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March 28, 2007

Hope and Faith

How the Kansas City Royals Can Win the World Series

by Rany Jazayerli

Will talks with Rany about the Royals' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

It still feels like a dream. Today is the day of giving thanks, and I'm still in disbelief of what I'm giving thanks for. It's been four weeks since a few dozen men in blue-and-white uniforms dogpiled each other on a mound in front of forty thousand delirious fans, and I still can't fully accept the notion that it happened, even though I was one of those fans. Every day feels like I'm walking through a drug-induced haze, like it's not entirely real.

Not when I wake up to Denny Matthews' season-ending call on my iPod alarm clock. Not when I listen to the Sweeney Shuffle on the way to work. I never get tired of those lyrics: "I'm just a white boy from the O.C./Never thought I'd be World Series MVP." (As an aside, I'm very curious to see how Bill Simmons' lawsuit turns out. Not that I don't think his case has merit. I'm just not sure how you determine compensation for "irrevocable damage to the Unintentional Comedy Scale.")

Not when I pat my Octavio Dotel bobblehead doll for luck before leaving the office. Not the moment I close my eyes at night and stop staring at the 2007 Royals World Champions pennant plastered above my head. Some guys spice up their bedroom with a mirror on the ceiling; I put a pennant up there. I have no doubt that I enjoy my ornament more.

But my commemorative Sports Illustrated issue assures me it really happened. The "Miracle on the Missouri" Championship DVD provides incontrovertible proof. So now all that's left is for me to come to terms with how a team that averaged 96 losses a year for the last eight years won the final game of 2007.

Where do we start? I suppose where everyone else has--with the day the Royals offered Darren Dreifort money to Gil Meche. On behalf of, I believe, every sportswriter in America with the exception of Joe Posnanski (who apparently wrote the screenplay to this season), I would like to say to Dayton Moore: We were wrong. Hey, how were we supposed to know that Meche really was a late bloomer? That his rising strikeout rate in 2006 was not a fluke, and that he would strike out 211 batters in 2007? Or that he would cut his walk rate even as his strikeouts were rising? Or even that he would stay healthy enough to make 34 starts and throw 215 innings? Meche not only had a season (16-10, 3.82 ERA) befitting his salary, suddenly the final four years of his contract look like a bargain. Suddenly you can't find a scout who doesn't think he's a potential #1 starter.

That he wasn't the Royals' #1 starter this year is entirely due to one Donald Zackary Greinke, the AL Comeback Player of the Year and currently the target of endorsement offers from every anti-depressant manufacturer in America. The only thing Zack Greinke controlled better than his social anxiety in 2007 was the strike zone. He had to fight just to make the roster in Spring Training, then announced his recovery to the nation by completely upstaging Daisuke Matsuzaka's major league debut with seven brilliant innings in his first start of the season. For the year, he gave the Royals over 200 innings in as many starts (34) as he had walks allowed. His 3.48 ERA ranked him fourth in the league, and garnered him a few Cy Young votes. This is one player we're all happy to see take a performance enhancer.

He's still the same Zack, of course--I mean, it was cool to see him lean over the dugout to shake Barack Obama's hands during the World Series, but couldn't he have waited until the end of the inning to do so? (Of course, if he hadn't pulled that stunt, he couldn't have turned around and whipped a perfect strike to nail Alfonso Soriano trying to move up to third while he was distracted. I still think he staged the whole thing.)

The rest of the rotation was notable only for its mediocrity, and believe me, if you've watched the Royals over the last dozen years, you'd know how notable that is. Odalis Perez showed he was over the problems that plagued him with the Dodgers, throwing enough strikes to keep his ERA in the mid-fours. Jorge de la Rosa was a perfectly acceptable back-of-the-rotation starter, and while Luke Hudson, Brian Bannister, and Brandon Duckworth skirted the bounds of good taste as they jockeyed for the fifth starter's role for much of the year, Luke Hochevar was called up at the end of July and promptly put an end to their shenanigans, posting an ERA in the low fours and showing everyone why he was a legitimate #1 overall pick last year. All five starters in the rotation at the end of the year finished with ERAs under five. In contrast, in 2006 the Royals had none.

