There are a million ways the Royals’ new normal of aggressive success is different from their old normal of overmatched failure.
For instance, in the old days, Balbino Fuenmayor’s run of success in Omaha would’ve had him hitting cleanup in Kansas City, as became tradition with Calvin Pickering and Kila Ka’aihue and too many others. In the old days, Terrance Gore’s speed would be presented as reason to make him the big-league team’s new leadoff hitter, never mind his .286 lifetime on-base percentage in the minors.
Heck, in the old days, being 14-13 in the first week of May would’ve been cause for a parade.
Here’s one more difference: almost exactly nine years ago, the Royals lost a Kids’ Day game 17-3. Three different pitchers gave up at least four runs. An editor wanted me to talk to the young fans and write about whether they were horrified that the Royals had lost an entire generation of fans. I declined, instead writing about the team’s general stink, but the next day’s headline was a classic: NOT IN FRONT OF THE KIDS.
On Wednesday, the Royals lost a Kids’ Day game 13-2. It was, in some ways, an even worse performance. The first two opposing batters reached on errors. The Royals made a third error before recording an out. The Royals managed just four baserunners and struck out 11 times.
All of that happened, and I wasn’t sure what to write.
In the old days, it would’ve been the perfect setup to write another story about a broken organization. We might’ve even mentioned some of the favorites — no cell phones for scouts, running out of draft money after the fifth round, Ken Harvey’s back and lots of Emil Brown stories.
But now, it all still feels like an anomaly.
The Royals are playing terribly, and more than that, they know they are playing terribly. After a Major League Baseball game, the losing clubhouse is always a quiet place. Guys move around in silence, heads mostly down, the omnipresent disappointment in an opportunity gone.
But, most times, there is nuance to the environment. Baseball people love to describe theirs as “a game of failure.” Bryce Harper was the National League’s unanimous MVP last year exclusively because of his bat, and he made 364 outs at the plate. The Royals’ clubhouse went silent after 67 losses last year, plus five more in the playoffs.
The trick is to respect the failure — to be driven by it, but not discouraged.
“The effort and concentration are there,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “We just have to execute better.”
“We need to play better, that’s it,” center fielder Lorenzo Cain said. “Me, myself, I’m playing terrible.”
All of which is a long introduction to the latest and perhaps most overlooked difference between the Royals’ new normal of success and their old normal of failure:
All of this hand-wringing, and they are a game over .500.
The Royals are underperforming up and down the roster. Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are, basically, the only guys hitting. The regular starting lineup includes five players with on-base-percentages under .300. That number becomes six when Paulo Orlando starts for Jarrod Dyson in right field. Two of the five starting pitchers have been bad. Joakim Soria had a rough first month.
All of that is true, and so is this: the Royals have still won more games than they’ve lost.
A bit of perspective: much of the concern from some fans and media centers around the Royals’ defense, and to be fair, there have been some bizarre mistakes, including two in consecutive games by Dyson.
This is also true: no team in baseball has fewer errors this season, and only two have more Defensive Runs Saved.
The old Royals had to play great to approach .500. The new Royals can play terribly and still be above .500.
The standard in Kansas City is now the World Series, and of course the Royals will have to play much better to take advantage of a shrinking window with their current core of players. But it’s also a sign of a very good team to play badly and still win.
This is said around baseball so much that even those of us who say it a lot roll our eyes, but it’s still true: the season is so young. The Royals have 135 games left. They are three games short of where they stood last year, and exactly even with their mark two years ago. Both of those seasons ended in the World Series, where they played teams that entered the playoffs with regular-season losing streaks of five, seven, five, six, six, and five games.
Nobody can be sure where this season will go, and there are some legitimate reasons for concern. Alex Gordon is striking out far too much. Same with Cain, who seems to go through stretches of trying to pull everything. Kendrys Morales looks like he missed spring training.
The bullpen, in front of the impenetrable Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera, has been inconsistent. The loss on Wednesday was ugly and made for a stretch of seven defeats in nine games. In all but three of those games, the Royals scored two or fewer runs.
Of the 22 American League regulars with an OPS of .635 or lower, five are employed by the Royals. No other team has more than two.
The Royals’ new normal means a new way of judging, of digesting, of trusting. The first week of May is still months away from no longer being able to say the season’s still young, and this is a group that has repeatedly played its best at the moments when doubt or worry start to build on the outside.
But one byproduct of the Royals’ new normal is that the higher standard often means a loss of perspective. You can freak out over the negative, and worry that the White Sox are getting too far ahead in the division.
Or, you can breathe in an inconsistent first four weeks and think about how your team has been held back by underperformance and is still above .500.
We’re all guessing here, but the talent and work ethic and track record of this group makes any serious worry about being 14-13 while playing terribly come off as silly, and/or a product of amnesia.
The Royals are good now, in other words. Even when they’re not.