OK, so, I’ve been around the Kansas City Royals a long time, and because of this I usually see things coming. Losing streaks. Illogical decisions. Ridiculous statements. They’re usually not too hard to anticipate once you know what you are looking for. However, I have to admit that the last few days of Royals baseball has kind of blindsided me. I think it’s because I broke my cardinal rule of watching Royals baseball, a rule best verbalized by Buddy Bell: Things can always get worse.
I really believed that this Royals team was different from years past. That was probably Mistake No. 1. But I did believe it. No, I did not really think the Royals were going to be winners this year — I picked them as a playoff team more as a lark than anything else — but I did think they would be different. I saw a Royals team with viable starting pitchers, which is not something I’ve been able to say in almost 20 years. I saw a Royals bullpen with great arms — not good arms, but great ones, 100-mph arms, 12- or 13-strikeout per nine inning arms. I saw a young Royals lineup anchored by big talents — Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, I mean, just about every scout loved those guys.
I saw a Royals team that realistically could hold their own. They seemed to me to have a legitimate shot at being .500, and, with some luck, maybe even slightly better than that. They played great ball all spring and they started the year 17-10. No, they obviously were not going to play .625 baseball all year. But, all signs pointed upward, and I think that’s when I let my guard down and forgot that these are still the Kansas City Royals.
The slide really did begin on the day Royals manager Ned Yost pulled James Shields for no apparent reason after he threw eight innings of two-hit shutout ball. I’m not saying that’s WHY the slide started, but I am staying that’s when it started. The Royals led 1-0 going into the ninth there, and Shields was yanked because, as Yost said, he could only win it or lose it. The bullpen blew the game. They lost again the next night, and again the night after that, and, well, to save the suspense, the Royals are 4-19 since that day.
But, as you know, the amazing part has been the astonishing lack of power, which has set off a bizarre chain reaction that is so Kansas City Royals, they should have it trademarked. Here you go:
Step 1: The Royals go 14 straight games (and counting) without having a regular player hit a home run. The Royals have hit two home runs since May 15, both by 440-year-old Miguel Tejada, and there are all sorts of ways you can illustrate the lunacy, thought my three favorite are:
— The Chicago Cubs pitching staff has outhomered the Royals since May 15.
— Two different players (Dioner Navarro and Ryan Zimmerman) hit more homers YESTERDAY than the Royals have hit since May 15.
— The Royals have as many hitting coaches as homers since May 15.
Step 2: Royals manager Ned Yost admits he has no idea what to do. “Take my belt off and spank them?” he asks. “Yell at them? Scream at them? What do you want?”
Step 3: Several people (including yours truly) make note of the fact that the Royals fired hitting coach Kevin Seitzer last year precisely BECAUSE they wanted to hit for more power. This is what the highfalutin like to call “ironical” and it makes for good blog fodder and talk radio stuffings.
Step 4: The Royals hitting coach, Jack Maloof, gives one of the most bizarre interviews I’ve ever read with an old pal, Jeff Flanagan. I mean this thing was plain nutty. As crazy as the reasoning might have been, Ned Yost really did say that he fired Seitzer because he favored a more opposite field approach. Ned Yost really did say he believed the Royals young players had a lot more power potential than they were exhibiting. Ned Yost really did seem serious about these things. It seems hard to believe he did not relay these thoughts to one of his two hitting coaches.
But, it appears, he did not.
Jack Maloof says this: “There’s just no reward (here at spacious Kauffman Stadium) for us to try and hit home runs.”
And he says this: “I think we’ll lead the league in fewest home runs again this year.”
And he says this: “The risk for (the young players) to go out and hit a home run in one of 80 at-bats, the reward isn’t great enough.” (Editor’s note: ??!!?!!?!?)
And when asked why other teams do hit home runs at Kauffman Stadium (they’ve outhomered KC 32-11 this year), he gave a quote that, well, you just have to read the whole bit: “Here’s the thing: Other teams come in here from Anaheim or wherever and they have their swings down. This park doesn’t even enter into their minds when they hit here. They have their swings, the same swings, because it pays dividends for them at home.”
I don’t know Jack Maloof, he has been around baseball many years, and he has many people who swear by him including Tony Gwynn, so I mean no disrespect to his coaching abilities. But those might be the most illogical 45 words I’ve ever read in a row. Seriously, if he had said: “Hot dog telephone sweet frog livable water supply chicken tennis ball lunatic monster potato glass teflon wrist house fire tackling dance toboggan muffin spark shoelace kissing Qatar ballooned bandana post Baltimore coast kangaroo sassafras disco shines McGovern landing pen minibar flagging sailing palm digit sanitizer,” it would have made exactly the same amount of sense. I don’t even know where to begin, the thing is so irrational that it almost seems impolite to point that Anaheim is a lousy hitters park too.
Then, during the game last night, the announcers actually encouraged Royals fans to go READ that story, which they obviously did before reading it themselves.
Step 4: Fire Jack Maloof immediately and replace him, wait for it, Hall of Famer George Brett.
I love George Brett. He is one of my favorite athletes. He’s absolutely hilarious, and he’s a great story teller, and he’s fun guy, and I think he probably knows more about hitting than almost anybody on planet earth. Not only that, I think he probably could TEACH hitting better than almost anybody on planet earth — I don’t see George being one of those natural stars who cannot relate to people without the same talent.*
*I always loved the story Rick Mahler used to tell about pitching coach Bob Gibson — at least I think it was Mahler. He said Gibson came to the mound one time and said “Just bust him inside with a fastball” and he headed back to the dugout leaving Mahler, who did not have a fastball, left to the problems of mere mortals.
I’ve been lucky enough to talk hitting with George on numerous occasions, and I learned something every single time. There is absolutely not doubt in my mind that George Brett should be a terrific hitting coach, one the Royals would be proud to have.
But, um, well, two things.
One is fairly obvious: If George Brett was available to be hitting coach, why in the hell would they have hired Jack Maloof in the first place. Agaiin, no disrespect. But, um, what?
Two, though, is even more important, a small point that seems to be have been lost: It is almost a certainty that hitting coaches, well, DO NOT MATTER. OK, maybe the all capital letters is a bit over the top. They matter. I mean, they’re good for the players psyche. They help a player’s comfort level. They certainly can improve players’ hitting over weeks and months and years — Brett is a prime example, having been the prize pupil of one of the most famous hitting coaches ever, Charlie Lau. I have little doubt that Brett, given these players to work with over a long period of time, can make them better hitters.
But even assuming Brett is hitting coach for a long time (he was hired as an interim coach and has always said his life was too busy for a full-time baseball job) these are small, incremental changes — a hitting coach isn’t like a new offensive coordinator where you will suddenly start running different plays. it was entirely ridiculous for the Royals to think changing hitting coaches would improve their power numbers back when they fired Kevin Seitzer in the first place. It’s just as ridiculous now, even if George Brett is the greatest hitting coaches of all time. Once and for all: The Royals problem is NOT their hitting coach. It’s NEVER the hitting coach.
It’s the first base coach. Everybody knows that.