Remembering 1981, the Royals’ “other” shortened season (and what it could mean for 2020)

After months of waiting, it seems like things are getting clearer for Major League Baseball when it comes to when play will resume. In the Tweet below, the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal outlined MLB’s potential plan, which they hope will be agreed upon with the MLBPA sometime this week.

Some of the details listed in Rosenthal’s piece were known prior to this report: teams will play only against “regional” opponents, with those opponents being teams currently in their division, as well as in their “opposite league” counterpart (which means that the Royals will play teams from the AL and NL Central). However, how many games to be played this year was still up for debate, as reports varied from 80 to even 100 game regular seasons.

According to this article, however, it seems like Major League Baseball is set on approximately 80 games, with 78 being the low, and 82 being the high. Furthermore, according to Rosenthal, there will also be an expanded playoff format in order to make up for the loss of regular season games. Here’s what Rosenthal reports:

Under this plan, the team with the best record in each league would receive a bye in the wild-card round and advance to the Division Series. The two other division winners and wild card with the best record would face the bottom three wild cards in a best-of-three wild-card round.

“Rosenthal: Latest details on baseball’s plan to return” by Ken Rosenthal; The Athletic

There is also some other interesting bits in the article that will be discussed on this blog at another time (they are also discussing expanding rosters to 50). That being said, I wanted to focus on the shortened season and expanded playoff format, as it seems pretty similar to the season structure we saw in 1981, where the MLB season was shortened to 83 games due to the player’s strike.

So let’s take a look at how the Royals did that year during a “strike-shortened” season that was the only time in Royals history (until this year) that the Royals played less than 100 games in a season.

The 1981 Major League Baseball strike was an interesting work stoppage in comparison to the 1994 strike, as this strike took place during the middle of the season (unlike the 1994 one which took place near the end). In 1981, players went on strike on June 12th, and it lasted until July 31st, with play resuming on August 9th with the All-Star game in Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium. The strike mostly centered on owners being upset with the advent of free agency, and deeming that they needed to be compensated for player’s leaving their club as free agents and signing with other teams. While the owners did not get what they originally wanted (they wanted to be able to get a player from the club that a free agent “signed with”), they were able to get a “compensatory pick” in the MLB Draft, and players had to have six or more years of Major League service before they could become “free agents.”

The Royals entered the 1981 season on the heels of their first American League pennant and World Series appearance in 1980, which they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies. Third baseman George Brett had not only been an All-Star the previous year, but he was also the American League’s reigning MVP, as he posted a 1.118 OPS and a .390/.454/.664 slash, metrics which all led the American League in 1980. Pretty much everyone returned from the pennant-winning club as well, and the Royals were expected to compete again, not just for a pennant, but a World Series as well.

Unfortunately, the Royals failed to live up to the hype in the first half of the season leading up to the strike. In the 50 games before play stopped, the Royals were a pedestrian 20-30 and finished fifth in the standings in the first half of play. While Brett continued to hit for high average and still put up an impressive first half slash (.323/.365/.452), his home run power disappeared, as he only hit 1 home run in the first half of play after hitting 24 the previous year. And it wasn’t just Brett who disappointed, as the Royals posted team OPS numbers of .613 and .696 during the first two months of play. Hence, it is not surprising that the lack of offensive punch produced records of 3-10 and 12-15 in April and May, respectively.

The Royals pitching during the first half wasn’t bad, as Dennis Leonard and Larry Gura led the rotation at the top. However, the Royals’ team ERA in the first half was 4.25, which is a reasonable mark, but not good enough when partnered with the Royals’ lack of effectiveness on the run production end. When play stopped after 10 games in June, the Royals not only had a losing record and were closer to the cellar of the AL West than the top, but they also had a run differential of -49 (181 runs scored and 230 runs allowed).

At the time, things looked bleak for the Royals and Royals fans, who had been basking in the glory of the Royals’ first World Series appearance in franchise history. But the strike and time off ended up being a benefit for the Royals as they turned it around once play resumed in August.

