04 April 2007

Royal legacy #13 -- the 1971 Royals (85-76)

With the '90s and '00s a thing of the past in our countdown now, we're left with the '70s and '80s, which constitute the best of times for the Royals franchise. Two seasons in the '70s left in the countdown showed signs of what was to come in KC but were overshadowed by the early '70s Oakland juggernaut (ironic that the Athletics would be the team to overcome the new Kansas City team in its early success). One of these two seasons was 1971, the franchise's first winning season, as solid but unspectacular hitting and pitching combined to make history as the Royals at the time were the fastest expansion team to become a winner. 1970 had done nothing to show a winning season was in store in KC -- the Royals had finished 65-97 and Bob Lemon had taken over the team midseason and posted a .418 winning % in 110 games. Amos Otis and Lou Piniella had been the lone bright spots offensively and nobody stood out head-and-shoulders above the rest on the pitching staff.

As it would turn out, pitching would be what would keep the Royals in the hunt. The team ERA of 3.25 was fifth in the AL, the Royals gave up an AL-low 84 HR, saved a league-high 44 games, posted 15 shutouts (fourth), allowed only 566 runs (third) and were fourth in both walks and hits allowed. The lone blemish on the team pitching resumé was a 10th place mark in strikeouts with only 775. Hitting was a different story as the team didn't have quite as much success. The team BA of .250 was seventh in the AL while the OBP of .313 was eighth and the SLG of .353 was also eighth. Speed and Municipal Stadium helped KC lead the league in steals with 130 while placing second in both doubles and triples. The Royals also finished last in HR
with 80, however, 10th in walks, and eighth in both runs and hits. The team didn't strike out much, however, as only 819 whiffs put them second best in the AL.

Original Royals GM Cedric Tallis worked some more magic in late '70-into-'71 that would pay off into the '80s for KC. The first move was a December '70 trade that sent three players to Pittsburgh for a package that included SS Freddie Patek and P Bruce Dal Canton. All three players KC got (Jerry May was the other) would chip in to the team's success in '71, and Patek would be the team's shortstop throughout the '70s. In January '71, Tallis got the biggest score of the regular draft with C John Wathan in round 1. After some minor moves early in the season, Tallis struck again in the June draft(s). While in round 1 he passed up Rick Rhoden, Frank Tanana and Jim Rice, he made up for it in round 2 by drafting George Brett out of El Segundo HS a pick ahead of Mike Schmidt. Tallis did pass up Ron Guidry in round 3 but did add RP Mark Littell in rd 12, who would go on to a measure of infamy in KC history. Any draft where you get a player like George Brett is a success, tho, so Tallis gets his due credit. In the secondary phase of the June draft, Tallis struck again by picking up P Steve Busby in round 2. Busby would have a short span that ranks among the greatest in team history but overwork and injury would do him in by the time the team began making playoff appearances. After that, Talli
s rested.

Offense came from both familiar and unfamiliar directions for the Royals in 1971. Amos Otis followed up a breakout '70 season by hitting .301 with a .788 OPS, 80 RS, 26 2B, team leading numbers of 15 HR & 79 RBI and an early team record 52 SB (which would stand until Patek broke it in '77). He also threw in
a Gold Glove season in CF. The team leader in OPS was actually 3B Paul Schaal, who had a career year by hitting .274 with a .799 OPS, 80 RS, 31 2B, 6 triples, 11 HR, 63 RBI and an unprecedented (in his career) 103 BB -- a team record that lasted only 2 years before Mayberry shattered it with a record 122 that still stands. He also played every game of the season with offense that made it easier to ignore his 28 E at 3B. 1B Gail Hopkins, picked up by Tallis in a '70 trade with the ChiSox, came out of almost nowhere to hit .278 with a .795 OPS in 103 games; 2B Cookie Rojas also had a career year of a .763 OPS and .300 BA with 22 doubles and good defense at the keystone; newcomer SS Patek hit .267 with a .694 OPS, a team-best 86 RS and 11 triples (an AL best), 21 doubles and 49 SB (his biggest highlight was probably becoming the first Royal to hit for the cycle on July 9 vs. Minnesota); C May played solid D while splitting time with Ed Kirkpatrick to hit for a .673 OPS (Kirkpatrick hit for a .640 OPS in more games); and Lou Piniella hit .279 with a .679 OPS, 21 doubles and 51 RBI. The most disappointing regulars were OF Joe Keough, who hit for a .641 OPS, 1B/OF Bob Oliver, who posted a .277 OBP and .628 OPS, and Kirkpatrick. The rest of the bench was also disappointing other than an .846 OPS from OF Sandy Valdespino in 18 games and a .797 OPS from IF Rich Severson in 16 games. No other bench player posted an OPS+ higher than 59.

