Have you ever given much thought to which team, in the history of baseball, you wish you could have followed as a fan for one specific season? I first thought about this back in the winter of 1995-1996, when I was writing the New York Mets essay for our first edition of Baseball Prospectus (the one that was printed on paper stock, had a typeface that, when it was in bold, was almost unreadable, and sold about 160 copies.) I made the point that few fans have ever enjoyed a season as thoroughly as Mets fans did in 1986. The team was a juggernaut during the regular season, winning 108 games (the most of any team in a decade), then won one of the most dramatic NLCS ever played. And then they came back from two down in the 10th in Game 6 against the Red Sox. (And then they came back from three runs down in Game 7.) Ever since then, I’ve judged teams on the basis of how much fun it would be to root for them. Depending on your criteria, you could choose a number of them. For pure, unadulterated excellence, the 1998 Yankees won 114 games and then went 11-2 in the playoffs; except possibly for the start of Game 4 of the ALCS against Cleveland, there was no point after about April 15th that you had any doubt as a Yankees fan your team was going to win a world championship. For the guy with a chip on their shoulder, the 2005 White Sox had their doubters all the way until they went 11-1 in October. The 2001 Diamondbacks had to come back against Mariano Rivera in the 9th inning of Game 7, and even worse, from having Byung-Hyun Kim as their closer. For the underdog, nothing beats Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson, and the 1988 Dodgers. If you’re a history buff, the 1914 Boston “Miracle” Braves; if you’re a baby boomer, you’ve got the 1969 “Miracle” Mets. (Are there are any other teams that can claim “Miracle” as their middle name?) Of course, none of these examples hold a candle to the 2004 Red Sox, at least if you take history into account. But if you could only pick teams that did not win the World Series…you’d have to make strong consideration for the 2007 Colorado Rockies. I couldn’t have been the only person that was intensely jealous of Rockies fans last October. On the morning of September 16th, the Rockies were in fourth place in the division, 6.5 games out. They were 4.5 games out and in fourth place in the wild-card race. They had no hope. They were dead. The Baseball Prospectus postseason odds report pegged their playoff chances at 1.8%, and that seemed generous. And then they got hot. The funny thing is, the Rockies won their next 11 games, and all the while I kept thinking, “man, it’s a damn shame they didn’t play a little bit better earlier in the year.” I was rooting for the Rockies even though I didn’t think they had a chance in hell to make the playoffs. They had shed the legacy of the Mike Hampton/Denny Neagle Rockies, beefed up the farm system, and gone with young players everywhere. When the team found itself on the fringes of a pennant race in August, instead of bringing in veterans to patch up their holes, they doubled down on youth, promoted Franklin Morales and Ubaldo Jimenez, and stuck them in the rotation. Back in 2003 I had the opportunity to speak on a panel at the SABR Convention that was held in Denver that July, on the subject of “Baseball at Altitude”. The other two men on the panel were Robert K. Adair, PhD, who literally wrote the book on The Physics of Baseball, and Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd. One of these things is not like the other… It’s so easy as an outsider to ridicule front office people, labeling the authors of stupid decisions as stupid people. O’Dowd had made some whopping errors in his time as the Rockies’ GM, Hampton and Neagle being front and center. By the time I sat on the panel, it looked like his job was already on thin ice. When it came to his turn to talk, I confess I expected him roll out the usual tired clichés about the difficulties of building a team in such an unusual environment. I expected him to use altitude as a crutch. I learned that day that you don’t get to be a GM – even a bad GM – without being really smart. O’Dowd laid out the challenges of building a team in a high-altitude environment candidly and in impressive detail. He brought up issues I hadn’t even realized existed, like the fact that the low oxygen pressure in the atmosphere prolonged muscle recovery in athletes, making it particularly difficult for starting pitchers to recover from a typical workload. He described studies the Rockies had done themselves on the resiliencies of baseballs at different temperatures and humidity, conducting such experiments as dropping balls from the top of the stadium and seeing how high they’d bounce. It was as a result of doing all this that the Rockies decided to implement the humidor, essentially accepting to exchange their home-field advantage (which was considerable) for a lower-scoring context that would make it easier to developing pitching. He also agreed with my theories (which you can read about here) that since the overwhelming effect of Coors Field was to benefit power hitters, they should aim to build a team with power at every position, emphasize defense in the outfield, and eschew power pitchers in favor of groundball specialists with good control. Four years later, O’Dowd is still at the helm, and it turns out that maybe he’s not such a bad GM anymore. Power at every position? The Rockies promoted Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop. Defense in the outfield? They traded for Willy Taveras. Pitchers that keep the ball down and throw strikes? Their pitching staff finished 14th in strikeouts, but third in walks and fifth in homers allowed. But just as they went into the final weekend with a real shot at the playoffs - just two games behind Arizona, a game out in the wild-card chase – they lost to Brandon Webb on Friday night, and