Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Most Disappointing Royals Season? Part III: 1990

It's common to hear that the Royals have "stunk," or "been mired in futility," or however you want to say it, since 1985. Of course, that's not really true. The Royals teams of the late 1980s were still solid ballclubs who just couldn't get over the hump.

The AL West was up for grabs until the Oakland A's dynasty rose up in 1988, but the Royals still had hope. After all, they still had plenty of star power: George Brett was winding down his Hall of Fame career, but would still have enough left to win a batting title in 1990. Bret Saberhagen was dominant enough to win a second Cy Young Award in 1989. Veteran links to the "glory days" like Willie Wilson and Frank White shared the field with up-and-coming stars like Mike Macfarlane, Kevin Seitzer, Kurt Stilwell, Tom Gordon, and Jeff Montgomery. And the Royals also had possibly the most famous athlete in the country, Bo Jackson.

It must be hard for kids today to comprehend a Royals player appearing in national TV commercials, writing an autobiography with a distinguished journalist like Dick Schaap, having his own video game, or any of the other things Bo accomplished off the field. For a time, the Royals had the coolest baseball player on the planet.

Meanwhile, the Oakland A's were assembling a dynasty of sorts, running away with the AL West in 1988, then outlasting the Royals by 7 games in 1989. People who think the Royals have been horrible for 24 straight years now should check out the '89 edition, which had the second-best record in the league. Unfortunately, they were stuck in a division with the league's best team.

Two things were in play here. First, the A's and Royals had a bit of a rivalry going on. There was the minor detail that the A's had jerked Kansas City baseball fans around for 15 years, then bolted town right before the team finally began winning. Then, the Royals ended up chasing those good A's teams in the division standings every year before breaking through with a division title in 1976. Several mediocre years by the A's in the late '70s and early '80s had dimmed the rivalry somewhat, but it had a bit of a resurgence once the A's got good again.

The other factor was the health of Royals founder and owner Ewing Kauffman. Beloved by his employees and by the fans of Kansas City, Mr. K turned 73 before the end of the 1989 season. Who knew how many more years he might have to win a second World Series.

So, after the 1989 season, the Royals went shopping in the free-agent supermarket. For younger Royals fans, it may be tough to imagine a Royals free-agent signing that is not a lower-light like, say, Kyle Farnsworth. No, the Royals were going after big names.

On December 7, 1989, the Royals signed starting pitcher Storm Davis, taking him away from their rivals in Oakland. On December 11, the Royals pulled off an even bigger coup, signing relief pitcher Mark Davis, the NL Cy Young Award winner (this meant the 1990 Royals would make baseball history by having both reigning Cy Young winners). And on December 15, the Royals traded starting pitcher Charlie Leibrandt to the Braves for Gerald Perry, intending to install him at first base and move Brett to DH (he had moved from third to first a few years earlier to make room for Seitzer).

In those simpler days, most baseball fans (myself included) didn't understand or even know about the many advanced stats we take for granted now. So we Royals fans were excited that Storm Davis had won 19 games in 1989. We were excited that Mark Davis had had 44 saves in 1989. And we were excited that Perry had hit .300 in 1988, even though he'd fallen off in 1989. We didn't realize that Storm's 19 wins came despite a 4.36 ERA and a 1.506 WHIP, or that the A's averaged almost 6 runs a game when he pitched. We didn't realize that saves were an overrated stat, and that the Royals probably already had two better relief pitchers in Montgomery and Steve Farr. We didn't realize that Perry's offense was almost devoid of power, a serious shortcoming for a 1B/DH type.

So we all went into the 1990 season expecting a summer-long battle with the A's and the also-formidable-looking Angels for first place. It would begin with an Opening Day battle against Baltimore on ESPN.

I remember racing into the house after school to catch the end of the game. It had been a seesaw affair, and the game was tied at 6 in the 11th. Montgomery was starting his third inning of work. Even at age 14, I thought this was odd. The Royals had spent all that money on Mark Davis, and they wouldn't use him? Monty walked the leadoff hitter, then gave up two singles and the lead run. Then, and only then, did Mark Davis enter the game. When the Royals went quietly in the bottom of the inning, the season was off to a bad start.

