The Kansas City Royals are hot. With eight straight wins in the postseason, the Royals have the air of a team of destiny. The reality of course is much less magical. The Kansas City club moved on to the World Series for the first time in 29 years not because of divine intervention but because they’re executing team fundamentals. They’re playing superior baseball. The Royals’ 2-1 victory Tuesday night was made possible by twice scoring runners from third with less than two outs. Last night’s 2-1 clincher was won in the first inning with a sacrifice bunt and a grounder to the right side of the infield.
“The teams that are flowing, that are a little bit hot, are playing good fundamental ball. That’s why they’re hot,” says Gregg Ritchie, head baseball coach at George Washington University.
Ritchie and I were teammates at GW years ago. He was drafted by the Giants, and played in the Rangers organization, too, before he became one of organized baseball’s most successful hitting instructors. He won a World Series ring with the White Sox in 2005 and then joined the Pirates organization for eight years, most recently two years with the big league club in Pittsburgh from 2011-2012, before coming back to GW as the head coach in 2013. He’s got one of Andrew McCutchen’s bats in a glass case next to the chalkboard where he’s drawing a chart to explain what he means by team fundamentals.
“Sacrifice bunts, advancing runners, putting the ball in play,” he says, hardly exhausting the list of offensive team fundamentals. One the Royals have capitalized on this postseason is getting runners home from third with less than two outs—which is not easy, since, as Ritchie explains, the overall success rate in that situation is only 59 percent.
There are plenty of defensive team fundamentals, too, says Ritchie, including “pick-offs, relays, run-downs, 1st and 3rd defenses, pitcher-fielder plays.” Failure to execute team fundamentals is often the difference between winning and losing. For instance, Randy Choate’s throwing error on a sacrifice bunt Tuesday night cost the Cardinals game three of the National League Championship Series.
Team fundamentals are especially important come October due to the nature of the pitching staffs, which are by definition excellent or else their clubs wouldn’t have gotten to the postseason after 162 games. “There are lots of one-run games in October because good pitching shuts down good hitting, so fundamentals become even more vital,” says Ritchie. “The pitching is so good, and you’re just not going to get a lot of chances against a Cy Young candidate, so if he makes a mistake, you have to jump on it. You’re not going to score six runs, but one run here, two runs there. These so-called little things are not little things, but the big things, which you have to execute one after the other.”
Ritchie admires Royals’ manager Ned Yost’s decision to have Lorenzo Cain, KC’s number three hitter, bunt with runners on first and second and no one out—and in the first inning. “Cain is coming in hitting .533,” says Ritchie, but the percentage of moving two men over is way higher than Cain getting a hit.” After Cain advanced the runners, the next batter Eric Hosmer also executed team fundamentals in pulling the ball to the right side. “He pulled it to first, which not optimal,” explains Ritchie. “Ideally you don’t want to hit it to a corner, but in the middle of the field. Still, he put it on the right side and did his job. That two-run error was all set in motion because of the bunt. This is extremely good fundamental baseball in all regards.”
The issue with team fundamentals is how to convince ballplayers that it means winning baseball—that a successful sacrifice bunt, for instance, might help you get to the World Series.