This is season is special. The Kansas City Royals already have 83 wins, solidifying their second straight winning season for the first time in two non-strike years since 1988-1989. Postseason is not only a possibility, but a probability; Fangraphs, ESPN, and Baseball Prospectus all give the Royals significantly better-than-average odds at reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1985. It is September 18. Those sentences haven't gone together since the original Super Mario Bros. was being played by kids all over the United States.
And yet this team has been infuriating, the masters of disappointment. They are seemingly hell-bent at attempting to continually beat down this fanbase even in success.
Often times you'll hear that a team has a particular 'clutch' skill or is adept at navigating 'high-pressure' or 'September' baseball in order to compete for a postseason berth (this year: Cardinals, Angels). On the other hand, teams that fade in the final weeks are criticized for collapsing under the pressure (this year: Brewers, Athletics). From an analytical perspective, of course that's ridiculous. The Cardinals are a good team and were expected to win their division; the Brewers, on the other hand, were always a mirage, and their breakdown was inevitable because they are not a really good team.
But the Royals? It sure seems that they are attempting challenging that fact. They have withered under intense expectations and high pressure, important situations, expertly deflating much of what excitement has existed for the team. Take a look at these statistics:
Let's take it from the top. The Royals have a .550 winning percentage. Overall, at home, the Royals have a .532 winning percentage, and they are, supposedly, built for playing at the K. It gets worse when you look at specifics, though.
On high-profile, well-attended weekend games on Friday/Saturday/Sunday throughout the season at home, the Royals have won 17 and lost 19. For a team that's solidly above .500, that's a pretty severe drop in results.
In games with at least 30,000 fans attending at home, the Royals are 4-9.
After a winning streak of 3 or more games, the Royals have played 12-18 in the subsequent three games. Granted, one expects a regression of sorts after a winning streak, but the Royals have been particularly poor after their winning ways. Of particular note is their stretch of games after their 10 game winning streak in which they went 1-6, giving the lead completely back.
Against the Detroit Tigers, the Arch Nemesis, the Royals are a putrid 5-11. If the Royals won just one more game, they'd be in first place. If they had won three more, making it an even season series, the Royals would be heavy favorites heading into the stretch and could get swept this weekend and still have a great chance at winning the division.
Against the Seattle Mariners, the Royals' primary rival in the Wild Card race, the Royals are 2-5.
Am I saying that the Royals don't have the mental fortitude and these stats are because of that lack of experience/toughness? No. Over a period of 36 games pretty much anything can happen, let alone 9 games. The Tigers and Mariners are good teams. No, the Royals have just been bad in those situations due to skill and chance. Statistical anomalies are what they are.
That doesn't make it any less disappointing. Additionally, this team has been all over the place, which has added to the frustration. They've been everywhere from hottest team in baseball to facing constant struggle that coincides with the offense's awful streaks that happen far too often, many times one right after the other. This team has also been their fair share of bland--it took 56 games for the Royals to go beyond 3 games from .500 either way and were at .500 at the 100 game mark.
Infuriating is a good word for the 2014 Royals. Not only do they fall out of favor quickly and brutally, but they draw us back in when we are prepared to shelve the season as a lost cause. I have no idea what the Royals will be today or a week from now. Sure, they've been better more often than not, which is why they've got to 83 wins so quickly, but when they are bad they are bad.
There's only one way for the Royals to overcome this frustration: break the playoff drought by playing in the ALDS.
If the Royals don't make the playoffs, that will be gut-wrenching. If the Royals make the Wild Card play-in game and lose, I think that will be even worse; there's no thrill of a playoff series fight but all of the crushing defeat from a lost series. No, the Royals must make it to the ALDS for their season to not be a bitter disappointment.
If they make it to the ALDS, they have truly made the playoffs for the first time in 29 years. There will be no arguing over whether or not a Wild Card game is truly a playoff game. If the Royals lose the ALDS, I have a hard time feeling that fans will consider the season a failure unless Ned fumbles a game or two away.
The easiest route to the ALDS is through Detroit. It starts tonight. In three days, we'll have to re-examine the Royals' apparent propensity for losing at the exact wrong moment. Maybe they'll sweep or win two of three and claim first place.
Or maybe they won't. They've got to prove it.