27 April 2007

Royal legacy #5 -- the 1978 Royals (92-70)

We're into the final five -- 3 '70s teams left, 2 '80s teams left. Number 5 takes us back to 1978 -- the last of the franchise's three great seasons employing Whiteyball and arguably the weakest of those three teams. Of course, at this point we're talking 90-win teams here, so "weak" is a relative term. Coming into '78, the pressure was on in KC. 1976 had seen the Royals qualify for the playoffs for the first time....but lose to the Yankees in the ALCS. 1977 had been THE year in KC -- 102 wins, the most to date -- but, again, the Royals couldn't get past the team now known as the Evil Empire. So 1978 had to be the year, right? Third straight division title, and this time we're taking down New York and the Bronx Zoo in the playoffs and going for a World Series ring. No doubt. But in the end it was a scratched record of the '76 and '77 seasons: another great Royals team that couldn't get the job done in the postseason.

The Royals were firing on almost every cylinder in '78. The offense was top-five in the AL in doubles (first), triples (first), steals (first), strikeouts (second fewest behind Chicago), hitting (.268, third), slugging (.399, third) and runs scored (743, third) in a team built by GM Joe Burke and manager Whitey Herzog for the a
rtificial turf and power alleys of Royals Stadium. The Royals weren't behind the league curve in a couple other categories either, including OBP (.329, sixth) and hits (sixth). The only thing lacking in KC were walks (498 for 10th) and, as usual, longballs (98 for 11th of 14 teams). Pitching wasn't any different as the Royals were among the elite in saves (second to the Yanks), ERA (3.44, third), hits allowed (third), walks allowed (fourth), shutouts (14 for fifth) and HR allowed (fifth). While the team's 53 CG (remember what I said in an earlier post about the '70s handling of pitchers?) were sixth in the AL, the one spot lacking was in Ks as the Royals' staff combined for a third-worst (in the AL) 657 whiffs.

GM Burke retooled the team somewhat from the 102-win '77 squad. His first move came in December '77 with the trade of former playoff goat P Mark Littell and C Buck Martinez to St. Louis for Al "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky, who would keep the closer spot warm for a couple seasons until a young pitcher named Dan Quisenberry was ready to take over. One key player from the '70s Royals, 1B John Mayberry, said goodbye to KC in April '78 as Burke sold his rights to Toronto, where Mayberry would continue to hit for a couple more years while the Royals made do with 1B Pete LaCock. Actually, LaCock would outperform Mayberry at the plate in '78, but not nearly do so in '79 and '80, when the Royals c
ould have also used Mayberry. Mayberry had sat out game 5 of the ALCS in '77 reportedly because of a "toothache," which didn't really endear him to fans or management. In a midseason move, Burke sent P Jim Colborn, who had a great '77 but wasn't getting it done in '78, to Seattle for PH/OF Steve Braun, who played decently in KC for the remainder of '78 and '79. Mediocre starter Andy Hassler was sold to Boston in mid-season to help the Red Sox in their monumental collapse and Burke decided he couldn't live without most-of-the-time light hitting C Jamie Quirk, who he'd sent to Milwaukee in the Darrell Porter trade in December '76, so he traded for him again in August '78.

If the '70s were CF Amos Otis' decade, 1978 was his season as he had a career year and, with the help of 3B George Brett and C Darrell Porter, the Royals provided a strong three-man punch in the lineup. Otis played stellar defense in center (if it wasn't for one person taking the limelight every year, Otis should have won more than 3 Gold Gloves, I'd wager) while hitting .298/.380/.525 for a .905 OPS that was third in the league and his 150 OPS+ is ninth in team season history. AO scored 74 runs, hit 30 doubles, 7 triples and 22 HR, drove in a team best 96 runs and stole 32 bases in his peak year at age 31. Meanwhile, Brett hit .294 with an .809 OPS, 79 runs scored, 45 doubles (an AL best and fourth most in Royals history, second then to McRae's awesome '77), 8 triples, 9 HR and 62 RBI along with 23 SB and average D at third; and Porter hit .265 with a
n .802 OPS, 77 RS, 27 doubles, 6 triples, 18 HR and 78 RBI. DH Hal McRae hit .273 with a .758 OPS, 90 runs scored, 39 doubles, 16 HR, 72 RBI and 17 SB; LaCock hit .295 with a .754 OPS and 21 doubles while playing solid if not exactly rangy D at first; 2B Frank White won the second of his 6 straight Gold Gloves while hitting .275 with a .716 OPS, 24 doubles, 6 triples, 50 RBI and 30 SB; and RF Al Cowens played good defense in right while hitting .274 with a .707 OPS, 24 doubles, 8 triples, 63 RBI and 14 SB. The only regulars who were offensive liabilities were SS Freddie Patek, who still hit .248 with a .630 OPS, 23 doubles and 38 SB, and LF Willie Wilson, who in his first year of full-time action hit .217 with a .658 OPS and 46 SB in 127 games while learning the ropes in the outfield. The bench was led by 1B/fourth OF Clint Hurdle, who hit .264 with a .746 OPS, 25 doubles, 5 triples and 56 RBI in 133 games, but didn't play great defense either at first or in the outfield. Braun was no shining star in the outfield, either, at age 30, but did hit .263 with a .736 OPS in 64 games after coming over in trade. The only other somewhat potent bat on the bench was C John Wathan, who hit .300 with a .715 OPS in 190 AB. The rest of the bench was filled with guys like OF Tom Poquette (shaky D, .597 OPS), IF Jerry Terrell (solid but pretty much immobile D, .436 OPS), 24-year-old SS U.L. Washington (OK D, 12 SB, .609 OPS) and OF Joe Zdeb (shaky D, .602 OPS).