The Royals went 30-23 in the second half of play, and actually finished with the best second half record of any club in the AL West. The pitching stepped up in the second half, as they posted a 2.91 ERA over the last 53 games of play in the 1981 season. Leonard had another stellar season overall, as he posted a 2.99 ERA, 13-11 W-L record, and 3.16 FIP in 201 innings of work. Gura also posted a sub-3 ERA, as he posted a 2.72 mark and 11-8 record in 172 innings. And at the end of the rotation, the Royals got a surprisingly effective season on the mound from a 21-year-old Mike Jones, who went 6-3 with a 3.21 ERA in 75 innings of work. Add in a productive season of 9th inning work from Dan Quisenberry, who posted a 1.73 ERA and 18 saves in 40 appearances, and it makes sense that the Royals allowed 55 less runs in the second half of the season in comparison to the first 50 games of the 1981 campaign.

Offensively, the Royals improved as well, as they increased their runs scored from 181 to 216 (a 35-run improvement). While it was not as impressive as the pitching difference, it still made a huge impact in turning the Royals around from a losing ballclub to a first-place-in-the-division one in the second half. While Brett continued to post a solid slash line, he continued to struggle when it came to hit home runs, as he only finished with 6, 18 less from his total in 1980. However, first baseman Willie “Mays” Aikens made up for it, as he hit 17 home runs, and posted an OPS+ of 143, only two points lower than Brett’s. Left fielder Willie Wilson also had a stellar campaign, as he led the club in WAR that season with a 4.1 mark, which was primarily fueled by a .303 average and 34 stolen bases.

Because of the new format, two teams from each division made the playoffs. Because the Royals finished in first place in the second half, they were awarded the West’s second playoff spot. While the Royals were swept in the playoffs by their West division rival, the Oakland Athletics, it was a positive way to end a season that looked to be a colossal disappointment in June.

What also is fascinating about the 1981 shortened season is the wave of change that took place in the organization that season. After 70 games, the Royals fired Jim Frey, who had just led the club to the franchise’s first pennant, and replaced him with Dick Howser, who led the Royals to a 20-13 record down the stretch. Furthermore, in October, shortly after their playoff sweep, the Royals replaced general manager Joe Burke with John Schuerholz. The installation of those two in 1981 proved to be a fruitful decision, as they helped the Royals win the franchise’s first World Series in 1985.

There are many differences between the 1981 and 2020 Royals. The 1981 Royals entered the season as a favorite, a small-market darling of the baseball media, led by a future Hall of Famer, and were expected to be one of the better clubs in the American League, if not the best. The 2020 Royals are expected to be near the bottom of the American League Central, with only the Detroit Tigers seeming to stand in their way of the cellar. On the surface, other than the 80-ish games that will be played during their respective season, there isn’t much on the surface that the 1981 and 2020 teams have in common.

However, if the 1981 shortened season showed Royals fans anything, it demonstrated how a smaller sample of games can have a great effect on achieving an abnormal season. If the Royals had a full slate of games in July, not to mention an extra 59 games as expected, would they have continued to be a mediocre club like they were in April and May of 1981? Or would they have eventually surged (like they did during an 18-10 September) and surpassed the rival Athletics? Royals fans will never know, but its intriguing to think about, as a full season might still have saved the jobs of Frey and Burke as the manager and general manager, respectively.

Yes, the 2020 Royals have a different set of expectations in comparison to the 1981 squad, but the 1981 team could serve as a blueprint for how the Royals could surprise. What if they get off to a hot start in the first two months of the year? What if Matheny’s Royals tread water in July and August, and perhaps turn it on in September? After all, not only will the Royals have a shortened season, which plays more favorable to underdogs than favorite, but there will be more spots in the playoffs, which could play to a dark horse Royals squad (among others). After all, the Royals were one of the worst statistical teams going into the 2014 playoffs, and yet, they were a base runner on third away from not only tying, but perhaps winning the World Series that season.

It’s wishful thinking from a Royals fan’s perspective. And in all likelihood, the Royals will probably be what they are expected to be in 2020: better than 2018 and 2019, but still a long ways from competing in the AL Central with the Indians, Twins, and maybe White Sox.

That being said, baseball is a funny game, especially Royals baseball. 1981 didn’t go according to Royals fans’ expectations, but in a disappointing way.

Could it be possible that 2020 doesn’t go according to Royals fans’ expectations…but in a surprisingly positive way?

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