Royals’ fast start fuels optimism after 106 losses in 2023: ‘We expected to be better’

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Royals’ fast start fuels optimism after 106 losses in 2023: ‘We expected to be better’

Right around the corner, Salvador Perez said, that’s where it first felt real. He was sitting at his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Citi Field on Friday night, unwrapping the tape from his wrists after a game. That clubhouse hallway, he said, is where he first had the chance to be part of something special.

It was 2013, his first All-Star Game — he’s up to eight now — and Perez was just 23 years old. Before the game, in the hallway, American League Manager Jim Leyland told Perez that he would make history. Perez wasn’t sure what he meant until the eighth inning, when Leyland told him he would catch the great Mariano Rivera in his final All-Star appearance.

“Go have fun, kid,” Leyland said, tapping Perez’s leg with the back of his hand. Goosebumps.

“I never forgot that,” Perez said. “I tell my kids that now: ‘Go have fun, kid.’”

Two years later, in the same spot, Perez had the most fun a ballplayer can have: He sprayed champagne with his Kansas City Royals teammates to celebrate a World Series title. Perez was the most valuable player in a five-game victory over the Mets. He loves it here, and homered in his first at-bat on Friday.

“It reminded me when I showed up today, that moment in 2015, I was super excited,” Perez said. “It’s something that nobody can take from me.”

The outcome stands as proof that even in a league without a salary cap, a small-market team can win it all. Sustaining success, alas, is much tougher.

Since Wade Davis struck out Wilmer Flores to clinch the 2015 championship, the Royals have gone 508-700 without a winning season. It’s the worst record in the majors over that time, and last season felt like the bottom.

The Royals went 56-106 in 2023, matching their worst record ever. They’ve started this season 9-5 after Friday’s 6-1 loss to the Mets, and while trends can change without warning in April, optimism beats the alternative.

“I don’t think last year really has anything to do with (today),” left fielder MJ Melendez said. “As much as people may look at stuff like that, I mean, the Orioles were a 100-loss team a couple of years ago, and now they’re a 100-win team. Yeah, there’s gonna be growing pains in between, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for you to be a really good team — and be a playoff team — after having 100 losses.”

The Royals’ fast start has allowed them to dream. Friday’s loss followed sweeps of the White Sox and Astros at Kauffman Stadium, giving Kansas City its first undefeated homestand of at least seven games since June 1988. Bill Buckner was the designated hitter then, and none of the current Royals were born.

They entered this weekend with a plus-39 run differential, the best in the majors and the best in franchise history through 13 games. And even after the Mets battered Michael Wacha on Friday, the Royals still led the majors in quality starts with nine.

Last year’s staff had the second-fewest quality starts in baseball, ahead of only Oakland. And while some people dismiss quality starts because the requirements seem ordinary (at least six innings, no more than three earned runs allowed), managers will always take them.

“If you’re going six and seven innings every time out, you’re using (only) a couple of guys out of the bullpen,” the Royals’ Matt Quatraro said. “It keeps everybody fresh. It doesn’t let things snowball in the wrong direction. If you’re going that far, you’re in the games — and when you have a chance to win a game late, everybody’s awareness is heightened.”

The Royals signed four veteran pitchers last winter (starters Seth Lugo and Michel Wacha and relievers Will Smith and Chris Stratton), and two more veterans for the lineup in second baseman Adam Frazier and right fielder Hunter Renfroe. General Manager J.J. Picollo said he hoped the moves would help the Royals compete better in the short term.

In the long term, they made a good-faith impression on Bobby Witt Jr., their cornerstone shortstop, who agreed to an 11-year, $288.7 million contract extension in February.

Bobby Witt Jr. has four homers, three steals and a 1.089 OPS this season. (Ed Zurga / Getty Images)

“That was one of the reasons I wanted to stay here, just because I saw the moves they’ve been making and what they’re doing,” Witt said. “That was a huge key for me to make this my home.”

