Sunday, February 15, 2015
It took over eight years, but Dayton Moore and the rest of his front office did what his two predecessors could not do: build a playoff team. That was all that I, with the limited ambition of someone who has never tasted the high life, had asked for. Everything that came after that was delicious, highly addictive gravy.
But as I ride off into this blog’s sunset, I’m craving another hit. Now that I know what the postseason is like, I don’t want to contemplate a world in which the Royals don’t make the playoffs, not just one year, but every year. In the tradition of the finest Kansas City barbeque, Moore chose the slow-and-low approach to marinating a contender: build from within, be patient, and – dare I say it? – trust the process. It finally, belatedly, barely worked – but it worked. And now, I hope, the Royals are poised to take advantage of their approach, an approach that is designed to build not just a playoff team, but a perennial playoff team.
The 2015 Royals roster is, for all intents and purposes, settled, so let's take a look at the changes they made, starting with the changes they didn't make, the free agents they brought back. Luke Hochevar got a little more money than I expected, but if he comes anywhere close to the effectiveness he showed in 2013, he’ll be worth every penny. On the one hand, I believe that relievers are inherently unstable and unpredictable, which means bullpens are inherently unstable and unpredictable, which means focusing too much of your resources on bullpens is needlessly risky.
On the other hand, I thought that after the Royals had the best bullpen ERA in the AL in decades in 2013, and their bullpen was even more of an asset in 2014. Also, the San Francisco Giants have somehow won three World Series in five years with four relievers – Jeremy Affeldt, Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez, and Santiago Casillas – on all three championship teams.
The problem with a good reliever is that he may lose his effectiveness at any time, but if you’ve figured out a way to keep your relievers from going bad, maybe it make sense to invest in them more. (Or maybe it makes sense to just load up on so many good relievers that even if one or two of them blows out you’re still covered.) And if any team has found a way to keep its relievers from going bad, it might just be the Royals, given how sterling their track record of keeping players healthy has been under trainers Nick Kenney and Kyle Turner.
Speaking of good relievers, Jason Frasor is coming back for another year at just $1.8 million guaranteed, which is the kind of contract that makes player agents so mad that their grumbling leaks out into the public domain. Frasor isn’t a star, but if he’s the fifth-best right-handed reliever in your bullpen, holy crap you’ve got a good bullpen. And barely hours after Frasor’s signing was announced, Aaron Crow – who will probably make more than Frasor in arbitration – was traded to the Marlins. In exchange, the Royals got a left-handed starter in Brian Flynn who probably won’t make it as a starter, but (like all starters) has the possibility of being a very effective reliever, and Reid Redman, a converted infielder who had crazy good numbers as a right-handed reliever in A-ball and Double-A last year. During the brief period between the Royals re-signing Frasor and the Crow trade, I was openly advocating on Twitter that the Royals just release Crow outright. So to get two arms for him is a steal.
Some teams will look at a strong bullpen and see it as a strength which they can trade to fill their weaknesses elsewhere. The Royals looked at their strong bullpen and decided that they wanted to make their biggest strength even stronger, even if it would cost them millions to do so (keep in mind that Greg Holland and Wade Davis are getting big raises this year.) It’s a risky strategy, and in all honesty, not one I would have endorsed. But given how important their bullpen was last season, and given how much their bullpen tipped the scales for them last October, I’m not 100% convinced it’s the wrong one.
Moving on to their four primary acquisitions, it’s probably best to work in reverse chronological order, because that means we’ll go from most sensible move to most inexplicable one.
Kris Medlen hasn’t always been a healthy pitcher, but when he’s been healthy, he’s always been an effective one. He’s been effective in relief, he’s been effective as a swingman, and he was effective in 2013, his one season as a full-time starting pitcher. In 2012, Medlen made 12 starts and relieved 38 times, and had a remarkable 1.57 ERA in 138 innings. How remarkable is that? In the live-ball era (since 1920), just three pitchers have ever had a lower ERA in as many innings: Bob Gibson’s famous 1.12 ERA in 1968, Dwight Gooden’s famous 1.53 ERA in 1985, and Greg Maddux’s famous 1.56 ERA in 1994. Medlen was basically the equivalent of Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera combined:
Kris Medlen, 2012: 138 innings, 26 runs allowed
Greg Holland & Kelvin Herrera, 2014: 132 innings, 25 runs allowed
He wasn’t as effective in 2013, but he made 31 starts, threw 197 innings, and had a 3.11 ERA.
And then he blew out his elbow. For the second time in three years.
Medlen came back from his first Tommy John surgery just fine – he blew out early in the 2011 season, and came back with the 2012 season detailed above. And a second Tommy John surgery is becoming increasingly common for pitchers, if only because so many pitchers have had a first Tommy John surgery that there’s a larger pool of potential second-timers to choose from. It is a little worrisome that his new elbow blew out so quickly – Joakim Soria, for instance, lasted nearly eight years with his new ligament.
But that risk is baked into Medlen’s contract. If he follows Soria’s timetable for recovery from a second Tommy John, he should be ready to pitch for the Royals around the All-Star Break. He has the versatility to relieve or start, so if the rotation is humming along smoothly he can just give the Royals a vastly overqualified long reliever to go along with their vastly overqualified sixth inning guy (Luke Hochevar), vastly overqualified seventh inning guy (Kelvin Herrera), and vastly overqualified eighth inning guy (Wade Davis). If there’s a need in the rotation by then, Medlen can fill in there.
And Medlen should be penciled into the Royals’ 2016 rotation right now, which gives them the flexibility to decline Jeremy Guthrie’s option if they are so inclined, as everyone else in this year’s projected rotation is under contract next year as well.
Medlen doesn’t throw hard – his fastball has averaged about 90 for his career, both before and after his first Tommy John – but he has an excellent changeup, which is something the Royals have pinpointed in recent years. He misses an average number of bats – he’s not an extreme finesse guy like Guthrie – but his control is his best asset, making him a good fit for the defense. He’s guaranteed only $8.5 million over the next two years, and while he could more than double his salary if he meets every incentive, if he meets every incentive he’s almost certain to be worth all that money and then some. When Medlen is healthy, he’s effective. He can’t meet his incentives without being healthy.
Edinson Volquez will make more money over the next two years than Medlen even if he doesn’t stay healthy, after signing a two-year, $20 million contract. Staying healthy isn’t really Volquez’s problem – he’s made 95 starts over the last three years – but throwing strikes is. Two years ago he led the NL with 105 walks in just 183 innings, but somehow managed a 4.14 ERA thanks to Petco Park. But in 2013 not even Petco could save him – he somehow managed a 6.01 ERA in San Diego before he got released. (He managed -2.5 bWAR, which is tough to do. He was like the Jeff Francoeur of pitchers.)
But after getting released, Volquez got picked up by the pennant-winning Dodgers, and was effective in five starts. He then signed a make-good one-year contract with the Pirates last year. The Pirates are one of the best teams in baseball at the moment when it comes to reclaiming veteran hurlers, thanks to a good pitching coach, a very good defense, and aggressive, analytics-infused defensive shifting. Volquez had a 3.04 ERA in 2014, which is to say he had a lower ERA than anyone in the Royals’ rotation other than Danny Duffy.
The odds that he matches that ERA in 2015 are pretty slim. He had a .269 BABIP, well below his career norm; his strikeout rate and his walk rate were both below average. His FIP was 4.15, and the Steamer projection system projects him for a 4.60 ERA this season.
The good news is that the Royals also have a good pitching coach and a very good defense, and while they do not appear from the outside to have melded analytics with scouting as seamlessly as the Pirates have, the Royals aren’t complete Luddites in that regard. Volquez is a groundball pitcher, which doesn’t play into the Royals’ defensive strengths – their infield is pretty average, while their outfield is one of the best in modern baseball history – but will serve to keep his homers down.
While Volquez was successful in 2014 in part because of good luck, most of his success can be explained by the simple fact that he threw strikes. His walk rate, when you take out the intentional passes he gave out, was just 8.1%; it was 9.7% in 2013, and 12.4% in 2012. His stuff isn’t the problem – his fastball averaged 93.1 mph last season – so if he can keep his walk rate under 9%, he’s likely to be effective.
Honestly, the thing that worries me the most about Volquez is the one thing he won’t be bringing from Pittsburgh: his catcher, Russell Martin. As recently as 5-6 years ago I had no idea this even mattered, but we’ve seen remarkable advances in measuring the ability that catchers have to frame pitches, getting umpires to call borderline pitches strikes by having a “quiet” glove and not stabbing at pitches that are slightly off-target. Now that we can measure this ability, we know that 1) it’s far, far more important a skill than most of us thought – as much as 50 runs a season between the best and worst catchers – and 2) Russell Martin is one of the better catchers in the game when it comes to that task. There’s a reason why a soon-to-be 32-year-old catcher got a five-year, $82 million contract with the Blue Jays.
Martin is very, very good at pitch framing. Salvador Perez, for all his other defensive skills that earned him a Gold Glove, is not. He’s average at best. Given Volquez’s command issues throughout his career, and given that last season he had by far the lowest walk rate of his career, you have to wonder how much benefit he got from throwing to Martin, and if so, will his walk rate jump as his effectiveness declines this year.
It’s hardly a foregone conclusion; small sample size warnings apply, but Volquez’s walk rate in 22 games with Martin last year (8.3%) was actually higher than his walk rate in 10 games with Tony Sanchez and Chris Stewart (7.6%). Maybe he just finally found the strike zone at age 30, which certainly happens. But there is definitely risk in his signing.
I do approve of the signing overall, considering the options on the free agent market, the apparent spike in free agent prices (I love Brandon McCarthy, but four years? I loved Brett Anderson as a buy-low candidate, but at $10 million for one year, what happened to buying low?), the short commitment, and yes, the Royals’ track record the last two off-seasons in acquiring starting pitchers with question marks in Ervin Santana (which I liked) and Jason Vargas (which I did not).
The Royals needed to acquire an effective starting pitcher to replace James Shields, but they didn’t want to make a long-term commitment to the spot when it’s reasonable to think that at least one of Brandon Finnegan and Sean Manaea might be ready for a spot in the next year, with Miguel Almonte and the mythical Kyle Zimmer possibly ready after that. Volquez fits the bill.
