Monday, July 11, 2011

#27 Steve Busby

Steve was perhaps the greatest pitcher in franchise history – Steve Busby. Busby had a tremendous arm, but injuries capped his talent to a brief, but brilliant career. He would rank much higher on this list but for the fact he basically pitched just three full seasons in the big leagues.

Busby was primarily a two-pitch pitcher, almost exclusively relying on his fastball and slider.

I’m a big believer in trying to make things simple; I wasn’t trying to stand out there and choose between five pitches, so I tried to make it real basic and throw a lot of strikes.

Steve Busby was a southern California kid, graduating from Fullerton High School, the son of a former professional football player. He was drafted by the San Francisco Giants out of high school, but elected to attend USC to play for their historic baseball program, and possibly play for the historic football team as well. The football career never panned out when Busby injured his knee, but he did become a standout pitcher under legendary baseball coach Rod Dedeaux. His Trojans won back-to-back championships in 1970 and 1971, with Busby on the mound in Omaha for the 1971 Championship Game.

The Royals selected Busby in the second round of the 1971 draft and he immediately impressed, allowing just three earned runs (albeit eleven unearned runs) in forty innings of work in A ball in his first professional season. The next year, Busby found himself back in Omaha, this time as a member of the Royals top minor league affiliate. He finished the year with a 3.19 ERA in 217 innings with a league leading 221 strikeouts. He was a September call-up, pitching a complete game victory in his very first start, foreshadowing the workmanlike effort he would display in his Major League career. He would make five big league starts – completing three of them – with a 1.58 ERA. On October 3, a few days after his 23rd birthday, he finally suffered his first loss.

Busby figured to be in the rotation in 1973, but he simply dazzled new Royals manager Jack McKeon, going two starts in spring training without allowing a hit (again, a foreshadow of things to come), and finishing with a 0.60 ERA in thirty innings of Grapefruit League action. His performance earned the rookie an Opening Day start in his native Southern California against the Angels. Busby would struggle in that start, and in his next three starts, failing to make it past the second inning in an April 20th game against the White Sox.

In his next start, Busby took an 8.04 ERA with him to Detroit to face the Tigers, the defending American League East champions. He tossed the first no-hitter in Royals history – walking six, but allowing just seven balls to leave the infield. It was just his tenth career Major League start.

"I was so wild that game that every time I threw a strike, it was a surprise. But I never really considered it a strong possibility until the ninth inning. I knew what was going on, but it wasn't until the ninth inning that it started to creep into the forefront of my mind. Then I just had fun."

Despite the no-no, Busby would continue to struggle, dropping five straight games in May, leaving his ERA close to six. Busby would begin to turn things around in the hot summer months, winning eight of ten decisions in July and August, including a thirteen strikeout performance against Milwaukee on July 10. He would end the year with a mediocre 16-15 record and a 4.23 ERA, but his 174 strikeouts were ninth in the league. His 105 walks, however, were seventh in the league. Nonetheless, Busby finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and was named Rookie Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. The Royals were counting on the young right-hander to be part of their push for contention in 1974.

“There’s no reason Busby can’t win 25 games. He won 16 last year. Now he knows the hitters, his control is better and he has confidence in himself.”
-Royals Manager Jack McKeon

Busby initially struggled in April, but got things going in May, winning four straight starts thanks in part to a newly developed curveball. On June 19 in Milwaukee, Busby walked Brewers first baseman George Scott in the second inning on a 3-2 pitch. That would be the only baserunner he would allow all night. He retired 27 of 28 hitters to record his second career no-hitter.*

*Bill James devised a formula for predicting the likelihood of a pitcher tossing a no-hitter. Steve Busby was the least likely pitcher to throw two no-hitters, out of all the pitchers with multiple no-hitters.

“I wasn’t nervous as much as fighting myself to keep my concentration. But this was my biggest thrill of all, bigger than last time, because this was my type of game. I didn’t make a whole lot of bad pitches and made them hit the ball. That’s what I have to do to help the ballclub.”

Busby would go on to toss a pair of three hit shutouts over the next few weeks and in July was named to his first All-Star game. He reeled off eight wins in nine starts over the summer and finished the year with a franchise record twenty-two wins. He was a workhorse for the Royals, making thirty-eight starts and completing twenty of them. His 292 1/3 innings pitched were ninth in the league. Busby significantly improved his control, dropping his walks per nine innings from 4.0 to 2.8, sacrificing strikeouts, which also fell from 6.6 per nine innings to 6.1

“I feel it would be a sin not to use our defense. Instead of going for strikeouts, I try to throw strikes, to make batters hit the ball.”

Busby earned the Opening Day start in 1975, and got off to a terrific start that season, winning seven of his first ten decisions and tossing back-to-back complete game shutouts in May. He reeled off four straight wins in June that included a ten-inning outing against the Indians and a twelve-inning outing against the Angels. In his next start against Texas, Busby noticed his arm felt different. It didn’t have the strength it once did. The problem lingered with him all season, although he continued to pitch well, throwing five complete games after that point. He would finish with eighteen wins, eighteen complete games and a career best 3.08 ERA.

Wins Above Replacement, American League Pitchers 1973-1975
1. Bert Blyleven MIN 22.2
2. Gaylord Perry CLE-TEX 20.9
3. Nolan Ryan CAL 16.7
4. Catfish Hunter OAK-NYY 15.7
5. Wilbur Wood CHW 15.6
6. Luis Tiant BOS 15.1
7. Jim Kaat MIN-CHW 15.1
8. Steve Busby KCR 15.1
9. Jim Palmer BAL 14.9
10. John Hiller DET 13.8

The soreness in his arm did not subside in the spring of 1976, so the Royals placed Busby on the disabled list to begin the year. He came back in mid-April and bounced back with a complete game win against the Yankees in May. But many observers noticed his fastball had lost its zip. Questions began to arise as to whether Busby was already finished.

“I hate to feel like I’m costing the other 24 guys on the team money. But I am. Every bad pitch I make, every mistake – its bad for everybody. My arm felt good tonight. It feels good now. It doesn’t hurt. But what difference does it make? What’d I do with it? The results are all that count.”

After his complete game, he made just one start in which he pitched into the seventh – and it would be his last of the season. He had torn his rotator cuff. In July, the team announced his season was over and he would undergo surgery – the first player to undergo such surgery by Dr. Frank Jobe.

Busby would pitch just three innings in 1977 – all in a minor league rehab start, before injuring his knee. By then the Royals had already written him off. They were contending for championships, and had already acquired right-hander Jim Colborn to replace Busby.
“They couldn’t count on me, and I don’t blame them. I couldn’t count on myself.”

Busby surprised observers by making the 1978 rotation and won his first start. But he was knocked around in his next three starts and was optioned to the minors. In 1979, he made the team as a long reliever and spot starter, making twelve starts. He posted a 3.63 ERA but walked 64 in 94 innings. His fastball velocity was noticeably down.

Busby underwent knee surgery in the spring of 1980, but was healthy enough to make the team as a reliever. He was sent to Omaha in June, but came back to make six starts in July and August. On August 26, he allowed five runs in six innings, but defeated the Brewers for his first win of the year. His ERA was 6.17. A few days later, the Royals gave him his unconditional release.

The next spring, Whitey Herzog – who had managed Busby in Kansas City and was now at the helm in St. Louis – offered Busby a tryout. At the end of spring training, the Cardinals gave Busby a chance to pitch for their top minor league affiliate. Busby elected to retire. He was thirty-one years old.

Managers Jack McKeon has born a lot of the criticism for Busby’s injuries with many claiming McKeon was asleep at the wheel, allowing his young right-hander to pitch until his arm fell off. Busby disputes accounts he was allowed to throw as many as 200 pitches an outing, but with his lack of command, and the number of complete games he threw, it is likely he threw between 100-130 pitches nearly every time out.

However Busby was not alone in his ridiculous workloads. Recall this was a much lower offensive environment than at any time since then, so pitchers did not necessarily need to go max-effort on every hitter. It was fairly routine for pitchers to go over 250 innings pitched in a season – 254 pitchers tossed at least 250 innings in a season in the 1970s. From 1973-1975 – Busby’s peak seasons – nineteen pitchers tossed more innings than his 791. Pitchers on that list include those that battled injuries in their 30s – Jim Palmer, Andy Messersmith, Catfish Hunter, and those that lost their effectiveness in their 30s – Vida Blue, Carl Morton, Ken Holtzman. But it also includes many that were very effective well into their 30s – Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, Tom Seaver. Its not clear this divide is any different than a list of the top twenty pitchers from a decade ago, when pitchers began to be more protected with pitch counts.

It is quite possible that Busby was going to suffer injuries no matter what – that there was something about his delivery, something about his arm – that lent itself to breaking down. It is also quite possible that if Busby has his injury today, it is identified earlier and recovers much better. In any case, Busby appears to be at peace with what happened.

