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Your Balboni Chase Retrospective - Part 3: The One that Got (Traded) Away

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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: The Rip Van Winkle Syndrome

    What might it have been like to be a fan of the Cincinnati Reds, Washington Senators or Pittsburgh Pirates, circa 1937? Eighteen years after Babe Ruth closed the door on the dead ball era, these three teams had yet to experience a twenty-home-run season from any of their players. Jimmie Foxx, Hack Wilson, Rogers Hornsby, Hank Greenberg...the new breed of slugging stars grew and grew. But like the protagonist of Washington Irving's short story, those two teams slept through a revolution. All other teams had by that time had a twenty-homer man at least seven years prior, and these two plodded forward powerlessly.

    Royals fans who followed the team from 1997 through 2001 know exactly how they felt. While 50-home-run years were a rarity for three decades, suddenly power was exploding everywhere. In 1995, a season 18 games shorter than usual, one player hit 50 home runs. In 1996 and 1997, two did each year. And in 1998, baseball fans world-wide were captivated by a dual assault on the single-season home run record set by Roger Maris in 1961. Saint Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire, a renowned slugger who had set a record for home runs by a rookie with 49 in his first season, had hit more than 50 in 1996 and 1997 and reached (and exceeded) that number on August 20, with 36 games left to his team's season. Hot on his trail was Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa, who had never before topped 40 in a season, but suddenly found enough power to reach 50 mere days afterward. Maris's mark succumbed to McGwire first on September 8, and Sosa passed it shortly thereafter, although by season's end, the record, at 70, was in McGwire's hands, with Sosa in second with a total of 66. In the four-year span from 1998 through 2001, there were eleven seasons of fifty or more, culminating in Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants upping the record further by knocking 73 home runs into McCovey Cove and other out-of-ballpark areas.

    Chase fever gripped even powerless Kansas City. While Steve Balboni's pursuit of John Mayberry's record went practically unnoticed until he was just one home run away from it, and there was nary a mention of Balboni's team record when Chili Davis seemed to be in range, having hit 28 by the end of August 1997 (he'd hit only two in September to finish at 30), the spirit of 1998 moved the media to notice third baseman Dean Palmer's approach to the Royals' team record from as far away as the 30 home run mark. The inspiration is obvious in this Kansas City Star article from August 27, 1998:

    Dean Palmer not only is well behind Mark McGwire's home-run pace but still trails Steve Balboni.

    McGwire is chasing Roger Maris, but is Palmer chasing Balboni?

    Palmer was very much on a pace to challenge the record, but had a slow September, likely because of a stiff neck and back that he played through. With just two weeks left to the season, he had only hit three more home runs, but the Star still felt the chance at a new team record was noteworthy (09/16/1998):

    Dean Palmer has heard Steve Balboni's name come up once or twice. Coaches, even some players, mention the lovable load who was once a fan favorite in these parts.

    Expect a lot more of that during the season's final stretch.

    Palmer, who has 33 home runs this season, is three short of tying Balboni's 1985 club record.

    The ailing Palmer hit just one more to finish with thirty-four, good for a tie for third place in the home run records of Kansas City Royalty.

    Two years later, the chase was resumed by Royals right fielder Jermaine Dye. He burst out of the gate in 2000, hitting twenty home runs by the Royals' 75th game, the fastest any Royal has ever reached that mark. With a slash line of .319/.393/.616 by the All-Star Break, he was deservedly voted by the fans to start in right field for the American League, the only Royal so honored in a twenty-year period from 1992 through 2012.

    Dye stayed hot through August, and his chase of Steve Balboni was noted by the Kansas City Star (08/29/2000):

    BY THE NUMBERS

    39- Jermaine Dye's pace for home runs. The Royals' record is 36 by Steve Balboni in 1985.

    and on 09/02/2000:

    Sweeney and Dye are on their own record chases, which only adds further support to Damon's statement. Sweeney should break McRae's RBI record, while Dye needs only six homers to top the 36 hit by Steve Balboni in 1985.

    ...

    Dye is even more wary [than Sweeney about the RBI record] about Balboni's mark.

    "Whatever happens, happens," he said. "If you start worrying about things like that, you get out of your (proper) approach. I'm not going to do that. If I make it, I make it. If not, I've still had a good year."

    Yet, Dye concedes he'd like to get the record.

    "I don't think I'm going to be a guy who, down the road, is going to be able to hit 35 home runs a year," he said. (ed - he hit 44 for the White Sox in 2006, and also had seasons of 31 and 34 for them)

    "But to be able to do it this year and get in the record book, would be nice."

    It would have been nice, wouldn't it? But as with Davis and Palmer before him, September was a cruel month, in which the All-Star hit only 2 home runs, finishing the season at thirty-three.