The '78 pitching staff, which followed up likely the organization's best ever staff in '77, was a case of four decent starting performances, great back-end relief and solid middle relief. Dennis Leonard set team records that still stand for GS (40!) and IP (294 2/3) and likely always will, as I see little chance of team's returning to four-man sets. Leonard went 21-17 (third in the AL and third all-time in Royals' season history in wins) with a 3.33 ERA, 183 Ks (third in the AL), 20 CG (second all-time among Royals seasons), 4 shutouts and 27 HRA. Despite Leonard's prolific season, Larry Gura may have been the best of the bunch in KC. Gura went 16-4 (an .800 winning percentage that still stands as a team record) with a 2.72 ERA (ninth all-time for Royals), 8 complete games, 2 shutouts, a 1.09 WHIP (fourth in the AL and seventh all-time among Royals) and 142 ERA+ (ninth all-time among Royals) in 35 games (26 starts) and 221 IP. Paul Splittorff also had a nice season at 19-13 with a 3.40 ERA, 13 CG and 2 shutouts in 39 games (38 starts) and 262 IP. Rich Gale rounded out the rotation by going 14-8 with a 3.09 ERA, 9 CG and 3 shutouts but walked 100 batters while K'ing only 88 in 31 games (30 starts) and 192 IP. Hassler and Colborn combined for 14 starts before departing for other teams with respective ERAs of 4.32 and 4.76. Hrabosky and Steve Mingori led the bullpen as Hrabosky went 8-7 with 20 saves and a 2.88 ERA and 60 Ks in 58 games and 75 IP, and Mingori was 1-4 with 7 saves and a 2.74 ERA in 45 games and 69 IP. The other steady reliever was Marty Pattin, who went 3-3 with 4 saves, a 3.32 ERA and 2 CG in 32 games (5 starts) and 78 IP. Doug Bird and Randy McGilberry weren't steady as Bird was 6-6 with 1 save and a 5.29 ERA in 98 IP and McGilberry had a plus-1.7 WHIP and 4.21 ERA in 25 IP with more walks than Ks.

1978 was a roller coaster season as the Royals followed up a good April with poor May and June performances, had a great July, a bad August and then a great September to hold off the Angels and Rangers in the AL West race. KC stormed out of the gate to win 8 of its first 9 games en route to an 11-2 record
and, eventually, a 14-5 April record that left the team 1 game back of Oakland. May started with a 5-game skid to back the Royals into third but a 7-game winning streak to end the month put the Royals in a tie with Oakland for first on June 2. The Royals took 1 of 4 in Anaheim at the end of June to stay in a second-place tie with the Halos, 1 game back of Texas and a 4-game split with California in early July put KC in fourth, 1 1/2 games behind the Angels. The Royals finished the first half with a 3-game sweep of Baltimore to move into second place at 44-40. KC kicked it into high gear right after the break with a 10-game winning streak that included sweeps of the Yankees (in the Bronx), Texas and Boston to earn the Royals a 3-game cushion atop the AL West. The lead was 4 games by the end of July but a 4-game skid in early August and .500 ball over the next 10 games after that shrunk the lead to 1/2 a game over the Angels. Another 4-game slide in late August gave the Angels the lead but the Royals righted the ship by winning 9 of 11 into September to regain a 3 1/2 game lead. A 5-game surge in mid-September increased the lead to 4 1/2 as the Royals swept 4 from Oakland and won 2 of 3 from the Angels in their last meeting of the season. Going 4-1 versus the lowly Mariners down the stretch helped KC clinch the division with only 5 games left (the Royals went 12-3 vs. the M's on the season) and qualify them for the ALCS versus the Yankees, who had overcome a double-digit Red Sox deficit to tie the Sox and force a playoff game that resulted in the Bucky "F'ing" Dent homer to give the Yankees the postseason bid. The Royals had gone a remarkable 56-25 at home and 36-45 on the road with a 48-30 second half record and 27-11 record in blowout games of 5 or more deficits. The 92-70 record was 1 game worse than expected via pythagorean W-L, but the Royals did set a to-that-point attendance record as 2.25 million fans came to Royals Stadium for a game -- the first time the Royals had attendance over 2 million.

