You probably know that the Kansas City Royals have the lowest payroll in baseball. The average payroll in baseball in 2011 is about $93 million. The median payroll in baseball is about $87 million. The Yankees, of course, have a $200 million payroll — fifth year in a row — and a record 12 teams have at least a $100 million payroll.
The Royals payroll, just a touch over $36 million, is the lowest by about $5 mil.
And with revenue sharing hitting new highs, Royals owner David Glass figures to pocket a whole lot of money this year no matter how bad the Royals play.
I bring this up now because, best I can tell, there really isn’t much of an uproar in Kansas City about this. Oh sure, there are the usual grumbles about Glass being cheap and the Royals being a cut-rate team and so on. But mostly — and this is new, I think — mostly people don’t care that the Royals are spending so little on talent. In fact, people almost seem to be cherishing it.
Now, this is certainly due in large part to the fawning press the Royals minor league system has received from pretty much everybody (though ESPECIALLY me) — everybody knows that 2011 is kind of a mulligan year and the future looks promising and so why spend a lot of money now? Also there was the Royals hot start (which, predictably, has screeched to a halt — the Royals have lost six in a row, giving up 17 homers in the process).
But I think there is something else. I think Kansas City baseball fans have grown sick of money. It’s an odd thing to say, but there you go. For years and years, Royals fans — and you can point to other places as well but I’ve seen it first-hand in Kansas City — have spent a substantial portion of their time griping about the unfairness of the business baseball, and they had their fair points. A league where one one team makes five or 10 times the money of another, and can by rules spend infinitely more than another, well, yeah, it’s not easy for the little guy to compete.
There has not been a GOOD time to be a Royals fan for approaching 20 years, but always thought the worst time was the off-season when teams were teams were signing big names, making big moves, and the Royals were simply MIA. It was during these off-season months that the Royals did not even feel like they were a part of the major leagues. They were never mentioned on Baseball Tonight. They were never written about in the various Hot Stove stories. The very idea that the Royals might be in on a C.C. Sabathia or Carl Crawford or whoever was laughable. That’s the word. Laughable. The Onion would make jokes about the Royals being able to compete for those sorts of players with those sorts of demands. And this complete disconnect from baseball, this annual pressing of noses against restaurant windows, I think this wears on fans in ways that go beyond wins and losses and beyond decades without competing. Professional sports build around hope. Royals fans, for good reason, found it hard to hope.
So what changed? Well, I think a couple of things changed. For one, every small market team except Pittsburgh and Kansas City have competed in recent years. The definition of “small market” changes all the time, but in the 2000s Oakland, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Cleveland all made the playoffs at least once. Tampa Bay went to the World Series. Florida won a World Series. The owners really do share more quite a lot more revenue now, and while there is still a wide disparity in payroll and various other baseball operation spending, and while you would expect the Yankees to make the playoffs every year in perpetuity, the game does seem to have corrected somewhat. Minnesota was brought up for contraction not too long ago. And the Royals are really competing against Minnesota.
But the second change is what interests me here … I really think Royals fans in particular have grown sick of money. That is to say: Money brought Kansas City fans Jose Guillen. Money brought them Gil Meche. Money brought them Jason Kendall and Rick Ankiel and Mike Jacobs and Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz and Odalis Perez and Juan Gonzalez and if that’s what money brings, really, you can just keep your money.
Of course, there are wiser ways to spend money … everybody knows that. But it’s become clear that the Royals don’t know those wiser ways. Even this year, with the lowest payroll in baseball, the Royals found $3.75 million to pay Kendall, who is injured but when healthy has slugged .310 the last three years and last year went 434 plate appearances without hitting a triple OR a home run. The Royals found $2 million for Jeff Francis, who was a fine pitcher in 2007 but, on the other hand, he was a fine pitcher in 2007. He has had injuries and hurdles ever since and is now throwing his fastball about 83 mph.
