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When the Royals were monsters

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Kansas City took baseball by storm right when the game was going through its greatest shift

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

There’s this Antonio Gramsci quote that keeps rolling around in my head these days, it goes like this:

The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.

You can probably guess why. If you don’t know, Gramsci was a Marxist philosopher who founded Italy’s Communist Party, was jailed by Mussolini, and talked a lot about how the status quo is held together, in part, by the cultural hegemony created and maintained by the ruling elite, making it very hard for new ways of thought to be able to gain purchase and mainstream acceptance. His work is fascinating, and has been studied by academics of all stripes from every type of angle. You’re locked inside right now. Go read some of his work. Here’s one.

Of course, I have baseball worms in my brain. So when I start thinking about a profound idea like the one above, once that helps to aptly describe a world I feel we’re currently living in, out of nowhere I start thinking about it in relation to baseball. In this case, it got me to thinking about the goddamn Royals.

The 20-teens, more than maybe any time in baseball history since the end of the Dead Ball Era, gave us two starkly different looks at how a team is constructed, and how the game is played. On one end was the era of buying talent for talent’s sake, getting the best players and not really caring about “surplus value” and hyperexploitation of pre-free agency rules. Think of the 2009 Yankees, or the Tigers during their run in the first half of the decade. This was the way baseball was run basically since it was a business in the 1870’s. You wanted good players, so you paid for them. Free agency and Scott Boras types just blew the roof off everything from the 90’s on.

That “spending money” thing kind of went out of fashion, though. We’ve seen it most starkly with the rise of the Cubs and immediately after that the Astros following their long tank, though even the Yankees and Dodgers keep making a bit of a stink when it comes to spending money. Basically this is a kind of financialization era, where the tenets of Wall Street and McKinsey & Co. lead front offices. Service time must be stretched, payrolls must be limited, profit and exploitation is the end-all of the entire club’s existence. The shorthand to this is the victory of the nerds over the Good Old Boys. It was a battle that raged for the last 20 prior years, but a seismic shift happened this past decade. The nerds won. Baseball will never be the same. It wasn’t as simple as that though. As that new world that we’re now in was struggling to gain its footing, as that old world shuddered its last breath, those damn Royals decided to be something.

Kansas City’s run to the World Series in back-to-back years might be the most incredible, inconceivable and hard to explain blip of an era in the last 30 years of baseball. Probably the last time we had anything like it would have to be the Blue Jays’ 1992-93 doubletap, and before that what, the Twins pair of victories over four seasons a few years prior? At least since the advent of free agency in the ‘70s, it is so hard for the non-traditional powers to really seize any kind of control of the league, much less make it look like child’s play like KC did. In a time where teams try to find every little edge and underutilized asset, the Royals for two seasons cornered the team on luck, grit, and shoving other people’s faces in it.

They were such a weird team, too. They had all these former top prospects, and they did the whole build through the draft process that the Cubs and Astros used to create these extended stretches of excellence. Those players didn’t pan out quite like Chicago or Houston, though. By any metrics we typically use to judge teams, they were not impressive. Over that 2014-15 span, they had one player even register more than 10.0 combined WAR, Lorenzo Cain at 11.3. That’s barely better than a single Mike Trout season. Their best pitcher in those combined years by WAR was Wade Davis at 7.3, their second best was Yordano Ventura at 5.5. Mind you, Corey Kluber hit that Davis number in a single season, though in 70 more innings, and Ventura’s two years were barely one of Shane Bieber. They were talented, solid players, but none could be called a star.

And yet, they won 95 games in 2015 and effectively ran away with the division. We got to a point that year where people just forgot about them by September. By run differential they should have been 90-72, but instead they earned the best record in the entire league. I can’t imagine 95 wins being an AL-best number anymore, not with how high the top teams fly and how low the tankiest of the tank drivers try to dive. They were lucky, spunky, and pretty good. It was a weird kind of good, but it worked for them.

Intangibles and grit aren’t actually supposed to get you anywhere in baseball, not over 162 games anyway. I could almost be convinced it would work in October, but the way the Royals ground past supposedly better teams with guys like Ryan Madsen and Alcides Escobar and a first baseman who posted a combined .732 OPS over 31 postseason games in their two-year run, among other things, it’s absurd.

The whole thing was like we were being mocked by fate, that we were being shown that all the shit we see on FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus is actually nerd shit that doesn’t matter. In 2015 they led the AL in wins while coming in ninth in baseball in wRC+, 11th in slugging percentage, 15th in FIP, 10th in ERA, and 23rd(!) in strikeout rate by their pitchers. They didn’t actually have any real, sustaining stars like champions before or since. Really, are there any Hall of Famers on the 2014-15 Royals? Even one? Wade Davis might be your best bet, but he was only good for a couple years himself. That has to be unprecedented — two-time league champions without a single legend, except in the hearts of people in western Missouri.

They were fun to watch, certainly. At least from an objective point of view. They were a constant surprise, from their magical Wild Card run in 2014 all the way to the way they scored the winning run to take home the crown in 2015. I hated them personally, but just because they kept stealing wins left and right and made the Indians look even more like crap. They were a weird anomaly that flew in the face of everything we were being told worked in baseball. Their timing was perfect, their moment was sublime, and something that just can’t be taken away from them.

It’s amazing to think that for as good as the Indians and Tigers were at one point or another the last 10 years, the one that will go down in history is the Royals. You can call them a doormat now if you want, and it’s warranted. Before 2014 and after 2016 nothing worked for them. That damn flag is going to fly forever though, reminding us that just for a moment, nothing made sense and the order of the universe was shattered. Whether they were monsters hell-bent on breaking stat guys’ brains, a freak occurrence, or just a reminder that we don’t actually know anything, it’s a moment of baseball history that will stick out like a sore thumb forever.