The best thing you can say about the signing of Alex Rios is that the Royals didn’t even make a two-year commitment to him; he’s the only free agent they signed who agreed to a one-year deal. Even so, I don’t like the signing. Rios turns 34 next month, and last year he hit .280/.311/.398 with just four homers despite playing in Arlington all season.
But I don’t hate the signing either. Again: it’s only one year, and while it may be hyperbole to say there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal, it’s not far off. Rios only hit four homers last year, but he hit 18 in 2013, and 25 in 2012, and was in double digits every year going back to 2005. While 2014 might have been the beginning of the end for him, it’s also possible that his power outage was just a stone-cold fluke.
Because while his homers dropped off a cliff, the rest of his game was pretty much the same. He hit .278 in 2013, and .280 in 2014. He combined for 37 doubles and triples in 2013, and combined for 38 doubles and triples last year. His walk rate dropped, but it’s not like that was ever a big part of his game anyway. He’s not a very good defensive right fielder at this point in his career, but he’s not terrible either – he’s average or slightly below.
The Royals blame his poor power output on a series of injuries he suffered during the season. I’m skeptical of the “blame-the-injury” defense in general, because there’s no guarantee he’s going to avoid injuries in 2015. But given that Rios played for the Rangers last year, the fact that he stayed upright for 131 games is a little bit miraculous – the 2014 Texas Rangers might have been the most injured team of all time. While some of that was bad luck, I’m comfortable in saying I trust his new training staff more than his old one. I’d rather have Rios for one year than Torii Hunter, who got about the same amount of money and outhit Rios in 2014, but who turns 40 in July and whose defense was atrocious last year.
Rios also bats right-handed, which is key because the Royals still have Jarrod Dyson, and they would be well-advised to use him as they have in the past. If Rios struggles early in the season, they can still get value from him by platooning him with Dyson – Rios hit .325/.353/.545 against LHP last season. $11 million is a ton of money for a small-market team to spend on a platoon outfielder, but I can live with that as the worst-case scenario, especially if it’s for only one year.
The Royals were a little boxed-in with Rios because they needed a right-handed hitting outfielder, because they had just replaced their right-handed hitting DH with a DH who switch-hit but has hit right-handed pitchers better than left-handers throughout his career. And it’s that DH, Kendrys Morales, whose signing I simply can not find a way to explain, or justify, or approve of in any way.
Morales hit .218/.274/.338 last year. He’s a DH. YOU HAD ONE JOB, Kendrys – it says so right in your position: Designated Hitter. You can’t be a DH and not H.
But you can, apparently, get a two-year, $17 million contract from the Royals. Now granted: a year ago, when Morales was coming off a .277/.336/.449 season playing in a tough hitters’ park in Seattle, a year after he hit .273/.320/.467 in a tough hitters’ park in Anaheim, this contract would look very reasonable, particularly with no draft pick compensation attached. It was precisely because Morales did have draft pick compensation attached last year that no team was willing to sign him, which is why he held out until right after the draft before signing with the Twins. And if it turns out that his epic struggles last season were simply because he missed the first two months of the season, this could work out.
But 2014 did happen. To reverse my argument with Rios, maybe it was just a stone-cold fluke, but maybe it was the beginning of the end. Morales turns 32 in June, which isn’t old, but for an overweight, unathletic, bat-only guy, it’s not exactly young either. At least if Rios struggles, you can shunt him into a less demanding role for a few months and then part ways. If Morales struggles…what do you do? You can’t shunt him into a less demanding role unless you bench him. And if you’re on the hook for $9 million in 2016, you’re not going to bench him. There is a very real possibility that Morales’ bat doesn’t come back to life, and by July the Royals will have a completely useless player on their roster with 75% of his contract still left to go.
And if the Royals wanted to bet on an overweight, unathletic, bat-only guy bouncing back, why didn’t they just pick up Billy Butler’s option? Butler hit better in 2014 than Morales did, and he’s three years younger than Morales. Maybe they misjudged the market on Butler – in their defense, I think it might have been the A’s who misjudged the market on Butler. But if that’s the case, then they overreacted the other way by giving two years and $17 million to a Butler replacement who might have gotten one year and $5 million otherwise.
The only thing I can say in defense of the contract – and I say this without a hint of irony – is that the Royals clearly wanted him. They have been rumored to be interested in Morales in the past – same with Rios – and the Royals are obviously making a $17 million bet that 2014 doesn’t matter at all. I don’t think they’re right, but I’d like to think that if there’s one thing I learned from 2014, it’s that I shouldn’t discount the possibility that the Royals are right just because they did something I vehemently disagree with. From 2009 through 2013 – albeit with nearly two missed seasons in that span thanks to a broken leg – Morales hit .286/.339/.494 in a difficult hitting environment, good for a 128 OPS+. If he gets back to that level or anywhere close, he’ll be worth his contract and then some.
But Morales immediately becomes the most important player in the Royals’ entire lineup. If he hits, they have a switch-hitting power bat that they didn’t have anywhere in the lineup last year. If he doesn’t, they’ll be getting even less offense from the DH position than they had last year, and an albatross of a contact for a team that can’t afford one.
The Royals can afford an albatross more than they could in the past, though. While the four free agent signings are a mixed bag at best in terms of talent, they represent undeniable good news in another sense, which is that David Glass is living up to his commitment to plow the profits he makes from the team back into the payroll. The Royals’ postseason run generated millions of dollars in an unexpected windfall, and it was reasonable to expect the team’s payroll to rise from $92 million last year to over $100 million this year. But currently the payroll stands at around $115 million, and could rise to $120 million if certain players meet bonus incentives. It’s true: David Glass has spent even more money on payroll than I hoped he would. Seven years after I wrote this, people are finally getting the message: David Glass is no longer the liability for the Royals that many people – but fewer people all the time – think he is.
A cynic (hi, Joe) will still say that, in not committing to any free agents long term, Glass has given himself an out to reduce the payroll if the Royals stumble this season. To which I would reply that history proves owners don’t need an out to reduce payroll; if they want to be cheapskates, they’ll find a way. I’d much rather take my chances that this all a cynical ploy by Glass to cut payroll to $60 million next year than be committed for too many years and too much money to old, declining players.
Payroll flexibility is always going to be key for a small-market team, and the Royals have that. While they’re committed to about $72 million already in 2016 – counting Alex Gordon’s option, as Gordon holds the option instead of the Royals – they actually have only two players under guaranteed contracts in 2017: Jason Vargas and Omar Infante. Even if the Royals completely screwed the pooch with this collection of free agents, they can go back out on the market and try again in two years. And while only Vargas and Infante have guaranteed contracts, the core of their roster is still under club control in 2017. Aside from the aforementioned free agents, the only players that could leave as free agents are Guthrie, Gordon, and Greg Holland. Cain, Dyson, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Duffy would all be free agents after 2017, but that gives the Royals a three-year window, and also gives them three years to sign some of them to extensions should they so choose.
I am not, in all honesty, particularly optimistic about the Royals’ chances this season. As recently as a few weeks ago I said on radio that I was holding to my initial off-season projection of 88 wins this year, but analytically speaking, now that the winter transaction dance is over I can’t really defend that number anymore. The two defining traits of the 2014 Royals – team defense and bullpen strength – are two of the most difficult traits to maintain from one year to the next.
Defensive skill declines much faster than offensive skill – the peak age on defense is something like 24 – so while I still expect the Royals to have a good defense this season, I don’t expect it to be as otherworldly as it’s been the last two years. And as for the bullpen…the Royals had three pitchers who appeared in 60 games and had an ERA of under 1.50. No other team in major league history has had even two pitchers accomplish that feat. I expect the bullpen to be very good. I don’t expect the Royals to again go an entire season – including the playoffs – losing just one game that they led after seven innings. Yes, you could (and I did) say these same things last winter, and the Royals fought off the regression monster in 2014. They might do so again. But it’s safe to say that the team with the best bullpen trio in major league history has nowhere to go but down.
They’re going to have to make up for the inevitable decline in their two signature qualities in other ways, and I think they can. I think Eric Hosmer will have a much better regular season (as do most people), and I think Mike Moustakas will too (as do…a few people). I think Salvador Perez, whose batting average, OBP, and slugging average have all dropped three straight years, will reverse that decline in 2015 if Ned Yost doesn’t make him set the all-time record for most games caught again.
But there are going to be declines elsewhere. I don’t see Lorenzo Cain managing a .380 BABIP again, so unless he hits for more power (possible) or strikes out less (unlikely) he’s not hitting .301 again. Alcides Escobar’s batting average the last five years has gone: .235, .254, .293, .234, .285, and I think the next number in that sequence is likely to be less than .285. Omar Infante might bounce back, but at age 33, he might not. And while DH seemed to be an easy place to anticipate improvement on Billy Butler’s .271/.323/.379 last year, the Royals are pinning their hopes on a DH who hit a damn sight worse than that last season.
And even if Morales and Rios give the Royals the same level of production that they got from Butler and Nori Aoki last year, I don’t think Edinson Volquez is coming anywhere close to what they got from James Shields. Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy might be better…but Jeremy Guthrie is perpetually three steps away from the cliff, and I want to see Jason Vargas do it again.
I don’t think the Royals are going to go 71-91, as PECOTA projects. I’m more optimistic than most other analysts, who seem to be pegging the Royals for around .500 or slightly below. But at the moment, I can’t make a case for more than 84 wins. Anything better than that is going to require some unexpected good fortune.
But after what happened last year, who’s writing off the chance for some unexpected good fortune? Even at 84 wins, the Royals will probably be not far off the AL Central lead all season. At 84 wins, the Royals will probably be buyers at the trading deadline, and if they fill some holes by trading prospects, or perhaps by promoting Finnegan or Manaea into the rotation, they might be poised for a second-half surge for the third straight year.
Projecting a team for 84 wins was damning with faint praise a decade ago; today, in a two wild-card system, it’s a compliment. On paper, the Royals were an 84-win team last year – they outscored their opponents by just 27 runs. (And if you drill down to how many singles, doubles, walks, homers, etc that they hit, and that hey allowed, Baseball Prospectus calculated the “true” strength of the 2014 Royals as that of a 79-83 team.) The difference between .500 and 89 wins – enough to take the Royals to within one swing of a world championship – is one standard deviation. The Royals will contend in 2015 if they get lucky – not incredibly lucky, just a little lucky.
