The 2021 baseball season has started and the Royals are currently tied not only for the division lead but for the best record in baseball. Spirits and expectations are high after the Royals won a low-scoring (by football standards) game on Thursday. Should expectations be high? Well, that depends on what you mean by should. If you mean to ask if the objective analytics suggest that the team could be very good, maybe not. But if, in the process of watching Thursday’s game, you still found yourself thinking, “Hey, this might work out!” there are a few reasons for that.
Previous results matter
There is a human tendency to expect things to always remain the same. Before analytics became a stronger factor in free agency, players used to get significantly larger and longer contracts even into their thirties because general managers and scouts expected players to just keep playing at a high level. This bias can be so strong that people will believe a player is still very good even well after their skills have declined. This sort of thinking is what leads to Alex Gordon still starting almost every game in 2020 despite the fact that he last played at an above-average level over the course of an entire season in 2015. If baseball managers can succumb to it, why shouldn’t fans?
So it is that many of us find ourselves unworried about the Royals’ pitching after Thursday’s slug-fest. Brad Keller has been good for a few years, now. Last year he rarely gave up more than six hits in an entire game. A game where he gave up more hits than that in the first inning has got to be a fluke, right? Who knows? It might be! But whether or not that start represents a fluke, I doubt you’ll find many people already convinced that it isn’t because it would represent a drastic change from what we’ve come to expect.
This works on small sample sizes, too. Remember Paulo Orlando? He hit a bunch of triples early on in his rookie season in 2015. He was known as Paulo “Triplo” Orlando for the remainder of his time in Kansas City despite only hitting a handful more over the next few years. There was still an expectation that he could and might hit a triple at any time. Rookie Kyle Isbel and newcomer Michael A. Taylor both had three hits and multiple RBIs on Thursday. Taylor also gunned down two runners at the plate. Rightly or wrongly, it’s understandable if Royals fans continue to expect great things from them in the near future.
How we talk about things matters, too
Speaking of Taylor, if you tuned into Thursday’s game on television you probably heard announcer Rex Hudler praising him profusely. There may have been some histrionic comparisons to Lorenzo Cain involved. It’s probably not fair to compare to Taylor to Cain. The most damning comparison was that Cain’s best season came at age 29 while this is Taylor’s age-30 season; Rex and Ryan LeFebvre seemed to think this meant it was reasonable to think Taylor is primed for a breakout. However, Cain had a very, very good age-28 season and Taylor was below replacement level, last year. Regardless, having two people talk so positively about Taylor where many fans could listen is sure to drive expectations higher for the speedy center-fielder.
Not only did they compare Taylor to Cain but there appeared to be some confusion in the booth over what was said. Ryan indicated that the way Royals outfield coach Rusty Kuntz described Taylor reminded him of Cain which Rex took to mean that Kuntz was directly making that comparison himself. If I understood Ryan correctly, Rusty didn’t do that. But mistakenly appealing to a well-liked authority such as Rusty may have unreasonably increased expectations for Taylor even more.
It’s not inherently wrong to hype up a player or team. Some team announcers probably feel (or have been told) it’s their duty to do so. However, it would also be foolish to not spend some time thinking about how much weight you should put on such hype. Rex and Ryan both said some pretty misleading things on Thursday. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be excited for what Michael A. Taylor can do this year, but if you’re only or mostly excited because of what they had to say you might want to reconsider.
Human expectations are an interesting psychological phenomenon - that’s why this is the second recent piece I’ve written on the subject. I can’t imagine a phenomenon more prone to creating wild ones than the first game or match of a sporting event season. I won’t tell you to temper them - that’s half the fun - but it seemed worth knowing why many of us now expect the team to do well after just one game.