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Spreadsheet Baseball: The Anatomy of a Losing Streak

Every team in major league baseball has its share of ups and down over the course of a season. It goes without saying that winning teams are the ones with more ups than downs, and that a team with the Royals talent level right now is generally going to experience more downs. It's a fun little baseball saying that "the team that goes 3-2 in every 5 games will go to the play-offs, whereas the team that goes 2-3 goes home, having finished in the cellar." It's an oversimplification, of course, but it's also a pretty darn good one; a .600 winning percentage will win you the division most of the time, whereas a .400 winning percentage usually has you looking up at the rest of your rivals. The Royals' recent losing streak has them poised to finish, once again, close to that .400 mark--which equates to about a 65-97, 64-98 regular season--and finish in last.

This recent losing streak is a little disheartening in light of the improved play of the KC nine, as they had clawed their way up to a not-good-at-all-but-at-least-better-than-the-Nats 19-28. The Royals seemed poised to actually have their win total start with the same number as their loss total, which makes a losing team look so much better. It says: "hey, one good streak and we're at .500!" Unfortunately, 19-28 was as good as it got, and having dropped seven contests in a row, it's back to the worst record in baseball (as well-documented on this blog). The brief resurgence followed by this stretch of baseball doldrums illustrates that no last place team actually does go 2-3 for each 5 games of the season, as in reality the mountains and valleys of a team's performance are much taller and wider. To go 2-3, 2-3, 2-3, 2-3...for 162 games is ridiculously unlikely, as you're bound to have a hot or cold streak every-so-often.

The Royals have just gone through a cold streak, and there's statisical explanations, for sure; they were outperforming their pthyagorean win total by a handful of games, and they just gave them back. However, saying that sure doesn't make observing it any more fun than before. The cold hard stats aren't lying right now, don't get me wrong, but looking at each game individually you can see how the regression to the mean manifests in the form of a seven-game skid. It's the anatomy of a losing streak, and it's what I've chosen to highlight in today's column; it seems like every time a team is playing badly and on one of these skids, you see several patterns or "loss types" that comprise the losing. Of course, none of them are what you'd call "good."

The Seven Games

May 24th: Indians 10, Royals 3

One of the main reasons people tend to overvalue mediocre relievers or go out and give relief pitchers multi-year deals, I swear, is because people tend to remember the close losses and forget the games that the team was never even competitive in. This game fell into the second category, and it was the beginning of the end for the Royals' nice little hot streak they had been on. Poised for a series sweep against Cleveland, Jorge de la Rosa took the ball for the Boys in Blue and was shelled in the first inning. There had been signs that de la Rosa's ERA was going to rise, mainly in the form of a mediocre strikeout rate, but George imploded on this day in a way that had been very familiar to him in his brief major league career before this season: walks. He walked the lead-off batter, and even after a double play to give him a two-out, nobody on situation, his control problems continued. He walked Travis "Pronk" Hafner, gave up a single to Victor Martinez, and walked Jhonny Peralta. A single and a home run later, the Royals were behind 5-0. With the Royals getting themselves out against the the less-than-amazing Jeremy Sowers, it was end of story in the first inning.

Obviously, the losses that start losing streaks come in all different shapes and sizes. Nevertheless, the First-Inning Meltdown is a common bird in the country of the losing streak; what better way to not win a game than exiting the first inning knowing that you're far behind and your bullpen is going to have to put in a long day?

May 25th: Mariners 10, Royals 2

If you remember Gil Meche's performance in this game, you might think it a better candidate for the type of loss mentioned above. However, while Meche surrendered a bevy of runs to his former team--seven to be exact--he spread them out over his four plus innings of work. No, the real reason that the Royals were never in the game was because they ran into a revitalized Felix Hernandez, who shut them out over five innings before surrendering two meaningless runs in the sixth and being yanked by the Captain Hookalot, Mike Hargrove. To be fair to Hargrove, he'd've been burned at stake if he'd pushed Hernandez too hard in a game like that, what with one of the best arms in major league baseball on the line.

An 0-for-4 night from the team's best OPSer thus far this season, Stops Here, summed up what was a stifled performance by the offense. Sure, Meche had a terrible outing, but the Royals in general did a bad job of working Hernandez deep into counts. This loss type is known as Running Into The Other Team's Ace, and it's another key characteristic of a long skid. You know the feeling: your favorite team is coming off a loss or two, and you wake up that morning and say "I had too many scotch and waters last night, but I'm sure [your team] will have a bounceback game." You open the paper and see Roy Halladay is on the hill, and you immediately consider calling in sick and sleeping for three to five more hours.

