Photo credit: Peter Aiken, USA Today Sports

How Can the Royals Copy Cleveland and the Cubs?

They say Major League Baseball is a copycat league. It seems like every year, whatever team wins the World Series is held up possessing The New Way to Win Baseball Games, even if that team’s path to victory isn’t all that different from other teams’. Other teams will look at how that team won games, and try to pick up different tricks or strategies. Just look at the Royals.

Because they won back-to-back pennants, it’s normal for teams around the league to adapt some of the Royals’ methods. For instance, bullpen construction looks different now than it did just a couple of years ago. Several teams have gone after multiple elite relief arms, in the same mold of recent Royals squads. They may not have been the first team to have a crazy-good bullpen, but they won with their crazy-good, crazy-deep bullpen, so it became a trend.

With that being said, the Royals did not win the most recent World Series. They didn’t win the most recent American League pennant, or the most recent Central division title, either. For the Royals to climb back on top, perhaps they will need to do some copying now.

First, we’ll look at the Cubs as the model. They just won the World Series in large part because they had an elite defense, a power-hitting third baseman, a young and talented first baseman, and WAIT A MINUTE.

This is in jest, of course. Mike Moustakas is not Kris Bryant, and Eric Hosmer is not Anthony Rizzo. The Royals do not have the positional star power of the Cubs, nor do they have any legitimate aces at the top of the rotation. Both of those things are difficult to acquire in an offseason, and especially in an offseason with the current free agent crop. If the Royals are looking to copy those parts of the Cubs, they’re likely going to be disappointed.

Similarly, it’s going to be tough to pursue the kind of organizational depth the Cubs possessed, though not impossible. The Royals don’t have a Willson Contreras hanging out in the minors, but Hunter Dozier has some potential to make an impact. There are some intriguing arms who may appear in a Carl Edwards, Jr. or Mike Montgomery-type of role out of the bullpen, in Matt Strahm, Andrew Edwards, and Josh Staumont. Jorge Bonifacio doesn’t have Albert Almora’s defensive skills, but his power might provide some punch next summer.

The Royals aren’t going to roll out a lineup like the Cubs. They don’t have four or five great hitters, barring bounce-backs forward from Hosmer, Moose, Alex Gordon, and Lorenzo Cain. But adding an average hitter or two at the second base and/or right field spots could provide some Cubs-like length to the order. It’s still going to take improvement from the farm system to be able to plug in capable bats when needed, but that depth is possibly the most repeatable trait I noticed from the Cubs’ run. Unless the Royals can find their own Jake Arrieta or Kyle Hendricks, of course.

As for the Indians, they had a lot of success down the stretch because their lights-out bullpen did enough to overcome a thin starting rotation and HANG ON NOW.

Okay, okay, the Indians also did really well because they had a bunch of talent in their batting order, along with Corey Kluber as their ace. The real story from Cleveland in the playoffs, though, was the bullpen. More specifically, Terry Francona’s bullpen usage.

He went to Andrew Miller and Cody Allen for multi-inning outings on several occasions, which got them all the way to Game 7. Their front office took the Royals’ bullpen-building strategy and added even more aggressive in-game strategy, and sabermetrically-inclined baseball analysts loved every second of it. Some suggested it was the beginning of a revolution in bullpen management, and that managers would regularly go to their best pitchers in the most important moments, regardless of inning.

The problem, however, is that this strategy almost certainly won’t be used consistently¬†in the regular season.

Don’t get me wrong. I think managers are still too stubborn in how they deploy their relievers, and there are some situations where they could be less conservative, particularly in tie games on the road. The issue, though, is that the playoffs are essentially a completely different game. There are fewer off days in the regular season, so managers can’t go all out to win a single game, because there are consequences in the next game, and the game after that.

There’s also the issue of how pitchers would react to being deployed in different innings, particularly with short notice. Many relievers are creatures of habit, and disrupting or cutting their routines short could potentially limit their effectiveness, and perhaps even lead to more stress or injuries. Managers don’t like to have relievers warm up without coming in the game, and this aggressive strategy could create exponentially more of those decisions.

This says nothing of the compensation impact for relief pitchers, either. Until the arbitration process stops focusing on saves above other statistical measures, relievers will want to make sure they’re in the best position to get paid, and that conflict can put managers in tricky situations. It’s simply not a strategy that is likely going to be repeated until next October. Sorry for that¬†unnecessarily long rabbit trail. Anyway.

I do think Ned Yost could learn a thing or two from Tito when it comes to lineup construction (think of Gordon in a leadoff role like Carlos Santana), and perhaps a bit more aggression in his bullpen management could pay off, but the Royals are already fairly well-constructed to copy the Indians. They’ll need some guys to take large steps forward, a la Jose Ramirez and Tyler Naquin, and it would sure help to have the bounce-backs I mentioned earlier, but they don’t have to make any organization-impacting moves this winter.

History is written by the victors, and surely we’ll see articles about how the Cubs (or Indians) have the new secret recipe for success. The Cubs tanked for a few years, acquired a bunch of super-talented players, and spent a large chunk of money on an ace. The Indians made some shrewd moves without totally rebuilding, and got quite a bit of production from unexpected sources. Neither of those are guaranteed strategies for winning, but the Royals can look at the peripheral strategies to return to the playoffs. With more depth and some altered tactical approaches, they can provide some much-needed support to their core next year.

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1 comment on “How Can the Royals Copy Cleveland and the Cubs?”

jim fetterolf

Royals need some health and Gordon to learn how to hit again. With better health they’re pretty much the same team that went to the Series twice and stayed in contention most of this past season.

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