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.