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Whiteyball 2.0: The Kansas City Royals

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The style of play that has made the Royals back-to-back AL Pennant winners and now World Champions bears a lot of similarities to the 1980s Cardinals dynasty.

Student, master.
Student, master.
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

In his autobiography, "White Rat," Whitey Herzog says it was the spacious dimensions of Busch Stadium II and the other multi-use parks of the 1980s National League that led him to the style of play that came to be known as "Whiteyball."

If you're managing in Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, you can wait for a guy to hit a three-run homer. But in our place - and lots of other places around the National League - you take your runs one at a time and hope for more. Hit the ball on the ground and run like hell. Steal a base, sacrifice, push the runner along, first-to-third them to death.

-- Whitey Herzog

That sounds a lot like what we've seen from the Royals the past couple seasons, and it also matches the gut feeling I've had watching them play. For a kid like myself who grew up and first came to love baseball through the Whiteyball Era Cardinals, moments this postseason have sparked the same kind of childhood nostalgia as when Han Solo came onscreen in that new Star Wars trailer.

Comparing two teams from two eras in something as nebulous as "style of play" gets a little squishy, but the parallels are pretty strong.

Herzog lays out three main things he was looking for when he was rebuilding the Cardinals as both Manager and GM: Fast outfielders who could cover the enormous real estate, a catcher who could limit the running game, and a strong bullpen, which he expected would be tasked with protecting a lot of one and two-run leads.

In terms of the outfield, Kauffman Stadium has the most square footage of any current outfield in the major leagues. Like the Cardinals of the 1980s, the Royals cover that wide expanse with some of the very best defensive outfielders in the league (and Alex Rios). This Grantland article (sigh) draws an interesting comparison between the Royals, who have prioritized outfield defense, and the Padres, who have not. All the more interesting is that the Padres center fielder Wil Myers, one of the worst defenders in the league, was a former top-prospect jettisoned by the Royals in favor of Lorenzo Cain, one of the best. Clearly, this team prioritized outfield defense much the way Herzog did.

For Herzog, in an era when stolen bases were much more prominent, a strong defensive catcher was an important way to limit extra bases. "The catcher who can throw forces a team to give up an out by sacrificing the runner over from first," he said. His first move upon becoming GM was to sign Darrell Porter for just that reason. The stolen base is much less prominent in the modern game, so perhaps the logic no longer holds. But it is interesting that even so, the Royals are anchored by Salvador Perez, who consistently rates as one of the very best defensive catchers in the league.

A strong bullpen has clearly been a high priority for the Royals. In fact, last season, it seemed like the only component of the team that pundits consistently gave them credit for. They finished this season 2nd in the league in ERA, 10th in FIP. Whitey's Cardinal bullpens between 1982-1987 ranked first in ERA, 8th in FIP.

So in terms of the philosophy of Whiteyball expressed by Herzog himself, the modern Royals and 80s Cardinals seem simpatico. But the raw numbers show similarities, as well.

One Community Research project over at Fangraphs proposed a method for quantifying team similarities by matching up their offensive and pitching WAR relative to league average. Without doing all the maths, the 2015 Royals and the '82 Cardinals - the Proto-Whiteyball roster - are comparable in some key areas.

The 2015 Royals ranked 5th in position player WAR, 15th in pitching WAR. The '82 Cardinals were 8th on the position player side, 21st on the pitching side (in a league with four fewer teams). Among position players, both teams posted negative offensive value, but made up for it with robust defensive value. In terms of base running, Ultimate Base Running is not available that far back, but the Fangraphs Speed Score ranked the Royals 3rd at 5.1 and the '82 Cardinals 1st at 5.5.

Of course, while the two teams match up reasonably well in the context of their eras, the raw numbers can be surprisingly far apart. Both teams were at or very near the bottom in terms of home runs and isolated power, but while the Royals hit 139 home runs, the Cardinals hit just 67. In terms of stolen bases, they ranked 5th and 2nd in the league, respectively, but that meant just 104 steals for the modern Royals compared to 200 for the '82 Cardinals. By 1985, the Cardinals team steals would balloon to 314, as the team went Full Whiteyball.

There is certainly room to argue about how similar the modern Royals are to the Whiteyball era Cardinals, but it's something that jumped out to me with the naked eye, and seems to be at least somewhat born out by the numbers. There are many different ways to play winning baseball, and this is just one of them. But it's the one I grew up watching, and seeing it again as an adult, I have to admit, it's still pretty beautiful.