Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Making Memories.

So much of being a sports fan is the chance to be a part of shared memories. Non-sports fans might share in a cultural experience every now and then – Who Shot J.R.?, the Seinfeld finale, the Red Wedding – but to be a fan of a sports team means to share in their most important moments, good or bad, with thousands of strangers who have as much invested in that moment as you. And those memories can resonate years or even decades later. Red Sox fans will always remember where they were when Dave Roberts stole second base. Cubs fans can never forget where they were when Mark Prior got tired in the eighth inning and Alex Gonzalez flubbed a routine double play grounder. If you root for a sports team, you share memories with everyone else who does too.

Except for Royals fans. We don’t have any real shared memories because we haven’t seen our team play a truly meaningful game in a generation.

We have surrogate memories, of games and moments which were ultimately meaningless but at least gave us an emotional rush in the moment. Last time I mentioned Bob Hamelin’s walk-off homer in the 12th inning on July 25th, 1994, the third game in what turned out to be a 14-game winning streak that brought the Royals to within a game of the AL Central lead. Except it happened in July, in a season that was cut short by a strike on August 11th. There was Carlos Beltran’s walkoff homer in the 10th inning on July 20th, 2003, that gave the Royals a 6.5 game lead in the AL Central – except it happened in July, in a season that ended with the Royals in third place, seven games out.

More recently, there was Justin Maxwell’s walk-off grand slam in the 10th inning last year, a memory that still gets Royals fans buzzing. That moment, at least, occurred on September 22nd, just one week before the end of the season. Not to be a buzzkill, but all that win did was keep the Royals in seventh place in the AL, 3.5 games behind the Indians for the final Wild Card spot with seven games left to play. It kept the Royals mathematically alive, but only barely.

Good or bad, shared memories are what make being a sports fan worth it. To have a connection with people you’ve never met, to say the words “Dane Iorg” like some sort of super-secret password within a select community, is worth a thousand meaningless 5-3 losses in mid-May.

But ever since Dane Iorg, the Royals have had only the meaningless losses, not the meaningful memories.

Four years ago, Alex Gordon hit the first walk-off home run of his career, and from the Kauffman Stadium press box, I called it on Twitter. It was a fun moment; this was the pre-renaissance Gordon who was still lost at the plate, and he’d had a terrible game, and as he batted with two outs and two on in the ninth, I decided that, having already predicted his failures in his previous at-bats, that I’d have a little fun and be optimistic this one time. I tweeted this. Gordon hit a blast to right. The Royals beat the Orioles, and some of you joined me in having a fun time rehashing it on Twitter.

But it wasn’t a meaningful memory. The Royals won that game, but they only won 66 other games that year. The biggest legacy of Gordon’s swing that night was that it gave the Orioles a higher draft pick than the Royals, which is why Baltimore ended up with Dylan Bundy and the Royals ended up with Bubba Starling.

Tonight, Alex Gordon hit the second walk-off home run of his career. And with any luck, this one will be remembered by Royals fans years from now, maybe decades from now. The Royals had been shut out all night, and had scored two runs in their previous 28 innings. They were three outs away from squandering another great outing from Danny Duffy, from losing their third game in a row, from letting the Tigers move to within a half-game of first place. Gordon faced Glen Perkins, the rare left-handed closer, who had given up just two homers all year, who has had an ERA under 2.60 for four straight seasons. He was down in the count 0-1. He got a breaking ball that caught too much of the plate and lofted it to right field.

And 28 years of Royals fan experience led me to believe that the ball would be caught, first at the warning track, then at the wall, and then with a leaping grab over the wall. It didn’t look like it had quite enough, and losing a game on a fly ball that was a few inches shy of leaving the yard seemed like a quintessentially Royals thing to do. Only it turned out this ball had just barely enough, or it was being pushed by a tailwind, or the breath of angels. It cleared the wall, Gordon was – for this one night – MVP, the offensive doldrums of the last few days were forgotten, and the Royals were back on a winning streak.

Maybe this home run will survive only as a wistful memory the way Hamelin’s and Beltran’s and Maxwell’s home runs do, a nice moment in an ultimately meaningless season. But it already feels like the biggest moment for the Royals in 29 years.

And it feels like just the first of many big moments – moments that we’ll all remember, and we’ll still be talking about when we’re sitting in rocking chairs many years hence – to come. Win or lose, I’m looking forward to sharing as many of those moments with you as possible.

- While we can no longer claim Alex Gordon to be massively underrated, there is one member of the Royals who still manages to fly under the radar despite having an enormous impact on their success this season and last. I’m speaking of Head Athletic Trainer Nick Kenney. (And as always, “Nick Kenney” is just shorthand for “Kenney, and Assistant Trainer Kyle Turner, and the rest of the Royals’ training staff.”)

