Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

It’s the All-Star Break. We’re about 16 days from the non-waiver trade deadline. The Royals stand 6.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central. They are two games above .500. They are 2.5 games out of a Wild Card spot. They own the sixth best record in the AL.

They are in the thick of the Wild Card race.

When Major League Baseball expanded the playoffs to include an additional Wild Card entry, the thought was adding another spot would add more competition. Leagues always love more competition. (They also love the money that goes along with ginning up more competition in the form of expanded playoffs, but that’s another story.) With one more Wild Card team, that meant a total of five teams would play in the post season. More postseason teams, more postseason money. Win-win. An October bonanza.

Except that it’s my belief the second Wild Card spot has been incredibly damaging to small market teams like the Royals.

A few years into this new playoff scheme, teams haven’t figured how to manage the second Wild Card. It inevitably creates an illusion of “being in the thick” of the race. It’s rare when five teams create separation between themselves and the rest of the league. What it does is creates a logjam of teams, jockeying for a single position, inert at the trading deadline, and mortgaging the future for a present where the odds are stacked against them.

Just look at this year’s American League standings

There are three teams that are clearly the cream of the crop. The A’s have the league’s best record and the best run differential. The Angels are the hottest team in the league at the Break and are just a game and a half off the pace in the West. And the third team is the Detroit Tigers, who have, after a rocky June, have gotten back on track and are now 15 games better than .500.

Three teams representing two divisions. Under the old Wild Card rules, the Angels would be running away from the rest of the pack. (The Wild Card renders what would be some wonderful division battles irrelevant, but again, that’s another story.)

Old WC Standings

Under the old Wild Card rules, this race is just about over. Their division rival Mariners are hanging around, and they do still have 10 games left to play against the Angels, so while they are still almost six full games out, they could mount a comeback. Although with their offense, that seems a longshot. (Royals fans know all about what poor offenses do to quality pitching and defense.)

Looking at the standings as presented above, you would think the remaining four teams on the table: the Blue Jays, the Royals, the Yankees and the Indians would have a solid reality check. They would see the two best teams in the American League live in the Western Division and that the one team that didn’t win the division would likely be the sole Wild Card representative. The teams in the back hovering around .500 could look at their rosters, easily assess they are not of the same class as either the A’s and the Angels and they would start jockeying for position as the trade deadline approached as it pertained to the Wild Card.

In other words, those teams would be sellers.

Now, look at the landscape under the current rules:

New WC Standings
Nothing changes at the top. The Angels (or A’s, whichever team finishes second in the AL West) remain prohibitive favorites to play beyond the regular season. By expanding the race to include a second Wild Card, the Mariners – outsiders under the old rules, by almost a week’s worth of games – are now playing the Angels in the “play-in game.” (Or whatever dumb name MLB has given the one-game Wild Card match.) And the lead has been cut by a cool 6.5 games.

By adding that second Wild Card, everyone moves forward in the line. Now, instead of finding themselves as rank outsiders, the Jays, Royals, Yankees and Indians are in the pack. They have a chance. And when you have a chance, you can’t sell. Even if you should.

This is where the second Wild Card cripples teams like the Royals. They have a handful of tradable players. James Shields has around 15 starts remaining in his Royals career. Wade Davis is going make $7 million next year coming out of the bullpen. Greg Holland is eligible for arbitration for a second time and will make more than Davis. Billy Butler has a club option ranging from $12.5 to $14.5 million. That’s just to name four players. (Although I can’t imagine any team in baseball giving the Royals anything for Butler. Although Seattle has been rumored to have interest.)

The Royals find themselves in the exact same spot as last year. They are in a cluster of teams within a few games of the Wild Card. That means they are in baseball limbo. Intertia. Paralyzed between the lure of October and the reality of the competition.

We’re heard ad nauseam the Royals are “all-in” in 2014. If that isn’t true, they are certainly “pot committed” at this point. They aren’t good enough to gain separation from the pack of mediocrity, yet they aren’t bad enough to throw in the towel on this season to look to the future. It’s an unfortunate situation. Their hands are tied. But it’s not something the Royals have done wrong. They’ve built a team designed to hover around .500. The American League is rife with average teams. This year, average gets you into the conversation. And while you’re in the conversation, you can’t punt on the season.