"I would've liked to have seen what would've happened. That's part of the deal, part of the business. It's not easy to deal with, but it happens. I was fortunate to be on some good ballclubs and be around a bunch of great guys. I'd never give that back.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The 100 Greatest Royals of All-Time

#28 Tom Gordon

1988-1995
79-71 4.02 ERA
1149 2/3 IP 999 K 587 BB

Before Joakim Soria, before Jeremy Affeldt, there was Tom Gordon.

Tom "Flash" Gordon was a quiet, unassuming pitcher young pitcher with a wealth of talent that the Royals never seemed sure what to do with. Was he a starter? Was he a reliever?

Tom stood just five-foot-nine and gave hitters a steely gaze when on the mound. He skyrocketed through the Royals minor league system with a devastating knee-buckling curveball. He learned the curve from his father, a one-time Negro League pitcher. Gordon learned it by repeatedly flipping a baseball into a trash can.

''It wasn't just throwing it into the can. I had a 7-foot fence between myself and the can and I had to get it over the fence....A lot of people have their own way of doing it; that was one of the ways I did. It took a full two years to learn.''

Tom Gordon was from Avon Park, Florida, the birthplace of Royals legend Hal McRae and a place filled with poverty, drugs and violence. The Royals selected Gordon out of high school in the sixth round of the 1986 Amateur Draft. Tom struggled mightily with his command in his first two pro seasons, walking 89 batters in 131 innings. But that curveball made him nearly unhittable and in 1988 he began to harness his control.

He began the year in A ball with Appleton (Wisconsin). After seventeen starts and a 2.07 ERA, the Royals promoted him to AA Memphis. Gordon would make just six starts there, winning them all, giving up just two earned runs in 47 1/3 innings of work. He was then moved up to AAA Omaha, where he won all three of his starts, giving up just three runs in 20 1/3 innings. For the year, he had pitched at three different levels of professional baseball, going 16-5 with a 1.55 ERA. In 186 minor league innings, Gordon struck out an amazing 263 hitters.

The Royals, in a playoff race with the Oakland Athletics, called Gordon up to the big leagues in September. He performed admirably, giving them three shutout relief appearances and a quality start in Oakland before being roughed up against the Mariners to end the year. Even Major League hitters were dazzled by his curve, striking out eighteen times in just 15 2/3 innings. Baseball America named Gordon its Minor League Player of the Year.

''He has a curveball that no one can hit. Slow, fast, or in between, they don't hit it. If we could teach it, we'd have everyone throwing it.''
-Royals General Manager John Schuerholz

Despite having Gordon throw over two-hundred innings in 1988, the Royals debated whether to keep him as a starter, or move him to the pen and make him a closer. The feeling was that with only a plus fastball and a plus curveball, Gordon lacked the repertoire to succeed as a starter.

"I had a lot of inconsistency because I was really only a two-pitch pitcher. To find that third pitch -- a changeup -- was something I knew I needed to do, but I couldn't get a grasp of it."

Gordon began the year in the bullpen, the perceived weakness of the team heading into the seasons. Gordon struggled with his command but overall pitched well, and combining with another young reliever named Jeff Montgomery, they turned the middle relief innings into a team strength.

By the All-Star break, Gordon had a 3.14 ERA with ten victories out of the pen - although six of those wins were due to him blowing the lead. Royals manager John Wathan finally put Gordon into the rotation on July 17, and Gordon responded with a ten strikeout performance over eight innings in a 3-2 win over Milwaukee. Two starts later, he hurled a complete game shutout over the eventual American League East champs. It would be the first of five consecutive wins by Gordon, giving him a 16-4 record and a 2.57 ERA with only five weeks left in the season.

Then Flash hit the wall. He would drop his next five decisions, giving up five or more runs in four starts. He ended the year 17-9 with a 3.64 ERA and would finish second in Rookie of the Year balloting behind Orioles reliever Gregg Olson and ahead of a young man named Ken Griffey Jr.

"For me, the easiest adjustment was coming from the minor leagues as a starter and going to the bullpen, because it didn't matter to me how I got to the big leagues. I didn't care if I was pitching middle relief or set-up or whatever. I think that transition was a lot easier because I didn't try to over-emphasize anything. I just went out there and pitched. But once they asked me to start, that was a tough transition."

Gordon spent the entire 1990 season solidly in the rotation, and responded with a decent, albeit not great, season. He won twelve games, posting a 3.73 ERA and 175 strikeouts in 195 1/3 innings, but walked 99 hitters.

''He does lack confidence, and at times you have to reinforce it. All last winter, he wondered if he was going to be in the big leagues - after winning 17 games. 'I don't think the league has caught up to him yet. His biggest problem has been walks. He has to keep confidence in his stuff.''
-Royals Manager John Wathan

The emergence of rookie Kevin Appier and the signing of free agent Mike Boddicker meant Gordon would open the 1991 season back in the pen. But an early injury to Mark Gubicza thrust Gordon back into the rotation and he responded with a thirteen strikeout performance in Yankee Stadium. That start would begin a sizzling stretch where he gave up just eight earned runs in six starts over 48 1/3 innings.

"I just love pitching. I feel like I can be a No. 1, 2 or 3 starter, but I know what my role is for the Royals."


Gordon faltered in June and by July had lost his spot in the rotation to Luis Aquino. He would pitch as a long-reliever/set-up man the rest of the season, posting a 2.73 ERA as opposed to his 4.77 ERA as a starter.

Gordon opened the 1992 season in the rotation, but by May his ugly 5.64 ERA sent him back to the pen. He would struggle all season, ending with a 4.59 ERA. In 1993, he was back in the pen, only to end the year in the rotation pitching well (3.36 ERA in fourteen starts). The Royals were growing impatient with his inconsistency.

Most Strikeouts/9 innings, Royals History (min. 100 starts)
1. Tom Gordon 1988-1995 - 7.82
2. Zack Greinke 2004-2010 - 7.61
3. Kevin Appier 1989-2004 - 7.12
4. Gil Meche 2007-2010 - 6.91
5. Jose Rosado 1996-200 - 6.05

Gordon was left in the rotation for all of the 1994 season and responded with a decent season - 11-7, 4.35 ERA in twenty-four starts before the strike happened. When play resumed, the Royals were in cost-cutting mode following the death of owner Muriel Kauffman. Gordon became trade bait, with rumors that the Royals might even non-tender him. They instead offered him a contract and kept him as their #2 starter behind Appier, instead cutting costs by dealing Cy Young winner David Cone.

Gordon struggled mightily to begin the year. But three complete game, one earned run performances in June helped resurrect his season. Unfortunately, the Royals only one won of those starts, and the team struggled to give Gordon much run support. The team's struggles began to wear on Gordon.

"I don't like to lose, and these guys (teammates) don't like to lose either. I'm sick of this. We heard in spring training that we weren't supposed to be a good team. But we are a good team. We need to do what it takes to win games."

The Royals would finish a distant second place to the Indians, thirty games back. Gordon would take a 3.97 ERA into the last game of the season, a tilt with the juggernaut Indians in Jacobs Field. Gordon would last just one inning, giving up ten runs, lifting his ERA to 4.43 in what would be his last start in a Royals uniform.

Gordon explored free agency that winter, and left the door open to staying in Kansas City, despite the cost-cutting.

"They actually offered something to my agent that was a 63 percent pay cut. How in the heck do you accept that? I've always found Herk to be one of the most gracious people I have ever met. I love Kansas City, and I know we can work out a deal."

Instead, the Royals were ready to part ways.

"I think Flash would like to stay here. But we are not going to be able to pay him."
-Royals General Manager Herk Robinson

Gordon would sign a two year, $5.8 million deal with Boston. After a season and a half of being a mediocre starter, Gordon was named the Red Sox closer late in 1997. In 1998, he led the league in saves and inspired a Stephen King novel.

"Come on, Tom", she whispered. "Come on, Tom, one two three, now. You know how it goes."

But not tonight. Gordon opened up the top of the ninth by walking the handsome yet evil Yankee shortstop, Derek Jeter, and Trisha remembered something her father had once told her: when a team gets a lead-off walk, their chances of scoring rise seventy-five percent.

If we win, if Tom gets the save, I'll be saved.
-"The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon"

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The 100 Greatest Royals of All-Time

#29 Cookie Rojas

1970-1977
.268/.314/.346
880 Games 25 HR 332 RBI

Octavio Victor Rojas* was a Cuban born second-baseman and a long-time National League starter whose career appeared washed up when the Royals took a chance on him. Rojas rewarded their faith by rejuvenating his career, becoming a four-time All-Star, and one of the first fan favorites in Royals history. Rojas wore spectacles that gave him more the appearance of a librarian than an All-Star baseball player. He was never a flashy player, instead willing to let others share the spotlight, while providing quiet leadership. Bill James ranked him as the 69th best second baseman in history.

*-The nickname "Cookie" comes from the Spanish word "Cuqui", a popular nickname in Cuba that of course American sportswriters had to Anglicize.

