— Roger Angell, from “Agincourt and After” (1975)
The Royals are goddamn depressing. There are myriad reasons for this. They do not score runs, which, if you’re unfamiliar with the game, is a large part of the whole blasted enterprise. The Royals are last in the league in runs scored. Mike Moustakas is tied for the team lead in home runs with 11. Moose is not good at hitting. He was deservedly and belatedly demoted to AAA for a week in late May. Former top prospect Eric Hosmer has only recently lifted his career slash line above Ross Gload’s. Nori Aoki has been a disappointment. Baseball Reference has him at -0.6 WAR, while FanGraphs rates him at 0.9 WAR, up to this point. The Royals expected a ~3-win player, and, whichever version of WAR you choose, he hasn’t come close to that. His poor production combined with his unconventional approach and slapstick moments have cemented Aoki in the collective memory of the fan base, not for the good. I won’t—I can’t, for the sake of my own sanity—get into all the depressing aspects of this team, but if you’re not familiar with this team, trust me when I say: Watching, thinking about, and rooting for the 2014 Royals has been a soul-crushing experience—much more than the team’s middling record would suggest.
But what I want to write about is the most depressing aspect of the 2014 Royals, our designated hitter, Billy Ray Butler. For 4 years, from 2009 through 2012, Butler was the sole stalwart in the lineup. There were other decent hitters in that time: David Dejesus in the first 2 years, Alex Gordon in the last 2. A decent season from Alberto Callaspo here, a few surprising months from Wilson Betemit there. But the only consistently good hitter for that stretch was Billy. He played in 158 games or more every year in that span. Those teams were bad. BAD. Baaaaaaaaaaaad. Billy was an oasis in the baseball desert. Complicating the situation were the Royals front office, broadcasters, and Facebook fans who showed an utter lack of appreciation for Butler. He was one of the only reasons to tune in night after night, and seemingly half the city and the team’s own announcers were unimpressed. Naturally, those of us who appreciated his solid, understated ability rallied to his defense. “Sure he hits into double plays and he lacks the prototypical home run power of a DH, but he’s a COMPETENT HITTER AND WE ONLY HAVE TWO OR THREE OF THOSE YOU NINCOMPOOPS!” we’d plead. Until 2012, with his All-Star appearance and career year, people focused on his faults and overlooked his singular talent, hitting baseballs hard. He hit 29 dingers that season. The fans chanted his name at the All-Star game, the team was on the upswing, and his detractors finally and mercifully shut up.
Then his power disappeared. Not just the new-found HR power, his old, sturdy gap-to-gap power vanished, too. In 2013, he was able to somewhat mask the power outage by upping his walk rate and continuing to rope singles. But he was no longer the hitter we’d grown accustomed to. Even so, he was not without value—near average for a DH. There was hope that it was just a down year and he’d bounce back in 2014.
He did not. Billy has had negative value this year. No power, no average, no nothing. ***But even as I typed that sentence, he hit a vintage Butler double in the gap at US Cellular field; I still have hope!*** And that’s the worst part. I, and others, have appreciated him when others have not. We’ve defended him and cheered extra-hard at games to offset the idiots. Perhaps we’ve loved him a bit more than was strictly warranted, but it was an honest love born of adversity and pain and terrible baseball. When Billy’s career went south, the helots felt vindicated. Watching Billy Butler flail over and over and over is, in my opinion, the most depressing thing about the first 4 months of the 2014 Royals season.