You know, if this series were played between these two teams vying for first place in September, this would have been an epic matchup, one that would have lived in Royals lore for a long time. The Royals miss a chance to take the lead in Game 1 when Billy Butler leaves second base, not realizing he’s safe, then lose in extra innings. The bullpen almost blows a 5-0 lead after six innings in Game 2, but with the bases loaded, Carlos Santana watches three straight strikes to end the game. Luke Hochevar goes from hero to zero in impressive time, even by his standards, in Game 3.
And in Game 4, the Royals find a way to come back from a 2-0 deficit after seven innings. Ned Yost pinch-runs for Billy Butler with Jarrod Dyson in the eighth, a move that immediately pays dividends when Dyson beats the flip from Asdrubal Cabrera after Cabrera smothered Jeff Francoeur’s grounder up the middle. Butler almost certainly would have been out, and the inning would have ended without a run scored.
And in the ninth, the Royals went from despair (starting the inning down a run) to exultation (men on first-and-third with none out) and back to despair, after Alcides Escobar’s grounder was snared by Jack Hannahan and Mike Aviles was thrown out at the plate. More exultation, when Chris Getz walked to load the bases and put the tying run at third again with one out, then more despair, when Melky Cabrera fell behind 0-2. And then Melky lined one past the shortstop and sent everyone home happy.
A series like this in September would have become part of the firmament of baseball memories in Kansas City. But of course, it didn’t happen in September, because the Royals haven’t played a meaningful series in September in 26 years. What’s the most memorable game the Royals have played since the strike? Maybe this game, when Carlos Beltran saved the game in regulation by taking away a homer, then winning it with a walk-off blast. That game came on July 20th. The other most memorable game? Probably Opening Day, 2004, which also featured a Carlos Beltran walk-off homer.
My personal favorite memory is probably this game in 1994, when the Royals, in the first game of a four-game series against the White Sox that they absolutely had to win in order to stay in the race, blew chance after chance in a tie game. In the ninth, with two on and one out, Greg Gagne was doubled up on Jose Lind’s fly out. In the tenth, after Brian McRae reached third base with one out, the Sox gave free passes to Wally Joyner and Bob Hamelin – and Mike Macfarlane grounded into a double play. In the 11th, Felix Jose tried to go first-to-third on Gagne’s one-out single and was thrown out. And in the top of the 12th, the White Sox got a two-out single from Tim Raines to drive in a run.
McRae tried to bunt his way on to start the 12th and popped out, but Dave Henderson walked, and Wally Joyner singled him to third to bring up the Hammer. Hamelin drove Roberto Hernandez’s pitch to center field, and my first emotion was relief that it was deep enough to drive in the run – and then elation when the ball kept carrying for a walk-off homer. That was the Royals’ third win a row; they would their next 11 games to put them a game out of the AL Central lead. A week later, Major League Baseball closed up shop for the year.
That game was on July 25th. I don’t have a single positive memory of a Royals game played in September or even August.
One of the best reasons to be a fan of a sports team is to avail yourself of the shared experiences and shared memories of that fan base. By sharing powerful memories – good or bad – with a group of people, you can’t help but feel connected with them. I’ve never lived in Kansas City, and have no real connection to the city other than the experiences and memories of watching this team play – and yet those experiences and memories are strong enough to have inextricably bound me to the city for over a quarter-century.
But I’m a special case, and if you’re reading this, so are you. Most of the people who consider themselves “Royals fans” are not connected to this web of fandom that we’ve constructed, the web that gets together on Twitter every evening to watch the Royals and argues over whether the Royals should give up on Kila Ka’aihue. It’s not their fault that they’re not connected to the team – the Royals simply haven’t given them the kind of memories that would bind them. Even bad memories, painful memories – think Lin Elliot, though not for too long – serve as a touchstone for a fan base to come together. Cleveland Browns fans still reminisce with heartache over The Drive and The Fumble, but at least they reminisce.
What do we have to reminisce about? Chip Ambres dropping a routine fly ball? Terrence Long and Ambres letting another routine fly ball drop behind them? The Royals losing 19 games in a row? Tony Pena fleeing the team in the middle of the night? These memories aren’t painful – they’re comical. There’s no real emotion attached to them. We laugh when we think about them – but we don’t really feel anything.