I see frustration from a segment of fans. Those fans want the Royals to sell. This segment feels the Royals are blind in their belief they can qualify for the postseason. While I agree that actually grabbing the final Wild Card spot seems like a pipe dream, the reality is the team is definitely in the mix. Nevermind the flaws you may see with this team. (And believe me, there are plenty of flaws.) All the teams in the Royals cohort have flaws. That’s why they are all bunched together. They just happen to have fewer flaws than the Rangers, Red Sox, Astros, Rays, Twins and White Sox. The reality says the Royals are 2.5 games out with 68 games remaining. They are at the forward of this mediocre group, meaning there aren’t six teams to leapfrog. As of this writing, they are the first team on the outside. As I mentioned at the top of this post, they have the sixth best record in the AL.

This weekend has been terribly frustrating. It’s the exclamation point on a slide that started when the Royals reached the summit of the Central for the briefest of moments. The Tigers have flipped the script, kicked the Royals ass in a four game series, winning three and now stand 6.5 games in front. I get the tendency to react to that. To say the Royals aren’t good enough. I agree. The Royals aren’t good enough to win the division.

But they are in the mix for the Wild Card. You may think this team isn’t very good. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. What matters is there is a cluster of teams that are battling for that final spot and those teams as a collective aren’t very good. As it stands, 87 wins will take the second Wild Card. Last year, it was 92 wins. The year before, it was 93 wins. It’s not often a sub-90 win team takes a Wild Card spot, but there’s a strong probability that happens this season.

Are the Royals good enough to win 87 games?

Obviously, we will find out. The Royals close out July with three games at Boston, three in Chicago before returning home to play four against the Indians and three with the Twins. All 13 of those games are against teams currently under them in the Wild Card standings. Nine of those are against teams outside of the Wild Card conversation. This is the big stretch of the season. Not the four games this weekend against Detroit. The key stretch is the first two weeks after the All-Star Break. The Royals sorely need to grab some wins against the also-rans of the AL. If they can’t win nine of these 13, making a push, then it’s time to sell.

The odds are already stacked against the Royals. Baseball Prospectus puts their playoff odds at 14 percent. Fangraphs is a little more optimistic at 21%, but those odds place them behind Cleveland. Neither scenario is ideal. But the Royals are in a position that even if they win five of the 13, they could still be in the proverbial Wild Card mix. Which would lead them to think they are still in a position to strike. Which would be the wrong conclusion to draw.

The smart teams will be the teams that figure their position relative to the league. They will make moves not based on games back for the final Wild Card spot. They will make moves based on their talent in relation to the talent found on other teams in their competitive group.

And remember: No one has ever referred to the Royals as one of those “smart” teams.

Should the Royals be sellers at the deadline? I’m willing to give the Royals the two weeks post-Break. With a favorable schedule, it’s time for them to make a move. Still, I can’t help but think this is truly a .500 team. With a target of 81 wins, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Royals finished anywhere between 78 and 84 wins. Even in a year defined by mediocrity of the second Wild Card, that’s not going to be good enough. If they reach the last couple days of July with no improvement in the situation, then it’s time to sell.

But as I mentioned earlier, if they remain a handful of games back, they won’t sell. It will be frustrating, but such is the nature of baseball in 2014 with the second Wild Card.

Some thoughts accumulated while watching a Royal butt kicking.

– Media needs a narrative. Television is confined by time and print is similarly restricted by space. That means things need to be neat and tidy. And it doesn’t get any neater and tidier than a scrappy walk-off win. And when that team on the positive side of the walk-off is hanging on the fringes of contention, that means such game will fall immediately into the “game changer” or “momentum” category.

Such was the case in Wednesday’s win against the Rays. I don’t want to minimize the awesomeness of the win, because it was awesome. The Royals don’t often hit three-run home runs in the top of the ninth inning to completely erase a four-run deficit. Then, immediately after the game, broadcasters and columnists pontificated about how that was THE WIN to push the Royals on their way. That was THE WIN that would make the difference in the season. That was THE WIN that meant everything.

Nice narrative. Not true.

