“There’s no reason this team can’t go on a run where you win 15 of 20.”
—Kansas City Royals GM Dayton Moore, 7/18/2013
With all due respect to Herm Edwards, when he said “You PLAY to WIN the GAME,” perhaps the greatest sports quote ever set to an iambic rhythm, he was being both blindingly obvious and curiously vague. Eleven years later, neither Edwards nor anyone else has given a satisfactory answer to the question that naturally follows from his quote: Which game?
Is the goal to win all of them equally? Or is the goal to win the last game of the season? If it’s the latter, is it OK to sacrifice wins in the here and now in the pursuit of the ultimate delayed gratification in the future? Is it OK to trade John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander? Does a winning record constitute success when it is not accompanied by a playoff spot?
These questions go right to the heart of the sporting endeavor, because the question that Edwards was answering was even more basic than “Why do we play?” It was “Why do we care?” Why do we root for our teams, and what are we rooting for? The reason no one can answer that question definitively is because every fan has the right to answer that question themselves. It is, in fact, the fundamental prerogative of the sports fan. Love means never having to say you’re sorry you’re rooting for a loss, if a loss today serves the ultimate purpose of winning a championship in the future. It means never having to apologize for being a member of the George Steinbrenner School of Thinking, where nothing short of a title satisfies you.
But what if you haven’t tasted success recently? What if you’re in your twenties and haven’t tasted success ever? What if your team hasn’t played a meaningful game since 1985? How low do you set your standards then?
That’s the question facing fans of the Kansas City Royals, a team that’s on pace to win more games than it has in 20 years — and still on pace to miss the playoffs for the 28th consecutive season. Is the season a success? Or a disappointment?
Barely four weeks ago, no one was asking those questions. The Royals limped into the All-Star break 43-49, having lost five games in a row. They were in third place, eight games behind the Detroit Tigers and 9½ games out of the second wild-card spot. They had the 11th-best record in the American League. This, after pushing all their chips into the pot last winter, trading überprospect Wil Myers for an elusive no. 1 starter in James Shields, and assembling the highest payroll in team history.
Their season started well enough. The Royals began the year 17-10, and on the morning of May 6 were just a half-game out of first. That night they took a 1-0 lead against the Chicago White Sox into the ninth inning, but closer Greg Holland blew the save and the Royals lost in 11. Thus began a stretch in which they lost 19 of 23 games, and by May 30 they were 21-29 and in last place. Circumstances had grown so dire that the front office pulled a lever that most people didn’t even know existed. The team’s hitting coaches, Jack Maloof and Andre David, were both fired and replaced with … George Brett, the greatest Royal ever. Somehow, general manager Dayton Moore convinced Brett to give up his life of vacations in Bora Bora and 18 holes of golf every morning for the daily grind of 10 hours at the ballpark breaking down swing planes and getting his guys into the right psychological state of mind to succeed.1
Along with Brett, the Royals hired Pedro Grifol as the new assistant hitting coach. Grifol privately gets much of the credit for the work that’s been done with Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, and succeeded Brett as the main guy when Brett retired again.
“His guys” meant Hosmer and Moustakas, basically. The two cornerstones of the organization, both top-three overall picks, were expected to break out in their third season in the majors. Instead, Hosmer was hitting .261/.321/.335 and Moustakas had an even grimmer line of .184/.254/.309.
It took Brett a few weeks to get through to his charges, but the Royals’ fortune turned immediately, thanks to some meteorological luck and a patient umpiring crew. That night the Royals were themselves down a run headed to the ninth inning in St. Louis, but managed to score three times before a monsoon hit Busch Stadium. Under baseball’s byzantine rain-delay rules, had the game not resumed, it would have reverted to the score at the end of eight innings. But the umps held out for four hours, 32 minutes, and the Royals held on to win at 3:14 a.m.
The team treaded water from that point; they went 22-20 heading into the All-Star break, salvaging mere disappointment from what had looked like a catastrophe. But two weeks from the trade deadline, the Royals looked like sellers again. It was time to start the annual process of trading off impending free agents for future prospects, licking their wounds, and preparing for next season. You know, like every summer in Kansas City since the year Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was released in theaters.
And then came what can best be described as the Royals’ Joe Namath moment.
When Moore made the claim that leads this article, in the process of explaining why he wasn’t yet willing to draw the curtains on the 2013 season, he practically begged to be mocked mercilessly. (Full disclosure: Yours truly eagerly took part in the mocking.) And for good reason: Since Moore was hired as the Royals’ GM in 2006, the Royals hadn’t won 15 out of 20 games at any point in any season.2
If you want to be technical about it, the Royals did go 15-5 from mid-September 2008 to early April 2009.
