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Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Sabermetrics and the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy

As I've mentioned before in this space one of the benefits of being a member of SABR is receiving the The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History published each year by SABR and which includes articles written by SABR members. I've just received my copy and was delighted to read an article by Richard Peurzer titled "The Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy". In this post I'll summarize the article and then provide a little analysis from a sabermetric perspective.

In the article Peurzer recounts the history of the academy, the brainchild of late Royals owner Ewing Kauffman who established the franchise in Kansas City in 1969 and opened the academy in Sarasota Florida in 1970. The 121 acre facility included five fields, dorms, offices, classrooms, and a swimming pool and was staffed with a combination of ex-big leaguers, college coaches, and experts outside of baseball in fitness and weight lifting, track, ophthalmology, and psychology. Syd Thrift, who was already employed by the Royals scouting department was tasked with running the academy.

Kauffman established the academy because "he was disenchanted with the conservative nature and the resistance to change found in the baseball establishment." He wanted to apply innovation to baseball in the same way he applied it in his business ventures with Marion Labs where organizations used technology to continually refine their practices. Indeed, the establishment of the academy was quite revolutionary as Peurzer compares it to other improvement efforts in the history of the major leagues, none of which were so extensive or required so much investment.

What most interested me was the recruiting methodology used. It was the goal of the academy not primarily to refine baseball skills but to reach untapped talent. In fact, it was Kauffman's belief that "an athlete did not necessarily have to play baseball all his life in order to be a good baseball player" and that there were lots of athletes who were not scouted or that never played much baseball. And in that vein the tryouts that were held across the country selected 43 out of 7,682 candidates to be the first class at the academy. In particular, four physical attributes (and several psychological ones) were used to make the selections:

  • Excellent running speed (specifically run a 60 yd dash in less than 6.9 seconds)

  • Exceptional eyesight

  • Fast reflexes

  • Superb body balance

  • These attributes were apparently arrived at by testing 150 players, many of whom were already within the Royals organization. These 43 athletes from 23 states were then sent to the academy for 10 months during which they would play 150 games against other pro teams in exhibitions as well as the Gulf Coast League. The players would receive detailed instruction (and attend classes at a local junior college) every day. Some of the innovations created by the academy included the use of pitching machines for both hitting and fielding, weight and strength training using resistance techniques such as rubber bands, stopwatches, and visualization.

    These innovations seemed to payoff in wins and losses as the first class from the academy went 40-13 in the Gulf Coast League, easily wining the championship. In particular the team stole 103 bases in 119 tries, 48 more stolen bases than the second best team. Despite the apparent success the second academy class was scaled down to 20 players and supplemented with Royals minor leaguers for short stints. Still, the team went 41-22 and stole 161 bases. The third class included only 14 players and the team went 27-28, however still leading the league in steals by a large margin. The academy was shut down probably both because of its economic impact, it cost $1.5M to build and $700,000 annually to maintain, and the fact that the old school baseball people running the Royals such as manager Charlie Metro just didn't believe in the concept and coveted the money "which could have been used in the traditional player-development programs."

    In the end it seems to me the academy was a success in two primary ways. First, it graduated 14 players to the majors out of the 77 players, most of whom would never have even been drafted. That seems a pretty high percentage when compared with the draft and includes Frank White, Rodney Scott, U.L. Washington, and Ron Washington.

    Second, the academy was clearly successful in concentrating on advanced training techniques such as weightlifting and some innovative techniques that are still used today. For example, it can be argued as Peurzer does that the academy's focus on base stealing as a skill helped start the revolution in base running in the late 1970s and 1980s. For example, at the academy they determined that an average runner could take a 12-foot lead off first and a 27-foot lead off second and also used stopwatches to time the delivery of pitchers and release times of catchers to calculate the probability of successfully stealing bases. This clearly contributed to the academy teams outstanding base stealing success. Kauffman's analysis that technology was not being used effectively in baseball was largely born out.

    On a higher level though the academy failed in two ways as well. First and most importantly, although the academy graduated 14 players to the majors in just 3 years, the methodology of selection, concentrating on raw athleticism and untapped talent in inner cities, made it a forgone conclusion that those graduates would likely be light-hitting middle infielders who were good base stealers and not offensive producers. This is the case since the academy was (perhaps unwittingly, Peurzer doesn't address this) selecting for the positions that required the most athleticism and the fewest refined skills. So while Kauffman was correct that applying technology could make a difference in baseball, it was applied at the academy without the critical information as to what actually wins baseball games. The sabermetric revolution started to pick up speed at roughly this same time with the publication of The Baseball Encyclopedia although it would be almost a decade before the publication of The Hidden Game of Baseball by Pete Palmer and John Thorn and wide distribution of Bill James' Baseball Abstracts and a further twenty years before big league GMs would start applying some of the principles as documented in Moneyball. As a result, the academy teams were basically one-dimensional teams (although still successful overall). And so lacking this information, the academy probably would not have been successful in producing top-level major league players.

    Second, the academy failed because it didn't convince the entrenched baseball establishment to adopt its approach directly. Kauffman remained a believer and later stated "that he believed that the Royals would have been better off keeping the Academy alive." The failure to make believers out of the front office might be linked to the fact that no super prospect was immediately found, background racism based on the makeup of the classes, or simply to what Charlie Metro called the "crazy instruction". In any case this really can't be laid at the feet of the academy since baseball has historically and continues to be an extremely conservative industry.


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    Anonymous said...

    Around 1969, Kaufman spoke at a Purchasing Conference in New York City. He was well respected as the owner of Marion Labs in KC which made pharmaceutical tablets, etc. He said that he didn't want to focus on the Marion Labs, but wanted to tell us about the academy in Florida and how it came about. He said that he and his staff first contacted NASA to see how they made superstars (astronauts) and they told him abbout the 4 things that they were looking for. Kaufman later hired the top NASA doctor to run the program of contacting the high schools in the USA for candidates.

    Does anyone know more about the NASA story?

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