That’s a disappointment from the perspective I had in 2011, when the Royals had The Best Farm System Ever, and I thought they’d be starting a mini-dynasty by now. Then again, I’ve seen a lot of mini-dynasties that didn’t make it anywhere close to Game 7 of the World Series. From where I sit today, the Royals go into the season with a legitimate shot at winning the division, and yet despite being the defending American League champions, they’re underdogs once again. You know what? That’s just fine with me. Let’s go shock the world again.
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
So I’ve cast my decision. If I’m wrong, I fully expect and welcome those of you who disagree with me now to rub it in my face. (After all, I’m sure I’ll do the same in reverse if I’m right.) Just know that if I’m wrong, no one will be happier to bear those criticisms and eat some crow as I will be.
I’ll even write these words right now, in the hopes that I can cut-and-paste them in ten months and say them with conviction:
“Dear Dayton Moore: I was wrong. You were right. You made the biggest gamble of your career last December, and I savaged you at the time, and it turns out your decision was brilliant. I was a fool. Please forgive me.
- Rany Jazayerli.”
I was at Kauffman Stadium this June when the Royals hosted the Mariners. They were the first-place Royals when that series started; this was before they fell eight games out of first, before they surged back into first – becoming just the second team in history to take over first place after being seven games behind twice in the same season – before they fell out of first place a second time and chased the Tigers the rest of the season. On my way out of the stadium, I bumped into Jin Wong, the Royals’ Director of Baseball Administration.
To Jin’s immense credit, he did not punch me square in the face. He didn’t even give me a wedgie, although he would have been completely within his rights to do so. He did ask me how I was doing.
“Well,” I told him, “I’m preparing myself for the possibility that I might have been very, very wrong about this team, and about The Trade.”
Jin just gave me a knowing smile and said, “Well, if you are, I hope you intend to write a long missive about it.” (Yes, he used the word “missive.”)
Here is that long missive. The short version of my apology ran in the Kansas City Star the morning before the Wild Card game. This is the unabridged version.
The opening quote comes from this article, the one I wrote in the aftermath of the Wil Myers-James Shields trade two Decembers ago. I had already written my emotional, angry piece for Grantland two weeks earlier; the follow-up article was my sober, rational response to the trade. I explained my opposition to the trade point by point. I made the case for why I believed that the trade was a huge mistake for the Royals, and that the odds they would regret the trade were substantially higher than the odds that they would be vindicated for making it. While acknowledging that the future was unknowable, I was willing to stake a pretty big chunk of my professional reputation that the Royals would live to rue the deal. I added the caveat I quoted above without any expectation that I would ever have to use it.
I am using it now. I was as wrong about The Trade as I have been about any piece of baseball analysis I have ever written. I am not alone in this regard; on the contrary, the overwhelming majority of the analytics world shared my opinion that The Trade was a terrible move for the Royals, even if they didn’t share my emotional investment in it. Other analysts, such as Dave Cameron here, have also acknowledged their mistake. I say this not to excuse or even defend myself, but simply to point out that my error in judging The Trade was not the result of a personal bias or a gut feeling or an overattachment to prospects, but the result of an adherence to principles which the analytical community widely shares, and which has served us extremely well over the years. We got this one wrong, but one mistake doesn’t invalidate our approach any more than Clayton Kershaw’s NLDS performance means he’s a bum. (Also, the non-analytic community didn’t like the trade much better. Most other front offices thought the Royals had gotten fleeced.)
But while it doesn’t invalidate our approach, it does mandate that we go back and figure out what we got wrong, in the same way the Dodgers are probably poring over video to see if they can figure out why the Cardinals beat Kershaw like a drum.
Before we figure out what we got wrong, we have to consider the possibility that maybe we did nothing wrong; maybe the analysis was sound and the Royals just got lucky. I know I heard from a lot of people who thought my apology the day of the Wild Card game was premature, and even after the World Series I heard from people who thought that, given how close the Royals were to losing the Wild Card game, the Royals don’t deserve all the credit they’re getting for making The Trade. If Jarrod Dyson gets thrown out trying to steal third in the ninth, the narrative is how the Royals made The Trade for a single playoff game, a game in which James Shields pitched poorly and was the losing pitcher, and they got eliminated before the LDS round even started.
I acknowledge that if that indeed had happened, the legacy of the trade would look far, far more ambiguous today. I acknowledge that the fact that I am writing this apology today owes itself to a sample size so small as to essentially be random – not just the Wild Card game, but the whole postseason is such a crapshoot that it’s not really fair to give any team additional credit for advancing to the World Series. All playoff teams have roughly an equal shot at a championship, and the Royals only had half a playoff spot to begin with. To credit The Trade for the AL pennant, and not just a 1-in-8 chance of winning the pennant, is to endow The Trade with powers it did not have. Powers that don’t exist.
But tempting as it might be to absolve myself of any responsibility by chalking it up to dumb luck, I ultimately have to reject this line of thinking. I have to reject this line of thinking because let’s say the opposite had occurred – that the Royals had won 86 games again, they finished a game behind the Mariners for the second Wild Card spot, and let’s say the Mariners had been the team that shocked everyone by winning the pennant. If the opposite had occurred, and the Royals themselves had tried to argue that they just got unlucky, that if they had just won another game or two they would have had the opportunity to go to the World Series just like the Mariners had: we would have savaged them. We would have mocked them, and accused them of refusing to accept the reality of what actually happened.
And we would have been fully in our rights to do so, because ultimately results matter. The Royals won the AL pennant. That flag flies forever. Were the Royals lucky to make it as far as they did? Sure they were. In a three-round format, every team that makes it to the World Series is lucky to some degree. And the Royals were lucky to make the playoffs even as a wild card team (particularly as a host of the Wild Card game), given that they won only 89 games – just last season, 89 wins would have been good for only the seventh-best record in the league.
But the point is that the Royals were good enough to put themselves in a position where a little luck could propel them to a special season. That’s what made the 28-year playoff drought so astounding: even a bad team should make the playoffs at least a few times in a 28-year stretch by sheer accident. (Ladies and gentlemen, I once again present to you: the 2007 Colorado Rockies.) The Royals were never good enough to benefit from a happy accident in previous years; if they had been, they would have won the AL Central twelve years ago. The 2003 Royals got every break it could have, but the team simply wasn’t good enough to take advantage of them. They were good enough in 2014. The happy accident got them by Oakland, and they took advantage by winning the pennant. History is written by the victors.
So as you read on, feel free to keep in mind that the Royals were a hair’s breadth away from not having any of this written; my short apology in the pages of the Star would have sufficed. But just as the Royals’ close shave in the Wild Card game doesn’t change the fact that they won it, the fact that these words were almost never written doesn’t change the fact that I’m writing them right now.
I opposed the trade for a number of reasons that overlayed each other to make what I thought was a formidable, and nearly impregnable, case against it. So it only stands to reason that I should find a number of reasons why I was wrong. Here’s my best shot.
1) Wil Myers might not be as good as I had thought. I originally didn’t intend for this item to be on the list, because it wasn’t definitively clear that Myers was a disappointment. Yes, he was terrible (.222/.294/.320) in 2014, but 1) that was in only 87 games; 2) 34 of those 87 games came after he returned from a broken wrist, and he was particularly awful (.213/.263/.268) in those games; and 3) he did, you know, win the AL Rookie of the Year in 2013. His stock has declined overall from where it was two years ago, but it actually increased in the first year of the trade. It’s not clear whether 2014’s sophomore slump is the sign of things to come, or whether like the last Royals outfielder to win Rookie of the Year honors – Carlos Beltran – it was just a dip in the road.
But as you probably know, Myers was traded last month to the San Diego Padres in a three-team trade, allowing everyone to proclaim that the Royals have officially won the trade. It’s a fair sentiment – Myers spent exactly as much time in a Rays uniform as James Shields spent in a Royals uniform – but an incomplete one. Obviously, the Padres still think very highly of Myers, or they wouldn’t have surrendered four prospects – including Trea Turner, the 13th pick in last year’s draft, or Joe Ross, the 25th pick in the 2011 draft, both very highly regarded – to get Myers and a couple of lesser prospects. It’s possible that the Rays, like the A’s did with Josh Donaldson a few weeks ago, simply saw an opportunity for arbitrage – that they could get more value for Wil Myers than they thought he was worth – and pulled the trigger.
It’s also possible that having seen Myers up close and personal for two years, they no longer want anything to do with him. His work ethic has come under fire since arriving in Tampa Bay, his defense is indifferent, and as they did with Delmon Young many years ago, they may have recognized that Myers isn’t going to live up to the hype and decided to cash out while they can.
I don’t know the answer to this. No one does. We’re going to have to see how this plays out. And frankly, of all the reasons on this list, this is the least important one, because as the Royals themselves said at the time of the trade, they didn’t make the trade to get rid of Wil Myers: they made the trade to get Shields and Davis, and they made the trade to go to the playoffs in 2013 or 2014. If Myers had stayed healthy in 2014 and hit as well for a full season as he had in 2013, it might make the trade look more balanced at the moment, but it wouldn’t undo the Royals’ justification for making the trade.
But I do think it’s worth acknowledging the possibility that, on top of everything else, the Royals traded Myers in part because despite all his talent and his minor league performance, they had legitimate concerns about whether he would live up to his status as a can’t-miss prospect. Maybe it was a hole in his swing that they picked up on; maybe he was uncoachable and lazy and they came to the conclusion that he would never make the adjustments necessary to succeed in the major leagues in the long term. If that was the case, and if going forward Myers fails to establish himself as an above-average everyday player, then the Royals will deserve even more credit for trading Myers close to the absolute peak of his value.
That’s not to say that, even if the Royals had legitimate concerns about Myers’ future, that his future is set in stone. Holes in a batter’s swing can be closed; players who aren’t committed to their careers can have a fire lit under their ass one day and re-dedicate themselves to success. And let’s not forget: while Myers has seen his stock drop in the last two years, Jake Odorizzi’s has seen his value rise, from potential #3 starter to actual #3 starter who struck out 174 batters in 168 innings this year. But if it turns out Myers doesn’t become a star, when at the time of the trade everyone thought he would become a star, then the team that hedged against his stardom deserves a substantial amount of credit.
