Royals GM Dayton Moore isn’t messing around, folks. In for a penny, in for the whole damn treasury.
When I wrote up all the reasons it was a good idea for Kansas City to trade for Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto — was that just 48 hours ago? — I left out one caveat: As much as Cueto fits the team’s needs, he wasn’t the player I thought should be the Royals’ no. 1 priority on the trade market. That player was Ben Zobrist, whom Moore acquired from the A’s on Tuesday afternoon for pitching prospects Aaron Brooks and Sean Manaea.
Now, in isolation, Cueto is more valuable than Zobrist. If you were building a team from scratch with a design on winning short playoff series, you’d definitely pick Cueto, a no. 1 starter who can pitch an outsize number of innings in October, potentially starting two of the five division series games if necessary, over Zobrist, a versatile and extremely underrated position player, but not a superstar.
Only, Moore isn’t operating in isolation. Because make no mistake: Like Cueto, Zobrist wasn’t acquired to help the Royals reach the postseason — something that, and please don’t burn me at the stake for saying this, is approaching a foregone conclusion. He was acquired to help them win in the postseason. Most playoff-bound teams covet nothing more than an ace on the mound for Game 1, but the Royals weren’t content stopping there.
No discussion about how to win in the postseason should begin without this preamble: No one knows how to win in the postseason. The brightest minds in the game — including the most influential analysts of the past two generations, Bill James and Nate Silver — have tried to come up with a system for predicting which playoff teams will succeed and which will fail. No one has managed it. With that caveat out of the way, common sense suggests that the team that can get the most reps for its best players in the playoffs will have an edge. And the biggest difference between how pitchers are used and how batters are used is this: Teams can manipulate the way their pitchers are used so that their best pitchers are on the mound at the most critical times; teams can’t do the same with their hitters.
So as much as Cueto helps Kansas City by becoming the ace who ought to throw more innings in the postseason than anyone else on the staff, the Royals didn’t have to have him. They didn’t have him last year — they had James Shields, but that’s not the same thing — and they still went 11-4 in the playoffs. They succeeded without an ace in 2014 because they had the best bullpen trio anyone had ever seen, and with all the off days in October, the threesome of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland was able to throw a huge fraction of the team’s innings. The three combined to throw 40.1 innings — an average of 2.69 innings per game — in the postseason, allowing just six runs. Those three are pitching nearly as well this season, and they’ve been joined by Ryan Madson (1.69 ERA) and Franklin Morales (2.16 ERA). Having a no. 1 starter who can deliver seven dominant innings is more of a luxury than a necessity with a bullpen that can now manage four innings of dominant relief in every playoff game.
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But while a team can shuttle away a ton of innings from mediocre starters to top-shelf relievers in the playoffs, it can’t shuttle away a ton of at-bats from the bottom of the lineup to the heart of the order, which is why the Royals had to have Zobrist. A batting lineup proceeds with numbing consistency, one through nine, over and over again. And this season, the Royals’ greatest weakness has been the two giant holes in their lineup: at second base, where Omar Infante is hitting .231/.244/.322, and in right field, where Alex Rios has ridden a hot streak all the way to a .254/.289/.327 line. No team wants to face a playoff pitching staff with the equivalent of a seven-man lineup.
The Royals have managed to beat regular-season pitching staffs with that seven-man lineup, and given the track records of Infante and Rios, it’s possible one of them will start hitting over the season’s final two months. It’s extremely unlikely that both will, however. In an ideal world, the Royals would pick up an above-average hitter who could play either second base or right field, and move him to whichever position they deemed a bigger problem when the playoffs start. But where would they find such a player, one who can hit, who can play defense, and who can play two positions with very different skill sets?
They found him in Oakland. Zobrist is almost sui generis among baseball players over the past decade, having started more than 500 games at second base and more than 300 games in the outfield, with elite defensive numbers at both positions: plus-46 runs and plus-32 runs saved, respectively, per Baseball Info Solutions. He is also an excellent hitter, having batted .269/.362/.441 since 2008, averaging 38 doubles and 19 homers per 162 games while playing his entire career in pitchers’ parks. Toss in the fact he’s a switch-hitter, and he has as broad a skill set as anyone in the game.
He isn’t elite in any single skill, so he gets overlooked in a discussion of the game’s best players. But consider this:
Most Wins Above Replacement,1 Position Players, 2009–Present:
- Miguel Cabrera, 42.5
- Robinson Cano, 42.4
- Adrian Beltre, 38.6
- Ben Zobrist, 38.1
- Evan Longoria, 37.9
According to Baseball-Reference.
Zobrist, in fact, led all major league hitters in bWAR between 2009 and 2012, a fact that will still be tripping up trivia experts decades from now. He is, perhaps, the most underrated baseball player of the past decade. He is also 34 years old, and his defense isn’t what it used to be, and he missed a month this season following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. His streak of six straight seasons with at least 4.6 bWAR will almost certainly end this year. But even so, he’s hitting .268/.354/.447, and has the lowest strikeout rate, and best strikeout-to-walk ratio, of his career.