Rojas was born in Havana, Cuba, signing with the Reds as a seventeen year old, despite his father's insistence that he become a doctor. Rojas rose through the ranks, eventually playing for his hometown Havana Sugar Kings, the AAA affiliate of the Reds in those heady days before the fall of Batista. His minor league numbers were a bit underwhelming, although his defense carried him to a cup of coffee in 1962. That winter, he was dealt to the Philadelphia Phillies for reliever Jim Owens.

"I was sitting at a table in Johnny Antonelli's restaurant with (Cincinnati Manager) Fred Hutchinson and Bob Lemon. I had permission from (General Manager) John Quinn to trade just about anybody on the roster and I whispered to Hutch, 'I'll give you (pitcher) Jim Owens for Cookie Rojas.'

"Hutch asked for 15 minutes, then came back and tried to get me to take Don Zimmer instead of Rojas. I told him that I didn't want Zimmer, and he said, 'OK, you've got Cookie.'

"Now, we've just made this monumental deal in which nobody knows who Cookie Rojas is and Hutch says, 'Who's going to have the guts to announce it?' He also says, 'I think you should throw in some money.' I said, 'How much?' He says, 'Four bits.'

"So I took out a dollar bill, ripped it in half and gave him half, which is how we got Cookie Rojas for Jim Owens and half a buck."
-Phillies Manager Gene Mauch

The Phillies had an All-Star at second base in Tony Taylor, so Rojas spent much of the 1963 season coming off the bench. In 1964, Rojas was used as a utility player, spending seventy games in the outfield and hitting .291/.334/.394 overall with just seventeen strikeouts in 377 plate appearances.

Rojas got off to a hot start in 1965, spending much of the year over .300, and that summer he was named to his first All-Star team. He forced his way into the starting second baseman job by the end of the year and finished the year with a career high .303 batting average.

"Cookie played like he practiced...He was always very well prepared. He had average speed, marginal power and marvelous hands. He worked at becoming adept at situation baseball....If the ball had to be bunted, if it had to be directed with the bat, he could do it against any and all people....Cookie practiced better than any player I ever had. He made himself into a winning player and a successful player."
-Phillies Manager Gene Mauch

"Cookie wasn't much of a hitter when he came to the Phillies, but he made himself into a .300 hitter. He learned quickly, faster than most."
-Phillies Pitcher Jim Bunning

Rojas spent the next four seasons as a utility player for the Phillies, playing mostly at second base, although he was versatile enough to play everywhere on the field. He was even called on to catch and pitch - tossing one scoreless inning. At second, Rojas teamed up on the field with Phillies shortstop Bobby Wine, who performed, as Dodgers announcer Vin Scully dubbed, "the plays of Wine and Rojas."

"When I was asked if I could play center field I said yes. When I was asked if I could play third base, I said yes. I never said no."

Rojas' average slumped to .232 in 1968 and .228 in 1969 and in October of 1969 he was dealt to St. Louis in a blockbuster that sent Dick Allen to the Cardinals for Curt Flood, Tim McCarver and Joe Hoerner.*

*-This is the trade where Flood refused to report, leading to the famous Supreme Court case - Flood v. Kuhn, which helped pave the way for free agency.

Rojas served as a bench player for the Cards, but after just twenty-three games and a .106 batting average, they had enough. The Royals were looking for some vets to lead their roster of youngsters and acquired Rojas for young outfielder Fred Rico. Upon being traded, Rojas contemplated retirement, but ultimately decided to play for the upstart Royals.

The Royals plugged him in at second base and he immediately hit, collecting hits in eleven of his first thirteen games, including a 4-for-4 performance against the Angels. He would hit .260/.296/.326 in 98 games with the Royals, solidifying second base for the young team.

That winter, Rojas decided to play Winter Ball and drop fifteen pounds. For the first time in his career, a team was expecting him to play every day at second base and he wanted to be ready. He was also expected to be a mentor for young shortstop Fred Patek.

Rojas got off to a sensational start, and was hitting .315 at the All-Star break. Left off the All-Star ballot*, Royals fans led a successful write-in campaign, and Rojas became just the ninth player to play in the All-Star Game for both the National and American League squads.

*-For some reason back then, not every team had a starter on the ballot. Odd.

Rojas ended the year right at .300, reaching career highs in on-base percentage and slugging percentage at .357 and .406, respectively. He committed just five errors all season and finished fourteenth in MVP balloting.

"The best second baseman I've seen this year is Cookie Rojas of Kansas City. Rojas may not range on defense like [Rod] Carew and [Davey] Johnson...But he's outhitting them all and, as a big plus, he's been the inspirational leader of the most improved team in the league."
-Ted Williams

Rojas was an All-Star second baseman with the Royals for the next three seasons, teaming up with Patek to provide solid defense up the middle.

"They were the first guys I ever saw work the play where, on a ground ball up the middle, the second baseman gets to it, backhands it and flips it to the shortstop with a backhand motion of the glove."
-Denny Matthews

Rojas would never again be a .300 hitter, hitting .263/.314/.346 in his time with the Royals, but remember this was a dead-ball era in which infielders were not expected to hit much at all. His OPS+ for his stint in Kansas City was 83.

By 1976, Rojas was 36 and his skills had eroded. The Royals had a promising young infielder by the name of Frank White and Rojas was asked to mentor him - which he did, with total grace.


"Cookie was probably the first player who showed me what being a professional ballplayer was all about...It was Cookie who took Frank White under his wing and taught him how to take his job away."
-Buck Martinez

By 1976, Rojas was a utility player, supporting Frank and his teammates from the bench. The young team he had helped mentor for several years had matured into a playoff team. The night the Royals clinched the American League Western Division title, Rojas and Patek jumped into the Royals Stadium fountains in ebullient celebration.

Rojas retired after the 1977 season at the age of 38. He went into coaching, and was considered the fan's choice to manage the Royals upon the firing of Whitey Herzog. He eventually got his chance to manage in 1988 when he was named interim manager of the California Angels, leading the team to a 75-79 mark.

"I came in with a reputation of not being able to hit and I developed a reputation as a winning player who would do anything and play anywhere to help you win, who could not only contribute with his bat and glove but with the experience he passed along to the other players. And the more I played, the more determined I became to remain in the game when I retired."

The popular player was also part of the initial Royals Hall of Fame Class, inducted in 1987. He has also been inducted in the Philadelphia Phillies Hall of Fame and the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame.

Rojas now serves as an analyst for the Spanish language broadcast of Florida Marlins baseball. His son Victor, a Kansas City native, is a host for MLB Network.

"The more they said no, the more I told myself yes. Either you quit or work harder."

"For a guy they said couldn't play, I think I did a pretty good job."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

I previously looked at how the Royals could create the 1985 World Championship ballclub by looking at the modern equivalent of that team's hitters. Today, I'll show the modern equivalents of the pitching staff.

Royals_medium

George and Sabes are excited about The Process

The Rotation

1985 Bret Saberhagen 20-6 2.87 ERA 235 IP 158 K 145 ERA+ 6.7 WAR
2009 Felix Hernandez 19-5 2.49 ERA 238 IP 217 K 174 ERA+ 6.9 WAR

Zack seems like the obvious comparison since physically they seem so similar – great athletes, pinpoint control, mid-90s fastball, terrific off-speed stuff. But when Zack was 21, he was enduring one of the most miserable seasons in Royals history, while when Sabes was 21, he was on "Good Morning America" with his World Series MVP trophy. Felix seems more appropriate for having terrific success at such a young age, although he hopes to avoid the same injury problems that plagued Sabes.

1985 Charlie Leibrandt 17-9 2.69 ERA 237 IP 108 K 155 ERA+ 6.3 WAR
2009 Cliff Lee 14-13 3.22 ERA 231 IP 181 K 131 ERA+ 6.6 WAR

Both were lefties who did not throw particularly hard, but could eat up innings. Both saw their careers in jeopardy around age 26-27 following a demotion to the minors. And both found renewed success once they began trusting their defense and becoming more of a groundball pitcher.

1985 Danny Jackson 14-12 3.42 ERA 208 IP 114 K 122 ERA+ 3.6 WAR
2009 John Danks 13-11 3.77 ERA 200 IP 149 K 123 ERA+ 2.9 WAR

Danks was 24, Jackson was 23. Both are lefties. Both were fairly promising young pitchers. If you take the ratio of strikeouts per inning in 2009 (0.76) and divide it by the strikeouts per innings in 1985 (0.58) and multiply it by Jackson’s strikeout total (114) you get 149 – exactly Danks’ total. Weird.

1985 Bud Black 10-15 4.33 ERA 205 IP 122 K 96 ERA+ 1.6 WAR
2009 Joe Saunders 16-7 4.60 ERA 186 IP 101 K 98 ERA+ 1.2 WAR

Both were lefties that did not strike out many (Black actually has a higher K/9 ratio of 5.3 to Saunders’ 4.9). Both had enjoyed very good seasons prior to this one – Black posted a 17-10 3.12 ERA in 1984, while Saunders posted a 17-7 3.41 ERA in 2008. Black would soon become a free agent bust with the San Francisco Giants. I would not at all be surprised to see some team overpay for Saunders.

