Amos Otis: The age-31 “breakout,” and the ’78 Royals

Part of the “African-American Royals Project” series.

From 1976-1981, the Kansas City Royals were the class of the American League. They made the postseason five times during the six-season span (1979 being the lone playoff-less season), which included a Pennant in 1980 (they lost in their first World Series appearance to the Philadelphia Phillies). During that time, the squad was primarily led by future Hall-of-Famer George Brett, who led Royals players in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for four out of those six seasons. However, there were two exceptions: Willie Wilson, who led the Royals in WAR with a 4.1 mark during a strike-shortened 1981 season; and Amos Otis, who posted a WAR (7.4) that was two wins better than Brett (5.4) during the 1978 season.

Otis’ ’78 campaign, and his career as a Royal, is not as readily recalled by baseball fans or even the more modern casual Royals/KC Sports fan (i.e. Millennial baseball fans or younger). When it comes to African-American baseball players, Frank White, Willie Wilson, Bo Jackson, and even Lorenzo Cain will be more easily remembered by Royals fans nowadays. However, Otis’ career, especially his surprising resurgence at age 31 during the Royals 92-70 season, should be one to remember, or at they very least analyze more on a deeper level.

While Otis had a stellar 17-season career in the Majors that spanned almost 2,000 games (he was two games short of the mark), he struggled to find much opportunity as a player prior to coming to Kansas City prior to the 1970 season, the Royals’ second as a franchise. Drafted in the 5th round by the Boston Red Sox, he only lasted a season in the Red Sox organization before he was swooped up in the 1966 Minor League draft by the New York Mets.

Otis’ rookie year was not easy in the Appalachian League. Even though he posted a .329 batting average and .948 OPS with 9 home runs and 10 steals in 302 plate appearances, he encountered racism while playing for the Harlan Red Sox, which only had one other African-American player on the roster other than himself. Here is a segment about Otis’ encounters with racism according to Bill Lamberty, who wrote Otis’ biography for the SABR Biography Project (this was further published in the book “Kansas City Royals: A Royal Tradition“).

The success on the diamond masked a tumultuous summer off the field. One of two African Americans on the squad, Otis recalled in a 1969 New York Times feature that he received an anonymous phone call several weeks into the season admonishing him to leave town in strongly-worded, racially-inflamed language. The Red Sox chose not to heed Otis’s pleas for reassignment, and he and teammate Bobby Mitchell endured sporadic threats and harassment not uncommon in the 1960s American South through the rest of the summer.

“Amos Otis” by Bill Lamberty; SABR Biography Project; Last Revised June 1, 2019.

Despite moving on from the Red Sox at the conclusion of 1966, Otis struggled to find a spot in the Mets’ Major League roster for the next few seasons. He played 126 games in Triple-A Jacksonville as a 20-year-old, but only played 19 games with the Mets that season, as he posted a .220 avergae and .547 OPS in 66 plate appearances. In 1968, Otis din’t get called up to the Mets, who saw him as a valuable commodity in the Mets organization, but couldn’t really tab a position for him in the big leagues at the time. Originally drafted as a shortstop, Otis started at third base early in the Mets organization before making a move the outfield, which became his regular position at the Major League level and better suited his skill set.

After playing in only 48 games with the Mets in 1969, the Royals made a move for Otis, with the primarily charge being led by Cedric Tallis, the Royals’ general manager at the time. Here is a segment from the SABR Bio article referencing Otis’ fit in Kansas City, and why he was traded from New York to Kansas City with Bob Johnson for Joe Foy:

[Otis] also opened the eyes of Cedric Tallis, Kansas City’s general manager. Tallis built those teams by acquiring young talent, and the Mets stood as Tallis’s first victim. Immediately after the December 3 trade that moved him to the American League, the Royals installed Otis in Municipal Stadium’s spacious center field. Kansas City manager Charlie Metro said Otis’s acquisition was made to plug Kansas City’s hole in center field

“Amos Otis” by Bill Lamberty; SABR Biography Project; Last Revised June 1, 2019.

The move by Tallis, who was looking to make a splash after a losing campaign in their debut season, ended up paying off, not just for the Royals, but for Otis as well. In his Royals debut in 1970, Otis posted a .284 average and .777 OPS with 33 stolen bases on 35 attempts. He also led the league in doubles with 36, and earned his first of four consecutive All-Star berths from 1970-1973.

1971 was one of Otis’ strongest seasons as a Royal, as he hit over .300 for the first time in his career (he only hit .300 again in 1973), and not only did he earn his first Gold Glove (he would win two more: 1973 and 1974), but he led the league in stolen bases (52) and also led the Royals in WAR (5.3). Suddenly, Otis had become one of the Royals’ star players, something that seemed unthinkable when he languished in the Mets’ system just a few season prior.

