The Kansas City Royals just won the World Series with one of the most expertly-crafted teams in recent memory, but they did so by straying from the popular trends in baseball.
It’s common to hear that pitching wins championships. Almost every World Series champion has had an ‘ace’ pitcher they could fall back on when they needed a win. The last World Series winner that lacked a starter with more than 3.0 WAR was the 1957 Milwaukee Braves, and even they had Hall of Famer Warren Spahn.
Yet the Royals finished with the AL’s third best ERA. This can partly be attributed to the fact that the staff generated the third-highest rate of fly balls in the MLB – a smart strategy considering they play in one of the hardest parks to hit a home run. Not surprisingly, Kansas City yielded the sixth-lowest BABIP in the majors.
But aside from inducing lots of flyouts, the Royals run prevention success stems from trotting out the best defense in baseball. The defense finished over 20 runs above average (based on UZR) better than the second place team. That team, the Giants, are closer to the 11th place team than to the Royals.
But everyone already knew about their stellar defense. The real reason Kansas City thrives in the playoffs is because their lineup makes contact. More than any team in the league.
In 2015 the Royals posted the highest contact rate (81.9%) and struck out at the lowest rate (15.9%) in the majors. At the risk of sounding redundant, the second place team in strikeout rate was as close to 13th place as they were to the Royals.
This is an intriguing approach at a time when teams are brining up young power hitters who swing hard and strike out often. Indeed, the league slugging percentage rose by 19 points from 2014 to 2015. The trend-bucking Royals finished with the second-fewest home runs and the second-lowest ISO in the AL, yet finished with baseball’s 7th highest-scoring offense.
This helps explain how the Royals strung together rallies against the Mets’ vaunted pitching staff. When you make that much contact and can run like the Royals do (2nd in AL in steals), hits are bound to happen.
If Kansas City’s front office can manage to keep most of the team together and continue adding cheap yet valuable pieces like Kendrys Morales and Ben Zobrist, look for them to consistently be challenging for the crown the next few years.