What do you get the fan that has everything?
In a span of barely 15 months, from the end of July 2014 until the end of the 2015 World Series, the Royals obliterated a generation of historic failure, won two pennants and a world championship, and restored Kansas City from a baseball backwater to the home of one of the best fan bases in the major leagues.
When the Royals started the 2014 season 48–50, nearly a decade of rebuilding under GM Dayton Moore appeared fruitless; the team didn’t even bother buying at the trade deadline. K.C. then caught fire. The Royals won 24 of 30 games for the first time since 1980; held on in September to clinch a wild-card spot and end the longest postseason drought in professional sports; won the greatest wild-card game yet played; became the first team to start the postseason 8–0; and inspired their own 30 for 30 short, before losing Game 7 of the World Series at home with the tying run at third base.
And then they came back and did even better the following year. They rolled through the 2015 regular season with a 95–67 record and then went 11–5 in the playoffs, demonstrating a flair for postseason dramatics unlike any team before them — eight of their 11 playoff victories were comeback wins, a major league record. After becoming, in the 2014 wild-card game, the first team to win an elimination game in the playoffs after being down four runs in the eighth inning or later, they repeated the feat in Game 4 of the 2015 ALDS, upping the difficulty factor by doing so on the road, in Houston. They made a claim to having the greatest bullpen of all time; in 31 playoff games, not only did the 2014–2015 Royals not lose a game in which they led after six innings, they never lost a game in which they were tied after six innings (or any time after that).
In a lifetime of rooting for one team, most fans ought to be satisfied with a single two-year stretch like the 2014–2015 Royals provided. Bill Simmons’s Five-Year Rule before complaining after a world championship absolutely applies here. It would be almost impossible for the 2016 Royals to match, let alone top, the drama and joy that the club created the past two seasons.
All of which is a preface to saying: To this point, the 2016 Royals have been a disappointment. They are 71–66, 8.5 games behind the first-place Indians with four weeks to play, and their slim hopes of making the playoffs for a third straight season rest on making up the four games that separate them from the final wild-card spot, leapfrogging four other teams in the process.
Part of what made the 2014–2015 Royals so compelling was that their game plan left so little margin for error, which is why analytical projections of them were so skeptical; even after the team’s magical run in 2014, Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs saw the 2015 Royals as a below-.500 team. The Royals weren’t built to out-slug their opponents or out-pitch them. They were hardly even built to outscore them: The 2014 Royals outscored their opponents by just 27 runs; the 2015 Royals had a run differential of plus-83, barely a third of the run differential of the Blue Jays. Last year’s Royals finished next-to-last in the American League in home runs, and 12th in rotation ERA. When a team is well below-average in key areas like “power” and “starting rotation,” it has to be absolutely elite in other areas to compensate. And the Royals were.
- According to FanGraphs, the three best defensive teams in baseball from 2013 to 2015 were the 2013 Royals, the 2014 Royals, and the 2015 Royals.
- In 2014, the late-game triumvirate of HDH (Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland) became the only trio of teammates in major league history with 60 appearances and an ERA of under 1.50. (No other team has had even two.) Even with Holland losing part of 2015 to injury, that Royals team posted the best bullpen ERA (2.72) in the AL.
- The 2014 Royals struck out just 985 times on the season, and cut that number to 973 in 2015; every other team in baseball whiffed at least 1,100 times each year. According to FanGraphs, relative to the competition, the 2015 Royals were basically the greatest contact team ever.
The best defense and the best bullpen in baseball can drag an otherwise mediocre team to the playoffs. The problem is that defenses and bullpens are notoriously unreliable from year to year. That’s why the computers thought the 2014 Royals were a fluke, and that’s why the computers still thought the Royals were a fluke after 2015, projecting them to finish around .500 this season. A player’s glove tends to peak before his bat, so a team with a stable lineup is almost certain to deteriorate defensively over time, and the sample-size issues that surround a reliever who throws 60 innings a year means that a reliever coming off a great season is likely to regress, or get hurt, or regress and then get hurt the following year.
Which brings us to 2016. The Royals defied regression on defense and in their bullpen two years in a row, but in a difficult 2016 season, their defense and bullpen have been … as good as ever?
