Well, for the first time in ten years, the Royals didn’t have a six-game losing streak by the middle of May.
Instead, it took all the way until Memorial Day. So I guess they have that going for them. Which is nice.
That’s now ten straight years in which the Royals lost six in a row by Memorial Day; if that’s not a record, it should be. But really, this six-game losing streak just ties a pretty bow around an utterly remarkable three-week stretch for the Royals. Really, prior to today they had played about as poorly as it is possible to do without a six-game losing streak. This stretch started with the Royals losing six of seven, and prior to this afternoon they had lost 9 of 10.
And in the span of three weeks, the comparisons to 2009 went from being a funny joke to being somewhat alarming to being eerily similar to being terrifying to being, if anything, hopelessly optimistic.
In 2009, you may recall, the Royals started the season 18-11. They then lost six in a row (check!), and after winning three of four, then lost 13 of 15. This year, the Royals started 17-10, then lost six of seven, and after winning two of three, have lost 10 of 11.
The 2009 Royals went 5-20 after their 18-11 start. The 2013 Royals have gone 4-17 after their 17-10 start.
The 2009 Royals lost 97 games, and to this day people like our good friend Sam Mellinger describe it as the most disappointing season in Royals history. I have no idea how many games the 2013 Royals will lose, but I can tell if you if they lose anywhere close to 97 games, it will lap 2009 in terms of disappointment.
At the end of the 2009 season, Dayton Moore was punished for his team’s failures with…a contract extension, as I discussed here. If the 2013 Royals finish anywhere close to their 2009 counterparts, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Moore won’t be getting another extension.
I don’t think the Royals will lose 97 games. I’m somewhat confident – perhaps “hopeful” is a better word – that they won’t lose 87 games. But I have absolutely no confidence whatsoever that the Royals can turn things around and make a run for the playoffs.
It’s not simply that they’re well under .500 and playing in the same division as the Tigers, although that’s certainly part of it. Clay Davenport’s playoff odds – not including today’s loss – had the Royals’ odds of winning the AL Central at 2.5%, with a 7% chance of nabbing one of the two Wild Card spots. (And Clay’s numbers are optimistic – Baseball Prospectus has those odds at 0.9% and 2.9%, respectively.) My lack of confidence is predicated on the fact that playoff-caliber teams simply don’t have stretches as bad as the Royals are on right now. Not in April, not in May, not at any point in the season.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter saw my research on the last team that had overcome a 4-15 stretch to qualify for the playoffs. There wasn’t one last year, or in 2011, or in 2010, or in 2009. In 2008, finally, I found a team – the Milwaukee Brewers, who woke up on the morning of September 1st with a 80-56 record, 5.5 games ahead of the pack for the Wild Card. They lost 15 of their next 19 games, and after the end of play on September 20th were 84-71, 2.5 games out of the Wild Card spot.
The punch line here, of course, is that on September 15th, after losing a doubleheader to the Phillies – completing a four-game sweep, their 12th loss in 15 games – the Brewers fired their manager. Ned Yost. The last team to overcome a 4-15 stretch to make the playoffs fired Ned Yost in the middle of it. Dale Sveum was hired, and after losing three of his first four games, won five in a row. After losing game 161, the Brewers sent C.C. Sabathia out there in the last game of the season, his fourth straight start on three days’ rest, and he threw a complete game victory to clinch the Brewers’ first playoff spot since 1982.
It would be easy to turn this into a Ned Yost punchline. I certainly did so on Twitter, as did the 260+ of you who retweeted me. And Yost certainly shares in some of the blame for what has happened. He persists in leading off Chris Getz (.265 OBP this year), and persists in batting Alcides Escobar (.254/.281/.333) in the #2 spot, which is why Alex Gordon had batted in the first inning with two outs and nobody on base 14 times in a 16-game stretch. Meanwhile, Lorenzo Cain (.295/.362/.404) gets relegated to batting 5th or 6th because he “didn’t look comfortable” in his three starts each batting leadoff and second.
Yost defends Mike Moustakas to the hilt, an admirable quality even if it did lead to the whole Third Base Tree meme, but defending Moose is one thing, and playing him and his .178/.252/.308 performance is another. Yost continues to play Francoeur against right-handed pitchers occasionally, and last week started him over David Lough because “When you’ve got two players you’re looking at, there are certain days you want to go with offense and certain days you want to go with defense. Today, I wanted to go with the defense.”
That’s right – Ned Yost started Jeff Francoeur FOR HIS DEFENSE. Jeff Francoeur, who at this point in his career is essentially the Georgian version of Jose Guillen in the field. In that game, Francoeur lost a ball in the lights, and then in the eighth inning let a playable fly ball get over his head and tip off his glove for an RBI double in a one-run game.
The Royals are 7-12 in one-run games, and while the manager has only a small influence on that mark, he does have some influence.
So yeah, Yost deserves his share of the blame for what’s happened. But only a share, and frankly he is taking more than his fair share of abuse from the fan base. That’s not only a disservice to Yost, it trivializes the problems with this team. The Royals’ issues are too deep and fundamental to be solved simply by firing the manager.
As if to drive that point home, after matching the 2008 Brewers’ 4-15 slide, the Royals have lost two more games. To find a team that weathered a 4-17 stretch and still made the postseason, you have to go back farther – but only a little farther. In 2005, the Houston Astros were at the end of their run atop the NL Central, but were unwilling to acknowledge it. After starting the season 8-7, they lost 17 of 21…and after winning three straight, lost seven in a row to fall to 15-30. They were toast.
Only they then won 11 of 16, and 29 of 42 overall to inch over .500 at the All-Star Break at 44-43…and went 45-30 after the Break to finish 89-73 overall, sneaking into the playoffs by one game over the Phillies for the Wild Card. The Astros would end up winning their first NL pennant before the White Sox swept them in the World Series. Thanks to that season, the Astros would refuse to read the warning signs the next few years, figuring that a terrible start hadn’t kept them from a pennant before. But you can’t ask a magician to perform his trick more than once, and the Astros have not only never reached the playoffs again, they’ve bottomed out as one of the worst major league teams of the last 50 years.
So anyway, if you’re looking for a thread of hope to grasp onto, I guess those 2005 Astros are your thread. It’s a flimsy thread; the Astros, after all, had been to the playoffs the year before, and five of the previous eight years, and had been over .500 for 11 of the previous 12 years. They were a proven good team going through a terrible stretch. They weren’t the Royals.
I’ll get into the reasons why the Royals are where they are next time, and what – if any – the solutions are. But I just wanted to get this out there: if the Royals want to give us any reason to hope that they can turn things around, they need to do so NOW. They’ve already endured a stretch that few playoff teams have ever witnessed, and another couple of losses may well put them in unprecedented territory – I haven’t done the research, and would rather not do so unless I have to.
But with three more games against the Cardinals followed by three more against the Texas Rangers, I fear I’ll have to.