In this week's Hok Talk, we discuss the trouble the Kansas City Chiefs* are facing and some things the Royals could learn from it.
This is a baseball blog, I know. But I hope you'll forgive me, as you always do, for digressing onto another subject for a bit. The team across the parking lot is struggling in a way that they never have before. No one, I think, truly expects the Chiefs to go something like 6-11 this year, so it's safe to assume that they will improve as their season continues.
Much has been made of the fact that Baltimore beat them with an incredibly efficient running attack and that they turned the ball over four times against Los Angeles. They also were in position to win those games late both times before a devastating turnover cost them those chances. It's easy and likely even correct to argue that Andy Reid and the Chiefs could change nothing and still win far more games than they lose this year. After all, they're unlikely to face a rushing attack as potent as Baltimore's (at least until the playoffs, and only if Baltimore gets them in the first round) or to turn the ball over again. Even so, it would be foolish for the Chiefs not to reconsider some of their game-planning.
The Chiefs are far more talented than any other football team in the NFL. This is simply a fact. They have perhaps the greatest quarterback and the greatest tight end of all time, in their primes, together. They also have terrific, if not all-time-best, players at multiple other positions. None of this is up for debate. They have set multiple records over the past several seasons on the strength of their roster and the creative playcalling. They have also coasted to multiple victories during the regular season that didn't have to be as close as they ended up.
The NFL, similarly to MLB, is inundated with a game managing culture that seeks to avoid losing more than it aggressively seeks to win. In this way, Andy Reid and the Chiefs have been no exception. They have refused to go for fourth down conversions even when the numbers suggest it's the wiser decision. They have been preoccupied with running out the clock when they have a lead instead of continuing to push for big scores against their opponents. They have only altered their playcalling tendencies when the game seems to be getting away from them. However, this year is different for the Chiefs.
The Browns put them on notice in the first drive of the season by going for multiple fourth downs conversions and capping their eventual scoring drive with a two-point conversion attempt. Kevin Stefanski was not coaching to not lose; he was coaching to win. He was coaching as if his team was already down by two scores, anticipating what would happen when facing one of the best offenses the NFL has ever seen. The Ravens continued to be ultra-aggressive the following week by letting their play-making quarterback make snap decisions on the field, throwing the ball deeper than usual, and going for multiple two-point conversions. The Chargers abandoned an ineffective running game fairly early and pushed for a late touchdown even when three points should have sufficed.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs have not gone for a single fourth-down conversion yet this season. When faced with an early eight-point deficit against the Browns, Reid elected to kick a field goal on a short fourth down deep in his opponent’s territory. When presented with an opportunity for a game-winning score against the Ravens, Reid stopped pushing for the end zone once they reached field goal range. Late against the Chargers, the Chiefs stuck with their (admittedly productive) running game even though the productive running game is still not nearly as efficient as their passing game.
The Chiefs' talent put them in position to win all of those games even though a lesser team playing that way would have been blown out. The Chiefs' reluctance to make aggressive play calls, however, put their opponents in position to win all of those games when their advantages should have allowed them a win even with the Chiefs’ mistakes. The Chiefs' opponents have discovered that even if they can't match the Chiefs’ raw talent, they can out-aggressive KC and give themselves a chance to win.
Yes, Kansas City needs to clean up some tackling and ball control issues. But they also need to clean up some play-calling aggression issues. Even with their other mistakes, had the Chiefs been more aggressive against those teams, it's unlikely any of those games would have been losses. Meanwhile, the other teams dialed up the aggression in their play-calling in a way you rarely see outside of the postseason or being behind by double digits and gave themselves a chance to take the Chiefs down.
This is where I bring it back to the Royals. Dayton Moore has always spoken aggressively about not rebuilding and always going for every win. Whether you like it or not, you have to respect that his is a firmly held belief from which he has never wavered. Unfortunately, the aggressive demands of his players and coaches have rarely been matched with similarly aggressive roster moves.
When the Royals won the World Series in 2015, it was on the back of some of the most aggressive roster moves the Royals had ever made. They signed Edinson Volquez and Kendrys Morales to above-average deals. Even more stunning, they traded for the very best available pitcher and position player at the deadline in Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist. If you take away any of those moves - or even Moore's constant preaching about winning to the players raised in his farm system - the Royals very easily could have missed out on winning the Series.
Of course, being aggressive doesn't always work out; the Royals got even more aggressive ahead of 2016 by signing Ian Kennedy and Alex Gordon to the two biggest deals the team had ever handed out. Those moves backfired pretty spectacularly. That is the reason why so many GMs, managers, and coaches make such conservative decisions. When you make aggressive decisions, they can backfire and cost you your job.
The silly thing about the Chiefs and Andy Reid's situation is that while it might feel riskier to go for fourth down conversions more often and otherwise play more aggressively, it would actually be far less risky, according to the statistical analysis. In the Royals' case, they do need to take more risks if they're going to try to compete for a postseason birth in 2022 or 2023.
They can't choose to go for more fourth downs or put more pressure on their opponents with other kinds of aggressive playcalling. Instead, they'll need to aggressively seek to improve the roster. That means seeking out blockbuster trades and free-agent signings. Or, as I put it in a recent Royals Review podcast, they need to shop in the luxury aisle instead of the bargain bin.
A quick note about the Michael A. Taylor signing
Local Kansas City media members have been predicting Taylor would return to the team beyond 2021 for months. I had, until this point, ignored those rumors because I didn’t want to believe them. That said, the signing doesn’t have to be a bad one. The good news is that at an Annual Average Value (AAV) of $4.5M, Taylor is a bargain no matter how the Royals choose to play him. Obviously, that's cheap for a starting-caliber player - something both fWAR and bWAR agree Taylor is, even if his offense is abysmal. Assuming little to no decline, his defense in centerfield is valuable enough that a playoff team could afford to start him, assuming he is their number eight or number nine hitter. But at that price point, they wouldn't look stupid for making him their fourth outfielder, either.
That's where things get a bit interesting. If the Royals signed Michael intending to make him a late-game defensive-replacement/pinch-runner ala Jarrod Dyson, that's an aggressive move. Even if they signed him to lock up their centerfield defense so they could focus on bringing in one or two big bats from the outside, that's an aggressive move. If this signing is one of the marquee moves in preparation for the 2022 season, that's a conservative move and a bad one. It's not that Michael A. Taylor is an awful player; it's simply that he has proven he cannot be a cornerstone in a competitive lineup. We won’t know if this signing was a good one until we see what else the Royals do.
*I know I've made a big deal in the past about not using the nicknames of either the Cleveland or Atlanta baseball teams, so it may strike you as hypocritical for me to be willing to say the Kansas City football team's name. I think, as opposed to what has happened in Cleveland and Atlanta, the Chiefs have at least been willing to have a dialog and try to be more respectful of the Native American culture they've appropriated. Is it enough? Of course not. Would I prefer they changed their name? Yes. That said, the effort they've put into it so far is sufficient for me to continue using the name for now. It may not be for you, and I respect that.