The first rule of trading is to know the value of what you’re trading away before you figure out what you’re trading for. The Braves, from whence most of the Royals’ front office came, were legendary in their salad days for trading away dozens of well-regarded prospects who, with only a few exceptions (Adam Wainwright stands out), never lived up to their press clippings. If the Royals borrowed a page from the Braves’ playbook with Myers, this trade will look even better for them in a few years than it does now.
And if Myers wins an MVP award in the near future? I’ll forgive the Royals for trading him. Rays fans may not forgive their front office for doing the same.
2) James Shields was exactly what the Royals thought he would be. One of my biggest objections to the trade was that while many people were talking about the unpredictability of prospects, even one who was as major-league ready as Myers was, few people appreciated the unpredictability of pitchers, even one with as consistent a track record as Shields had. Pitchers get hurt, and pitchers who have thrown a ton of pitches in the past get hurt even more. To my mind, it was nearly as likely that Shields would either spend a lot of time on the DL or lose some velocity on his fastball – with a concomitant loss in effectiveness – in his two seasons with the Royals, as it was that Myers would be a bust in Tampa Bay.
And again, in the abstract I still think this was a very reasonable position to take. I’ve written this before, but if the Royals had made the exact same trade two winters ago, but for Justin Verlander instead of Shields, we would have thrown a party: Verlander led the AL in innings (238.1) and strikeouts (239) and ERA+ (161) in 2012. He had 5.5 bWAR, more than double Shields’ 2.7. He finished second in the AL Cy Young vote, a year after he won the Cy Young and the AL MVP. He was also a year younger than Shields.
And yet over the past two years Shields has outpitched Verlander. Verlander had a respectable 3.46 ERA in 2013, but this past season he had a 4.54 ERA and actually led the league in earned runs allowed. His strikeout rate dropped precipitously. The 5-year, $140 million extension he’s about to start already looks like a massive overpay. Verlander, at least, has stayed healthy, which is something you can’t say about fellow 2012 aces Cliff Lee (13 starts this year), or Matt Cain (4.00 ERA in 2013, 4.18 ERA in 15 starts in 2014), or C.C. Sabathia, who after a third-straight All-Star season in 2012 was lousy in 2013 and mostly absent in 2014. Even top-of-the-rotation starters from 2012 who have continued to pitch well, like Yu Darvish and Mat Latos, have missed significant time with injuries.
Shields didn’t miss significant time with injuries during his two years with the Royals. He didn’t miss any time. He didn’t miss a start. He led the majors in starts (34) in both 2013 and 2014. He led the AL in innings in 2013, and finished fourth in 2014 – second if you count the postseason. While the Royals talked up Shields’ effectiveness when they traded for him, they talked up his durability even more. For a 31-year-old pitcher with a ton of miles already on his arm, there was no guarantee that he would continue to be durable. But he was. He was exactly what the Royals said he would be: not a true #1 pitcher, perhaps, but a very good #2 starter who added value by the sheer number of innings he threw.
In the two years before the trade, Shields was worth 7.9 bWAR, which ranked him 17th in the majors. In the two years after the trade, Shields was worth 7.4 bWAR, which ranked him tied for 20th in the majors. But here’s the thing: of the 16 pitchers who were more valuable than him in the two years before the trade, just seven were also more valuable in the two years after the trade. Four of those seven are among the best pitchers in the world (Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Felix Hernandez, and Chris Sale), two are brilliant-when-healthy starters who narrowly exceeded Shields’ value but missed substantial time in one of those two years (Cliff Lee and Johnny Cueto), and the last is perhaps the game’s most underrated pitcher, Doug Fister. (David Price was essentially tied with Shields in bWAR the last two years.)
Besides Shields, five pitchers were worth between 7 and 8 bWAR between 2011 and 2012 combined: Matt Cain, Jordan Zimmermann, Mark Buehrle, Ian Kennedy, and Jeremy Hellickson. All but Buehrle were younger than Shields. Had the Royals traded for any of the five aside from Zimmermann – who would have been far more expensive than even Shields was – they would have been disappointed. It may seem obvious now that Shields was going to stay healthy and effective, but two years ago it certainly wasn’t obvious that he’d be a better bet than Cain (six straight years of 200+ innings; four straight years of ERAs below 3.20) or Kennedy (average of 208 innings with 3.55 ERA in Arizona from 2010-2012) or even Hellickson (3.06 career ERA; Rookie of the Year in 2011; Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year in 2010).
As soon as it was clear that the Royals wanted to trade for an elite starting pitcher in the winter of 2012-2013, they appeared to be homing in on James Shields. (It’s telling that the other guy they were most rumored to be interested in, Jon Lester, also didn’t miss a start these last two years, and was even more effective, with 7.6 bWAR the last two years.) The Royals came to the internal conclusion that, despite the inherent risk with starting pitchers, and despite there being younger, more effective starting pitchers available elsewhere, James Shields was their guy.
For two years, he was their guy. He was, for the most part, The Guy. He didn’t always live up to his moniker of Big Game James, and he hit a rough patch in October, 2014, but he was an innings eater at his worst, and a #1 starter at his best. He always took the ball. Given who the Royals had to turn to this season when they needed an emergency starter, the value of Shields always taking the ball can’t be overstated as a reason why the Royals made the playoffs this year.
I thought Shields was a risk. He was a risk; all players are. But the Royals evaluated that risk, and managed that risk, to perfection.
3) With few exceptions, the alternatives to James Shields on the market over the 2012-13 off-season were disappointing. This was certainly part of the crux of my frustration with the trade: that the Royals didn’t just give up talent to acquire Shields, but they gave up a lot of money as well – Shields made about $24 million over the last two years. If they had spent that money on a free agent pitcher, they could have gotten a decent starting pitcher, and still had Wil Myers. If they had spent the money that they gave Shields and Davis and the money they had to spend on replacements for Myers (Nori Aoki) and Odorizzi (Jason Vargas?) – they could have gotten someone just as good as Shields.
The free agent at the top of my list that off-season – since I assumed Zack Greinke was out of the question, for reasons both financial and personal – was Anibal Sanchez. And I’m comfortable saying that I was correct in that assessment. Sanchez led the AL in both ERA (2.57) and FIP (2.39) in 2013. Last year, his ERA rose to 3.43 and he only threw 126 innings, but he still had a good season. (Remember, the Tigers’ defense is almost as bad as the Royals’ defense is good.) Over the last two years he’s had more bWAR (8.7) than Shields (7.4). He ended up re-signing with the Tigers for 5 years, $80 million; he made $3.3 million more than Shields did in 2014, but of course if they had signed Sanchez they wouldn’t have had to spend money at the spots where Myers and Odorizzi were playing for the minimum.
It’s a fascinating what-if to ponder what would have happened if the Royals had signed Sanchez instead of trading for Shields. On the one hand, Sanchez has been better; on the other hand, Sanchez was much better in 2013, but Shields was a little better in 2014, when the Royals needed every win. Sanchez was better on a per-inning basis, but Shields threw 140 more innings. The Royals needed Shields’ durability more than Sanchez’s brilliance because they lacked any other rotation options, except they would have had Odorizzi to fill in. But then they wouldn’t have had Davis. Also, Aoki was better than Myers in 2014.
An honest assessment is that if the Royals had signed Sanchez instead of trading for Shields, they wouldn’t have made the playoffs in 2014 – but they might well have squeaked into the playoffs in 2013. With Sanchez out-pitching Shields, Myers winning Rookie of the Year honors, and anyone other than Wade Davis in the rotation, they might have made up the five games that separated them from the Rangers and Rays, the six games that separated them from the Indians, or even the seven games that separated them from the Sanchez-less Tigers.
It’s an interesting thought experiment, anyway. But even if I can legitimately claim that the Royals might have broken even had they signed Sanchez, pretty much every other option on the market turned out to be a disappointment.
There was Edwin Jackson, of course, and if I wasn’t nearly as high on him after the 2012 season as I was after the 2011 season, I still can’t deny that I thought he’d be a nice addition to the Royals’ rotation. My only defense is that the Cubs – who were so close to signing Sanchez that it was briefly reported in the news that they had – thought Jackson would be a nice addition to their rotation. If their goal was to get top-ten draft picks in 2014 and 2015, then mission accomplished. Jackson has been almost incomprehensibly bad the last two years, worth -3.6 bWAR. (Although after what Luke Hochevar did in 2013 and Wade Davis did in 2014, I’m not about to rule out that a move to the bullpen couldn’t work wonders for Jackson in 2015.)
But yeah, Jackson was a terrible idea. So was Shaun Marcum, although it turns out his arm was toast, something which MLB teams knew with a lot more certainty than you or I. (Marcum got just 1 year, $4 million from the Mets after averaging 173 innings with a 3.62 ERA the three previous years; he threw 78 innings with a 5.29 ERA for the Mets and hasn’t pitched in the majors since.) Brandon McCarthy was also somebody I really liked, and he signed a very reasonable two-year deal with Arizona. He was pretty terrible for three-quarters of that contract, until he was traded to the Yankees last July and was brilliant for two months (90 innings in just 14 starts; 2.89 ERA), and we learned that the Diamondbacks had basically prohibited him from using his cutter while he pitched for them. His failures in Arizona probably had more to do with Arizona than with him; the market certainly agreed, as the Dodgers signed him for 4 years and $48 million. Pitching in front of the Royals’ defense he could have been a sensation in 2014. But still: he wasn’t James Shields. Neither was Ryan Dempster, who after signing a two-year deal with the Red Sox had a disappointing 4.57 ERA in 2013 – he was shuttled off to a mop-up role for the postseason – and then pulled a Gil Meche and retired with a year left on his contract. No one the Royals could have signed that off-season pitched as well as Shields did in 2014.
The Royals were convinced that Shields was a better option than anyone on the free agent market. I thought they were wrong. I’m not 100% convinced today that they were right – Anibal Sanchez is a hell of a pitcher – but looking at their options from their perspective, where they needed someone they could rely on for 220 innings above all, they certainly weren’t wrong.
4) While I thought Wade Davis had considerable value, I thought he would have to stick in the rotation to really make a difference.
