Comparing the 1985 and 2015 Kansas City Royals

9 11 2015

How do the 2015 World Series champions stack up with the 1985 Kansas City Royals?

During the World Series, I compared these Royals to the 1986 Red Sox, who also took a 2-0 Series lead but eventually lost to the Mets in seven games. The Royals won most comparisons to the ’86 Red Sox. Then, after Game Four, I compared this year’s Mets to the 1985 Royals, who fell behind St. Louis 3-1 before roaring back to win. Royals won that comparison, too.

The Royals will win this one as well, but which Royals?

I didn’t do the other comparisons in identical ways, and I won’t do this one either. The first comparison was based on some research because I truly didn’t know (and had a travel day and some insomnia induced by drugs used in my stem-cell harvest to give me a little time for that research). The second comparison was shorter (but still long), based on less research. Each of those started with a position-by-position comparison, but my son Mike covered that well in yesterday’s guest post.

This comparison will be based mostly on memory, supplemented by quick research.

Superstars: ’85


Advantage ’85 (for now). This year’s team doesn’t have a superstar of George Brett‘s caliber. Brett had one of the best years of his Hall of Fame career, leading the league in slugging and OPS and finishing second (to Don Mattingly) in the MVP award. Brett won the award in 1980 and is still the only Royal to win it.

Returning to ’85, Brett was the MVP of the Royals’ comeback win over the Blue Jays in the ’85 ALCS and hit .370 in the World Series with just 1 RBI because the Cardinals (like most of the American League) refused to pitch to Brett with men on base (he drew four World Series walks).

No one on the ’15 Royals will finish second or even very high in this season’s MVP race. But as the current players blossom (and if the best stick around), I expect Royals’ fans 30 years from now to include at least one of this year’s players in their best-Royal-ever debates. But Brett wins all those debates now and for at least the next decade. It would take a run of multiple MVP awards for one of the current Royals to catch Brett faster than that.

Depth of quality: ’15

The 2015 Royals blow ’85 away with the depth of their greatness. Brett will be the only ’85 Royal ever to make the Hall of Fame. I’ll write later about the chances of these Royals to reach the Hall of Fame. Just within the seasons in question, maybe six or seven of the ’15 Royals had better seasons than whoever was the second-best position player for the ’85 Royals. The quality depth of this team is illustrated in the next comparison.

Batting lineup: ’15

Comparing the Game One World Series lineup for the ’15 Royals to the Game Seven ALCS lineup for the ’85 Royals (since they couldn’t use DH’s in the World Series):

  1.  Alcides Escobar had a great post-season and somehow worked in the leadoff spot, despite a low on-base percentage (.293). But Lonnie Smith of ’85 gets the advantage, with more runs and stolen bases (despite playing only 120 games for the Royals) and getting a .321 OBP. ’85 wins.
  2. Hard to compare their regular-season performances, since Willie Wilson played the whole year for the Royals and Ben Zobrist was a late-July trade. But Wilson’s 21 regular season triples and 43 stolen bases give him the advantage, plus he hit better in the World Series. ’85 wins.
  3. Lorenzo Cain had a good season and post-season, but George Brett wins most comparisons, including this one. ’85 wins.
  4. Eric Hosmer is at the top of his game (or rising). Hal McRae was on the decline. ’15 wins.
  5. Kendrys Morales drove in 106 regular-season runs, including 46 RBI with two outs, and added four homers and 10 RBI in the post-season. Pat Sheridan, the ALCS Game Seven starter, platooned with Darryl Motley, and together they didn’t approach Morales’ offensive production. ’15 wins.
  6. Steve Balboni had his best season in ’85 with 36 homers and 88 RBI, but he also led the league with 166 strikeouts. Mike Moustakas gets the edge on better overall hitting and better post-season hitting. ’15 wins.
  7. Salvador Pérez is a feared hitter in the 7 spot, better in every offensive aspect than Jim Sundberg, except for drawing walks. ’15 wins.
  8. Frank White moved up to the clean-up slot for the World Series, because he had more power than the right fielders and catcher and didn’t strike out as much as Bonesy. He wouldn’t even be close in this matchup at clean-up, and he’s only close at No. 8 because an injury limited Alex Gordon to 104 regular-season games. Gordon had better season offensive averages across the board and a game-tying ninth-inning homer in the World Series. ’15 wins.
  9. Even with Buddy Biancalana‘s strong World Series performance, Álex Ríos was a far superior hitter, though this wasn’t his best season. Here’s a comparison: That Buddy Biancalana Hit Counter that David Letterman had fun with the year Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s career hits record stopped at 113 hits in Buddy’s six-year career. Ríos has had 11 seasons with more hits than Biancalana’s whole career. ’15 wins.

The batting lineup comparison really illustrates the strength of the ’15 Royals. The ’85 Royals win the top of the order (where the ’15 Royals were solid), but the ’15 Royals were just relentless and far superior 4-9. “Keep the line moving” was not just a slogan. It was the offense that resulted in all the comebacks.