It took a fair amount of chutzpah for Moore to say anything optimistic about the Royals, given his track record. The Royals have had a losing record every season since he was hired; every other team in the majors had finished over .500 in that span, save the Pirates, who are on pace to win 96 games. To say that the Royals could win 15 of 20 games and get back into the playoff hunt was a claim that shot right past “self-serving” and landed straight on “delusional.”
And sure enough, the Royals didn’t win 15 out of 20 games straight out of the gate in the second half. They won 16 out of 20.
The Royals actually won 19 of 24 games after the All-Star break, for the first time since 1991, before losing their last three games. Along the way George Brett stepped down as hitting coach3 — he said he’d give the Royals a month, and he lasted almost two — and the Royals responded with their first nine-game winning streak since 2003. They won 17 of 20 for the first time since 1980. They are as hot as they’ve been in decades.
Brett took off his uniform right before the Royals went out on a road trip, and he immediately took his family on a vacation to a ranch in Idaho. Hey, if you could live the Fabulous Life of George Brett, you’d probably do the same thing.
Key to their resurgence have been the two guys they’ve meant to build their lineup around: Since June 19, Moustakas is hitting .288/.337/.474, and Hosmer is hitting .329/.356/.543 with 10 home runs in less than two months. (By comparison, no one on the team has more than 13 home runs all season.)
But to explain away the Royals’ success on the backs of Hosmer and Moustakas would be facile and inaccurate. While they’ve been raking, Alex Gordon — the team’s best player the last two seasons — has been ice-cold. Gordon was hitting .340/.379/.502 when Brett was hired; he has hit .202/.295/.343 since. The offense has been better during the hot stretch, but not that much better. Prior to the All-Star break, the Royals had scored 3.97 runs per game. Since the break, they’ve scored 4.15 runs per game — still below the league average of 4.37 — but have gone 19-8.
It’s on run prevention that the Royals have really shined. They went into the All-Star break having allowed 4.05 runs per game, itself an excellent mark. From June 1 to June 14, the Royals went 13 straight games without allowing more than three runs, the longest streak by an AL team since the 1991 Blue Jays. But since the break the Royals have been particularly stingy, having allowed 76 runs in 27 games, or 2.81 runs per game.
Notice that I said “run prevention” and not “pitching.” The hidden story of the Royals’ season, the real reason why they’re on pace for their best season in decades, is that an ordinary pitching staff is being buoyed by an extraordinary defense. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Royals’ pitching staff — “ordinary” is quite the compliment relative to the standards set by Royals pitchers in recent years. (Kansas City has finished in the bottom half of the AL in runs allowed for 16 consecutive seasons.) Their big winter acquisition, James Shields, has pitched exactly as well as the Royals should have expected; he has taken the ball every fifth day, he has thrown at least six innings in 23 of his 25 starts, and he has a 3.33 ERA. Never mind — for now — that Wil Myers has been even better than expected in Tampa Bay so far, with a 152 OPS+.
But Shields has been matched pitch-for-pitch by another pitcher acquired by trade last winter, at roughly 1 percent the cost in prospects. The Los Angeles Angels had a club option on Ervin Santana for 2013 at $13 million, but made it clear that they didn’t want to spend the money. So the Royals sent a fringe prospect4 to the Angels for the 30-year-old righty, with the Angels picking up only the $1 million buyout portion of his contract.
Brandon Sisk, a lefty reliever who had been signed out of an independent league, and who will miss all of 2013 after Tommy John surgery.
It was a risk — Santana had a 5.16 ERA in 2012 and led the AL in homers allowed. But the Royals reasonably figured that they were buying low on a pitcher who had a 3.38 ERA just the year before, had pitched much better in the second half, and was pitching for his next contract. It was just a one-year commitment, and while it’s not quite true that there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal, it’s true enough.
This was not a bad deal. Santana has a 3.19 ERA in 24 starts, and, like Shields, has thrown at least six innings in all but two of them. (The Angels, meanwhile, took all the money they saved on Santana and fellow starting pitcher Dan Haren and gave it to Josh Hamilton. They’re 54-66.)
The sheer quantity of innings thrown by Shields and Santana has been nearly as valuable as their quality. Last season, the Royals’ starters averaged fewer than 5.5 innings per start, and their relievers led the AL in innings pitched. This year, their starters are averaging 6.14 innings per start, and their relievers have thrown the fewest innings of any AL bullpen.
