Before we get to the meat of this column about what went wrong for the Royals in 2016, a quick story about what went right for the Royals in 2015. You remember that season. The energy. The comebacks. The parade.
(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Kansas City Star’s 2017 Royals season preview, which will be available Sunday, April 2 on KansasCity.com and also in a 30-page special section inside Sunday’s print edition of The Star.)
But back in April, long before the dog-pile at Citi Field, the Royals had what Wade Davis considers their defining moment. It was the Oakland series, at Kauffman Stadium, the one where Brett Lawrie’s reckless slide into Alcides Escobar’s knee set off a weekend of finger pointing and testosterone.
Lawrie sent an apologetic text message to a number he had for Escobar, who said he never saw it, but either way a message came back from that number that was, well, less than gracious. There was posturing, words and ultimately a contentious weekend in which Yordano Ventura was ejected for plunking Lawrie, Kelvin Herrera was ejected for throwing behind Lawrie and pointing at his own head — and the Royals completed an eighth-inning comeback to win the series.
More than any of the Royals’ other 94 wins that regular season, more than the epic comeback in Houston, more than Lorenzo Cain’s dash around the bases in the ALCS and more than Eric Hosmer’s sprint home in the World Series, this was the moment that stuck out to Davis.
“You almost have this sense of, ‘(Expletive), did we screw up?’ ” Davis said. “And I felt like, as a team, we were like, ‘It doesn’t matter, we’re still going to come get you.’ That was the coolest moment for me.
“I’ve been on teams where stuff like that happens, you throw at somebody, and people don’t know what to do. You know it’s happening. You get rattled, and the next couple of days it’s a meltdown. In that moment, we were just going to get better than anything said about us or what was going on.”
We can talk about specific baseball reasons the Royals won just 81 games the season after the parade. Davis, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain were injured. Alex Gordon was injured, and terrible. Eric Hosmer’s on-base and slugging percentages slipped. The rotation lacked depth, the bullpen was not overwhelming and the defense was merely very good.
“Just kind of seemed like whenever we had things rolling, and stuff was going good, something would happen,” Hosmer said. “I mean, we lost two guys on one play. We’d win three or four in a row, then someone would go down. It just didn’t happen.”
This is usually where the conversation about 2016 leads. Too many injuries, and the cumulative fatigue of 324 regular-season and 31 postseason games over the previous two seasons catching up with them.
The team that overwhelmed the American League with swagger and bravado won just seven games in July, and now it’s 2017. I asked Salvador Perez if that same mentality fell back a bit.
“The mentality, yeah,” he said. “We missed a lot of guys, and we were tired from the last two years. We got down. When we’re at the stadium, we play hard anyway; you don’t think too much about it. But we got tired.”
That’s human nature, I said.
“Human nature, yes,” he said. “You don’t think about it. But we were tired. It was our mentality, sometimes it’s not physical or anything. It’s mentality. That’s why we need to be better, stay strong always and get back to the World Series.”
There is another side to this, one that general manager Dayton Moore felt but hadn’t articulated until now.
Moore’s Royals have always believed in the power and importance of resilience, perhaps more than most organizations. When Moore’s first official draft with the Royals began with selecting Moustakas second overall, the biggest concern the organization had was that Moose had not yet been through adversity. They did not know how he would handle it.
That’s a good problem to have, of course, but that philosophy — drive, effort and resilience often being more important than talent — guided the Royals over the last decade.
The results in 2014 and 2015 could not have been a more emphatic confirmation. The results of 2016 were an almost unfamiliar step back.
Just kind of seemed like whenever we had things rolling, and stuff was going good, something would happen. I mean, we lost two guys on one play.
Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer
“You have to have the same relentlessness you had in pursuing a championship if you’re going to repeat,” Moore said. “You have to have the same focus on the fundamentals, on perseverance, and as human beings we tend to get a little satisfied at times. We should celebrate our successes, but you have to really stay relentless if you’re going to win.”
Moore hasn’t made this point before. He hasn’t wondered out loud about whether the 2016 team was too satisfied.
“I think we could’ve managed it a lot better,” he said. “I think we let (fatigue) be an excuse at times. When people bring that up, it’s easy to say, ‘Yeah, we’re tired.’ ”
This sends Moore on a story. He said he was relieved when the Royals won Game 5 of the World Series in New York, because he sensed his team was wiped. Going back to Kansas City would’ve meant going back on a loss and having to beat Noah Syndergaard or Jacob deGrom.
The 2015 Royals played baseball the way a mosh pit watches a concert — constant movement, constant intensity, constant madness. It worked, but it also required an enormous stamina.
“You can’t let that creep in and affect you mentally,” Moore said. “Maybe at times (that happened). I think what happened to our team, we had some mental and physical fatigue, and then you get injured and you have to get through that mental fatigue again.
“We had a terrible July, and then a good August, but when when Cain went down again, you just feel it, all of us went ...” — Moore exhales, and slumps his shoulders — “… no matter how we tried to combat that.”
Which brings us back to Davis’ story, at the top of this column.
Injuries are different than a unifying anger, so this is not a direct apples-to-apples comparison between 2015 and 2016.
Few things in sports can be better motivation than losing the World Series by one swing and then feeling like the baseball world is out to get you the next year — and few things in sports can be more deflating than losing four All-Stars to injury, including two on one play.
But we don’t get to pick our obstacles, and the only thing that matters is that the 2015 Royals beat their obstacles to a pulp while the 2016 Royals could not.
The 2015 Royals, quite literally, fought back — Davis said that was the moment. The 2016 Royals covered up — Moore said they let adversity be an excuse, instead of fuel.
When an organization and team is built so heavily on the intangible, these things take on disproportionate importance.
The 2017 Royals have reason to believe. Some of that is the calendar, of course, because even the 2004 Royals believed this time of year. But the rotation is better, and deeper, than it’s been in years. The lineup will have as many as six or even seven home run threats. They should have that energy back, and with four important pending free agents, a group of friends should have every motivation for both individual and team success.
But these things are impossible to predict. The Royals are projected to finish even worse than they did in 2016, according to several metrics and Las Vegas. As with any season, the list of things that might go wrong is long and daunting.
Baseball seasons are often measured in numbers, and around the Royals, we’ll keep close track of their home runs and quality starts and bullpen success. But if the last few years have taught us anything, we’ll learn much more in the moments when this group is challenged, either by themselves or the opposition or just bad luck.
Because that’s where they thrived in 2014, and especially 2015. And that’s where they failed in 2016.