Last year, you had to wonder: Would Alex Gordon have made it home in Game Seven?
This year, you don't have to wonder.
You might have wondered just what in the hell Eric Hosmer was thinking when he started running toward the plate, but it worked! If he tried again a hundred times, he'd probably get TOOTBLAN'd ninety times*.
*This has been debated in the comments section. Hosmer is likely to have had better than a 10 percent chance of being safe. However, those odds do seem to reflect the number of players that would have taken the chance. The point here is to illustrate how rare the decision to run was, NOT to take anything away from the World Series champions. The Royals won in five games. There's no sense in giving the time of day to someone saying this entire year was a fluke.
It's not really fair to Gordon to compare the two plays -- Brandon Crawford has a terrific arm and Lucas Duda ... well, he plays first base -- but that play was a good metaphor for how the Royals ended up winning their first World Series in thirty years.
A lot of teams have gravitated toward passivity since Billy Beane started stressing market inefficiencies via the value of on-base percentage. And while high-contact hitters may have become a market inefficiency over the last few years, the league as a whole, and the better part of the people covering the sport of baseball in one capacity or another, has been leaning toward a new(-ish) way of looking at the game that puts an emphasis of playing the numbers. Brian Kenny lost his mind because Harold Reynolds doesn't really have one, Fox picked up FanGraphs, and most teams added or beefed up their analytics departments -- including they Royals. But they were basically the last team to do so, and while some might believe that Dayton Moore had a master plan that simply took a decade to coalesce, well ... to me, that sounds a lot like Joe Buck saying Hosmer bolting for home was "good baserunning." Sorry. It wasn't. And it wasn't advanced scouting on Duda's throwing arm. Hosmer didn't have time to weigh the percentages.
He just booked it.
He was aggressive.
He made the other team react.
Maybe the league-wide trend was focused on the benefits of passivity so much that the Royals caught the rest of the league on their heels. And maybe their hungry, aggressive approach -- as anyone who watched more than an inning of the Series knows, the Royals had the best contact rate and the lowest strikeout rate in the majors this year -- was enough to knock the rest of baseball down.
In a way, Hosmer forcing a throw there was the perfect metaphor because it was as if he was speaking for the team, saying, "I know I shouldn't be running right now. Ninety-nine percent of guys wouldn't run, but I'm gonna make you make that one-percent throw."
Unfavorable odds aren't absolute. Probabilistically, the Royals should've lost so many times. Statistically, they are gibberish incarnate. They don't walk. They swing at everything. They don't have a Clayton Kershaw or a Mike Trout ... or a George Brett. They aren't supposed to be this good.
Alex Skillin wrote a great article for The Hardball Times on why the Royals are "a sabermetric team." He notes; Steamer, ZiPS, and PECOTA all projected the Royals to regress. The assumption among the projections and the better part of the stathead community was that the Royals got unsustainably hot last October, and they were incontestably headed back to the middle of the AL Central. However, in the article Skillin points out that the Royals have a pretty impressive -- albeit small-ish -- analytics department. He concludes:
"Ultimately, Kansas City is still not viewed as a sabermetric team due to a dated reputation that no longer accurately reflects the organization's capabilities. Instead, the Royals should be regarded as one of the smartest organizations in baseball — a franchise, much like the Pirates or Astros, that has developed a clear plan and carried it out to great success. No, the Royals haven't excelled solely because they possess some hyper-advanced analytics department filled with mad scientists churning out data and formulas that are well ahead of everyone else. But what they've done probably would draw far more accolades from the sabermetrics crowd if a team like the Rays or Cubs had succeeded with similar strategies.
The Royals, for their part, are probably fine with being misjudged and underestimated. They have one of baseball's best front offices and a collection of hard-nosed players any fan would love to root for. Luck is the last reason for their run to the World Series crown."
It seems as though Skillin is right that the Royals' analytics department is being unduly underestimated. Perhaps, they are a "sabermetric team" on the cutting edge of contemporary market inefficiencies.
On the other hand, market inefficiencies don't actually win games. Discovering them aids in engineering a competitive roster. However, to put it figuratively, you can have a coupon for every ingredient, but you still have to make the meal. And a lot of that process is so stratified throughout the organization that it can be difficult to commit to a comprehensive evaluation of the whole organism. They have definitely had a conspicuous design with regard to defense and baserunning, and their bullpen has obviously been otherworldly. Give credit where credit is due, but it might also be beneficial to look at the team's architectural history without revising it for the sake of simplicity.
Dayton Moore was a terrible general manager for several years. That's simply a fact. But he was given a long time to learn on the job. He has clearly adapted to the changing climate of the game, especially over the last few years. However, he is not a genius, and neither is Ned Yost. That should probably go without saying, but in the effort to explain how the Royals won the World Series, some of the smartest people in baseball have resorted to claiming they are, in fact, geniuses. That or writing it off to #RoyalsDevilMagic -- which is fun, but also about as investigative as the Salem Witch Trials.
There was no master plan. Royals fans know this because we watched every game with a dumpster fire meme at the ready for the better part of a decade.
Of course, that doesn't mean the last two years are a product of luck. Some luck, yes. In a game where a millimeter can be the difference between a home run and an uneventful out, there's always going to be some level of luck involved. In the case of the Royals though, natural selection comes to mind. Slight, accidental deviations and abnormalities mixed with dumb luck and perfect timing has resulted in a fully actualized beast at the top of the food chain.
Moore has made some good decisions, and some seem to have simply worked out by chance -- like his decision to sign Kendrys Morales and Edinson Volquez last winter. The team likely had scouts telling them they saw something they liked, maybe it was something no other team saw, but there's no way those two players were penciled in as the ace of the pitching staff and the heart of the batting order when they joined the team.
But that's what they were for the 2015 World Series champions.
Sometimes, things just work out.
Like how their roster, their somewhat antiquated on-field approach to the game, and their burgeoning analytics department seemed to synch up their strides simultaneously to form a stronger, singular motion that might have been easier to stop at another time. But against the trend of passive players playing the percentages in their minds, the Royals decided to double down and be aggressive.
And that's how this team won the World Series. A few happy accidents gelled together with lessons learned from slamming their heads against the same wall for six or seven years, and it happened at a time in which the players, the coaches, and the front office were all ready to push everything to the middle of the table.
Like Gordon before him, Hosmer shouldn't have run home.
But he did.
But really, the whole team did.
The whole organization did.
The whole city climbed out of the hibernation they'd been in for 30 years, and they did too.
And since the league was so focused on gaining an advantage by emphasizing on the most probable outcomes, the improbable became the advantage.
So, yes. The analytics department deserves more recognition than #RoyalsDevilMagic, but the way their goals fell in line with the old school, aggressive approach put forward by the coaching staff was the perfect, unexpected blend of philosophies needed to combat the conservative Zeitgeist.
They didn't sit back and play the odds.
They stepped up and beat them.