The ’85 Royals had a huge offensive weakness (Biancalana), a platoon combos that was average at best (Motley/Sheridan), a declining DH (McRae) and a feast-or-famine player (Balboni). The ’15 Royals didn’t have anyone as dangerous as Brett, but were dangerous whoever was hitting.

Starting pitching: ’85


This isn’t even close, either in context of the full season or the World Series. The ’15 Royals didn’t have that year’s Cy Young Award winner and the ’15 Series MVP didn’t come from the pitching staff. Bret Saberhagen won both and went on to the best pitching career of any Royal starter ever.

Add a Danny Jackson complete-game win and two strong outings (but no wins) from Charlie Leibrandt, and this was a dominant starting rotation. Bud Black pitched well, losing in his only start. Mark Gubicza, won more games in the regular season than any of this year’s Royals, 14, added a key Game Six win in the ALCS over Toronto and didn’t even pitch in the World Series. He could have been a Game One starter for the 2015 Royals.

Johnny Cueto‘s Game Three gem was the only win by a ’15 starting pitcher (and he was inconsistent during the regular and post-season). No other Royal starter pitched in the seventh inning. The ’85 Royals pitched three complete games (Sabes twice and Jackson once). And Charlie Leibrandt took a scoreless game into the eighth inning before losing the lead in Game Six and came within a strike of a 2-0 shutout in Game Two before losing in the ninth, 4-2. Jackson also pitched seven innings of two-run ball in a Game One loss. With the exception of Game Four, when Black gave up three runs in five innings, every ’85 start was better than the non-Cueto starts of ’15.

I’m not saying the ’15 Royals didn’t have good starting pitching. They kept teams in the game and pitched the six strong innings (sometimes five) that the Royals needed. But the comparison of starting pitchers was not even close.

Bullpen: ’15


Here’s how good the ’15 Royals’ bullpen was: The ’85 Royals had a guy who outpitched three Hall of Fame relievers in their overlapping primes. And the ’15 bullpen was even better.

Dan Quisenberry‘s dominance as a closer from 1980 to ’85 was one of the best stretches ever from any reliever in baseball history. In fact, Hall of Fame relievers Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage were in their primes for some or all of that stretch and Quiz was the very best of that time. And I’m not counting Dennis Eckersley, who hadn’t moved to the bullpen yet.

But Quiz was nearly at the end of his run, and Manager Dick Howser was losing confidence in his bullpen ace against left-handers. He didn’t turn to Quiz in the ninth inning of Game Two because left-handed hitter Andy Van Slyke was on the Cardinals’ bench and Howser had lost confidence in Quiz against left-handers. As I recounted earlier, Howser outmanaged Bobby Cox in ALCS Games Six and Seven, starting right-handers Gubicza and Saberhagen, then relieving with left-handed starters (the ’85 Royals had no left-handed relievers), so that Cox would pinch-hit his right-handed DH Cliff Johnson, removing left-handed Al Oliver from the games, so he couldn’t bat late against Quiz.

Ned Yost had full confidence in his bullpen in any situation. Wade Davis hasn’t had a full season as closer yet, but his two seasons and post-seasons in the eighth inning role before moving to closer late this season were as dominant as Quiz at his best.

Greg Holland was a dominant closer last year and good this year before an injury ended his season (he had Tommy John surgery). And without him, this bullpen continued to close out games strong, with Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar and Ryan Madson pitching strong. And Game Four starter Chris Young split time between starting and relieving, and won the 14-inning Game One marathon.

Even with Quiz, the bullpen comparison isn’t close, and the ’85 bullpen was otherwise forgettable: Joe Beckwith was the only other regular-season reliever other than Quiz who even pitched in the World Series. I already mentioned how the lack of a left-hander forced Howser to use starters in relief in the ALCS..

I haven’t done the research to prove that the ’15 Royals had the best bullpen ever. I fondly remember many bullpens with Mariano Rivera in the closer role and even the season he set up for John Wetteland. But I doubt any other bullpen was as dominant in a World Series. The Mets outscored the Royals 18-12 in the first seven innings, but the Royals prevailed 9-0 in the eighth and ninth innings and 6-0 in extra innings.

Offense has to do the coming back, but bullpens make comebacks possible, and the ’15 Royals’ bullpen didn’t allow comebacks.

Comebacks: even

Both Royal teams refused to die (sometimes you use a cliché because it just applies better than an original phrase). The Blue Jays and Cardinals both had the ’85 Royals down 2-0 and 3-1, and they just kept coming back. The Astros, Blue Jays and Mets all had the ’15 Royals down by multiple runs in multiple games, and they just kept coming back. Need a run in the ninth to keep Game One going? Gordon obliges. Need two in the ninth to keep Game Five going? Cain and Hosmer deliver. Think you have the Series wrapped up? Watch out for Balboni and Dane Iorg.

Call this a push: Two of the best comeback teams ever.

Power: ’15

Brett and Balboni gave the ’85 Royals two guys how hit more than 30 homers playing their home games in a big ballpark, and their team had more homers, 154-139. But the ’15 Royals slugged better (.412 to .401) and drove in more runs, (689 to 657). In the post-season, the ’15 Royals had 17 homers in 16 games, compared to nine in 14 games for ’85. Slight power advantage for ’15.