They have. The Royals have already surpassed last year’s team in FanGraphs’ DEF and are a good bet to lead the majors in that category for the fourth straight season. And while their bullpen ERA has risen to 3.12, that is still the lowest in the majors by 22 points.
So while the Royals are barely above .500 and are struggling to stay in the AL wild-card race, they are doing the things they do best as well as ever. Whatever the code is for defying regression when it comes to defense and bullpen work, the Royals have cracked it.
But they are in danger of missing the playoffs anyway. When, as mentioned, the game plan leaves such little margin for error, even small things can throw a team off course. Such as:
The 2014 Royals were almost freakishly healthy; Eric Hosmer missing a month with a broken bone in his hand was the only significant injury all season. All nine lineup regulars played in more than 130 games and, with the exception of road games in the World Series, started every playoff game. Five starting pitchers made 25 starts, and four of them made 30 starts. The 2015 Royals lost Holland to a torn elbow ligament in September, and Alex Gordon missed two months with a severe groin strain, but that worked to the Royals’ advantage when Gordon returned in September and the man the team traded for to replace him in the lineup, Ben Zobrist, moved over to plug the hole at second base.
The Royals have a terrific training staff, but an injury rate that low requires a great deal of luck as well. Their luck ran out on May 22 this year, when Gordon and Mike Moustakas collided chasing a meaningless foul pop-up in Chicago. Gordon missed five weeks with a broken wrist, and he was the lucky one; Moustakas tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Lorenzo Cain missed a month with a hamstring injury and is now nursing a sore wrist. Wade Davis missed more than a month with forearm tightness. Luke Hochevar was lost for the season in July with thoracic outlet syndrome. And Chris Young and Kris Medlen, two-fifths of the opening day rotation, pitched like they were hurt until they were finally diagnosed as being hurt.
The most noticeable difference between the 2015 Royals and the 2016 Royals is that the 2016 Royals strike out. With four weeks to go, they have already exceeded the strikeout totals they posted the past two years, and rank fifth in the AL in that category. Their freakish contact ability is why they ranked second in the league in batting average in 2014 and third in 2015 despite having to rely on balls in play for their hits since they so rarely hit the ball over the wall. This year they rank sixth in batting average. For an offense that relies so heavily on singles — they rank last in the league in home runs, and every year they claim last place in walks drawn like it’s their birthright — ranking sixth in batting average isn’t going to get it done. They are next-to-last in the league in runs scored, with 563.
Young hitters not developing
Hosmer is 26 and was supposed to be a star years ago, after he hit .293/.334/.465 as a 21-year-old rookie in 2011. Five years later, he has yet to exceed that slugging average. This season looked like Hosmer’s breakout year when he was hitting .330/.376/.553 at the end of May, but since then, he’s hit .238/.314/.375. Maybe that breakout is never coming; maybe this is just who he is. Meanwhile, Salvador Pérez still has his effervescent personality and elite arm behind the plate (throwing out a league-leading 52 percent of attempted base stealers), but his inability to discern balls from strikes as a hitter has sapped his potential at the plate. Pérez had an OPS+ above 100 in each of his first three years in the majors, from ages 21 to 23; he hasn’t topped 100 since.
While the bullpen has been as stingy as ever in the aggregate, the timing of the runs that Royals relievers have allowed has been a problem. And by “problem,” I mean “Joakim Soria,” the prodigal son who returned to the Royals on a three-year contract five seasons after he last pitched for the team. Unfortunately, the Soria who was one of the best relievers in baseball for the Royals from 2007 to 2010 is no longer with us; in his place is a pitcher that Royals fans want to throw in prison next to Robert Durst, because he has been the Jinx all year long. Soria’s 3.94 ERA, while not sensational, doesn’t seem like a huge problem, but the randomness of baseball has bit him hard, as the preponderance of the runs he’s allowed have come in situations in which the Royals couldn’t afford them. Four times he has given up the eventual winning run in a tie game, and four other times he has come in to protect a lead and given up the tying and go-ahead runs in a game the Royals went on to lose, most recently on Sunday, when he was asked to protect a 5–4 lead in the eighth inning and allowed a two-out, two-run homer to Justin Upton that decided the game.