1985 Mark Gubicza 14-10 4.06 ERA 177 IP 99 K 102 ERA+ 2.1 WAR
2009 Johnny Cueto 11-11 4.41 ERA 171 IP 132 K 97 ERA+ 1.6 WAR

Goobie was 22, Cueto was 23. When you adjust for strikeout ratios, they are nearly identical. Gubicza would become a two-time All-Star, a twenty-game winner with 131 career victories.

The Bullpen

1985 Dan Quisenberry 8-9 2.37 ERA 129 IP 54 K 175 ERA+ 4.1WAR
2009 Michael Wuertz 6-1 2.63 ERA 78 IP 102 K 167 ERA+ 2.4 WAR

Quite frankly there is no Dan Quisenberry. The days of three-inning "firemen" relievers has been replaced by the one-inning "closer.’ There is no submariner succeeding with a miniscule 3.8 strikeouts per nine innings with pinpoint control, throwing in excess of 120 innings per year. Quiz’s 4.1 WAR greatly exceeds what any reliever did in 2009, doubling even the WAR of Mariano Rivera (2.0). Michael Wuertz is perhaps the closest equivalent, but even he is a far cry from what Quiz could do. Wuertz strikes out way more than Quiz, and also walks more. But they are both at their best when they’re getting ground balls, and Wuertz was one of the most valuable relievers in baseball last year.

1985 Joe Beckwith 1-5 4.07 ERA 95 IP 80 K 102 ERA+ 0.5 WAR
2009 Scott Linebrink 3-7 4.66 ERA 56 IP 55 K 100 ERA+ 0.2 WAR

Both were early 30s relievers that their clubs had overpaid for (Royals sent three minor leaguers to the Dodgers for Beckwith, the White Sox paid $19 over four years for Linebrink). Both were perfectly mediocre relievers.

1985 Mike Jones 3-3 4.78 ERA 64 IP 32 K 87 ERA+ -0.4 WAR
2009 Jensen Lewis 2-4 4.61 ERA 66 IP 62 K 91 ERA+ -0.3 WAR

Both were young, former high round picks (Jones was a first rounder, Lewis a third rounder), who struggled to stay in the big leagues as relievers. Jones would never pitch in the big leagues after the 1985 season.

1985 Mike LaCoss 1-1 5.09 ERA 40 IP 26 K 82 ERA+ -0.2 WAR
2009 Juan Cruz 3-4 5.72 ERA 50 IP 38 K 78 ERA+ 0.0 WAR

Both had been pretty effective relievers earlier in their career, but were just terrible upon signing with the Royals as a free agent. Both struggled with command in their first season in Kansas City. LaCoss would be let go after the year, but would be fairly effective again.

1985 Steve Farr 2-1 3.11 ERA 37 IP 36 K 135 ERA+ 0.6 WAR
2009 Evan Meek 1-1 3.45 ERA 47 IP 42 K 120 ERA+ 0.3 WAR

Farr had bounced around the league, being discarded by the Pirates and Indians before the Royals turned him into an effective reliever. Meek was discarded by the Twins, Padres and Rays before the Pirates gave him a chance to sign in their pen. Farr was a more versatile pitcher – able to be a long reliever, spot starter or closer, while Meek seems to fit more as a setup reliever or closer.

Star-divide

In conclusion, I think it is clear that Dayton Moore is well on his way to re-creating the template that brought Kansas City its only World Championship. He is only missing four things:


1. A George Brett/Albert Pujols-caliber hitter
2. An outstanding rotation on par with Felix Hernandez/Cliff Lee/John Danks/Johnny Cueto/Joe Saunders
3. A rubber-armed throwback fireman reliever who doesn’t walk anyone and induces tons of ground balls
4. A time machine to bring 1985-style baseball to 2010

These are mere minor obstacles. Dayton has already assembled many of the same hitters and even similar relievers as the '85 club. A Plaza parade is only a matter of time. Trust the Process.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Recreating the 1985 Royals

1985 was a glorious year. Mikhael Gorbachev assumed control of the USSR, leading to a warming of relations between the Americans and Soviets. Tetris was released, helping kids waste countless hours. And "Back to the Future" was released, showing America that time travel was possible with a DeLorean, some plutonium, and a flux capassiter. That October, a plucky little team from Kansas City would stun the baseball world by storming back from 3-1 deficits in both the League Championship Series and the World Series to become World Champions.

Doc-and-marty_medium

Great Scott! In the future, the Royals are run by idiots!

The Royals organization has failed to make a single post-season since that magical year, although it has spent much of its time trying to recreate that magic. What would our club look like today if we did recreate that championship-winning roster? Who are the modern day equivalents of George Brett, Daryl Motley, Bud Black?

Read on, and you'll see how it is possible to recreate the 1985 Royals. And maybe, just maybe, the Process will begin to make more sense to you.

Catcher

1985 Jim Sundberg .245/.308/.381 10 HR 35 BI 88 OPS+ 0.8 WAR
2009 Ivan Rodriguez .249/.280/.384 10 HR 47 BI 73 OPS+ 0.3 WAR

Both Sundberg and Rodriguez were both excellent defensive catchers (quite possibly two of the greatest ever) whose skills had eroded by this point, but still had a reputation for handing young pitchers well. Ivan was the much better hitter over his career, but by this point, their slash lines were nearly identical.

First Base

1985 Steve Balboni .243/.307/.477 36 HR 88 BI 111 OPS+ -0.9 WAR
2009 Mike Jacobs .229/.297/.401 19 HR 61 BI 83 OPS+ -0.5 WAR

That’s really not fair to Steve Balboni since he posted a much higher slugging percentage, and a higher on-base percentage in a much lower offensive environment. But its hard to find another player much like Steve Balboni these days (where happened to all the fat guys with mustaches in MLB?). The "grip it and rip it if its anywhere near the strike zone" mentality is only employed by a few select hitters and Mike Jacobs is one. Jacobs 2008 season (.247/.299/.514, 32 HR, 108 OPS+ -0.3 WAR) is actually much closer to what Balboni was able to accomplish. It is also remarkable that Balboni was able to club thirty-six home runs (still a franchise record!) and yet still post a negative WAR.

Second Base

1985 Frank White .249/.284/.414 22 HR 69 BI 89 OPS+ 1.9 WAR
2009 Mark Ellis .263/.305/.403 10 HR 61 BI 86 OPS+ 1.6 WAR

Ellis is not as skilled defensively as Frank White, but among his contemporaries he is considered one of the best, despite his curious lack of Gold Gloves. Both players were in their early 30s in these respective seasons with their defense starting to slip a bit, albeit still above average (Total Zone has White at 6 and Ellis at 5 for these respective seasons). Frank was enjoying a power peak at this point in his career while Ellis has seen his power begin to dip a bit, but both carried double digit home run power and double digit stolen base speed.

Third Base

1985 George Brett .335/.436/.585 30 HR 112 BI 178 OPS+ 8.0 WAR
2009 Albert Pujols.327/.443/.658 47 HR 135 BI 188 OPS+ 9.2 WAR

I was going to put Alex Rodriguez, but figured that is really unfair since A-Rod posted worse offensive numbers (.286/.402/.532 30 HR 100 BI) in 2009 in a much better offensive environment than George did in 1985. Oh and George is a gritty gamer who once played post-season ball with his ass on fire, while A-Rod is a big stupid choke artist who slaps the ball out of the first basemen’s mitt and doesn’t respect the unwritten rules of the game. The only thing they share in common is they both defecate on themselves. Only George does it at the Bellagio in the winter, while A-Rod does it every October.

In 1985 George posted a 178 OPS+ . Here are the list of guys who posted a 178 OPS+ or better in 2009.

Pujols, Albert

That is all. Albert actually is a better comparison if you are comfortable moving him back to third for the purposes of this exercise. They even share a similar walk-to-strikeout ratio. George clogged the bases with 103 walks, whiffing just 49 times. Albert walked 115 times to 64 strikeouts. They were also above average defenders (Albert is actually excellent, but at an easier position) and pretty good base-stealers. They were both clutch when it mattered and great leaders in the clubhouse, although while Albert serves God and raises a family of special needs children, George in his prime was out on the Plaza getting plowed with Jaime Quirk and Kansas City’s finest female groupies.

Shortstop

1985 Onix Concepcion .204/.255/.245 2 HR 20 BI 38 OPS+ -1.2 WAR
2009 Ronny Cedeno .208/.256/.337 10 HR 38 BI 57 OPS+ –1.1 WAR

Onix Concepcion and Ronny Cedeno were each well-regarded prospects who had hit for some decent power in the minors, but did not see that offensive success translate to the major league level. Both had good defensive reputations and both were fairly awful base-stealers. Cedeno has at least managed to eclipse Concepcion’s career length – Onix would manage just one MLB plate appearance after the 1985 season.