Pressure, it seems, was not part of the deal for Witt. He led the majors in total bases before Friday’s games, with 40, and is excelling in traditional and modern stats: He’s batting .333 and entered the weekend as the only hitter in the majors with an average exit velocity of 100 miles an hour (minimum 25 balls in play).

“Our long-term success over the course of the season is really going to be really continued development of Bobby,” Picollo said. “But then when you look at MJ and (Maikel) Garcia and Vinnie (Pasquantino) in the lineup and you put those younger guys around some of the veteran guys we added, I think that will really be the tale of how well we do.”

Witt, Melendez, Pasquantino and Garcia are all between 23 and 26 years old. Opening Day starter Cole Ragans is 26, and Brady Singer is 27. That’s a solid collection of prime-age talent that makes contention seem plausible in the American League Central.

“You have the younger guys maturing and you’re adding new guys on top,” Singer said. “So we expected to be better.”

The Royals figured to be deep in pitching by now, just with a different cast. In 2018 they used all four of their first-round picks on college starters, hoping that they could develop quickly and shorten the team’s path back to contention.

Only Singer — who is 2-0 with an 0.98 ERA in three starts — is on the active major-league roster now. Daniel Lynch IV in the Triple-A rotation, Kris Bubic is recovering from Tommy John surgery and Jackson Kowar was traded to Atlanta (and then Seattle) in the offseason.

“I think what happened with that group, there was such a high expectation,” Picollo said. “We were trying to get them all to the major leagues at the same time and hit on all of them to carry a rotation. I think that’s why there’s been so much criticism. But the story is still far from being written.”

To make it read better, though, Picollo thought it was important to add pitchers like Lugo and Wacha, who were not only productive but approachable and eager to lead.

“We’ve tried to teach guys that you don’t have to strike everybody out,” said Lugo, who has a 1.45 ERA but just nine strikeouts in 18 2/3 innings. “Pitch to weak contact and you can have success being hittable. One pitch can get you out of a jam. Especially with the ballpark we’ve got back home, just let them hit it. The yard’s big enough, and our defense is quick and athletic, so let the boys play.”

Ragans, who starts on Sunday, was the steal of last summer’s trading deadline when Picollo got him from Texas for reliever Aroldis Chapman. In 15 starts for the Royals, Ragans has a 2.63 ERA with just 66 hits allowed in 89 innings. Picollo called him as competitive as any player he’s known.

“Obviously I’m very, very competitive in baseball, but it’s anything,” Ragans said. “I don’t care if I’m playing a card game with my wife, I don’t care if I’m playing wiffle ball with my nieces and nephews and brothers in the backyard at Thanksgiving. I’m just a super-competitive person. Winning’s fun. It’s hard to debate that one.”

Thirty-three teams have lost 106 games in a season since the introduction of a 162-game schedule in 1961. Only one has had more than 83 victories in the following season: the 1989 Baltimore Orioles, who went 87-75 for a 32 1/2-game improvement over 1988.

No team has ever reached the playoffs a season after losing 106.

“Turning it around from 56 wins to — let’s just say — 86 wins, that’s a big haul, it’s a big ask,” Picollo said. “Realistically, we know that’s going to be really challenging to do that. But at the same time, we do feel like we have a drastically different team that will compete at a higher level.”

Ragans is one of 19 players on the 2024 Opening Day roster who were not on the roster last Opening Day. That fact, and the blistering start, gives at least some hope that these Royals really are different.

Just maybe, the chance to make history is right around the corner again.

“If you don’t think we’re gonna make it all the way to the World Series, you’re in the wrong sport,” Perez said. “It doesn’t matter who you play, it doesn’t matter where we are, we always think that we’re gonna win every night. You don’t have that kind of mentality, you should go somewhere else.”

(Top photo of Salvador Perez after hitting a second-inning home run on Friday: Adam Hunger / Getty Images)