MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Thanks to patience and plan, KC draws praise

Thanks to patience and plan, KC draws praise

PHOENIX -- When baseball people discuss the Kansas City Royals, they do not begin with the obvious.

Yes, they were impressed by general manager Dayton Moore's construction of a monster bullpen. To a man, they said Kansas City's dominance in this area affected the way they put their own teams together.

Nor do they begin with defense.

The Royals are the gold standard for defense. To watch them play, aggressively and joyously, is to be reminded of its importance.

Royals' Spring Training info

Finally, baseball people do not focus on how the Royals scored runs, though they did that a certain way, too. They didn't walk, strike out or hit home runs. Instead they made contact, hit the ball in the gaps and ran the bases like crazy.

The Royals played the game fast. They played the game aggressively. Kansas City played instinctively, too. Only one American League team -- the Astros -- stole more bases than the Royals last season, but manager Ned Yost said that he didn't give a single steal sign the entire season.

"Our guys just have a feel for it," Yost said.

Likewise, the Royals had 34 sacrifice bunts; Yost remembers ordering those five times, tops. Otherwise his guys were doing their thing, putting one another in position to score and trusting that someone to get them home.

There's a larger story in this.

"We've taught these kids and developed these kids how to play baseball the right way," Yost said. "We were patient with them. But when you get to a certain point, you get out of their way and let 'em play."

Yost is bursting with pride when he says this. To him, this gets to the core of why Kansas City won back-to-back AL championships and the World Series last fall.

"We were patient," Yost said. "We gave our guys a chance to grow and learn and get comfortable. If we hadn't been, there's no way we would have done what we did."

In Moore's first six full seasons as GM (2007-12), his team lost 553 games. Only the Pirates lost more in that time. In three seasons since, the Royals have won 270 regular-season games, tops in the AL. Since July 22, 2014, they're a staggering 158-99, including the postseason.

Moore is blunt about this: He had a plan, and he had confidence in that plan. More important, Moore had an owner, David Glass, who believed in the plan. And Glass and his son -- team president Dan Glass -- stayed the course when it was about the last thing Kansas City fans wanted them to do.

Moore got the job by laying out a blueprint based on his background with the Braves. He believed the Royals would win only if they developed their own players and taught them to play a certain way.

Yes, defense, contact hitting and pitching were the foundation of that plan, but success would not come overnight. Young prospects must be given the freedom to succeed and fail and succeed again.

"I had no idea if we would be able to see this thing through," Moore said. "You only get so much time. We focused on building a great environment -- a place where people love to work, scouts love to work, coaches, managers, players.

"We wanted an environment that people wanted to be part of. We would see what happened. That's one thing you can kind of control as a leadership team. You can't control what's going to happen on the field. You can't control health. But you can have an impact on your environment."

Perhaps no player typifies this patience more than third baseman Mike Moustakas, the second overall pick of the 2007 Draft.

Moustakas became one of the faces of a franchise that was supposed to deliver a championship, but not before hitting a bump or two in the road. He made his big league debut in 2011 and had some immediate success, then had three tough seasons, hitting .230 in 1,492 at-bats.

Outlook: Moustakas, 3B, KC

Moore stayed with Moustakas because, well, he believed. He saw a guy who was smart and talented and relentless in his work ethic. At times, the Royals' worry was that Moustakas cared too much, worked too hard.

When Moustakas turned his career around last season, hitting .284, Moore saw that as validation for everything he believed. And so, beyond the bullpen and stolen bases and defense, baseball people have been blown away by how the Royals never wavered in their belief that they were doing the right thing.

"It's been enormously impressive how disciplined they've been throughout their time together," Brewers GM David Stearns said. "I think the entire industry has taken notice. It has caused everyone to re-evaluate how they're going about their own business."

As for the way the Royals actually did it, again, that was part of the plan.

"Power is hard for us to acquire, because we can't afford it," Moore said. "Power also develops later in younger players. You're going to see some of our guys hit the ball out of the park with a little more frequency."

About the rest of it?

"We need defense in our [spacious] ballpark," Moore said. "We need contact and speed. That's kind of how we set out to do it. We always put a high premium on defense. You couldn't play for [former Atlanta manager] Bobby Cox unless you played defense. You can't play for Ned Yost unless you can play defense.

"Speed is part of that. Concentration is part of that. Baseball intellect is part of that. If you have concentration and focus and baseball intellect, you will get better as a hitter."

Now, about that bullpen. Every team paid attention. Every team was affected in ways large and small. All around baseball, teams set out to acquire multiple guys capable of pitching late in games.

"Remember when the goal was to get the starting pitcher out of the game?" Giants manager Bruce Bochy asked. "Now, with a lot of these guys, it doesn't get any easier."

As Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto said, "There was a time when your bullpen was a situation lefty, a setup guy and a closer, and we'll be good to go. Now you need to be seven deep and then have another four or five [at Triple-A] you're going to tap into when someone goes down."

Deep bullpens aren't something the Royals invented. The Giants won three championships with the same core of relievers and a manager, Bochy, who was better at managing a bullpen than almost anyone.

What Kansas City did was stack power arm upon power arm. Last season, the Royals were 73-6 when leading after six innings and 72-3 when leading after seven.

"If you have guys for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, you can keep your starters fresh," Athletics manager Bob Melvin said. "And psychologically, when you're ahead late in the game -- and I don't think any team in recent memory did it this well -- you knew you were in a very difficult position."

Melvin is like a lot of those in the game who are appreciative of those power arms late in games. But also like a lot of people, his real appreciation of the Royals is because of their staying power, their plan, their tenacity. They saw the job through.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.