28 February 2007

Royal legacy #25 -- the 1986 Royals (76-86)

Expectations couldn't have been any higher for Royals fans going into 1986. The team was coming off its first World Series victory, had won at least the AL West division crown or finished second every year since 1975, and was riding high with a team featuring George Brett, Frank White, Bret Saberhagen and a young unproven up-and-comer named David Cone. Did I mention the team was also coming off a great World Series win against NL archrival St. Louis? Needless to say, things didn't turn out well for Royals fans. The team didn't have a winning month other than a 3-1 October, was 19 games under .500 on the road, endured an 11-game losing streak in late June-early July and, to top it all off and perhaps at once both distract and inspire the team, beloved manager Dick Howser was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor over the all-star break when he managed the AL all-stars. He stepped aside for surgery and Mike Ferraro guided the team to a 36-38 record over the last 74 games. Howser would attempt a comeback in '87 but, after three operations, finally succumbed to cancer in June '87. He remains along with Brett and White as the only Royals to have their number retired and his number 10 is posted on the base of the scoreboard. With a winning percentage of .525, he is second only to Whitey Herzog (.574) in winning percentage among Royals managers with five or more seasons with the team.

On the whole, pitching wasn't much of the problem with the '86 Royals, as the staff posted an AL best 3.82 team ERA, had a league best 13 shutouts, allowed a league low 673 runs, and gave up a league low 121 HRs. On the other hand the staff only struck out 888 batters (11th in the AL), was in the middle of the pack in hits allowed, and saved only 31 games (12th). The hitting was not a good story. The team hit .252 (12th), posted a .311 OBP (13th) and a .390 SLG (11th) while scoring only 654 runs (13th), hitting 137 HR (12th) and drawing only
474 BB (13th). Line drive hitting and speed put the Royals in the top 5 in the AL in doubles and triples but, looking at the stats, those runners were likely often stranded.

1986 marks the countdown's first trip into the GM John Schuerholz era. Schuerholz made no big moves going into '86 as he let a few nondescript guys go from the '85 squad (WS game 6 hero Dane Iorg, SS Onix Concepcion (brought back in May '86) and bench OF Pat Sheridan among them), resigned declining DH Hal McRae and made moves only to add another light-hitting SS, Angel Salazar, via trade, and sign free-agent OF Rudy Law (.715 OPS in 87 games). The '86 draft was also somewhat quiet for Schuerholz as he grabbed free swinging Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson out of Auburn in the fourth round and P Tom Gordon in round 6. He whiffed on his first two picks, picked C Pat Bailey over P Pat Hentgen in round 5 and passed up OF Matt Williams, but it seems like his strategy in '86 was to hold pat and not fix was wasn't broke, which he can't really be out-and-out blamed for. 1986 would convince him other wise as, after the season, he would make the moves to bring in free agent OF Jim Eisenreich, swing the Danny Ta
rtabull trade and, unfortunately, also make the first Cone trade in March '87 while cutting other ties to the '85 team.

Offensively for the '86 Royals, it was Brett, White, and a whole lotta mediocrity for the most part. No Royal regular had a .300 batting average, and the only Royal to exceed that number was rookie 1B Kevin Seitzer, who ended up making Brett a first baseman starting in '87. Seitz hit .323 with an .888 OPS in 28 games in his first cup of coffee in the majors, which more than earned him a full-time nod starting in '87. Brett followed up his great '85 season with a not-as-good-but-still-nice campaign of .290/.401/.481, 16 HR, 73 RBI. White added a .272 BA with a .787 OPS while hitting 22 HR and driving home 84 runs. Lonnie Smith earned his keep at the plate while committing a team high (among OF) 9 errors. Skates hit .287 with a .768 OPS while 1B Steve Balboni led the team in HR with 29, RBI with 88 and Ks with 146. Unfortunately he also posted a .286 OBP and
made 18 errors at first. The ugly part of the offense came from the SS position, where Salazar and beloved '85 Royal Buddy Biancalana combined for OPS+ numbers of 59 and 71, respectively, while combining for 25 errors in the field. C Jim Sundberg struggled to hit his weight, as usual, while providing solid defense, Willie Wilson struggled to a .312 OBP and .366 SLG but played good defense, McRae put up a .676 OPS while sharing DH with Jorge Orta (.732 OPS) and Bo Jackson debuted with 34 Ks (Bo Knew Ks) and a .207 BA in 25 games (82 ABs). Other than Seitzer, not much help came along on the bench. Greg Pryor posted an OPS+ of 8 (!) in 112 ABs, and guys like Darryl Motley and Jamie Quirk didn't chip in either.

On the mound, Danny Jackson led the way with probably the second-best season of his career (not including W-L) and best as a Royal (ditto) by posting a 3.20 ERA and 11-12 record in 185 IP, 32 games and 27 starts. Mark Gubicza threw in a 12-6 record and 3.64 ERA in 180 IP and Bret Saberhagen followed up
his phenomenal '85 with a more pedestrian '86 (setting the tone for his odd-numbered year greatness and even-numbered year "off years" that still included some nice numbers). Sabes went 7-12 with a 4.15 ERA in 156 IP and Charlie Leibrandt was again solid by posting a 4.09 ERA and leading the team at 14-11 in 231 IP. '70s Royal stalwart Dennis Leonard made a comeback attempt at age 35 after not pitching regularly since '82 and did so-so, putting together an 8-13 record and 4.44 ERA in 192 IP. Rookie Scott Bankhead rounded out the regular starters with an 8-9 record and 4.61 ERA in 24 games (17 starts) and 121 IP. He would be shipped out after the season in the Tartabull deal that worked out in the Royals' favor. In the 'pen, closer Dan "Quiz" Quisenberry churned out year 8 of a nice 9 year run with a 2.77 ERA and 12 saves in 81 IP, Steve Farr was solid with a 3.13 ERA and 8-4 record along with 8 saves in 109 IP and Bud Black went 5-10 with 9 saves and a 3.20 ERA in 121 IP. Only 13 pitchers took the mound for the '86 Royals, which compared to some of the crap lists posted by the franchise in the '00s is phenomenal. Cone debuted to post a 5.56 ERA in 22 IP and three other pitchers put in less than 20 IP of work.

With the pitching staff's work going to waste thanks to a struggling offense, the team was 9-10 an
d 3 games back of first-place California at the start of May and was still 3 1/2 games back of the Angels on July 1 despite carrying a 37-39 record. By that time the team was at the start of the 11-game skid that sank them to 8 1/2 games out by July 8. Danny Jackson stopped the skid the next day with a shutout win but the damage was done. July was one of the worst months in franchise history with the skid that dropped the Royals out of serious contention plus Howser's cancer diagnosis. The team would go 9-17 in July and hover around .500 in August and September under Ferraro. They finished 16 games back of the Angels but clung to third place in the AL West. Attendance was great with 2.32 million turning out for third in the AL. A shutout loss by Sabes and the Royals on the last day of the season put the cap on a depressing season that would be the first in a run of 21 seasons and counting without a division title or playoff berth. The team would stay competitive with the exception of a couple seasons in the early '90s but the loss of Howser and gradual reshaping of the team by Schuerholz, who departed for Atlanta in October 1990, would be the early crumblings of a franchise that was one of the majors' best from 1975-1989.

1986 Pipeline Royals MVP -- Danny Jackson. Provided nice punch in the rotation for $175,000 and was always a competitor.

1986 Pipeline Royals LVP -- Actually not an easy award to hand out. Let's just go with the bench. Not one of them was enough to earn it individually, but collectively they stunk to high heaven.

Here's Brett, Leibrandt and the '86 Royals.

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