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The Royals are missing the point with Process 2.0

A lack of quickness ain’t the problem.

Kansas City Royals pitcher Josh Staumont pitches to San Diego Padres center fielder Franmil Reyes during the sixth inning at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale
Kansas City Royals pitcher Josh Staumont pitches to San Diego Padres center fielder Franmil Reyes during the sixth inning at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Royals’ first trip through the rebuilding waters was dubbed The Process. General manager Dayton Moore famously told reporters in the midst of a profoundly terrible 2009 to “Trust the process.” At the time, it was widely derided and mocked. See, Moore took over the Royals in mid-2006, and after he he had an offseason to reshape the team in his image for the first time, the Royals would win 69 games in 2007. The Royals would go on to win 65 games in 2009. Three and a half years after Moore’s regime took control, the Royals were, quite literally, moving backwards.

Kansas City had a losing season in 2010, too. And 2011. And 2012. It took until 2013 for the Royals to get their first winning season under Moore, and even then they missed the playoffs. Of course, Moore and Company had the last laugh regarding Trust the Process; two consecutive World Series appearances—one ending in victory—sort of did the trick there.

One could spend thousands of words talking about how the Royals accomplished what they did, but the short version is that they absolutely did not do it through savvy free agent signings or trades. John Bale. Mike Jacobs. Willie Bloomquist. Jose Guillen. Scott Podsednik. Kyle Farnsworth. Yuniesky Betancourt. Jonathan Sanchez. Jeff Francis. Rink Ankiel. Jason Kendall. Moore spent tens of millions of dollars on those free agents and trade targets and received, largely, bupkis.

What the Royals did do was draft and scout like their heads were on fire. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Danny Duffy, Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Salvador Perez, and Jarrod Dyson were all acquired and developed in-house. Wade Davis, James Shields, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Ben Zobrist, and Johnny Cueto were acquired in exchange for in-house talent. That yielded a talented run of teams that were a few victories away from five consecutive winning seasons.

Now, the Royals stand at the precipice of Rebuild 2.0. And, of course, there’s a Process 2.0 to go along with it. Sam Mellinger’s recent piece about the Process 2.0 is a must-read for Royals fans. It includes quotes from varying members from the organization about what’s going into the Process 2.0. The article can be distilled into this quote from manager Ned Yost:

“Dayton changed the game four or five years ago when he decided spending money on starting pitching was not going to be productive for our situation,” Yost said. “So he built the greatest back of the bullpen he could and it shortened games. Nobody was doing it at that time. It changed the game.

“I believe we’re going to change the game again, and guys are going to start looking for speed and athletic guys and play a more pressure-packed offensive game than standing back and waiting for home runs.”

In other words, the Royals are doubling down on building teams with elite speed and elite defense. They believe it is undervalued, and with Kansas City’s relatively limited financial resources that they can zig when the entire rest of the league is zagging by pursuing power and on base percentage. The 2014 and 2015 Royals squads were pretty excellent embodiments of defense and speed, and the Royals think that formula can be enhanced to work today.

If you’re looking for an article critiquing this approach, this ain’t it. Everyone tends to forget, but the thesis of Moneyball was not that on base percentage was the only thing that mattered. Rather, the thesis of Moneyball is that teams searching for a competitive advantage must relentlessly pursue and exploit undervalued assets. Will Speedy Moneyball work? Maybe not. But it’s pretty sound from a large-scale strategic perspective.

But the problem isn’t as the Royals present it, that they just weren’t fast enough recently:

The Process 2.0 is similar in leadership, and also in philosophy. The Royals got away from this for a few years, most notably when they chased power with Brandon Moss. But here they are, back to speed and athleticism, with a few important updates...

...“That’s the advantage now,” Picollo said. “Speed, athleticism, defense. That stuff plays better in our ballpark.”

Instead, the Royals’ main problem is way, way simpler: they have been God-awful at drafting. No Moneyball strategy will work if you draft as stunningly poorly as the Royals have for the last decade.

Here are the Royals’ first round draft picks going back almost 10 years with a letter grade that is a general consensus of that players’ performance:

  • Aaron Crow, 2009: D
  • Christian Colon, 2010: D
  • Bubba Starling, 2011: F
  • Kyle Zimmer, 2012: F
  • Hunter Dozier, 2013: D
  • Brandon Finnegan, 2014: D
  • Ashe Russell, 2015: F
  • Nick Pratto, 2017: Incomplete
  • Brady Singer, 2018: Incomplete; has not made pro debut

Between 2009 and 2015, the average top draft spot that Kansas City owned was 10th. Three of those players haven’t made their MLB debut. Two more haven’t played in the bigs since at least 2017. The other two are below average players who might not have a roster spot by the end of the year. Most of the other prominent high picks in that era—Brett Eibner, Bryan Brickhouse, Foster Griffin, Chase Vallot, Nolan Watson, and Scott Blewett—have been busts so far, too.

This is, frankly, unacceptable. And for Royals fans, this should be terrifying for the future. The Royals are bad not because they haven’t been slow. They haven’t been bad because they haven’t been able to compete for top free agents. They’ve been bad because they haven’t been able to draft and develop players worth a damn for a long, long, long time.

The Royals’ future is binary: either the team will turn it around to draft well, scout well, and develop well, leading to a group of young stars like they had in Hosmer et al and definitively proving that the team’s 2014-2015 success wasn’t simply luck. Or, they won’t, and Royals fans will endure another half decade or more or misery before the front office is eventually tossed out the window.

Speed has nothing to do with it. Not directly. By focusing on that, the Process 2.0 misses the point.