The back-and-forth of the past 24 hours involving Bud Black, Dusty Baker and the Washington Nationals is now over: The Nats just announced that Dusty Baker is their new skipper. He has a “multi-year deal” according to James Wagner of the Washington Post.

Baker’s hiring comes after a deal with the club’s first choice — Bud Black — fell through due to financial terms and contract length, according to multiple reports. Black is an established manager who wanted a contract in the range which established managers get. The Nats, either because they were lowballing him or because they simply don’t understand the manager market, felt that a short deal — two years — and low money — $2 million — was sufficient. When Black backed out they went to Baker.

Which isn’t to say that Baker is a bad choice. And that’s the case no matter how much snark and joking has come to surround almost any mention of Baker over the past couple of years. He’s become something of a figurehead for old school managers who are no longer in vogue and became a target of baseball analysts who lament the days when managers didn’t pay attention to pitcher workloads and did not seem on the surface to be carrying out a front office’s plan as opposed to their own. And while there may be some truth to that as a descriptor of Baker, it’s pretty old and not really accurate conventional wisdom on the man or on the state of managing in 2015.

Baker got a lot of criticism for his handling of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in Chicago. And it’s absolutely the case that they were worked harder than you would like to see young pitchers worked. But if we’ve learned anything in the past several years, it’s that any pitcher, even the ones whose workload is most closely monitored, can tear ligaments and break down. What’s more, Baker evolved as a manager when it came to his use of pitchers, particularly while in Cincinnati. To the extent you’re using the “oh no, Dusty is going to destroy pitchers” line of attack on him, you’re about a decade out of date.

More troublesome for one’s criticism of Baker, though, is that it ignores the fact that he has won everywhere he’s gone. He won a pennant in San Francisco, made the playoffs in Chicago and won a lot of games and two division titles with the Reds. His successors . . . tend not to do too well. This doesn’t make him some super hero — Baker has always benefitted from taking jobs with teams poised to do good things — but he has not underachieved either and he has not been an impediment to winning.

Ultimately, the value of Dusty Baker is his experience and his history dealing with his clubhouses. Specifically, he has a lot of the former and a lot of success with the latter, making him the anti-Matt Williams in just about every respect. The Nats should want that, right?

Bud Black is a good manager who is well-respected in the game. I think the Nats made a good call in offering him the job and made a mistake in lowballing him. But I also think that, even if the politics behind this managerial move are troublesome for the Nats, the ultimate result — getting Dusty Baker — is a pretty OK outcome. Going from Black to Baker will not be the difference between winning and losing in 2016 and beyond. And winning with Dusty Baker is something a lot of clubs have done in the past.