There is a world not too different than this one where the Royals are not the American League champions.
This other world has political divisiveness and good food and strange weather patterns, just like this one, but there are no ring fittings for Ned Yost and the guys, no new flag pole atop Kauffman Stadium’s Hall of Fame building in left field, and no capitalism from Kansas City’s greatest sports story in a generation.
Because in this other world, the Royals don’t do the impossible. They don’t come back from four down in the eighth inning against an Oakland A’s pitcher they’d never score against. In this other world, the Royals don’t score in the eighth inning on three singles, two steals, a walk and a wild pitch.
They don’t tie it in the ninth on a single, sacrifice bunt, stolen base and sacrifice fly. And they certainly don’t win it in the 12th when Sal Perez pulls — pulls — a slider two feet off the plate down the left-field line.
In this other world, the Royals are not the American League champions. They are not 90 feet away in game seven of the World Series. None of that happens.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this other world is being talked about in baseball circles this offseason. Actually, a lot of that conversation is taking place among Royals officials.
“Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we were the best team in the American League,” one says. “We weren’t. We were one of them, but we didn’t even win our division.”
When Mike Moustakas flied out to end the seventh inning of the AL Wild Card Game, the win probability formula at FanGraphs gave the Royals a 2.9 percent chance of beating the A’s.
For some perspective, that is a lower percentage than the Patriots had when they were down 10 points in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, or even when the Seahawks had first-and-goal to win it.
The Royals’ chances were nearly identical, actually, to hitting the exact number on a single spin of the roulette wheel.
But what if a scenario that was at one point a 97 percent certainty had become reality?
For one, Ned Yost would be back under heavy verbal attack from media and others in baseball. The decision to bring in Yordano Ventura for his second career relief appearance, and first in the middle of an inning, on two days’ rest after a shaky start would be sort of like Kansas City’s version of an interception at the goal line when you have Marshawn Lynch in the backfield.
Moustakas would’ve gone into an offseason having regressed for the second straight year, a blue-chip prospect who was now a .212 hitter in his third full big-league season. Instead, he is something like a playoffs cult hero — only 19 men have hit more home runs in a single postseason, and his iconic catch into the dugout suites during Game 3 of the ALCS inspired an awesome bobblehead.
Eric Hosmer would’ve had one more year of not quite living up to what the Royals need, a mostly frustrating season marked by an unfortunate hand injury, just nine home runs, and an OPS that ranked 16th among 19 qualifying first basemen. Instead, he was George Brett in 1985 — he hit the crucial triple in the 12th inning of the Wild Card game, the game-winning homer in the 11th inning of game two against the Angels, and helped pick up a $15,000 bar tab for patrons and fans at McFadden’s.
It’s not just them, either. Lorenzo Cain would not be an emerging national star, would not have been named ALCS MVP, and wouldn’t have been recently invited to shoot an ESPN “Sports Science” segment to measure his defensive and athletic brilliance. Ventura’s rookie season would’ve ended in tears after the Wild Card Game, instead of with a mostly dominant postseason run highlighted by an inspired shutdown start against the Giants in game six of the World Series.
An entirely different light would shine on the Royals if not for that epic comeback.
They would have technically ended their postseason drought, but as a second team official put it, “if we lose that first game, what does it matter?”
So, after Moustakas’ fly ball ended the seventh inning, there was a 97 percent chance that Yost would be a consensus dunce, eight years of Dayton Moore’s process would’ve peaked with an effective play-in game, and the team as a whole would still be fighting for credibility.
Without the profits from the playoff run — $10 million or more, it is believed — the Royals would probably not have raised payroll by more than 20 percent, and would not be expecting the same increase in revenue and ticket sales in 2015.
This is all relevant in part because, as the first team official points out, the Royals’ reality is still very close to that hypothetical universe in which they are not coming off a postseason run that captured the hearts of fans and attention of strangers.
And in that hypothetical universe, the questions about the 2015 Royals are much more pointed. The expectations are lower, and dire projections are taken much more seriously.
What’s interesting is there are some who believe this would actually be better for the 2015 Royals, that there is no motivation like the motivation of doubts and disappointment.
This becomes the Royals’ challenge, then: to spend an offseason hearing about how great they are, signing magazine covers with their pictures on them, and then still work like they did to get to this point.
We are still more than a week away from the start of spring training, but the indications are encouraging.
Hosmer was in a restaurant in New York when Ray Allen, the 10-time NBA All-Star and two-time world champion, approached. Hosmer is from Miami, and a big fan of the Heat, so the moment was cool enough ... but he’s already started to spread the message Allen gave him:
Last year was fun, but next year is going to be harder. You have to be ready for that.
Coaches and executives have been encouraged that Hosmer appears to have added good weight — muscle, not fat. Sal Perez can be seen by 8:30 many mornings in full gear, doing receiving drills with coaches.
It is very early, of course — spring training starts in less than two weeks, and the regular season is still eight weeks away — but the guys who’ve reported to the team’s complex in Arizona already are doing and saying the right things.
Man, I can’t believe we didn’t get that game ...
Ninety feet away ...
Hypotheticals aside, this is the world that exists, the one in which the Royals begin their most anticipated season in a generation. They are without James Shields, Billy Butler and Nori Aoki but otherwise are the same group that changed this franchise’s history.
Doing it again will require more work, more pressure and more production under a brighter spotlight. The hope is that it will all be fueled by the experience of falling short of the ultimate goal, rather than fattened by the comfort of a pennant and national adulation.
They must know that a step back in 2015 will be seen by some as a reflection on what they did in 2014. The Royals’ current reality came with some luck and a lot of belief. The work in shaping their next reality starts now.