We start with a single fact, one obvious to anyone that followed baseball's post-season: the Royals, who are World Champions this year and were two runs from winning it all last year, are really good. If this is still surprising, it's because numerous projection systems and analysts pegged Kansas City as a mediocre team both this year and last. Those projections had the Royals as a team bound for a win total in the low-to-mid-80s, and nowhere near the 95 they won this past season. Oops.
Analytic types—I include myself in this category—have been counting out the Royals for a while now. The most famous instance of this followed Kansas City's trade of Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and current minor leaguer Patrick Leonard to Tampa for James Shields and Wade Davis. At the time, the Royals were slaughtered for misunderstanding where they were in their rebuilding process, misjudging the value of Shields and Davis—players who were, at the time, a mid-rotation starter and a back of the rotation mess, respectively—and for giving up Myers, a surefire All Star outfielder under team control for more than half a decade more. Three years later, we can say it again, unequivocally: oops.
It seems kind of redundant after they went ahead and won the World Series, but the Royals won this trade, too, for the same reasons they won everything else. It's not that Myers, Odorizzi, et al weren't valuable commodities—they were, and still are—but the statistical community misunderstood the importance of building a dominant bullpen, misunderstood the value of reaching the playoffs to a fanbase that had spent a generation looking up at most every team in baseball, and misunderstood the potential and thus the value of Myers, who has had modest success and some lousy injury luck. Maybe most relevantly, we misunderstood the value of wins in the Wild Card era.
The Royals are the World Series champions and it's safe to say that a not insignificant portion of their journey from last place to the ceremonial Jonny Gomes mic drop at City Hall happened on December 9, 2012, when Dayton Moore threw himself upon the hot coals of the internet and did The Deal. Flags fly forever, or until you take them down at night time (flags get cold), but for the Royals to continue their success past this two year window, they need to use that trade as a blueprint.
There are easy parallels to make, here, and lessons that are easily reverse-engineered. It is possible to see the team's recognition and prioritization of defense in trading Wil Myers, who is to defense what Dr. Ben Carson is to judiciously employed historical metaphors. And the importance of the bullpen can be seen in the acquisition of relief ace extraordinaire Wade Davis. But none of that is exactly correct. The truth is less specific than that, because the Royals are more than the sum of their organizational priorities.
As easy as it is to ascribe the Royals success to a strong defense and dominating bullpen to The Trade, it also ignores some actual facts. For instance, it ignores Myers' success in Tampa—he won Rookie of the Year in 2012—and credits the Royals for knowing Myers would suffer the injuries that have slowed his career. It assumes that the Royals saw Davis as a relief ace in waiting when, in reality, the Royals moved Davis back into the rotation after he spent his last season in Tampa pitching out of the bullpen. The Royals might have seen relief ace ability in Davis at first—again, it's there to see—but that doesn't explain why they sent him out there as a starter 24 times in 2013.
While the roots of Kansas City's success are in The Trade, they are not above the surface. In Davis, the Royals acquired a talented pitcher and, when he didn't meet with success, were flexible enough to find a new role for him. They might not have known Wil Myers' future, but they understood uncertainty that every prospect presents, and chose to move potential value for current value in order to improve a big league club that was closer to contention than we analysts had figured.
As Matthew Trueblood observed recently at Baseball Prospectus, no team can be built solely through its farm system. Trades must be made, and free agents must be signed, to supplement the major league roster, even out the talent base, and move talent from positions of strength to positions of weakness, where it can be most useful. The Trade was a high risk move in some ways, and in some ways it didn't work exactly how the Royals saw it at the time. But they were right to do it, and not just because they wouldn't have won the World Series without it. Now, The Trade offers a blueprint for the Royals—not so much because of what it says about building a winning team on the field, but what it says about fighting the fear of change, avoiding the fetishizing of prospects, and putting players in the best place to succeed.
All the talk about The Royals Way and winning with defense and a strong bullpen is true to a point, at least insofar as all of that happened just now. But as for the future, The Trade shows us that the way you win is secondary to actually winning. Rich teams can afford dogma. Teams that want to win with a medium or low payroll can't afford such stridency. Ideology is for the Yankees; the Royals won with pragmatism and a little bit of daring, and the knowledge you don't get to win as you want to win, but have to you win any way you can.
The Royals won with defense and a strong pen, and they did so not because of some principles handed down from on high about how The Game Must Be Played, but because that's the route that was available to them. They just did a better job of making do than other teams. The Royals won the World Series, they won The Trade, and in doing so, they've taught us this much. Or reminded us of a thing we all already know, but insist on forgetting.