    The sad post script of the power revolution was the revelation that many of the big bashers, including McGwire, Sosa and Bonds, were taking steroids to improve their performance, leading many to consider their records illegitimate. However, the power revolution was real, as evidenced by the many sluggers who exceeded the 50-home-run mark with no steroid taint on their reputation, such as Ken Griffey, Jr., and Jim Thome. That no Royal could even scratch out 36 in such a time period is less a testament to their purity and honesty than to their simply not having any true power hitters. The Hall of Fame contains no baseballs hit by a Kansas City Royal that someone paid six figures for just to deface with a burned-in asterisk, but neither does the team Hall of Fame contain any home-run balls that represent any high numerical plateau.

    Carlos Beltran - Nosotros Ya No Creemos

    Team Single-Season Home Run Records as of season's end, 2003
    Team HR Player Year
    Giants 73 Barry Bonds 2001
    Cardinals 70 Mark McGwire 1998
    Cubs 66 Sammy Sosa 1998
    Yankees 61 Roger Maris 1961
    Athletics 58 Jimmie Foxx 1932
    Tigers 58 Hank Greenberg 1938
    Diamondbacks 57 Luis Gonzalez 2001
    Rangers 57 Alex Rodriguez 2002
    Mariners 56 Ken Griffey, Jr. 1997, 1998
    Pirates 54 Ralph Kiner 1949
    Reds 52 George Foster 1977
    Indians 52 Jim Thome 2002
    Red Sox 50 Jimmie Foxx 1938
    Orioles 50 Brady Anderson 1996
    Padres 50 Greg Vaughn 1998
    Twins 49 Harmon Killebrew 1964, 1969
    Rockies 49 Larry Walker, Todd Helton 1997, 2001
    White Sox 49 Albert Belle 1998
    Dodgers 49 Shawn Green 2001
    Phillies 48 Mike Schmidt, Jim Thome 1980, 2003
    Braves 47 Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron 1953, 1971
    Blue Jays 47 George Bell 1987
    Angels 47 Troy Glaus 2000
    Astros 47 Jeff Bagwell 2000
    Brewers 45 Gorman Thomas, Richie Sexson 1979, 2001, 2003
    Expos 44 Vladimir Guerrero 2000
    Marlins 42 Gary Sheffield 1996
    Mets 41 Todd Hundley 1996
    Royals 36 Steve Balboni 1985
    Devil Rays 34 Jose Canseco, Aubrey Huff 1999, 2003

    How a question is phrased can make all the difference in the answer. For example: What Royals player hit the most home runs in a single season?

    The answer, of course, is...Jose Bautista, who was a Royals player in 2004, and who hit 54 home runs in 2010, although he did it as a Toronto Blue Jay.

    Another variation of the question: What Royals player hit the most home runs in a single season in which he was a Royal?

    The answer here is Carlos Beltran, who was a Royal in 2004, and hit 38 home runs in 2004...but only 15 of them came in a Royals uniform.

    By the turn of the twenty-first century, the Royals had assembled a solid lineup of talented hitters, including Mike Sweeney, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and 1999 Rookie of the Year Carlos Beltran. However, between the fact that offense was even better in most of the league, the starting rotation was, to say the least, uninspiring, and the bullpen contained Ricky Bottalico, the team was destined to not win any championships. The skyrocketing salaries of free agents made competing difficult for small markets, and the Royals' new owner, David Glass, felt he was not in a position to try to outbid the Yankees, Red Sox and other large-market teams for free agents. As a result, the Royals traded away Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye before they were destined to hit free agency. Of the Royals' big drawing cards, only Mike Sweeney seemed interested in staying with the club, and even he was so fed up with losing that he insisted on a clause in his contract that would let him leave if the team couldn't achieve a winning record within two seasons. In 2002, a new low was achieved, the franchise's first 100-loss season.

    And then...magic. The Royals opened 2003 with nine straight wins, and finished April an improbable ten games over .500. A lackluster May gave way to a hot summer, in which surprise pitcher Jose Lima won his first seven decisions after being plucked from independent-league baseball to replace the injured Kyle Snyder, who was himself standing in for the injured Runelvys Hernandez. Through August, it seemed as if the Royals could do no wrong, and if Manager of the Year Tony Pena's motto "Nosotros Creemos" ("We Believe") seemed trite, the team's performance made it hard to remain impassively skeptical. Even though the Royals eventually finished in third place and short of a playoff spot, the future seemed bright. That winter, the Royals did not trade away their biggest asset, Carlos Beltran, instead opting to surround him with other players whom they thought could put them over the top the following year, such as two-time MVP Juan Gonzalez and All-Star catcher Benito Santiago.

    The 2004 season seemed to promise continued excitement, and Carlos Beltran was right in the thick of that. In what has been considered one of the greatest Opening Day games in Royals history, the Royals trailed the Chicago White Sox 7-3 in the bottom of the ninth, when a hole opened in the space-time continuum, causing a congratulatory victory tweet from the governor of Illinois to leak through from the future, which led backup infielder Mendy Lopez to hit a game-tying home run in the bottom of the inning. Two batters later, Beltran walked off the game with a two-run shot. Royals fans breathed a sigh of relief - 2003 was no fluke.

