The 2014 Royals: Process vs. Results

On December 9, 2012 the Kansas City Royals made one of the most controversial trades in baseball history. The Royals shipped their most valuable prospect to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for a pitcher that they hoped would help guide them to their first postseason berth since 1985. The trade was not warmly received by the Kansas City faithful. It wasn’t just that Wil Myers was the Royals’ best prospect.  It wasn’t just that he had been freshly named as Baseball America’s 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, or that he would rank as the number four overall prospect heading into 2013 by both Baseball America and Keith Law alike. It wasn’t even the fact that Kansas City would have to send three additional prospects, including pitcher Jake Odorizzi, in the deal to Tampa as well.

It was that in exchange for such a prized asset, the Royals were getting just two years of James Shields and an enigma in Wade Davis. At the time of the deal, Shields was a very good pitcher, but fell somewhere short of elite status. It was a good bet that Shields could make the 2013-2014 Royals a better team, perhaps even a playoff team. He was not the kind of player that could guarantee such success, or even make Kansas City the favorite in a relatively weak division. The Royals did not appear to be a team on the brink of a championship. Shields was a player to make the Royals better, but not one to put them over the top. In all, he was not the kind of impact return Royals fans expected for a potential superstar in Wil Myers.

The Royals were much better in 2013, finishing with an 86-76 record, fourteen games better than they were the previous year. Shields was a workhorse, totaling almost 230 innings pitched with a 3.15 ERA and 3.47 FIP. But despite their improvement, the Royals still fell five games short of the second wild card spot in the American League. The team that won that second Wild Card spot? The Tampa Bay Rays, who featured the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year, Wil Myers (.293/.354/.478 with a 131 wRC+.) Myers was already budding as an all-star, and the Royals were 0-for-1 with Shields with only one more chance in 2014 before he would become a free agent. They were a year into the trade and it looked bleaker than ever. Royals’ general manager Dayton Moore continued to be blasted for the move, a trade that some thought destroyed any hope Kansas City had for success.

On Tuesday, October 21, 2014, just over twenty-two months since the infamous trade, the Kansas City Royals will square off against the San Francisco Giants in Game One of the World Series. The cries of criticism once aimed at Dayton Moore will have vanished, replaced by cheers of triumph and joy from a raucous Kansas City crowd. James Shields will be the man on the mound.

The trade is a big reason why the Royals are here, to be sure. Shields threw another 230 quality innings in 2014, posting a 3.21 ERA and 3.59 FIP. Wade Davis, the other return from the deal, was positively dominant in a relief role, tallying 109 strikeouts in 72 innings while recording an ERA of 1.00 and impossibly not allowing a single home run all season. The Royals locked themselves into the first Wild Card slot in the AL with an 89-73 record. They appeared dead to rights in a one-game playoff against Oakland before rallying back from a 7-3 deficit in the eight inning, and then again from 8-7 in extra innings to win. They went on to sweep the Angels and Orioles, the teams with the two best records in the American League, respectively.

No, no one is criticizing Dayton Moore anymore. The Royals are the 2014 American League champions with a shot for more. The critics were wrong. The fans were wrong. The analysts were wrong. Dayton Moore was right. Right? Well, maybe not so fast. From the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter:

The 2014 Royals went 89-73 against the second-easiest schedule in their league. They outscored their opponents by 27 runs. They were 48-50 three-fifths of the way through the year, and they squeaked into a wild-card slot by a couple of games. Any plan worth following really needs to have a better upside than “we won’t win 90 games, but we’ll come close in the only season since 1996 in which not winning 90 games in the AL gets us into the playoffs.” A successful plan would have involved winning 90 games, no? A division title?

— Joe Sheehan

Put in much less elegant terms, the Royals needed to catch a lot of lucky breaks to be here. And catch them they did. The fact that they won 89 games in itself was partially a product of luck. Both their weak strength of schedule and good cluster-luck helped them attain that number despite a .485 third-order winning percentage. That is to say, after normalizing their schedule and basing their run differential on their actual underlying statistics (i.e. stripping away all the luck) the 2014 Royals are projected as a 79-83 team. 

But who cares? The American League was weaker this year. The Royals did win 89 games. They did get into the playoffs and both Shields and Davis played a significant role in that. They did go on a hot streak and they did win the American League pennant. This time next week they might be World Series champions.  Everything worked out in the end, just as Dayton Moore and Kansas City hoped. So what’s the problem? 

The problem is that just because things did work out in the end, doesn’t necessarily justify the process it took to get there. A man who buys a lottery ticket every day of his life and then suddenly wins the jackpot shouldn’t be praised for great judgement. He made a poor investment and then happened to get lucky. No one should begrudge the man his happiness for winning, and no one should begrudge the Royals or their fans now. They have every right to be euphoric. They have every right to be happy with the trade. The name of the game is to win the World Series. No fan should be expected to condemn a move that results, in some way or another, in a shot at a championship. Flags fly forever.

The rest of the baseball world, however, is not required to look at that move as an example of great general managing prowess. The other 29 teams should not be eager to ship out their blue-chip prospect for a merely good starter without more than just a temperate hope for contention. What the Royals accomplished with the Shields trade was not a blueprint for success. It was a move that remains questionable at best. That the Royals scratched their way into the coin-flip round and then got hot for eight games does not change that reality. Dubious process is dubious process, even when met with positive results. 

Kansas City has closed the book on this deal. It doesn’t matter what happens in the next week and a half. Win or lose, the fact that they’re even in a position to compete for the grandest prize in the sport is compensation enough for Wil Myers. In their eyes the trade is not just a victory, but a resounding one. This line of thinking is fair, particularly for a fan base that’s been starved of meaningful baseball for the better part of three decades. But the rest of baseball cannot yet make that leap. An improbable October hot streak is not vindication for precarious decision-making, no matter how badly we want the 2014 Royals to fit our redemption narrative.

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