We saw all about momentum in Thursday’s 16-4 wipeout against the Tigers. In that, it doesn’t exist in baseball.

I learned that lesson the hard way in 2011. It was early in the season and the Royals were hanging close to the division lead. (When you’re a Royals fan, this feels important.) The Indians were in first place and in town and the Royals record was at 11-7. Alex Gordon was hitting. So was Billy Butler. Melky Cabrera was warming up and Jeff Francoeur was playing out of his mind. The Royals fell behind 2-0 in the middle innings, but pushed a run across in the eighth. In the bottom of the ninth Kila Ka’aihue doubles, Mitch Maier singles and Chris Getz walks. The Cabrera hits a game-winning single. It was a pretty epic game.

I remember writing about it, and talking about how that game would be the launching pad to the season. This team felt invincible after that win. (Looking back at those names that fueled the rally, I feel like an idiot. I should have known.) That was their fifth walk-off of the year and it was only April 21. They felt like a (narrative alert!) team of destiny.

The Royals then went on the road and promptly lost six in a row.

I always remember that game when someone talks about momentum. And it reminds me that it doesn’t exist.

– The Raul Ibanez Experiment never should have happened. And it should be over.

You can talk all you want about “leadership” and “veteran presence” but if you are 42 years old and 0 for your last 23 with six strikeouts and no walks, and you play nasty defense, you shouldn’t be on a major league team.

It says a lot about the arrogance of this organization that they think they have something in Ibanez that merits giving him so many plate appearances.

– Justin Maxwell cleared waivers and reported to Omaha. He could have become a free agent, but he’s no dummy. He sees Ibanez in his roster spot and know he will be back in KC soon.

– Good news on Alex Gordon who had an MRI on his ailing wrist that revealed no break and no tear. A little rest and he should be OK. We hope.

It always worries me when the Royals say someone is going to be fine and they give him a few days off but use him as a pinch hitter or a defensive replacement. And then lose him to the DL and forfeit the ability to place him on it retroactively. Remember, this is an organization that has difficulty managing the 25 man roster. I would hate for Gordon to take the field in the ninth inning on Sunday, fail to see improvement over the All-Star Break and then have to go on the disabled list because he would be out another week or so.

Don’t laugh. It’s happened before.

– Finally, as we head to the weekend, take a moment to read this post by Michael Engel at Pine Tar Press about an experience while coaching little league. A wonderful story that is beautifully told. It’s the best thing I’ve read on a Royals blog this year.

Have a great weekend.

 

Francisely Bueno probably should have made it out of last night’s eighth inning unscathed.  He fumbled a bunt single by a fast guy (that what speed do) – hardly the first pitcher to have that happen.   Then he got a groundball for a possible double play only to have his Gold Glove caliber shortstop make a little league decision to not get any outs at all.

Bueno might have deserved better.   That does not mean Ned Yost’s decision to go to Bueno in the eighth was right.

Let’s ignore for a moment, Yost’s steadfast and defiant refusal to use Wade Davis when his team is trailing.  There is another guy out there, Kelvin Herrera, who has not thrown since June 30th:  that’s SEVEN DAYS OFF.  No, let’s go with Francisely Bueno.

To be clear, Bueno has pitched quite well of late.  Heck, he has thrown 5.2 innings of shutout baseball in his last two appearances.  Both of those appearances having occurred SINCE the last time Herrera appeared in a major league baseball game.  What am I missing here?

We all know that Ned is paranoid about overusing his bullpen.  Sometimes seven relievers is simply not enough.  I am pretty sure they would have eight pitchers in the pen now if the team was not absolutely convinced that Raul Ibanez was going to wake up one of these mornings and be five years younger.

Still, Herrera – on pace to pitch 70 innings this year and idle for a week – stood and watched as the Royals gave up two runs in the eighth inning.  They were somewhat meaningless runs until Kansas City connected for two runs themselves in the following half inning.

It’s hardly all on Bueno, but it should have been Herrera simply because this is was a close game, he was rested and Kelvin is a better pitcher.  If not him, then Wade Davis.

