Royal Reflection: What Can 2015 Teach Us About The 2024 Royals?

Lessons abound. But are they for them or for us?

Apologies in advance for the extreme English teacher stereotype about to unfold. But! F. Scott Fitzgerald closed his seminal work The Great Gatsby by stating: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Even in a book that doesn’t maintain a ton of relevance to the way many of us live out our daily lives, the idea of grappling with the past in order to move forward still holds a great deal of reliability, especially as it relates to sports.

Teams that don’t win frequently are constantly clinging to the past. The Chicago Bears have spent the last 40 years refusing to let go of the nostalgia of 1985. Jerry Reinsdorf-owned teams have won seven titles — largely due to falling backward into Michael Jordan — in the last 30 years, leaving him compelled to sit on his hands for the rest of his life in the name of profit.

I’m projecting now. The Dallas Cowboys. Toronto Maple Leafs. Prestige franchises that haven’t won recently need to cling to the past, inhibiting their ability to move forward in many cases.

The Kansas City Royals don’t quite fit the bill here. Or, at least they don’t now. Given the rather rudderless direction of the franchise since their 2015 title, it was possible that fans would be left longing for Alex Gordon or Luke Hochevar, or any Royal of yesteryear offering a bit of comfort in the midst of a stagnant rebuild. Their wait from 1985 to 2015 wasn’t nearly as long as some franchises go between World Series titles. But considering they waited 29 years between postseason appearances, losing 695 games and featuring the league’s 28th-ranked farm system ahead of 2024, it’s an easy trap in which to fall.

Yet, here the Royals stand in 2024: decidedly relevant. Just nine years after their last title.

Of course, nobody is anticipating a legitimate title run. At least not yet. But perhaps there is a comparison to be drawn between a unique 2015 Kansas City Royals club and the 2024 iteration.


Revisiting 2015


Let’s hop into the DeLorean. Or the Tardis. Or the phone booth. Whatever your pop culture time machine of choice might be. The 2015 Kansas City Royals were a contact-oriented offense with a good enough pitching staff and elite-level defense. It’s a rather unique construction when juxtaposed against some other recent World Series winners.

In the case of the 2015 Royals, their offense was perhaps the least impressive thing about them. They scored the seventh-most runs in the league that year, yes. But they did it largely through speed and contact more than any other facet. They didn’t walk (6.3 BB% was 30th), didn’t hit for power (.144 ISO was 21st), and didn’t make all that great of contact (32.3 HardHit% ranked 20th). They did, however, feature the league’s lowest K% (15.9) and second-best Contact% (81.8). The Royals BABIP’d a solid .301 that year, parlaying that fortune into the fifth-most stolen bases (104). As far as an offensive identity, theirs was a simple one to nail down.

On the bump, they were varying levels of fine. Their 3.74 staff ERA ranked 11th. While their K and BB% each ranked as fairly “mid,” they were on the lower end of hard contact allowed. This led to a favorable BABIP against and a high strand rate, the latter of which their bullpen maintained the highest of (80-ish percent). Plenty of balls in play, but not a lot of hard contact. Sounds like a recipe for success with the defense behind them.

While newer defensive metrics don’t go back that far, we at least have a sense of how good that particular Kansas City Royals squad was. Their 35 Defensive Runs Saved trailed only Arizona as the league’s top team. While somewhat antiquated now in the face of improved analytics, they did have the league’s highest unit UZR, at 36.8. FanGraphs’ comprehensive Def rating had them at 39.8. The next closest team was Toronto at 28.6.

Led by the likes of Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Omar Infante, the only KC regular to fall under the ‘average’ threshold of the defensive metrics available was Alex Ríos. Everybody else seemed to excel—even Eric Hosmer.

It’s an easy identity to establish. Hit your way on base. Move ’em over with said contact or the steal. Pitch well enough that your elite defense handles the rest. While it’s not a formula we see duplicated too often, it is one that we’ve seen have success in recent years. With that said, are there any lessons to be learned from 2015 that we can apply to the 2024 club?


Jumping Back to the Present


From an offensive standpoint, there are definitely similarities between 2015 and 2024. They don’t strike out (18.9 K% is second-best), feature an upper-tier Contact% (79.0), and steal bases at one of the league’s higher rates (54 steals ranks sixth, as of this writing). A notable difference is on the impact side, where their team ISO (.156) and team HardHit% (39.9) each rank 12th in the league. So, it’s not a super dissimilar skill set, but one that just offers a bit more upside than their last title team.

The pitching is also not all that dissimilar. Much of what we see across the stat sheet for relievers looks the same. A lot of mid-tier production, but stability nonetheless. The starting pitching, though, has been quite impressive. They’re top 10 in each of K and BB% while featuring the league’s fourth-best starting ERA (3.04).

