Friday, May 16, 2014

A Tale Of Two Narratives.

We’ve reached Dayton Moore’s mythical 40-game mark, a quarter of the way through the season, the point at which we’re finally allowed to make an assessment of the Royals. Given that they are exactly a .500 team right now, there are really only two things which we can say with any degree of confidence about the Royals, and what’s interesting is that they play to two entirely different narratives:

1) The Royals are quite unlikely to contend for the AL Central crown;

2) The Royals are quite likely to contend for a wild-card spot.

Point #1 is pretty clearly true, not because of anything the Royals are necessarily doing right or wrong*, but because the Detroit Tigers are once again playing like one of the best teams in baseball, and Dave Dombrowski is once again showing why he’s the most underrated GM in baseball.

*: Except beat the Tigers, of course, against whom they’re 0-5. If the Royals had won 3 of those 5 games, they’d be tied for first place right now.

I wrote about Dombrowski for Grantland when the season began, and broke down his trade record since he joined the Tigers. I knew that he had a formidable track record, but even I was surprised by just how lopsided his overall trade performance was. By a very approximate method, I estimated that the Tigers had won more than nine extra games a year since he was hired because of his trades.

The Tigers looked like they would be down in 2014 in part because of two trades they made this winter, one that made financial sense (Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler), and one that made no sense at all (Doug Fister for Robbie Ray and Ian Krol). No sense, that is, except that Dombrowski was the one making it.

Sure enough, as I write this Kinsler is hitting .303/.337/.441 while playing second base, and Fielder is hitting .252/.366/.367 as a 1B/DH. The trade allowed Miguel Cabrera to move to first base and installed rookie Nick Castellanos at third base, which upgraded the team’s infield defense, and sure enough, groundball/contact-oriented Rick Porcello is having his best season (3.22 ERA, 3.09 FIP). And while it’s way too early to weigh in on the Fister trade, the fact is that Ray – who wasn’t a Top 100 prospect before the season – has already reached the majors and was terrific in his first two starts. Yes, those two starts were against the Astros and Twins, but put it this way: Ray has already had more major league success than Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, and Chris Dwyer combined.

Anyway, the point is that even with his relatively poor player development record, as long as Dave Dombrowski is running the show in Detroit, the Tigers will be formidable. A team that had him in charge of the major league roster and Dayton Moore in charge of player development (particularly in Latin America) might win 100 games a year.

The Tigers are 24-12 with fundamentals to match; while it’s always possible they could go into a tailspin, the odds that the Royals catch them already seem formidable. (Particularly since their biggest weaknesses are their bullpen, which is easy to upgrade – they already signed Joel Hanrahan, who should debut soon – and shortstop, a spot which Stephen Drew may fill as soon as the draft is over in three weeks.)

And yet…if the season ended today, the Royals would be a game behind the second Wild Card spot. They are tied for the sixth-best record in the AL…and that’s not a fluke, as they have the sixth-best run differential in the AL as well.

So with three-quarters of a season left, we’re looking at a situation in which the Royals have very little shot at a playoff spot – but an excellent shot at half of a playoff spot. It’s quite possible that the Royals will come out of the All-Star Break with no chance at winning the division, but will spend the entire last half of the season chasing – and understandably so – the right to play in a single winner-take-all game that might well serve as a referendum for not just this season, but for the entire Dayton Moore era.

If the Royals sneak into the Wild Card game but lose it, were they really in the playoffs? Technically, yes, and the Royals will no doubt spin the experience as a huge success, as they absolutely should given not just the history of the franchise but the emphasis they put on this season* when they traded for James Shields.

*: An emphasis they are, naturally, backing away from now that 2014 is here. Maybe they haven’t been contenders on the field in a long time, but when it comes to moving the goalposts, the Royals are a dynasty.

But if three glorious hours constitutes the entire Royals’ playoff experience, and if they don’t build upon that success in the next year or two, can anyone with a straight face define the Moore Era in Kansas City as a success? Maybe the Royals should ask their neighbors across the parking lot what a series of three-hour playoff appearances is worth. As professional sports leagues insist on letting more and more teams qualify for the playoffs, they have to accept that they’re cheapening the experience. Making the playoffs in 1993 was tremendously meaningful even if you got swept out of the LCS. Making the playoffs in 2014 only means that you were in the top third of 30 major league teams. By definition, that’s something the average team accomplishes every 3 years, so if that’s the pinnacle of the Dayton Moore Era, then the Era was a huge disappointment.

