Time to make the donuts…
Well, I guess I’m back. I was hoping to make a more dramatic reappearance, like after the Royals rattled off 12 wins in a row or clinched a playoff spot or hired me as their VP of Common Sense, but none of those things are likely to happen anytime soon. But in my absence, the Royals did their best impression of a competent major league franchise. Since bottoming out at 3-14 after their 12th loss in a row, they’ve won 19 of 33 games. They were 15-13 in May, their first winning record in that month since 2000. They’re 16-11 on the road, which quite remarkably is the fourth-best road record in all of baseball.
At 22-28 overall, they’re not great, or even good. But they’re not the laughingstock of baseball, and really, that’s all I was asking them to be. Narrative is shaped by chronology – if the Royals had, say, started the season 22-16 before losing 12 in a row, the story would have been about how the Royals looked like their youth movement was bearing fruit even faster than expected, how they could be the surprise contenders of 2012, before they flew too close to the sun and their wings melted.
The last time the Royals lost 12 in a row, all the way back in…[cries]…2008, they were 21-22 when they got off the plate in Boston on May 19th. Then Jon Lester no-hit them, and on the morning of May 31st they were 21-34. The Royals have a better record today than they did then, but the narrative is entirely different.
The narrative may be different, but narratives are simply stories we tell ourselves to make sense of what has happened. So the narrative I now choose to believe is this: that 12-game losing streak wasn’t representative of who the Royals are; that it was a fluky two weeks that just happened to occur at a time when we were still forming our opinions on the 2012 Royals.
Good teams don’t lose 12 games in a row, but mediocre teams do. It’s long been forgotten in Royals history, but in 1974, the Royals lost 15 of 16 games, and came within a whisker of losing 16 in a row – their one win in that stretch was a 1-0 victory against the Twins. (The Twins left fourteen men on base. The Royals stranded two.) It’s forgotten because when the streak began, the Royals were 69-60 and 4.5 games out of first place. They wound up 77-85, a disappointing record to be sure, but at least the fans were treated to a pennant race for four months first.
We got treated to a pennant race for about four days this year, but that doesn’t mean the Royals can’t aspire to mediocrity. So the narrative I see is that the Royals are essentially a .500 team, maybe a little worse, with a strange mix of a solid offense, a very good defense, a fantastic bullpen, and a joke of a rotation. And that the 12-game losing streak was the Royals finally hitting rock bottom one final time.
Of course, there’s no such thing as rock bottom. There’s no hole the Royals can’t dig a little deeper. No less an authority than Buddy Bell himself said, “I never say it can’t get worse.” But if, at some point, the Royals are going to contend…if they’re going to put together a mini-dynasty in the AL Central…it first has to start with them hitting rock bottom. Maybe it’s darkest before the dawn, but you’ll never know when things are at their darkest – only that it’s darker than it’s ever been before.
Some of you kids may refuse to believe this, but one of the many points of pride I had as a Royals fan well into adulthood was that the Royals had never finished in last place – I believe they were the only franchise that could make that claim. They were 69-93 and 65-97 their first two seasons, which were actually good enough for fourth place in the AL West each year.
They started the 1971 season 6-9; at that point the franchise was 140-199, 59 games under .500. That would be Death Valley for the Royals for over 30 years.
The Royals would rebound to finish the season 85-76, and they hugged .500 for the next three years. And then the fun began. On July 17th, 1976, the Royals ran their record to 55-32, moving the franchise to .500 overall at 606-606. The next day, they won again to move to one over .500, and they stayed over .500 as a franchise until the end of August. The Royals finished the season 12-22, which knocked them back under .500, but didn’t keep them from making the playoffs for the first time.
They were back at .500 after winning on the 4th of July, 1977. They wouldn’t fall under .500 again for a quarter-century. From August 17th until September 25th, the Royals went 35-4, making .500 a speck in their rear-view mirror. (The power of narrative again: no one remembers 35-4, but everyone remembers 35-5, because the 1984 Tigers began the season with that record.) By late 1980, the Royals were 100 games over .500 as a franchise.
On September 15th, 1982, the Royals won their fifth game in a row to move to 84-61, two games ahead of the Angels, who would steal the division away from them. They also moved to 1151-1032 as a franchise, a winning percentage of .5273. Not counting the first month of the 1969 season, that is the franchise’s peak in terms of winning percentage.
In terms of games over .500, we have to move to September 13th, 1989, when the Royals won to improve their record to 85-60, and their franchise record to 1739-1577, 162 games over .500.
While they would never reach quite that height again, the Royals treaded around .500 for the next five years. When the strike ended the 1994 season, the Royals were still 151 games over .500 as a whole.
It would take less than eight years to wipe out that balance. In 1996 the Royals lost 86 games and finished in last place for the first time in their history. They would finish last again in 1997, this time with 94 losses. In 1999 they tied their franchise record with 97 losses. They would tie the record again in 2001.
On June 20th, 2002, the Royals fell to 25-44, and the franchise was back to .500 overall, at 2638-2638. They would fall under .500 the next day. A hot stretch in July got them back over .500 temporarily, but on August 1st they would fall under .500 again, never to return. The Royals lost 100 games for the first time that season.
Still, in 2003 the Royals started 9-0 and 17-4, and I remember having an email discussion with Bob Dutton as to how close the Royals were to getting back over .500 as a franchise. (When they were 17-4, they were just four games under .500.) They regressed to an 83-79 finish, and then the bottom fell out.