They’re also allowing hard contact at the lowest rate this side of the Yankees or Guardians while surrendering the second-lowest rate of hard contact. So while they’re stranding a ton of runners, it’s a situation where the peripherals support a continuation. Especially if the defense holds up in the way that it did last time around.

And, uh, it is. That FanGraphs Def rating once again sees the Royals at the top (14.4). Fielding Run Value (14) and Defensive Runs Saved (30) each sit third; Outs Above Average (14) ranks second. Using FRV as our measuring stick this time, only Hunter Renfroe sits below average with the glove.

It’s an eerily similar comparison to 2015, in many respects. The offense offers slightly more power, but a largely reflective skill set as a whole. The starting pitching has been more impressive, but the success of the collective staff lies in preventing hard contact. And they have the defensive infrastructure to support it.


What About the Construction? 


One interesting comparison lives in the way these two teams were assembled. The core group of the 2015 squad was built predominantly from within. Gordon, Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Brandon Finnegan were all Kansas City draftees, while Salvador Perez, Yordano Ventura, and Kelvin Herrera were signed as international free agents. They were supplemented with outside talent, of course. Cain was acquired in the Zack Greinke trade. Ben Zobrist and Wade Davis were acquired via trade as well, with Kendrys Morales signed as a free agent. All important players from a roster that was better than the sum of its parts. But the soul of the group represented homegrown talent.

Again, it’s not a wholly different situation than we see out of the current Kansas City Royals. Franchise star Bobby Witt Jr. was a Royals draftee. Each of Vinnie Pasquantino and Michael Massey, too. Brady Singer’s a product of the Kansas City farm. Maikel Garcia was an international free agent. Oh yeah, Sal Pérez is still around.

If there’s a slight difference, it’s in the supplementation. The winter prior to 2015, the Royals signed Morales, Ríos, and Edinson Vólquez, among others. They added Zobrist at the deadline. Given that the 2014 team had already won the American League pennant, drastic additions weren’t deemed necessary. Not quite the case with the 2023 Royals, who lost 106 games.

This winter, the team signed Michael Wacha, Seth Lugo, Hunter Renfroe, and Adam Frazier. Nick Anderson, John Schreiber, and Chris Stratton were all added to the bullpen. This comes in addition to the ’23 deadline adds of Nelson Velázquez and Cole Ragans. Relievers were added to the mix for 2015 as well, which I neglected to mention above in the name of brevity. But the past calendar year has seen the Kansas City Royals behave as one of the more active teams in baseball in order to take advantage of an entirely winnable AL Central. That represents the most notable difference between the two teams.


Boats Against Entirely With the Current


The ultimate question here is whether there are lessons to be taken from 2015 that can be applied to 2024. The answer is that they already have been.

Whether accidental or by design, the Kansas City Royals have built a team that’s at least somewhat similar to the team that won a title in 2015. With contact, speed, and defense supporting a solid, if unspectacular, pitching staff, it’s quite a reflection. The roster has been appropriately supplemented, perhaps to a greater extent than the team’s last championship club. But even if the Royals aren’t using the past as a guide — totally understandable given how different the game is than it was even nine years ago — they’re positioning themselves for a similar aim.

And that’s the most refreshing part of all of this. Rebuilds aren’t linear, and most are not similar. The Royals were unable to utilize their recent struggles in revamping their farm system in quite the same way we’ve seen some teams do recently.

The 2024 team isn’t a defending AL champion with a mid-tier farm system. They’re one of the league’s worst teams going on a decade. With almost no hope of prospect impact on the horizon. And yet, with a savvy approach to trade and free agency, this is a team that has not only become extremely fun to watch but has positioned themselves to a point where “contender” isn’t a silly word with which to associate them.

It’s almost a lesson for us in understanding team construction, more so than the Royals themselves.

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

One response to “Royal Reflection: What Can 2015 Teach Us About The 2024 Royals?”

  1. DDD says:

    As a longtime Royals fan, it’s nice to read a positive article about them. During the 2014 and 2015 seasons, they were criticized by sports analysts (especially Fangraphs) saying they weren’t that good and it was a fluke they even made it to the post-season, let alone back-to-back World Series appearances and a championship victory.

    One thing considerably different between then and now is the bullpen. This season’s bullpen is weak and has lost many games that they were leading late. The championship team’s bullpen was deep with quality pitchers (Greg Holland, Kelvin Hererra, Luke Hochevar, Ryan Madson, Brandon Finnegan, Kris Medlen… and Luis Coleman came back from injury in time for the post season). If they were tied or had the lead after 6 innings, there was a high probability they were going to win the game. The Royals’ bullpen became the model for future teams to emulate and the NY Yankees began stockpiling the best free agent relievers available after seeing the impact the Royals bullpen made.

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