We’ve all heard them before. The folly of small sample sizes leading to big conclusions that only exist to break our hearts. Sometimes they work in reverse like Alex Gordon’s start in 2012 giving way to a stellar season. But on the high-low scale, the majority of the time they take us from high to low. Baseball stat aficionados talk a lot of about “splits.” Ripping apart a players numbers like a birthday present hoping to find that oh-so-special present inside, while trying to eliminate the possibility of a 12-pack of tube socks.
It’s a dangerous game but whenever you don’t have a complete--or even just a “large enough”--sample, but its not as though nothing is to be gained from investigating what you see. After all, the excuses of the prolonged Spring Training are now gone. These games count and players are actually trying.
And here the Royals are. After a solid home opener they sit at 4-3. More importantly, the only games that haven’t been close were skewed towards the good guys. This team is one game over .500 and they’re already 0-2 in one run games. Often times when a team overachieves or “gets lucky” a lot of that luck happens in one-run games (oh hi there 2012 Baltimore Orioles).
This team is at 4-3 but could easily be 6-1. In their 1-0 season opening loss to the White Sox, in which James Shields pitched excellently, the Royals had the bases loaded with only one out. They came away scoring no runs. This led to many a groan from those worried about the offensive woes from last season. Many of those woes have since been alleviated with some stellar performances so far. And the important thing to remember is that even though it goes down as a loss, the team was in a position to win. Couple that with the blown save by Greg Holland that could have easily been a victory and the Royals would be looking pretty good right now.
It’s a feat past Royals teams weren’t capable of to be able to have a blown save and squander multiple golden opportunities in a seven game stretch and still find themselves on the plus side of even. A blown save in a somewhat pivotal game might have sent past Royals teams on a slide like we saw last year when a walk off hit-by-pitch sent the Royals spiraling around the drain of a 12 game losing streak. The team never fully recovered.
The biggest missing piece that facilitated that egregious run of ineptitude was quality starting pitching. The team didn’t have a James Shields who might give up four runs but could limit the damage to just that. They didn’t have an Ervin Santana who would go eight innings on a thin, resting bullpen. They didn’t have a starting staff with the second most strikeouts in all of baseball. The team couldn’t count on any starting pitcher and all of that has changed. We all know its early, but its hard not to be happy with the results.
Baseball is always a marathon and not a sprint. Like a cheap boy-band song from the 90’s, that adage has been hammered into our skulls with no remorse. A game is just one game. One of one hundred and sixty two. Less than one percent of a full baseball season. That’s what everyone else says, anyway. Here in Kansas City certain games take on more meaning than others. With a young team still developing and still getting used to handling pressure, some of these early games have more importance than ones in late June. A game is simply a game, but when you’re the Royals, killing a two-game losing streak with a much needed win is a little bit more. Winning the first home opener in Kansas City since 2008 means just a tad more than other teams.
The Royals have often had their own set of expectations. It wasn’t “win” or “make the playoffs” so much as it was “be competitive.” Such things are gone now. Those excuses can’t be had. As fans we know this much. The trick is getting the players to believe. Everyone on this team must know that these aren’t “Royals expectations” any more, they’re major league expectations. Like so many things this is easier said than done. It’s not a mantra that can be understood by verbalized repetition. It must be learned on the field. Players need to be held accountable and this team needs to win. It’s the only way they will learn to play above the level the fans have become accustomed to over the last decade plus.
Despite the Royals inability to communicate well as an organization in the public sector, their actions--both on the field and in how they’ve shaped/used this roster--have shown an intent to win that we simply haven’t seen in awhile. No matter how well he pitched in Spring Training, Luis Mendoza never would have won a job over two higher paid players in years past. An important player like Eric Hosmer probably wouldn’t have started the year down at sixth in the order. And it would have been a cold day in you-know-where before Yost would have pulled his designated closer like he did to Greg Holland just two games ago.
This year--so far--has marked the first time in a long while that the Royals appear to be walking the walk when it comes to truly trying to win ball games. What helps is that everyone on this team is allowed to work within themselves. Every player on this team has proven--in some form or another--that they can do what needs to be done. This team is no longer crossing their fingers and hoping a winning ball club materializes. It’s not about hoping Luke Hochevar turns the corner or Kyle Davies finally gets it right. It’s not unnecessarily high expectations on Alex Gordon or Billy Butler or Eric Hosmer. The way this lineup has performed in the early going they’re starting to have faith in each other that they can be picked up when one or the other is down. It appears that this time, the Royals are truly focused on building a winner.
Then the reality sets in. It’s only seven games. Less than five percent of the season. As better as this pitching staff is than last year, its still hard to believe they could sustain a 3.56 ERA through an entire 162 game season. Typically a strikeout heavy team, the Royals might not be as disciplined at the plate and might see their strikeouts increase as the year goes on.
Small sample sizes are exactly that. You have to look deeper to find any meaning. What I’ve seen so far is a team that is committed to trying to put a winning product on the field. If that means starting the guy making league minimum over the one making over four million, then so be it. If it means a possible future all-star batting sixth, then it has to be done.
It’s these things that lead me to believe that if the players perform then they could actually win. That’s not a feeling that’s common around these parts. Like a desert oasis we’ve been tempted with winning before. 2003 was a grand experiment. 2009 started as well as any season only to fall apart. This team has a different feel.
The sample size is small and the usual caveats apply. But if the Royals have been negatively affected by bad small samples in the past, there’s no reason it couldn’t work the other way here. There’s a positivity in this town about this club and for the first time in awhile there’s true reason to be. You can see it on the player’s faces. They’re learning how to win and they’re liking the feeling.
There’s far too much season left to draw any conclusions, but I certainly like what I’ve seen so far.