06 April 2007

Royal legacy #11 -- the 1979 Royals (85-77)

In only three seasons from 1976 to 1985, the Royals missed the playoffs. One, 1983, has already been documented in the countdown. The first of the other two to be listed is 1979, which saw the Royals fall short to the California Angels to break a string of three straight AL West crowns. The disappointing finish also cost manager Whitey Herzog, who had easily been the franchise's most successful manager, his job in a questionable decision by owner Ewing Kauffman and GM Joe Burke. Rumors were that the relationship among the three wasn't good and I wonder if it didn't come down to a choice between Burke or Herzog, with Herzog getting the boot. I've read Whitey's book but for the life of me I can't remember what he said about how the split went down. No matter what happened, 1979 was a disappointing season in a six-year stretch of greatness in KC. Ah, for the days when second was a disappointment for Royals fans.

1979 was another case of all-hitting, not-much-pitching in Kansas City. With "Whitey Ball" in full f
orce, the team ranked in the top five in the AL in batting (.282, second, one point behind Boston), on-base percentage (.344, third), slugging (.422, fourth), hits (1,596, first), runs (851, second behind the Angels), doubles (286, fourth), triples (79, first) and steals (207, first). The Royals were also among the best in strikeouts but drew only 528 walks for sixth there and hit only 116 homers for 11th in that category (Royals Stadium strikes again). The KC pitching staff was a mix of a regular rotation featuring three average and one ungood pitcher and a bullpen with only three decent relievers. The team ERA of 4.45 was 10th in the AL, 27 saves were good for 10th (two relievers in the AL had more than the Royal team), the 816 runs allowed was 11th and, for a change, the 165 HR allowed was 11th in the league while Ks were 12th with 640. At best, the team was middle-of-the-pack in shutouts (eighth), hits allowed (seventh) and walks allowed (seventh). Whatever Whitey was doing with the pitching staff, it wasn't working.

1979 may be a decent Smashing Pumpkins song, but it was a mediocre year for Royals transacti
ons. Whether or not Joe Burke helped force out Herzog is beside the point. Burke can be somewhat excused as the team was coming off four straight 90-win seasons and three AL West titles, so if it's not broken, don't go out of your way trying to fix it. His main move right after the '78 season was bringing back Larry Gura for another season. Nothing of note came out of the January draft and the lone move of note before the June draft was the trade of former closer Doug Bird to Philly for IF Todd Cruz -- which had little good impact on either team. Burke landed P Atlee Hammaker in the first round of the June draft but Hammaker was included in the Vida Blue deal with the Giants after only 30 some-odd IP in a Royals uni in a move that didn't work out too well for Burke, since Blue had one good season in KC before coking himself out of town and Hammaker had a long career with San Francisco. Burke also picked up OF Pat Sheridan in round 3 (he turned into a roughly average player) and P Dan Marino out of a Pittsburgh high school in round 4. It would be interesting to see what would have happened had Marino pursued a baseball career, but he didn't sign. By the way, KC also drafted John Elway in round 18 but didn't sign him. Another link between Elway and Marino. Weird. Other players that got away were Craig Lefferts, who the Royals actually chose in round 7 but didn't sign, and Orel Hershiser and Brett Butler, who were picked in later rounds by LA and Atlanta, respectively. A week after the draft, Burke traded with Boston for 1B George Scott, who was overweight and below average at the plate and was cut in August. That was it for the in-season moves, which means the KC system didn't add much value in 1979.

But, with stars like George Brett, Darrell Porter, Amos Otis, Willie Wilson, Hal McRae and Frank White in place, who needs the future? Brett and Porter in particular ravaged the KC record books in '79. Brett by this time had been raking since 1975 and he paid dividends in '79 with a .329 BA (eighth all-time for KC and second in the AL behind Boston's Fred Lynn) and a .939 OPS (ninth all-time in KC, including a .563 SLG that is fifth on the all-time charts), 119 runs scored (third best in Royals history for the AL title), 212 hits (fourth),
42 doubles (10th), 20 triples (second now, first at the time), 23 HR, 107 RBI, and 17 steals. He also set a team record for total bases that still stands at 363 and his 85 XBH is second all-time among season marks for Royals (one behind McRae's '77). Porter, meanwhile, hit .291 with a .905 OPS (including a .421 OBP that is fourth all-time for a Royal and was also second to Lynn in the AL), 101 runs scored, 23 doubles, 10 triples, 20 HR, 112 RBI (now seventh on Royals charts, at the time tied Al Cowens '77 for the team record), 121 walks (one short of Mayberry's team record, also had only 65 Ks) and a team-record 13 sac flies. LF Willie Wilson, in only his second season as a regular, hit .315 with a .771 OPS, scored 113 runs (fifth all-time among Royals), hit 13 triples, stole a team record 83 bases (that still stands) for the AL lead and also led the league in singles with 148. Otis was again solid in center and hit .295 with an .809 OPS, 100 runs scored, 28 doubles, 18 HR, 90 RBI and 30 SB; McRae hit .288 with an .817 OPS, 32 doubles, 10 HR and 74 RBI; and RF Cowens hit .295 with a .754 OPS and 10 SB. 1B Pete LaCock, who had taken over first when John Mayberry was sold to Toronto before the '78 season, hit .277 with a .714 OPS and 25 doubles; 2B Frank White earned the third of six straight Gold Gloves and hit .266 with a .703 OPS, 26 doubles, 10 HR and 28 SB; and the weakest regular, SS Fred Patek, played subpar D at short (19 errors, below average range), hit .252/.293/.317, and stole 11 bases. That's a pretty damn solid lineup -- it's just too bad the pitching wasn't better. Again, the bench wasn't great as backup IF U.L. Washington hit .254/.299/.358 with 10 SB and played sub-par D at second and short; backup C John Wathan disappointed with a .206 BA and .529 OPS in 90 games; ballyhooed OF prospect Clint Hurdle dropped off from good '78 stats by hitting .240 with a .729 OPS and not providing good defense at the outfield corners; PH extraordinaire OF Steve Braun hit for a .772 OPS in 116 AB; C Jamie Quirk got in 51 games and hit for a .796 OPS; and IF Jerry Terrell hit for a .767 OPS in 31 games. Scott came in and hit for a .699 OPS with slightly below average defense before getting released and four other bench guys were non-descript.

