Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Royals Time Capsule, Part 1.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that on November 4th, 1995, my life jumped onto a different track. That was the evening Gary Huckabay formally asked me if I wanted to help him write a baseball book – name TBD – along with the legendary creator of the DTs (well, he was a legend on rec.sport.baseball), Clay Davenport. Secure in the knowledge that the first year of medical school was pass/fail, I said sure, why not – what’s the worst that can happen? (Filed under “be careful what you wish for.”) Along with Chris Kahrl and Joe Sheehan, we were completely oblivious to what we were in for.

The first copy of that book, “Baseball Prospectus ’96” (I’m looking at the cover right now, and it’s ’96, not 1996, for some reason), sold maybe 150 copies – less if you don’t count family members. The “cover” is just a thicker piece of paper stock. After the book was printed, we realized that the font we used, when bolded – as it was, for instance, for all of the players’ names – the letters bled together until they were almost illegible. Oh, and that the St. Louis Cardinals’ chapter was missing. (Seriously. The prototype of baseballprospectus.com went up with the immediate intent of making that chapter available.)

Anyway, we were too dumb, too stubborn, or too single to get the hint. A second book followed (with a real cover! And the Cardinals!) Then a third (with a real publisher!) Keith Law, who joined us as writer #6 in 1997, decided a few years later that he’d have more fun working as the Assistant GM of the Toronto Blue Jays instead. A pair of guys who started as BP interns, Chaim Bloom and James Click, got hired by the Devil Rays. Keith Woolner joined the Indians. Dan Fox jumped to the Pirates. Nate Silver showed up on the Colbert Report. And the 14th edition of Baseball Prospectus comes out sometime next month. As Bono sang, “Uno, Dos, Tres, Catorce!”

And my one copy of that first book would probably be worth hundreds of dollars if I ever lost my mind and put it on eBay.

Oh look! It’s my navel!

The 14th edition of BP is also the first edition that I have not written for, and just the second that I have not written the Royals chapter for. (I could have written the chapter this year, but that would have been 8000 fewer words for my blog, and that would never do.) So instead I thought it would be fun to pull out that very first book, and see what I wrote about the Royals 13 winters ago.

I don’t think I’ve cracked open that first book in a decade, so re-reading that Royals chapter last week was very much like digging up a time capsule, a time capsule I had created for myself back when I was 20, and finally got to unwrap at age 33. I thought some of you might enjoy this trip down memory lane.

The first half of the essay is below; I’ve added some commentary in colored italics. Enjoy.

***

The Kansas City Royals were once the model of how to operate a successful franchise. (This was around the same time that GM was the model of how to operate a successful corporation.) With a wealthy, patient owner, a commitment to developing players from within the organization, and a GM who concocted some of the best trades in baseball history, the Royals were able to go from the depths of expansion in 1969 to a dominant force in the AL West by 1976. (The Royals built a perennial playoff team from scratch in seven years. In twice as many seasons since the 1994-95 strike, they’ve built absolutely nothing: they have no one to blame but themselves.) The talent amassed in the mid-70s was enough to keep the Royals among the elite teams in baseball for the next decade, capped with an improbable run to the World Championship in 1985.

The fly ball that Andy Van Slyke hit to Darryl Motley to close the 1985 Series closed a chapter in Royals history, however, and the Royals have spent the last 10 years more as a symbol of baseball mediocrity than baseball excellence. (Ah, mediocrity. If only we had known had good we had it then.) Winning the title in 1985 tricked the Royals into thinking that the glory days of the late 70s had come again to Kansas City, and that they would be able to continue dominating the historically-weak AL West for many years to come. The reality, of course, was that 1985 was the last gasp of a team whose once-great offense was a mere shell of itself, a team which owed everything to a great pitching staff and an otherworldly final month by George Brett. (I wrote this in the earliest days of the World Wide Web; there was no baseball-reference.com with daily logs, and a claim like this was simply unverifiable. It turns out that Brett had a pretty terrible September; he hit .210/.319/.340 from September 1st to 28th. But from September 29th until October 5th, Brett was 11-for-23 with five homers, three doubles, and 13 RBIs as the Royals won five of their last seven games, including three of four in a crucial series against the Angels. He then hit .360 in the postseason; his Game 3 performance against the Blue Jays in the ALCS is the best single-game performance in team history. So if we define “final month” as from September 29th to October 27th, Brett hit .397/.489/.808. Yeah, that seems not of this Earth.) The 1976-80 Royals featured a lineup that averaged 788 runs and 93 wins over that five-year span; not once in the last fifteen years has any Royals team matched either of those numbers. (The Royals have scored 788 runs three times since – 1999, 2000, 2003 – in the heart of the high-octane era, and with the fences at Kauffman Stadium drawn in. And 93 wins? Only once since 1995 have they won 78 games.) The World Championship team featured an anemic offense that finished 13th in the AL in runs scored, and the Royals have consistently finished in the bottom half of the AL in that category ever since.

The Royals have tried a variety of tactics to reclaim the lost greatness of the late ‘70s. Following their most successful season since 1985, the 1989 team which rode Bret Saberhagen, the Royals decided to make up for a dozen years of inactivity in the free-agent market in one offseason. The Royals succeeded only in proving that money is no substitute for intelligence in the front office, as they ignored the team’s biggest weakness – the offense – in an attempt to upgrade what was a stellar pitching staff with Storm “Run Support” Davis and Mark Davis’ evil twin brother. (I still submit that Storm – not Mark – Davis was the dumbest free agent signing in franchise history. There was no reason to think that Mark would develop Mark Davis Disease – analogous to Steve Blass Disease, only instead of suddenly and inexplicably being unable to throw strikes, you become suddenly and inexplicably unable to get anyone out. By comparison, there was EVERY reason to think that Storm Davis would suck. Just look at his 1989 season, but cover up his win-loss record first. His entire stat line is an ode to a borderline #5 starter – and remember, this was 1989, and Oakland had one of the best pitchers’ parks in baseball – but McGwire and Canseco bashed for him, Eckersley closed for him, and the Royals paid him for that 19-7 record.)

When that attempt crashed and burned, the Royals tried a new tack. They made a big trade in an attempt to beef up their offense – Saberhagen for Gregg Jefferies, Keith Miller, and Kevin McReynolds. (Quite possibly the most underrated trade in team history, largely because of the next sentence.) When the Royals saw how bad their defense had become with the influx of ex-Mets, they made an ill-advised trade to address that – Jefferies for Felix Jose. (One of the ten worst trades in Royals history, and probably the least-remembered of the top ten. Jefferies didn’t have a great 1992 season – he hit .285/.329/.404 in his one year in Kansas City – but it wasn’t a bad year, all told, for a 24-year-old third baseman, and there was plenty of reason to think he was capable of better than that – Jefferies was Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Decade for the 1980s. But Herk Robinson traded him for Felix Jose, who had put up pretty much the same numbers in 1992, only he was three years older, an outfielder, and had nothing like Jefferies’ track record. In two years with St. Louis, Jefferies hit .342 and .325 with power and speed, and made the All-Star team and garnered MVP votes both years. Jose hit .253 his first year in KC, .303 the next year, and was released just nine games into the 1995 season.) And, with the Royals now a hodgepodge of questionable talent that wasn’t going anywhere, they tried the free agent market again in an attempt to build a scrappy pitching-and-defense team that resembled that “great” Royals team of 1985. Greg Gagne and Wally Joyner were signed, Jose Lind was acquired in trade, the Royals offense continued to suffer, and the team continued to finish around .500. (Ah, .500. If only we had known how good we had it then.)

***

Reading this part of the essay 13 years later, I have to say that I’m impressed at how well it holds up. Last spring, I wrote the Royals chapter for a Baseball Prospectus book on the 1980s – a book that is currently on indefinite hiatus – and the analysis of the Royals decline in the 1980s that I wrote in 2008 isn’t much different than the analysis I wrote in 1995.

At least the first half of the essay. In the second half, let’s just say that Optimistic Rany makes an appearance. That’s right: in the winter of 1995-96 I was quite optimistic about the future of the Royals. Yeah, this isn’t going to end well.

26 comments:

Jeff said...

I was fairly optimistic in the mid-90's mostly due to the success of the 1994 team. I'm so glad I didn't know what the future would bring.

Minda said...

Now I'd like to see what Optimistic Rany had to say. Are you going to share Part II?

Curtis said...

I am with you and Jeff. The 1994 team had me thinking good things about where we were headed, too. I never had any clue of the train wreck that was coming our way.

steak said...

Rany, I have a good news/bad news update for you.

First, the bad news. My company, which should remain nameless but won't, Cerner, has finally blocked your blog. This is something I realized only today... and considering I check your blog daily (often two and three times) means it is a very recent change. I've yet to figure out how to spend my time between Excel worksheets with your blog now unavailable. I'm no psychologist, but I believe I'm somewhere around the second stage of the grieving process.

However, the good news from this horrible turn of events is that to be blocked by said company's servers, you must amount to a colossal waste of employee time! Hooray! This is the kind of thing you write home to mom about.

In regards to your baseball prospectus excerpt; hilarious (in the Dr. Strangelove kind of way).

And lastly, I've noticed several posters of the XX chromosome type (such as Minda above). This too is a boon for your website... soon you'll have your wife contributing a ladies blog just like Mr. Bill Simmons.

kcghost said...

I have always felt that the Saberhagen trade marked the true "End of an Era" for the Royals. You traded a CYA pitcher for a never-was (Miller), a has-been (Reynolds), and an a guy who might break-out after three average years. Basically it was a Sabes for Jefferies trade.

You don't trade a guy who your fans have a strong affinity for without getting something very good in return. Yes, Jefferies had two great years in St.Louis, but that was it. He then reverted to being just a guy.

If we had kept Jefferies and had he produced as he did in St. Louis if might have been a break even trade considering Sabes health issues over the rest of his career.

The Jefferies for Jose trade should have been considered a firing offense.

While we all lament the Allard Baird years we should really remember that things began to fall apart under Herk.

OJ said...

I generally like Optimistic Rany except when he convinces me to draft John Bale (instead of Cliff Lee!!) in an AL-only league.

pjbronco said...

I have to agree with kcghost: the disaster started with Herk. Allard Baird proved incapable of digging out of the hole they were in, but Herk was the worst evaluator of talent in the history of the Royals franchise.

Dave said...

It wasn't that Allard was incapable of digging out, it was that Glass prevented him from receiving a shovel to dig with. If Allard had the resources and money that Dayton enjoys he would have been remembered in a better light. Allard was a good scout, a good Royals representative, and did a good job of selling the franchise to players. I would like to see him get another shot someday as I think he got a raw deal.

Anonymous said...

I have a friend formerly employed by the Chiefs front office. Scott Pioli is set to be named GM to be announced later this week. Terms have been agreed on by Clark and Scott.....final details just need to be ironed out. Herm and assistants are fired with assistants able to re-interview for their jobs through Scott. This is a good day for Chiefs fans.

Andy said...

A Felix Jose memory...

In the opening game of a "big" series against the White Sox (probably '94), he leads off with a triple against Jack McDowell, only to be promptly picked off of 3rd base seconds later. Yeah, dumb trade!

collinincalifornia said...

Felix Jose -- one of my first non George Brett baseball cards -- I think a '94 Upper Deck card of him making a sliding catch in the outfield. As a little boy, i was confused as to how Felix Jose and Jose Lind had the same name. Anyways....

Minda can stay on this site if she wants... doesn't need to go to a girly site at all.

Anonymous said...

this post got me all nostalgic... about BP. as a long time jays fan i will always be sad about 85... but somehow the royals eventually became one of my favourite teams... anyways, i think i was introduced to BP in 97... DEFINITELY by 98.. it was the old books that looked like they were printed on typewriter... or am i imagining that. sadly my friend threw out all of his old books before either a) giving them to me, or b) donating them to the local (or even university) library

Shelby said...

"...the Royals offense continued to suffer, and the team continued to finish around .500."


Man, that stings.

Casper said...

Rany - thanks for humoring me and finally mentioning how terrible the Mark Davis deal was. I'll agree with your assessment that Storm was a DUMB signing, without question, however the Mark signing is still in my unwavering opinion the worst move EVER in Royals history. You're right - who knew he'd suddenly suck so bad? Regardless of whether we knew then or we know now, it doesn't change that he's the worst move ever, imo. Call me superstitious, but ever since he came around - and he's still a pitching coach for us in Rookie League ball - our team has been terrible, year-in and year-out. Hey, the Cubs have a goat to blame...I blame Mark Davis.

Finally, as for Herk - I agree with you guys. He was God-awful. Trading Sabes broke my heart. He was one of my favorite players as a kid - and still one of my favorite pitchers ever. I still remember screaming at the radio when Frank Thomas grounded to 2B to give Sabes his no-no - and when Kirk Gibson almost screwed it up for him. But back to Herk, it wasn't even just the Sabes deal - remember signing Cone, who only went on to win the Cy Young for us - and then promptly trading him AGAIN (this time to Toronto, I believe)? Who'd we get in that deal, does anyone remember? I can't recall. Let's also not forget the way that Herk treated Gubicza (sp?) at the end of his career...I think the only thing he did right was bring in Greg Gagne and Gary Gaighti (sp?...I just drove 8 hours from Fargo, sorry that I can't spell...brain's mush)...

Anonymous said...

I firmly believe that most of Baird's problem stemmed from the horrific state of the franchise that Herk left.

Don't believe me? Here are Herk's first round draft picks (1990 to 1999):
Joe Vitello
Johnny Damon
Sherard Clinkscales
Jim Pittsley
Michael Tucker
Jeff Granger
Matt Smith
Juan LeBron
Dermal Brown
Dan Reichert
Matt Burch
Jeff Austin
Mike Paradis
Mike MacDougal
Kyle Snyder

How can any franchise survive such a crushing degree of incompetence in drafting?

Baird was brought in to a awful club with one of the worst minor league systems in baseball and then told he couldn't spend any money.

Anonymous said...

Just an FYI, in the second Cone trade we got the great Chris Stynes. Ouch.

Anonymous said...

Stop dreaming of Orlando Hudson and Orlando Cabrera. Our middle infield help? Willie Bloomquist. Yes!

Anonymous said...

That 1989 team was actually very good, possibly the 2nd best team in baseball (yes the offense was abyssmal, but the pitching staff was sweet), unfortunately, that was before the WC and the best team in baseball was in our division.

As good as that staff was, it could have been even better, had we not traded away David Cone and Danny Jackson for a backup (and injured) catcher and a crappy shortstop.

Jimmy Jack said...

FYI -- According to MLBTR, the Royals signed Willie Bloomquist to 2 yr, $3 Mil contract. And for some unknown reason Moore said his best opportunities were at 2nd and Center Field? What about Crisp? Not sure about this signing quite yet, veteran yes, but better than Callaspo? Guess we'll have to wait & see...

Anonymous said...

Hey, i'll take Bloomquist over Tony Pena, Jr. Maybe now they can turn Tony into a pitcher!

Anonymous said...

Bloomquist was signed first for his versatility (he's played every position in the infield and outfield), and secondly to compete with Callaspo. This is a good, cheap signing.

For those that like to harp continually on OBP as if it's the only aspect you need to win, he had a .377 OBP last season.

Anonymous said...

Willie Bloomquist. Career 322 OBP. On-base guy.

Someone's looking at last year's numbers and ignoring the big picture. Oops ...

Anonymous said...

Rany, why is the Baseball Prospectus book on the 1980's on "hiatus"? What's the deal if you can share? Thansk.

Anonymous said...

Well excuse me for looking more at recent numbers than past numbers. His walk rates and contact rates both jumped last season. Was it a fluke? Possibly. But niether you nor I can say for sure. If he comes in and gives us a .350+ OBP in 200 or so at bats, I happen to believe he'd be a useful bench player.

Antonio. said...

Shouldn't part of the job of the GM be to sell his owner on his ideas of improving the team? Maybe Allard could have done the Royals better with his real ideas, but as long as Glass wasn't buying into them, he was going to fail.

royalman said...

Concerning the Mark Davis FA 1990signing. I certainly did not foresee the complete disappointment that he was to become. I did however wonder why he was signed. I remember looking at his numbers for the year 1989 in comparison to our young closer at that time Jeff Montgomery. Except for number of saves ( Steve Farr had been put in a number of save situations for the Royals that year ) The numbers were almost identical. In looking back at them now on baseball reference Monty looks even better.