Down one run with your offense getting hits (no runs, but hits – law of average stuff has to start coming into play) and Escobar then the top of the order coming up in the ninth, one almost has to stop being a stubborn by the book manager and go with your dominant eighth inning guy.

Let’s also keep in mind that other than the last week of the season, this is the one week when you can really push your guys – especially your best guys.  You have four days off coming up, so if Davis, Herrera and Holland pitch in five times this week, they’ll have time to recover over the All-Star Break.    One could even get real crazy and use Greg Holland for more than inning this week.  Theoretically, the world would not implode.

Of course, if Tim Collins and Louis Coleman had not forgotten how to get people out or Luke Hochevar had not gone under the knife, this bullpen might be Ned-proof.  Instead, however, the vaunted depth is really not there.  Assuming Herrera might have a tweak or something that makes the team hesitant to use him right now and knowing that Wade Davis simply cannot be used (because – NED), then Bueno was far more palatable than Bruce Chen or Scott Downs or any of the six other pitchers who have appeared for the team this season.

The bullpen depth is not there and the imagination of the man who handles it is lacking.

 

If you don’t like fireworks and cheap beer in someone’s driveway, then this was not your kind of weekend. I like fireworks:  I don’t go out of my way to see them, but when they are in front of my house or above us on a friend’s boat, well, why not?

Oh and beer.  I like beer.

Anyway, not to get lost in the pro vs. con firework debate or the ‘I’m too cool to really celebrate the 4th’ or, even better, the ‘it’s not the Fourth of July, it’s Independence Day!’ argument.  One thing lacking in fireworks this past holiday weekend was the Kansas City Royals.

With the Tigers losing three of four to Tampa, your Royals managed to make up one (1) game on the Tigers and actually lost a game in the Wild Card Standings.  Not fun.

Billy Butler was moved to sixth in the order and, you may have heard this on Twitter (that’s sarcasm), Eric Hosmer continues to hit second.  Raul Ibanez batted cleanup once.  Christian Colon had a nice first start, but then Omar Infante batting fifth after that.   Scott Downs was acquired to either be the 7th guy in the bullpen or the first guy Ned Yost goes to with a tough lefty at the plate.

After winning on Friday behind another good Yordano Ventura start, the Royals did a fantastic job of getting smoked the next two days.  Saturday was particularly frustrating given that Kansas City loaded the bases twice and managed one (1) run.

So, while batting order is a tenuous thing and one can certainly debate the final effect the order of the nine hitters has versus, you know, the overall skill level of the nine.  Here is a marginally unconventional, seat of your pants suggestion.

Versus RHP:

  • Jarrod Dyson CF
  • Alex Gordon, LF
  • Alcides Escobar, SS
  • Billy Butler, DH
  • Lorenzo Cain, RF
  • Salvador Perez, C
  • Eric Hosmer, 1B
  • Omar Infante, 2B
  • Mike Moustakas, 3B

Versus LHP:

  • Lorenzo Cain, CF
  • Alex Gordon, LF
  • Salvador Perez, C
  • Billy Butler, DH
  • Danny Valencia, 3B
  • Eric Hosmer, 1B
  • Alcides Escobar, SS
  • Raul Ibanez, RF
  • Omar Infante, 2B

I don’t love these lineups, but I like them better than Ned’s.  Oh, who’s kidding who?  These lineups are money and guarantee a sweep this weekend against Detroit.

LF ∙ 1973, 1976—79, 1982

poquette-tom

Tom Poquette was drafted by the Royals out of his Eau Claire, WI high school in 1970. It was the beginning of a long, winding association with the club and its minor league system as a player and a coach. He steadily climbed through the minor league ranks before making his MLB debut as a September call-up in 1973. Defense and a mean throwing arm were Poquette’s biggest strengths, but it was questioned whether he could hit enough to stick in the bigs. 21 games in 1973 were not enough to answer that question, but it was looking good for Poquette to at least get a shot to find out in the near future.