Left Field

1985 Lonnie Smith .257/.332/.358 6 HR 48 BI 90 OPS+ 1.2 WAR
2009 Willie Harris .235/.364/.393 7 HR 27 BI 101 OPS+ 1.2 WAR

Both Smith and Harris had bounced around a bit, although Lonnie had a much higher pedigree as a former All-Star, while Harris has been a journeyman utility player. Lonnie stole many more bases (52 for Smith just 11 for Harris). Willie is a better defender (they didn’t call Lonnie "Skates" for nothing). But both could get on base a bit, cause a bit of havoc on the bases, with non-embarrassing power. I don’t anticipate Willie to ever consider murdering his general manager however.

Center Field

1985 Willie Wilson .278/.316/.408 4 HR 43 BI 97 OPS+ 1.3 WAR
2009 Scott Podsednik .304/.353/.412 7 HR 48 BI 98 OPS+ 1.8 WAR

Scottie P. enjoyed a resurgence last year, and has kept it up this year, while 1985 was Willie’s last good year as a full-time starter. He was no longer able to hit .300, and thus, lost a lot of his value. Both Wilson in 1985 and Scott in 2009 were average fielders. Both known for their basestealing, Willie had the clear edge in steals - 43 to 30.

Right Field

1985 Daryl Motley .222/.257/.413 15 HR 70 BI 80 OPS+ -0.8 WAR
2009 Rick Ankiel .231/.285/.387 11 HR 38 BI 76 OPS+ 0.0 WAR

Daryl enjoyed a breakout season in his first full year in the big leagues in 1984, posting a 109 OPS+ with 15 HR and a .441 slugging percentage. Rick Ankiel enjoyed a breakout season in his first full year as a hitter in the big leagues in 2008, posting a 119 OPS+ with 25 HR and a .509 slugging percentage. Both would fall back to earth hard the next season with awful on-base percentages that hurt much of their value. Motley would soon be out of the league. Ankiel will no doubt be employed by the Royals for many, many seasons.

Designated Hitter

1985 Hal McRae .259/.349/.450 14 HR 70 BI 118 OPS+ 0.4 WAR
2009 Magglio Ordonez .310/.376/.428 9 HR 50 BI 109 OPS+ 1.0 WAR

Technically Magglio still plays right field, but he profiles closest to Hal McRae for this exercise. Both were once power hitters who lost much of their power in their late 30s. Ordonez was a .300 hitter in 2009, something McRae was unable to accomplish although he had hit .300 in each of the previous three seasons. Both could draw a few walks and were difficult to strike out. McRae was known as an aggressive base-runner, a reputation I have never heard for Ordonez.

Bench:

1985 John Wathan .234/.319/.324 1 HR 9 BI 77 OPS+ 0.5 WAR
2009 Jason LaRue .240/.288/.327 2 HR 6 BI 63 OPS+ 0.3 WAR

Both were gritty catchers near the end of their careers and like Wathan, LaRue was capable of playing multiple positions.

1985 Jorge Orta .267/.317/.383 4 HR 45 BI 91 OPS+ -0.5 WAR
2009 Ross Gload .261/.329/.400 6 HR 30 BI 90 OPS+ 0.5 WAR

Does anyone doubt that Gload could beat out an infield single in a crucial Game 6?

1985 Buddy Biancalana .188/.277/.261 1 HR 6 BI 49 OPS+ -0.1 WAR
2009 Robert Andino .222/.274/.288 2 HR 10 BI 49 OPS+ -0.3 WAR

"Andino" is not as fun to say as "Biancalana" however.

1985 Pat Sheridan .228/.307/.335 3 HR 17 BI 77 OPS+ -0.1 WAR
2009 Brian Anderson .243/.328/.347 4 HR 18 BI 75 OPS+ 0.0 WAR

The Royals may have been better off convincing Sheridan to take up pitching as Anderson has done.

1985 Dane Iorg .223/.268/.331 1 HR 21 BI 64 OPS+ -0.5 WAR
2009 Craig Monroe .215/.287/.354 3 HR 16 BI 71 OPS+ -0.2 WAR

Craig doesn’t have a cooler brother named Garth though.

1985 Greg Pryor .219/.270/.272 1 HR 3 BI 50 OPS+ -0.6 WAR
2009 Cody Ransom .190/.256/.329 0 HR 10 BI 55 OPS+ -0.7 WAR

This is shaping up to be on heck of a bench.

1985 Lynn Jones .211/.261/.257 0 HR 9 BI 43 OPS+ -1.1 WAR
2009 Ryan Freel .193/.290/.216 0 HR 5 BI 36 OPS+ -0.5 WAR

Yikes.

Tomorrow, the pitchers.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The 100 Greatest Royals of All-Time

#30 Al Fitzmorris

70-48 3.46 ERA
1098 IP 391 K 35 CG

So I owe whatever readers I have left an apology for my long absence. I did not intend to have over eight months between entries. I knew the next player I was going to write about. Every entry I have had some sort of angle, or something interesting to write about. And as we've gotten higher up the list, it has gotten easier as we've gotten more well-known players with longer Royals careers.

And now we have Al Fitzmorris - the writer's block of Royals players.

Al Fitzmorris was a completely unremarkable pitcher in every way. Which is not to say he was bad. If he was bad, I'd have something interesting to write about (see the David Howard entry for example). No, Fitzie was just completely mediocre. He spent eight seasons in Kansas City, as a solid reliever, then as a solid starting pitcher. He had no remarkable moments that jump out to mind, and none of his statistics seem very noteworthy. The most remarkable thing I can think about him is that when I see him on the Royals post-game shows for Metro Sports, I can't help but think I am witnessing one of the worst haircuts for anyone in the post-1980s era.

I suppose the one thing that stands out about Al is he was so strikeout-averse. He holds the record for fewest strikeouts - 0ne - in a twelve-inning game. He pitched during an offensively-depressed era in which pitchers did not need to strike out hitters as much because of a lack of power in baseball. So run totals fell as well as strikeouts. In 1098 innings with the Royals, Fitzmorris struck out just 391 hitters.

Lowest strikeouts/9 innings ratio in Royals history (min. 50 games)
1. Dan Quisenberry 1979-1988 - 3.14
2. Al Fitzmorris 1969-1976 - 3.20
3. Larry Gura 1976-1985 - 3.35
4. Paul Splittorfff 1970-1984 - 3.72
5. Don Hood 1982-1983 - 3.74
*-Brian Anderson, Jim Colborn and Chris George all were just a few games shy of qualifying, but would have been on, or nearly on this list

Al was born in Buffalo, but attended high school in San Diego. After high school, he signed with the Chicago White Sox in 1965 as a switch-hitting outfielder. In 1966, Fitz fiddled around on the pitching mound and made four appearances as a pitcher, with good results. The following season, the White Sox had him pitch full-time and he responded with a 2.28 ERA in twenty-four starts. He was promoted the following year and led the Carolina League in strikeouts with 214 while posting a 2.73 ERA. That winter, the White Sox left him unprotected in the expansion draft, where he was selected by the Kansas City Royals.

Hitting is really difficult, obviously, and being in kind of a hurry, I thought that pitching might be a better opportunity for me. I didn't have a lot of experience with it, but it was kind of either that, or maybe getting released.

There have been a few Royals pitchers that were converted position players. Joel Peralta was once a shortstop in the Athletics organization. Ron Mahay made it to the big leagues as a Red Sox outfielder. Bret Saberhagen and Zack Greinke were both talented enough at shortstop that some teams scouting them considered them for that position in the pros. The Royals were supposedly split on whether to make former first rounder Matt Smith a pitcher or first baseman (he sucked so badly as a first baseman I guess they never thought to convert him).

I am a bit surprised that no team has tried to develop a player to both pitch and hit. I am certain there is the worry that by not having him concentrate on one field, you would hurt his development. But if you take a more seasoned player that is perhaps a fringe player anyway, but it athletic enough to be effective as a hitter and pitcher, it would be a good advantage for a team needing an extra roster spot. The Brewers half-heartedly tried this a few years ago with Brooks Kieschnick, but abandoned it after one season. I have long thought teams like the Royals should at least have a position player who can pitch in blowouts and save the bullpen for a better day. Maybe this is what they had in mind for Tony Pena Jr., but he didn't stick around long enough for us to find out.

Al Fitzmorris spent most of the Royals inaugural season in Omaha, posting a 3.75 ERA in twenty-nine games before earning a cup of coffee with the big league club that September. He made the big league club to begin the 1970 season, pitching out of the pen. Fitz had a rough start, but was very good from May to July, earning eleven starts late in the year. He finished the year with a sub-par 4.44 ERA, but he did manage to toss two complete games late in the year.

Fitz improved his ERA in each of the next three seasons, lowering it from 4.17 to 3.74 to 2.83. In 1974, Manager Jack McKeon tabbed Fitzmorris for the rotation, and Al rewarded his faith by pitching back-to-back complete game shutouts, including a rare complete game shutout without any strikeouts or walks.

