Your Balboni Chase Retrospective - Part 2: Short Seasons, Missed Opportunities

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  • Part 1: Steve Balboni, 1985
  • Part 2: Short Seasons, Missed Opportunities
  • Part 3: The One that Got (Traded) Away
  • Part 4: Royals Renaissance
  • Coda: The Moose Chase
  • Prologue: Bull and Bo

    The Royals had three years before 1994 in which one of their players came close to Balboni's record, but the manner in which that occurred didn't quite lend itself to "chase" excitement. In 1987, Danny Tartabull ended the season with 34 home runs. But as of August 1, he had only hit 14, a pace which would, if maintained, have ended with a 22-homer season. From August 3 onward, he went on a tear, hitting 20 home runs in 254 plate appearances, an almost Ruthian pace which got him close, but with such a late start, no one expected he could get to 36 or beyond by year's end. Danny's 1991 season flipped that model on its head - by the beginning of August, he had 22 home runs, which put him on a pace for 35 at that point - but August was a cruel month, in which he hit only 3 homers, and by September, the chances looked slim. He ended 1991 with 31 dingers.

    Bo Jackson might be the most exciting athlete that the Royals ever employed, and 1989 was the year it was all coming together. June 5 of that year was when Bo famously nailed Harold Reynolds at home plate with a throw on the fly from deepest left field. By the All-Star Break, he was tied for the league lead with 21 home runs - a pace that calculates to 40 in a full season (rounded up from 39.55, if you want to get technical). Deservedly voted to start the All-Star game, he led it off with a home run, stole a base and was awarded the game's MVP award. Sadly, an injury soon put hopes of team-record-setting out of fans' minds. After hitting his twenty-second shortly after summer break, he was placed on the disabled list with a thigh injury on July 27 and didn't hit his next home run until almost halfway into August. He ended the year with 32.

    The Strike

    The status quo of team home run record had changed a little in the decade after 1985, but not very much. The Blue Jays and Mariners surpassed the Royals, but their place in the depths was taken by one of two new expansion teams, particularly one that didn't play a mile above sea level. Of the teams that had been just ahead of the Royals, but still with a team record under 40, only one of them managed to up their team record above that line.

    Team Single-Season Home Run Records as of season's end, 1995
    Team HR Player Year
    Yankees 61 Roger Maris 1961
    Athletics 58 Jimmie Foxx 1932
    Tigers 58 Hank Greenberg 1938
    Cubs 56 Hack Wilson 1930
    Pirates 54 Ralph Kiner 1949
    Giants 52 Willie Mays 1965
    Reds 52 George Foster 1977
    Red Sox 50 Jimmie Foxx 1938
    Indians 50 Albert Belle 1995
    Twins 49 Harmon Killebrew 1964, 1969
    Orioles 49 Frank Robinson 1966
    Rangers 48 Frank Howard 1969
    Phillies 48 Mike Schmidt 1980
    Braves 47 Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron 1953, 1971
    Blue Jays 47 George Bell 1987
    Brewers 45 Gorman Thomas 1979
    Mariners 45 Ken Griffey, Jr. 1993
    Cardinals 43 Johnny Mize 1940
    Dodgers 43 Duke Snider 1956
    White Sox 41 Frank Thomas 1993
    Rockies 40 Dante Bichette 1995
    Angels 39 Reggie Jackson 1982
    Mets 39 Darryl Strawberry 1987, 1988
    Astros 39 Jeff Bagwell 1994
    Padres 38 Nate Colbert 1972
    Royals 36 Steve Balboni 1985
    Expos 32 Andre Dawson 1983
    Marlins 27 Gary Sheffield 1994

    The near-misses of 1987-1991 pale in comparison to the "What-If" game that plagues Royals history thanks to the baseball strike that started in August of 1994. 1993 marked the death of Ewing Kauffman (who lived to see himself inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame and Royals Stadium re-named in his honor) and the final year of George Brett's Hall-of-Fame career. The Royals finished 10 games behind the division-winning White Sox, the last for a full decade that they'd end a full season that close to the top. A new era was dawning.

    Threats of labor unrest hung heavily over the 1994 season. The Royals, playing in one of the smallest markets in baseball, were already suffering from the loss of a willing-to-lose-money owner and a large portion of their fanbase due to the establishment of the Rockies in Denver. If player salaries continued to escalate, the Royals were likely to get the short end of the stick, and indeed Mr. Kauffman was, during his lifetime, generally counted among the less union-friendly owners in baseball. So threatening a lockout if the players' union didn't agree to a salary cap could only be good for the Royals, right?

    Hardly. Not only did the players end up winning the showdown, but parts of two seasons got cancelled as a result...two seasons that a) had the Royals in the running for their first playoff spot since 1985, and b) had a Royal possibly on track for 36 or more home runs since, also, 1985.

    Despite the narrative of the post-season drought between 1985 and 2014 being a period of complete awfulness for the Royals, that was not really true for the first ten years. From 1986 through 1995, the Royals finished second or third seven times, and in one of the other years, 1991, they were over .500, but in a strong division that had no teams finishing with a losing record. 1994 was actually a very good year for the team. The only month in which they had a losing record was April, and that record was 9-11, just barely below the line. Led by eventual Cy Young winner David Cone and Rookie of the Year Bob Hamelin, the Royals were fifteen games above .500 after that month, buoyed by a 14-game winning streak from late July through early August that left them only 4 games behind division-leading White Sox, and only three behind the second-place Indians for the lone Wild-Card spot in the new playoff format that was supposed to start that year when the labor dispute brought the season to an abrupt end. Might the Royals have made the playoffs if the season had proceeded to its end? Certainly within the realm of possibility, but that would have required the Royals to suddenly get hotter than the Indians, and then either the White Sox (to win the division) or the Orioles (to eclipse both them and the Indians for the Wild Card). Would Bob Hamelin, whose season was cut short with 24 home runs, have threatened Steve Balboni's team record? Obviously, there's no way to predict whether he'd have a hot or cold streak, get injured, or start clucking like a chicken. But assuming the trends of the season to date held true, what would have been his likely performance in the games that were cancelled?

