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I’ve always felt that for all the advantages that come with having access to a team, in the sense of being a beat writer or a reporter or at least having graduated from J-school, the biggest advantage of my lack of access – of being an outsider – is the luxury of being able to take a step back from the day-to-day minutiae of baseball, and analyze things from a distance. Perspective is hard to obtain from up close.
Well, this year I’ve started to shed the “outsider” label just a little. It’s been a tremendous opportunity to have a radio show and to have access to people inside the game. But it’s also made me so focused on keeping up with every Trey Hillman decision and the ebb and flow of every single game, every single day, that maybe I’ve been missing the big picture just a little bit.
So I took a step back after last night’s game and realized: dammit, we’re good. The Royals are 17-11, which as Bob Dutton pointed out is the first time the Royals are six games* over .500 since the end of the 2003 season. As Will McDonald points out, the Royals could lose their next 36 games in a row and still be ahead of their pace from 2006, just three years ago.
*: “Games over .500” is a very vague term in the way it’s used; some people will say a team that’s 82-80 is two games over .500, while others will say they’re one game over .500. The second answer is technically true, because a team that’s 82-80 is one game ahead of a team that’s exactly .500 (81-81). However, the first answer is usually what people mean. My personal method is to use “games over .500” to denote half-games – in other words, (wins – losses). When I want the second meaning, I’ll use “full games over .500”. At 17-11, the Royals are three full games over .500, which means if they play .500 the rest of the season, they’ll finish with (81 + 3 =) 84 wins.
All the hair-pulling over Trey Hillman’s decisions in April obscured the fact that the most important job for any manager isn’t pushing the right buttons in the late innings, it’s putting his players in position to succeed in the first place. And the best manager can’t win without the horses. The Royals have the horses. They lead the league in runs allowed. They rank only 9th in runs scored, but given that they’re fifth in the league in slugging average and in on-base percentage, they have the makings of at least a league-average offense. The Royals have won with less.
Zack Greinke gets all the press, and deservedly so. But the Royals have played better than .500 ball in the games that The Big Grein does not start. They lead the American League in Beane Count, a statistic that Rob Neyer invented years ago that distills a team’s performance to the two most immutable categories of the game, homers and walks. And yes, Rob’s put one foot on the bandwagon.
For all the talk about how the Royals have been winning games they never would have won in the past, the fact that the Royals won a couple of close games wasn’t definitive proof that they were a good team. Those of you who have been reading for a while already know this, but the hallmark of a good team is not the ability to win the close games – it’s the ability to win the blowouts. Winning one-run games is mostly a matter of luck; winning the eight-run games is mostly a matter of talent.
What was meaningful about the win against the Twins on Saturday, or against the White Sox on Tuesday, wasn’t that it they were the kinds of wins that characterized good teams; it was that they weren’t the kinds of losses that characterized bad teams. Specifically, bad Royals teams. More specifically, pretty much every Royals team from 1995 to 2007.
So we had, I thought, established over the last week that the Royals were not a bad team. But I looked at last night’s game as a litmus test for whether the Royals were a good team. Against another first-place team that seemed to be playing over its head, against a soft-tossing finesse pitcher who has sucked pretty much non-stop since the end of 2007, a good team would bust out the whooping sticks early and often.
Carlos Silva is exactly the kind of control artist who always seems to throw his best games against the Royals: before last night, he had a 4.10 ERA in 14 career starts against KC, and had walked just five batters in 83 career innings.
The verdict? The Royals grounded into two double plays and left five men on base in the first four innings – and still led 8-0. Sidney Ponson did his best Brian Bannister impression, and the three worst pitchers on the Royals’ roster held the Mariners to one run.
And that’s why I’m here to tell you: game on. This team is good, this team is for real, and it’s time to commit fully and hang on tight all season long. I’m not saying the Royals are going to win the division. But I’m saying that from this moment on, every game has playoff implications.
“Wait a minute,” some of you are saying, “how is this any different than 2003?” To which I can only say, “I knew 2003. 2003 was a friend of mine. This team, sir, is no 2003.”
Y’all remember 2003, don’t you? Tony Pena tossing a coin to decide whether Runelvys Hernandez or Jeremy Affeldt would start on Opening Day? Ken Harvey hitting walkoff homers? Mike MacDougal walking a tightrope every ninth inning? Everything about that season was surreal from the start. NO ONE thought, prior to the season, that the Royals had any hope of contention. Then they started 9-0, and 16-3, and even then the feeling wasn’t “we’re going to win”, it was “we’re winning!” The emotions that I recall were more about living in the moment than in expecting the winning ways to continue. They continued a lot longer than we expected, and when the Royals went into the All-Star break leading the division by seven games, you could actually start to believe that the magic might last into October. But it was still clear that they were winning with magic.
This year, even before the season began people around the game were talking about the Royals as a sleeper contender, to the point where it actually got annoying – the New York Times predicted the Royals to win the division. Those predictions weren’t made because people thought the Royals were well-versed in sorcery; they were made because people thought the Royals had a lot of talent.
Which they do. The Royals’ second-best starter is better than anyone in the rotation in 2003 – or in any year from 1998 to 2006. Their closer is one of the very best in baseball. Their leadoff hitter has a .363 OBP and catches everything in centerfield. Their DH does little but hit homers – but he does hit homers. Their first baseman is hitting .276/.370/.425 and is just scratching the surface of his potential. Their second baseman, batting 7th, is hitting .359 – and while no one thinks he’s a .359 hitter, a lot of people think he’s a .310 hitter. They have Zack Greinke. They have a pitcher who’s 5-0, 1.13 in
The Royals are 17-11, and they’ve outscored their opponents by 30 runs, which projects to a…17-11 record. They’re winning even with one of their best players on the DL. In the last week, they’ve won games by bashing 11 extra-base hits around the park; by scoring eight runs in five innings off a pair of Quadruple-A pitchers (who were both sent down to Triple-A immediately after the game); by outlasting the Twins on the road with an 11th-inning rally triggered by four walks; by storming back from a 4-0 deficit after six innings with a five-run seventh; by rallying from a 5-1 deficit to the White Sox to win in 11 innings, even after the home plate umpire blew a call on the potential go-ahead run in regulation; and beaten Carlos Silva like the rented mule he is.
Oh, and somewhere in between Greinke threw another shutout.
And in the process of writing this, the Royals have won their sixth straight game. A night after their fifth starter allowed one run in 7.1 innings, their fourth starter throws six shutout innings, striking out seven. Tomorrow the nominal ace of the staff takes the mound. And then the day after that, The Greatest Show in Baseball rolls into
So yeah: it’s on. It’s most definitely on. The Royals are 18-11, they lead the division by 2.5 games, and unlike 2003, I’m not even excited about how they have played. I’m excited by how I think they will play. I think they will play well enough to contend, and maybe even win, the division. I think that it’s going to be the most enjoyable summer for
I think that the city is ready to embrace this team. Last night’s game garnered a 7.5 rating, the highest in the history of Fox Sports Kansas City. The previous highest-rated game was…the game before, with a 6.4 rating.
I think that we’re going to have a lot of fun over the next few months. I think that at some point, someone is going to see me walking around suburban
I think all of this will happen, but I don’t know. But I know one thing.
It’s on. It’s most definitely on.