One hidden indicator for a team’s success in any given season is this simple question: how many starts did they have to give to pitchers who were not supposed to be in their rotation? Generally speaking, teams whose five primary starting pitchers make 150 or more starts in a season are contending teams. That’s true even if not all five pitchers are elite starters; think of the Reds the last couple of years, who had Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos, yes, but also Mike Leake and Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang. Never having to send a clay pigeon onto the mound is almost as valuable as having #1 starters in your rotation.

This year, the Royals’ Opening Day rotation included James Shields, Jason Vargas, Yordano Ventura, Jeremy Guthrie, and Bruce Chen. Chen was re-signed largely for his ability to move to the bullpen if and when Danny Duffy was ready, and that’s exactly what happened when Chen hurt his back and Duffy was put in the rotation in early May. Chen returned to the rotation for a couple of starts when Vargas had an appendectomy, but otherwise has stayed in the bullpen.

Shields, Vargas, Ventura, Guthrie, and Duffy have started all but eight of the Royals’ games this year, and Chen has started seven of the other eight. We knew this at the beginning of the season: the Royals clearly had six guys in the organization capable of starting in the majors this year, but they just as clearly did not have seven. While their overall record is a surprise, it would be much less of a surprise if we had known before the season that on August 26th, those six guys would have started 129 of the Royals’ 130 games.

The 130th game was Aaron Brooks’ notorious start in Toronto, when he allowed seven runs and was knocked out of the game in the first inning. That just reinforces the importance of having starters who take the ball every fifth day, and it reinforces the importance of a training staff that can keep pitchers healthy. Let’s not forget the bumps in the road – the reason Brooks made a start was that Ventura walked off a mound on May 26th holding his elbow. While you and I were scheduling his Tommy John surgery, the Royals waved it off from the beginning, and they were proven right when Ventura only missed one start. Better still, he has stayed healthy since returning to the rotation; while his strikeout rate has dropped, his velocity has stayed steady.

The game is designed to break pitchers. For all the advances that baseball teams have made in playing a better game, the code of keeping pitchers healthy has been an incredibly difficult one to crack. Pedigree helps; Shields has been incredibly durable throughout his career, and Guthrie has cheerfully given his team six innings and three runs allowed for the better part of eight seasons. But Vargas missed half of last year with a blood clot in his armpit, a potentially serious issue that sometimes is a harbinger of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Ventura’s a rookie, a 5’11” rookie who throws 100 mph. Duffy just returned from Tommy John surgery last August. It was unrealistic to assume the Royals would get to mid-August with all five guys still in their rotation.

But they are, and the Royals are winning. That’s not a coincidence, and that’s not simply luck. The Royals have been one of the healthiest teams in baseball ever since Kenney and Turner were hired after the 2009 season; they won the Dick Martin Award presented to the best training staff in the majors after the 2011 season. And it goes beyond the rotation, obviously; aside from Luke Hochevar blowing out his elbow in spring training, and aside from Eric Hosmer’s broken hand, the Royals haven’t suffered a significant injury all year. Ok, Bruce Chen’s bulging disc counts, but Scott Downs’s sore neck doesn’t. They’ve barely used the DL. And they might have been even healthier last year.

I mean, look around the majors. Remember that point about starts from your projected Opening Day rotation? The Texas Rangers, widely expected to be World Series conteders before the season, had so many injuries to their projected rotation before and during spring training that they opened the year with a rotation of Tanner Scheppers (making his first career start on Opening Day!), Martin Perez, Robbie Ross, Joe Saunders, and Nick Martinez. They have the worst record in baseball. The Tigers have a rotation that includes the 2013 AL Cy Young winner (Max Scherzer), the 2012 AL Cy Young winner (David Price), and the 2011 AL Cy Young and MVP winner (Justin Verlander). But Verlander hasn’t been right all season – maybe he’s not hurt in the traditional sense, but he’s clearly not 100% - and now Anibal Sanchez is on the DL, and the Tigers’ rotation includes the likes of Robbie Ray, Buck Farmer (who was in the Midwest League in July), and now Kyle Lobstein is supposed to get a spot start.

No one in the Royals’ rotation is at the level of a Price or a Scherzer, at least not consistently. But every single game the Royals put a guy on the mound who can be at least adequate (Guthrie), and generally better than that. It’s a testament to the front office finally figuring out this pitching thing, but it’s also a testament to a training staff that, by keeping their charges healthy, have made the job of the front office that much easier.

The Royals have announced that Ventura will miss tomorrow night’s start with a sore back, so for only the second time all season, someone other than the six guys the Royals went to war with back in March will get a start. This time, at least, it’s Liam Hendricks, who looked like a throw-in in the massive Danny Valencia/Erik Kratz trade back in July, but was having a phenomenal season in Triple-A at the time. For the season, Hendricks had 13 walks and 126 Ks in Triple-A in 143 innings. He’s been pretty terrible in the major leagues – 6.06 ERA in 169 innings – but if his control has gone from pretty good to phenomenal, he might yet turn into something. There’s a non-zero chance he’s the next Bob Tewksbury. In any case, I’d rather see him on the mound than Aaron Brooks, and it says something that the Royals are turning to him instead of Chen.

But the sooner the Royals go back to their best-case rotation, the better, and it seems like the Royals are skipping Ventura’s start out of an abundance of caution. In Kenney and Turner’s fifth season on the job, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt from me that they know what they’re doing.

I know some of my criticisms of the Royals’ organization may ring hollow in retrospect, and there are things I’ve said that I wish I could take back. But I’ll stand by those words I wrote five years ago. Not to beat a dead horse or to pick on someone years after the fact, but hiring a new training staff is one of the best things that Dayton Moore has done as general manager. I hope Kenney and Turner are awarded full playoff shares by the team. Because if the Royals get there, they will have done as much as anyone to make it possible.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Stretch Run.

The Royals have just completed a 30-game stretch unlike any they have played in over 30 years. Less than five weeks ago, the Royals were 48-50, having responded to Ned Yost’s prediction that they were “a second-half team” by losing their first four games after the All-Star Break. They were in third place in the AL Central. They were eight games behind the Tigers.

Before losing this afternoon they were 72-56, the farthest above .500 they’ve been since a single day in 1994, the final game of their 14-game winning streak that year. They made up an unbelievable 11 games on the Tigers in 33 days, and even after today’s misstep they lead the division by two games. They’re just 1.5 games behind the Orioles for the #2 seed. All this thanks to the franchise’s first 24-6 stretch since August 27th, 1980. To give you some perspective, George Brett went 1-for-3 that day to drop his average to .406.

(This was the day after his legendary 5-for-5 day that got his average back over .400. It would stay over .400 until September 4th, and got back to .400 one last time on September 19th. And remember, Brett was hitting .247 on May 21st.  From May 22nd to September 19th, Brett hit – this is not a misprint – .445 over a 77-game stretch. Narrow that down a little from May 27th to August 30th – a 63-game stretch – and Brett hit .469. Other players have had better years, but I’m not sure anyone has ever quite so good for quite so long as Brett was that summer.)

I remember 1994, and the dizzying winning streak out of nowhere (Bob Hamelin’s walk-off homer in this game is one of my most indelible memories as a Royals fan.) I do not remember 1980, which is not surprising given that I turned five years old that summer, although I have no doubt that season had a huge impact on me becoming a fan of the team.

The point is, I have literally no memory of the Royals playing this well for this long, and if you’re under the age of 40, neither have you. It may be a long, long time before we see it again. Put it this way: if the Royals just win six of their next nine games, they will have accomplished Dayton Moore’s goal of “winning 15 out of 20” back-to-back. So yes, I’m questioning everything I thought I knew about this team, about Dayton Moore, about Ned Yost, about the James Shields trade (notice I’m not calling it the Wil Myers trade). Everything.

If you didn’t get the memo, the New York Times kindly asked me if they could run an abridged version of my article on Sung Woo Lee, and I was more than happy to oblige. Also, I covered the Royals for Grantland last week, and tried my best to explain how they’ve turned things around without resorting to Supernatural Koreans or #RoyalsDevilMagic. (Also, for a more detailed rundown of the Season of Sung Woo, here’s a great summary.)

Frankly, the only thing that hasn’t been perfect about this last month is that I haven’t had nearly enough time to write about it. I intend to make amends for that going forward. If this is the last season of Rany on the Royals, I want to go out with a bang, not a whimper, and the Royals are doing their damndest to accommodate me. And, yes, make me look like an imbecile at the same time, but you can’t have the former without the latter.

- With the Royals suddenly everywhere – on the cover of Sports Illustrated last week, hosting their first ESPN Sunday Night baseball game since 1996 next week – the baseball world has just as suddenly woken up to the fact that, hey, Alex Gordon is pretty good.

The Royals ascension to first place has coincided with Gordon briefly leading the major leagues in Wins Above Replacement according to Fangraphs. This has sparked a lot of discussion, some from critics of WAR who thinks it’s ridiculous that Alex Gordon is the Most Valuable Player in baseball, even though no serious analyst (at least none that I’ve seen) is actually arguing that Gordon should win the MVP award.