Soria has posted a Win Probability Added (WPA) of less than minus-0.2 — meaning that his team’s chances of winning the game dropped by more than 20 percent with him on the mound — 10 times this season. No other reliever has more than nine such games.
And despite all their weaknesses, despite being outscored on the season, the Royals are still just four games out of the second wild-card spot. Even by the standards of the drunkard’s walk that is a baseball team’s daily record, this has been a weirdly chaotic season for the Royals, who have both been declared out of it and been the flavor of the month multiple times. They started the year 17–19 and were 6.5 games behind the White Sox entering play on May 15; two weeks later they were in first place, having destroyed the White Sox’s season in the process by sweeping a series in which they trailed 5–2 in the seventh inning, 7–1 in the ninth inning (!), and 4–2 in the eighth inning. A six-game winning streak at the end of May was immediately followed by an eight-game losing streak which knocked them four games out of first, which was immediately followed by a five-game winning streak that put them in a first-place tie.
The team face-planted in July with a 7–19 record, when a bullpen that hadn’t posted an ERA above 4.05 in any calendar month since 2011 collapsed, putting up a 5.96 ERA and losing Davis and Hochevar to the DL. And then, when all hope appeared lost — their record had fallen to 51–58 and their playoff odds according to Baseball Prospectus had dropped to 0.2 percent — they went on an 18–4 tear, bolstered by a bullpen that threw 41.1 consecutive scoreless innings, the longest shutout streak by any major league bullpen since 1966.
A rotation that had been disastrous in the first half, with a 4.99 ERA at the All-Star break, also turned around in August to the tune of a 3.27 ERA. They were led by Danny Duffy, who has tantalized with his stuff — his fastball has routinely ranked among the fastest of any left-handed starter in the majors since he was called up in 2011 — and frustrated with his command for years. This year he has perfected a harder, tighter breaking ball and learned to locate his fastball better, cutting his walks almost in half and increasing his strikeouts by more than 40 percent, giving the Royals something they didn’t have the past two years: a potential homegrown ace.
Meanwhile Matt Strahm, a rookie left-hander called up in the wake of Davis’s and Hochevar’s injuries, apparently came off the Royals’ super-secret Unhittable Reliever Assembly Line — he’s allowed one run in 15.2 innings while striking out 21 of the 56 batters he’s faced in the major leagues. And he still wasn’t the only force injecting hope: Two years after the arrival of the Royals’ most improbable fan, South Korean SungWoo Lee, at Kauffman Stadium seemed to spark the Royals’ first playoff drive, the team found a new rallying cry: a praying mantis that climbed aboard reserve outfielder Billy Burns’s hat in the dugout on August 6 and then took the team for a ride. Ordinarily it would seem unwise to adopt as a mascot an animal whose lifespan is measured in weeks, and sure enough the Rally Mantis croaked a few days later, but a couple of days later another praying mantis was found atop the visitors dugout in Detroit, and — thanks in part to a luxurious cage (that the Royals kiss after home runs) kept well-stocked with crickets, Rally Mantis II is still ticking (though he’ll apparently live out the rest of his days on a nature preserve). The Royals went 20–9 in August, becoming the first team to follow a 19-loss month with a 20-win month since the 1969 Astros.
Nothing in my experience as a Royals fan had prepared me for the Cinderella Royals of 2014, nor for the Terminator Royals of 2015. And so it is for 2016, when the Royals have long since shed the lovable underdog status they spent decades perfecting. Having proven over the past two years that they are never dead until they are dead, this year’s team had risen from the depths of fourth place in the AL Central to just two games out of the wild card while putting the fear of god into the American League again. These are the Predator Royals, and as recently as one week ago I was taking shameless joy at the screams of the hunted.
But again, when a team is built with next to no margin for error, it runs the risk of weeks like the past one. From Tuesday to Sunday, the Royals played five games against fellow wild-card contenders, the Yankees and Tigers, all at home, and lost four of them, all by one run.