So forgive us if we’re getting a little too worked up over a 12-7 start, or put too much meaning into last night’s comeback. Yes, it’s April. But April memories are better than no memories at all.
I apologize for that rambling and incredibly self-indulgent intro. Now, on with some analysis.
- I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Kila Ka’aihue’s ninth-inning double may have saved his career with the Royals. For one thing, it might be a temporary reprieve. But it certainly pulled him a step away from the abyss.
Ka’aihue went 0-for-4 on Monday, when a base hit at any point might have kept the game from going into extra innings. In the bottom of the sixth, with men on first and second and none out, he tried to put down a bunt – unsuccessfully – and eventually popped out. Francoeur followed with a sharp groundball that turned into a 4-6-3 double play; if Ka’aihue gets the bunt down, a run probably scores, and the Royals probably win. He was 0-for-3 on Tuesday, then capped his day with another bunt – this one was successful – in the eighth inning. Afterwards, Ned Yost went so far as to blame the decision to bunt on a miscommunication caused by the batboy; methinks he doth protest too much. This game brought Kila’s numbers down to a .151/.270/.245 line.
He went 2-for-3 with a walk on Wednesday, but last night he struck out and grounded out to the second baseman twice, the last one into a double play. When he batted in the ninth, boos were audible on TV from the sparse crowd. The natives have grown restless.
And then Chris Perez threw a fastball down Main Street, and Ka’aihue laced a double to the left-center field gap. And the Royals went on to win. It’s just one hit, but we’re starting to reach the point with Ka’aihue where every hit becomes notable.
For everyone who sees that Eric Hosmer is hitting .393 in Omaha and wants a change to be made: hold your horses. It took Ka’aihue three years to get a job; I think he deserves more than three weeks before he loses it. If you pick Hosmer over Ka’aihue now, you’re giving up on Kila forever, and there’s no way to come back from that – his tenure with the Royals is over. If you pick Ka’aihue over Hosmer now, Hosmer just bides his time in Omaha; his chance is coming.
If the scouts were right and Ka’aihue was struggling because he couldn’t catch up to major-league fastballs, I might be more inclined to worry. But his struggles are notable precisely because fastballs are the one pitch he hasn’t struggled against. His problem has been with the slow stuff, which makes me think he’s pressing. He’s drawing his share of walks, but also striking out an inordinate amount of the time – 19 whiffs in 60 at-bats, from a guy who never struck out 100 times in a minor-league season.
Winning is a double-edged sword. If the Royals were 7-12, no one would care that the Royals were sticking with a first baseman who is hitting .181. But they are, and if they continue to win, at some point they’ll have to decide if they ought to prioritize winning today over the development of one of their best young hitters for the future. But that point hasn’t been reached. Hopefully last night’s double bought Ka’aihue some time. He deserves it.
- With full awareness that my campaign to give Royals players nicknames has failed miserably over the years – the only nickname that stuck has now been disavowed by its owner – can we all agree that Alex Gordon should now be known as The Dominator?
If Gordon had come out this season and fallen on his face again, the nickname would have worked as a sarcastic insult to the player who dared to say “I’m going to dominate next year” after four progressively more disappointing seasons. Instead, he’s backed up his rare bravado with an even rarer display of all-around skill. He leads the league in hits, and he’s on pace to hit 85 doubles. His defense in left field has been excellent; while he’s taken bad routes to balls hit into the corner a few times, he’s also made some outstanding diving plays. He also has five outfield assists in just 18 games. (By way of comparison, Johnny Damon had five outfield assists in all of 1996, and again in all of 1997.) Last night, Gordon moved to first base in the ninth inning, and immediately made a diving play to snare a grounder headed to right field.
He’s not a superstar, and three weeks doesn’t change that. But neither is he Alex Gordon, Epic Disappointment anymore. Let’s just enjoy the ride.
- Billy Butler is hitting .353/.476/.500. Just as impressively, he hasn’t grounded into a single double play in 19 games. Last year, he grounded into 32 of them.