The Royals found $2.5 million for Jeff Francoeur, who is hitting great and wouldn’t that be a great story? To be blunt about it, Francoeur always seems to hit great his first 100 or so plate appearances in a new situation, and then things start to go downhill as pitchers remember they don’t have to throw him strikes. So I wouldn’t rush out and buy his rookie card in bulk just yet. But maybe this time it’s real, and nobody would be happier than I would … I’m already preparing the Francoeur Arrives story. In any case, nobody else seemed to want Jeff Francoeur. The Royals found the money to get him.
And then there’s the most startling one of all — the folks are Royals Authority did a post with the rather frank headline: “Kyle Davies Is Historically Awful.” It seems a harsh judgment for a nice guy like Kyle. but it’s also pretty much indisputable. I like their numbers, but I’ll try to do it even more simply:
Highest ERAs in baseball history with 125-plus starts:
1. Kyle Davies, 5.59
2. Jimmy Haynes, 5.37
3. Kevin Ritz, 5.35
4. Scott Elarton, 5.29
5. Jose Lima, 5.26
Three Royals on that list. Hmm. Anyway …
At 125 starts, Davies has the fifth-highest WHIP ever — and he comes by it honestly. His 4.29 walks per nine innings is absurdly high. His 10.21 hits per nine is, historically, even worse. His 78 ERA+ — which adjusts ERA by era — is the third worst ever behind Phil Ortega and Wade Blassingame. He has the sixth-lowest WAR. He is one of only 19 pitchers to start at least 125 games without throwing a single shutout. Over his entire career, major league hitters are hitting .286/.364/.461 which means he basically turns every hitter in the game into Ron Santo.
Here’s my favorite one: Davies has a 32.8% quality start percentage — meaning he throws a quality start fewer than one out of three times. That is the lowest percentage since 1950, which is how far back Baseball Reference figures the stat. No starter in the last 60 years has been LESS likely to throw you at least six innings and give up three or fewer runs.
What does this tell you? To be honest, I don’t think it tells you that Kyle Davies has been dreadful. There have been thousands and thousands worse pitchers. What it does tell you is that, unlike those thousands and thousands, Kyle Davies has received a HISTORIC opportunity to keep starting games at the big league level. Pitchers don’t get 125 starts in the big leagues once they’ve proven they cannot get batters out. They get shuffled to the bullpen, or they get sent to the minor leagues, or they get released.
But the Royals are one of those teams that simply cannot let go of a player’s potential. The Cleveland Indians or my youth were like that too. Rick Waits had one moderately good year for Cleveland and it took three and half more before the team was willing to let go. Neal Heaton had one so-so year and it took two and a half more before the Indians were willing to let go. This is a trait of struggling teams, I think. They have so little good going on that they desperately fear giving up on someone too soon.
Davies basically had a couple of good Septembers — in 2008 and 2009 — and because September comes at the end of the season it gives the Royals the unmistakable sense that there’s a good pitcher in Davies just waiting to come out. Maybe there is. Heck, after watching what has happened to Jose Bautista, I’m not willing to write off ANYBODY. I can’t blame the Royals for being patient with Davies. They like his stuff. They like his makeup. They don’t really have anyone else. Why not keep giving the guy a chance?
But circumstances changed this past off-season. Kyle Davies was arbitration eligible, which means the Royals would actually have to pony up some pretty decent coin to bring him back. Of course, there was an obvious solution to this — you don’t bring him back. If Kyle Davies had been non-tendered, he probably would have signed a major league deal with somebody for a million bucks or less. But the Royals decided they had not quite given up hope on Davies. And so they tendered him an offer for $3.2 million this year.
I’m going to repeat that: The Royals offered Kyle Davies $3.2 million this year. Davies is now 1-3 with a 7.98 ERA, though at the moment he does lead the American League in starts.
My point really is not to bash Davies’s performance, but to say that the Royals have the lowest payroll in baseball and there’s still PLENTY of waste in there. And I think in the end, this is why the Royals fans don’t seem to care too much about payroll. Years ago, payroll represented opportunity and hope and potential. Now, it represents tendering Kyle Davies. It’s almost like the feeling is this: The Royals have built a team for $36 million that will probably lose 90 or 95 games. Imagine how much worse they could be if they spent more.