For one thing, Fangraphs’ version of WAR is just one version – fWAR – and the other version, as calculated by Baseball Reference (bWAR), doesn’t have Gordon ranked nearly so highly. (Gordon is ranked 5th among AL position players, and 8th when you include pitchers.) The difference mainly stems from how much value you place on Gordon’s defense. Baseball Reference has him as “just” the best defensive outfielder in the American League; Fangraphs has him as far better than that.

I think, given the relative lack of reliability of defensive stats, that Baseball Reference’s conclusion is more reasonable. It’s hard for any left fielder to be worth more than 20 runs above average with a month left to play, especially since word has finally gotten around baseball that YOU DO NOT RUN ON ALEX GORDON. Gordon got just his seventh baserunner kill of the year this afternoon, after having at least 17 assists in each of the last three years, becoming the first left fielder in at least 60 years (as far back as we have defensive data broken down by position) to kill 17 baserunners or more in three consecutive seasons.

On the other hand, it’s not like Gordon’s defensive numbers this year are an enormous outlier. He’s won three Gold Gloves in a row on merit. He was a third baseman until he was 26 years old, and he’s making a case for being one of the best defensive left fielders of his generation. That’s insane.

But that’s Alex Gordon, whose dedication to his craft – his legendary diet, his workout routine, his work ethic – makes me proud just to have watched him all these years. Four years ago he was considered a bust by a wide swath of both fans and industry types; I went against the grain when I wrote here that Gordon still had a chance to live up to expectations, and that was three years before he broke out.

I’m not taking credit for that; when you’re optimistic about practically every highly-touted Royals player of the last 25 years, you’re going to be vindicated occasionally just by accident. I thought Gordon would become a very good player, but I figured that he’d eventually hit 30 homers as a slugging third baseman. Instead he’s become a guy who hits 15-20 homers and is the best defensive left fielder in baseball. It’s a credit to him that when he wasn’t able to find success the way he was ordained to, he found a different path to becoming a star.

And now comes word that Gordon, who is only under club control for one more season but has a player option for 2016 at just $12.5 million, intends to play under that option. Make no mistake: if Gordon plays as well next season as he is this season, the bidding for him will start at 5 years and $75 million and go up from there. He’d be walking away from a few million dollars, and taking the risk that at age 32, an off-year might cost him tens of millions more after the season.

Which is why I’m hopeful that Gordon’s comments lead to a different scenario, one in which he and the Royals agree to a long-term contract that replaces his player option. That may happen this winter; while the track record of players signed to extensions two years before free agency (think Justin Verlander, or Ryan Howard) is pretty crappy, when you’re signing a guy just one year before he can walk away, the risk/reward ratio is pretty balanced.

And I think the risk with Gordon is a lot less than with Verlander or Howard, because he’s not a pitcher, and he’s a fantastic athlete who takes phenomenal care of his body. He doesn’t strike me as the kind of hitter who will fall apart at age 32, but the kind of player who will have a long, graceful decline into his late 30s. Think of Carlos Beltran, who lost foot speed and bat speed but had the athleticism to change his approach as he got older, drawing more walks and hitting for more power. I wouldn’t blink an eye about committing a five-year contract to Gordon after this season that would keep him in a Royals uniform through 2019.

The irony is that in this sabermetric age, Gordon’s hidden value is not so hidden anymore, and even with a hometown discount it remains to be seen whether the Royals are willing to pay $15 million a year to keep him. Twenty years ago, Kevin Appier was the most underrated pitcher in baseball, but that very underratedness allowed the cash-strapped Royals to re-sign him to a four-year extension after the 1995 season for far less than he was truly worth. In another era, Alex Gordon might be the most underrated player in baseball. But not in this era. And not with the Royals in first place.

I don’t want to take too much focus away from what the Royals are doing in the here and now. But Gordon is the heart and soul of this franchise, their best player and their role model. It’s not a coincidence that the Royals are playing their best baseball in 34 years while Gordon is on a tear at the plate, hitting .327/.384/.549 from July 21st through yesterday. Everything about this past month feels like a dream, so why not dream about Gordon being paired with Salvador Perez under contract for the rest of the decade; about him finishing his career with Kansas City; even about 4 being retired under the scoreboard along with 5, 10, 20, and 42?

Nearly a decade ago, in the pages of Baseball Prospectus 2007, I wrote, “He`s a lifelong Royals fan whose brother was named after George Brett, so this could be the start of a beautiful relationship.” I could only hope it would be this beautiful, or last this long. In a season that feels like a fairytale, I’m still rooting for the fairytale ending.

- More to come; I’ve got literally thousands of words bubbling to the surface, but like the Royals, I need to pace myself and finish strong.