A little over a year ago, Dayton Moore claimed that the Royals’ rebuild had been “jumpstarted” when he and others in the organization made the decision to stop talking about rebuilding. It was that simple; if you don’t talk about it, it goes away. The first rule of rebuilding is you don’t talk about rebuilding. The second rule of rebuilding? You don’t talk about rebuilding.
What jumpstarted the rebuild is when we stopped talking about the rebuild. When you say ‘rebuild,’ it creates the mindset or it builds in that it’s OK to lose ballgames. Major League players are paid to win baseball games. ... I feel better going into the 2019 season. One of the things that changed is we stopped talking about the rebuild. It’s not OK to accept losing.
The problem with that statement, of course, is that the Royals have suffered two consecutive 100-loss seasons and don’t appear to be primed to do significantly better in 2020. If losing isn’t OK, how are we to square these comments with the performance on the field? Does Moore honestly believe these teams he’s assembling are winners? Is he serious with this Wily Peralta, Lucas Duda and Chris Owings stuff?
Well, at least they’re really fast, and that changes everything. From Ned Yost:
Speed puts tremendous pressure on the opposing defense. And it takes tremendous pressure off your pitching staff. It allows you to get away with more mistakes as a pitcher, which is very comforting.
I don’t know about you, but I was very comforted by that. More from J.J. Picollo:
That’s the advantage now. Speed, athleticism, defense. That stuff plays better in our ballpark.
Again, there are problems here. The 2019 Royals entered the season as the fastest team in baseball and ended up second to only the Rangers in stolen bases. But, their aggression on the basepaths didn’t do them many favors. By Fangraphs’ baserunning stat BsR, their performance on the bases actually cost them 1.7 runs. And according to UBR, their baserunning on non-steals cost them 4.6 runs, seventh worst in baseball. They led the majors in caught stealing and their stolen base success rate of 75% was barely above the league average of 72%. That’s far from the elite production one might expect from such a fast team. Speed didn’t translate to elite defense either; they were an average defensive squad by nearly every measure. Not bad, but hardly dominant.
It’s not that the Royals’ idea is a bad one. In fact, it’s really pretty good. It would be ideal to rebuild without having to endure years of cellar dwelling, and defense and baserunning are fine things to emphasize. It’s also good for management – in any type of organization – to use positive language and focus on clear, long-term goals. The problem is, the Royals aren’t actually doing any of the things they think (or at least publicly claim to think) they are doing. Comments about making a run at the second wild card halfway through a horrendous 2019 season or making bold predictions about contending by 2021 don’t sound optimistic. They sound tone-deaf at best and completely clueless at worst.
But that doesn’t mean they’re dreaming an impossible dream, nor is there lack of precedent for such a plan. One need look no further than the NL West to find a team that is doing exactly what the Royals seem to believe they’re doing. Out in the desert of the American Southwest, the Diamondbacks are thoroughly out-Royalsing the Royals at their rebuilding game plan. They’re restocking their farm system, running the bases well and playing great defense, all while maintaining a respectable record. And they just might be contenders in 2021.
After making a surprise appearance in the 2017 playoffs, the ’18 D-Backs won 82 games and finished third in their division. With a shallow roster and a farm system that had been ranked near the bottom for several years, they committed to a full rebuild by letting two of their best players in Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollock leave in free agency, and trading their star first baseman and fan favorite, Paul Goldschmidt, to the Cardinals for prospects. All signs pointed to 2019 being a rough season for the snakes. Except it wasn’t that bad.
This past season, the Diamondbacks won 85 games – actually better than they did the previous year when they had Corbin, Goldschmidt and Pollock on the roster. They also had the good sense to eat some of Zack Grienke's contract to facilitate a trade to the Astros at the deadline rather than making a premature push for the wild card. Thanks to all that dealing, plus the 2019 draft, which they totally killed, they now have a top five farm system according to Fangraphs and look poised to contend in the near future. That’s what I call rebuilding on the fly.
And you know what else? By BsR, their base running was tops in baseball, worth 18.3 runs. They ranked first in UBR, too, at 11.4 runs. They also had one of the very best defenses, ranking in the top five in UZR/150, DRS and the defensive component of fWAR. They have plenty of fast players, but as a team only ranked 12th in average sprint speed, showing that there’s more to baserunning and defense than speed alone.
How have they managed to pull off this wizardry? They’ve made a number of savvy trades over the past few years, and have been willing to eat salary when it makes sense to. They’ve drafted very well. And they’ve gotten the most out of the talent they have in their system. Those may sound like simple things, but they’re actually kind of hard to do. Credit to Arizona for doing a nice job. The Royals could take a few notes.
The Diamondbacks and Royals are different teams, of course. The Diamondbacks have a prison tattoo for a logo and are required to make their pitchers attempt to take at bats (in actual games!). They’ve undoubtedly experienced some good luck with their rebuild, too. No one predicted Ketel Marte’s emergence as an MVP candidate, and they seem to have hit on just about every trade they’ve made in recent years. They were probably dealt a slightly better hand with their rebuilding situation than the Royals, too, who had most of their core hit free agency at the same time and didn’t have a star in his prime like Paul Goldschmidt to trade.
But there are some things the two teams have in common that are difficult to ignore. In 2017, both teams had playoff aspirations and bottom five farm systems. Since then, the D-Backs have a record of 167-157, and the Royals have gone 117-207. Today, Arizona’s farm system is considered one of the deepest in baseball, ranked in the top five by most outlets. Despite some recent draft success, Kansas City’s is still ranked in the bottom third by those same outlets.
The Royals can talk all they want about the rebuild being jumpstarted and contention being on the horizon. Until we start seeing some evidence of it, it’s just that: talk.