Well now, how much fun have the first nine games been?
My journalism professor always gave us two rules to live by: Don’t use a question in your headlines and don’t use a question to start your lede. They’re both the lazy-step-brother of journo-writing and it was taught to us that it showed the apathy of the writer towards his or her own story. But, I don’t care, I’m going to go ahead and break one of those rules anyway.
You see in breaking one of the hard-and-fast rules of Prof. Lofflin I’m not so much pointing to the negative side of writing, but opening my arms and saying “what the heck” to the Royals and their start to the 2011 season. It’s been excited, it’s been well played, and it’s shown the kind of progress in individual players that a growing organization needs in order to setup for future success.
In other words: What. The. Heck.
We’ve been here before. In 2009 the Royals got off to an 18-11(!) start and it was supposed to be the culmination of a couple offseasons spent building something. The Royals, I guess sensing their closeness to competing for the AL Central title, went out and traded from a position of strength, the back-end of the bullpen, to try and bolster two positions of perceived weakness, center field and first base. These trades were fresh off signing two Medium Named Free-Agents in consecutive years to 90 million dollar contracts collectively. They were supposed to win. Why else would these moves have been made?
Of course, it didn’t end up that way. The clock struck midnight and the predictable negatives of the acquisitions began to occur, and the smiles and high-fives after 29 games turned to jokes and pessimism. And that’s where we are today.
We can all play the Small Sample Size game and look at this 6-3 start by the Royals and see all the things that have luckily gone right, all the match ups that have somehow gone their way, all the moves that shouldn’t have worked that have, and think there is no way any of this winning can continue. In fact many Royals fans probably are playing that game.
Then there are some of us that are playing another game. The game where you close your left eye, you squint really hard, and you tilt your head just right, and you see this team growing up and winning before your eyes. I know I am. Rightly or wrongly – I guess that depends on the day or who is starting or how Joakim Soria looks that game – we as fans ride the waves with this team like no other group of tortured souls. We keep coming back for more even though this team continually beats us down.
So when we look at this 6-3 start, again small sample sizes, why is it that this one feels a little bit different? Maybe, just maybe, it’s because it is.
In 2009 the main focus on the roster was the “winning type players” (whatever that means) Dayton Moore brought in to teach the younger players what being a major leaguer was all about. The problem was there weren’t any young players.
This Process, if it truly was supposed to be a rebuilding effort, has been filled with failed veterans that never should have been on the field in the first place. Such is the life of a Royals fan. All rebuilding efforts seem to be only in name, and never execution.
But the players contributing to this start, for the first time in a while, seem to be ones that we can actually look at as being around for a while.
Billy Butler’s hot start – while “just” the two home runs which is sure to get someone to comment that he still can’t hit – is a great sign that he’s ready to take The Leap into the next level of hitters. Despite what his body type and overall athletic ability might say, Butler has never been one to have “old player skills” because his hit tool was so good. His ability to make contact of some kind often hurt his ability to take walks or hit for power. Well, each year he’s improved his BB% by at least a 1 ½ percent, helping his overall stat line, showing that with age he’s learning the things it takes to be an impact bat.
So far this year, Butler’s BB% (I know small samples) is a whopping 16.7%, which puts him fifth among all first baseman/DH types. Obviously his average won’t stay at .414 all season, but if he finishes at or above his career average of .300 and maintains even 15 BB%, he will be a very dangerous hitter. (Not that he isn’t already.)
The defense up the middle has been terrific with Alcides Escobar playing the kind of shortstop Royals fans could have only dreamed of last season. And even though I still don’t like Chris Getz playing every day at second over Mike Aviles, because singles can only take you so far, you got to ride the hot-streak as long as you can sometimes, and Getz is hot right now.
The bullpen has been great led by two rookies Aaron Crow and Tim Collins. The starting pitching, while it has been just average at best through the first nine games, does show promise because of the arms that are coming up from the minors very soon, and because there’s no way Luke Hochevar’s fluky 21.4% HR/FB ratio can stay this high all season. The left fielder has, as predicted, been awesome.
The Royals are getting production, not just promise, from the players on the roster that will be here for years to come. That’s the difference from this start to the start in 2009 – there’s some of the future actually on the field helping the team win games. Even if it’s in the case of Alex Gordon or Kila Ka’aihue, their roster future with the Royals isn’t tied to age or injury (Gil Meche) or awfulness (Rick Ankiel), but rather it’s tied to the need to find a position for a better player coming up through the system. And that is a nice problem to have for a change.
As Royals fans we can be pessimistic, we can be negative. We’ve been given that right. I’m not exactly a ray of sunshine myself when it comes to this team.
But maybe this is the start of what could be. Maybe this really is the sign that things are getting better. Maybe this is the time for us all to be optimistic for a change.
At least, of course, until what always happens, happens.