So, that’s a wrap. An 18-8 September turned the 2008 season from a failure to a success, relatively speaking. Back in February I projected the Royals to go 73-89; immediately prior to the season I revised that projection up to 75 wins, primarily because Zack Greinke had served notice in the spring that he was healthy and dealing. I don’t think I’ve ever come close to projecting the Royals’ win total before; I’m usually way too optimistic, though in 2003 I was too pessimistic.
Maybe I’m finally getting a handle on this team. Or maybe under Dayton Moore the Royals are a more stable and predictable franchise, less prone to wild mood swings like the ones we saw from 2002 to 2004, when the Royals became just the second team ever to lose 100 games, finish above .500, and lose 100 games again in back-to-back-to-back seasons. The first team to do that was the 1985-86-87 Cleveland Indians. If you thought we were all fooled by the 2003 Royals, just remember that in spring training 1987, Sports Illustrated predicted that the Indians (who had gone 84-78 the year before) would win the World Series. Instead, they had the worst record in baseball. You literally can not be more wrong than that. It was the perfect storm of errors.
The Indians would finally gain some semblance of stability a few years later when John Hart became the GM, Mike Hargrove became the manager, and the Indians started pumping a ridiculous amount of hitting talent out of their farm system (and then signing those guys to long-term deals, which was an unprecedented strategy at the time.) The Royals may not be contenders yet, but with Dayton Moore and Trey Hillman running things, they at least appear to have cured themselves of their schizophrenia. A few more hitters would be nice, though.
September was fun. The Royals finished out of last place for the first time in five years, ahead of a team with more than twice their payroll. They finished just 13 games out of first, which doesn’t mean they deserve a parade or anything, but aside from 2003 that’s the closest they’ve finished to first place since the strike. (You may cry now.) They’ll be drafting 11th next year – actually 12th, since the Nationals get a compensation pick for not signing their first-rounder this year – just the second time they’ll be out of the Top 10 since 1996. Had they lost three more games, they would have moved up to 6th in the draft, but the marginal difference between drafting 6th and drafting 12th is less than the difference between drafting 1st and 2nd – which is what happened when the Royals swept the Tigers to end the 2006 season. (Although it will be years before we know whether the Royals would have been better off with David Price than with Mike Moustakas.)
The Royals didn’t just meet expectations in terms of their record, they met (but did not exceed) expectations in terms of their key players. The three most important players to the franchise at the beginning of the year were Greinke, Alex Gordon, and Billy Butler. Butler had a disappointing but not disastrous season; his final numbers put him just below his 25th percentile PECOTA projection. Gordon was disappointing to you and I, but to the impartial computer hit almost exactly as expected; his .260/.351/.432 line was a few points shy of his 50th percentile PECOTA (.266/.342/.457). And Greinke almost matched his 90th percentile projection for ERA (3.47 vs. 3.22) and his K/BB ratio of 183 to 56 exceeded even the 90th percentile projection of 151 to 50.
After those three guys, we rooted for continued dominance from Joakim Soria, who blew past his 90th percentile projection of a 2.15 ERA, and we rooted for Gil Meche to continue to confound PECOTA, which he did – PECOTA projected a 4.47 ERA for The Epic, and like Greinke, Meche’s K/BB ratio exceeded his best projection.
There were some guys who disappointed, certainly, and one of them was paid $12 million a year. But Jose Guillen didn’t even miss his projection by that much: his final line of .264/.300/.438 was just a few points off his projection of .280/.335/.446. His performance wasn’t a disappointment so much as Moore’s decision to sign him in the first place was.
And one player who didn’t even warrant a PECOTA projection in the first place wound up as arguably the team’s MVP, at least on offense. I know Mike Aviles’ PECOTA for 2009 is the one I’m anticipating the most.