    The average left-handed hitter in the American League hit 0.027 home runs per plate appearance in 1994. Bob Hamelin's HR/PA rate was 0.064, better than the average by a factor of 2.37, referred to below as the "Bob Hamelin Factor". He had 3.713 plate appearances per game in 1994. The table below presents each of the Royals' scheduled opponents for the remainder of the year, with the HR/PA rate that their pitching staffs surrendered to lefties:

    Opponent Games LHB HR/PA BH PA/G BH Factor Predicted BH HR
    Rangers 6 0.042 3.713 2.370 2.218
    Yankees 6 0.026 3.713 2.370 1.373
    Orioles 7 0.021 3.713 2.370 1.293
    Indians 7 0.018 3.713 2.370 1.109
    Red Sox 6 0.023 3.713 2.370 1.214
    Angels 3 0.037 3.713 2.370 0.977
    Mariners 3 0.021 3.713 2.370 0.554
    Athletics 3 0.030 3.713 2.370 0.792
    Twins 3 0.028 3.713 2.370 0.739
    White Sox 3 0.028 3.713 2.370 0.739
    Total 11.009

    (Totals reflect sum of non-rounded column values)

    The total above needs to be adjusted for the fact that Bob Hamelin did not play in every game that the Royals played. He played in 101 out of the 115, a rate of 0.878, which adjusts the home runs prediction to 9.666, rounding up to 10 home runs, for an expected total of 34 home runs on the season. Good for a tie for second place on the Royals' all-time list, but unless he got hotter down the stretch, falling short of tying or setting it.

    The strike lasted long enough that on September 14, 1994, acting commissioner Bud Selig cancelled the remainder of the season and the post-season, and continued through the winter, into spring training of 1995. The owners dug in their heels and (with the exception of Peter Angelos of the Orioles, a labor lawyer by trade) prepared to play the 1995 season with scab baseball players. However, on March 31, future Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor issued an injunction that forced the owners to back down, and the union players returned to work. To allow for the returning players to train, the start of the season was pushed back three weeks and the schedule re-worked so that each team would play a 1995 season of 144 games.

    That season, the Cleveland Indians were a juggernaut in the American League Central, and finished the season 30 games ahead of the 2nd-place Royals - a gap insurmountable even if the Royals had won and the Indians lost every one of the 18 games dropped from the schedule. But the Wild Card was in play for the Royals for a not-insignificant portion of the season. On June 30, the Royals were a season-best 9 games above .500, and only one game behind the California Angels for the Wild Card spot. Their W-L record faded over the next two months, but thanks to similar mediocrity on the part of the remaining non-division-leaders, the Royals found themselves in sole possession of the Wild Card spot as late as September 7, tied for it on the 8th, and as close as 2 1/2 games on the 19th. After that point, though, the Royals faded quickly and finished 8 games out of the playoffs. With 18 more games in the season, a run at the wild card was possible, but getting there would have required not just excellent performance by the tail-spinning Royals, but bad performance by four other teams, an unfortunate end to an era in which Royals fans generally had annual hopes of post-season baseball.

    But the more notable near-miss of 1995 was Gary Gaetti, the third baseman who slugged a career-high 35 home runs in the shortened season. That he would have, given the missing 18 games, at least tied Steve Balboni's team record is practically a given, as he hadn't gone more than 13 games of 1995 without hitting a home run. But how many might he have been expected to get?

    Applying the same methodology used for Bob Hamelin's 1994 above: The average right-handed batter in the American League hit 0.030 home runs per plate appearance. Gary Gaetti's rate was 0.061, which puts the Gary Gaetti factor at 2.033. At 4.219 plate appearances per game, his chart in the altered-out portion of the 1995 season looks as follows (the Royals played one game more against the Rangers than was in the original 1995 162-game schedule):

    Opponent Games RHB HR/PA GG PA/G GG Factor Predicted GG HR
    Brewers 1 0.028 4.219 2.033 0.240
    Rangers -1 0.030 4.219 2.033 -0.257
    Indians 1 0.026 4.219 2.033 0.223
    Yankees 2 0.030 4.219 2.033 0.515
    Red Sox 7 0.025 4.219 2.033 1.501
    Tigers 5 0.028 4.219 2.033 1.201
    Orioles 3 0.035 4.219 2.033 0.901
    Total 4.323

    (Totals reflect sum of non-rounded column values)

    As with Hamelin above, adjust for the fact that Gaetti did not play in every game that the Royals played, although he almost did - 137 out of the 144, a rate of 0.951, which adjusts the home runs prediction to 4.111, rounding down to 4 home runs, for an expected total of 39 home runs on the season. Unsurprisingly considering that he was only one short, it can genuinely be said that the strike cost the Royals a better team home run record, but only the games that genuinely get played can be counted in the standings and stats. Anyways, for all that it beats Balboni by 3, at that point in history, it still would have been ahead of only one team more than the Royals were already above on the list, albeit tied with three others. And, in another dozen years, a hypothetical team record of 39 home runs would end up being, like the Royals' real one, lowest in the majors.

    This FanPost was written by a member of the Royals Review community. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors and writers of this site.