Fewer innings from relievers means fewer opportunities for the worst pitchers to pitch. With all the strain on the bullpen last year, the Royals still had the fourth-lowest bullpen ERA in the AL. But this year, they’re lapping the field with a 2.73 bullpen ERA; no other AL team is under 2.93. Holland has a case for being the best reliever in the AL. Since the game that started their tumble back on May 6, he has saved 25 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in franchise history. The Royals, as a whole, have allowed the fewest runs in the league.
But when you look at the numbers, something doesn’t add up. The Royals are just 11th out of 15 teams in strikeouts. They’re seventh in walks allowed. They’re tied for third in fewest home runs allowed, but pitch in a ballpark that suppresses power. Based on the three events that pitchers control — homers, walks, and strikeouts — this looks like an average pitching staff. How do they lead the league in ERA?
By having the best defense in the league, and it’s not close. Baseball Info Solutions publishes a metric called Defensive Runs Saved, based on analyzing the difficulty of every ball put in play and whether the defense turns it into an out or not. By that metric, the Royals’ defense has saved 69 runs more than an average defense, or 0.58 runs per game. They are neck and neck with the Diamondbacks for the major league lead; no other team is better than plus-37. With a third of the season left, the Royals are already approaching the top 10 all time in DRS since the stat started being measured in 2002. (If you prefer the eye test, the Royals also lead all of baseball this season in ESPN’s Web Gems.)
This isn’t a case of one or two sublime defensive players — think Andrelton Simmons in Atlanta — carrying a team. The Royals have plus defenders everywhere on the field. At first base, Hosmer’s numbers are finally catching up with his reputation; behind the plate, Salvador Perez made the All-Star team in large part because of his glove. (Both Hosmer and Perez were rated the best defensive players in the league in Baseball America‘s “Best Tools” survey released last week.) Alcides Escobar is slightly above-average at shortstop, and Moustakas’s numbers this year peg him as right around average.
But the outfield is where the Royals have really shone, particularly after Jeff Francoeur and his walker were released at the end of June. (It’s not a coincidence that the Royals took off after Frenchy was cut.) Center fielder Lorenzo Cain might be the most underrated defensive player in the majors. The numbers from Baseball Info Solutions state he’s been worth 21 runs above average by himself, in just 94 games. In right field, rookie David Lough (plus-14 in 65 games) has been a defensive revelation, with outstanding first-step quickness and excellent instincts. Fourth outfielder Jarrod Dyson (plus-six in 41 games) occasionally takes bad routes, but is quite possibly the fastest man in the majors. (In roughly a full season’s worth of playing time for his career, he has 69 steals in 80 attempts.) And left fielder Alex Gordon has won the last two Gold Gloves at the position, and is plus-48 since the start of the 2011 season.
With three center fielders patrolling their outfield, it’s no wonder the Royals have given up the fewest doubles in the league. And it’s no wonder Santana has bounced back, and Shields has continued to get results despite a worrisome drop in his strikeout rate, and Jeremy Guthrie, in the first year of a three-year free-agent contract, has a respectable 4.15 ERA despite the third-lowest strikeout rate of any qualifying starter in the majors. Pitching in front of an average defense, their ERAs would be a half-run higher.
But no pitcher has benefited more from the defense than Bruce Chen, who began the year in the bullpen and took over the no. 5 spot from Luis Mendoza only last month. Chen is an extreme fly ball pitcher, and with all those fly balls finding gloves, Chen has the lowest ERA (1.62) of any pitcher in the majors with 60-plus innings.
The Royals have gone 4-19 this year, and they’ve gone 19-5, but the biggest difference between their peaks and valleys may simply be luck. The Royals won 10 one-run games in a row before losing Tuesday night, the second-longest winning streak in team history, while back in May they lost eight one-run games in a row, tied for the longest losing streak in team history.
For the year as a whole, they are 23-18 in one-run games, exactly what you’d expect from a team with an excellent bullpen, which underscores the point: The Royals are not a fluke. They have the best run prevention in the league and just enough offense to make it work. (When the Royals score four or more runs, they are 47-9.) They’re on pace to win 84 games, which would be their highest win total since 1993. But they have just the eighth-best record in the AL and are on pace to extend their playoff-free streak to 28 years, a full seven years longer than any other team in American pro sports.
So I ask again: Is the season a success?
