Saturday, August 16, 2008

I'm Back, We Can Start It All Over (Part I)

...get it back on the track.
(From "What Was It You Wanted," Oh Mercy)

I can't believe it's been so long since I posted anything. Unfortunately, real life intervened in the last couple of weeks and made it difficult to find time to write. Also, this hasn't been the most inspiring stretch of baseball lately. KC getting outscored 22-2 and scoring in only one of 27 innings in Chicago makes me want to punch things, not write about baseball.

Since I picked on Ross Gload a while back, I got to thinking about the first basemen the Royals have run out there over the years. I've come to the conclusion that Gload is an OK player, a valuable guy to have on the bench. I've also concluded that the Royals have some weird organizational fetish for his type of player, the first baseman who hits lots of singles, a handful of home runs, doesn't walk much and basically doesn't provide the offensive oomph you need from that position.

When I was a kid and the Royals were good, my favorite player was Steve Balboni. I mostly identified with him because he was a fat guy who struck out a lot. Sadly, I had nowhere the power he did. Of course, Balboni still owns the Royals' single-season home run record, with 36. Of all the damning statistics the Royals have amassed over the last 20 years are so, that may be the worst--they got through the entire Steroids Era without anyone passing a home run mark set during the Reagan administration.

Balboni was KC's regular first baseman for four years, 1984-1987. He was never much of a hitter, but when he did connect he usually hit the ball a long ways. In those four seasons, he hit .230 but slammed 119 homers, often the Royals' only source for power besides George Brett.

When Balboni's career fell off the cliff, Brett took over at first, moving across the diamond to make room for Kevin Seitzer at third. Of course, George was a tremendous hitter, even in the latter stages of his career, so the Royals were still getting good production out of an important offensive position.

When Brett was ready to move to DH full-time, the Royals acquired Carmelo Martinez and Todd Benzinger to play first. You can see in Part II how that went in 1991. Not bad, but not very good, either.

After the 1991 season, the Royals signed free agent Wally Joyner, who put up pretty good numbers for four seasons, despite not having as much power as you would hope for at first base.

After the strike in 1994, the Royals were a little more cost-conscious, so they traded Joyner away and got Jose Offerman to play first. Offerman had come to the majors as an error-prone shortstop, and the Royals showed some abnormal out-of-the-box thinking, moving him to a position where his defensive shortcomings would not be as damaging. But Offerman only hit five homers, so he was moved to second base the next year. That paved the way for Jeff King.

King didn't hit for much of an average, but he did hit 52 homers in his two years as KC's first baseman. Unfortunately, this was the late '90s, so hitting 25 or so home runs was barely enough to get one noticed in the AL.

When King retired rather suddenly in May of 1999, the Royals were left without a regular first baseman. So they took a young catcher who had shown a little promise with the bat and put him at first. Thus began the star-crossed career of Mike Sweeney.

I could do a whole series of posts on how much I like Sweeney, how unfairly some of the media treated him, and how badly some fans treated him at the end of his time here. But this post is already too long, so just look at Part II for his numbers for 1999-2002, the time he was the starter at first. Admire them the way you would a painting at the Nelson-Atkins Museum...

This was the oasis in a desert of single-digit home run and 100 OPS+ numbers Royals first basemen have put up since 1990.

Sweeney moved to DH in 2003, opening the door for Ken Harvey. Even though he was the Royals' token all-star in 2004 (he probably deserved it; he was leading the league in hitting at the break), Harvey put up OPS+ marks of 84 and 95 in his two seasons, with a total of 26 homers.

As the franchise bottomed out in 2005 and 2006, they struggled to find a decent first baseman. Matt Stairs held the job in 2005, actually having a good year with 13 homers but a 118+ OPS. Then in 2006 came Doug Mientiewicz, who could only hit 4 homers in 91 games. 2007 saw Ross Gload ascend to the starter spot.

Balboni hit 119 homers in his four years as the starter. It took the next nine seasons for Royals' first basemen to pass that mark. Sweeney, for all the great numbers he put up, only hit 104 homers in his four years. Since 2002, KC's starting first basemen have hit 52.

Don't believe a slugging first baseman is vital? The last World Series winner to have their primary first baseman hit fewer than 15 homers that season was the 2002 Anaheim Angels. Before that, you have to go back to the 1990 Cincinnati Reds, who platooned...Todd Benzinger and Hal Morris, another no-power first baseman the Royals employed in 1998 (he backed up King, and played some outfield and DH).

Of course, late last night the Royals made a move that may end this string of first base futility, signing first-round draft pick Eric Hosmer right at the deadline. Now, we won't know for a few years, but Hosmer was said to be the best power prospect in the draft. In the meantime, here's hoping Kila Kaaihue gets a look in September and a chance to prove himself next spring.

1 comment:

kcmichelle said...

Kila, Kila! But would they bench True Grit to play him? Survey says...no.