Complete Game Shutouts with No Strikeouts, No Walks
Jeff Ballard, Baltimore - August 21, 1989 vs. Milwaukee
Roger Clemens, Boston - July 21, 1987 vs. California
Neil Allen, Chicago White Sox - July 20, 1986 vs. New York Yankees
Mike Caldwell, Milwaukee - June 4, 1979 vs. Chicago White Sox
Dave Roberts, Chicago Cubs - May 26, 1978 vs. St. Louis
Jim Barr, San Francisco - July 23, 1976 vs. Houston
Al Fitzmorris, Kansas City - June 4, 1974 vs. Baltimore
*-as far back as Baseball-Reference has box score records!

In July he was demoted to the pen after faltering, but he bounced back with seven wins and a 2.03 ERA down the stretch in twelve starts over August and September.

By 1975, Fitz was a full-time starter, part of a young and talented Royals rotation that included Steve Busby, Dennis Leonard and Paul Splittorff. All under 30, the quartet combined to win 58 games for a Royals team that finished in second place with a club record 91 wins. Fitz was credited with sixteen of those wins, a career high for him. He completed eleven of his starts, and that's not even including an eleven inning 4-1 victory for him in September.

Fitzmorris was a fixture in the 1976 rotation for new manager Whitey Herzog, and his highlight was a ten-nning shutout 1-0 victory over the Twins. He finished second on the team in wins (15), second in innings pitched (220 1/3), second in complete games (8), and led all full-time starters in ERA (3.06).

Yet when it was time for the Royals to face the Yankees in the American League Championship, Whitey passed Fitz over.

Yeah, Whitey and I kind of got in a big argument. We were in Oakland and kind of got into it, and started screaming at each other. But what didn't make a lot of sense to me—and we had some good pitchers—is that Whitey said that if we get to the World Series, I'd be starting, because [the Reds] have a lot of right-handed hitters. The Yankees were loaded with left-handed hitters, so they had seen a lot of left-handers all year. And they hit well against them. Larry Gura pitched a pretty good ball game against them, but there was really no reason other than the personal thing between Whitey and me.

Fitz is far more gracious than I would have been. Gura had only started two games all year, and had basically no left/right split that season (lefties posted a .563 OPS, righties a .591 OPS against Gura in '76). Gura gave up four runs over eight plus innings in Game One, but in a critical Game Four, lasted just two innings.

The Royals lost a tough series with Fiztmorris spending the entire series watching from the bench. Whitey was known for getting his way when it came to personnel matters, so it was not too surprising when the Royals left their second best pitcher unprotected that winter in the expansion draft. The Toronto Blue Jays snatched him up, and dealt him to Cleveland for young catcher Alan Ashby and outfielder Doug Howard. Al posted a terrible 5.41 ERA in 1977, and was released in 1978. After nine games with the Angels, Fitz was done.

In 1979, Fitz served as a player-coach in Hawaii, the top minor league affilate of the Padres, but soon thereafter moved back to Kansas City and became an ambassador for the Royals. He can be heard on the Royals Radio Network on pre- and post-game shows as well as on Metro Sports in the Kansas City area.
It feels good to be back.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A Look Back at 1989

Only twice in franchise history would the Royals win more games than they did in 1989, however by October the team was sitting at home watching the mighty Oakland Athletics dominate the post-season. Three American League Western Division ballclubs would win 90 games or more that year, more than the Eastern Division champion Toronto Blue Jays. The Royals would win the third most games in all of baseball, but in the days before the wild card, there was little recourse for a great team stuck in a great division.


The 1989 Royals had the right combination of seasoned veterans from the 1985 Championship team combined with young players in their prime. They had terrific pitching, with young arms from the minors ready to contribute. Their offense, while not great, was solid with a mix of power and speed. On paper, it looked like a complete ballclub. But they had those defending American League Champion Athletics to deal with.

1989 in a Box:

Record: 92-70 (2nd place, 7 GB)
Runs Scored: 690 (11th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 635 (3rd in AL)

General Manager: John Schuerholz
Manager: John Wathan

Attendance: 2,477,700 (6th in the AL) - 30,589 per game
Stadium: Royals Stadium

Longest Winning Streak: 9 (August 15 to 23)
Longest Losing Streak: 6 (May 17 to April 23)
How they started: The Royals got off to an uncharacteristically good start, winning six of their first eight, and finishing April with a 16-8 record.
Best month: August. The Royals went 21-8 and pulled within two and a half games of first place by the end of the month.
Worst month: July. It was the Royals only losing month that year, at 13-14.
Best game: August 26 – Kansas City 2 Oakland 0. Bret Saberhagen continued his mastery over the Athletics with a four-hit shutout and Willie Wilson surprised even himself with a 415 foot home run. The win brought the Royals to within two and a half games back of first.
Worst game: September 6 – Detroit 11 Kansas City 5. The Royals were still just two and a half games back with just a few weeks to play when they came to Detroit to play the last place Tigers. The Royals gave up 26 runs in the three game series, and were swept by a team that would go on to lose 104 games. Charlie Leibrandt, already having a terrible season, was rocked in the series finale, and the team committed three errors behind him. It was the Royals thirteenth consecutive loss in Tiger Stadium, a streak that had spanned three seasons.
Loved to face: California and Seattle. The Royals went 9-4 against the competitive Angels and hapless Mariners.
Hated to face: Cleveland. The Indians were awful that year, but they had the Royals’ number, taking eight of twelve contests.

Say Hello To: Bob Boone, Steve Crawford, Terry Leach (acquired in June), Larry McWilliams (acquired in September)
Say Goodbye To: Jaime Quirk

What Went Right: The Royals had a terrific pitching staff anchored by Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen, who posted a league best 2.16 ERA. Rookie sensation Tom Gordon would pitch well as a starter and reliever. Jeff Montgomery emerged as a dominant closer. The Royals had four players – George Brett, Bo Jackson, Danny Tartabull and Jim Eisenreich – post an OPS+ over 120. The club stole 154 bases, third in the league.

What Went Wrong: Willie Wilson and Frank White continued to decline offensively. Just three players reached double digits in home runs. The team finished twelfth in slugging. Veteran lefties Charlie Leibrandt and Floyd Bannister struggled mightily. Injuries hit the club – only Kevin Seitzer played more than 135 games. The Royals were stuck in the same division as Oakland.

Youngsters (25 or under)— 5 (youngest semi-regular was 21 year old Tom Gordon)
Prime (26-29)—7 semi-regulars
Past-Prime (30-33)—6 semi-regulars
Old Timers (34+) — 7 (oldest was 41 year old Bob Boone)
Rookies: Tom Gordon, Luis Aquino, Matt Winters
Top Prospect— Twenty-one year old first baseman Bob Hamelin slugged .640 with sixteen home runs in 68 games for AA Memphis. Twenty-one year old lefty Dennis Moeller went 10-1 with a 2.06 ERA in seventeen starts between A ball and AA.
1989 Draft: Brent Mayne (13th overall), Ed Pierce, Andres Berumen

Best OPS+: Danny Tartabull, 128
Most Runs Created: Bo Jackson, 77
Highest Batting Average: Jim Eisenreich, .293
Lowest Batting Average: Willie Wilson, .253
Most Home Runs: Bo Jackson, 32 (4th in the league)
Most RBI: Bo Jackson, 105 (4th in the league)
Most Stolen Bases: Jim Eisenreich, 27 (9th in the league)
Moneyball Award: Kevin Seitzer, 102 walks (4th in the league)
Angel Berroa Award: Willie Wilson, 27 walks in 423 plate appearances
Best Position Player: Bo Jackson
Worst Position Player: Frank White

Most Wins: Bret Saberhagen, 23
Most Losses: Mark Gubicza, Charlie Leibrandt, 11
Most Saves: Steve Farr, Jeff Montgomery, 18
Best ERA: Bret Saberhagen, 2.16
Worst ERA: Charlie Leibrandt, 5.14
Most Innings: Bret Saberhagen, 262 1/3
Best Pitcher: Bret Saberhagen
Worst Pitcher: Charlie Leibrandt

Career Best Seasons: Bo Jackson, Jim Eisenreich, Bret Saberhagen, Tom Gordon, Jeff Montgomery, Steve Crawford
Career Worst Seasons: Charlie Leibrandt

Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Pitcher Bret Saberhagen was called on as a pinch-runner three times, scoring once. He even pinch ran for what many considered one of the greatest athletes of his generation – Bo Jackson.

Home Sweet Home: The Royals won 55 games in the friendly confines of Royals Stadium, more home wins than any team in baseball.

Hey Big Spender: The 1989 Royals fielded the highest payroll in the league at nearly $19 million. Only the Dodgers and Mets had a higher payroll in baseball.

Hall of Fame Milestone: On September 8 at home against Minnesota, George Brett singled off Twins starter Roy Smith, the 2,500th hit of his Hall of Fame career.

Season Summary

The 1988 Royals had compiled a winning record, but a slow start and clubhouse dissension buried them in the wake of a runaway Oakland club that went on to win the pennant. Kansas City still had some of the key veterans from their championship team from 1985, but those players were slowly being overshadowed by young hitters in their prime like Kevin Seitzer, Danny Tartabull, and Bo Jackson. This talented group had failed to win more than 84 games in the three seasons following Kansas City’s championship season. They had fielded competitive teams, but they lacked that final piece to the puzzle that could take them back to the top.