On a superficial level, the answer is pretty obvious: yes. Seven years after he was hired, and two years after his farm system was crowned as the best baseball had seen in at least two decades, Moore has put together the best Kansas City roster since at least 1994. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but the Royals have finally arrived, even if the destination is “competitive baseball” and not the playoffs.
The season has been deemed a success to the people who matter most: the fan base. Saturday night, the Royals had a near-sellout crowd of 38,742; it was the first time since 2003 that 35,000 fans showed up for a game in August. The five highest ratings ever for the Royals’ TV provider have all occurred in the last 10 days. Ratings for the season are up 65 percent over last year.
But on a deeper level, it’s difficult to separate an evaluation of this season with an evaluation of the trade that set it up. Last December, the Royals traded Wil Myers and three other prospects for James Shields, Wade Davis, and Elliot Johnson. I wrote the next day that it was a terrible, shortsighted, desperate trade that would almost certainly haunt the Royals for years to come.
And today, I stand by that position 100 percent. Because the shame of it is, even if they hadn’t made the trade, the Royals would probably still be on pace for their first winning season in 10 years. For one thing, in games not started by Shields, the Royals are 48-46.
And much of the success that Shields has had is wiped out by the failures of the guys he brought with him from Tampa Bay. Davis has a 5.29 ERA in 22 starts — despite that dazzling defense behind him — higher than all but three pitchers in the majors with as many innings. Johnson has hit .179/.218/.241 in a utility role, and had one hit in his last 53 at-bats before he was designated for assignment yesterday. No, really. Shields has been worth 2.2 Wins Above Replacement, but Davis and Johnson have been so bad that the trio of players has been worth 1.2 WAR.
Wil Myers, by himself, has been worth 1.9 WAR. He has done that in just 45 games, because the Rays kept him in the minors until late June for financial reasons. He’s the odds-on favorite to be the AL Rookie of the Year. He’s hitting .326/.379/.525. He’s practically the American League version of Yasiel Puig. And this ignores the three other prospects the Rays got, including top-100 ranked Jake Odorizzi.
The Royals traded Myers for Shields in order to advance their timetable, so that they could win this year. One of the biggest criticisms of the trade at the time was that if the Royals wanted to win this year, they could have simply played Wil Myers. It’s one thing to trade future talent for present talent; in Myers, they traded a prospect who was so close to being major league–ready that you didn’t have to project him into the future at all.
Even without Myers, the Royals still have a wealth of young hitting talent on their roster. After back-to-back seasons with the youngest offense in the majors, the Royals still have the third-youngest offense (average 27.0 years old) in baseball. Hosmer, Moustakas, and Perez have all yet to see their 25th birthdays; there’s still upside. But the tragedy is that Myers may have more upside than all of them, and he’s gone without making the 2013 Royals appreciably better. And that doesn’t even take into account that the Royals could have spent the $13.3 million they’re spending on Shields and Davis on free-agent starting pitchers, while paying Myers the league minimum to start in right field. Myers will make the league minimum again next year. And in 2015. And in 2016 …
The Royals’ best defense to this argument is this: Regardless of what WAR might say, the trade did make the 2013 Royals a better team. And they’re probably right, because few of the pitchers available in free agency last winter have pitched as well as Shields, and because the Royals have lucked out with David Lough, who has patched up the hole in right field created by Myers’s departure better than anyone could have expected.
Lough has hit .293/.315/.423 in his rookie season, and thanks to his off-the-charts defensive numbers, actually has more WAR (2.5) than Myers or any other AL rookie. His success is almost certainly unsustainable because of his poor plate discipline (just eight walks in 68 games), because his incredible defensive numbers will probably regress a little, and mostly because he’s 27 years old. Unless you have a valid excuse, like playing in Japan (Ichiro Suzuki) or Cuba (Yoenis Cespedes was 26), a hitter who doesn’t stick in the majors until he’s 27 is probably never going to improve on his rookie season. (Myers, by comparison, is 22.) Lough is likely to have a long career as a fourth outfielder, but he might never have a season as good as this one.
But, at least for 2013, the Royals can argue they’re a better team for having made the trade. Not a lot better — maybe a win or two at most. You play to win the game, but is that win worth trading a couple dozen wins over the next six years?
