The 2014 Royals are having the best season in franchise history since probably 1985, the only time the franchise has won it all. This has led to some comparisons between the two clubs, especially since both teams were built on great pitching and shaky offense. George Brett even went so far as to do a player-by-player comparison and conclude the 2014 Royals were better. Was he right?
First of all, let's disabuse ourselves of the notion that the 1985 team was a great team barreling towards a championship. The 1985 Royals had a pythagorean record of 86-76, were second-to-last in the league in runs scored, were dead last in on-base percentage, and were just 42-42 on July 12. Even after going on a nice second-half run, they won just 91 games, six games worse than the Yankees, who finished second place and out of the playoffs in the Eastern Division.
The 1985 Royals were a very good team, not a great one, who got hot at the right time, had a little help from Don Denkinger, and were clutch in October thanks to a funny-named shortstop named Buddy Biancalana and one of the greatest clutch hitters in baseball history - George Brett. Let's go position-by-position, as George did, and do the rundown. All 2014 statistics use current stats + ZIPS projected stats for the rest of the season (except Christian Colon and Bruce Chen, since their season is likely over).
Catcher - Jim Sundberg vs. Salvador Perez
Sundberg was a six-time Gold Glove Award winner, but by 1985 he was past his prime at age 34. He was not a total slouch with the bat and provided key leadership during the Royals pennant run, including a big hit in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. But this is really no contest. Salvador Perez is just beginning the prime of his career, a career that could very well eclipse Sundberg terrific career. Verdict: Salvador Perez
First Base - Steve Balboni vs. Eric Hosmer
Eric Hosmer certainly has a brighter future than Balboni ever did, but Balboni's franchise-record-setting home run season is a pretty underrated season. Balboni was not exactly the nimble Gold Glover Eric Hosmer is, but his tremendous power made up for the other deficiencies in his games. Hosmer is probably having a career-worst season with the bat and will see better days in the future, but for this comparison, I'll take Balboni's power. Verdict: Steve Balboni
Second Base - Frank White vs. Omar Infante
Frank was 35 years old in 1985, but still enjoying a fairly productive career. His 22 home runs were the second-most by a second baseman that year (behind Ryne Sandberg). He had lost a step on defense, but was still an asset on the field. By contrast, 32 year old Omar Infante has been a liability with the bat this year despite the gaudy RBI totals. He's still adequate defensively and an upgrade over Chris Getz, but Infante has not given the Royals the kind of production they should have hoped for after signing him to a four-year $30 million deal last winter. Verdict: Frank White
Shortstop - Onix Concepcion vs. Alcides Escobar
Buddy Biancalana was the starter in October when Concepcion went down with injury, but Onix was the starter much of the year. It is amazing the Royals were able to be as competitive as they were in 1985 with such a black-hole on offense. Alcides was nearly an All-Star this year, so this is a pretty easy call. Verdict: Alcides Escobar
Third Base - George Brett vs. Mike Moustakas
Hahaha. I'm not sure its possible to have a wider gulf than this. Verdict: George Brett.
Left-field - Lonnie Smith vs. Alex Gordon
Lonnie was a pretty talented player offensively, but he suffered a down year in 1985. His defense was a big liability, earning him the nickname "Skates." Alex Gordon has been one of the best players in baseball, particularly on defense, so this is no contest. Verdict: Alex Gordon
Center Field - Willie Wilson vs. Lorenzo Cain
I was a bit surprised by this, as I seem to remember Willie Wilson having a better year than he did. Willie stole 43 bases in 1985, but that season marked the beginning of his decline from an elite player to just-above replacement level player. Verdict: Lorenzo Cain
Right Field - Darryl Motley vs. Nori Aoki
Motley caught the game-clinching out in Game 7 and had a key home run in that game to get the blowout started, but overall he was a pretty limited player whose only skill was bopping it out of the park once in awhile. As bad as Nori Aoki has been this year, he gets on base a lot more than Motley, and is even a better defender. Verdict: Nori Aoki
Designated Hitter - Hal McRae vs. Billy Butler
Hal had his swansong in 1985, as this would be his last productive season. He was still a fairly decent hitter in 1985, but his numbers would be dwarfed by any other Billy Butler season. However, this is easily Billy's worst season, making it all the more amazing the Royals have contended despite his lack of production: Verdict: Hal McRae
John Schuerholz assembled a very motley crew of punch-and-judy hitters for the Royals bench in 1985. Although a couple of them ended up having key hits for the Royals that October, overall it was a pretty crummy group of hitters. Josh Willingham and Jarrod Dyson give today's Royals a clear advantage. Verdict: 2014 Royals
If you don't like position-by-position comparisons, here is a look at the 1985 and 2014 Royals position players compared with hitters lined up by fWAR.
Click to enlarge.
George Brett towers over everyone as far as value, but the 2014 Royals have far more value from their position players with a much deeper roster. The 2014 Royals position players combine for 25.9 fWAR combined to just 14.1 for the 1985 Royals.
Holy cow that '85 pitching staff was good. Mark Gubicza is the only member of that rotation worse than the best pitcher - James Shields - on the 2014 pitching staff. What is really striking is how much lower the strikeout and home run rates and BABIP are for the 1985 club. It was a different time, man. Verdict: 1985 Royals
The 1985 bullpen was basically Dan Quisenberry, Joe Beckwith, and a bunch of guys to throw in slop time. Quisenberry's 3.8 strikeouts per nine innings looks even more amazing today. Today's pen is much deeper and more talented, although it should be noted Quisenberry is more valuable than any current Royals reliever due to a much, much heavier workload. Verdict: 2014 Royals
Its a pretty simplistic way to compare the two teams, but to sum up, the edge at each position goes to:
That's seven positional edges for the 2014 team, five for the 1985 team. Of course, if you break out the starting pitchers individually against each other, each 1985 Royals starter outperforms his 2014 counterpart, and the 1985 team would get the edge overall.
But the two teams are pretty comparable. We may not see the same result as in 1985, but maybe Hall of Famer George Brett knows what he's talking about when it comes to baseball after all.