Monday, April 23, 2012

Time Out.

“You love the Red Sox, but have they ever loved you back?”

The New York Yankees had a 10-game losing streak once. It was in 1913.

The Los Angeles Dodgers had a 10-game losing streak in 1992. That’s their only double-digit losing streak since they moved into Dodger Stadium – in 1962, 50 years ago.

The San Francisco Giants have had two 10-game losing streaks in the last 60 years – one in 1985, the other in 1996.

The Chicago White Sox – hardly a juggernaut franchise – have not lost 10 games in a row since 1976.

Hell, THE CHICAGO CUBS haven’t had a 10-game losing streak since they started the 1997 season 0-14.

The Kansas City Royals didn’t lose 10 games in a row in their first 17 years of existence. They didn’t lose even nine consecutive games until 1986, when they went on an 11-game losing streak. They started the 1992 season 0-9 after losing the last game of the 1991 season. They lost 11 in a row in 1997, a stretch during which Bob Boone got fired, ushering in the glorious Tony Muser Era in Kansas City.

That’s three double-digit losing streaks from 1969 through 2004, and one of them comes with an asterisk. Since 2005, the Royals have now lost 10 games in a row six times – six times in less than eight seasons.

The Royals lost 19 in a row in 2005, then endured 11 and 13 game losing streaks by the end of May 2006, which got Allard Baird axed in favor of Dayton Moore. Jon Lester’s no-hitter precipitated a 12-gamer in May of 2008, and a 10-game losing streak in July 2009 washed away whatever goodwill remained over the team’s 18-11 start.

Still, those were the expected growing pains that come with trying to rebuild a franchise from scratch. Even three years after Moore was hired, an extended losing streak was defensible.

This one isn’t.

Nearly six years after Dayton Moore was hired, in a year when the Royals were themselves so certain that they were going to take a step forward that they boldly unveiled the “OUR TIME” motto, the team has dumped a steaming pile of crap on the curb. Ten straight losses, and even worse, nine of them have come at home. The Royals have the worst record in baseball. Playoff dreams have been extinguished, and it’s still April.

And I’ll confess: I’m this close to losing it.

It’s one thing to play poorly. We’re used to that; you might say we’ve been inoculated against it. The losing streak shines a spotlight on the team’s incompetence, but the reality is that in 15 games, the Royals have been outscored by 21 runs. That’s not the worst run differential in baseball, and it’s not the run differential of a 3-12 team. The Royals should be 5-10 right now, which is to say they’ve played badly, but not so bad that you can’t chalk it up to a mediocre team being in a collective slump. I predicted the Royals to go .500, and .500 teams go 5-10 all the time. They even go 3-12 sometimes.

It’s not the losing streak that makes me want to snap. It’s that the Royals apparently have learned nothing from an entire generation of losing. For 25 years, the Royals have been the most anti-sabermetric team in all of baseball – while the Godfather of sabermetrics lived down the road in Lawrence – and over the last 25 years the Royals have the most losses in the major leagues.

And their current front office, like the front office before them and the front office before them, thinks that this is a coincidence. They keep arguing that the problem with the Royals is that they’re not doing the little things right. That may be true, but only because they’re not doing ANYTHING right. As Jazayerli’s Law of Fundamentals states:

A team’s ability to execute the “fundamentals” is inversely correlated to the time spent discussing the importance of executing them.

In the face of a losing streak that seems like it will never end, the Royals’ solution so far has been to double down on their kamikaze style of baserunning. Before yesterday’s game, the Royals already led the league in caught stealing. But none of those stolen base attempts were remotely as stupid as the one we witnessed yesterday.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Jason Bourgeois led off and reached base on an error by Brett Lawrie. This was a tremendous gift for the Royals, who were losing, 5-2, with six outs to go. Another baserunner would bring the tying run to the plate.