Davis made a difference in the rotation in 2013, but not in the way he wanted – his 5.32 ERA (in front of the game’s best defense) was good for -2.1 bWAR. When the Royals moved him to the bullpen last March, I thought it was not just the right move but the only move – but I also thought the move meant that Davis, like Shields, would leave Kansas City after the 2014 season. Sure, the Royals had a $7 million option on Davis for 2015, but what were the odds he’d be worth $7 million as a reliever?
How good was Davis in 2014? He was worth more bWAR (3.7) than Shields (3.3). He was worth more bWAR than anyone else on the pitching staff, in fact. Think about that – the most valuable pitcher on a team that went to Game 7 of the World Series was their eighth-inning set-up man. You don’t see that very often. But then you don’t see someone pitch as well as Davis did in 2014 very often.
Or possibly ever. Davis allowed exactly one run per nine innings in 2014, the lowest runs-per-nine figure (basically ERA with unearned runs counted) in baseball history for someone with 60 or more innings. The Royals lost just one game all season that they led after seven innings. (They won seven games that they trailed after seven.) I’d say his performance was kind of crucial.
Not only was Davis more brilliant as a reliever than anyone could have thought possible, his three club options for $7 million, $8 million, and $10 million – which looked useless a year ago – suddenly have considerable value. The Royals have chosen to keep him for now; I assume he’s the heir apparent to Greg Holland next year when Holland finally gets too expensive for the Royals to keep. But certainly they could trade Davis and recoup at least part of what they gave up to get him and Shields in the first place.
In my Grantland article two years ago, I wrote that “It’s unlikely that this trade will work out for the Royals, but if it does, Davis — not Shields — will be the key to the trade.” That wasn’t completely true, but it’s at least partially true – in 2014, at least, Shields and Davis were both keys to the team’s success. I assumed that Davis’ value would come from being a relatively cheap mid-rotation starter for several years. It turns out that he provided more value in 70 innings than I expected him to provide in 170.
The Royals got a little lucky here; after all, if Davis had just been mediocre in 2013 instead of awful, he would never have been moved to the bullpen in the first place. (And if Hochevar hadn’t blown out his elbow last spring, they still might have given Davis another shot to redeem himself.) But the fact remains that, at least in 2014, the Royals got at least as much value from Davis as they did from Shields. And when we look back years from now, we might well refer to this as the Wade Davis trade.
5) I thought that the Royals were too far away from contending in 2013 to make the additions of Shields and Davis worthwhile, wasting half of the Shields window.
The 2012 Royals went 72-90. Their three most-used starting pitchers were Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar, and Luis Mendoza. Yuniesky Betancourt played in 57 games. Yes, the core of the lineup was here – eight of the 2014 Royals’ starting ten (the regular lineup + Jarrod Dyson) were on the team. But then so was Jeff Francoeur – who, thanks to the trade, was going to open 2013 as the Royals’ starting right fielder again.
I thought the Royals would be better in 2013 than they were in 2012. I also thought that they would need to improve by 20 games in one off-season in order to make the playoffs. That turned out to be correct, and they didn’t improve by 20 games. They did improve by 14 games, however, and three more games the year after that.
That wasn’t all that surprising; the Royals had a historic collection of young hitters who figured to get dramatically better. The shocking thing is that those hitters didn’t get better – at least not until October 2014 – but the Royals improved anyway.
They didn’t improve by as much as you would think simply by looking at their win-loss records. The Royals outscored their opponents by 47 runs in 2013, but by just 27 runs in 2014. They had the run differential of an 84-78 team last year. At least on paper, the Royals were a better team in 2013 than they were in 2014.
But the one thing run differential doesn’t appropriately account for is a kick-ass bullpen in high-leverage situations. In 2013, the Royals’ bullpen had a 2.55 ERA, the lowest in the AL in over two decades. But it was actually too good a bullpen – the Royals won one fewer game in 2013 than their run differential suggested. It’s great to have four or five really good relievers – but when nine different pitchers relieve 15 or more times and every one of them has an ERA under 4, it’s kind of overkill. It’s nice to have your mop-up man throw goose eggs when you’re down 10-3, but it doesn’t actually help you win games.
The Royals were properly imbalanced in 2014; their overall bullpen ERA rose to 3.27, but that’s because their mop-up men sucked, while their top three guys formed arguably the most effective bullpen trio in major league history. That, in a nutshell, is how a team that outscores its opponents by one run per week can win 89 games: the Royals were 4-10 in games decided by seven runs or more, but 43-36 in games decided by one or two runs.
I was right that the Royals wouldn’t be good enough in 2013 for the trade to payoff. But the trade didn’t have to pay off twice to make it worthwhile; it only had to pay off once. And it did, thanks to the other moves that Dayton Moore made both before and after The Trade. Consider that I wrote this immediately after the 2012 World Series, after the Royals had claimed Chris Volstad on waivers: “Six years after Dayton Moore was hired, this is the rotation that the Royals would open the season with if the season began today: Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, Luis Mendoza, Chris Volstad, and either Jake Odorizzi or Will Smith.” With a rotation like that, was it any wonder I was pessimistic that trading for Shields and Davis would be enough?
As savvy as the Shields/Davis acquisitions might have been, they would have been for naught were it not for the other new guys in the rotation. The Royals re-signed Jeremy Guthrie, and while I’m sure they were as astounded as everyone else that two years later he would start Game 7 of the World Series, he solidified a huge hole in the rotation. They traded for Ervin Santana that winter, and when Santana left as a free agent they signed Jason Vargas, and both pitchers have been worth every penny so far. And after failing to develop even one internal prospect in their first six years, the Royals came through with both Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura in 2014. They also used their pitching depth to find a one-year solution in right field, trading Will Smith to Milwaukee for Nori Aoki, and then spent money on Omar Infante to fill their gaping hole at second base.
Not winning in 2013 gave the Royals a very narrow margin for error: win in 2014, or else. To their credit, they did exactly that.
6) I did not give James Shields proper credit for his ability to influence the other members of his pitching staff.
This one is merely speculative, but given how much emphasis the Royals placed on Shields’ abilities as a leader in the clubhouse, and as a role model for his fellow pitchers, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out what I wrote two paragraphs ago: after failing to develop even one internal prospect in their first six years, the Royals came through with both Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura in 2014.
I don’t think Shields had anything substantial to do with Ventura; when you throw 99 mph as a starting pitcher, you’re probably going to succeed no matter who the staff ace is. But Duffy came into 2014 as a huge wild card, in my opinion the biggest wild card on the entire roster. He had terrific stuff, but also had huge command issues, and had a reputation for being overly amped on the mound and having difficulty keeping his emotions in check.
And on more than one occasion in 2014 Duffy credited Shields with helping him with this very issue, as Shields also learned to channel his emotions and competitiveness on the mound in a constructive manner.
“(Shields) taught me a lot about how to use my emotions,” Duffy said. “He said that you can try to be more stone-faced and stoic, but don’t lose your edge. He’s the one who told me not to lose those emotions, but just channel them better to help you.
“He just said, ‘Be you. If you’re mad or whatever, don’t change. Be you. But don’t let it affect you in a bad way.’”
Maybe Duffy would have broken out anyway. But as recently as nine months ago Duffy’s future was so cloudy that, nearly three years after he made his major-league debut, he started the 2014 season in the minors. By season’s end, he had thrown 149 innings in the majors with a 2.53 ERA; that would have ranked fifth in the AL had he thrown the additional 13 innings he needed to qualify. Duffy, in fact, was second on the staff in bWAR (3.5), behind only Davis…and ahead of Shields.
Does he have that breakout season without Shields as a teammate? Quite possibly, sure. The biggest difference between Duffy in 2014 and Duffy the three previous seasons was that his walk rate dropped significantly; he’d hardly be the first hard-throwing left-hander to tame his stuff at age 25. Maybe he would have done that on his own. This is one of those areas where, as an outsider, I can’t offer you any particular insight. I am unqualified to assess Shields’ impact on Duffy’s brilliance last season. But if Shields’ abilities as a staff leader and mentor to younger pitchers was a significant part of his allure to the Royals, it would be awfully coincidental if he had no impact at all and Duffy just happened to have a best-case-scenario season.
Maybe 2014 was a flash in the pan for Duffy, who had tremendous BABIP luck, and maybe he never has success on this level ever again. But that doesn’t change the fact that in 2014, with Shields as his teammate, Duffy had a fantastic season. One without which the Royals never would have sniffed the playoffs, let alone the pennant. And if it turns out that 2014 was not a fluke, and Duffy continues to be an above-average starting pitcher going forward, Shields may continue to pay dividends for the Royals for years after he has moved on.
7) I thought that by 2014, the difference between Shields/Davis and Myers/Odorizzi would be very small, and even if the Royals made the playoffs, the odds that they would make the playoffs by a margin small enough to make the trade decisive were even smaller.
If I were to distill the essence of my argument against the trade into a single sentence, it would have been this: “While the trade will make the Royals a little better in 2013, they’re still too far away from contention for it to matter, and with another year of development for Myers and Odorizzi, by 2014 they’ll be about as good as Shields and Davis for a lot less money.”
That argument turned out to be correct all the way up until the second comma. Thanks to Davis’ horrible season as a starting pitcher, in 2013 Myers and Odorizzi actually combined for more bWAR (2.2) than Shields and Davis (2.0). (Although Elliot Johnson contributed 0.7 bWAR, entirely on defense, which is enough to tip the scales just ever so slightly in favor of the new guys.)
But in 2014 it was Myers who cratered, and Davis who turned things around as a reliever – Davis was nearly six wins more valuable in 2014 than in 2013. Combined, Davis and Shields were worth 7.0 bWAR in 2014. Myers (who was below replacement level) and Odorizzi combined for 0.3 bWAR. True, the Royals paid Shields and Davis $18.3 million, while Myers and Odorizzi got $1 million combined. But you’re not going to find 6.7 Wins Above Replacement on the open market for $17.3 million. At the going rate, 6.7 bWAR is worth more than $40 million.