The pitching staff is considerably less fun to revisit. No starter with more than 100 IP had an ERA under 4, and only one reliever with more than 50 IP did. Dennis Leonard had a decent season with a 14-12 record, 4.08 ERA, 12 complete games and 5 shutouts (tying his personal best and ranking second on Royals all-time lists) but gave up 33 HR in 32 starts and 236 IP. Paul Splittorff went 15-17 with a 4.24 ERA, 11 CG and a 1-1 K/BB ratio and gave up 25 HR in 36 games (35 starts) and 240 IP. Lefty Larry Gura went 13-12 with a 4.47 ERA, 7 CG, 29 HRA and only a slightly better K/BB ratio than Split in 39 games (33 starts) and 233 IP. Bringing up the rear was SP Rich Gale, who was 9-10 with a 5.65 ERA, also near a 1-1 K/BB ratio, and allowed 19 HR in 34 games (31 starts) and 181 IP. Steve Busby tried to put it back together as a spot starter and was 6-6 with a 3.63 ERA and 4 CG in 22 games (12 starts) and 94 IP; and Craig Chamberlain got 10 starts and went 4-4 with a 3.75 ERA and 4 CG in 69 IP. The two sub-
4 guys out of the pen were Al Hrabosky, who saved 11 games and was 9-4 with an under 1-1 K/BB ratio in 58 games and 65 IP and rookie Dan Quisenberry, who posted a 3.15 ERA, 3-2 record and 5 saves in the first 40 IP of his career. Steve Mingori, Renie Martin (also to be included in the Blue deal) and Eduardo Rodriguez combined for 155 IP of over 4.8 ERA and the other substantial pitcher, Marty Pattin, was 5-2 with 3 saves and a 4.58 ERA in 31 games and 94 IP.

The Royals would mainly battle themselves throughout the '79 season but the months of July and September would doom the boys in blue. A 5-game April losing streak was followed by a 6-game win streak for KC as the Royals were 2 games back of California. The Royals entered May at 11-10 and a 4-game win streak in mid-May kept them within striking distance at 3 1/2 games out. A 5-game surge late in the month closed the gap to 1 as KC went 17-11 in May. June and July were the swoon months but a 6-game win streak late in June helped the Royals pull into a first place tie with Texas with the Angels a game back. That was very short-lived as the Royals lost 14 of their next 15 to drop back to 10 games out on July 14. KC pulled it together and a 4-game win streak helped cut the deficit to 6 games on Aug. 3. A 5-game surge in mid-August cut the deficit to 5 games and another 5-game win strea
k cut the Angels' lead to 1 1/2 games on Aug. 27. The Royals entered September sitting a half-game out. After going .500 in the first 10 games of the month, the deficit was back at 4 games as the Angels caught fire at the right time. Going into a 4-game home set with the Angels Sept. 17, KC was 3 games out. They had to settle for a split as Gale and Chamberlain lost games and, with the deficit still at 3 games entering a 3-game road set at California Sept. 24 and only 6 games left in the season, the Royals dropped 2 of 3 to be mathematically eliminated from contention. The 3-game deficit would be the final nail in Herzog's coffin. The more I've documented the season, the more I can kind of support the organization's decision to let Herzog go. You can't lose 14 of 15 in July in a pennant race and expect to come back from that. The Royals were 14-14 in September. California was 16-11. The Royals finished 11 games over .500 at home and 3 games under .500 on the road with a record one game better than expected via pythagorean W-L. After going 44-47 in the first half, KC turned it around to go 41-30 in the second half. Herzog and the Royals were 34-22 in 1-run games and 25-19 in blowout games. 2.26 million fans came to Royals Stadium to see the defending AL West champs.

After the season, Burke let "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky go in free agency after two seasons and traded Al Cowens and two other players to California for mediocre IF Rance Mulliniks and coketastic 1B Willie Mays Aikens, who at least had four productive seasons before also coking himself out of tow
n and, eventually, into prison. Burke picked up knuckleballer Tom Candiotti as a minor league FA in January '80 but he went to Milwaukee via the rule V draft before doing anything at KC. Herzog, of course, famously landed with the St. Louis Cardinals in the middle of the 1980 season and would guide the Cards to 1 World Series title and two other NL pennants. He would also be the GM of those '80s Cardinals teams. In the end, however, he had more wins with St. Louis (in twice as many games) but a worse winning percentage than he had built up with KC. The Royals would nearly reach the pinnacle under new manager Jim Frey in 1980, but the love affair with Frey was short and there would be more frustration to come along with more winning.

1979 Pipeline Royals MVP -- George Brett and Darrell Porter. You can't pick one over the other in '79. The team isn't anywhere in the hunt if one of them doesn't do what he did.

1979 Pipeline Royals LVP -- Rich Gale for a 5.65 ERA in 31 starts, although why Whitey kept sending him out there, I don't know.

Here's your '79 Royals.

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