Winter Moves

For three years the Royals had sought a backstop to that could be their long-term catcher. With Ed Hearn not living up to his billing, and with injury concerns surrounding young minor leaguer Mike MacFarlane, the Royals looked for a free agent veteran to fill the role.

In December of 1988, the California Angels signed All-Star catcher Lance Parrish, putting long-time starter Bob Boone’s playing time in jeopardy. Boone began to look elsewhere, and when the Royals offered him a one dollar raise over his previous salary, Boone happily accepted. Boone was just the second free agent the Royals had ever signed, the first being infielder Jerry Terrell in 1978.

Having released veteran relievers Dan Quisenberry and Gene Garber the previous summer, the Royals looked for someone to fill those shoes as a stopper in the pen. They had gotten by in 1988 with journeyman reliever Steve Farr, but the Royals wanted someone with more experience as a proven closer. They flirted with free agent Dodgers lefty Jesse Orosco and Orioles righty Tom Niedenfuer, and showed interest in trading for Phillies closer Steve Bedrosian or White Sox closer Bobby Thigpen, but nothing ever materialized.

Half of baseball inquired about Royals rightfielder Danny Tartabull, and the Royals were willing to listen if the deal involved a proven closer for their pen. The Blue Jays offered hard-throwing closer Tom Henke, a Missouri native, as well as outfielder Lloyd Moseby to the Royals. The Astros also offered their closer, Dave Smith, as well as outfielder Kevin Bass. The Giants offered starting pitcher Scott Garrelts and outfielder Candy Maldonaldo, but the Royals wanted slugger Kevin Mitchell in return.. In the end, the Royals were not overwhelmed by any offers and decided to hang on to their young slugger.

There were rumors at the Winter Meetings of the Royals having talks with the Red Sox about perennial All-Star third baseman Wade Boggs. Boggs was coming off a batting title, but was also going through a publicly damaging palimony suit by Margo Adams, his mistress for four years (a Kansas City radio station would hand out masks of Margo Adams when the Red Sox were in town). Danny Tartabull was mentioned as being the main target of a possible trade for Boggs.

Talks extended into spring training with the Royals offering Seitzer and pitcher Floyd Bannister to the Red Sox. Discussions heated up and rumors began to swirl. Mets General Manager Joe McIlvane later revealed that a huge four-team blockbuster that would have sent Tartabull to the Mets, Boggs to the Royals, Mets third baseman Howard Johnson and pitcher Sid Fernandez to the Mariners, and Seattle pitcher Mark Langston to Boston came close to fruition. However, such a deal never took place. Talks between the Royals and Red Sox eventually sputtered and Boggs stayed in Beantown while the Royals opened up the season with Seitzer at the hot corner.

Out of the Gate

Despite all the trade talk, the Royals ended the off-season with virtually the same team they had ended with the previous season. Royals star George Brett was in his decline phase, but was still a well-above average player at first base. Long-time teammates Frank White and Willie Wilson were declining much more rapidly and bristled at constant talk of replacing them with younger players. The club had many young players in their prime including shortstop Kurt Stillwell, third baseman Kevin Seitzer, and power-hitting outfielders Bo Jackson and Danny Tartabull. Veteran catcher Bob Boone had been brought in to be a field general and handle the pitching staff. Pat Tabler, known for his clutch hitting, would spend most of the time at designated hitter. Infielder Brad Wellman, designated hitter Bill Buckner and outfielder Jim Eisenreich would make up the bench.

The trio of Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza and Charlie Leibrandt had been together since 1984, and together they formed one of the best rotations in the league. Floyd Bannister was coming off a disappointing season after a big trade had brought him to Kansas City. The veteran lefty did have over 100 wins in his career, so the Royals were optimistic he would rebound. The Royals had a few starting pitchers in the pipeline ready to step up if called upon including minor leaguers Kevin Appier, Luis Aquino and Jose DeJesus.

The bullpen was the big question mark to open the year. The Royals were willing to let Steve Farr close ballgames, but the personnel in charge of getting the lead to him were untested. Setup man Jeff Montgomery had pitched well in 1988, but many wondered if it was a fluke. Lefty Jerry Don Gleaton had been a journeyman. The wild card was Tom Gordon, the most promising pitching prospect in the organization. He was assigned to the bullpen to begin the year, although many felt he would be in the rotation before too long.

''I don't like to brag or get overly cocky, but I feel we have the best staff in baseball. From one through nine, we're the best in baseball.''
-Manager John Wathan.

Determined not to let a slow start bury them again in 1989, the Royals won six of nine games on their opening homestand. They ended the month of April winning nine of ten. On May 3, they were 17-8, the third best record in baseball – and also the third best record in their division. Curiously, the rotation pitched poorly to begin the year, while it was the maligned bullpen that carried the club. Farr proved to be trustworthy, but it was young Jeff Montgomery, a former failed starter, who emerged as the team’s best reliever. The club also got surprisingly good performances from Steve Crawford, a reclamation project released by the Red Sox, and Terry Leach, a sidearming veteran the Royals acquired from the Mets in June.

The Odd Case of Bret Saberhagen

Let’s compare two pitchers:

Pitcher A – 19-8 2.85 ERA 237 2/3 IP 163 K 45 BB 75 ER
Pitcher B – 9-12 3.70 ERA 177 1/3 IP 111 K 38 BB 73 ER

Pitcher A is Bret Saberhagen. Pitcher B is….Bret Saberhagen. The first line is Saberhagen in odd-numbered years in Kansas City, taken as an average. He won the Cy Young in 1985 and 1989, and won 18 games in 1987. The second line is Saberhagen in even-numbered years in Kansas City, taken as an average. He struggled in 1986 and 1988 and missed fifteen starts in 1990. Sabes finally broke this mold upon leaving Kansas City, but for about eight years he had a bizarre pattern you could pretty much rely on.

Saberhagen was sensational in 1989, easily the best season of his career. He led the league in wins, ERA, innings pitched, complete games, strikeout-to-walk ratio and WHIP. He finished third in strikeouts and won his only Gold Glove. In three starts against the mighty Oakland Athletics, he gave up one earned run over 24 innings, winning all three games including one where he set a career record for most strikeouts in a game. He won fourteen of his last fifteen starts down the stretch, pitching into the seventh inning every time. He was a near unanimous selection for the Cy Young Award, the second of his career.

Bret would win just eighteen more games over the next two seasons in Kansas City, before being dealt to the Mets in an unpopular trade. But at least for 1989, an odd-numbered year, Bret was even keel.

Early Challenges

In early May, the Royals found out they would miss slugger George Brett for a month with a knee injury. Undeterred, they went on to win seven of eight ballgames, capped off by an 8-1 win over Minnesota in which Bo Jackson became the first right-handed hitter to reach the right field upper deck with a home run. That win brought the Royals in a three-way tie with the Angels and A’s for the best record in baseball.

The Royals promptly dropped six in a row, but righted the ship with a five game win streak over Memorial Day Weekend. In early June, the Royals began a six-game homestand against the two teams in front of them in the standings – the California Angels and the Oakland Athletics. The Royals would take the first game against California on a mammoth three-run home run by Bo Jackson to right field in a 6-1 victory. George Brett returned to action in the second game, and drove in two runs in a 5-4 win. The Royals would complete the sweep and tie the Angels in the standings when Bob Boone punished the team that let him go with a go-ahead three run home run in a 5-3 win.

With Oakland coming to town, the Royals had a chance to pull within a half game of first place if they could continue their streak. The opener featured a great pitching matchup between A’s starter Bob Welch and Royals starter Mark Gubicza. Jim Eisenreich would break a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the eleventh with a two-out single that would put the Royals into second place ahead of the Angels. In the second game, rookie Kevin Appier, making just his second career start, would battle for his first Major League victory in the 5-3 win.

In the finale, the Royals trailed 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth with George Brett on first. Bo Jackson would lace a double down the left field line, sending a still gimpy Brett around the bases. Third base coach Adrian Garrett waved the veteran on home, but he was thrown out at the plate. The Royals fell to two and a half games behind the A’s. They would have been in first place in any other division.

Bo’s Breakout

1989 was truly the coming out party for Bo Jackson. He had been a sensation since his days on the gridiron at Auburn University, where he won the 1985 Heisman Trophy. But many felt his baseball career was a stunt. Writers opined that it was only inevitable that Bo would give up the folly of pursuing a baseball career and would soon play football full-time.

But the detractors never counted on Bo applying himself and getting better. Bo set a Royals franchise rookie record in 1987 with 22 home runs, but his game was still very raw. He hit for a low average, struck out a ton, and made silly mental mistakes. He improved in 1988, but was still a pretty average outfielder.

In 1989, Bo was a man on a mission. He hit four home runs in a single week in April and slugged .647 for the month. He spent most of May and June battling for the home run lead in the American League. If they gave out style points for home runs, Bo would have had a huge lead. He hit the right field upper deck in Minnesota. Just two weeks after striking out four times in a game against Nolan Ryan, Bo hit a mammoth shot off the future Hall of Famer that traveled some 460 feet, the longest recorded home run in Arlington Stadium.

