After embarrassing the New York Mets twice in New York and twice back home in Missouri, the Kansas City Royals have taken the crown and emerged as 2015 World Series Champions. This is the first time the Royals have taken home the most desired trophy in all of Major League Baseball since 1985.
The road to winning the World Series is relatively consistent from year to year. A team signs and/or home-grows quality players at each position, does well throughout the year, follows through with a big trade in July, makes the playoffs, and wins the 11 games needed to take home the title. However, the journey the Royals took was very different compared to usual champions, to say the least. According to general statistical evidence and the irregular general managing of the team, their championship could almost be called an accident.
However, the success of the Royals in the playoffs isn’t truly an accident, especially because they made it all the way to the World Series last year (only to fall short). For starters, it’s generally agreed that the new Wild Card playoff format, put into place in 2012, has placed an unfair burden on many teams. Prior to 2012, one team in each of the two leagues — that was not a divisional winner — with the best record earns a wild card spot. The change in 2012 ruled that the top two teams that were not divisional winners in each league secure a wild card spot, as opposed to one. The catch: the two wild card teams are forced to play a one-game winner take all to determine who moves on in the playoffs. Any person that avidly watches professional baseball could tell you that one game is not enough to say whether one team or another deserves to advance.
In 2014, the Royals were the one of the wild card teams in the American League and faced off against the Oakland Athletics in the Wild Card game. In accordance with the old system, the Royals would’ve immediately advanced to the playoffs without having to play a one-game playoff. The game went into extra-innings and the Royals sneaked by the Athletics after Salvador Perez’s walk-off single down the third base line. The ball landed just inches away from the foul line — the Royals had essentially won by inches. As a result, many questioned their presence in the playoffs and weren’t sure how long they’d last against the “big dogs” of baseball. Sure enough, they proved many people wrong and almost won it all.
One would expect a team who has just fallen short of a World Series championship to be more anxious to improve for next year. Unlike most teams, the Royals took a much different route and signed a handful of good-but-not-great players, instead of top of the line free-agents. They signed Designated Hitter (DH) Kendrys Morales, who had shown some homerun capability in the past, but was nonetheless coming off of the worst year in his career. Next came Right-Handed Pitchers (RHP) Kris Medlen and Ryan Madson, who both missed the entire 2014 season due to arm surgery. Madson hadn’t competed in a major league game since 2011. Next came another RHP in Edinson Volquez. Volquez led the National League in wild pitches in 2014 and tied a career-high for hit batters in a season. The only impact player the Royals managed to sign was Outfielder (OF) Alex Rios, who performed above-average in 2015.
The Royals did not prepare for the 2015 season very well, but managed to overcome all odds, even amongst disappointing seasons from many players. Catcher (C) Salvador Perez tied a career-low in batting average and set a career high for grounding into double plays. Injury benched key OF Alex Gordon for a significant portion of the season. Gordon was only able to play in 104 games of the 162 game scheduled this year. No starting pitcher dominated this season, as not a single member of the rotation earned a sub-3.00 ERA. Only one starting pitcher managed to rack up 200 innings on the year and only two pitchers accumulated 150 strikeouts. According to Pythagorean win calculation, they should have won only 84 games this year, but instead finished in first place in their division with 95 wins.
So how is it the Royals managed to sneak by as champions this year? According to FanGraphs.com, a website devoted to Sabermetrics—an emerging field centered on the intense study of baseball statistics—the Royals were the clutchest team in the pros this year and fourth clutchest team since 1974. They scored more runs, batted for a higher average and on-base percentage than any other team in this year’s postseason from the seventh inning or later. Their bullpen is also arguably the best bullpen in all of baseball. The Royals own five relief pitchers that earned sub-3.00 ERAs during the regular season, three of which did so while pitching more than 60 innings. This relief strength translated very well into the postseason. The pitching staff statistically performed better than any other pitching staff in the postseason from the seventh inning or later.
Dave Cameron of FanGraphs.com raved about the Royals impeccable defense. “It’s pretty safe to say that the recent versions of the Royals are some of the best defensive teams we’ve ever seen, he said. “The quality of their defenders helped turn run-of-the-mill pitchers into pretty good run preventers. Rather than paying a premium for pitching, the Royals stocked up on defensive value and were able to put together a unit that could keep opponents from scoring at an elite level.”
In short, the Royals are a team composed of a bunch of average hitters that play really good defense and pitchers that give up way too many runs, but win games anyway because of clutchness. Never have such words been said about a World Series champion. Nonetheless, baseball is a game of inches and numbers, and it always will be. Despite the Royals’ unorthodox road to victory, teams will still use conventional methods to achieve postseason success, regardless of what anomalies arise.