He could not crack the major league roster early in ’74, and then suffered torn ligaments in his knee that finished his season and cut harshly into ’75 as well. Two surgeries were required before he was finally ready to break back into the majors to kick off ’76. Things started off great with Poquette hitting like gangbusters and playing aggressive defense in both outfield corners. But in late June, Poquette tore after a line drive in left. As he neared the wall, a spike caught in the Royals Stadium turf, and his head smashed against an unpadded portion of the barrier. “It was just the way I played the game,” Poquette later recalled. “I remember seeing the pool of blood on the ground. I tried to get up, but I couldn’t. I saw the blood and I went back down. Then I drifted in and out.”[i] His cheekbone was broken in four places and he was concussed. He somehow returned after just three weeks missed, and the Royals made sure to pad the entire outfield wall ever since. At the time, Poquette said, “The fans have been absolutely unbelievable. When I was in the hospital for the operation and later on when I was home the cards and letters kept pouring in. I wish I had some way of thanking the fans.”[ii] The fans were no doubt content with Poquette’s play in ’76 as thanks. The injury and the fact that he was rarely allowed to play against a lefty starter limited his games to 104, but his unexpected .792 OPS was a boon for the club as they clinched their first-ever playoff appearance. Poquette’s bat did not show up as big in the ALCS loss to the Yankees though.

He spent 1977 in a left field platoon with Joe Zdeb, but his hitting fell back to right around league average. He only got into two ALCS games in ’77 and managed just a single. His hitting was considerably worse than average in ’78, and his playing time was diminished. “I don’t know what happened to Tommy Poquette,” manager Whitey Herzog said after the season. “I hope he can come back. I think he was over-trying.”[iii] But the Royals outfield was getting crowded, and Poquette still was not hitting, so he was traded to Boston in exchange for George Scott mid-way through ’79. “I wasn’t playing,” Poquette said of the trade, “and sometimes a change of scenery is good. I was losing my concentration. I was shocked at first, but now I’m happy.”[iv]

Poquette came back to the Royals as a free agent in 1982, but he just did not have it anymore. A shoulder surgery had wiped out his entire 1980 season, and he had only played 96 games since being traded away three years earlier. He was released in July of ’82, ending his playing career at the age of 30. The Royals offered him a minor league coaching position, which he said he would consider. He ended up accepting six years later and began an 18 year stretch in which he coached or managed in the Royals system. From Eugene to Appleton to Memphis to Omaha to Charleston to Spokane to Arizona, Poquette was all over between 1988—2006. He spent one and a half of those years, 1997—98, as hitting coach in KC.

[i] Doug Tucker, “Tom Poquette returns to Royals as bat coach,” The Nevada Daily Mail, July 20, 1997.

[ii] Sid Bordman, “Nothing Slow in Poquette’s Rise as Royal,” The Sporting News, August 14, 1976.

[iii] Sid Bordman, “Deciding Royals Outfield To Be Herzog’s Spring Job,” The Sporting News, November 11, 1978.

[iv] Larry Whiteside, “Red Sox Expect Watson to Furnish Wallop,” The Sporting News, June 30, 1979.

Eric Hosmer had four ground ball singles in a meaningless game two nights ago.  He walked three times yesterday in a game the Royals really needed to win.  That’s a whole lot of on-base for two games and exactly what the Royals’ offense needs.

Let’s face it, Hosmer has been flailing at the plate for much of this season and done so batting either second or third in the batting order.  Ned Yost, the master of dome management, has steadfastly refused to move Eric down in the order.  Will his faith start paying off?

Hosmer’s triple slash by month for his career:

  • April: .250/.323/.365
  • May:  .253/.290/.381
  • June: .254/.308/.390
  • July: .303/.360/.454
  • August: .295/.356/.442
  • Sept/Oct: .294/.339/.453

Yes, month’s are arbitrary marking points, but I think it’s safe to say history might be on the Royals’ side when it comes to increased production out of the guy who, quite honestly, is supposed to be the best hitter on this team.  Given that Eric Hosmer was quite possibly the worst hitter in the lineup in June (and that includes Mike Moustakas), he really has nowhere to go but up.

The Royals need Hosmer to go up in a big way right now.  Two games in Minnesota does not a hot streak make, but it sure doesn’t hurt.  Especially with Kansas City heading into two three game sets against teams with losing records before coming home for four against the division leading Tigers.

 

This is a statistical snapshot of  the Royals rotation prior to James Shields’s disaster start on Tuesday.

Rk Pos Name ERA G GS GF IP H R ER HR BB SO BF ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
1 SP Jeremy Guthrie 3.69 17 17 0 112.1 110 48 46 16 27 68 469 111 4.67 1.220 8.8 1.3 2.2 5.4 2.52
2 SP Jason Vargas* 3.53 17 17 0 112.1 115 45 44 14 25 74 469 116 4.20 1.246 9.2 1.1 2.0 5.9 2.96
3 SP James Shields 3.79 17 17 0 111.2 120 58 47 15 24 87 476 108 4.12 1.290 9.7 1.2 1.9 7.0 3.63
4 SP Yordano Ventura 3.26 15 15 0 88.1 87 33 32 7 25 76 372 125 3.29 1.268 8.9 0.7 2.5 7.7 3.04
5 SP Danny Duffy* 2.60 17 11 1 72.2 49 23 21 5 29 55 294 157 3.80 1.073 6.1 0.6 3.6 6.8 1.90
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/1/2014.

The symmetry of the top three starters is kind of cool. Seventeen starts for each, they are within two-thirds of an inning and they are within seven batters faced.

What causes some concern is the ERA column followed by the FIP column a little further down the line. Entering Tuesday, all three were outperforming their FIP. Guthrie has been outpacing his FIP and xFIP for his entire career. Last year, the difference between his FIP and ERA was 0.75 and that was good for a 1.1 fWAR. This year, the difference is nearly a full run and at the halfway point, his fWAR is 0.5. Vargas is usually a little closer. Shields’s FIP is his highest since 2010. Not coincidentally, that was his worst season as a starter.

This is three-fifths of the rotation. These are the guys making the serious cash. And they look to be walking the tightrope.

Shields has been miserable his last nine starts. In his last nine starts, he has a 5.43 ERA covering 56.1 innings. During that time, he’s struck out 36, walked 14 and surrendered 10 home runs. Opponents are hitting .323/.362/.557. He doesn’t look hurt or mechanically broken. He’s just hittable.

If you revisit the chart above, Guthrie and Vargas are exactly the same pitcher, statistically speaking. And it looks like both will regress. ZIPS has Guthrie throwing 88 more innings this year with a 4.64 ERA. It has Vargas down for 98 innings and a 4.55 ERA. Obviously, these are projections so they have to be taken as such, but those numbers are frightening. At this point, the best thing we can say about Guthrie and Vargas is they have kept their team in games when they make starts. That’s not meant to be some kind of backhanded compliment. It’s fact. These two are going out there knowing their offense isn’t going to give them a ton of runs, and they grind out their appearances. The Royals have won 19 of their 34 starts. That’s a .559 winning percentage. That gets you into first place in the AL East.

The projection on Shields is more positive. ZIPS has him down for 106 innings and a 3.83 ERA.

Any time we gaze into the crystal ball, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. This isn’t meant to be a negative type of post where I’m spreading gloom and doom. Shields could find his change-up magic and Guthrie and Vargas could beat the projections all season, just like they have so far. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Or everyone could go off the rails. Hell, if anyone missed time due to injury, the whole thing could fall to shambles as there’s no major league depth in the organization right now.

The point is, Shields is scuffling and Vargas and Guthrie are way outperforming their peripherals. The Royals really need Shields to get it together if they are going to make any kind of run at October. Because to count on the rest of this rotation to continue to be this great would be risky.

When most of us were at lunch, things happened:

  • The Royals designated Justin Maxwell (again) and Pedro Ciriaco for assignment
  • They called up Christian Colon
  • They signed RAUL IBANEZ…..ten years too late.
  • And Bruce Chen and Yordano Ventura got called out for being cheap by a stripper.

Where are we?  New York?

Drafted as a shortstop, Colon has played 27 games at second, 12 at third and 33 at shortstop this year.  His call-up might well be a sign that the Royals’ infatuation with Danny Valencia as a platoon partner for Mike Moustakas is ending (as is there general infatuation with Moose) and certainly is an indication that they view Colon’s future as a utility infielder.  Hey, anytime you can use the number four overall pick on a utility infielder, you do it!