I’ll be honest: a month ago I wasn’t sure I was going to keep this blog going after the season. It’s been a lot of work, and while there have been a lot of rewards, the ultimate reward of getting to cover a winning team seemed to be eternally elusive. If nothing else, September was reinvigorating for me personally. The team still has a long road to travel, and there are still going to be potholes and detours along the way. But at least they’re on the right road.
I plan to check in once or twice a week through the off-season, maybe more as circumstances warrant and my schedule allows. I certainly haven’t run out of topics to discuss – I barely touched on the minors, which I’d like to do at some point, and we need to take an in-depth look at the 40-man roster before the winter meetings approach.
So keep checking in periodically. Before I leave, though, I’d like to extend my congratulations to the Tampa Bay Rays on their first playoff appearance, and the Milwaukee Brewers on their first appearance in 26 years. In particular, I’d like to congratulate their fans, coming from a fellow long-suffering fan of a perennial doormat. And I’d like to ask them to keep the door open for us.
See, I became an uber-fan of the Royals in the summer of 1989, or as much of an uber-fan as I could be when the family was living overseas nine months a year. I moved back to the States for good in the summer of 1991, just in time to witness one of the great World Series of all time, and have had the pleasure of watching almost every team in the majors play in the postseason since. And now that the Rays and Brewers have made it to the dance, here’s a list of the last postseason appearance of every major league team:
Milwaukee, Tampa Bay, Boston, L’Anaheim, Chicago (NL), Chicago (AL), Los Angeles, Philadelphia: 2008
New York (AL), Cleveland, Colorado, Arizona: 2007
Detroit, Oakland, Minnesota, New York (NL), St. Louis, San Diego: 2006
Houston, Atlanta: 2005
San Francisco, Florida: 2003
A full two-thirds of all major league teams have made the playoffs in the last four seasons, which is both remarkable and a direct refutation of the notion that the NFL has more parity than MLB. In the last three years, the 24 playoff spots up for grabs have been occupied by 18 different teams.
Of the 30 teams in the major leagues, 28 of them have made the playoffs at least once since 1992, leaving followers of only two teams that have not enjoyed a postseason berth in the last 17 years. Fans of the Montreal Expos had their hope, their faith, and finally their team ripped away from them by Bud Selig and his minions – but at least their suffering is over. That leaves just one team, the one team I could have pledged my undying allegiance to for the past two decades, without once visiting – or even seeing – the promised land.
That team is the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals haven’t just missed the postseason for each of the last 23 years, they haven’t really come close. In 2003, the Royals held first place until August 29th – the latest the team has been in first place since 1985. They were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs with five games left to play – the longest they’ve held out mathematical hope since 1989, and just barely. In 1989, they were within 1.5 games of the A’s on September 1st, and 2.5 games out on September 17th, but then went 2-4 and found themselves 5.5 back with 7 to play. They were 5 games out with 5 left to play, technically not eliminated until the A’s won on Wednesday, but close enough.
The Royals finished just 2 games out in 1987, but that’s deceptive; they had been mathematically eliminated with five games to go, but swept the Twins in the season’s final series while the Twins were resting their regulars. And of course, there was 1994, when the Royals ran off a 14-game winning streak and were nipping at the heels of the Indians and White Sox when the strike ended the season.
I see the Mets collapse and miss the playoffs two years in a row, and it’s not that I don’t feel sympathy, it’s that I don’t feel empathy. Because not only do I not know what it’s like to make the playoffs – I don’t know what it’s like to miss the playoffs. Since winning the World Series 23 years ago, the Royals have never been in contention, no matter how liberally you define the term “contention”, going into the final Thursday of the season. Even the Expos were tied for the wild-card lead as late as September 19th in 1996, and were just a game out with three games to play.
So while I remain optimistic about the future, and reasonably satisfied with what the Royals accomplished this year, make no mistake about it: this was an okay season. Not a great season, not even a really good season. I – and, I suspect, many of you – have no idea what a really good season feels like. But when it comes, it will feel all the better for the time we’ve waited.
At least that’s what I keep telling myself.