Your Balboni Chase Retrospective - Coda: the Moose Chase

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
  • 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
  • It took thirty-two years for Steve Balboni's team home run record to be surpassed by Mike Moustakas. It took only two for his record to fall. But this second super-Balboni performance was more than merely incremental. Royals fans who had wished for Balboni's record to be broken should, perhaps, have been a bit more specific with the genie of whom they wished that. Despite Moose's 2017 feat, Royals fans were still subject to embarrassments such as this:

    Enter Jorge Soler.

    The Royals had won the 2014 A.L. Championship and 2015 World Series on the back of a fantastic bullpen, and the centerpiece of that bullpen was Wade Davis. Acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2012-2013 off-season together with James Shields, he became the centerpiece of the "three-headed-monster" bullpen which propelled the Royals to the 2014 American League pennant. Taking over the closer's role from Greg Holland when the latter was injured near the end of the following season, he pitched ten scoreless innings in the 2015 post-season, including the final outs of the World Series. He remained the closer in 2016, but suffered some injuries during that season.

    So it was with some degree of public-relations risk that the Royals traded Davis following that season for Cubs slugger Jorge Soler. Jorge was a highly-regarded Cuban defector who rose quickly through the minors to play for the Cubs in 2014. He hit a home run in his first major league at-bat and had 14 extra-base hits and 6 walks in 97 plate appearances, good for a .903 OPS. An ankle injury caused him to miss much of the 2015 season, but he made a splash in the postseason, reaching base a record-setting 9 times in a row, including two home runs. He squeezed his way into only 86 games with the talent-loaded Cubs in their World Championship 2016 season. The reaction to the trade could be described as mixed, at best. Poor plate discipline in 2017 and an injury-shortened season in 2018 did nothing to make Royals fans feel the exchange was worthwhile.

    However, the potential for great feats of power was clearly evident even then. When he was demoted to Omaha in 2017, he hit 24 home runs in 74 games, and in 2018 he hit 9 plus 18 doubles in 61. So when he started the 2019 season with 9 home runs in the team's first 37 games, matching the team-record pace of Mike Moustakas, the chase was on. In what was otherwise a downer of a season, Royals fans watched excitedly as Jorge Soler became the fastest Royal to reach 20 home runs in a season (game 73), but at the 25-homer mark was merely neck-and-neck with Moose, and well behind his pace in reaching 30.

    Royals 30th Home Runs
    Player Year Game # Season total
    Mike Moustakas 2017 101 38
    Jorge Soler 2019 115 48
    Gary Gaetti 1995 117 35
    Jermaine Dye 2000 123 33
    Steve Balboni 1985 132 36
    Dean Palmer 1998 133 34
    John Mayberry 1975 136 34
    Bo Jackson 1989 139 32
    Chili Davis 1997 149 30
    Danny Tartabull 1991 151 31
    Danny Tartabull 1987 154 34
    Kendrys Morales 2016 155 30
    George Brett 1985 161 30

    After breaking the 30 barrier, Soler had a monster week, hitting 4 home runs and being named American League Player of the Week. The last of those woke up Fox Sports KC to the fact that Jorge was approaching Mike Moustakas's record and they started putting this on the screen after each home run of his:

    By the Royals' 120th game, he had once again caught Moose's pace, tying him as the fastest Royal to reach 35.

    Royals 35th Home Runs
    Player Year Game # Season total
    Mike Moustakas 2017 120 38
    Jorge Soler 2019 120 48
    Gary Gaetti 1995 144 35
    Steve Balboni 1985 152 36
    (wow, that list is a lot smaller)

    It looked like the Royals were finally in position for a major breakthrough...but it looked like that in 2017 as well. Moose, though breaking Steve Balboni's infamous record, got hit by the injury bug and limped over the finish line. Jorge Soler's injury history was not encouraging...would this really finally be the year that gets the home run monkey off of the Royals' back?

    One only need to look at the frequency of home runs after # 35 to see that Jorge Soler's season was going to be everything Mike Moustakas's wasn't:

    Home Run # 35 36 37 38
    2017 Mike Moustakas 0 13 16 5
    2019 Jorge Soler 0 11 4 1

    Unlike the injured and obviously slowing Moose, Soler was continuing and even accelerating his home run pace, until finally, on September 3, he surpassed Moustakas:

    But 39 was not going to satisfy power-starved Royals fans any more than 38 did.