After four consecutive All-Star appearances, it seemed like Otis was primed for stardom. However, the arrival of stars like Brett, White, Al Cowens, and Hal McRae eventually usurped the luster from Otis’ profile over the end of the 70’s and first half of the 80’s. After his 1973 All-Star appearance, Otis would only make one more All-Star team in his career, which was in 1976. Furthermore, in 1977, his age 30 season, Otis only hit .251 and posted a 2.5 WAR, which was 9th best on the team. At the time, with the Royals in fierce contention with the New York Yankees for an AL Pennant (despite winning 102 games, the Royals lost in the ALCS 3-2 to the hated Yanks in ’77), it was hard to say how long Otis would be on the Royals roster after a mediocre 1977 campaign.

Of course, Otis proved his doubters wrong and then some in 1978.

The 1978 season was a weird one to say the least for the Kansas City Royals. The Royals won 10 fewer games than the previous season, but were still able to win the American League West by five games over the California Angles and the Texas Rangers. The biggest surprise was the severe power outage from Brett, who only hit 9 home runs after hitting 22 the previous year.

However, Otis stepped up in his place, as the speedster who was known more for stealing bases than hitting home runs early in his Royals tenure, ended up leading the Royals with 22 home runs. Furthermore, it was not just the long ball where Otis succeeded, but he experienced a career renaissance in all areas offensively at age 31, his 9th season with the Royals and 11th season overall in the Majors. Over 141 games and 567 plate appearances, Otis posted a .298/.380/.525 slash, a .905 OPS, and he stole 32 bases on 40 attempts to go along with 96 RBI. Furthermore, the 31-year-old centerfielder showed a tremendous eye at the plate, as he walked 66 times and only struck out 54 times, one of only four seasons where he walked more than he struck out (the others being 1970, 1973, and and 1975).

Otis also excelled in 1978 when it counted the most. After getting off to a hot start in the first half with an .876 OPS, Otis struggled a bit in July and August, as his OPS numbers were .688 and .729 during those months, respectively. However, in September/October, the outfielder exploded at the plate, posting a 1.177 OPS, which included 6 home runs, and 9 stolen bases, his highest per-month totals in those categories during the 1978 season. And Otis’ surge during the season’s final month(s) had a tremendous impact on the Royals, as they went 21-10 in September/October, which helped them clinch the AL West.

Otis’ hot bat continued into the postseason, as he posted a 1.101 OPS and .429 batting average over four games in the ALCS, a vast improvement from his .410 OPS in the previous ALCS against the Yankees in 1977. While the Royals would not be victorious against the Yankees (again), his regular season and postseason performance proved to the Royals organization that Otis could still be an important asset to the Royals’ future in the coming years.

The 1978 season proved to be the last “exceptional” season of Otis’ career, as age finally caught up to the long-time Royal. After leading the team in WAR in 1978, he regressed to a 3.6 WAR in 1979 and a 1.4 WAR during the 1980 World Series runner-up campaign in which he only played 107 games. In 1981, he improved a little bit, as he boosted his WAR to 2.1, and his OPS also rose from .699 to .738, but it only came over a 99 game span. 1982 proved to be the final season of his career in which he posted a positive WAR (0.8), as he posted a -0.2 WAR in his final season in Kansas City in 1983, and a -0.8 WAR in 1984 in a 40-game stint with the Pirates before finally retiring.

Otis was one of the first Royals players to be inducted in the Royals Hall of Fame, as he and pitcher Steve Busby were inducted in the inaugural class in 1986. Currently, Otis sits third all-time in terms of career WAR for Royals players, as his 44.8 mark trails only Brett (88.6) and pitcher Kevin Appier (47.0). However, despite his gaudy numbers and honors as a Royal, he received no votes when he was eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1990 and was immediately removed from the ballot, consequently.

Unfortunately, Otis is a player that resonates more with older Royals fans than current ones, especially Royals fans who remember the early days of the Royals and the last days of the Athletics in Kansas City. However, Otis was a trend-setter for many power-speed players who came to Kansas City after him. Otis represented the style of baseball that the Royals organization wanted to play, and he proved that it could not only produce success at an individual level, but also contribute to team success as well. Without a doubt, after Otis’ success, the Royals continued to find and develop outfield talent that fit that Otis mold, and it still remains true to this day, with Cain and Jarrod Dyson being prime modern examples.

Maybe Otis isn’t the first name Royals fans will think of when they think of African-American Royals players. That being said, considering his impact, especially during the early Royals years, he may be the most influential and important.

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