James Shields has lived everything the Royals are dreaming of. He has clinched a division title at Kauffman Stadium, walked into his team’s clubhouse to find plastic sheets protecting the lockers and goggles protecting some of his teammates’ eyes.
This happened four years ago. His Rays team was built on pitching and defense, with an athletic group of position players who seemed to find the right moment. Their best players and their best pitchers were all drafted by the Rays, coming up through the system together. Evan Longoria, David Price, Ben Zobrist, Jeremy Hellickson, and others. Shields still calls that group family.
They were young, and the envy of the baseball industry — successful, relatively cheap, and nearly all of them under club-controlled contracts.
They had already clinched at least a wild-card spot when they came to Kansas City for the last series of the season, but fell into a tie in the AL East after losing the first two games to the Royals. Shields was rocked for seven runs in five innings in one of the losses.
That Rays team was a resilient bunch. They’d shown that all season, and after they won the last game in the 12th inning — on an unearned run off Greg Holland — it was time to spray champagne and beer all over the visitors’ clubhouse.
Shields, of course, has one more season to do that across the hallway in the home clubhouse. But especially now, he holds that experience in 2010 dear for reasons that go beyond geography.
The Royals just finished one of their worst weekends of baseball in recent memory, and by the franchise’s sorry standards, that’s quite an accomplishment. This is the best Royals team (on paper) in a generation, and with Shields scheduled for free agency this winter, every success — and especially failure — will be magnified.
So they didn’t need those three embarrassing games in Minnesota: two blowouts followed by a disheartening loss on Sunday lowlighted by a Little League combination of physical and mental mistakes from Wade Davis that the pitcher himself called“unacceptable.”
The Royals stand 4-7, the worst record in the American League, and a fan base trained to expect the worst is doing what it’s been taught. Most baseball people like to wait 40 games, but most baseball people haven’t suffered throughan agonizing run of letdowns that have made annual geniuses of the first fans to say same-ol’-Royals
At the risk of inserting reason into an emotional issue, let’s look through recent baseball history. We’ll see the Royals are neither in an insurmountable hole that a justifiably skeptical fan base has been trained to assume, or the blank canvas that the wait-40-games-no-matter-what crowd suggests.
In the last 10 years, the 42 American League playoff teams have won an average of six of their first 11 games. Put together, they have a cumulative winning percentage of .548, which works out to about an 89-win season over 162 games. Those teams ended up winning an average of about 95 games.
Over the same period, about 65 percent of the teams above .500 at this point in the season played above .500 the rest of the way. About 57 percent of the teams below .500 at this point stayed that way.
Sixteen of those playoff teams were below .500 after 11 games, including at least one every season. We’re dealing with relatively small samples here, obviously, but you might be interested to know that a team has started 4-7 and made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. So if the Royals fulfill their promise of this season after a slow start, they will not have done it in particularly remarkable fashion. At least, not without losing a bunch more games first.
Still, outside of injuries or showing up at the wrong stadium, the Royals could not have done much more in a three-day span to crumble fans’ confidence.
In other words, recent baseball history shows that any major judgments made this early in a season are at best inconsistent. But a generation of Royals history shows that fans have far more reason to expect the worst.
It’s up to the players, then, to prove they can be the exception — an exception like the one Shields celebrated at Kauffman Stadium three years ago.
Hard to remember now, but there was a time that Shields played on a team many thought was done after a week. This was 2011, the year after they celebrated in Kansas City. Those Rays looked lost. If you value first impressions, you’d have dismissed that group 10 days into the season.
They lost their first six, and eight of their first nine. You think this Royals team can’t hit? Those Rays scored 11 runs in those eight losses. One man was hitting better than .250. Six regulars were hitting .200 or worse, and their manager had jokingly toasted them as“the best 0-6 team in the history of baseball.”
They proved their manager right, of course, which is why we’re talking about them three years later. They loosened up, promised each other they’d make baseball fun again, and learned how to lose one day without letting it affect them the next.
So Shields (and Wade Davis) have been through this before. The tough start, at least. Their own experience and recent baseball history shows it is entirely possible. The bullpen has been a problem, and the offense — in particular, Billy Butler — needs to produce much more. A story that began 4-7 and ended in the playoffs would hardly cause a raised eyebrow in baseball circles.
It’s just that in Kansas City, there is so very little history upon which to base optimism.