The pitching staff was paced by four solid starters and three standout relievers. Mike Hedlund landed a spot in the top 10 in single-season ERA in team annals by posting a 2.71 ERA, 15-8 record, 1.16
WHIP and 7 CG but only 76 Ks in 32 games (30 starts) and 205 IP. That mixture of that low an ERA, 15 wins and that few Ks in over 200 IP has to be somewhat rare in the modern era. Rookie Paul Splittorff debuted with a 2.68 ERA, 8-9 record, 6 CG, 3 shutouts, 1.13 WHIP and 80 Ks in 22 starts and 144 IP; Dick Drago pitched his way to a 2.98 ERA, 17-11 record, 15 CG, team-leading 4 shutouts and 109 Ks in 35 games (34 starts) and 241 IP; and Bruce Dal Canton posted a 3.44 ERA and 8-6 record in 25 games (22 starts) and 141 IP. The other two main starters were more average in Al Fitzmorris' 4.17 ERA and 7-5 record in 36 games (15 starts) and 127 IP and Ken Wright's 3.69 ERA, 3-6 record and 1 save in 21 games (12 starts) and 78 IP. Out of the pen, RP Tom Burgmeier had the best year of any reliever on the Royals with a 1.73 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 9-7 record and 17 saves in 67 games and 88 IP. Not far behind was closer Ted Abernathy's 2.56 ERA, 4-6 record and 23 saves in 63 games and 81 IP. Jim York completed the triumvirate with a 2.89 ERA, 5-5 record, 3 saves and 103 Ks in 53 games and 93 IP. Two other remarkable performances came from Bill Butler, who posted a 3.45 ERA and 1-2 record in 14 games (6 starts) and 44 IP, and Monty Montgomery, who had a 2.11 ERA and 3-0 record in 3 games and 21 IP. Four other guys, including Roger Nelson, who would plaster his name all over the record books in '72, had plus-5 ERAs for KC out of the pen in '71.

A few factors would meld together to keep Lemon and the Royals from their first playoff appearance in '71. The main factor was the 101-60 Oakland team that KC went 5-13 against, but others were a 14-16 July, a 19-31 record in 1-run games (sounds like the '00s Royals), a 2-7 mark in extra innings and an 8-g
ame skid in late July/early August. The Royals finished April sitting at 11-11 and 4 1/2 games out of first before going only a 1/2 game better in May to drop to 7 games behind the 33-18 A's. KC began to pick up steam in early June with a 6-game winning streak that gave the Royals sole possession of second behind Oakland and a second 6-game surge in June pulled KC within 4 1/2 games of Oakland. The Royals couldn't keep the momentum rolling, however, as a 7-game skid in late June dropped them 11 back and the 14-16 July ended with KC 11 1/2 games out and in the midst of the 8-game skid that ended Aug. 4 with the team 14 1/2 games out. With the first division title in 40 years in sight for Oakland, the A's buckled down and held the lead at 14 games despite the Royals' 18-12 August. On Sept. 1 KC was 17 games out and losing the last two games of the season at Oakland finished KC's season at a 16-game deficit. The 85-76 record hit the mark of the expected record via pythagorean W-L and the Royals were 7 games over .500 at home and 2 games over .500 on the road. Municipal Stadium wasn't exactly filled to the gills every game as the total attendance of 910,000 was eighth in the 12-team AL. Tallis went back into action after the '71 season wrapped by picking up Richie Scheinblum, who gave the Royals a great '72 before being turned into Hal McRae by Tallis in a trade after that season. Tallis also made the deal to bring John Mayberry to KC from Houston in another deft move that cost him York but gained him a cornerstone of the great Royals teams of the mid-to-late '70s.

1971 Pipeline Royals MVP -- Amos Otis, winner of the first of his three Gold Gloves in '71 with a combination of power and speed that would set the standard in the KC lineup into the early '80s. It still sets the standard. By the way, Cedric Tallis also makes a very, very strong run at MVP for '71. Amazing work from the GM. If only he had landed Jim Rice, too. Then, hands down, he's the MVP of '71.

1971 Pipeline Royals LVP -- No one player really pops out at me. The whole bench could get the award, but I think I'll give it instead to Jim Rooker, who had been solid in '69 and '70 but faltered to a 5.33 ERA in 54 IP in 1971. Maybe he was just dealing with some arm problems.

Here's to the '71 Royals.

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