Young players go through development pangs; the player who arrives in the majors as a fully-formed star without any adjustments needing to be made, like Albert Pujols or Evan Longoria or Ryan Braun, is a very rare thing. Maybe I overestimated the odds that Myers would not only succeed in the majors, but continue succeeding in the majors after he had established himself. Or maybe not; maybe he just got hurt. In any case, the reason why the trade seems so lopsided in 2014 is less because Myers and Odorizzi performed so badly than because Shields and Davis performed so well.
A lesser but still significant reason on my list of arguments against the trade was that even if the Royals made the playoffs before Shields became a free agent, it’s possible that they would have made the playoffs anyway. Just because a team has been bad for a long time doesn’t mean that their improvement will be gradual – sometimes a young team gels all at once, and they go from 71-91 to 95-67, like the 2006 Tigers did, or they go from 66-96 to 97-65, like the 2008 Rays did, or they go from 65-97 to 94-68, like the 1991 Braves did.
It would have felt a little tacky to basically penalize the Royals for playing so well that they didn’t need to make the trade, but that was still a possibility. It’s not exactly a worst-case scenario, but if a team mortgages its future to win three extra games, and they wind up winning their division by six games, did they really need to mortgage their future?
For the trade to really pay dividends, the Royals had to thread a needle: they needed to make the playoffs, but they needed to not make the playoffs by too large a margin. Forgive me that I can’t find the quote, but I know Moore has said more than once something to the effect of, “when we do make the playoffs, it will be by three games or less,” making the point that the team needed to focus on the little things because their margin for error would be very small.
Well call him Prophet Dayton, because damned if he wasn’t right about 2014. And damned if the difference between Shields/Davis and Myers/Odorizzi in 2014 wasn’t the difference between finishing around .500 and having a season we’ll all remember for a lifetime.
8) I put too much weight on Dayton Moore’s track record in judging the trade.
Let’s be frank: if Billy Beane had made the exact same trade that Dayton Moore had made, we – by “we” I mean not just the analytic community, but even more old-school baseball media – wouldn’t have been nearly so quick to condemn him for it. We know this to be the case because Billy Beane did make the exact same trade, more or less, last July. And at least at first, the reaction wasn’t nearly as negative as the reaction to the Shields/Davis trade. At the very beginning, it wasn’t negative at all. It wasn’t until the following morning that I remember someone on Twitter – Matt Meyers, now of MLB.com – asking the question, “Is it me, or did Billy Beane just make basically the same trade that Dayton Moore got eviscerated for 15 months ago?”
It wasn’t basically the same trade. It was worse.
In case you’ve forgotten, on the 4th of July the A’s traded Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, and Dan Straily to the Chicago Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.
Addison Russell, like Wil Myers, was one of the top five prospects in the game at the time he was traded. When people throw Barry Larkin comparisons on a prospect, you take notice. McKinney is probably not quite at the level Odorizzi was as a prospect – I don’t think he’ll be a Top-100 prospect this winter, as Odorizzi was – but he was the A’s first-round pick in 2013, and was hitting .241/.330/.400 in high-A ball as 19-year-old at the time of the trade (and hit .301/.390/.432 after the trade). Dan Straily was banished to the minors for most of 2014 but threw 152 innings with a 3.96 ERA for the A’s in 2013. The overall package is probably less than the Myers/Odorizzi/Montgomery/Leonard package the Royals gave up, but it’s, like, 95% of the talent.
And the A’s didn’t get 95% of the return. Whereas the Royals got two years of Shields and up to five years of Davis, the A’s got 1.5 years of Jeff Samardzija and 0.5 years of Jason Hammel. I think Samardzija and Shields are roughly comparable pitchers in terms of quality at the moment they were traded – Samardzija didn’t have Shields’ track record, but he was younger and was in the midst of his best season. Hammel, though, had signed a one-year deal with the Cubs after finishing 2013 with a 4.97 ERA for the Orioles. He was a shrewd buy-low candidate – his peripheral numbers suggested he was a better pitcher than that – and indeed he had a 2.98 ERA in 17 starts for the Cubs at the time of the trade. But still: they were getting his services for three months.
The A’s gave up 95% as much talent as the Royals surrendered, and in return got back two pitchers with roughly as much present value but who were under contract for just half as long. I’d say the A’s got 70% as much talent in return – Samardzija was the real prize, and he was the one under contract for 2015 – but still, there’s no way to make the case that the A’s got a better return on their prospects than the Royals did.
The defense of the trade from the A’s perspective was that the A’s were a playoff-caliber team, and so the trade was guaranteed to impact their postseason chances, both in terms of making the playoffs and going deep into the playoffs. And Samardzija and Hammel performed about as well as expected – Hammel was a disappointment with a 4.26 ERA after the trade, but Shark threw 112 innings in 16 starts with a 3.14 ERA. But the A’s as a team went into the tank, even after trading Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester, who pitched brilliantly after the trade.
As if the Wild Card Game didn’t have enough impact on both franchises already, it had a massive impact on the legacy of both trades. If the A’s had won, and they had gone to the ALDS with a rotation fronted by Lester, Samardzija, and Sonny Gray, then Addison Russell might be seen as a reasonable price to pay for Beane’s first pennant. If the Royals had lost, I wouldn’t be 7400 words deep into an apology. But the Royals won and the A’s lost, and it was Hammel who was walking off the mound when Salvador Perez got mobbed.
The point isn’t that Beane made a terrible trade while Moore made a brilliant one. The point is that both GMs made huge, but calculated gambles. I would argue, though, that Moore got a better return on his haul of prospects than Beane got on his. And no one would argue that Moore didn’t get better results. My reaction to the trade, and the reaction of many other people, was influenced by the fact that it was Dayton Moore making it.
And that’s okay. Everyone has a history; everyone has a reputation. Billy Beane had a track record that Dayton Moore didn’t. Beane had taken seven teams to the postseason; Moore hadn’t taken any. Beane had made trades in the past that seemed lopsided against him – who can forget Jeremy Giambi for John Mabry? – that worked out brilliantly. I was so irked by him trading Trevor Cahill for Jarrod Parker that I built a Grantland column around that trade – and even with Parker losing 2014 to Tommy John surgery, that trade is a big win for him.
So I think it’s only fair to say that Beane had earned himself the benefit of the doubt when he made his all-in trade. Moore had not. But the ghosts of previous moves may have clouded our judgment of the Shields/Davis trade. It was easy to assume the same man who had once traded for Yuniesky Betancourt, and before him Mike Jacobs, could not possibly get the better of the GM who had once traded impending free agent Aubrey Huff for a prospect named Ben Zobrist, who had sold high on Delmon Young after his rookie year for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, who had later traded Garza for a package of prospects that included Chris Archer and top prospect Hak-Ju Lee.
It’s very easy for us to write off a general manager after he makes a few bad moves, particularly if they come at the very beginning of his administration. The danger is if you then close your mind to the possibility that the GM might learn from his mistakes, or that he starts listening to other people in his front office, or even that he had very good reasons for making the moves that he did but that they just didn’t work out. I remember one of Kenny Williams’ first big moves as the White Sox GM was to trade Kip Wells and Josh Fogg to the Pirates for Todd Ritchie, a move which turned out to be as terrible as it looked. The problem was that many people in the analytic community wrote Williams off as being in over his head – right up until the moment the White Sox won the World Series four years later. All GM’s make dumb moves; no GM is dumb. Not even Ruben Amaro.
I acknowledge that I wear my emotions as a Royals fan on my sleeve. I admit that I find myself too close to the situation when the Royals make a move, and take it personally when they make a move I disagree with. I concede that, as a result, I have at times blurred the lines between “I disagree with this move” and “this is a dumb move”, between “this is a dumb move” and “our front office is dumb”.
Dayton Moore and the Royals’ front office are not dumb. They are not perfect; no team’s front office is. They continue to make decisions I don’t agree with – we’ll talk about Kendrys Morales some other time. But they are not dumb. They are not clueless. They are, in fact, quite capable of making a trade with the small-market darlings of baseball, a trade that was savaged by the analytics community and lampooned by most other front offices as well – and making out like bandits.
I did not sufficiently account for this possibility two years ago. I thought that by now Wil Myers might be a superstar. I thought that by now James Shields might be hurt, or a shell of the pitcher he once was. I thought that the Royals weren’t going to be good enough to make the playoffs in 2013 or 2014. I thought that the money they spent on Shields and Wade Davis could have been spent on other pitchers with similar results. I thought that the talk of Shields elevating the game of his teammates was hooey. I thought that Dayton Moore had made a trade out of desperation rather than a savvy attempt to sell high.
On every one of these points, I was at least partly wrong. On some of them, I was dead wrong.
I crossed paths with Jin Wong again on the upper concourse at Kauffman Stadium before Game 1 of the World Series. We were walking in opposite directions, but as soon as he saw me, he peeled off from the group he was walking with to greet me. He didn’t gloat. He didn’t have to. I told him, “I owe you guys a MASSIVE apology.”
This is my apology, and it is massive. (I believe it’s the longest column I’ve ever written, which is saying something.) I didn’t get a chance to apologize to Moore directly, though. I was tempted to when I saw him on the field before Game 7, but I decided that Moore had better things to do with his time before Game 7 of the World Series then listen to some no-name blogger say he was sorry.
But it’s the dead of winter now, so maybe he’ll have time to read this.
Dear Dayton Moore: I was wrong. You were right. You made the biggest gamble of your career two years ago, and I savaged you at the time, and it turns out your decision was brilliant. I was a fool. Please forgive me.
And please accept my thanks. 2014 was the most fun I’ve ever had as a sports fan.
Thursday, December 4, 2014
First off, while I realize this interests few people besides myself, I have decided that the 1995 Indians should be eligible for the list on my last post, and therefore should rank #1 overall.
I was conflating with the 1995 Indians with two other dominant regular season teams that fell short in the playoffs, the 1954 Indians (111-43, swept by the New York Giants in the World Series) and the 2001 Seattle Mariners (116-46, lost in the ALCS to the Yankees in five games). That was a mistake. The 1995 Indians had a much different set of circumstances than the other two teams.
The 1954 Indians had just won the World Series six years earlier, making their loss at the hands of the 97-57 Giants not only an upset, but a disappointment – a pennant wasn’t that much to celebrate in Cleveland. They could have no idea in 1954 what was to come. And the 2001 Mariners only made it to the ALCS, which they had just done the year before as well as back in 1995. That team had to make it to at least the World Series to do something special – the Mariners had never been to the World Series, and thanks to the 2001 Mariners falling short, they still haven’t.