There were a lot of different ways the inning could have broken down from that point, but there was one thing that clearly wasn’t going to happen: the Royals were not going to attempt to steal. That would be ludicrous. Risk an out in order to get a runner in scoring position, when you’ve got the heart of your lineup coming up? When that runner doesn’t represent the tying run, or even the next-to-tying run? In the eighth inning? That would be madness. No one would be that stupid.

The Royals are that stupid.

Not only are the Royals that stupid, but the Blue Jays knew the Royals would be that stupid. Bourgeois wasn’t thrown out by the catcher – he was picked off by the pitcher, who threw to first base as Bourgeois lit out for second.

Not only did the Blue Jays know the Royals would be that stupid, they already told the Royals that we know you’re that stupid. With Alex Gordon at the plate and an 0-1 count, the Blue Jays pitched out. They pitched out with a three-run lead in the 8th inning, and the tying run on deck. They were so confident that the Royals would try an incomprehensively bad percentage move that they deliberately gave a ball to a patient hitter who, if he reached base, would bring the tying run to the plate, with Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer due next. After Gordon flied out, the Blue Jays were still so confident that Bourgeois would run that they threw to first – and nailed him trying to steal.

So this is what The Process has wrought, six years later. A 10-game losing streak. A team that’s so hell-bent on being “aggressive” on the basepaths and “making things happen” that even in a situation which every junior varsity player knows is a time to run conservatively, and EVEN AFTER THE OTHER TEAM SIGNALLED THAT WE KNOW YOU WANT TO RUN, they ran anyway. And got thrown out.

After the game, Ned Yost indicated that Bourgeois was not given the sign to steal, implicating Bourgeois for running on his own. That doesn’t make me feel much better. For one thing, in that situation it’s not enough to not order a stolen base attempt – you need to actively give the runner a red light. Secondly, THE BLUE JAYS HAD ALREADY PITCHED OUT – if that doesn’t remind you to make it clear to your runner to stay put, nothing will.

And finally, why was Bourgeois playing for the Royals? Because they had traded for him in spring training. They also traded for Humberto Quintero, who had his own brain lock in the top of the inning. With two outs and runners on first-and-third, J.P. Arencibia took off for second, trying to draw the throw to start the double steal – and Quintero threw to second base. Brett Lawrie then lit out from third base, and while Yuniesky Betancourt moved in front of the bag at second to cut off the throw, his throw was too late to get the runner at the plate, and the Blue Jays scored a cheap run.

I’ve seen the Royals try the double-steal dozens of times – when Bob Boone was the manager it seemed to happen every week – and I can probably count the number of times it worked on one hand. There’s a reason for that – most major league teams are skilled enough to defense the play. Usually they just hold the ball and concede second base, which is what Quintero should have done. The Blue Jays announcers were surprised that Quintero threw to second on the play. So there you go: the double steal can work. It just can’t work for the Royals, because in order for it to work, they’d have to be playing themselves.

Bourgeois and Quintero, by the way, cost the Royals a legitimate left-handed relief prospect in Kevin Chapman, and another prospect who has yet to be named, but is most likely either D’Andre Toney or Terrence Gore, both young outfielders with the tools to be interesting if they figure it all out someday.


I’ve been writing this throughout the day, and I’m putting the finishing touches on this column tonight, after the Royals lost their 11th game in a row, their franchise-record 10th home loss in a row. And perhaps more than any other game in this streak, they lost tonight because their manager decided that the missing ingredient was a strategy that sabermetrics proved was a terrible idea 30 years ago.

It’s not simply that Ned Yost ordered the Royals to bunt. It’s not simply that he ordered them to bunt twice. It’s that HE ORDERED THEM TO BUNT THE RUNNER FROM SECOND TO THIRD. TWICE. In the third inning, Alcides Escobar led off with a double, and then Chris Getz – who was apparently tonight’s winner of “Leadoff Man Lotto” that they play in the clubhouse before every game – bunted Escobar to third base.