Three consecutive 100-loss seasons has a way of destroying your franchise record. On May 11th, 2007, the Royals fell 163 games under .500 – the depth of the trench they had dug was now greater than the height of the greatest peak they had reached.
The pace at which the Royals are digging that hole may have slowed down some, but they’re still digging. They crossed 200 games under .500 in 2009, and 250 games under .500 early in 2011. On September 9th of last year, the Royals lost to the Mariners, 7-3, and fell to 271 games under. But they then won seven in a row, finished the year 265 games under .500, and I had a reasonable hope that one day, many years in the future, we might look back on that lifeless game in Seattle last September as the date when the Royals finally, at long lost, put their shovels down and started climbing instead.
And then they started this season 3-14 and gave me an aneurysm.
Right now, Rock Bottom was April 24th, 2012, when Mike Moustakas was inexplicable held at third base on Mitch Maier’s double with two outs in the eighth, and the Royals lost by one run in Cleveland. The Royals fell to 276 games under .500 as a franchise that day.
They’re at 271 games under as I write this. It’s exceedingly unlikely that the Royals will get back to sea level in my lifetime or yours. In order to get back to .500, the Royals would need to average 90 wins a season for the next fifteen years. If you want to get ambitious, they would only need to average 96 wins a season for the next nine years.
I’m neither expecting nor asking the Royals to reestablish themselves among the Winning Franchises in the major leagues, the way they were throughout my childhood and well into my adult life. But I would like to be able to say, years from now, that when the Royals lost 12 games in a row early in the 2012 season, when it looked like The Process was a fraud and even their most faithful fans lost faith – that it was at that moment when things were truly at their darkest. That it was at that moment when the Royals finally started groping towards the light.
I think there’s a chance I might be able to say that some day. The Royals are now 19-14 since losing 12 in a row, after Felipe Paulino started June off by pitching the way he did for all of May. The Royals have a fantastic opportunity to follow up their winning May with an even better June, because their schedule for the next four weeks is just delicious. Look at this breakdown:
Oakland (3 games)
Minnesota (6 games)
Pittsburgh (3 games)
Houston (3 games)
St. Louis (6 games)
Milwaukee (3 games)
Tampa Bay (3 games)
The Royals play three games all month against an AL club that has won even 44% of their games. The rest of the games feature:
- A team (Oakland) with a historically bad offense – the A’s came into Friday’s game with a .210 team batting average. Which went down after Paulino was finished with them.
- The worst team in the American League (Minnesota).
- Speaking of historically bad offenses…by scoring eight runs on Friday, the Pittsburgh Pirates have finally managed to average over three runs per game. They’ve scored 155 runs in 51 games, or 3.04 per. That would be the lowest-scoring offense by any team in at least 40 years.
- The Astros were the consensus pick before the season to be the worst team in baseball. They’re not, but they’re 22-30 and falling fast, having lost seven in a row. They have a starting outfield of J.D. Martinez, Jordan Schafer, and Brian Bogusevic. They play in the National League.
- The Cardinals, granted, have the best run differential in the NL, although they’re only 27-25. Still: National League. Even though the Royals went 5-13 against the NL last year and lost 2 of 3 to the Diamondbacks last month, they’re still the best evidence of just how much better the talent level is in the AL. Since the start of the 2005 season, the Royals are 64-65 against NL teams, with a +17 run differential. The 2005 and 2006 Royals both lost 100 games, and had a winning record over the NL over the two years. The gap may have closed a bit, but just a bit.
- The Brewers, who even after sweeping the Dodgers this week are still 23-29 and the sharks are circling around Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke.
Meanwhile, the Royals think Salvador Perez might be back by the middle of the month. By the end of the month, once the Super Two deadline has likely passed, I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised to see Wil Myers patrolling centerfield; if he’s not, Lorenzo Cain might be back by then. Between the schedule and the reinforcements on their way, everything is aligned for the Royals to go something like 17-10 this month.
If they go 17-10 this month, they’ll be at .500, and then things get really interesting.
Of course, if they lose their next six games, they’ll have struck Rock Bottom yet again. Nothing is certain with this franchise, and I’ve learned to prepare for the worst. But at least I’m not expecting the worst any more. That’s progress, and that’s why I’m back. I’m not going to make any promises that I’ll be writing often, but I’ll write when I can.
I’ve been writing about the Royals in a semi-regular capacity for nearly two decades. I wrote about the Royals on rec.sport.baseball in 1993. I wrote about them when we wrote the first Baseball Prospectus in 1996. I blogged about them with Rob Neyer in 1998. I started blogging about them here in 2008. And I’ve tried to write about them with the same passion all along, trying to ignore the reality that when I began, I was an 18-year-old in college with no responsibilites beyond myself, and now I’m nearly 37, with a 15-year-marriage, a mortgage, a practice, eight employees and four kids, and it’s time I finally get my priorities in order.
So I thank the Royals for giving me an excuse to get away. I never did turn on my Xbox, and I’m not even halfway through “The Hunger Games”. But I did catch up with the rest of my life. I’m going to try to do that more often going forward, and if this blog suffers, so be it. I’ll write when I can, but I reserve the right to step away for long periods of time without throwing a temper tantrum first.
And that’s it for today. I need to get you a draft preview by Monday morning. Blogging, she’s a demanding mistress.