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How serious are the Royals about analytics?

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Is the notion that the Royals are anti-sabermetric finally an outdated one?

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ESPN the Magazine recently ranked all of the major professional North American sports teams in regards to the embrace of analytics in the management of their organization. The Royals have been much maligned by the analytics crowd over the past decade after acquiring low on-base percentage players, relying heavily on offensive strategies that unnecessarily risk outs such as bunting and base-stealing, and acquiring Yuniesky Betancourt not once, but twice. That's why it was so surprising when ESPN categorized the Royals in the group of "Believers" when it came to analytics. They write:

The Royals have shown marked improvement on the field, becoming leaders in formerly tough-to-quantify areas. Over the past two years, they've led all of baseball in both runs gained via baserunning and defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs, and they've been among the most frequent deployers of defensive shifts. Skepticism about Moore and Yost might persist, but meanwhile the Royals are moving toward the head of the class.

How serious are the Royals about analytics?

It is true that the team has hired an analytics team and expanded it. Mike Groopman, who began with the team in 2008, leads the analytics department for the Royals. The Columbia University grad spoke with Lee Warren at Minor League ball a last year a bit about the analytics department for the Royals.

They provide data to each big league coach before every series in addition to doing larger research and development projects for the draft, player development and prospective acquisitions. Interestingly enough, Groopman says they don't work independently from scouts and coaches. Instead, they use an integrative process that includes scouting reports, performance data from PITCHf/x technology, medical reports and more. Groopman says they have developed some unique models that are proprietary.

Working with him are Yale-grad John Williams, whose background is in geophysics, and Daniel Mack, a computer engineer with degrees from Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, and Columbia. They also have a data architect, and last year they had two interns with business and economics backgrounds. One of those interns was Glenn DuPaul, a former writer at our sabermetric sister site Beyond the Boxscore. He has since been hired to be the Director of Analytics for the New Jersey Nets of the NBA.

One of our regulars, jtchipman, wrote a Fanpost last year about Baseball Prospectus Day at the K, when Groopman addressed a group of fans.

He was asked about the common perception that the Royals don’t focus on sabermetrics and advanced data, and he tossed that idea out the window. He seemed to take pride in his work in the organization, and believed it was making an impact, top-to-bottom.

Jeff Zimmerman's 2011 interview with Royals Director of Baseball Administration Jin Wong seemed to indicate the Royals front office was at least aware of some advanced stats and the principles behind them, even if they weren't perhaps on the cutting edge.

What are the main stats the Royals use for evaluating pitching?

I think you need to look at everything. For me, FIPS is pretty good. I like strike rates, walk rates, strikeout to walk ratio. Home run rates. I like WHIP a lot as a quick and dirty. I understand that it is defensive dependent, but that along with what we have internally .... sort of meld those to get a complete picture of what a pitcher is.

For hitting?

We have a internal system, similar to the pitching system, that we rely heavily on, probably more so than the one for pitchers. I used to be, and still am, a big OPS guy. Isolated on base. Isolated slug. Run created, even though that is an older metric. It is a quick and dirty [metric] for me. If the strikeout rates are way high, it is an indicator of potential issues.

The skepticism abounds however, largely because the Royals player transactions do not bear the imprint of a team that is analytically forward-thinking. The Royals continue to sign players  the public analytics do not seem to like too much to lucrative deals - Jeremy Guthrie, Alex Rios, Kendrys Morales, Edinson Volquez. The team continues to employ out-risking strategies like bunting, although it should be noted the Royals were right around league average last year in sacrifice hits. Ned Yost, who has admitted to reading the analytical treatise "The Book", continues to bat Alcides Escobar and his .299 career on-base percentage in the leadoff position.

Its one thing to hire an analytics department. Its another thing to actually use them. Former big leaguer (and now Dodgers front office executive) Gabe Kapler had a wonderful article recently about how the next frontier in analytics is getting buy-in from players and coaches. Comments like Jeff Samardzija's dismissal of sabermetrics are a step in the wrong direction, however players like Brandon McCarthy have embraced analytics as the competitive edge needed to win ballgames.

But perhaps the Royals have gotten some buy-in by the coaching staff. ESPN the Magazine notes the Royals remarkable performance in defense and baserunning. Kevin Ruprecht recently attributed much of this success to coach Rusty Kuntz, and rightfully so, but perhaps Kuntz is basing much of his instruction on the work of Groopman and his analytics staff. In Lee Warren's interview, Groopman discusses how his team integrates their work with the Royals coaching staff.

"Some of the best ideas we've had [for data gathering and analysis], have come out of conversations with our scouts who have been doing this for 50 years and will probably forget more things about baseball than I'll ever know, or with our coaching staff - talking through situations, saying, ‘Hey, this is what we're seeing as we're doing this kind of modeling on the data, does this make sense to you? Does this look right? What are we not thinking about?' and that's really where a lot of our great ideas come from - in the interplay between the things the coaches know that we don't, and the types of things we can do from our backgrounds that can help them process the data better,"

Sabermetrics and "Moneyball" was never about on-base percentage, submariner pitchers, or Chris Pratt learning to play first base. It was about using analytics to exploit inefficiencies in the market and the best way to win. Zigging while others are zagging. Dayton Moore once remarked that he would get on-base percentage players if they were cheap, but they were no longer undervalued in the market. Perhaps he decided to focus his efforts on analytics that could help him exploit a different inefficiency in the market - coaching up defense and baserunning?

The truth is, we'll probably never know how much the Royals rely on analytics and what exactly they're doing. They work under a veil of proprietary secrecy. But we can see the result of their work and the pennant that will be raised on April 6 at Kauffman Stadium. Perhaps Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Jarrod Dyson would have been tremendous defenders in any organiation. Or perhaps their success owes a debt to the analytics department.

Three years ago, Rany Jazayerli came away impressed after a talk with the Royals analytics department, and left us with this quote.

Let's just say that the perception the Royals are anti-sabermetrics is an outdated one.

Maybe its time to give Rany his due. Maybe its time to give the Royals their due.