May 26th: Mariners 9, Royals 1

It's around the third loss were you start to wonder if this is going to be a longer stretch of really bad play, and it's small consolation if you turn out to be right. On the 26th, the Royals sent Brian Bannister to the hill for what looked like a rather even, if hitter-happy, match-up against Cha Seung Baek. Read Lookout Landing's Jeff's opinions on Baek for more background information. The long and short of it is that the Royals must have left their bats at home, because they were utterly dominated by a not-very-dominating pitcher; only two members of the home team came through with hits, the keystone combo of Mark Grudzielanek (2) and Tony Pena Jr., all of all people, combined for the Royals' total five hits. Bannister pitched merely below average but not horrible, gutting his way through seven innings with a strikeout, but let's face it: the poor guy was hung out to dry. Without any hesitation, you can chalk this game up to the well-known loss type of Offense Mails It In Against Crappy Pitcher. Of the Royals 3-4-5 hitters, only Gordon got on base all day with--surprise!--a walk. Ouch.

May 27th: Mariners 7, Royals 4

With Jarrod Washburn on the hill for the M's looking for the sweep, the Royals trotted out Odie Perez in an effort to complete the matching bookend set of finesse lefties who are not very good. Trailing 6-2 after a characteristically crappo outing by Perez, the Royals tried to rally in the 8th to avoid Seattle breaking out the brooms. Alex Gordon doubled to left, chasing Washburn who was replaced by reliever Sean Green. Ryan Shealy drove Gordon in, and it was 6-3 with no one out and a man on. Three batters and a hardy seven pitches later, the inning was over with a K and two ground-outs. In the ninth, the Royals were down 7-3 now, but got the first two men on. They only scored one unearned run in the frame and lost 7-4.

In truth this loss was rather a team effort, as Perez gave up more runs (6) than IP, but the offense really deserves discredit as well. The Royals took only one walk all game to go with seven hits, which suggests it actually took some pretty timely hitting to wring out four runs. The overall implication of this loss was really the story: the Royals had been swept by the Mariners, the offense was scuffling as badly as the pitching, and the losing streak was now real. This loss type is the Swept by a Mediocre Team Downer, where the score really doesn't matter so much as the opposing team leaves town and you say, "did we really just drop three to those clowns?"

With Baltimore heading into town, the patrons of the K could only hope that the sporadic Orioles were the answer to the Royals' issues.

May 28th: Orioles 9, Royals 1

There's nothing you can say after a game like this, other than a few things I would not care to type into print right now. You're on your home turf, looking for a rebound with an okay pitching match-up, and you tank. Elarton-Trachsel is not a top pitching bill, but it sure as heck should have been more even. I don't know what kind of voodoo Trachsel is using on hitters this season, but the slow-working veteran has only K'ed eightteen batters against thirty-one walks in 66.3 innings. He's fighting it, right? Perhaps a candidate to be dropped from a pretty spotty rotation? Nope, the dude has a 3.39 ERA and a 128 ERA+, both good by any standards. When someone like Trachsel has an ERA below a staffmate like Erik Bedard, you can only shake your head and say "baseball is so goshdurn weird."

I'm a psyche major, and I don't know what else to say other than "the offense was bad again and Scott Elarton is not a good pitcher," so we'll call an example of Losing Streak Reinforcement loss type, where the subject team has now lost enough to realize "we really are on a bad streak right now." It's not just a fluky series against one mediocre team at this point, it's five straight games where the closest loss has been a three-run differential. If that's not enough to reinforcement to tell the fans and players, "this really is a losing streak." We're now officially in "snapping" territory, where a win by the team causes the subtitle of the next win article to be "Royals snap x-game skid. Oh yeah, by the way, the Royals had only five hits in this game, and DeJesus and Buck, previously two of the team's hottest hitters, did nothing between them. DeJesus went 0-for-4 for seemingly the millionth time in a row, and Buck had the day off. Emil Brown contributed his customary 0-for-4 as well.

May 29th: Orioles 6, Royals 2

With a seemingly due for regression Jeremy Guthrie on the hill for the visiting birds, Jorge de la Rosa tried to play stopper for the Royals and to his own personal bad streak. But this time, the possible sixth loss, the baseball fan's brain is grasping at anything positive. Anything that might be considered a sign of victory or, you know, life from his or her struggling team. It came in the form of Mark Teahen's solo shot in the bottom of the first, giving the Royals a 1-0 lead, only the second time in the past six games that they had held a lead at any point. With a guy like Guthrie on the mound, the floodgates seemed poised to open and the slump-stopping game had finally arrived.

