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How much is a championship worth?

Reviewing the legacy of Dayton Moore

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Dayton Moore’s departure is not surprising given the team’s lack of performance over the past half-decade. And yet, it feels a little strange to see someone bring home a championship and then be fired rather unceremoniously. His tendency toward loyalty, or at least the media’s perception of him being loyal to a fault, is not the norm in the cutthroat world of professional sports. I am of two minds on how to feel about his departure, and that probably makes me a hypocrite as I would have said he needed to go if you asked me two weeks ago.

I met Dayton once, and at the time did not think that much of it, but at this point I realize that the circumstances were more unusual than I appreciated. He was a commencement speaker at our college, and one of my favorite things to do in a school year is to go talk to the seniors as they line up to graduate. On that day I wandered down to see my excited students line up in cap and gown to get their degrees, but unlike every other year before and since, the commencement speaker had come to the line as well. Dayton walked down that line of hundreds of students shaking hands and saying a few words before moving on to the next group. He shook my hand too. I have no recollection of what he said to me, nor I to him, it probably was as inane as any five-second conversation with a stranger is wont to be. But he was in fact there, and none of the other speakers we had had ever bothered to take their time to go congratulate the seniors before the ceremony.

To my knowledge, no one has ever gone after Moore for being a jerk or a monster. It seems he treats people well. In a world where lots of companies treat their employees as expendable bits of energy needed to produce executive bonuses, it was nice to see the Royals take care of their people during the pandemic. Not every baseball team did. I want the world to be a place where the nice guys finish first, but outside of a couple of glorious seasons in the middle of the last sixteen years, Dayton Moore, as nice as he is, has definitely fit the more traditional finishing last mold. I do want to root for a winning team, but I do not want to be an Astros fan (or now, the Cleveland Browns) to do it.

Typically in this situation, I would look up every GM to win a championship for a team and subsequently be fired, then talk about all the 90 and 100 loss seasons under GMDM, and conclude he deserves his termination. All of you already know about the losing though, you are reading a blog about the Royals after all. It’s true that the Royals have been mostly bad during Dayton’s tenure, but flags fly forever and blah blah blah. Flags do fly forever, though they are clearly not enough for fan bases, sports commentators, or ownership groups. Not that I am faulting any of them. The flags are nice, and I will always fondly remember the 2014/15 teams, but being out of the race by May every year really sucks.

What should winning a championship be worth? And, maybe more importantly, how much of that is attributable to the GM? The answer, as with most complex questions, is that it depends. Not all championships or GMs are the same. For some fans it is simpler than this. There are people who will argue Trent Dilfer is a better quarterback than Dan Marino because he has a ring and Dan doesn’t. In some ways, I envy those people. If only results matter, then life would be significantly less frustrating sometimes. For me, the process matters at least as much as the result, but a process that consistently produces bad results is one to avoid for sure.

Under Moore’s tutelage, the Royals were not good at hitting, almost ever. In 2015 they were seventh in runs scored and 2011 they managed eleventh. In a decade and a half, they were above average a couple of times, but never even within 100 runs of the best offense in a season. Similarly, the starting pitchers were never all that good. The 2013 and 2014 rotations managed to be in the top half of baseball in ERA, and 2015 was in the top half of pitching WAR, but mostly the starters have finished near the bottom of the league.

Relievers were better, but not great. From 2012 to 2016 the bullpen was either good or one of the best of the decade. In fact, Moore had me convinced for awhile that they had figured out how to build bullpens better than anyone else, and that this could be one of their edges in team construction. The last six seasons have disabused me of this notion. Again, they get some credit for the HDH fun, but out of sixteen years they still only have a brief window of success, and more seasons in the bottom half of the league than the top when it comes to bullpen outcomes. They did not draft well consistently or bring over international players that became contributors outside of one year near the very beginning of the regime. There is almost nothing that you can point to that the Dayton Moore era Royals did consistently well from a player identification or development perspective, and it shows in the results.

The only thing that you can hang your hat on during this era is the brief window from 2013 to 2017 where the team was competitive and managed two somewhat miraculous playoff runs. It took them a long time to get there, and then it collapsed quickly as even calling the 2017 team competitive is stretching things a bit with them coming up short of .500 by a couple of games. My analytical brain wants to just wish Dayton luck and say this is what you get when you can’t win. But shouldn’t back-to-back World Series and a trophy give him something more, even if in a lot of ways, it was just lightning in a bottle?

My son loves baseball, he’s nine, so the 2015 World Series will not be something he can remember. I was a similar age when the Royals won in 1985, and I want him to not have to wait until he is in his 30s to see a championship contender. To do that, the Royals probably do need to be more analytically driven, and more transactional, and all that stuff that’s been talked about this year ad nauseam. It is easy to then point at the weaknesses on the roster and demand they be changed. Ryan O’Hearn is not going to win this team a championship, that seems clear. He has been remarkably consistently bad at the major league level these last four years, but he is an actual human who has worked very hard to be very good at baseball. Do I want my son thinking of Ryan as a piece on a chess board to be moved about or cast aside, treated as unworthy? I don’t.

So, as Dayton Moore exits the organization, I feel conflicted. It would have been nice if he had figured something out in loving his players more. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. If an employee at a Starbucks was a little slower than average, but treated their customers and co-workers well, there is no way I want them to lose their job. A baseball player who is better than 99.9999% of humans at baseball though, that guy has to go. Only those better than 99.99998% get a job here. Part of this makes sense. The higher you move up a particular ladder, the fiercer the competition becomes. I remember grad school well. There are only 30 MLB teams, which means 1,200 spots on 40-man rosters for around 8 billion humans to fill. They are more precious than Starbucks barista gigs, even if the people are just as inherently valuable.

Does that justify treating the players as expendable, of that I am not certain. O’Hearn could go play in Japan or Korea I’m sure, and he would probably be pretty good. Or he can join the rest of us with school and day jobs to occupy our work time. I understand if that is not very appealing to him, but it is the way of the world. Should I expect marginal big leaguers to give up their dreams because they are making my favorite team worse, and is it really different than other businesses? I think it is, you can tell by the marginal players making a million a year instead of having to work hard for $15 an hour. Still, I want the world to treat people well, and I do not particularly want to carve out a bunch of exceptions to that.

Sorry, I may have gotten off-topic there. That World Series banner is definitely worth something. How much, for me, I don’t know. For Dayton Moore it seems to have given him about five years of very bad teams before he got fired. Was that a long enough grace period for a man who took the head position for one of the worst franchises in baseball and made it relevant again, if only for a couple of years? My heart says he should have been given more, my logical side is less forgiving. I wish I knew how this all played out from inside. Maybe John Sherman gave him the chance for a more graceful exit, and he refused to take it. For now, all I can say is that I appreciate Dayton for what he did in Kansas City, both on and off the field. I also do not think he was a great (and maybe not even a good) general manager, and I hope JJ Picollo has learned a lot from his successes and even more from his mistakes.