"In Minnesota, I saw him walk into the batting cage, take one swipe at the ball hitting left-handed and hit it in the upper deck in right field at the Metrodome. Then, the other day, he hit a ground ball up the middle, just a routine single to center field, and never stopped, turning it into a double before anyone even realized what had happened."
-John Wathan

"Players from both teams watch when Bo takes batting practice. There's always the feeling that you're going to see something you never saw before, and we don't want to miss it."
-Bret Saberhagen

Bo was the leading vote-getter for the 1989 All-Star Game, and he certainly lived up to the billing. Leading off the bottom of the first, he deposited a pitch from Rick Reuschel into the center field bleachers, 446 feet away from home plate. He became the only player other than Willie Mays to homer and steal a base in an All-Star Game and he was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

He would finish that season with a career high 32 home runs and 105 RBI, fourth in the league in both categories. His .495 slugging percentage would finish sixth in the league, and he would steal 26 bases to boot. He would also strike out a league high 171 times.

Bo would play just one more season in Kansas City, leaving Royals fans to forever wonder what could have been.

Flash of Brilliance

On July 17, the Royals inserted rookie Tom “Flash” Gordon into the rotation to make his first start. Gordon had enjoyed a meteoric rise through the Royals system, dominating three levels of minor league ball in 1988 before experiencing a cup of coffee with the big league club that September. In 1989, Gordon had picked up ten wins as a long reliever that year utilizing a devastating curveball, leading many to clamor for him to be used as a starter. On that July evening against the Brewers, Gordon dominated, striking out ten batters in eight innings for a 3-2 victory.

Flash would reel off five straight victories in August, and by the end of the month he was second in the league in victories with sixteen. But he hit a wall in September, losing five straight decisions, including three games in which he failed to escape the third inning.

“I'm trying to figure out what's the problem with my curve. It's not breaking as sharp as usual. It's getting to me. But it's gonna happen. It happens to everybody.”

The slump probably cost Gordon the Rookie of the Year award, but he would finish with a 17-9 record, the most wins ever by a Royals rookie. He finished tenth in the league in strikeouts with 153, despite spending half of the year in the bullpen. Gordon would never win more than twelve games in a season for the rest of his career, but for a few months at least, his curveball was near unhittable.

The Wild Wild West

Gordon’s win in Milwaukee put the Royals within one and a half games of the now first place Angels. But California went on a red-hot streak, winning ten of eleven to end the month of July, leaving the Royals seven and a half games back. Four American League Western Division clubs had better records than the any Eastern Division club. But this was before the days of the wild card, and the Royals had to overcome a ferocious division if they hoped to play in October.

"No doubt, we're playing in what is probably the toughest division in baseball, but there's nothing we can do about it except work hard and try to rise to the challenge.”
-John Wathan

The Royals caught fire in August, sweeping a four game series in Seattle, then coming home to host the Angels and Athletics again. Bret Saberhagen pitched brilliantly in the opener against California for a 4-2 win. Game two was delayed over an hour, but long reliever Terry Leach picked up the slack and shut down the Angels for five innings in another 4-2 victory. The next night, Tom Gordon outdueled fellow rookie Jim Abbott in a 6-4 win to extend the winning streak to nine. The Angels would avoid a sweep by winning the finale 5-0, but by then the Royals had knocked the Angels out of first place. Kansas City still trailed Oakland by four and a half games, but they would get their chance to cut into that lead the next night.

In the opener against Oakland, Mark Gubicza would blank the A’s for seven innings in a 3-1 win. In three starts against Oakland that year, Gubie would fail to allow a single run over 25 innings. Saberhagen would shutout the A’s on just four hits the next night, a 2-0 victory that would pull the Royals within two and a half games of Oakland. The Royals would drop the finale, but by then they had made clear it would be a three team race for the division title.

The Clutch of Pat Tabler

“Clutch hitting” is an amorphous concept difficult to define and even harder to ascertain. Some believe that certain players have an innate ability to rise to the occasion, while others believe the concept is a product of small sample sizes and selective observation. Critics of the concept of clutch also point out that many of the players deemed as “clutch” are simply great players who are good in all situations, clutch or non-clutch. The concept of clutch also begs the question – why don’t clutch players perform as well in non-clutch situations? Are they just not trying as hard?

If there was a poster-boy for the concept of clutch it was Pat Tabler. Overall, “Tabs” was a pretty mediocre hitter with little power for a first baseman. But with the bases loaded, Pat Tabler was like Dr. Bruce Banner transforming into the Incredible Hulk. TABLER WANT TO SMASH BALL!

It began in 1983, when Tabler went 11 for 19 with the bases loaded. The next season, he was 5 for 9. In 1985, he was near perfect, going 6 for 7 with a grand slam. His clutch took a year off in 1986, but returned the next year as Tabler went 5 for 9. In 1988, he had an insane run, going 8 for 9 with the bases jammed. That is not just good performance in the clutch, that is near automatic performance in the clutch. During those six seasons, he was an amazing 37 for 63 (.587). With the bases loaded, Tabler was more likely to get a hit than make an out.

Having an ability to hit with the bases loaded makes some intuitive sense because of the unique circumstances of the situation. A pitcher is going to be more likely to give the hitter a pitch he can handle, to avoid walking in a run. This is even more likely when a hitter like Pat Tabler and his .379 career slugging percentage is up. Perhaps Tabler had very good bat control and an ability to handle hittable pitches.

But Tabler’s clutch was not simply confined to situations when the bases were loaded. With a runner at third, late in the game with two outs, Tabler hit 89 for 205 (.434). Even in all situations with runners in scoring position, his numbers were well above his career norms. These numbers also refute the idea that Tabler’s success was a mere product of small sample size.

So perhaps Pat Tabler had some mystical ability to come through in the clutch, mesmerizing opponents with his golden locks. Or maybe he’s just a freakish outlier. Who knows?

Chasing the A’s

The Royals would sweep the Tigers to end the month of August. On September 1, they bested the Rangers 5-3 in twelve innings to pull within one and a half games of first place. They Royals headed next to Detroit to face the hapless Tigers, a golden opportunity to gain some ground on the Athletics.

Instead, the Royals were swept in Detroit, giving up twenty-six runs in the three game set. They never fully recovered. They tried to right the ship by taking five out of seven on the following homestand. But the following week they dropped four of seven on a homestand against the two worst teams in the Western Division – Chicago and Seattle. Two days later, the Athletics clinched the division.

The Royals ended the year with 92 victories, their most since 1980 and the third most wins in baseball.

In some respects, it was remarkable that the Royals had been as competitive as they were. They outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by five wins. They had numerous injuries to key players, and had just three pitchers make at least twenty starts. But they did have a pretty complete team with solid pitching and an offense that could do a little bit of everything. Had the current divisional alignment been in place in 1989, the Royals would have won the division by eleven games. Instead, they would sit at home and watch the Athletics march through the post-season and easily win a championship.


1989 Starting Lineup   AVG    OBA    SLG   HR   RBI   OPS+   RC
C Bob Boone .274 .351 .323 1 43 92 47
1B George Brett .282 .362 .431 12 80 123 71
2B Frank White .256 .307 .328 2 36 80 43
3B Kevin Seitzer .281 .387 .337 4 48 106 85
SS Kurt Stillwell .261 .325 .380 7 54 99 60
LF Bo Jackson .256 .310 .495 32 105 124 77
CF Willie Wilson .253 .300 .358 3 43 85 43
RF Danny Tartabull .268 .369 .440 18 62 128 74
DH Pat Tabler .259 .325 .308 2 42 80 39

Bench AVG OBA SLG HR RBI OPS+ RC
C Mike MacFarlane .223 .263 .299 2 19 59 11
IF Brad Wellman .230 .263 .287 2 12 56 12
OF Jim Eisenreich .293 .341 .448 9 59 122 73
OF Matt Winters .234 .320 .346 2 9 88 12
DH Bill Buckner .216 .240 .267 1 16 43 11

1989 Starting Rotation W-L ERA G GS IP SO ERA+
SP Bret Saberhagen 23-6 2.16 36 35 262.3 193 180
SP Mark Gubicza 15-11 3.04 36 36 255.0 173 128
SP Luis Aquino 6-8 3.50 34 16 141.3 68 111
SP Tom Gordon 17-9 3.64 49 16 163.0 153 107
SP Floyd Bannister 4-1 4.66 14 14 75.3 73 84
SP Charlie Leibrandt 5-11 5.14 33 27 161.0 73 76

Bullpen W-L ERA G SV IP SO ERA+
RP Jeff Montgomery 7-3 1.37 63 18 92.0 94 284
RP Steve Crawford 3-1 2.83 25 0 54.0 33 137
RP Rick Luecken 2-1 3.42 19 1 23.6 16 114
RP Steve Farr 2-5 4.12 51 18 63.3 56 94
RP Terry Leach 5-6 4.15 30 0 73.6 34 94