Prologue - A Tale of Two (Designated) Hitters
After almost thirty years of futility, the Royals finally made it back to the playoffs in 2014, and won it all the following year. Despite the fact that he played only a dozen games in Royal blue, and none in the post-season, it's hard to dispute that Jonny Gomes's speech was the most memorable one in the Royals' 2015 World Series victory parade:
Cy Young winner, not on our team, beat him. Rookie of the year, not on our team, we beat him. MVP of the whole league, (turns around) sorry guys not on our team. But we beat that guy too!
He didn't include "home run leader" in that list, but he very well might have. The Royals were two-time A.L. Champions, but in neither of those years did any Royal challenge Steve Balboni's record; the most hit by any Royal in those years was 22. Which is not to say that no record-chasing excitement was generated by those who played on those teams.
Billy Butler, the designated hitter for the first of those championship teams, had his best home run hitting season two years earlier, in 2012. Though he ended the season with only 29, he got off to a hot start, with 16 home runs before the All-Star break. With the All-Star Game being hosted by the Royals that year, the home town fans hoped that the Royals' lone All-Star might be selected for the Home Run Derby. However, he was passed over for the honor, even though Prince Fielder, who was selected, had one home run fewer at that point. Robinson Cano, who made those selections, made himself persona non grata in Kansas City forever by denying the Royals fans their hero's showcase. When they weren't booing Cano, Royals fans, were, on multiple web sites, considering the possibility that Billy might approach Balboni's record, but the consensus, correctly, was that the home run rates required would be beyond Butler's abilities.
Billy became a free agent after the 2014 season, signing with the Oakland Athletics, and into his role as both the team's regular designated hitter and its premier power threat stepped Kendrys Morales. In the World Championship season, he tied for the team lead with 22 home runs, and hit three during the Division Series against the Astros. His power would be on better display the following year. The final stats for 2016 read 30 home runs, but there was little Balboni-chasing excitement attached to that, mainly because by the end of May, he had only six home runs and a batting average below .200, and many fans were ready to write him off. A hot June would pick him up to the point where by the All-Star break, he actually had the same number of home runs than Balboni did at the equivalent point in 1985, but the damage to the fans' attitude was already done.
2017 - The Moose Cuts Loose
Mike Moustakas was picked second overall on the 2007 amateur draft by the Royals. He came to the team with a power pedigree, having set his high school's home run record, and proved that out in the minor leagues, socking 36 home runs across two levels to tie for leading all minor leaguers in home runs that year. On June 10, 2011, after hitting 10 home runs in his first 55 games at Omaha, he became the sixth member of the future AL Championship teams to debut in Kansas City, and one day later, hit his first home run.
That, though, was one of only five he'd hit that year, in 89 games at the major league level. His path to stardom, once so promising, seemed to be in jeopardy. The following year, he managed 20 home runs, but with an on-base percentage under .300, his OPS+ was below 100. His struggles would continue until he hit a low point in early 2014, when, sporting a slash line of .152/.223/.320, he was demoted to Omaha.
Maybe he just needed a confidence boost. "Moose" overpowered AAA-level pitching to the tune of a .960 OPS in 8 games, and the Royals decided he had proven himself enough to come back. From June 1 until the end of the season, he slashed .235/.289/.377, not at all spectacular, but adequate enough that it was worth keeping him on the field for his defense, which frequently was. The Royals' patience with Moustakas's power finally paid off in the 2014 post-season, in which he topped all players with five home runs.
In 2015, the Mike Moustakas that the Royals and their fans had hoped to see emerged - mostly. Through the first half of the season, he hit over .300 and played fantastic defense, earning selection to the All-Star team by way of the "final vote" (Royals fans being particularly enthusiastic All-Star voters in 2015). However,the expected power was still not there, hitting only 7 home runs at that point in the season. In the second half, though, that started to show as well, as he hit 15 home runs on his way to being part of a World Series Champion team. The power continued to trend upward in 2016, hitting 7 home runs in April alone, but strangely enough, there is no evidence that anyone was thinking of Balboni's record at that time. Perhaps that would have happened if he'd gotten more playing time that year, but after a brief stint on the disabled list for an injured thumb on a tag play, his season ended for good on May 22, after he tore his ACL colliding with Alex Gordon trying to catch a foul ball.
Moose returned from his injury in the spring of 2017, to a Royals team devastated by the unexpected death of pitcher Yordano Ventura. April was a disaster, the Royals enduring a string of nine games without scoring more than three runs on their way to a 7-16 record. But despite a generally abysmal offense, there was one thing that stood out: Royals were hitting home runs. And Royals fans were noticing. Before long, the Star got into the thrill of the chase as well. Some gave credit more to an allegedly juiced ball, which would lead to a season in which more home runs were hit across all of major league baseball than ever before (with Royal Alex Gordon hitting the record-setter), but such concerns could not quench the fever. Unlike in 1985, where there is no evidence that anyone spoke to John Mayberry, Steve Balboni was being frequently interviewed about the subject. By July, fully five Royals were within three home runs of Steve Balboni's 1985 pace (or ahead of it). However, as the season hit the point where Balboni had had a hot streak in 1985, all fell off the pace but Salvador Perez and Moustakas. On August 4, Perez went to the disabled list with an intercostal strain for two weeks, and then there was one. Mike had been setting Royals home run pace records all season - hitting 25 by game 84, and 30 by game 101, earning another trip to the All-Star game, and a slot in the Home Run derby, along the way. By game 119, August 15, 2017, he had reached 35, and stood on the threshold of team history with over forty games left in the season, having yet to go 9 games without hitting one out.
And then, on August 23, while running to first base on a fly ball, Moose felt a "pop" in his knee, and the power all but disappeared. Finally, after a dozen games without a home run, Moose hit Balboni-tying home run # 36 on September 1 off of former Royal Dillon Gee in Minnesota. But as September wore on without further home run production, fans started talking about how it would be okay if the record ended up being shared between Balboni and Moose. Finally, nearly three weeks after tying the record, the long quest was finally over. On September 20, in the sixth inning, Moose launched a 2-0 pitch from Carlos Ramirez for home run # 37 over the right-field wall of the Rogers Centre in Toronto. Though Moose would hit only one more home run the remainder of the season, leaving the Royals still, embarassingly, in last place among teams and without a 40-home-run-hitter to their name, the progress cannot be denied. Thirty-two years of chasing Balboni had come to an end. The "curse" has been broken.
|Team Single-Season Home Run Records as of season's end, 2017|
|Mariners||56||Ken Griffey, Jr.||1997, 1998|
|Red Sox||54||David Ortiz||2006|
|Blue Jays||54||Jose Bautista||2010|
|Twins||49||Harmon Killebrew||1964, 1969|
|Rockies||49||Larry Walker, Todd Helton||1997, 2001|
|White Sox||49||Albert Belle||1998|
|Mets||41||Todd Hundley, Carlos Beltran||1996, 2006|
After three decades of teases, what-ifs and could-have-beens, the Balboni chase is over. Let the Moose chase begin!