But the 1995 Indians…that team was different. That team hadn’t been to the playoffs in forty-one years, since the 1954 Indians. From 1982 to 1993 they had 11 losing seasons in 12 years…following their only winning season in 1986, Sports Illustrated famously predicted that they would win the World Series in 1987 – the Indians lost 101 games, making them the worst team in baseball and SI’s prediction literally the worst prediction you can possibly make. That was just eight years earlier. Just four years earlier, in 1991, they had lost 105 games. In 1989, Major League came out. Even Hollywood saw the Indians as the baseball team most synonymous with losing.
In 1994, they were coming together, and might have made the playoffs were it not for the strike. They were expected to be really good in 1995. But no one thought they’d be this good. Remember, the 1995 season was only 144 games long – their record extrapolates to 113-49 over a full season. They had 12 walk-off wins during the season. They then stormed through the ALDS and ALCS to the World Series, where they lost to the Braves…and while the Braves only went 90-54, no one really thought it was a huge upset, not with the Braves’ pitching staff, or the fact that the Braves had been to two of the three previous World Series already. Even after that season, with the incredible young offense the Indians had built, everyone expected that 1995 was just the beginning of a long run of success for the Indians…and everyone was right, as that was just the first of their five straight AL Central titles.
(Also, it occurred to me that for a team that didn’t even win a pennant, the 1984 Chicago Cubs deserve a mention. Maybe it’s because I live in Chicago, but it’s amazing how much that team still resonates today.)
So yeah, if I had to pick one non-championship team to root for in the last 60 years, it would be the 1995 Indians. Here, then, is my list of the five most enjoyable non-championship seasons in the last 60 years:
1) 1995 Indians
2) 1967 Red Sox
3) 1991 Braves
4) 2007 Rockies
5) 2014 Royals
I got a chance to root for one of them. I’ll take that.
The Royals not winning Game 7 upset an awful lot of my plans. I was planning to spend a truly irresponsible amount of money on a wall of photographs of iconic moments from the postseason – I had like a dozen such moments already picked out – for my house, and the same for my medical office. I was planning to be a guest on The B.S. Report. I was working on the lyrics to a new sixth-inning song for the Royals to play. I was planning to walk barefoot from my home in Chicago to Kansas City, then crawl on my hands and knees to Kauffman Stadium, and then grovel outside Dayton Moore’s office and beg for forgiveness until security arrived.
Those plans have been dashed, but I still have much to be thankful for. The Royals might have lost Game 7, but they won damn near everything else. For one thing: the Royals went 11-4 in the postseason. Not only is that the best playoff winning percentage ever for a team that didn’t win a championship, it’s the best possible playoff record for a non-championship team. Until the Wild Card game was introduced three years ago it wasn’t possible to do better than 10-4, and in fact the best playoff record by any non-championship team in the three-division era had been 10-7. To go 11-4 requires a perfect confluence of events: qualify for the Wild Card game, win the Wild Card game, sweep the LDS, sweep the LCS, lose the World Series in seven games. It might be a decades before another team goes 11-4 without winning the World Series.
The Royals had a better postseason record than most of the teams that won the World Series. The Giants, of course, went 12-5 in the playoffs this year. They are the first team to win 12 playoff games, thanks to being the first world champion to go through the Wild Card game. Of the 20 previous world champions in the wild card era (1981 and 1995-2013), just seven lost fewer than four games in the playoffs, and three teams (the 1996 and 2009 Yankees and 2010 Giants) went exactly 11-4. Which means that the Royals had a better playoff record than 11 of the 21 world champions in the wild card era.
That doesn’t make them the world champions. But it does mean that we Royals fans experienced as much playoff joy and as little playoff heartbreak as it is possible to experience without winning a title.
The Royals played in 15 postseason games this year. They had played in only 43 postseason games in the entire history of the franchise prior to this point. They won nearly as many playoff games in one month (11) as they had won in their previous 45 seasons (18). They won more playoff games in 2014 (11) than they did (10) in six postseason appearances from 1976 to 1984 combined.
The Royals had a pretty terrible postseason record as a franchise coming into 2014, at 18-25. They are now a .500 team overall, at 29-29.
Mike Moustakas not only set the team record for most homers (5) in a single postseason, he now ranks second in career postseason home runs as a Royal, behind only George Brett’s 10. Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer are tied for sixth on the Royals list of career hits in the postseason, with 20; Alcides Escobar is eighth, with 19. Alex Gordon is tied with Amos Otis for third in career postseason doubles, with 6. James Shields is fourth all-time among Royals pitchers in postseason strikeouts, tied with…Wade Davis.
After a generation with no playoff moments to speak of, the Royals had a decade’s worth of playoff moments in one postseason. The Royals have now played more postseason games this century than the Mariners or the Orioles or the Nationals, and as many as the Brewers. They won more playoff games this year than the Twins have won (6) in the last 20 years. They won nearly as many playoff games this year as the Padres have won (12) in their existence.
But it’s not just that the Royals finally have a ledger under “postseason games in the 21st century”. It’s not just that they’ve played in the postseason, or even won in the postseason, it was the way they won this postseason. They’re the first team in the history of baseball to win four extra-inning games in one postseason. Using a simple definition of “dramatic victory” – a victory where the winning run scores in the ninth inning or later – the Royals had five dramatic victories in their first six playoff games.
In the entire history of the Royals franchise prior to 2014, you know how many dramatic victories they had in the postseason? Two. The first was Game 3 of the 1980 World Series. The Phillies had scored a run in the eighth to tie the game; in the bottom of the tenth, Willie Aikens singled home Willie Wilson from second base with two outs to end the game. The second was Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, which should need no explanation. The Royals had lost six games in the ninth inning or later – including Game 5 in both the
1977 and 1978 1976 and 1977 ALCS (remember, those were best-of-five series back then)
along with Game 5 of the 1980 World Series, Games 2 and 4 of the 1985 ALCS, and
Game 2 of the 1985 World Series.
The Royals had more dramatic victories in their first three playoff games this year than they had in their entire franchise history. They had only won one extra-inning playoff game before 2014; they won four this year. They had never hit a home run in extra innings in the postseason before; they hit four this year.
Five dramatic victories in six games.
How unusual is that? The St. Louis Cardinals have played 120 postseason games since 2000. They’ve gone 63-57 in those games – incredibly, the Royals are farther above .500 in playoff games than the Cardinals this century. Of their 63 postseason wins, the winning run scored in the ninth or later in 10 of those games. The Royals have packed half as many dramatic victories in one month as the Cardinals have had playing in 11 of the last 15 postseasons.
Five iconic hits that I may never forget, including Mike Moustakas’ home run into the first row in Anaheim; Eric Hosmer’s blast the following night; Alex Gordon’s towering fly ball in Baltimore; Alcides Escobar’s doubled that hugged the right-field line.
For those four hits, the drama was only diminished by the fact that, being on the road, none of them were game-enders. That was left for Salvador Perez’s walk-off single in the Wild Card game, and it says something about that night that I’m not even sure Perez’s single – which many consider the biggest play of the year – was even the biggest play of the game. Was it bigger than Christian Colon’s Baltimore chop which tied the game two batters earlier? Was it bigger than Eric Hosmer’s triple off the top of the wall which gave the Royals life when they were two outs away from elimination?
And that was just the twelfth inning. Was it bigger than Brandon Finnegan, with all of seven innings in the major leagues under his belt, throwing a scoreless tenth inning in the biggest game of his life, and then doing it again in the eleventh? Was it bigger than Jarrod Dyson stealing third when everyone in the ballpark knew he was going? Bigger than Josh Willingham’s pinch-hit single leading off the ninth, the final hit of Willingham’s career? Bigger than the blizzard of singles and walks and stolen bases which led to three runs in the eighth inning when the Royals appeared to be without a prayer?
Pick out your favorite moment. Decide for yourself what the most important play of the game was – for me it was Hosmer’s triple, but you can make a case for like a dozen different ones. But that’s just it: there was no one moment. There were five straight innings of incredible drama. There were three innings where the Royals put together rallies with no margin for error, and I do mean rallies – what happened in the eighth, ninth, and 12th innings could not have happened without the combined contributions of multiple players. Break any link in the chain, and the 2014 Royals are a mere footnote in history, the team that technically broke a 29-year playoff drought, but was eliminated from the playoffs before the calendar even flipped to October.
I was privileged to be there that night. It was a privilege enough to be at the first Royals playoff game in 29 years, which is why the crowd that night was so electric – those were the die-hards, the fans who understand the import of what, to another team, would have simply been the play-in game to the quarterfinal round. No World Series crowd save for Game 7 could match it. We all felt honored and humbled just to be in the stands that night, with no idea what was to come. In the tenth or eleventh inning, I remarked to my friends with me that night, Chris Kamler and Alex Robinson, that this was the best baseball game I had ever attended in person. And that was before the A’s took the lead again, before the Royals were down to their final two outs again, before they tied the game again, and before they won.
I had sold the game short. The best baseball game I had ever attended? It might have been the best baseball game in Royals history.
As long as drama plays some part in how you define “best” – otherwise Game 7 of the 1985 World Series wins in a walk – there is really one other game that contends for the crown. That’s because there is only one other Royals playoff victory in which the team was losing in the ninth inning: Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. That was a very tense game, scoreless into the eighth, and the bottom of the ninth is easily the most thrilling half-inning in Royals history. And because of the stakes, I think Game 6 is still the best Royals game ever – but with the rather significant caveat that you can’t discuss the game without mentioning the rather significant umpire error that will always define it.
But the Wild Card game is #2 with a bullet. I’m not even sure which game is #3. Some candidates:
1) Game 3 of the 1980 ALCS. George Brett’s home run off Goose Gossage, clinching a sweep and sending the Royals to their first World Series. On the surface, it doesn’t look that dramatic: the Royals were up 2 games to 0 at the time, and Brett’s home run came in the seventh. On the other hand, Games 4 and 5 would have been at Yankee Stadium as well, and the Yankees had already defeated the Royals in the ALCS three times. That was an awfully big monkey that Brett knocked off the Royals’ back.