On Tuesday, they lost 5–4 in 10 innings; after getting the tying and winning runs in scoring position with no one out in the bottom of the 10th, Cain and Kendrys Morales struck out before Pérez flied out to end the game. The next night, they lost in 13 innings, ending an 11-game winning streak in games of 13 innings or more, a streak that dated back to 2012, the longest in such games since the 1985–1988 Oakland A’s won 12 in a row. They lost back-to-back extra-inning games after having previously lost just one extra-inning game all season.
On Friday, they took a 6–5 lead to the ninth inning, but Davis, who had been activated from the DL just hours before, hit the leadoff batter, allowed a double to José Iglesias, and then after Ned Yost elected to pitch to Miguel Cabrera, Cabrera hit a two-run single to give Detroit a lead it would not relinquish. And on Sunday, after Soria gave up a two-run homer to Upton in the eighth, the Royals came up in the ninth trailing by a run. Alcides Escobar led off with a double, and Jarrod Dyson — who has hit seven career home runs, one for each of his seven seasons in the majors — followed with a drive that came so close to hitting the foul pole for a walk-off homer that the Royals asked for an umpire review. Instead it was a foul ball, and Dyson moved Escobar to third base with a groundout, but Escobar had to hold on Gordon’s grounder with the infield in, and was stranded at third base. The 2014–2015 Royals had a streak of 111 consecutive games without a loss when leading after seven innings, the third-longest in recorded history; the 2016 Royals just lost a game they were leading after seven and a game they were leading after eight in the same series.
It was a week of pure excruciation, and it laid bare the knife’s edge that the Royals play on: When success is so dependent on winning close games in the late innings, a ground ball in the wrong spot or a single misplaced pitch can decide the game. But it also laid bare how the subtle differences between the 2015 Royals and the 2016 Royals can have an outsize impact on the end result.
While more strikeouts have only a weak correlation with a worse offense overall, as more strikeouts can be the byproduct of swinging for the fences, the ability to make contact has value when trying to drive in the tying run from third base with less than two outs, and twice in the past week, the Royals lost a game in large part because they failed to do just that. While putting the ball in play can lead to a double play, it can also lead to defensive miscues that turn a game around. The 2014–2015 Royals were as good as any team in modern history at cashing in during those situations. The 2016 Royals are not. The 2014–2015 Royals always turned a late-inning lead into a win. The 2016 Royals have not.
So, after a 2–4 homestand which was a few flaps of a butterfly’s wings away from being 6–0, the Royals now need to leapfrog four teams with four weeks left in the season. Their playoff odds have dropped below 5 percent again. They are in dire straits. They need a miracle.
And if they somehow pull off a miracle, well, that would be what you get the fan who has everything.
The downside — maybe the only downside — to winning a world championship the way the Royals did last year is the near-certain knowledge that nothing you will experience as a fan will ever come close again. You only get your first glimpse of paradise once.
So if the Royals miss the playoffs, as they probably will, we’ll bask in the glow of last year’s world championship for another offseason and turn our attention to 2017, a critical year in the history of the franchise, as something like half the franchise’s core will be eligible for free agency afterward. For one more year, at least, the Royals will enter the season as a serious threat to make the playoffs.
But what if the Royals don’t miss the playoffs? A 5 percent chance to make the playoffs might seem like insurmountable odds, but these are the Royals, who have been cashing in 5 percent chances to win from their first playoff game until their last. This month is their chance to do over the span of a season what they’ve made a habit of doing over the span of a playoff game. Monday they began a stretch of 14 games in a row against the Twins, White Sox, or A’s, giving them a golden opportunity to make up ground in the wild-card race heading into the final two weeks of the season.
And if they somehow pull it off, not only will it cement the Royals as one of the most resilient teams in modern sports history, it will guarantee that this season will be remembered as a success no matter what happens in the postseason. A playoff berth for a wild-card team may end in three hours, but the memory of a team that refused to concede in the face of hopeless odds will endure far longer. And if it doesn’t end that night? If — dare we dream it — they go on a postseason run again? The possibility of a repeat championship done this way might be more incredible, and more indelible, than even last year’s.
The odds are against the Royals. But that’s never stopped them before.