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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

'85 Royals were a sum greater than their parts

"Destiny grants us our wishes, but in its own way, in order to give us something beyond our wishes." - Goethe

If ever baseball fans in Kansas City needed a celebration of happier times, it is now.

It's been 20 years since the Royals reached the peak of the franchise's success curve. Since then, it's been a slow and steady decline, with no apparent limit to the depths to which this franchise can sink. Last season, 104 losses. This season, maybe more.

Back in 1985, the discipline of baseball statistical analysis was just beginning to blossom. Bill James had published the ninth edition of the seminal Baseball Abstract. The previous year, John Thorn and Pete Palmer co-wrote The Hidden Game of Baseball.

In the mainstream, these new concepts were largely ignored. Batters were judged by batting average. Pitchers were judged by wins.

When the Royals sneaked into the postseason and overcame incredible odds to come back from two 3-1 deficits to win the World Series, there was no cynical stat geek besmirching the pages of The Kansas City Star, saying that the team was lucky, that it had no business winning the flag that season.

It's a good thing, too. No one would have wanted to hear it. Besides, what does it matter? That flag is flying over Kauffman Stadium, and that is something no one can take away.

But what would cold, objective analysis have to say about the 1985 Royals?

The 1985 Royals were fortunate to win the 91 games that allowed them to edge the Angels by a single game in the AL West. In terms of run differential (687-639), the Royals were more like an 86- or 87-win team.

The Royals were 29-23 in one-run games and 13-12 in two-run encounters. Their hitters hit .255 with runners in scoring position. The pitchers allowed a .255 average with runners in scoring position. The league average in those situations was .263.

The conclusion is that the Royals might have overachieved, but not drastically. Their chief competitors - California and Chicago — also outperformed their run differentials by similar margins. The three teams were close, but the Royals were the best team in the division.

If there was luck involved in the Royals' division championship that season, it was that they were in the West and not the East, where the Blue Jays won 99 games and the Yankees 97.

The Royals were a team with holes (they scored the second-fewest runs in the league) but also were imbued with easily identifiable strengths.

While the pitchers ranked in the middle of the pack in strikeouts, they finished in a virtual tie with the Twins for the fewest walks allowed in the AL and were unbelievably stingy with the home run. The Royals allowed 103 home runs in 1985. The next fewest were the Red Sox with 130.

Since 1950, only one AL team (the 1964 Angels) has been stingier in terms of home runs allowed compared with the league average.

Once in the playoffs, the Royals' pitching was able to neutralize the superior offenses of the Blue Jays and Cardinals. The Blue Jays averaged 4.7 runs during the regular season that year but just 3.5 in the ALCS. In the World Series, the Cardinals' run production dropped from an NL-best 4.6 to 1.9.

There have been better Royals teams than the 1985 squad. The 1977 edition won 102 games and outscored opponents 822-651. The 1976, 1978 and 1980 teams were also probably better.

But it's the 1985 Royals that we will remember most fondly. It was a team that was just good enough to win in the time and league in which it played.

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