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A look back at the 2008 Royals

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The year of Aviles.

Mariners vs. Royals Photo by John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

There is a small group of Royals fans that aged into baseball consciousness right as the Royals franchise barreled into arguably the worst stretch of baseball in the modern era. I was one of those Royals fans. I started kindergarten in 2000 and during my elementary years, the peak of my baseball obsession, the Royals lost at least 97 games five times in seven seasons, including four 100 loss seasons.

The 2003 season was quite a thrill for third grade me, but it was short-lived. From 2007-2012, the losing was a bit more painful. As a middle-schooler and then a high schooler, my ability to be okay with 100-loss seasons faded. And when Alex Gordon debuted, my contentment with losing had also faded.

The 2008 Royals were the first team that I had somewhat high hopes for. Gordon was at the center of those hopes, of course, but there was also the re-emergence of Zack Greinke, the signing of Jose Guillen (I’ll explain), and the continued development of Billy Butler.

Joakim Soria was not on my radar and Mike Aviles surely wasn’t either. But they would shape what was, in the grand scheme of the 2000’s, one of least brutal Royals teams of the decade.

Opening Day Lineup

  1. David DeJesus (CF)
  2. Mark Grudzielanek (2B)
  3. Alex Gordon (3B)
  4. Jose Guillen (RF)
  5. Billy Butler (DH)
  6. Mark Teahen (LF)
  7. Ross Gload (1B)
  8. John Buck (C)
  9. Tony Pena (SS)
  10. Gil Meche (P)

This lineup is not all that different from the 2007 Opening Day lineup, a few notable exceptions. For starters, Mike Sweeney wasn’t present for the first time since 1999. After several injury-plagued seasons, Sweeney hit the free agent market and signed a minor league deal with the Athletics.

In his stead was Billy Butler, the soon-to-be 22-year-old coming off a strong rookie campaign that saw him post a 108 OPS+ in 2007, a team-high mark. The Royals also had a new cleanup hitter in 32-year-old Jose Guillen, who was coming of a strong season with the Mariners.

He had signed a three year, $36 million contract, the 2nd major free agent signing of General Manager Dayton Moore’s tenure. The first being Meche’s five year, $55 million contract that was, at the time, the largest in Royals history.

The Royals had high hopes for Guillen. Moore and manager Trey Hillman made clear the need for an impact bat in the middle of their lineup and believed he was that guy. Of course, we now know that he wasn’t. We now know that he might be the worst free agent signing of Moore’s career and whose character doesn’t seem to fit the current Royals mold. Or perhaps he was the mistake that helped mold that character.

Well, actually, Guillen hovering around a .300 OBP all season and his terrible plate discipline pretty well encapsulate the Royals mold for a hitter. But they sign nicer guys now, I guess.

Opening Day Pitching Rotation

  1. Gil Meche (2007 stats: 9-13, 3.67 ERA)
  2. Brian Bannister (2007 stats: 12-9, 3.87 ERA)
  3. Zack Greinke (2007 stats: 7-7, 3.69 ERA)
  4. Brett Tomko (2007 stats: 4-12, 5.55 ERA)

The Opening Day rotation looked a lot different than the end of the year rotation. An interesting tidbit: John Bale started the fourth game of the season, which is lol.

The rotation actually seemed fairly solid headed into the season. Many of us were skeptical of the money the Royals gave Meche, who hadn’t posted an above average ERA+ since 2000. He responded with a 125 mark in an All-Star 2007 season that turned out to be a career year for Meche. He pitched a career high 216 innings, made a league high 34 starts and logged a 4.2 rWAR, which was exactly 25% of his career rWAR.

And given the market value of $/WAR in 2007 of $5.4 million, Meche actually turned out to be quite a steal. According to the 2007-2008 figures, Meche was worth over $45 million over the first two years of his contract.

You also had Brian Bannister, who came out of nowhere in 2007 and finished 3rd in the AL Rookie of the Year race, as well as Greinke, who was coming off the best season of his still young career. Bannister’s somewhat predictable collapse soiled that, but the Royals rotation’s performance would be one of the more underrated performances of the decade.

The Season

The 2008 season started better than any of us could have imagined. The Royals swept the Tigers. Tony Pena, Jr.’s go-ahead single secured an exciting extra-inning win on Opening Day. Alex Gordon hit two home runs in the series.

Brian Bannister shut the Tigers out across seven splendid innings, allowing just two hits and walking nobody. Joakim Soria closed that game out by striking out the side. Greinke completed the sweep with seven innings, giving up one-run.

And after dropping their next series to the Twins, Kansas City took down the evil empire, in their home opening series. Powered by another strong Banister performance and a big day from Mark Teahen, the Royals won their home opener. Greinke then secured the series win over the Yankees with eight brilliant shutout innings. The Royals were 6-2. Things went downhill quickly.

Kansas City lost seven straight from April 17-April 24, the first of three such losing streaks. The hot start buffered the seven-game skid, leaving the Royals just four games under .500 on April 24. The clawed their way back to 21-22 after winning six of seven games, capped off by a 9-3 win over the Marlins on May 18.

Kansas City’s next scheduled game was at Fenway Park. Jon Lester was the announced starter. He proceeded to no-hit the Royals. The no-hitter sent Kansas City into a spin, starting their second prolonged losing streak, this time a 12-game skid.

This season was a season of pronounced streaks. The 12 game streak began a stretch where the Royals went 5-27 from May 19-June 13. They responded to that by going 12-3 over their next 15 games. From August 5-31, the Royals went 4-119, including a seven-game skid. They followed that up with an 18-8 September.

Those losing streaks are actually the inspiration for this post. The 2008 team would finish the season with 75 wins, their third highest total of the decade. They did so while enduring three losing streaks of at least seven games. The 2004, 2005, and 2018 Royals only had three such streaks. Those teams averaged 57 wins.

Among those streaks was the 12-game skid, which is tied for the third longest in Royals history. In the 2000s, Kansas City had a unique ability to lose games in bunches. The 2008 Royals exhibited that unique ability, both in the frequency of long streaks (three) and the scope of those streaks (12-games). The fact that this team won 75 games is somewhat bewildering.

Ordinarily, it might lead us to believe the Royals were better than their record, but their pythagorean W-L record was actually worse than their final record at 72-90. This was an underrated weird Royals team.

Recap

They finished with three of the 25 most valuable players in the American League, led by Mike Aviles’ 4.4 fWAR. Aviles hit .325 in 110 games, finishing 4th in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. Gil Meche and Zack Greinke were the 10th and 11th most valuable pitchers in the AL respectively, each with a 4.2 fWAR.

From 2000-2009, the Royals 13 players finish with a 4.0 fWAR or better. Three of them played in 2008. Further, only three pitchers in the decade finished with a 4.0 fWAR or better in a season, making the Meche-Greinke tandem an alien in this era of Royals baseball. Greinke’s Cy Young winning 2009 season was the only other such season of the decade.