Judging from my Twitter feed, and the response I get whenever I suggest that this season would be even sweeter with Myers in right field, a significant portion of the fan base would answer yes. After a generation wandering the desert, if someone offers you your choice of a tall glass of water or directions to the nearest oasis, some people are going to take the water. After 28 years of waiting, delayed gratification doesn’t come easy. But to really justify the trade, the Royals need to make the playoffs, even if it’s for just three hours on the road in the wild-card game. And they probably need to do it this year, because Wil Myers might be even better next year, and in 2015 Shields will be a free agent, and Davis will probably be gone too.5
Davis has a $7 million club option for 2015, and larger options for 2016 and 2017, but the way he’s pitching those options are unlikely to be exercised.
The odds are against them making the playoffs, but they’re much better than they were four weeks ago. At the All-Star break, ESPN.com pinned the Royals’ playoff odds at 4.9 percent; they’re all the way up to 14 percent now. Baseball Prospectus, whose model is less impressed by the Royals’ talent, had them at just 0.7 percent and now pegs them at 3.5 percent. The Royals are now just 5½ games behind the Rays and A’s, who are holding down the two wild-card spots. And having just beaten the Red Sox three out of four, the Royals have a fairly favorable schedule the rest of the season. Just 20 of their 43 remaining games come against teams at .500 or better, and 16 of those 20 are against Cleveland and Detroit — giving the Royals a direct opportunity to make up ground in the wild-card race, and a slim chance to compete for the division.
It’s a long shot, because the Royals were unlikely to stay this hot the rest of the season, and in fact have lost three in a row, which has already chipped away at their postseason odds. While the team has been remarkably healthy all season — a young roster and a crack training staff will do that — they’re starting to fray around the edges. Cain pulled an oblique muscle last Friday that could keep him out until September, depriving the Royals of their best defender. Ageless wonder Miguel Tejada, who at 39 is hitting .288/.317/.378, went on the DL Sunday with a strained calf muscle and is out for the season, depriving the Royals of their only second baseman who could hit water if he fell out of a boat.
And they need to stay this hot, because with so many teams still in front of them, it’s likely that one of those teams will get hot as well. Even going 19-8 since the break, the Royals have actually lost a half-game on the Tigers in the AL Central. If the A’s or Rays or Orioles go on a tear, the Royals may find that even a strong finishing kick will be for naught. As will having traded Myers for Shields.
But sometimes bad trades lead to good outcomes. Two summers ago, the Cardinals traded Colby Rasmus, just 24 years old and a year removed from hitting .276/.361/.498, in a three-way trade that landed them starting pitcher Edwin Jackson and specialist relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski. Rasmus had well-publicized issues with manager Tony La Russa, and a change of scenery was in everyone’s best interests — and the trade still made no sense on paper. Jackson and Dotel were both free agents in two months, while Rasmus was under club control for three more years. (He’s hitting .275/.336/.482 for the Blue Jays this year.) The Cardinals gave away Rasmus for some short-term spare parts. There was no way for them to win the trade.
They won the trade. They won the trade because all three pitchers they acquired did their part as the Cardinals squeaked into the playoffs by a single game. The Cardinals then won three playoff series in a row, with Jackson, Dotel, and Rzepczynski all logging innings. The Cardinals won a world championship. Never mind that if the Braves had not collapsed, blowing a three-game lead for the final playoff spot with five games to go, the Cardinals would have missed the playoffs altogether. The Cardinals. Won. A championship. So they won the trade. This isn’t up for discussion.
If the Royals keep their miraculous revival going for another seven weeks, they can turn a bad trade into a good outcome as well. A playoff spot in Kansas City will be greeted with the sort of delirium that accompanies a championship in other cities. If they play even deeper into October — and if Big Game James is the reason they’re doing that — the legacy of the trade will be very different than it looks right now.
Right now the trade looks like a mistake, because it’s going to lead to a hangover without the party. A winning record this season isn’t enough. Big crowds in August aren’t enough. Call me greedy, but you don’t trade Wil Freaking Myers for moral victories. You trade him for postseason victories. Unless the Royals can keep driving the bus into October, Moore deserves to be raked over the coals for the trade.
But perhaps he also deserves to be recognized for getting the Royals this close to the postseason in the first place. Maybe it’s a long shot, but a long shot is different from a no-shot, and Royals fans have been trained to know the difference. The trade might be a failure, but baseball matters again in Kansas City. If the Royals can play meaningful baseball into September, this season is a success. We’ll see about the seasons to come.
This article originally stated that the Royals got Jake Odorizzi as part of the Wil Myers trade. Odorizzi was actually sent from the Royals to the Rays for Wade Davis, James Shields, and Elliot Johnson.