So it is Easter, the biggest celebration in the Christian and Catholic faith (I mentioned that because I am Catholic…a progressive Catholic mind you). And thus, to celebrate this important day (with no MLB baseball going on; but hey we got CPBL games in Taiwan at least!), I wanted to write about three Royals teams who had “Easter” seasons of sorts over the course of the Royals’ 52-year history in baseball.
So what is a Royals “Easter” season? Well a Royals “Easter” season is a season where the Royals surprised and surpassed expectations in a major way, especially based on the season before. This isn’t a “well they improved a little” kind of deal. This is a “no one was expecting anything from this team, and they surprised the crap out of everyone.” Essentially, this team during that particular season “rose from the dead” in true Easter fashion.
As I perused through the Royals Franchise Index, I identified three Royals “Easter” seasons over the course of the franchise’s history: 1971, 2003, and 2013. In order to give each one the proper due they reserve, I will make this into a 3-part series, starting with the first “Easter” team: the 1971 Kansas City Royals.
A new baseball team comes to Kansas City…with the pressure on
The Royals began play in 1969 in accordance with Major League expansion that included the introduction of the Seattle Pilots, Montreal Expos, and the San Diego Padres. Kansas City was primarily awarded an expansion franchise to make up for the loss of the Athletics, who moved to Oakland after owner Chuck Finley was unsatisfied with Kansas City’s stadium deal, in addition to being enticed by the multi-pupose facility that was Oakland-Alameda Stadium. Led by pharmaceutical entrepreneur Ewing Kauffman, the Royals had a strong owner who was not only intent in keeping the club in Kansas City, but building a perennial winner that would make Royals Stadium in the Truman Sports Complex the place to be in the Summer once the Stadium opened in 1973.
However, for those who are familiar with the Kansas City sports scene, the small market often proves to be a challenge for professional sports team in Kansas City, especially if they are not successful. Though Kansas City had a rich baseball history (stemming from the Kansas City Monarchs and Negro League days decades prior), and strong ownership, there are plenty of stories of pro sports teams failing to stick in this city if success doesn’t come right away. Though they came after the Royals debut, the NHL’s Kansas City Scouts and NBA’s Kansas City Kings are two examples of sports teams who failed to stick in the City of Fountains after lackluster starts to their professional lives, which ultimately led to poor attendance, financial troubles, and an exodus to greener pastures (the Scouts moved to Denver after only two seasons; the Kings moved to Sacramento after 13 seasons).
While the Royals had a stadium in place (which was a key reason why Kansas City was immediately considered for expansion), they wouldn’t move in until 1973, which gave the Royals four seasons at Municipal to build excitement and anticipation for the move into the much bigger and modern Royals Stadium. Thus, there was pressure on the organization to be at least competitive within those first four seasons. As an expansion team, the Royals understood that a World Series during that time was probably unrealistic. But they could not be a bottom feeder in the American League either.
The first two seasons went as expected for the expansion Royals: they lost 93 and 97 games, respectively in 1969 and 1970. The aura of a new team seemed to outweigh performance during that debut Royals season, as attendance at Municipal in 1969 was strong at 902,000. However, the following year, as the Royals lost more games than the previous year, attendance slipped, dropping to a little over 693,000 in 1970.
With the Royals two years away from a move to the state-of-the-art Royals Stadium (panned at the time because it was a baseball-only stadium; most stadiums at the times believed in being dual-sports complexes), the vibe going into the 1971 season was that the club needed to show significant progress in order to recapture Kansas City sports fans. Another 90-plus loss season would only hurt the good will built initially by bringing Major League Baseball back to KC, and thus, the Royals were hoping manager Bob Lemon’s first full season in KC (he was the third manager in three years) would bode some growth as an organization.
The 1971 Royals surprised and then some.
Otis and Strong Pitching Lead Royals “Rise” to Competitiveness
The 1971 Royals did not make the playoffs, but it was a season to remember as the club finished the year second in the AL West with a record of 85-76. It was the first glimpse of the club being the competitive juggernaut that they evolved into during the late 70’s and 80’s, as the 1971 Royals were the first team to win in the “Royals Way”: with speed, defense, and great pitching.
Offensively, the Royals lacked significant power, which to be honest, has been a calling card of many good Royals teams over the club’s 52-year history. The 1971 team ranked second-to-last in home runs hit, as their 80 home run total was only higher than the Houston Astros of the National League. They also ranked 17th in ISO (isolated slugging), not bad, but mediocre for a club with 85 wins. However, the Royals generated a lot of extra runs on the basepaths, as they not only led baseball in stolen bases with a 130, but they also led the league in baserunning runs created, according to Fangraphs.