The Royals had to be confident going into the playoffs that the Yanks were ripe for the picking. They had to expend a lot of energy getting back into the race in the AL East, then had to win an emotional playoff game just to get there, and the Royals had gone 6-5 versus New York in the season. Surely the Bronx Zoo squad was about out of gas, right? The Yankees responded with a resounding "no" in blazing past KC in gam
e 1 in Royals Stadium, 7-1, as Reggie Jackson clubbed a 3-run homer in the 8th and the Royals were 2-hit by Jim Beattie and RP Ken Clay. The Yankees had slapped Dennis Leonard and 3 relievers around for a combined 16 hits, including a 3-3 night from "Mr. October" Jackson and 2-5 from former Royal Lou Piniella. Game 2 flip-flopped the scenario as the Royals scored 5 runs in the first 2 innings off Ed Figueroa and Larry Gura helped lock down a 10-4 Royals win. After going 0-2 with 2 walks in game 1, Otis was 3-5 with an RBI and 2 SB in game 2 and Patek hit a 2-run homer after hitting 2 all season. The series was even, then, as it shifted to Yankee Stadium for games 3 and 4. The Royals lost a game they could have won in game 3 as a see-saw game was tied after 5 IP thanks to 3 George Brett homers and the Royals rallied for 2 runs in the 8th off Goose Gossage to take a 5-4 lead. Unfortunately, Whitey put Doug Bird in to pitch to Thurman Munson with 1 out and 1 on in the bottom of the 8th and Munson homered to give the Yankees a 6-5 lead. Goose took advantage of the good fortune to set KC down in order in the 9th to end it. Brett was 3-5 with the 3 homers but flew out in the 9th and Otis was 2-3 with a SB. McRae was 0-5. Jackson also homered for New York off SP Paul Splittorff, who was removed right before Munson's homer. With that deflating loss in mind, the Royals had to face Cy Young winner Ron Guidry in game 4. Brett tripled in the 1st and scored on a McRae hit to give the Royals the lead on Guidry but Leonard couldn't hold it with that minimal run support as the Yankees tied it with a Graig Nettles homer in the 2nd and took the 2-1 lead with a Roy White homer in the 6th. Meanwhile the Royals stranded 2 in the 4th and left Otis as the tying run at second in the 9th as Gossage got LaCock to fly out to left to end both the game and the Royals' season. New York went on to take down the Dodgers in the World Series. New York only had 4 hits in the win as Nettles was 2-4. Frank White was 2-3 for KC as the Royals got 7 hits off Guidry but could only make a couple count. Jackson hit .462 in the series while Mickey Rivers hit .455 and Chris Chambliss hit .400. Otis led the way for KC at .429 while Brett hit .389 and Porter and LaCock hit over .350. Cowens only hit .133, tho, while McRae hit .214.

After the season, Burke did little to improve the Royals, and it showed as the team went out and helped cost Whitey Herzog his job with a 85-77 record in '79 before rebounding under new manager Jim Frey for a memorable run in 1980. Also, in 1980, the Royals would finally get what they wanted and took the Yankees to the cleaners in the playoffs.

1978 Pipeline Royals MVP -- Amos Otis. Probably along with Quisenberry the players who have received the most renewed appreciation from me while doing this countdown. A great player having his best season, and he kept it up in the playoffs.

1978 Pipeline Royals LVP -- Doug Bird. Stinks pretty much all season then gives up a backbreaker homer in the playoffs. Thanks for playing, Doug.

Here's your '78 Royals.

No comments: