18 April 2007

Royal legacy #7 -- the 1981 Royals (50-53)

After seeing the Royals get a comeback win and Todd Jones take another step toward losing the Tigers' closing job to Joel Zumaya, the now 4-11 Royals brought my mind back to the '81 team. Not the team that finished strong for an AL West second-half title in a strike-marred season. More like the team that was coming off an AL pennant in '80 and stumbled through the first half to a 20-30 record and fifth place in the division in the split-schedule campaign. Yeah, that one. The one that cost Jim Frey his job as manager. Now if only the '07 Royals would cost Buddy Bell his job, so hopefully GM Dayton Moore could bring in somebody more savvy...... ah, wishful thinking. 1981 is a hard season to classify on the countdown. Do I put it below the good '89/'82/'75 teams and possibly further down into the teens because of the winning percentage, or does it get a boost for a playoff appearance and division title, albeit a half-assed one? Maybe if the Royals had the track record of the Twins in more recent seasons, with a playoff appearance every once in a while rather than the reality of going on 22 years without one, I would do that. The Royals' seven playoff appearances are so precious, however -- what, 18 percent of the seasons in team history??? -- I had to give it a boost. So although it's #7 on the countdown, feel free to take it with a grain of salt and realize probably most of the teams from 8-15 or so could have given this team at least a run for its money. Playoffs are special, though. Let there be no doubt about that -- even if like the '81 team you're swept out quickly.

The '81 team was built on decent pitching and an inconsistent offensive attack. The Royals were built for speed in GM Joe Burke's last season in the position but weren't built to take a walk or score runs. The team ranked in the top five in the AL in batting (.267, fourth), slugging (.383, fifth), steals (100, second to Cleveland), hits (952, fifth), doubles (third), triples (second) and strikeouts (third lowest). The areas in which they lagged were runs (397, 12th, not a good place to lag), OBP (.325, ninth, another area where it's not good to lag), HR (61, 10th, par for the course) and walks (301, 10th, tied in with OBP, of course). On the mound, the Royals weren't top-five in many categories but lagged in only one important area -- Ks (404, last in the AL). Other than that, the 3.56 ERA was sixth in the league, 24 saves was third, 24 complete games and 8 shutouts were sixth, 909 hits allowed was seventh, 405 runs allowed was fifth, 75 HR allowed was seventh and 273 walks issued was a league best. Like I said, nothing spectacular on either side of the ledger, although in a unique season like '81, it didn't take greatness to advance.

Burke had his work cut out for him in terms of expectations for '81, as the team was coming o
ff its first and only (to that point) World Series appearance. In the end, '81 would take both him and Frey down within a year of the loss to the Phils in the '80 WS. Burke kicked off the '80 offseason by letting C Darrell Porter go in free agency after he batted .100 in the '80 ALCS and .143 in the WS, after an '80 season that wasn't bad but was a dropoff from his great '79 production. Porter would improve in '81 with the cross-state Cardinals while John Wathan and Jamie Quirk split time with sub-.300 OBPs at catcher in KC. The Royals lost knuckleballer prospect Tom Candiotti in the '80 rule V draft to Milwaukee before he hit the bigs and Burke's biggest FA moves were bringing in 1B Lee May for the last couple years of his career and RP Don Hood, who didn't pitch in KC in '81 but pitched decently in '82 and '83. Burke also picked up past-his-prime OF Cesar Geronimo from Cincinnati in a January '81 trade, and gave up OF prospect Marvell Wynne in a deal for P Juan Berenguer, who wouldn't do well in KC before being sold to Toronto in August. Draft-wise, Burke picked up utility guy Bill Pecota in the January draft and, in June, landed a couple big fish in P Mark Gubicza out of a Philly high school in round 2 and P David Cone out of Rockhurst High in KC in round 3. Another get was future OF Shane Mack in round 4 but he chose not to sign with KC. The Royals missed a chance at Tony Gwynn with their second pick in round 2 after choosing Gubicza earlier in the round and later passed on OF Devon White (round 5) and 1B Fred McGriff (round 9). The sale of Berenguer was the only notable stretch move for Burke and the Royals.

Reigning AL MVP George Brett would be one of two Royals to carry the main load for the team offensively. Because of the nature of the '81 season, there weren't many really remarkable performances, but some were notable, at least. Brett hit .314 with an .845 OPS, 27 doubles, 7 triples, but only 6 HR as well as 43 RBI and 14 SB. He also made 14 errors at third for a slightly below-average .946 FP. Damn, it would be hard to follow up a season like he had in '80. How could you psych yourself up for that, knowing how hard it is to top a .390 BA and other historical numbers? His 144 OPS+ still led the team in '81. Right behind him was 1B Willie Mays Aikens, who hit .266 with an .835 OPS, 16 doubles, 17 HR and 53 RBI, plus good D at first. On a different level than Brett and Aikens but still productive was CF Amos Otis, who played his usual great D in center and hit .269 with a .738 OPS, 49 RS, 22 doubles, 9 HR, team-leading 57 RBI and 16 SB at the age of 34. DH Hal McRae was second on the team in batting at .272, hit for a .726 OPS (only .396 SLG), and hit 23 doubles and 7 HR; LF Willie Wilson played good D in left, hit .303 a year after setting the MLB record for ABs, posted a .699 OPS, led the team with 54 RS and stole 34 bases but only walked 18 times; and 2B Frank White won his fifth straight Gold Glove at second, hit .250 with a .661 OPS (only a .285 OBP), and hit 17 doubles and 9 HR. After that, the other regulars were somewhat lacking. C John Wathan hit .252 with a .610 OPS, 13 XBH and 11 SB while committing 7 errors behind the plate; SS U.L. Washington hit .221 with a .617 OPS, 19 doubles and 10 SB; Geronimo hit .246 with a .636 OPS; and C Jamie Quirk backed up Wathan with a .250 BA, .619 OPS, and only 8 RS in 46 games, which was enough to inspire Burke to bring in FA Jerry Grote, who played better D than Quirk and hit .304 with a .790 OPS in 22 games to lead the bench. Also on the bench was rookie fourth OF Darryl Motley, who got the most ABs of anyone off the bench and hit .232 with a .588 OPS and less than stellar D. Hurdle hit .329 with a .980 OPS off the bench but played in only 28 games as part of the mix in RF. Lee May, Dave Chalk, Rance Mulliniks and Ken Phelps were the other guys off the bench, and only May hit decently out of that group. Phelps' performance was bad enough (a 16 OPS+) to ship him to Seattle in a post-season trade.

Lefty Larry Gura followed up a great '80 season with an even better '81 to lead the Royals' pitching staff. Gura pitched for a 2.72 ERA (eighth in Royals' history, third at the time), 11-8 record, was second in the A
L in WHIP at 1.10 (third in Royals' history, second at the time) behind Ron Guidry, and hurled 12 complete games and 2 shutouts in 23 starts and 172 IP. Dennis Leonard also shone in '81 with a 13-11 record, 2.99 ERA, 107 Ks, 9 CG, 2 shutouts in an AL-best 26 starts and AL-best 201 IP. It would be his last 200 IP season as the physical bill would come due for being the workhorse for the team in the late '70s. Rookie Mike Jones had a flash-in-the-pan season in 12 games (11 starts) of a 3.21 ERA, 6-3 record, and about a 1-1 K/BB ratio in 75 IP. He wouldn't hit the majors again until the '84 and '85 KC teams, so maybe he was a good luck charm in the early '80s. After that, there was a precipitous drop to the next best starter. The usually reliable Paul Splittorff was nearing the end of his career at 34 and went 5-5 with a 4.36 ERA, 1 CG and 12 HRA in 21 games (15 starts) and 99 IP; Rich Gale was 6-6 with a 5.40 ERA and 2 CG in 19 games (15 starts) and 101 IP; and Atlee Hammaker got a taste of "The Show" to go 1-3 with a 5.54 ERA in 10 games (6 starts) and 39 IP before being shipped out in the Vida Blue deal. RP Rollie Fingers' MVP/Cy Young/Rolaids Relief season in '81 overshadowed another great year from Dan Quisenberry at the back of the Royals' bullpen. Quiz was 1-4 but posted 18 saves and a career-best 1.73 ERA along with a 1.18 WHIP in 40 games and 62 IP. Renie Martin, also destined for SF in the Vida deal, seemed solid with a 2.77 ERA, 4-5 record and 4 saves in 29 games and 61 IP but walked 29 compared to only 25 Ks. George's big bro Ken Brett also wrapped up his career with a lackluster (for 1981) 4.18 ERA, 1-1 record, 2 saves, 14 BB and 7 Ks in 22 games and 32 IP. Rookie Jim Wright was also solid for KC with a 3.46 ERA (albeit with a 1.50 WHIP) and 2-3 record in 17 games (4 starts) and 52 IP. Berenguer was the only other pitcher with substantial time for KC and he posted an 8.69 ERA in 8 games and 19 IP.

The Royals would get off to a 2007-esque start in 1981 but would finish strong to salvage an ugly season. As the Royals celebrated opening day in front of 50,000 fans in Baltimore, Gura was outdueled by '80 Cy winner Steve Stone and the Royals lost the home opener to Detroit in front of 40,000 fans four days later as Quisenberry picked up his first loss of the season. Both games were part of a 2-8 start to the season and a 3-10 April record that left KC 11 games back of the 18-3 white-hot A's, who started the season 11-0 and, eventually, 17-1. A 4-game losing streak in mid-May left KC at 6-16 and 16 1/2 games out in the cellar of the AL West and put Jim Frey officially on the hot seat. The Royals closed the month out with a 4-game win streak to get out of last but were still 9 1/2 back of the A's. The month also ended, however, with the MLBPA talking strike over free agent compensation. On June 11, the hammer fell and the strike began with the Royals sitting at 20-30 and 12 games back of the A's. The owners and players reached a compromise in late July and decided to resume the season with a
second half separate from the pre-strike games. This ended up backfiring as two NL teams with great records -- Cincinnati and St. Louis -- missed the playoffs by placing second in both halves for good overall records but not good enough to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, KC finished with a .485 winning % yet made the playoffs in the AL thanks to outlasting Oakland in the second half. Play resumed August 10 and the A's jumped ahead once more in the divisional race. At 10-10 and just ahead of the 8-9 A's 20 games into the second half, the Royals made the move to fire Frey and bring in Dick Howser, who had guided the Yankees to an AL East crown in 1980 in his only season as manager. The Royals responded to take 2 of 3 in Oakland as part of a 6-game winning streak and a 5-game surge as the season neared its close helped the Royals hold off the A's to finish the second half at 30-23, ahead of Oakland in second at 27-22.

The win under the ludicrous yet fortunate-for-the-Royals split-season format set up the first AL Division Series against the A's, who carried an offense built on power and speed behind young OF Rickey Henderson, slugging OF Tony Armas and OF Dwayne Murphy, and a pitching staff that had a second straight great season led by Steve McCatty (2.33 ERA), Rick Langford (2.99 ERA) and Gold Glove winner Mike Norris (3.75 ERA). The Royals dropped game 1 of the best-of-5, 4-0, as Norris held KC to 4 hits and 3B Wayne Gros
s hit a 3-run shot off Dennis Leonard. Game 2 was a closely fought 2-1 A's win as McCatty outdueled the rookie Jones and Tony Armas hit 2 RBI doubles while Willie Wilson had KC's RBI. Two days later, the Royals went to Oakland-Alameda County Stadium and fell, 4-1, to end the season as Langford beat Gura, the Royals made 3 errors (including 1 by White) and Rickey Henderson was 2-2 with 3 RS. All in all, Aikens, Wilson and John Wathan hit over .300 in the series while Brett hit only .167 and McRae hit .091. The Royals finished the season 19-28 at home but 31-25 on the road with a 15-19 record in 1-run games. Frey and Howser guided the team to 1 win less than expected via pythagorean W-L and the Royals were second in the AL in attendance with 1.27 million fans coming to Royals Stadium.

After the season, new GM John Schuerholz took over and began retooling the team. He started by bringing in P Bud Black from Seattle via a good trade, trading underwhelming SP Rich Gale and talented yet injury plagued OF Clint Hurdle, drafting Danny Jackson and trading for Vida Blue -- a mix of moves that both worked and didn't, but the '82 team was ready to compete. It wouldn't be until '84, however, that the new general manager would have a team ready for the playoffs. Howser would go on to a great yet tragic career as KC manager while Jim Frey would land in Chicago and help the Cubs to the '84 NLCS before wearing out his welcome in short order in the Windy City.

1981 Pipeline Royals MVP -- I'll go with George Brett, if for nothing else for still putting up great numbers with the pressure of coming off the 1980 season.

1981 Pipeline Royals LVP -- Rich Gale. Like '79, bad pitching plus poor fielding. A forefather of Lima time. Jose Lima would also probably wear those glasses.

The 1981 Royals.

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