2) Game 3 of the 1980 World Series. The only other walk-off win in Royals playoff history, on Aikens’ single in the tenth inning, gives the Royals their first World Series win and prevents them from falling behind 3 games to 0. However, the Royals never actually trailed in the game, and they lost the series anyway.
3) Game 161 of the 1985 season. The only regular-season game on our list. The Royals entered the day two games up on the Angels with two games left, but the Angels won that day, and the Royals were down 4-0 to the A’s in the bottom of the sixth. Brett hit a two-run homer in the sixth, Frank White and Steve Balboni hit RBI singles in the seventh to tie the game, and Willie Wilson hit a two-out walkoff single in the tenth to clinch the division. Remember: that victory put the Royals into the ALCS – the Wild Card game, even though it was a playoff game itself, only put the Royals into the ALDS.
4) Game 3 of the 1985 ALCS. The George Brett Game. Two homers, a double, a single, a ridiculous defensive play to nail Damaso Garcia at home plate. Brett scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth and the Royals won 6-5 to keep from falling behind in the series 3 games to 0.
I’d probably rank them like this:
1) 1985 World Series, Game 6
2) 2014 Wild Card Game
3) 1980 ALCS, Game 3
4) 1985 ALCS, Game 3
5) 1985 Regular Season, Game 161
6) 1980 World Series, Game 6
But you could really make a case, in retrospect, for the Wild Card game being #1. The Royals didn’t just rally in their last at-bat – they rallied in their last at-bat twice, and the first time their deficit was so large they had to rally in two separate innings. While their opponents were scoring five runs on two swings of the bat, the Royals were fighting back with speed and contact – it was like watching two utterly disparate philosophies of baseball clash in a duel to the death, and the Royals’ rapier parried the A’s cutlass over and over again before slicing the fatal wound. And when it was over, there was no controversy over who won.
Game 6 had higher stakes, but the Wild Card game had even more import because of what happened afterwards, which is that the Royals won the AL pennant. If the Royals had lost Game 6 in 1985, they still would have been AL champions. But if they had lost the Wild Card game, they’d have been just the ninth- or tenth-best team in the majors. They wouldn’t have sniffed being Baseball America’s Organization of the Year. No one would be talking about them as a model for how a small-market team should build. Game 6 of the 1985 World Series changed the narrative of that team. But the Wild Card game changed the narrative of the entire franchise. So if you wanted to rank it #1, you will get no argument from me.
A week earlier, I had never seen the Royals play a meaningful game period, let alone in person. Four days earlier, I was there in Chicago when the Royals clinched their first playoff spot in 29 years. One day earlier I had never witnessed a Royals postseason game. And then suddenly I had a primo seat for one of the two best Royals games ever played, a game I’ve taken to simply calling The Game, a game I intend to tell my grandchildren about. I’ll always be grateful for that experience.
I wasn’t there when the Royals clinched the ALDS at home, or the ALCS at home, but I was there for all four World Series games at Kauffman Stadium. I had never been to any World Series games, and now I’ve been to four of them. My wife flew down for Game 2, and it was honestly one of the most romantic evenings we’ve ever spent at an event: five-and-a-half innings of sheer tension in a must-win game, followed by an uproarious five-run rally with Hunter Strickland providing comic relief, and then three innings to party.
I was there for Game 6, and the biggest inning in Royals postseason history. And I was there for Game 7, which was A GAME 7. It was just the sixth Game 7 in the last 25 years. In that span there have been more World Cup Finals than Game 7s. Since 1988 there have been more presidential elections than Game 7s. You can be a diehard baseball fan for a lifetime and never have the opportunity to attend a Game 7. I’ll always be grateful for that experience too, even though the Royals lost.
The Royals lost, but for one brief shining moment they had an opportunity to do something that’s never been done. When Alex Gordon was held at third base, it brought Salvador Perez to the plate, and it occurred to me at that moment that if Perez hit a home run, it would be – without an iota of hyperbole – the greatest moment in the history of baseball.
Consider this: there has never been a walkoff hit in Game 7 of the World Series that came with the home team losing. There have been walkoff hits in tie games – Bill Mazeroski’s home run in 1960, Edgar Renteria’s single in 1997. There have been walkoff hits with the home team losing in Game 6 – Dane Iorg, famously, but Joe Carter even more famously, as his walkoff hit ended the season. There have been walkoff hits with the home team losing that clinched a pennant, like Bobby Thomson in 1951 and Francisco Cabrera in 1992. But the dream hit – Game 7 of the World Series, the bottom of the ninth, your team is losing, and you win the game – has never happened.
“When I was 10 years old,” Yost said, “hitting rocks in the backyard, trying to hit it over the fence for a home run, I never one time thought ‘OK, bases loaded, two out, bottom of the ninth, game five of the World Series,’ you know? It was always two outs, bottom of the ninth, game seven of the World Series.”
The bases weren’t loaded, but otherwise there wasn’t a more dramatic situation possible than the one that Salvador Perez faced. In just five previous World Series has a batter even had the opportunity for a walk-off hit in Game 7 of the World Series with his team losing:
1912: The Red Sox and Giants were tied at 1 after nine innings, and the Giants scored a run in the top of the tenth. But Fred Snodgrass muffed pinch-hitter Clyde Engle’s leadoff fly ball in the bottom of the inning. Harry Hooper flied out with Engle moving to third, Steve Yerkes walked, and then Tris Speaker singled Engle home to tie the game; the Red Sox would win later in the inning. (Technically this was Game 8; there had been a tie.)
1962: The Yankees led 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth, when Matty Alou led off with a bunt single. Felipe Alou and Chuck Hiller struck out against Ralph Terry, but Willie Mays then hit a double to put the tying and winning runs in scoring position. Willie McCovey then came closer to the dream hit than anyone in history, scorching a line drive right at second baseman Bobby Richardson to end it.
1972: The Oakland A’s led the Reds, 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth. With two outs, Darrel Chaney pinch-hit and was hit by a pitch, bringing the winning run to the plate, but Pete Rose flew out to left field.
1997: The Indians led the Marlins, 2-1 in the ninth, but Moises Alou – Matty’s nephew, Felipe’s son – led off with a single. This time it wasn’t in vain. Bobby Bonilla struck out, but Charles Johnson singled to put runners on the corners. With the tying run on third and one out, rookie Craig Counsell came through, hitting a deep fly ball off Jose Mesa to score Alou. The Marlins would win two innings later.
2001: Mark Grace leads off the bottom of the ninth against Mariano Rivera, with the Diamondbacks losing, 2-1. Grace singles. Damian Miller puts a bunt down, but Rivera throws wildly to second and both men are safe. Jay Bell then bunts, but this time the lead runner is cut down. Tony Womack – Tony Womack! – then doubles to tie the game and put the winning run on third with one out; one batter later, Luis Gonzalez would end the season with a broken-bat looper over Derek Jeter’s head.
By win expectancy in Game 7, I’m pretty sure that Tony Womack has the biggest hit in major league history.
(There should have been a sixth game, but in 1926, after Babe Ruth walked with two outs in the ninth down a run, he tried to steal second base – and was thrown out. With Bob Meusel at the plate. And Lou Gehrig on deck.)
And now 2014, and Salvador Perez, who became just the 15th batter in major league history to step into the batter’s box in a situation that every kid the world over dreams about – with his team losing in Game 7 of the World Series, but with a chance to win the game with one swing. He was just the fourth batter, after Mays, McCovey, and Rose – quite the combination there – to do so with two outs. If the season had ended right there, fading to black Sopranos-style with “Don’t Stop Believin’” playing…well, that would have been a more satisfying ending than the actual Sopranos ending.
He didn’t come through, but just the fact that he had the chance is something that I imagine will stick with me forever. My last column was about whether the Royals had the most enjoyable season ever by a team that didn’t win a title. Well, the Royals didn’t just come within one swing of a championship – they came within one swing of the greatest season in baseball history.
What’s the greatest season in baseball history? What season combines drama, sheer improbability, and cathartic victory? There are the 1914 Boston Braves (the “Miracle Braves”) and the 1969 New York Mets (the “Miracle Mets”). There’s the 1924 Washington Senators winning their first pennant, then winning Game 7 in 12 innings after being down two runs entering the 8th.
There’s the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, finally winning one over the Yankees in seven games. There’s the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, winning their first title in 35 years by beating a vastly more talented Yankees team that outscored them 55-27 in the World Series.
There’s the 1978 Yankees, who came back from 14 games down to catch the Red Sox and win a tiebreaker game before winning the title. There’s the 1980 Phillies winning their first championship ever. There’s the 1986 Mets, who combined a regular season coronation – their 108 wins were the most in baseball in a decade – with an incredible six-game victory over the Astros in the NLCS, and then Game 6 of the World Series, featuring a comeback from down two runs with two outs in the tenth inning, and then coming back from down 3-0 in the sixth inning of Game 7.
There’s the 1988 Dodgers, who rode Orel Hershiser’s arm and Kirk Gibson’s magic to a title. There’s the 1991 Twins, who went from last to first and then won Games 6 and 7 of the World Series in extra innings. There’s the 2001 Diamondbacks, who rode Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson to a title and were losing in the ninth inning of Game 7 to Mariano Freaking Rivera. There’s the 2004 Red Sox, who broke an 86-year-old drought and are the only team to come back from a three games to none deficit. There’s the 2011 Cardinals, who had no business even making the playoffs – they were three games behind the Braves with five games to go.
Maybe I’m not the most unbiased person to be answering this question, but if Madison Bumgarner had missed his spot once and left a pitch where Perez could get to it, and if Perez had dropped that pitch into the left field bullpen, the Royals would have had a case to be ranked ahead of every one of those teams – maybe even the 2004 Red Sox. The Royals had a 29-year drought of their own, and they would have won Game 7 of the World Series after being down to their final out.
The Royals didn’t win the World Series. But they came within one swing of something far more monumental than a world championship. They came within one swing of the greatest story in baseball history. How I can dwell on the way it ended? The mere fact that it could have ended differently is a miracle in its own right.
And now I’m done living in the past. It’s time to look at what 2014 means for the future in my final few columns before I turn out the lights here. But first up, an apology needs to be written. An apology I was hoping I’d have to write for the past two years, and an apology many of you have been hoping you’d get to read for just as long.