    Alas, Opening Day 2004 was not a second movement in a long symphony, but merely a coda. Beltran remained excellent, but the team around him faltered, and by May 2, had won fewer than a third of their games. General Manager Allard Baird realized that 2004 could not be saved, and on June 25, traded Beltran, who'd hit 15 home runs in the Royals' 69 games, to the Astros. In Houston, he hit 23 more home runs over the course of the season, for a total of 38, more than Steve Balboni hit in 1985.

    Would Carlos Beltran have broken Balboni's team record if he'd remained a Royal for the entirety of 2004? Reconstructing the remainder of the Royals' 2004 season with Beltran re-inserted into the batting order offers one possible answer to the question. It can be assumed that the Royals would have faced the same pitchers over the rest of the season whether or not Carlos Beltran had been traded (unless the Oakland Athletics would have called up Mike Wood, who was traded to the Royals as a third leg of the Beltran trade itself, to face the Royals at some point). As Carlos is a switch hitter, there would be no platoon advantage to Royals' opponents using different pitchers for his sake. It's conceivable that if Beltran mashed some extra balls, a reliever might have been brought in earlier than actually happened, but almost no starter who faced Beltran as a Royal that year left the game before facing him at least three times, so it seems unlikely that this is a significant point of difference.

    Carlos Beltran had 309 plate appearances in his 69 games as a Royal that year, batting second (except for three games, in which he batted third, but had no fewer plate appearances than the second batter had). It can be assumed that he would have continued to bat second in the Royals' order, had he stayed. As a switch-hitter, he batted every one of his at-bats in 2004 against lefties from the right side, and against righties from the left side.

    The left-handed pitchers who faced Carlos Beltran as a Royal during 2004 could have been expected, based on their season-long HR/PA rates, weighted by the number of plate appearances Carlos had against them, to have given up 0.031 HR/PA if they had faced an average right-handed AL hitter rather than Carlos, and the right-handers could have been expected to give up 0.032 HR/PA to an average lefty. Facing him, though, rather than this abstract mathematical construct, the pitchers surrendered 0.060 HR/PA and 0.043 HR/PA, respectively. Thus, Carlos was hitting home runs from the right side at a factor of 1.935 better than the average righty given the same circumstances, and from the left side by a factor of 1.343.

    Applying the same methodology to the pitchers who faced the batters who hit second in the order for the Royals after Carlos's departure (mostly Tony Graffanino, Desi Relaford, Angel Berroa and Joe Randa), the following would be the likely outcome:

    PA Avg HR/PA, Weighted CB Factor Predicted CB HR Rounded
    LHP 109 0.029 1.935 6.117 6
    RHP 315 0.032 1.343 13.537 14
    Total 20

    It would seem, then, that Carlos Beltran would likely have hit about twenty more home runs if he had remained a Royal, for a season total of 35 - tying him for second place in team history with Gary Gaetti. Was there something different about his time in Houston - say, the quality of pitching he faced, the ballparks he played in, or the protection he had from more talented teammates than he had as a Royal - that made it likely for him to exceed that amount by three, and Steve Balboni by two? Or was it simply a hot streak well within the standard deviation that could be expected, and possibly something he could have achieved even as a Royal? A tantalizing mystery that, like all what-ifs, has no definite answer.

    Epilogue: The Beltran Legacy

    Interestingly, in a minor way, there was some Balboni-chasing excitement from both of the position players who the Royals acquired in exchange for Carlos Beltran.

    Mark Teahen spent 2004 in the minor leagues. He was intended to spend 2005 there as well, but the Royals' intended starting third baseman, Chris Truby, got injured during spring training, and Teahen was pressed into service sooner than planned, to uninspiring results. He started off 2006 with just two home runs in the month of April and spent May in the minors, but he dominated in Omaha and was recalled. As the weather heated up, so did he, and in a 51-game stretch from June 6 through August 2, he hit nine home runs - a pace that could project to the mid-thirties over a full season. Between the late start to his hot streak and an injury that sidelined him for September, he ended up with only eighteen home runs on the year, but that did lead the Royals, and seemed to promise future success. As it turned out, that year was the high for his career.

    John Buck was installed as the Royals' starting catcher immediately after arriving from Houston in the Beltran deal. While he had decent power for a catcher, reaching double-digits in each of his first three years with the Royals (and that first year, starting only in late June), he burst out in 2007, hitting fifteen home runs before the All-Star break, giving hope that continued hot hitting could get him into Balboni range. After that point, though, he went cold as ice, batting just .194 and hitting only three home runs. He would similarly tease other teams' fans with early power in future years, hitting thirteen before the break for the Blue Jays in 2010 (ending the season with twenty) and hitting fourteen before the break as a Met in 2013 (but getting only one more the rest of the season).

    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.