With the heart of the order coming up, Yost decided that it was worth giving up an out to move a runner 90 feet. You can’t even argue that he was trying to stay out of the double play. Yost had enough faith in Getz to put him in the leadoff spot – and then had so little faith in him that he ordered Getz to deliberately make an out just to move Escobar from one scoring position to another.

The Royals did not score.

In the fifth inning, Brayan Pena led off with a double, and this time Mitch Maier got the order. Perhaps Maier was being a conscientious objector, because the bunt didn’t work, as Pena was nailed at third base. Naturally, Escobar singled, moving Maier to third base with one out, which was the point of the bunt in the first place. And naturally, the Royals did not score again.

Both of these bunts came because the Royals were trying to score the go-ahead run in a tie game. In the top of the sixth, the Blue Jays showed them a more traditional method: Kelly Johnson walked, and Jose Bautista went boom-boom. And that was the ballgame.

You’d think the Royals might be aware of what power can do, given that their only run in the game came on an Eric Hosmer home run. Somehow, despite four doubles, four singles, and a walk in the game, the Royals did not score another run.

I don’t blame Ned Yost for the fact that the Royals were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position. I absolutely blame Yost for once again thinking that the solution to an anemic offense is to order up the same tactic that has been hamstringing offenses for 100 years. There’s absolutely no way to justify bunting runners from second base to third, not that Lee Judge won’t try.

So now we’re at 11 losses and counting, the fifth 11-game losing streak in just over seven years. The other 29 teams in the majors have combined for 14 losing streaks of that length since 2005. The Cleveland Indians – THE CLEVELAND INDIANS, who were so bad for so long that they made the movie “Major League” about them – didn’t have an 11-game losing streak for over 70 years, from 1931 to 2009. The St. Louis Cardinals, our big brother down the street, lost 11 games in a row in 1978. That’s their only 11-game streak since at least World War I.

I can put up with the losing. I can put up with the delayed gratification, even if that delay now amounts to most of my lifetime. But I can’t put up with stupidity. I can’t put up with a team that has only one solution for every problem that develops: keep doing what we’re doing, only do it more. We keep getting thrown out on the bases? Just keep running, and eventually it will work. Making too many outs with runners in scoring position? Make them deliberately!

The other team walks more than our team does? Clearly the problem is with our pitchers, because whether a batter walks or not is completely up to the pitcher’s control, and never mind the fact that Bill James disproved that 35 years ago. God forbid we should encourage our hitters to be more patient at the plate. Yesterday Danny Duffy needed 113 pitches to face 24 batters; Ricky Romero needed only 104 to face 30. The Royals have drawn a below-average number of walks 22 years in a row, and not only is that unlikely to change in 2012, the Royals don’t even think that needs to change.

Anyway, I’m bitter and angry and probably incomprehensible at this point, so I’m going to take a time out. I’m tired of being a dupe. I’ve tried to blend realism and optimism since I started covering the Royals 16 years ago, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue that those two traits are reconcilable. Apparently, I was a sucker to suggest that the Royals might be a .500 team this year.

I’d like to think that when it comes to the other 29 teams in baseball, I know what the hell I’m talking about, even – or especially – when I take unpopular or unconventional positions. I’m proud of this column on the Phillies from last year. I’m proud of this column on the Nationals from last month. I’m wrong sometimes, but I’ll stack my track record up against almost anyone.

But when it comes to the Royals, I’ve been a raging buffoon for my entire career. A trained parrot – one that’s trained to squawk “ROYALS SUCK!” on command – would have done a far better job of predicting the team’s performance every season. (Except 2003. I’ll always have 2003. Even if that was one of the years I didn’t think they’d be any good.)

And now it’s 2012, one year after the Royals were acclaimed as having The Best Farm System Ever, the first year in ages that rational analysts (i.e. analysts other than myself) actually predicted the Royals to finish .500 or even above. And it’s clear now: no matter how far you think the Royals have come, no matter how fast you think they’re going, an 11-game losing streak is always trailing a step behind, ready to pounce like the demonic monkeys in Temple Run.