    The big 4-0

    What is it about numbers divisible by 10, or powers of 10? Somehow (barring scandals like steroids or gambling), decimal milestones like 500 home runs, 3000 hits, 300 wins or 3000 strikeouts make a player an automatic Hall of Famer, while those who are close but just under those numbers find their fitness for that honor more questionable. While the obvious answer is that it relates to the number of fingers that most people (though not all) have, it is really an arbitrary way to set a marker of athletic achievement. Be that as it may, the perception of significance of "big, round" numbers exist, and one other manifestation of that is the number 40, representing an amount of home runs which no Kansas City Royal (or, for that matter, any Kansas City Athletic either) has ever hit in a single season. Just how pathetic is it that the Royals have never had a 40 home run season in their first 50 years? There have been 339 40-homer seasons in baseball history, 238 of them since the Royals were created in 1969.

    Team 40 HR seasons since 1969
    Rangers 17 (1 prior to 1969)
    Blue Jays 14 (only existed since 1977)
    Mariners 14 (only existed since 1977)
    Red Sox 14 (5 prior to 1969)
    Braves 13 (9 prior to 1969)
    Rockies 17 (only existed since 1993)
    Cubs 12 (7 prior to 1969)
    White Sox 12
    Cardinals 11 (2 prior to 1969)
    Giants 11 (11 prior to 1969)
    Reds 11 (4 prior to 1969)
    Athletics 10 (4 prior to 1969)
    Phillies 9 (4 prior to 1969)
    Yankees 9 (22 prior to 1969)
    Brewers 8
    Indians 8 (4 prior to 1969)
    Astros 6
    Orioles 6 (2 prior to 1969)
    Dodgers 5 (8 prior to 1969)
    Tigers 5 (6 prior to 1969)
    Angels 4
    Nationals 4
    Padres 4
    Mets 3
    Twins 3 (7 prior to 1969)
    Diamondbacks 2 (only existed since 1998)
    Marlins 2 (only existed since 1993)
    Pirates 2 (5 prior to 1969)
    Rays 1 (only existed since 1998)

    Needless to say, this, more than a mere incremental notching up of the current record, was a barrier that Royals fans had longed to see broken. And just one night after one-upping Moose's team record, Jorge delivered on that wish:

    Royals 40th Home Runs
    Player Year Game # Season total
    Jorge Soler 2019 140 48
    (OK, this one is a bit silly, I guess)

    Out of the Cellar with Soler

    As nice as it was to finally get past the big round number, how truly meaningful could that be if the Royals home run leader still had the fewest home runs of that of any other team? The new number would look respectable (it has a 4 instead of a 3 at the beginning!), but it would still be one that all other teams could feel superior to.

    One year prior, a mere two home runs past the 40 mark would have brought the Royals' record out of last place above the New York Mets, whose record has been 41. But Jorge Soler's big power year came at the same time as the Mets brought up a rookie named Pete Alonso, who not only broke the Mets' own team record, but proceeded to break the overall home run record for a rookie. By the time Soler had hit his 42nd home run of 2019 on September 11, the Mets' new record was at 47 and climbing. The next number to reach for was 46, the team record held by the Nationals and the Rays. Could Jorge reach it with just 16 games to go in the Royals' season? It did help inspire confidence that he hit # 43 that same night. Home run # 44 came the very next night, and # 45 only four games later. But then the power dried up. For nine agonizing games, Royals fans watched Jorge go homerless, a stretch he equaled only once before during the season. Could he have come so close only to fall just short?

    Interjection: A Royal Crown for Home Runs

    Less noted but also true of the historically powerless Royals is that, unsurprisingly, no Royal has ever led the league in home runs, a dubious distinction the Royals have shared with the Houston Astros. As Jorge Soler's home-run numbers began to mount, he moved up the leader boards for the American League home run title:

    American League Home Run Leaders as Summer of 2019 progressed
    07/28 08/04 08/11 08/18 08/25 09/01
    1 Mike Trout 34 Mike Trout 36 Mike Trout 39 Mike Trout 41 Mike Trout 42 Mike Trout 43
    2 Edwin Encarnacion 30 Nelson Cruz 30 Jorge Soler 35 Jorge Soler 35 Jorge Soler 36 Jorge Soler 38
    3 Max Kepler 28 Edwin Encarnacion 30 Nelson Cruz 32 Max Kepler 33 Max Kepler 35 Max Kepler 36
    4 Jorge Soler 28 Max Kepler 30 Max Kepler 32 Alex Bregman 30 Alex Bregman 32 Nelson Cruz 34
    5 Alex Bregman 26 Jorge Soler 29 Edwin Encarnacion 30 Edwin Encarnacion 30 Gleyber Torres 32 J. D. Martinez 34
    6 Nelson Cruz 26 Alex Bregman 27 Alex Bregman 28 3-Way Tie 29 J. D. Martinez 31 Gleyber Torres 33

    While there were rivals nipping at his heels for second place in the home run race, it certainly looked like Jorge could rank higher than any Royal ever had, but it was clear that Mike Trout was the front-runner entering the season's final month. But as it turned out, Trout had been playing for weeks with pain in his foot from a condition called Morton's neuroma and could no longer bear the pain. He sat out of games starting on September 7 and formally ended his season with foot surgery a week later, still leading the league with 45 home runs. But with him out of the running, there was the genuine possibility of overtaking his home run total for the year. Within two weeks, the Royals' slugger tied Trout and would be the first Royal to even share the title, if no one else overtook them both. But then he stalled...would a Royal win the title outright? Or would it be no more than shared?

    American League Home Run Leaders as September of 2019 progressed
    09/01 09/05 09/08 09/15 09/18 09/27
    1 Mike Trout 43 Mike Trout 45 Mike Trout 45 Mike Trout 45 Jorge Soler 45 Jorge Soler 45
    2 Jorge Soler 38 Jorge Soler 40 Jorge Soler 41 Jorge Soler 44 Mike Trout 45 Mike Trout 45
    3 Max Kepler 36 Max Kepler 36 Max Kepler 36 Nelson Cruz 37 Gleyber Torres 38 Alex Bregman 41
    4 Nelson Cruz 34 Nelson Cruz 35 Nelson Cruz 35 Gleyber Torres 37 Alex Bregman 37 Nelson Cruz 40
    5 J. D. Martinez 34 J. D. Martinez 34 J. D. Martinez 35 Alex Bregman 36 Nelson Cruz 37 George Springer 38
    6 Gleyber Torres 33 Gleyber Torres 34 Gleyber Torres 35 Max Kepler 36 Max Kepler 36 Gleyber Torres 38

    Conclusion/Convergence: Two Birds with one Stone

    The suspense lasted until the second-to-last game of the season, when Jorge Soler both overtook Mike Trout with his 46th home run and, on the same day, first tied...

    ...and then exceeded...

    ...the Rays and Nats team record. The Royals are no longer the power doormat of the major leagues, and one additional home run the following day put the Royals' new record ahead of that of the Angels (sorry, Mike Trout) and Astros to boot. A decades-long shame was buried at long last.

    Final American League Home Run Leaders, 2019
    1 Jorge Soler 48
    2 Mike Trout 45
    3 Alex Bregman 41
    4 Nelson Cruz 41
    5 George Springer 39
    6 Gleyber Torres 38
    Team Single-Season Home Run Records as of season's end, 2019
    Team HR Player Year
    Giants 73 Barry Bonds 2001
    Cardinals 70 Mark McGwire 1998
    Cubs 66 Sammy Sosa 1998
    Yankees 61 Roger Maris 1961
    Marlins 59 Giancarlo Stanton 2017
    Athletics 58 Jimmie Foxx 1932
    Tigers 58 Hank Greenberg 1938
    Phillies 58 Ryan Howard 2006
    Diamondbacks 57 Luis Gonzalez 2001
    Rangers 57 Alex Rodriguez 2002
    Mariners 56 Ken Griffey, Jr. 1997, 1998
    Pirates 54 Ralph Kiner 1949
    Red Sox 54 David Ortiz 2006
    Blue Jays 54 Jose Bautista 2010
    Orioles 53 Chris Davis 2013
    Mets 53 Pete Alonso 2019
    Reds 52 George Foster 1977
    Indians 52 Jim Thome 2002
    Braves 51 Andruw Jones 2005
    Padres 50 Greg Vaughn 1998
    Brewers 50 Prince Fielder 2007
    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
    Royals 48 Jorge Soler 2019
    Angels 47 Troy Glaus 2000
    Astros 47 Jeff Bagwell 2000
    Nationals 46 Alfonso Soriano 2006
    Rays 46 Carlos Pena 2007

    My thanks to Craig Brown, who helped me with the video elements of this article

    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.