It got worse; the Royals had a six-game losing streak in late April, then won a game, then lost four in a row. At 6-16, they were already 10.5 games out. They would not get within 10 games of the division lead for the rest of the season. In one month, the promise of a pennant race had gone up in smoke. KC would end up with a 75-86 record, a mere 27.5 games out of first.

Those offseason acquisitions sure worked out well, didn't they? Storm Davis went 7-10 with a 4.74 ERA and only gave the Royals 112 innings. Mark Davis was a total disaster, going 2-7 with a 5.11 ERA and only 6 saves. Things got so bad that, in desperation, the Royals let him start a couple of game in late July (he got bombed in those games, too). Perry hit .254/.313/.361 for an OPS+ of 90. Of course, there was plenty of blame to go around besides those three. Bret Saberhagen continued his career pattern of good year, bad year, as injuries limited him to only 20 starts. God bless Frank White for all he did for the Royals, but in his last season, he put up a 58 OPS+ in 82 games. The 1990 Royals weren't a bad team, just mediocre. But after the hype of the preceding winter, it was a very disappointing season.

The disappointment would continue into the offseason. Frank White would retire after the season. Willie Wilson would sign a free-agent deal with the A's. And in January of 1991, Bo Jackson would injure his hip while engaged in his "hobby," playing running back for the Los Angeles Raiders. With his athletic ability in doubt, the Royals would release Bo in March of 1991. His hip would eventually require replacement, and while he was able to come back and play baseball, he was never the same combination of power and speed.

The Royals would scrape along near the bottom of the AL West for a couple more seasons. It would not be until 1993 that they would be contenders again. Even then, they were only fringe contenders. Then the 1994 strike hit, and the franchise began its decline. So 1989 still stands as the last time KC reached 90 wins in a season. And 1990 stands as the beginning of what is now a two-decade struggle.

A Few Thoughts On The Mark Teahen Trade

I can't bring myself to have a strong opinion either way on the Mark Teahen trade. Teahen was a decent player who was probably more popular with the fans than his numbers deserved, thanks to his media-friendly personality and willingness to be shuffled from third base to right field to left field back to third base, with a little first base thrown in there too (and I'm not qualified to judge this, but The Amazing Michelle assures me his looks did not hurt his popularity, either). Unfortunately, the way baseball salaries work, if a player can stick around long enough, his salary will keep going up, no matter what his production is. And Teahen was likely to get an arbitration-induced raise to around $5 million for 2010.

I like Teahen, but his OPS+ numbers the last three seasons are 98, 91, 94. The average major leaguer's salary is around $3 million. The Royals can't afford (and shouldn't want) to pay almost twice the average salary for slightly below-average production.

As for the players the Royals got back, third baseman Josh Fields and second baseman Chris Getz, I can't decide if these guys are useful or not. Fields will turn 27 in December; Getz turned 26 in August. Theoretically, their careers should be peaking now, so that's good. Fields had a decent rookie season in 2007, but has struggled since. From the stats, Getz appears to be a good-field, no-hit guy with good baserunning skills. Let's face it, the Royals could use some good fielders and some good baserunners, so he may be useful if he can get on base.

Of course, the unanswered questions after this trade involve Alex Gordon and Alberto Callaspo, who appeared to be set at third and second, respectively, in 2010. Perhaps the Royals intend to move one or both players, either to another position or another team entirely.

Until we see what other moves the Royals have in store this winter, it's hard to decide how to feel about this move. If the Royals have traded Teahen for two role players or organizational depth (admittedly, something the Royals need), it's probably not a major move. If one or both players end up starting next April, then the Royals may have pulled off a steal. If they have moved one slightly below-average player for two well below-average players, well...that's not really progress, is it? In fact, it's the kind of deal that has helped put the Royals in their current predicament.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Most Disappointing Royals Season? Part II: 1986

If you're interested enough in the Royals to be reading this, I imagine you know all the details about 1985. Of course, the Royals won their one (and only?) World Series title that year. It was the culmination of 17 years of Royals baseball, and the end of a decade's worth of postseason frustration. So perhaps a hangover of sorts was inevitable. But I'm sure no Royals fan imagined the season going awry in the way that it did.