It’s not fair to judge a team by what happens in a single game, but if you don’t want your legacy to be defined by a single game, you can always win your division. And if the Royals do win that game, the season will be judged much more favorably even if they lose in the LDS round. The Pittsburgh Pirates won their Wild Card game against the Reds last year, and even though they fell to the Cardinals in five games in the LDS round, I think Pirates fans all agree that they had a legitimate playoff experience. (It helps that they hosted the Wild Card game. If you lose the Wild Card game on the road – if Kauffman Stadium doesn’t host a single playoff game – it’s much harder to call that a true playoff team.)

So – barring a Tigers collapse, which is certainly not impossible, given their second-half swoons in 2006, 2012, and 2013 – the Royals’ best-case scenario is to get into what Joe Sheehan derisively calls the Coin Flip Game, and then hope the coin turns up heads. If it does, no matter what else happens, this front office will have accomplished more than its two predecessors do. If they win that game behind a dominant performance by James Shields, they might win The Trade in the process.

But first they have to get there. And there’s where the Two Narratives come into play. The Royals look for all the world like a .500 team, in a season where playing .500 might just keep you into contention into September. If you assume that the Tigers and A’s will win their divisions, and if you assume the Red Sox will eventually get in gear and win the AL East, you’re looking at a bunch of incredibly flawed competitors:

The Orioles are 13th in the AL in runs – just ahead of the Royals – despite playing at Camden Yards, and they don’t know how long they’ll be without Matt Wieters, their second-best hitter this season as a catcher.

The Yankees have been outscored by 13 runs this season, and have basically one effective starter (Masahiro Tanaka) in their rotation right now. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Yangervis Solarte doesn’t continue to hit .325/.403/.504 all season, in part because I had literally never heard of Yangervis Solarte before the season started.

I committed sabermetric heresy before the season by saying that I wasn’t all that high on the Rays this year, for one simple reason: I didn’t think their offense was all that good. Their offense hasn’t been that bad, but their pitching hasn’t been its usually stellar self either, and Matt Moore is out for the year after Tommy John surgery.

I’m rooting for the Blue Jays, not just because of the Kevin Seitzer connection but because they’ve gone longer without a playoff berth than any professional sports team other than the Royals. But that’s not a good pitching staff, and that bullpen is a HAZMAT zone right now.

The White Sox lost 99 games last year. The Twins lost 96 games last year. I think they’re both better, maybe significantly better, but in the history of baseball, no team that lost more than 97 games the year before has ever made the playoffs. Both teams face tough odds based on that alone.

The Indians just sent down Danny Salazar, who some were trumpeting as a bigger phenom than Yordano Ventura before the season started.

The Angels have a weak pitching staff that’s covered up by their ballpark some. Raul Ibanez, who is hitting .152/.268/.276, is their starting DH.

The Mariners are run by Jack Zduriencik.

The Rangers are 20-21, but they’ve been outscored by 33 runs (!) – only the Astros have a worse run differential in the league. Martin Perez is out for the year, and Matt Harrison is too.

I have no doubt that one of these teams is going to get hot and win 90 games or more. But I’m not so certain that two of these teams will do the same. This could be a year where 87 or 88 wins gets you into the Wild Card game. If that’s the case, the Royals will have no one to blame but themselves if that team isn’t them.

So which narrative do you prefer? The Bad Narrative says that the Royals have scored the second-fewest runs in the AL.

The Good Narrative says that the 1985 Royals also scored the second-fewest runs in the AL.

The Bad Narrative says that the Royals have hit 18 home runs in 40 games, a near-historically bad pace.

The Good Narrative says that the Royals have also allowed the fourth-fewest homers (34) in the league, and they have more hits (350 to 327) and doubles (78 to 61) than their opponents.

The Bad Narrative says that the corner hitters – and core hitters – on the roster are horrendous this season. Moustakas is hitting .161. Hosmer is hitting .302 but with one homer. Alex Gordon is hitting .261/.317/.366, also with one homer. Billy Butler is hitting .232/.291/.296, also with – you guessed it – one homer.