were dead in the water. They needed to win their last two games and the Padres to lose their last two games. They needed Tony Gwynn Jr. to earn the cold shoulder at the family dinner table for the rest of his life. (Great article on the most underrated story of 2007 here.) They needed to beat the best pitcher in the NL in a tiebreaker. They needed to come back from two runs down against the all-time saves record holder in the bottom of the 13th. They did all that, then they swept the Phillies, then they swept the Diamondbacks. Twenty-one out of 22, people. In the last thirty years, going back to when the 1977 Royals won 24 out of 25, you could count the number of teams that won 21 out of 22 on your hands - at any point in any season. The Rockies won 21 out of 22 to get to the World Series when 20 out of 22 would have earned them third place and a hot start the following April. The Rockies then faced an American League team for the first time in months, and…well, after the fifth inning of Game One I sent out the following email to the Baseball Prospectus mailing list: “Is it just me, or does anyone else look at tonight's game and think back to the classic Simpsons baseball episode? The Rockies are Homer Simpson, blissfully unaware that their 21-1 streak (Wonderbat) is the result of facing inferior competition in the National League (the company softball league). Tonight's game features the Rockies/Homer finally standing in against Roger Clemens/the Red Sox, whereupon the 21-1 streak/Wonderbat immediately gets beaten down to a 13-1 pulp after five innings/disintegrates into thin air.”It was still an incredible ride. In baseball history, the only pennant winner (but World Series loser) I can think of that matches the 2007 Rockies for pure exhilaration is the 1951 Giants. The Rockies did the Royals – and all small-market teams – a favor. They showed you can with a small payroll (they ranked 25th in the majors with a payroll of $54 million, $13 million lower than Kansas City.) And they reminded us that there’s no better tonic for a team that’s driftless and without direction than a full-fledged commitment to a youth movement.The Rockies didn’t do anything particularly sexy: they just stopped worrying about how to win at altitude, and focused on how you win everywhere else. Almost every key player on their roster – Tulo, Atkins, Holliday, Hawpe, Helton, Francis, Cook, Morales, Jimenez, Corpas – was drafted or signed as an amateur by the Rockies. Taveras, Jeremy Affeldt, and Brian Fuentes were acquired in trade. The most prominent players on the roster that were signed out of free agency were Kazuo Matsui and Josh Fogg.The Royals aren’t following the Rockies’ blueprint exactly. Their farm system hasn’t been nearly as productive so far, but they’ve been far more aggressive in free agency, and Meche alone is more valuable than all the Rockies’ free agents combined. But long-term, the Royals are doing everything in their power to build from within. A Rockies-like miracle, if it occurs, won’t happen until 2010 when Mike Moustakas and Danny Duffy come up in mid-season.For 2008? Even I can’t put much stock in such miracles. But miracles do happen. We just saw the first 18-0 team in NFL history, a team that set the record for points scored, for touchdowns passed by one player, and for touchdowns received by one player, play the NFC’s #6 seed in the Super Bowl. And the #6 seed won, paced by – most miraculous of all – Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning.
I have no expectations that the Royals will anything substantial in 2008. But I'm prepared to have my expectations altered. If the Rockies can win 21 out of 22 games, if a 10-6 team can topple Team Undefeated, nothing is impossible. Or impossible is nothing. That's a good slogan; a shoe company should market that. A few housekeeping notes:
1) Last week, showing the bluntness and insensitivity that bloggers are famous for, I took some minor shots at longtime Royals’ scout/executive Art Stewart. What I didn’t know at the time was that Art’s wife Donna was dying of cancer; she passed away this Tuesday. Donna was a permanent fixture at Royals games, a loyal supporter of the team to the very end. She will be missed. Our thoughts are with her and with Art.
2) Rob and I turn off the lights over at Rob & Rany. It’s going to be weird not having someone to bounce immediate impressions off of when the Royals make big moves. But it was time. Rob was already thinking of closing up shop when I mentioned to him that I was planning on starting this blog; I think he was more excited than I was.
But please, guys: just because Rob has been, shall we say, less optimistic than I have been over the years is no reason to attack his loyalty to the team or tear him down for walking away at this time. Yes, he’s been down on the Royals a lot more than I have – can you blame him? We started our discussions of the Royals in 1998, having no idea that we were about to witness one of the worst decades for a baseball team in major-league history. Whenever I see Royals fans rip on Rob for not keeping the faith, all I can say is, “have you guys been watching this team for the last 10 years?” If you have, how can you argue that someone has been too pessimistic about the franchise? Is that even possible? Whatever negative things Rob has had to say about the Royals, they’ve earned it. And then some.
We’re leaving on good terms, I’m happy to say; Rob even sent me his 2003 Mike Sweeney Bobblehead Doll as a sort of blogwarming gift the other day. (Despite being packaged carefully, when I took the doll out of its box, I found that Sweeney’s bat had cracked in two. I wish I was making this up. At least it wasn’t his back.
3) Just an FYI: don’t expect these posts to continue to run this long. I started writing some of these entries weeks ago – even I can’t write this many words on a daily basis. What, do I look like Joe Posnanski?