The Royals followed up their 91-71 championship season* with a 76-86 record in 1986. That put them in third place, 16 games behind California. Heck, the usually (in the 1980s, anyway) mediocre Texas Rangers were able to finish second that year.

*History seems to have determined the Royals really weren't that good in 1985, just lucky. Well, they did win 91 games, although they outperformed their Pythagorean record by five games. So I suppose they were a bit lucky, but I would say a low-scoring team with a very good pitching staff would be a good candidate to seem lucky--they are likely to win more close, low-scoring games. Were they as good as the Blue Jays and Cardinals, the teams they beat in the postseason? Probably not, but they managed to get hot at the right time. And they did come back twice from 3-1 deficits. Don't let anyone kid you--the 1985 Royals were a good team.

The Royals brought back essentially the entire 1985 team for an encore. The pitching staff that had been so good in 1984 and 1985 was not filled with old-timers, although some of the core position players were entering the final phase of their careers. So what happened?

The Royals played basically .500 ball for the first three months of the season. That was nothing new for the mid-'80s Royals, though. In fact, through 72 games, the 1985 and 1986 teams had identical 37-35 records. The difference, of course, is that in 1985 the team got hot and stayed that way. In 1986, the Royals got to 37-35, then suffered through an 11-game losing streak in late June and early July. Then came the All-Star Break.

The 1986 All-Star Game should have been a celebration for the Royals and their fans. George Brett and Frank White were both selected as reserves, and of course Dick Howser was the AL manager, since his team had won the league the previous year. White ended up hitting a home run in the game--the eventual winning run for the AL--off Mike Scott of the Houston Astros, who was having a season for the ages and pitching in front of his home fans in the Astrodome.

But something was wrong. Howser seemed distracted and forgetful. Players thought he looked tired. Royals GM John Schuerholz insisted Howser go see a doctor. Soon after the All-Star Game, the diagnosis was in: Howser had a brain tumor. Howser's right-hand man, Mike Ferraro, took over managerial duties for the final 74 games.

Under these circumstances, a disappointing season was all but certain. The long losing streak had pretty much knocked them out of contention (8.5 games back and in fourth place when it ended, with 79 games left) and now their manager, the man who had inspired them and led them to two division titles and a World Series win in the previous two seasons, was fighting for his life in a hospital. Actually, the Royals played roughly .5oo baseball after the losing streak ended, but they could never really get in gear or put together a hot streak.

Hoswer would attempt a brief comeback in spring training in 1987, but had to give it up after only one day. Three months later, less than a year after his diagnosis, he passed on. He was only 51.

So 1986 saw two of the biggest reasons the Royals have not made a postseason appearance since that magical October of 1985. First, Howser's untimely death cut short what might have been a very good managerial career. In one full season with the Yankees and four with the Royals, he had won three division titles and a World Series. Yes, managers probably do not make that much difference in a team's record, but after Howser, the Royals began a managerial procession of retreads (Billy Gardner, Buddy Bell), former Royals from the "glory days" (John Wathan, Hal McRae), possibly crazy people (Bob Boone, Tony Pena Sr.), and uninspiring Eeyore types (Tony Muser, Buddy Bell). With Howser still in the dugout, perhaps some of the second- and third-place finishes over the next few years would become division titles. We'll never know, of course.

Also, after the 1986 season, the Royals traded away two young pitchers to try to fortify an offense that had been next to last in the league in runs scored. First, they sent Scott Bankhead to Seattle for outfielder Danny Tartabull. That move worked out well for the Royals. Second, they sent David Cone to the Mets for catcher Ed Hearn. That move would haunt the Royals for years. Had Cone been a part of the Royals in the late '80s and early '90s, perhaps they could have won another division title or two. And they might not have signed Mark Davis and Storm Davis as free agents after the 1989 season. That may or may not be foreshadowing for the next installment of this series...