The Good Narrative says that the Royals are getting better-than-average production from up the middle positions. Salvador Perez is hitting .277/.338/.447, which isn’t a surprise; Alcides Escobar is hitting .285/.336/.409, which is. Lorenzo Cain is hitting .319/.367/.403.

The Bad Narrative says that the bullpen isn’t nearly as good as it was last year – their ERA has jumped 90 points to 3.45.

The Good Narrative says that the bullpen is still pretty damn good, and the rotation actually has a better ERA (3.43) than the bullpen – the third-best rotation ERA in the league.

The Bad Narrative says that the Royals are six games behind the Tigers, and it’s only May 16.

The Good Narrative says that the Royals are in the thick of the wild-card race.

How we cover this team over the next four months depends on which narrative you prefer. To this point, the narrative that most in the media – myself included – have leaned on The Bad Narrative, not because we’re haters, but because this was supposed to be the year. The Royals’ front office has been building to this season for eight years, and they were supposed to be better than this by now. They weren’t supposed to be six games behind the Tigers in the middle of May already. The fact that we’re already focusing on the Wild Card game just a quarter of the way into the season is reason enough to favor The Bad Narrative so far.

Also, there’s the matter of the Royals having one of the two cornerstones of their rebuilding project, the first official draft pick of the Dayton Moore Era, the #2 pick overall, hitting .161. It’s not simply that Mike Moustakas has played so poorly, but that it’s Mike Moustakas. If, I don’t know, Omar Infante was hitting .161, it would be a huge disappointment and it would call into judgment Moore’s ability to identify major league free agents, but it wouldn’t be an indictment of the organization’s entire mission statement. But from the moment Dayton Moore was hired, he has emphasized scouting and player development above everything else. He was absolutely right to do this, because it works, and for a small-market team, developing talent from within is almost the sine qua non of a successful franchise.

But you have to develop the talent. And that’s why Moustakas has become such a lightning rod for this team – not simply because he’s played so poorly, but because he’s supposed to be (along with Eric Hosmer) the best of what the Royals can develop from within. It doesn’t help that Hosmer, who is a success only by relative standards, has turned into a singles hitter. He’s basically Hal Morris. Actually, that’s not fair to Morris:

Eric Hosmer, 2014: .302/.341/.414, 106 OPS+
Hal Morris, career: .304/.361/.433, 111 OPS+

It also doesn’t help that Moustakas, unlike Alex Gordon, or Billy Butler, or Mark Teahen, hasn’t been sent to Omaha. For years, critics of the organization – I’m not exclusively referring to myself here – have pointed out how the Royals front office is so unwilling to admit mistakes that they keep giving the players they acquired opportunity after opportunity that they wouldn’t give to players they inherited. Well, Gordon, Butler, and Teahen were all acquired by Allard Baird. Moustakas was drafted by Moore. When the Royals continue to find excuse after excuse* not to send Moustakas to Omaha – even though he’s hit considerably worse than all three of those players – they simply feed into that narrative.

*: Pick your favorite: “We don’t have any alternatives!” (Whose fault is that, Dayton?) “He helps our team in other ways!” (Enough to make up for a .161 average? Hardly.) “He’s still driving in runs!” (Really, Dayton? It’s 2014 and you’re still using RBIs as a defense?)

Going forward, if the Royals can stay above .500 and if the AL continues to be a bastion of mediocrity, the Royals have the power to change the narrative. They’ve done a legitimately good job in building their pitching staff. Their bullpen isn’t as good as last year’s, but it’s still one of the best in baseball, and given the variability in bullpens from one year to the next, that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating. Shields has been everything the Royals expected him to be. Yordano Ventura is the Royals’ first pitching phenom since Zack Greinke 10 years ago, and he’s having the kind of immediate success that Royals’ prospects so rarely have. Jeremy Guthrie keeps living on the right side of the dagger’s edge. Jason Vargas has shut my trap – even if I still like to yap about Phil Hughes – awfully fast. If Danny Duffy can just harness his control a tiny bit more, this is a championship-caliber pitching staff.

And maybe, in a year of flawed contenders all over, that’s all the Royals need. Maybe they don’t need their offense to live up to its long-lost potential; maybe they don’t even need an average offense, just one that isn’t one of the worst in baseball. Maybe they can dip into their still-fertile farm system to trade for a hitter who would fill one of the holes in their lineup. (I’m thinking specifically of Chase Headley here, who would be a huge upgrade at third base, and is a free agent at the end of the season. However, given that Headley is hitting as poorly as everyone else in San Diego – he’s hitting .195/.278/.368 right now – I understand if the Royals want to wait a few more weeks to see how things shake out.)

