What can we learn from baseball’s best teams?

Here are baseball’s most successful regular-season teams the last three seasons:

  • Cardinals (287-199).
  • Pirates (280-206).
  • Dodgers (278-208).
  • Royals (270-216).
  • Nationals (265-221).

What are the lessons of these five franchises? Is there a common thread? Yes, Mr. Wise Acre, I know having good players is the biggest reason for their success.

Beyond that, what can the less successful teams learn from the Cardinals, Pirates, etc.?

One striking thing is that three of the five teams are cautious spenders. The Cardinals seldom get involved in big-ticket free agents. The Royals and Pirates never do unless it’s for one of their own—Alex Gordon or Andrew McCutchen.

Another characteristic is patience. The Pirates averaged 94 in Neal Huntington’s first five seasons as general manager. The Royals averaged 92 losses in Dayton Moore’s first six seasons as general manager.

Six seasons.

Roll that one around in your mind. Royals owner David Glass and his team president, Dan Glass, stayed the course when it was not a popular thing to do.

To continue to believe in a guy when so many are whispering otherwise in your ear—and in some cases, screaming—is tough.

These are competitive people. They are accustomed to winning regardless of the arena. Here’s what they knew that others didn’t.

That when Moore was hired in 2006 he sat down with his bosses and outlined a plan. He said the Royals had no chance of competing without a great farm system, and Moore intended to build one.

But it would not happen quickly, and the path would not always be smooth. As a scout once told me, “My job is to look at an 18-year-old kid and predict what he’s going to be, both physically and emotionally, at 25. That are just going to be things you can’t predict.”

David and Dan Glass stayed with their guy. They saw the pipeline—Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer—show tangible progress. They saw Moore make shrewd trades and free-agent signings even with a payroll in the bottom half of baseball’s 30 teams.

And when the Royals finally turned a corner, they turned it with breathtaking results. Since June 22, 2014, the Royals are 158-99, including the postseason. That’s 28 more victories than the next-closest AL team (Blue Jays Jays) and 17 more than the next NL club (Cards).

The Royals have done things a certain way. Their defense and bullpen have been so good that it has prompted others to reconsider their core beliefs on roster building. Maybe it’s not just about starting pitching and three-run home runs.

The Royals will always have challenges. Almost every season there’ll be some tough budget decisions and some losses from the roster. In this off-season’s case, Ben Zobrist, acquired at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, signed with the Cubs.

But no general manager has made more smart moves than Moore, and after 30 years, the sport has been born again in one of the country’s great baseball cities.

The Pirates have followed a similar path. They weren’t immediately successful under Huntington, and plenty of fans, columnists, etc., were more than ready to pack his bags.

Pirates owner Bob Nutting stayed the course, seeing the larger picture. Patience is incomprehensibly difficult for competitive people, especially when you’re highest profile venture is subject to daily reviews.

But Nutting understood that the Pirates had to do things a certain way. They had to have a great farm system. Without that, they had zero chance of competing. And their ventures into free agency were going to be more about baseball acumen than simply money.

Did Francisco Liriano still have productive baseball left in him? What if we give him time to heal and put him with our brilliant manager (Clint Hurdle) and pitching coach (Ray Searage).

(In three seasons with the Pirates, Liriano is 35-25 with a 3.26 ERA and has averaged 170 innings. In four seasons before that, he was 34-45 with a 4.85 ERA with 155 innings.)

Anyway, after 20 consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates have made three straight postseason appearances. It’s perhaps the highest tribute to the job Huntington and Hurdle have done that Pirates fans are grousing about not getting past the NL Wild Card Game the last two seasons.

Never mind that they lost to Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta or that the franchise couldn’t even dream of a postseason appearance before Huntington arrived. The Pirates gave a generation or two of their fans almost nothing to cheer about. Now, they’ve built expectations, and that’s a good thing.

Finally, the Cardinals.

That little hacking scandal notwithstanding, they’re probably the most admired organization in the sport.

They have it all: great ownership, terrific management and a core of winning players. They’re in a city where every day of the year is baseball season and have been so successful that the bar for success or failure is the World Series.

The Nationals and Dodgers spend more money, but their baseball operations staff have the same core beliefs of these other three teams. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo built his organization on collecting as many young power arms as possible. The Dodgers have cooled their spending, vowing to get back to a player development-based roster. Despite the money, the Dodgers and Nationals haven’t yet had the postseason success they hope to have.

Maybe the larger point is that the formula for success hasn’t changed all that much. There are new and better ways to arrive at decisions, but the bottom line is–as Branch Rickey taught generations of executives–player development and smart talent assessments. In the end, those two things are what winning is about.

 

 

2 Comments

As a lifetime baseball fan going back to the days of the Kansas City Athletes. I was 12 and my dad took me to one of the two All-Star games in 1960. And currently my hometown Royals. Anyway I really liked your comment for MLB. One of the nuisances of being a contact hitting team are somewhat overlooked IMO. First by putting the ball in play you are forcing the defense to make a play and secondly and more important you are giving your team a chance to advance the runner/runners

You’re almost far away enough from the Chronicle days to crow about the Astros without appearing to be a homer. So even though you didn’t mention the logical connection, I know you know that the KC and PIT story is the Houston story as well.

(I do miss your Chronicle blog and your interaction with everyone, but as a lifelong New Yorker, I missed the radio and TV coverage. At least now that you are with MLB I get to see you on national broadcasts and talk shows. Plus the conversation is much more hopeful these days!)

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