The Royals should know why the city they play for is suspicious. Nothing personal, guys, but Alex Gordon and Sal Perez and especially James Shields and Jeremy Guthrie might want to know why a fan base starved to watch a winner is watching their best team in 20 years like it’s a wild grizzly bear.
Kansas City has seen this movie before. Not often, because the Royals usually ruin the show somewhere around the opening credits. Twice in the last decade the Royals have made it as far as 40 games with their heads above break-even. Both of those seasons — 2009 and 2011 — have ended with more than 90 losses. Another gory horror flick.
So here comes another beginning. One quarter of the way through the season is the industry standard for fair judgments on teams, and the Royals are as promising as they’ve been since that fluky 2003 season. Good starting pitching (finally), Gordon starring (finally), Billy Butler coming around (finally).
They are two games above .500, within a dream’s reach of a playoff spot, and talking the confident talk of winners. It is all so tempting, but Royals fans have seen this movie scene before, and it always ends in tears or blood. They come by their skepticism honestly, you know, expecting a monster around every corner because so far, there’s been a monster around every corner.
Pardon them as they double-check this team for claws.
The Royals have the longest playoff drought in North American sports, 27 years and counting. Their incompetence is old enough to be married, to own a house, to have good credit, to have graduated from medical school.
It is an institution in Kansas City and around baseball, one that’s birthed more bad spin-offs than “Seinfeld.” The worst of the indirect consequences might be that any brief break from the losing is met with over-analysis and a gorging of attention, like a starving man unsure of his next meal.
This is part of why the 2009 Royals, for instance, were even good enough to break hearts. That team was Zack Greinke and Billy Butler and a bunch of duct tape that looked to be maybe, hopefully, with-a-few-breaks good enough to be .500.
They started 18-11 before the tape began to slip. Coco Crisp got hurt then Jose Guillen the pitching was atrocious. They were under .500 by Memorial Day, 12 games under by July 4, 111/2 games back by the All-Star break, and calling it the most disappointing season in franchise history by the end.
This is how it’s always gone for the Royals. Days upon days upon long days of thirst, the joy of the occasional sip of water never lasting much beyond a quick taste. Then more thirst.
Which we should all — fans, media, Royals coaches, executives and the players themselves — keep in mind however long Kansas City is allowed to sip from this new glass of hope.
James Shields’ first big league team lost 101 games. Those 2006 Devil Rays scored fewer runs than every other team in the league and gave up more than all but two. The next year, they finished an even 30 games behind first place, the 10th season in a row Tampa Bay had lost more than 90 games.
The organization dropped the “Devil” from their name that offseason, and, coincidence or not, went from the worst team in baseball to the World Series the next year. Shields wrote a book about that team, and helped win 90 or more games in each of his last five years before being traded to Kansas City before this season.
Shields’ career has doubled as a doctoral course on the difference between good teams and bad ones. He’s lived both lives, from the inside. The difference?
“It’s just putting it together as a team, playing as a team,” he says. “Amnesia has a lot to do with it, being able to forget losses, and going out there and competing. It all starts with starting pitching, that’s what we’re doing a good job of.
“But the difference is chemistry, I think. This can be a very selfish game, and the less selfishness we have in this clubhouse, the more we’re going to play together.”
This is as tight a clubhouse as you can typically find in the big leagues, teammates who legitimately count each other among their best friends. Those hand signs hitters make back to the dugout after getting on base are goofy and irrelevant, but they are also a picture of guys who truly like one another.
It’s a fair point Shields makes, but the Royals have had clubhouses full of friendships before and failed. Two years ago, the Royals laughed together like a bunch of old high school buddies but also lost 95 games, including 11 of 13 at one point, and 17 of 22 at another.
No, we need more.
The thing that makes this Royals team different than the limp versions that have come before is actual talent. This is the best team, on paper, the Royals have had since the 1994 strike.
Even if that’s a bit of faint praise, it at least means that your hope isn’t in a team that signed Jose Lima out of an independent league sight unseen (2003), began with Kyle Davies and Sidney Ponson in the rotation (2009) or started Luke Hochevar on opening day (2011).
This is a real big league team, a good one even. That may or may not be good enough for the playoffs. They had the look of an 84-or-so win team before the season, were on pace for 85 entering Saturday, and figure to be around that most of the year. But it should be good enough to dream a little.
There will be five playoff teams in each league this year for the first time, as you know. An analysis of the last five years of teams that would’ve qualified with this new format shows the Royals are so far performing at or near the average of that 25-team group.
They are pitching slightly better (3.57 ERA was tied for third in the league entering Saturday’s games, vs. a 4.01 ERA ranking between fifth and sixth for the playoff teams), and scoring significantly less (4.39 per game ranks ninth, vs. 4.97 per game ranking between fourth and fifth).
The most important stat, by far, is run differential. Twice in the last five years, the top five teams in run differential were the same five teams that would’ve made the playoffs in the current format. Only three of the 25 teams ranked below sixth, none below eighth. The Royals had the American League’s seventh-best run differential entering Saturday’s games.
Put another way: if the 2013 Royals aren’t a playoff team, they’re a close enough to play one in a movie.
Nobody can tell you how to feel about your team, of course. The Royals have spent the last 27 years teaching a new generation of fans that the better times are yesterday or tomorrow but never today. Never quite yet. Never quitenow
If you want to be skeptical, you can build a good case even without the Royals’ rotten history. They’ve scored three or fewer runs in more than half their games. Chris Getz and Jeff Francoeur are swinging with the combined punch of a dandelion. Mike Moustakas is hitting .189. Wade Davis is on pace for a very Davies-ian season in the rotation. Eric Hosmer has six extra-base hits and Kelvin Herrera has given up seven home runs.
So, sure. You don’t need to look far for reasons to stay away from believing in this Royals team. They’ve burned you before. They surrendered benefit of the doubt at some point in the 1990s. You have every reason to wait this out, to save your hope.
But how much fun would that be?