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Identity Shift

The Royals, for years, had an identity of the team that would make you go nuts. They made tons of contact, resulting in not striking out much and then they ran. That strategy, along with a ridiculous bullpen, led to them becoming World Series champions in 2015. It was a good strategy, especially with offense in baseball down across the board. To this day, I wonder if Dayton Moore building an athletic, defensive, contact driven team was because he saw the league changing or if there was some luck involved. Maybe it was a little of both.

The moves made leading up to the 2017 season were made with the new offensive era in mind. The ball is jumping out of the park like never before and the Royals approach might not lead to the same results it did from 2013 to 2015. So they traded for Jorge Soler. They signed Brandon Moss. Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez made noticeable changes in their approach. They traded one of their speed demons for starting pitching because pitching is the name of the game when the offenses are going so nuts.

We were all pretty excited for it too. It sure seemed like the Royals had six or seven guys who could hit 20 home runs in a season. I think a big reason Raul Mondesi made the team on Opening Day, aside from his hot spring, is that he had a chance to be a guy to balance out the thumpers, to give the Royals a threat on the bases. The problem, of course, is that he was never on the bases, as he’s posted a .156 OBP in 15 big league games this season. So he was sent down and Whit Merrifield was brought up. That inadvertently led to the Royals approach changing again.

From April 18th to June 25th, Merrifield played 57 games, hit a solid .283/.325/.443. He hit a few homers and stole seven bases in eight attempts. He was a big upgrade. The lineup started to really turn things around in June (they’ve averaged 5.2 runs per game since June 1). Then, Statcast unveiled speed scores.

Merrifield found out he was faster than Trout, and whether this is coincidence or not, he started running. After going seven for eight in steals in his first 58 games, he’s 16 of 17 in 50 games since. He’s stealing second and third both and he’s being very aggressive on the basepaths. He’s hit 14 doubles in that time and  while his overall batting line isn’t that different, his new sense of fearlessness on the bases to showcase his speed has made him a more valuable offensive player.

And he’s not alone. From the start of the season to June 25th, the Royals played 74 games and stole 35 bases while being caught eight times. The percentage is great. The number of steals was fine, but it wasn’t what we’d grown accustomed to from the Royals. Since then, they’ve played just 50 games and have stolen 39 bases while being caught 10 times. The Royals aren’t exactly running wild, but they’re running a whole lot more. They’d attempted at least one steal in just 28 of their first 74 games and now have done so in 25 of their last 50 games.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the running started then, but the Royals are a pretty solid base running team. In Fangraphs metrics, they rank eighth in baseball with 3.6 runs on the bases this season. Side note: The Rays at 23.8 runs on the bases is crazy. In BRR on Baseball Prospectus, the Royals rank 12th, but with a similar 3.3 runs on the bases. We should probably take base running stats with more grains of salt than fielding stats, though, as the Rays rank 23rd in this metric at -6.2. But I digress.

Let’s take a glance at the Royals runners by BRR:

Player BRR
Whit Merrifield 4.2
Lorenzo Cain 2.0
Alcides Escobar 1.0
Jorge Bonifacio 1.0
Alex Gordon 0.8
Mike Moustakas 0.3
Cheslor Cuthbert 0.2
Drew Butera -0.4
Melky Cabrera -0.7
Eric Hosmer -0.9
Brandon Moss -1.4
Salvador Perez -1.6

 

It certainly helps to have speed to be a good base runner as the top of baseball is littered with guys like Dee Gordon, Byron Buxton and Billy Hamilton. By the way, Merrifield ranks 13th in baseball in this metric, but there are probably some surprises on the list above. Gordon isn’t fast. Neither is Moustakas. Bonifacio is faster than you probably think, but he’s still not fast either. Cuthbert definitely isn’t fast. So some of it is not taking chances because not making an out on the bases is pretty important if you know you’re not going to make it.

The only thing missing from this team is that they don’t take the extra base nearly as much as you’d expect, doing that only 38 percent of the time. They’ve only gone first to third on a single 50 times, which is tied for fifth lowest in baseball. I will say they’ve scored from first on a double 35 times, which is third most in baseball, so maybe it’s not as worrisome as I thought. But maybe it’s just having a good third base coach and runners who know their limitations. That’s part of good base running. And, for what it’s worth, the Royals have only been thrown out at third four times all year and at home just five times. Both are the fewest in baseball. They don’t give away outs.

The Royals are a pretty good team on the bases however you slice it. And since Statcast told Whit Merrifield he was fast, they’ve shown it more and more. The beauty of it is that the power they’ve displayed hasn’t gone anywhere. They’re still hitting about four home runs every three games. Only now they’re running more and making even more happen for an offense that has quietly been really good on the whole for about three months now. This is their identity now. Sometimes they’ll beat you on the bases, but they’ll hardly ever beat themselves, but they’re doing it with the ability to take a team deep at any time. It seems like a pretty good plan.

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