Ibanez?  Well, he’s hit home runs recently, just not this year and comments from the Royals seem to indicate they will use him in right, left (really?) and first.  Perhaps they will play Billy Butler at first and Ibanez at DH part of the time as it is possible the Royals just noticed Eric Hosmer’s on-base percentage.  I don’t know, gang.  Ibanez has been written off as ‘done’ at least three times in his career…..

The stripper?  I don’t care.  Does anyone really care?  Does anybody really know what time it is?

C ∙ 1985—86

sundberg2The Royals knew they had a promising batch of young starting pitchers heading into the 1985 season, and they wanted to find a veteran catcher to guide them. Luckily for them, Jim Sundberg had exercised a contractual option to demand a trade out of Milwaukee after ’84, and a five-player, four-team deal was struck that sent Sundberg to KC (with the Royals giving up Don Slaught and Frank Wills). Sundberg proved to be the perfect complement to the Royals’ stellar rotation, and he provided some unforgettable moments of his own in the ’85 postseason.

At the time of the trade, Sundberg said, “After watching (Royals pitchers) last summer, I was real impressed with the strength of their arms. Milwaukee first saw them in April. Even at that point, I thought they’d really be something. So I’m excited about working with them. The key thing they have is velocity and movement. And for young guys, they seem to know what’s going on.”[i] It is tough to parse how much credit a catcher deserves when it comes to pitching success, but Sundberg certainly deserves some of it as part of ‘85’s run-prevention unit, the best the Royals have ever had. His defensive numbers that can be tracked are not eye-popping for ’85 (especially his sub-par caught stealing rate of 29%) but clearly the pitchers felt comfortable throwing to the six-time gold glover. He was not acquired for his bat, but he was respectable enough at the plate in ’85.

But it was in the ’85 playoffs that Sundberg really made his mark on team history. He was behind the plate for every pitch in all 14 games. In the ALCS, he homered in game three as part of a comeback victory. Then he was the hero of game seven after driving in the first run of the game and later delivering the knockout punch with a bases-loaded triple off the top of the wall in Toronto.

In the World Series, he shined with his none-too fast baserunning. After doubling in game five, he scrambled for home on a Buddy Biancalana single and made a fantastic head-first slide, safe by the narrowest margin. It was the go-ahead run and the Royals held the lead the rest of the way. In the next game, he scored the walk-off winning run from second on a Dane Iorg single on what looked like a replay of his game five slide. It was the most dramatic play in Royals history. “I’ve been watching baserunners use headfirst slides to beat my throws for years,” Sundberg said. “So I figured, why not me? I’ve got one more slide left.”[ii] Manager Dick Howser, who could have reasonably pinch-run for Sundberg, said, “Sundberg only has average speed but he’s a good baserunner. He knows how to score on a base hit; he gets a good jump.”[iii]sundberg Sundberg spent 1986 as the team’s number one catcher again. His overall hitting dropped off in spite of belting a career high 12 homers. And while he still had some of the defensive magic left, the 35 year-old was slowing down. “I don’t throw as hard as I used to,” he said. “I used to be in a category of my own. As time goes on, you lose a little bit.”[iv] After that season, the Royals were no longer sold on Sundberg as a number one backstop, and they thought they had his replacement heading into ’87 after getting Ed Hearn from the Mets in the infamous David Cone trade. Sundberg was soon on his way out of KC in a trade with the Cubs (for Dave Gumpert and Thad Bosley). Sundberg was shocked but understanding: “I think I was brought here to teach the young pitchers…They know what to do now. They don’t need me. But I can’t be angry. This team gave me a world championship that I never got with anyone else.”[v]

[i] Fish, Mike. “Kansas City Finally Got Its Man.” The Sporting News (February 4, 1985): p. 35.

[ii] Attner, Paul. “The Champs.” The Sporting News (November 4, 1985): p. 2.

[iii] Nightengale, Dave. “Full Moon, Controversy, Tied Series.” The Sporting News (November 4, 1985): p. 18.

[iv] Uncredited. “Royals.” The Sporting News (May 26, 1986): p. 17.

[v] Nightengale, Bob. “K.C. Lost Confidence In Sundberg.” The Sporting News (April 13, 1987): p. 20.

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