So I’m angry, but unlike back in 2009, I’m not really angry with the Royals. They are who they are. They’re trying to get better, even if they don’t really know how, and they might even figure it out one day. No, I’m angry with myself. I’ve spent literally thousands of hours writing about this team over the last four years, to say nothing about the time spent watching them, reading about them, thinking about them, perusing box scores of their complex league team…it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Royals have simply overwhelmed the free time in my life.

I’m not saying that there haven’t been benefits to this, if being arguably the world’s most famous Royals fan can be construed as a “benefit”. But the costs have been considerable. And with four children at home now, I’m thinking this would be a good time for me to take advantage of the Royals’ generous offer to take most of this summer off. Maybe read some good books. Maybe play Skyrim – or go back and play Oblivion, which I couldn’t find the time to play when it came out five years ago. Take my wife to the movies. Something.

I’m not dropping the mic; I’m just saying it will be healthier for me to be a little less hard-core about the Royals. I’ll still tweet about them and talk about them on the radio, and if they play respectable baseball for a few weeks I’m sure I’ll have something to blog about.

But if they continue to suck the life out of their fans, I’ll find something else to do with my time. Love is a two-way street, and when I’ve been reduced to starting a column by quoting Drew Barrymore in Fever Pitch, it’s time to take a breather.

This blog is something I’ve done purely out of my love for the team – I’ve deliberately kept this blog spartan and ad-free, because I never wanted this to feel like a job, like something I was obligated to do. But it has become one, in large part because I’ve been afraid to cut back on covering this team out of some misplaced fear that someone might question my credentials as a fan.

Well, screw that. I think I’ve earned lifetime credentials at this point, the same way the BBWAA lets guys vote for the Hall of Fame even after they’ve retired and haven’t watched a baseball game in 10 years. I don’t need to let the Royals consume my life in order to be a fan. So I’m going to dial it back a little.

I’m still rooting for them to win every night (at least until late September and draft position is on the line), and I hope they rip off a 20-10 stretch to get back to .500 and I go back to writing about them like nothing happened. I’m still optimistic that they will be contenders in 2013. Even in the wreckage of a 3-13 start, there are still things to be happy about:

- Mike Moustakas is hitting .286/.333/.518 and playing a genuinely above-average third base.

- Alcides Escobar is hitting .310 (!) and slugging .483 (!!)

- Danny Duffy really could be legit. His fastball has averaged 95.0 mph this season. The only starting pitcher in the majors who’s thrown harder? Stephen Strasburg. The radar gun at the K may be juiced, but that would affect his reading by no more than 1 mph. The only other starter who’s averaging more than 94.0 mph this year is Jeff Samardzija.

- Felipe Paulino can’t be blamed for this mess at all. A month ago the Royals looked ready to bury him in the bullpen; at this point, once he’s ready to go they’ll greet him in the rotation with open arms.

- The longer Bruce Chen continues to finesse his way past opposing batters, the more you have to consider the possibility that he’s the new Jamie Moyer. Not in the sense that he’ll still be pitching 15 years from now, but simply in the sense that he can make up for throwing 87 mph by being left-handed, changing speeds and arm angles on every pitch, etc. Chen is 34; when Moyer was 34 he came into his own as a starter for the Mariners, beginning a seven-year stretch when he averaged 209 innings with a 3.75 ERA in the heart of the Juiced Era. Chen won’t be that good, but he might just be good enough to justify his contract.

- Eric Hosmer’s numbers bear no resemblance whatsoever to the charge he’s putting into balls at the plate.

- Luis Mendoza can’t hurt us much longer.

Yes, even now, even after this, I still can find reason to be optimistic. I simply can no longer justify being obsessive. Not right now. I’ve got too much going right for me in life to let the Royals bring me down anymore. When they’re ready to lift me up, I’ll be here waiting for them.