Kansas City Royals

Royals can't live with mistakes anymore

SURPRISE, Ariz. —Willie Bloomquist's shirt is soaked as he stands in front of his locker, no bat to be seen because no bat is needed for what the Royals are working on today.

Virtually nothing but drill work, base running and fielding. It's a lot like a high school practice. The big-league training camps rarely see anything like this.

You say you're worn out watching the Royals messing up baseball's basic fundamentals? You're not alone. After years as one of the game's biggest statistical laughingstocks, they say they are, too.

"Everyone here is sick and tired of getting their butts kicked," Bloomquist says. "It's time to do something different. The definition of insanity is beating your head into a wall and expecting a different result. If we want different results, we have to change some things."

Now that his words are out there, Bloomquist may have stumbled upon the Royals' unofficial motto for 2010 and beyond: We Have to Change Some Things.

More honest than "It All Happens Here," don't you think?

The Royals can't go on this way because last season again pushed a loyal fan base to the brink. Baseball is at least a decade deep in its mainstream statistical revolution, but there isn't much besides blood-pressure numbers that can quantify the frustration of watching hitters swing through fastballs, catchers wave at sliders and outfielders chase balls to the wall.

The Royals have been bad at many things for many years, but they've sinned on the game's fundamentals as much as any team in baseball. If stat nerds ever come up with a way to quantify bumbling basic baseball, history will show the Royals led the American League for most of the last decade.

Changing this particular failure is where the small-budget Royals say they have decided to put both their money and energy. Last year, they broke camp with what they thought was a contender, then finished among the bottom two in fielding percentage, on-base percentage, sacrifice flies and walks — by both the pitchers and hitters.

Like the man says, they have to change some things.

* * *

You corner general manager Dayton Moore in a hallway behind the Royals' spring training clubhouse and go through the recent history.

You characterize his first three offseasons as chasing big-money, big-talent acquisitions. Gil Meche got $55 million because the Royals liked his curveball. Jose Guillen got $36 million because the Royals liked his bat speed. Kyle Farnsworth got $9.25 million because the Royals liked his fastball.

Then you characterize the most recent offseason as more about small-money, small-bat acquisitions — in part because ownership limited payroll. Jason Kendall got $6 million because the Royals like how he works with pitchers. Scott Podsednik signed for $1.75 million because the Royals like his speed. Chris Getz came in a trade because the Royals like his defense.

You tell Moore it looks like this is the first offseason that the front office focused on addressing the team's bad fundamentals above all else.

"That's fair," he says, nodding.

This is a long time coming. The Royals can't play Earl Weaver ball, waiting for the three-run homer, but they've also failed far too often in playing Tom Emanski ball — hitting the cutoff man.

By now, the list of embarrassments is local legend. A center fielder took a fly ball off his face because he didn't have sunglasses. A first baseman took a relay throw off his back because he wasn't watching the play. A baserunner got picked off when he simply fell off the base. Two outfielders let a fly ball drop because each assumed the other would catch it.

That's the blooper-reel version, the one with circus music in the background, but there's a more damning layer of consistent, fundamental failure underneath.

Royals pitchers and catchers combined for 103 wild pitches and passed balls last year — not only the most in baseball, but also the most by any team since 2000.

Their fielders were the league's worst by just about any measurement: errors (117), defensive efficiency (.675), and John Dewan's Plus/Minus system (-62). Every position on the field graded below average except left field and pitcher.

As a special bonus, advanced metrics also judged the Royals as the worst baserunning team in baseball last year — 97 bases worse than the league average.

"I've always been a detail guy," manager Trey Hillman says. "I've felt like we covered everything we needed to cover, hit it hard enough, but for whatever reason we didn't go out and perform it enough."

Bad fundamentals are the disease. The symptoms run deeper than what you see on the big-league field.

* * *

The Royals' free agents are, almost by definition, flawed. If they weren't, they would sign somewhere else for more money. Same with the players they get in trades, because the Royals are limited in what they can offer.

That's the quickie explanation of why it's up to the players drafted and developed by the Royals to make any real change. But this also comes with complications, because the Royals in desperation sometimes have to bring those players up before they're fully ready — think Alex Gordon or Luke Hochevar.

