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Can the Royals afford high on-base hitters?

What would Moneyball say now?

Texas Rangers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Dayton Moore has been talking a lot about The Process 2.0, a term coined by Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger to describe how the Royals will improve upon their 104-loss performance in 2018. Matthew LaMar and Hokius have already written pieces reacting to that article, so I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but there was point made by Royals management that got me thinking about on-base percentage (OBP).

The main premise of the piece is that the Royals may seem “anti-Moneyball” due to pursuing speed in favor of on-base percentage, the skill that Athletics General Manager Billy Beane seemed to covet so fiercely in the Michael Lewis book. But they are actually “Moneyball” in that they are pursuing skills that are undervalued in the marketplace, which is the ultimate lesson of the book. Every team has realized the value of on-base percentage, making it highly coveted. Moore asserts, “We can’t go head to head with what everybody else wants. We’ll lose every time when it comes to the free-agent market.”

Teams have moved away from speed, making it cheap. And with the Royals playing in spacious Kauffman Stadium, it makes sense to build a team full of burners on the basepaths. As Mellinger puts it, “Now everyone prioritizes on-base, so Moore and the Royals are merely updating the specifics.”

It does seem that the ability to get on base seems to be much more highly valued in the market than it used to be. A high-walk hitter like Ben Zobrist was able to four-year, $56 million deal from the Cubs a few years ago, despite average to below-average power, a mediocre batting average, and average defense.

No one expects the Royals to land the top free agents, but have they been priced out to the point that they have the fifth-worst on-base percentage and worst walk-rate in baseball over the last five seasons? Let’s take a look at some other small market franchises:

MLB teams, on-base rankings

MLB ranks Kansas City Cleveland Cincinnati Milwaukee Oakland Pittsburgh Tampa Bay
MLB ranks Kansas City Cleveland Cincinnati Milwaukee Oakland Pittsburgh Tampa Bay
2016 OBA rank 26th 8th 24th 12th 28th 4th 27th
2016 BB% rank 30th 9th 24th 3rd 26th 5th 22nd
2016 payroll rank 16th 24th 13th 21st 27th 25th 28th
2017 OBA rank 28th 2nd 13th 17th 20th 21st 22nd
2017 BB% rank 29th 4th 9th 11th 8th 18th 13th
2017 payroll rank 15th 17th 25th 30th 27th 23rd 29th
2018 OBA rank 24th 6th 9th 12th 10th 17th 3rd
2018 BB% rank 28th 12th 11th 16th 13th 22nd 14th
2018 payroll rank 20th 16th 22nd 26th 30th 27th 28th

Some of these rankings mirror where that team was in the success cycle. The “Moneyball” A’s had some rough years after the Royals beat them in the 2014 Wild Card game, and stunk in on-base percentage before they built it back up. The Pirates had a terrific on-base percentage when they were successful, but have lost some pieces since then.

But some teams seem able to fare well in getting on base across different clubs, with different personnel. The Cleveland Indians haven’t finished worse than sixth in the American League in walks or on-base percentage since 2011 (by contrast, the Royals have finished in the top six in the league in on-base percentage once since 2003, and haven’t finished top six in walks since 1989). And they have typically done so with a bottom-ten payroll - when they had the 17th highest-payroll in 2017, it was the highest they had ranked since 2009.

The Royals have focused on the idea of OBP being unaffordable by focusing on the free agent market, and it is true to an extent that the market highly values the ability to get on base. However there are still values to be found - outfielder Robbie Grossman for example signed a one-year $2 million deal coming off a .367 OBP season (which would tie Whit Merrifield for highest on the Royals). Heck, the Royals found Jon Jay and his career .355 OBP last winter for an affordable deal.

The point is not that the Royals should have signed Grossman, but that the Royals could find higher OBP players on the free agent market if they wanted to. And as Dayton Moore has suggested, free agency is a flawed way to build a team anyway. How have the Indians built a high on-base team? By drafting Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis. By signing Jose Ramirez out of the Dominican Republic. By trading for Michael Brantley. By signing free agent Edwin Encarnacion. The Indians make on-base percentage a priority in all of their acquisitions. The Royals make speed and defense a priority in all of their acquisitions. And the result is quite clear.

There are probably a few reasons why the Royals have gotten away from being patient and drawing walks. First, they’ve had some success taking a more aggressive approach. The 2014 and 2015 clubs each finished dead last in walk rate in baseball, yet reached the World Series each year. Of course, they finished ninth in the AL in runs scored in 2014, and in 2015 they fared a bit better, finishing sixth, largely due to a high batting average that allowed them to finish seventh in OBP. If that was a sustainable model, then by all means, the Royals should pursue it. But batting average can be quite fickle.

Second, the home ballpark may be affecting how the Royals approach taking pitches. I think Lee Judge summarized a common way of thinking about Kauffman Stadium in a recent column.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your baseball persuasion) that approach wasn’t going to work for your hometown Royals. The size of Kauffman Stadium limits home runs, and if pitchers aren’t afraid of the long ball, they tend to come right at hitters.

ESPN’s calculations of the park factors for Kauffman Stadium show it being slightly below-average for walks from 2013 to 2017 - last year it was well above-average. If you look at data over the last five years, Royals hitters have a 6.8% walk rate at home (worst in the big leagues over that time). On the road it actually goes down, to 6.2%. With pitchers it is a different story, they have a 7.8% walk rate at home, but that spikes to 8.5% on the road. So perhaps there is some credence to the idea they might challenge hitters more in spacious Kauffman Stadium. But overall it looks like a bit of a wash.

Third, it is pretty difficult to project the ability to get on-base from 18-year old amateurs in high school. How prep hitters will react to professional umpires and ungodly sliders that fall off the corner at age 23 is difficult to gauge when they’re facing the cross-town varsity squad. Speed is much easier to scout. If you can run at age 18, you can probably run at age 23. Speed can’t be taught, and doesn’t really need much development.

Moneyball teams looked for OBP in the draft by emphasizing college hitters who demostrated patience at the plate. Now that every team prioritizes this, perhaps it is a bit more difficult to find gems than it used to be, but the draft is an equalizer in that it gives each team one pick per round. The selection of UNLV outfielder Kyle Isbel last June was a good step for the Royals, but more of an emphasis could be made.

The Royals are right to seek out market inefficiencies, and if there is solid data to support that speed can help them win games, then by all means, they should pursue it. But on-base percentage should still remain a high priority, and while it may not be cheap, it is not unattainable. All it patience.