- Jeff Francoeur is hitting .329/.363/.534 and leads the league in RBIs, but before you get too excited, consider this:
vs. LHP: 10-for-21 with 3 homers (.476/.478/.952)
vs. RHP: 14-for-52 with 0 homers (.269/.316/.365)
Frenchy is playing well, but it’s almost entirely on the shoulders of his performance against southpaws. Francoeur has always hit LHP pretty well, and deserves a role as a platoon outfielder in the majors on that basis alone. And his performance against right-handed pitchers isn’t bad by his standards; that .316 OBP is actually better than his career OBP (.311) against all pitchers. But I’m not about to proclaim him a new man yet. Let’s just enjoy the ride, and be prepared to jump off at any moment.
- The Royals uncharacteristic embrace of the base on balls continues – they rank third in the league in walks drawn. Last night showed the kind of impact patience can have, as four walks in the final two innings were instrumental in scoring all three runs.
I should give a shout-out here to Chris Getz, who is hitting just .242 and has just two extra-base hits all season, but has drawn 10 walks for a solid .347 OBP. Last night, he walked to lead off the eighth and scored the first run, and in the ninth, after the Royals had the tying run gunned down at the plate, Getz drew a second walk to load the bases and set up Melky’s heroics. Neither walk made headlines in the game recap, but the Royals wouldn’t have won without them.
- I’ve had little reason to mention Mitch Maier’s name this season, so let’s give him a nod here. After getting all of five plate appearances in the first 18 games of the season, Maier comes off the bench to pinch-hit for Matt Treanor in the ninth, and immediately rifles a line drive to center. Yost hasn’t pinch-hit much, but that situation screamed for one – Treanor is hitting .132, and Chris Perez’s slider makes him much more effective against right-handed hitters. Yost has made some strange tactical moves of late, but he pushed all the right buttons last night.
- Wednesday’s start was perhaps the quintessential Luke Hochevar performance. He started with five perfect innings, continuing a stretch of 31 consecutive batters retired. Then Michael Brantley singled to lead off the sixth, starting a stretch where 8 of 11 batters would reach base, and Hochevar would balk twice.
There’s a reason why Hochevar, despite a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost exactly 2-to-1, has a career 5.56 ERA. Take a look at these career numbers:
No one on base: .246/.305/.405
Man on base: .316/.385/.504
With someone base, Hochevar allows opposing hitters to bat 70 points higher, with an OBP 80 points higher, and a slugging average 100 points higher. There’s a reason I’m breaking out the bold – that’s an unbelievable difference. Those are career numbers, in a sample size of over 400 innings, so you can’t dismiss them as a fluke.
And it only feeds the perception that Hochevar’s struggles in the major leagues are not physical. I continue to think better times are ahead for him, and I continue to think Ned Yost is handling him well. But it’s clear that there’s plenty more work to be done.
- Speaking of bad pitchers, Craig Brown’s takedown of Kyle Davies has (deservedly) gotten a lot of publicity the last few days. It’s an impressive piece of work; I think we all vaguely sensed that Davies was a terrible pitcher, but I certainly had no idea that his ERA was historically bad.
I have a few small critiques of Brown’s study. Mainly, I don’t see the point in limiting his study to pitchers who have started in 90% of their appearances. By definition, any pitcher this bad is eventually going to be tried in the bullpen out of desperation; Davies simply hasn’t reached that point of desperation yet.
If you look at all the pitchers in major-league history with 700+ innings pitched, Davies does not have the worst career ERA. He does, however, have the 6th-worst ERA, one slot behind Todd Van Poppel and one slot ahead of Pat Mahomes. That kind of historic suckitude does not require embellishment.
(And Davies’ career ERA of 5.54 is two points lower than Hochevar’s.)
With that being said, I still don’t see a better option for the rotation at this point in time. Vinny Mazzaro was hardly more impressive in his second start in Omaha than in his first. Mike Montgomery and Danny Duffy are close, but rushing them to the majors now smacks of desperation.
As unpalatable as it sounds for a team that’s 12-7 and ostensibly in contention, I think the Royals have little choice other than to continue to start Davies every fifth game. A month from now, they ought to have options for the rotation, maybe several options. But for now, their best option is to sit tight.