Yes, these waters run deep. Players who are past their prime, who were average to begin with, who need another year in the minors — without many players at the top of their game, it makes the Royals' margin for error that much smaller.

"If we perform better," Moore says, "it's going to be a combination of continued emphasis on these things and better players."

The Angels are often held up as one of the teams that do these little things right. Eddie Bane is their scouting director and credits their culture with a talk that manager Mike Scioscia gives every spring. The speech is mostly the same every year, Scioscia getting particularly fired up on the finer points of catching.

"He gets after it," Bane says. "You can tell how much he cares."

We'll spare you the details of Scioscia's talk, but even Bane says it's probably no more intense than the work Hillman and the Royals' coaching staff puts in.

In the two years since Hillman arrived from Japan, men throughout baseball have said the Royals might address fundamentals with more effort and time than any team in baseball. Royals reliever Matt Herges said it's the most detail-oriented and fundamentals-focused camp he's seen in a 12-year career.

That extends to the minor leagues, too, where Royals prospects get pulled from games for a variety of baseball sins, from not running out a ball to not backing up a base. Everybody must learn to bunt, even the multimillion-dollar bonus babies.

Team identities tilt toward manufacturing runs. Sometimes, teams are told they'll hit and run at every opportunity. The message is clear. Fundamentals are important, and the road to a big-league paycheck includes bunting practice.

"I don't want to overstate this," scouting and player development director J.J. Picollo says, "but (fundamentals) is all we do."

Frustrating, then, that you don't know it by watching the big-league team.

Even worse, because the two men in charge are as qualified as anyone.

* * *

Moore's background is with the Braves, where they drafted and developed a steady stream of players good enough for 14 consecutive division titles. Somewhat famously, Andruw Jones was pulled in the middle of an inning for lack of hustle — even stars had to respect the basics.

When Moore took over the Royals, he said he wanted to build with speed and defense.

Hillman's background is in Japan, where practices go on for hours and the identity of baseball centers around fielding drills and execution.

When Hillman took over as manager, he said he wanted good defense and to manufacture runs when possible.

Somehow, these two men came together and so far have overseen a last-place club that's among the worst in baseball at fundamentals.

"Sometimes it's a lack of concentration," Hillman says. "Sometimes it's a lack of lateral agility and movement.... Sometimes you just don't get the job done because you can't get to the ball or you're not focused or concentrated enough on the ball once you do."

So much of the Royals' fundamental failure has been predictable based on the personnel they picked up. They knew Guillen wasn't interested in moving runners or hitting cutoff men. They knew Miguel Olivo wasn't strong behind the plate.

It may not work, but the Royals are finally addressing this. Kendall, for instance, talks of knowing exactly why the Royals brought him in and staying true to the defense-first mindset that got him this contract. Same with the other newcomers. Moore says the current group of players "reflect more the style Trey expects and wants to play."

There aren't many in baseball who believe a big-leaguer's fundamentals can be significantly improved. What you see is mostly what you'll get. Hillman's emphasis is a good one, but it serves mostly as a message.

"He wanted to make his point," says Royals infielder Josh Fields, who came in a trade. "That was his way of showing, 'Hey, this is our main focus this year.' As unusual as it may be, for the most part, you can say it so much and guys will be like, 'Oh, OK,' but going through as much defense as we did, just from talking to guys I think the point is noted."

Now they just actually have to do it.

* * *

If anybody can fix this, it should be Moore and Hillman. And if it can be fixed anywhere, it should be here.

The Royals are investing record numbers into their farm system, and putting maximum emphasis on making sure those minor-leaguers don't follow the failures of the big-league club.

"It's exciting to be part of this kind of talent we have in the minor leagues right now," says 2007 first-round pick Mike Moustakas. "Hopefully we'll kind of turn it around, get up and make a little splash or something."

That's the plan, anyway. Even Moustakas is among those who need to be able to bunt, because who knows? When he makes the big leagues, maybe he's hitting seventh or eighth and Hillman will need him to move a runner.

The Royals believe in this. It's a long shot, but it's the most logical plan left for a small-money team to make its way in the big-money baseball world.

Now all they need to do, like the man says, is change some things.

"I do know this," Moore says, "if you do not stress fundamentals and do not demand excellence in defense, it won't happen. So that's why we do what we do."

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