As the losses piled up yet again and the on-field product was flatly noncompetitive, the Kansas City Royals kept insisting that everything was doing great until the bitter end. “We’re not disappointed one bit. We’re really excited about where we are,” Dayton Moore said just a few days before getting fired and a few weeks before the Royals clinched their 97th loss and seventh consecutive year in search of a winning record.
The Royals haven’t been just randomly bad. There are reasons behind why the Royals have been bad: reasons why they have struggled to develop starting pitching and why they always seem to be holding the bag when a player declines and why, in a comparitively weak division, they have rarely played meaningful games in June, let alone September.
The previous baseball operations administration is out because they couldn’t fix or even identify problems leading to an avalanche of losses. Excitingly, the new baseball operations administration—with overall leadership from ownership via John Sherman—couldn’t be more different. Not only have they identified what problems they need to fix, but they have a performance goal they want to achieve and a specific philosophy by which they believe they can get there.
Right out of the gate in his very first press conference as a member of Royals ownership, Sherman stated that he wanted to win a championship and be a competitive team year in and year out. Sherman saw it firsthand with the Cleveland Guardians, but the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, and Tampa Bay Rays have been consistently good for a long time.
“Our objective is to compete for a championship on behalf of our fans...we’re going to try to do it on a sustainable basis and have sustained success.”
While Moore and the previous baseball operations group managed to put together the best team in the American League over a three-year period from 2013 through 2015, they were unable to achieve persistent success. This was a byproduct of Moore’s team building philosophy as much as anything. For instance, when an opportunity to trade an expensive player at the height of their trade value arose, refusing to do so wasn’t a mistake but rather simply how the team operated, as Moore explained himself in his 2015 book:
I’ve been criticized — and sometimes rightly so — for holding on to players too long. [Joakim] Soria might’ve been one of those...With young players, I’d rather have them a year too long and have them possibly succeed; whereas I’d rather moving aging players a year too early. Some people don’t agree with that philosophy, and it’s probably bitten us a couple of times, but that’s who we are.
As a result, the Royals under Moore and co. were never in “reloading” mode and were almost always in a “rebuilding” mode. Moore presided over 16 full seasons with the club, but his teams lost at least 95 games more times (5) than they managed to put together a winning season (3).
Sherman’s philosophy is different, as he stated in the press conference where he announced Moore’s firing:
“Dayton always talks in terms of what a championship team looks like. That’s a great conversation, but I’d like to know what a wild card team looks like first. If anybody knows, Kansas City Royals fans know: If you can get a wild card slot and you can get in the dance, anything can happen. That’s about keeping our fan base engaged late into the summer and hopeful into October.”
But it didn’t stop there. Matt Quatraro’s introductory press conference was just the latest evidence that the Royals know what they want and know how to get it. Within a few minutes of speaking, Quatraro layed out the Royals’ vision again: to become and stay winners.
“We’re gonna have a process with how we make decisions...The process that we all envision here is building a championship environment that is going to bring the Royals back to the top tier of Major League baseball and be that way year after year...The forward thinking that I’m confident is here will undoubtedly serve us well putting perennial contenders on the field.”
Grand plans of a wave of talent crashing into the promised land of championship victory is a nice idea, but it is, for a baseball operations team, a foolish one. Every year you make the playoffs is a chance to win the World Series. Every year you miss the playoffs guarantees you don’t even get a shot at it. It is that simple. Beyond that, it’s a better experience as a fan to watch good teams. The Royals grew their fandom significantly from 2013 through 2016 or so, and it was an exciting time. Six years later, those new fans are all gone—this year was the Royals’ worst non-pandemic home game attendance year since 1975.
The expectation, and goal, is therefore clear: to have the chance to make playoff runs more often than not. It’s refreshing and it’s exactly what the Royals (and every other baseball team!) should be doing. Better yet, the Royals have a plan. That plan is to use analytics more effectively and to open better lines of communication throughout the organization.
Months ago, before Sherman pivoted away from Moore and before the Royals hired Quatraro, Driveline founder Kyle Boddy tweeted about what it was that makes organizations like the Astros or the Rays successful. Boddy sets up his tweets to auto-delete after one month, so I can’t link it here. But the gist of it was that you can’t simply pluck a coach or a front office executive from a successful team and expect the same success. Boddy asserted that the consistently successful teams don’t just use use data or have analytics-focused employees—they have buy-in from coaches throughout the organization and systems of communication in place to present a unified message.
Wouldn’t you know it, but the Royals also seem to have that exact same approach moving forward: both in making the data prominent and in making sure that everyone was on the same page about it. Sherman stated that the Royals aren’t behind other teams in amount of data available; instead, they need to get better at using it and to center it in the decision making process moreso than they had in the past.
We have the data...it’s really about how you use it and where is it in its prominence when you’re going through draft preparation, when you’re going through the analysis of a trade counter party...it’s using it in the proper way and making it prominent when you’re having decisions about people and systems and other things.
And in Quatraro’s press conference, he explained how the Royals would use the data—and what his vision for employing analytics looks like.
Everyone gets a voice. A ton of information starts and it works its way to the field. And those processes to get that information and distill it down to the players is the process we’re going to work off of so that it can be clearly communicated to them...Most teams have the same amount of data. It’s a matter of opening up the lines of communication between field staff, the front office, R&D, strength and conditioning, everybody. That’s what I plan to do and what our staff will do.
There is still work to be done this offseason. The big league pitching coach opening is a huge job vacancy that must be filled with the right person. Overhauling the pitching development process is a necessity. And, of course, the front office has yet to make a significant personnel decision, the kinds of decisions that make or break a team’s chances at going on the kinds of regular season runs that Sherman and Quatraro want.
Still: after years of watching the Royals baseball operations team stubbornly make decisions that cause everyone to scratch their heads in confusion while blaming fans and pundits as “critical spirits” for daring to criticize the organization for losing so many games, I almost don’t even know how to react. Under Sherman, the Royals have acted decisively, properly identified the organization’s weaknesses, set a clear performance goals, and are sending consistent messaging about how they’re going to achieve said goals.
The Royals must continue to do things right. The offseason is a place for eternal optimism, after all. But to this point, the Royals have passed every test with flying colors.