If the Royals can ride their excellence at half of baseball to take command of the wild-card race, then more power to them, and The Good Narrative will take over at least until that game in October. But in the meantime, if I may make a suggestion to the Royals, it’s this: STOP WORRYING ABOUT THE NARRATIVE. Stop worrying about what the media thinks. Stop being defensive about our criticisms. We have every right to be skeptical, and the only way to quell our skepticism is to win games.

The Royals have reached the point where we, as fans, are less critical of the team on the field than of the excuses that the front office keeps proffering. The Royals have been a solidly average team for the last season-plus. They are no longer an embarrassment on the field or anything close. But the front office seems to keep forgetting something: THEY WEREN’T HIRED BEFORE LAST SEASON. The six-and-a-half seasons before that still count. If Dayton Moore and friends were hired after the 2012 season, immediately decided to go for it by trading for James Shields and led the Royals to their winningest season in a quarter-century, they’d be hailed as geniuses by the fan base. But they weren’t, and their feigned innocence is irritating. YOU DON’T GET TO ACT LIKE THOSE SIX YEARS DON’T COUNT. I mean, Jack Zduriencik won 85 games in his FIRST season as the Mariners’ GM. Mariners fans are sick to death of him, and he was hired MORE THAN TWO YEARS AFTER Moore was hired in Kansas City.

Given long enough, any front office is going to be able to point to occasional episodes of success. We’re all .500 teams in the infinitely long run. A .500 record is supposed to be the natural order of things – not a reward for six seasons of sucking. I mean, Dayton, Cubs fans are already getting restless with their front office after just TWO years of sucking, and their President and GM have two World Series rings. Astros fans are getting restless – what few of them remain, anyway – and their GM was hired less than three years ago. I can guarantee you: if the Cubs remain under .500 until 2018, and that year they win 86 games without a playoff appearance, and in 2019 they’re a .500 team – Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are going to feel the heat if they haven’t been sent out of town on a rail. If the Astros are still losing 100 games a year in 2017, Jeff Luhnow isn’t going to be able to keep talking about the future. So what makes you so special? What makes your front office immune to criticism?

So a word of advice (because I know how much the Royals heed my advice): stop complaining about the fan base. Stop telling us what the industry thinks of your rebuilding movement. Other front offices aren’t going to criticize the Royals any more than I’m going to criticize the guy in my fantasy league who keeps drafting poorly and making bad draft picks. National sportswriters aren’t going to be as critical as local sportswriters because they don’t have anything invested in the Royals. Stop telling us that you inherited a franchise with “sub-expansion-team-level” talent and infrastructure and please don’t notice Gordon and Butler and Zack Greinke behind the curtain. Stop telling us that the rebuilding project will take five years, no, six, no, eight-to-ten. Stop telling us that we’re going for it in 2014 when we trade for James Shields, but we really didn’t mean going for it in 2014 now that it’s actually 2014 and Shields will be a free agent after the season.

Don’t tell us it takes 1500 plate appearances to judge a hitter when it didn’t take even 500 plate appearances to judge Miguel Cabrera or Austin Jackson or Ian Kinsler or Joe Mauer or Brian Dozier or Juan Jose Abreu or Alexei Ramirez or Jason Kipnis or Asdrubal Cabrera or Carlos Santana, to pick just other players from the AL Central. PLEASE don’t tell us it takes 1500 plate appearances and then, when one of your top prospects reaches 1500 plate appearances and hasn’t hit worth a damn in two years, you STILL refuse to send him to Triple-A. (Oh, and don’t tell us it takes 1500 plate appearances to judge a minor-league hitter when Bubba Starling is hitting .156, and every non-Royals scout in America thinks he’ll be lucky to make it as a fourth outfielder.)

Don’t piss down our legs and tell us it’s raining, is what I’m saying. If you win, everything will be forgiven; if you lose, all the spin in the world isn’t going to change our perception of you. You alone have the power to change The Narrative. As hard as this may be for you to believe, we’re all rooting for you to do so. But we’re also waiting with pitchforks if you don’t.