So, what else could this game be but the False Hope loss type, where the team in the midst of the losing streak looks poised for a win early but once again shoots itself in the foot. De la Rosa was once again not sharp, surrendering two runs in the second on a homer by Kevbo Millar and a single by Ramon Hernandez, and then allowed the O's another run in the third. Now trailing 3-1, the Royals manufactuered a run out of a single, a walk, and a balk in the third, again suggesting that perhaps luck was on their side. At 3-2, they were still in striking distance.

But this is the "false hope" game, and the offense died after the third, getting only one more hit the rest of the way and going done without a baserunner after the fifth. The floodgates opened in the sixth and de la Rosa was yanked; his final line showed five runs in five innings. Guthrie plowed his way to a victory, only King three batters but continuing to work his Dave Borkowski magic for the O's. Ryan Shealy had two hits, and that was pretty much the highlight of the game for Blue other than Teahen's shot.

May 30th: Orioles 3, Royals 0

I don't wish to rub salt in anyone's wounds, but my pre-season pick of Erik Bedard as the AL Cy Young winner is starting to look possible. With his performance in shutting down KC for eight innings yesterday, Bedard now has a 3.67 ERA after his customary rought start. He's leading the league in strike-outs, and his team looks like it has a prayer at a winning record this year what with the AL East's general malaise. He's certainly not the frontrunner yet, but I picked Peavy in the NL so "haha," as they say.

Back on topic. Breaking the theme of naming these loss types with titles that you'd expect to find in a Kubler-Ross book on baseball or something, the Royals were suplexed, Resident Evil 4 style (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist. Try YouTube searching this), by the Orioles in the classic First Team To Score Wins and We Didn't Score First loss type. To look at the bigger picture, it's usually a bad sign for your team if the uncontested best pitcher on your roster loses two starts in a row. Meche, unlike his first outing in the midst of the losing streak, pitched very well, giving up only one earned run through seven innings. Alas, the Royals made him a hard-luck loser, garnering only a measly four singles and two walks against Bedard. The only real threat was quelled in the bottom half of the third, when a slumping DeJesus lined out with two men on.

Perhaps even more aching than Meche's hard-luck loss was the performance of Zack Greinke. After Jay Payton singled to break the 0-0 deadlock in the eighth inning, Greinke came in with runners on first and third and one out. Miguel Tejada came up, Miguel Tejada sat down. Aubrey Huff came up, Aubrey Huff sat down. Total pitches: six. End of threat. The yin to this yang was the top of the ninth, where Greinke allowed a game-clinching two-run shot to Nick Markakis. It's the kind of outing that makes me wonder if anyone on the coaching staff is on speaking terms with Zack, as it's hard to watch--or hear about, in my case--how a young pitcher with decent talent can be so good one moment and kill hope the next.

Again, the offense died after a fifth inning walk by Buck, who had one of the four singles. The Orioles left town once again rejuvenated by playing the Royals. A theme that is becoming all too common given the Orioles' actual skill level as compared to the Royals. I mean, sure, the birds are the better team, but 6-0 better? Jeez, I really didn't think so. See Will's post for elaboration on the Orioles' mysterious powers over the Royals in recent seasons. As with a lot of small sample sizes in baseball, it makes no gosh darn sense. Seriously, gosh darn mother truck the Orioles.

Where the Royals stand now

As Blue Oyster Cult's singer once sang (how appropriate), I'm not the one to tell you what's wrong and what's right. Well, okay, I'm reaching there, but the point is this is one heck of an ugly stretch of baseball, what with that -55 run differential over the duration of the carnage. The bad thing about that is that it doesn't suggest the Royals have been unlucky, and so a close loss or two and this could get ugly. Especially since Meche's turn was yesterday.

Moral of the story? Ah, well, every team has their bad streaks. This is, without a doubt, a bad streak. While the Royals may have longer losing streaks this year, I'm reasonably certain that this is the absolute worst seven-game stretch you'll see from them over the course of the season.

The off-day really could not come at a better time, in your humble stathead's opinion.

Spreadsheet Baseball returns next week with another exciting episode of "The Royals: What the heck?" For this week's article, comments are, of course, welcome/encouraged. Happy, er, good readin'.