Also unlike last year--and most every year since Jeff Montgomery lost his fastball--the Royals had a closer who was qualified for the job. Octavio Dotel will never inspire the kind of utter confidence that the truly great closers project; he gives up too many homers for that. (The walkoff job to Grady Sizemore in September gave me ulcers for a week. Seriously. I was popping Prilosec OTC like Brett Favre on an all-Cajun diet.) But his stuff was back in pre-TJ form, and I'll take a 2.70 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 69 innings from my closer any year, and twice on leap years.

What the rest of the bullpen lacked in dominance, it made up for in depth. Depth? In Kansas City? Next you'll be telling me that David Glass opened up his wallet for a big-ticket player at the trading deadline. Wait a sec…

With 77 innings and an ERA in the mid-threes, David Riske was, if not the Practically Perfect Setup Man, at least the Perfectly Practical Setup Man. Dollar for dollar, John Bale was the Japanese import of the year, as he won unofficial LoY honors (LOOGY of the year) by limiting lefties to a .180/.243/.266 line. Jimmy Gobble did a nifty Jamie Walker impression by surrendering a lot of solo shots and not much else. And Joakim Soria proved to be the Rule 5 find the Royals thought he was--how often do you see a Rule 5 player get meaningful innings in the postseason, not to mention 88 of them during the regular season?

Of course, arguably the most meaningful innings in the postseason--in particular, the last three innings of Game Six against the Yankees in the ALCS--went to the guy who was in Language Lab on Opening Day. Maybe Andrew Brackman really will be the next Justin Verlander, another college right-hander with monster stuff but questionable command taken #2 overall. All I know is that in September and October, he was the next Francisco Rodriguez. (Although he could do without the whole A-Rod style nickname. If I hear him called A-Bra one more time, I'm going to set fire to a Victoria's Secret catalog.)

Anyway, enough about the pitching. The Royals won because of their offense, with a lineup unlike any previously seen in Kansas City (at least wearing home unis): it was stuffed with power hitters. In the middle of that lineup was the guy who ensured that the controversy over Matsuzaka would have to do with whether Japanese players should be eligible to be voted Rookie of the Year runner-up. Alex Gordon, as everyone now knows, has a younger brother named Brett. I suspect a whole lot of younger brothers in Kansas and Missouri will be named Gordon over the next few years, especially after .293 average, 29 home runs, and 98 walks, the most by any Royal since 1989. And maybe the defining play of the postseason. I'm sure Gordon has ribbed George Brett mercilessly because, unlike Brett, when Gordon risked life and limb by sliding into the dugout chasing after a popup, he actually came up with the ball.

Gordon may have proven that the Royals made the right move by sending Mark Teahen to right field, but Teahen did his best to make sure he won't simply be remembered as the answer to a trivia question, the Paul Schaal to Gordon's Brett. Teahen didn't sustain the ability to hit for average he showed the final four months of 2006, but he certainly sustained his penchant for pulling the ball with power: 28 homers and 106 RBI. (Yes, I just used Runs Batted In to make a point. Sue me. I'm still too giddy to think analytically.)

Gordon and Teahen were expected to hit. To wind up with the third-most productive offense in the league, the Royals needed one other player to make a big leap forward, and they got it from John Buck. It's funny what can happen when a slow, right-handed catcher stops hitting so many groundballs. The .255 average isn't anything special, but the 24 homers were a nice touch. Backup Jason LaRue chipped in seven more. It may not look sexy at first sight, but how many teams have their backstops combine for 31 homers and 97 RBI? (Sorry, there it is again. My bad.)

And then there was David DeJesus, who challenged for the batting title the first half of the season, and while he faded to a .312 finish, he still contributed 16 homers and drew over 70 walks. If it wasn't for the absence of inappropriately lurid comments about his personal life, you'd never know that Johnny Damon had left.

