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Now, more than ever, Kansas City needs to embrace Moneyball

Zig when others zag.

Moneyball, kind of like the sabertmetric movement itself, has had its public knowledge of it transform drastically. Its 2003 release was unknown to the general public, although of interest to the baseball community. Eight years later, it was made into a big-budget motion picture, starring Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, thereby making its way to the masses.

That was five years ago - six, really, now that we’ve entered the pristine air of 2017. We can make all sorts of arguments and discuss all manner of items relating to how the book and the movie popularized sabermetrics, the type of math most often confused with swordplay.

Alongside the popularization came a falsehood, or at least a partial truth, like people attributing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ to Mozart. Moneyball, as it is commonly known, is a call to embrace sabermetrics, statistics, data.

Moneyball is not that.

While directing you to the book would be the best thing, let’s avoid textception a bit and look at a great clip from the movie. In this scene, Billy Beane, Oakland GM, is talking to his head scout, Grady Fuson. Grady is disgruntled by Billy’s unprecedented use of statistics and distrust of scouts.

This scene, as is Moneyball in general, is framed as a simple old-school vs. new-school approach—scouting versus sabermetrics. But after listening to Grady’s rant, Billy raises his arms in exasperation and says three words: “Adapt or die.”

The core of Moneyball is not the use of sabermetrics. Moneyball, the book subtitled “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” is about finding the undervalued assets, approaching the game differently, and by thinking outside the box. Adapt or die.

See, Moneyball gets conflated with sabermetrics because 15 years ago that was the fight. It was a simpler one, too. It’s how Oakland and Tampa Bay thrived when competing with bigger, richer teams. It’s how Boston was able to build a team that made the playoffs six times in seven years, with two World Series victories over that time.

Now everyone knows: statistics are a standard, necessary part of the equation now. As Rany Jazayerli notes, the previous three anti-statistical thinking holdovers—Tony La Russa’s Arizona Diamondbacks, Terry Ryan’s Minnesota Twins, and Ruben Amaro, Jr.’s Philadelphia Phillies—have all been given the boot, replaced by more stat-friendly regimes:

Those front offices, almost to a man, have been broken and are scattering in full retreat. That three of the front offices most hostile to analytics have gotten axed for poor performance in the last 18 months is proof enough that the war against analytics was coming to a close well before the 2016 World Series.

It’s harder now. When everyone knows the value of on base percentage, what do you do? As a small market team, you have to do something. You have to zig when others are zagging.

To the Kansas City Royals’ credit, they have absolutely done that. Over the last four seasons, the Royals have been the most successful team in the American League through defense, baserunning, contact ability, and strength of bullpen. In doing so, they shunned the traditional hallmarks of great teams, like power, on base ability, and starting pitching excellence and depth. Before 2014, no team had ever made the World Series whilst ranking last in home runs for the season, and the Royals just turned their noses up at that and stole four more bases while you were reading the sentence.

With the Cleveland Indians team bearing strong similarities to 2015’s Royals squad, including everything from great defense to great baserunning to a bullpen of doom (long live the #Circumstance, Andrew Miller), the cat has escaped the bag and is tearing up the couch. The San Fransisco Giants signed closer Mark Melancon to a $62 million deal, the largest ever for a reliever. The record was quickly broken by Kenley Janson’s $80 million deal and Aroldis Chapman’s $86 million deal.

What is the next phase of Moneyball? Ironically, it might be power-first, defensively-challenged players who have value but don’t line up with sabermetric ideals. We’ve seen the Royals trade Wade Davis for Jorge Soler, and their recent acquisition of Peter O’Brien might herald a change in perspective.

Or not. Either way, the Royals need to embrace Moneyball—the real Moneyball, not the knockoff store brand Moneyball. After all, baseball is an unfair game.