In 1971, the Royals were led offensively by Amos Otis, a castoff outfielder from the Mets who turned into a five-time All-Star in Kansas City (1971 was his second of four consecutive All-Star appearances). Otis’ big 1971 season didn’t come as a surprise: he posted a slash of .284/.353/.424 and had 11 home runs, 33 stolen bases, and a WAR of 3.7 in 1970. But 1971 was probably one of the finest seasons of his career, as he posted a 5.1 WAR, the second-highest mark of his career (in 1978, he posted a 7.2 WAR), in addition to a slash of .301/.345/.443 and 15 home runs and 52 stolen bases. Otis finished eighth in the MVP voting in 1971, and not only was he an offensive catalyst for Kansas City, but he also earned his first Gold Glove as well.
While Otis was the offensive MVP of the team, the Royals were also helped by strong seasons from their infielders. Third-baseman Paul Schall posted a .365 wOBA and WAR of 4.2; shortstop Freddie Patek stole 49 bases and posted a WAR of 3.2; and second-baseman Cookie Rojas hit .300 and also posted a 3.1 WAR. Rojas and Patek were especially effective defensively up the middle as well, as they posted Def ratings of 6.6 and 5.6, respectively, according to Fangraphs.
However, while the Royals offense flashed some punch, it was the Royals pitching that really carried the club to 85 wins in 1971. The Royals ranked 6th in starting pitching WAR, 2nd in relievers WAR, and 5th in total pitching WAR in 1971, according to Fangraphs. The rotation was a pretty stout bunch, as everyone in the five-man rotation posted an ERA under 4, and the top three was led by Dick Drago (17-11, 2.98 ERA), Mike Hedlund (15-8, 2.71 ERA), and lefty Paul Splittorff (8-9, 2.68 ERA). What made these top three starting pitchers even more enticing was the fact that they were all 26 and under, which gave Royals fans hope that their rotation would be solid for years to come.
In addition to a solid rotation, the Royals bullpen was one of the most dependable in the league, led by a “platoon” closer situation employed by manager Lemon. The Royals led the American League in saves with 44 for the year. Right hander Ted Abernathy was the primary closer, as he earned 23 saves in 63 appearances and 80 innings of work. However, Lemon also used lefty Tom Burgmeier, who posted a 1.73 ERA and saves 17 games in 67 appearances and 88.1 innings of work. Thus, this two-headed monster on the mound was a big reason why the Royals had one of the best bullpens in the league in 1971.
Royals fall short, but the blueprint is set for beyond 1971
The 1971 Royals finished better than they started. After a 43-41 record at the All-Star break, they finished 42-35, which also included an 18-12 mark in August. However, two things worked against the Royals in 1971: the Oakland Athletics were a juggernaut, as the A’s finished 16 games ahead of the Royals in the AL West (though the A’s ended up getting swept by the Baltimore Orioles); and the Royals struggled in close games, as they finished 19-31 in one-run games in 1971. Thus, Royals fans have to wonder what kind of season this club could have had if that record was closer to .500.
You can see more highlights of the season in this old-time highlights film below: (a true gem)
However, even though the Royals didn’t make the playoffs, the blueprint for baseball success in Kansas City was set: speed, defense, timely hitting, and dependable pitching, all coming from young, up and coming players (as emphasized in their innovative, but short-lived, Royals Baseball Academy). That plan came to fruition two years later, the Royals first season in their new stadium, a they won 88 games in 1973. Two years later they won 90 plus for the first time in franchise history. And next season in 1976, just five years removed from the franchise’s first winning season, the Royals won their first Division title and made the postseason for the first time as well, beginning their epic rivalry with the New York Yankees over the next five seasons (they met in the ALCS 4 out of the next 5 years).
The 1971 Royals will often get forgotten in Royals baseball lore. They didn’t play in Royals Stadium (i.e. Kauffman Stadium currently). They didn’t have George Brett yet. Lemon wasn’t quite the manager that Whitey Herzog, Dick Howser or even Ned Yost was recognition-wise. However, the 1971 Royals helped “raise” this professional KC baseball scene from the dead, which many thought it would be after the Athletics left town in 1967. After all, look at the three other franchises who expanded with the Royals that year in 1969: the Pilots only lasted one season before moving to Milwaukee to become the Brewers (though Seattle did get the Mariners in 1977) and the Expos moved to Washington to become the Nationals after the 2004 season. If the 1971 Royals didn’t happen, it’s possible that the same kind of consequence could have beset Kansas City like other expansion brothers such as Seattle and Montreal.
But instead of contracting or moving, the 1971 Royals rejuvenated the baseball faithful of Kansas City and the surrounding metro. And the Royals as a franchise continued to do so for years to come, especially over the 70’s and 80’s, which included multiple division titles, pennants, and a long-awaited 1985 World Series title.
I wonder if all that would have happened if the 1971 Royals didn’t have the season they did.