Mike Sweeney hit well when he was healthy, which was surprisingly often for him, as he spent only a few weeks on the DL with back pain this year. Mike, we all appreciate what you did, but the next time the fire department is on the scene, let the professionals do their job, okay? Or at least leave the grand piano behind? Yeah, yeah, they told you it was a priceless heirloom. So is your spinal column. But we won't hold that against him. Especially not after his bases-clearing, pinch-hit double off of Kerry Wood in Game Three changed the complexion of the entire World Series.

With all the attention on the other power hitters in the lineup, it would be easy to miss Ryan Shealy's contributions. Or it would, if he hadn't led the team with 32 homers and 110 runs batted…uh…runners that came home to score after his at-bats. I think he should just accept the inevitable and change his name to Steve Balboni right now.

Mark Grudzielanek finally started to show his age, but by September, Esteban German was getting most of the starts, Grudz was relegated to the role of the 37-year-old defensive replacement, and the lineup had another stud OBP to bat in front of the power core.

In left field, the Royals dickered around with Reggie Sanders and Emil Brown for half the season, but then the 4th of July rolled around, which meant it was time to celebrate with fireworks, the type only Billy Butler could provide. Towering home runs. Outlandish quotes. Putouts recorded 7-8. (See, Jose Canseco, that's how you use your head.) Butler's defense may have been NC-17, but his bat was definitely approved for all audiences. A .311 average and 14 home runs in half a season were tasty. His moonshot off of Scot Shields in the Divisional Series was a most satisfying dessert.

And at shortstop…well, what is there to say about Tony Pena Jr., the league MVP…okay, that was a joke. A bad joke. Pena hit about as well as could be expected, which is to say, even less than Angel Berroa had. But he did play brilliant defense, and his offensive shortcomings were evident enough to Buddy Bell that the skipper slowly evolved a defense-offense platoon between Pena and German which gave the Royals the best of both worlds for four months. No wonder Bell won Manager of the Year. (Buddy Bell! Manager of the Year! Hey, it's like I've been telling everyone for years: Buddy Bell is a genius.)

And then came the trading deadline, and with it Moore's piece de resistance. Not surprisingly, it involved a phone call to a 404 area code. I wish we could have heard the conversation:

  • Dayton: Gee, John, another tough year. I wish I was still there to help, but I've got this pennant race to worry about…
  • John: Yeah, we miss you here. Still can't believe you were right about Meche. But what can we do?
  • Dayton: Funny you should bring up that entirely rhetorical question…you know, it's a shame that Scott Thorman isn't working out at first base. And his minor league track record was so strong…
  • John: Do I sense a mocking tone, Dayton? What do you want?
  • Dayton: Well, we've got this kid that we've got no place for, even though he's destroying the Pacific Coast League…

I'm a little fuzzy on the details. The important thing is that Moore flipped Justin Huber and Chris Lubanski, and received Edgar Renteria in return, ushering in the Brent Lillibridge era in Atlanta. (I love how Moore made reversing the Pena-for-Eric Cordier trade a stipulation of the deal. Better to admit a mistake late than never.) Renteria completed the Royals' lineup, and in the postseason played like he had been there a few times before.

Renteria had already ended one World Series with a walk-off single, and ended another by hitting a comebacker for the final out. So it's only fitting that he ended this one by calling off the rest of the team--along with the coaches, manager, a few batboys, and a Royal Lancer or two--to catch Derrek Lee's popup. We'll miss Lubanski, but flags fly forever.

Speaking of flags, you might have heard: the Royals won one. I've got the DVD--along with the T-shirt, coffee mug, bumper sticker, baseball cap, growth chart, bedsheets, soundtrack, tattoo, and replica trophy--to prove it.

Maybe I am dreaming. But if I am, please, no one wake me up.

Will talks with Rany about the Royals' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio.


Click to download mp3

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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