The player Zobrist most resembles is probably Royals left fielder Alex Gordon, whose position in the field Zobrist will play until Gordon returns from his groin injury. Gordon, like Zobrist, does everything well but has no elite talent except for his defense, which is a skill we don’t have sexy statistics to illustrate. Gordon’s career line is .269/.349/.436, and per 162 games, he has averaged … 38 doubles and 19 homers, the exact same averages as Zobrist has the past eight years.2
Since 2011, Gordon ranks sixth among all MLB hitters with 26.5 bWAR; Zobrist ranks ninth with 25.0.
The Royals’ lineup is effective but extremely unconventional; K.C. has the fewest strikeouts in the majors but is on pace to draw just 347 walks, which would be the fewest by any team in a full season since 1966. Gordon was the one semi-patient hitter in the lineup, and there is a synergy that comes from adding a patient hitter to a lineup of free swingers, just as there is a synergy that comes from adding a power hitter to a lineup of leadoff types. Zobrist’s plate discipline should add a refreshing change of pace to the Royals’ usual approach. And while he is a switch-hitter, Zobrist has hit left-handed pitching slightly better than right-handed pitching for his career (.813 OPS versus a .771 OPS), which makes him a good complement for a Royals team that has been somewhat vulnerable to left-handers this season. The Royals have hit .272/.323/.421 versus right-handed pitching this year, but just .274/.324/.392 versus left-handed pitching, a fact the Astros were no doubt aware of when they traded for southpaw Scott Kazmir.3
Zobrist is also 5-for-6 with a double, a triple, and a walk in his career against Madison Bumgarner. Whether or not he’s the missing piece for the 2015 Royals, there’s no question he’s the missing piece for the 2014 Royals.
When Gordon returns in early September, it will allow the Royals to start this lineup down the stretch:
- R SS Alcides Escobar
- L 3B Mike Moustakas
- R CF Lorenzo Cain
- L 1B Eric Hosmer
- S DH Kendrys Morales
- L LF Alex Gordon
- S 2B Ben Zobrist
- R C Salvador Perez
The no. 9 spot in the lineup could be some combination of Rios, Jarrod Dyson, and Paulo Orlando in right field. Or, Zobrist could play right field and Infante could play second base. This assumes that Ned Yost sticks with Escobar as his leadoff hitter despite Zobrist’s massive OBP advantage, which from everything we know about Yost is a safe assumption. (Gordon batted sixth almost all season, after all.) There’s no Mike Trout or Bryce Harper in the middle of that order, but any lineup that can bat Salvador Perez eighth is doing all right.
Zobrist not only helps the Royals in an ideal-world setting, he also provides insurance in a worst-case-scenario world. Last year, the 89-win Royals swept the 98-win Angels in the ALDS, and it wasn’t as big of an upset as those win totals would indicate, because the Angels won 98 games in large part due to Garrett Richards, who was having a no. 1-starter type of season before gruesomely dislocating his patella on a fielding play in August. The Royals are trying to avoid being this year’s Angels: the dominant regular-season team that gets waxed in the playoffs in part because it was missing one of its key contributors.
Having dodged a bullet when Gordon collapsed on the warning track on July 8 — what many feared was a season-ending ACL tear turned out to be something less than that — the Royals are well aware of how vulnerable they are to an injury to almost any of their position players. An injury to someone like Escobar or Moustakas would be devastating, as the team simply doesn’t have much in the way of backup options. Zobrist, who has started at every position except pitcher and catcher, provides the kind of versatility that gives the Royals the best insurance plan available on the open market.4
Now the only guy they can’t adequately replace is Perez. Maybe you could start giving him the occasional day off, Ned.
If Cueto raised the ceiling for what this Royals team can do in the postseason, Zobrist just raised the floor. And given the Royals’ record this season, and given their postseason success last season, you could argue that the latter is more important than the former.
The Royals gave up a lot for two months of Zobrist. Brooks is a strike-throwing soft-tosser whom few in Kansas City will miss — he didn’t endear himself to Royals fans by giving up 13 runs in 2.2 innings in his major league debut last season — although the A’s have done well in the past when trading for pitchers with a similar skill set, like Tommy Milone and Kendall Graveman. But Manaea is the real prize, a dominant collegiate left-hander who got $3.55 million to sign out of the draft, and who has struck out 185 batters in 153 pro innings. Manaea fell in the draft because he needed hip surgery, and he missed the first half of this season with a pulled abdominal muscle, but if he can stay healthy, he has a chance to be a no. 2 starter. The Royals have decimated their farm system for two rentals who probably won’t be around to make them a single game better in 2016 and beyond.
The biggest fear with this trade is simply that the Royals are acting as if talent alone can guarantee postseason success. Nothing can. The odds are still heavily against them winning a world championship, as they are against every other team in the majors. But I can’t help but respect the attempt. The Royals needed to add a difference-maker in their rotation or a difference-maker in their lineup, but Moore decided that he wanted to have his cake and eat it, too. And damned if he didn’t accomplish both.