Defense: ’15

White may have been better than any 2015 Royal defensively. But I think six of the current Royals are better than the second-best ’85 defender. Sundberg was past his Gold Glove prime. Brett won his only Gold Glove that year and Wilson won only one, before moving from left field to center. I think Perez, Gordon, Hosmer (already multiple Gold Glove winners), Escobar, Cain and Moustakas were all better defenders in ’15 than anyone but White in ’85. Since Sundberg won his Gold Gloves for the Rangers, I think the ’15 version will surpass ’85 in career Gold Gloves for the Royals this year, with many more in their future. Clear edge for ’15.

Speed: ’15

I think Escobar and Cain were probably as fast as Wilson and Smith, but the ’15 team doesn’t steal bases as much (perhaps because Ned Yost bunts too much). I loved Mike’s line yesterday about Jorge Orta‘s speed from home to first. But I have to give the edge to ’15 here for multiple reasons:

  • Cain’s race home from first on a single to win the ALCS.
  • Escobar’s lead-off inside-the-park homer to get the World Series rolling.
  • The ’85 team didn’t have a pinch-runner as good as Jarrod Dyson.
  • Hosmer’s ninth-inning dash home on a ground ball to send Game Five of the World Series into extra innings.

The ’85 team might have a slight edge on actual speed, but the ’15 team used base-running more to win the World Series.

Memorable moments: ’15

Each of these World Series will be remembered and savored by Royal fans until death or dementia. For ’85 fans, the memory of the ninth-inning comeback in Game Six is the memory fans will always cherish. (I’m not counting memories of opponents, such as the ugly Game Seven meltdowns of the Cardinal pitchers and manager.)

We remember the celebration, too: Brett heading to the mound with two outs in the ninth inning of an 11-0 blowout to tell young Saberhagen that he’d better run toward third base after the last out, then Brett embracing Bret after Motley squeezed the final out.

As vivid as the Game Six comeback remains, the ’15 Royals provided more moments (in the World Series alone) with potential to last as long in Kansas City memories:

  • Gordon’s game-tying ninth-inning homer to send Game One into extra innings.
  • Hosmer’s 14-inning sacrifice fly to end that game.
  • The eighth-inning comeback, two-inning save and game-ending double play to win Game Four.
  • Hosmer’s dash home to tie Game Five.
  • Maybe the five-run 11th inning to win Game Five had too many highlights for any of them to stand out as iconically.

Of course, ’15 has a huge advantage over ’85 where memories are concerned. Those memories are all fresh and we don’t know which will endure. But I can’t imagine memories of Gordon’s homer or Hosmer’s dash home fading.

Managing: ’15

Mike covered this well. Both are excellent managers, but sometimes frustrating (what manager isn’t frustrating?). I give Yost the edge here for bringing his team back from last year’s Game Seven heartbreak to a dominant regular season and an 11-5 post-season against tough competition.

Front office: ’15

I agree with Mike that Dayton Moore‘s achievement in putting this team together through player development, trades and free agent signings has been masterful. John Schuerholz was good, but not this good.

Context: ’15

The ’85 championship capped a decade of disappointments and improvements: three ALCS losses to the Yankees in the 1970s, then finally beating the Yankees in 1980 only to lose to the Phillies in the World Series, then post-season sweeps by the A’s in ’81 and Tigers in ’84 before the championship season in ’85.

We don’t know the context of the ’15 championship. If the Royals return to years of mediocrity (which I doubt), I’ll amend this someday. But back-to-back World Series (and losing in seven games) are achievements the Royals of the 1970s and ’80s didn’t match. I give ’15 the edge here.

Overview

The ’85 team was great and fun to watch. But I have to say this year’s team is even better. I hope we don’t have to wait until 2045 to make this a three-way comparison.

Goggles: Who wins?

Final comparison: I don’t know whether this reflects toughness or preparation, but the 1985 Royals didn’t need (toughness) or use (prep) goggles to protect their eyes from champagne:

Bottom line: Both teams celebrated. They share a spot in Royals’ fans’ hearts, and this is only a fun argument. Whichever team you favor, you love the other.

Sam Mellinger’s comparison

Sam Mellinger also compared the 1985 and 2015 Royals for the Kansas City Star.

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4 responses

9 11 2015
Dale Alison

I’m buying your analysis over Sam’s, even though I really respect Sam.

’85, was fun, not only because, as you say, it capped a decade of near misses, but it was my first year in Burlington and if I wasn’t surrounded by Cub fans, they were Cardinal fans.

The ’15 team knows no peer when it comes to fun, though. It’s the one intangible that permeates this team. It’s like watching the College World Series every day. While there are no superstars like the ’15 team had, the stars on the ’15 are very, very good. None may reach the superstar level — and that’s even considering how liberally the term is handed out these days — but they’re a notch below. And when it comes to clutch situations, I don’t think the sabermetrics guys have determined a good model. Whatever it is they find, this team surely blows the top off it.

I can’t quite figure Yost out. From a pure managerial standpoint, Howser should be the lights-out choice. But Ned seems to have a good handle on the intangibles. He also must have a Mensa-like quality to reading or accepting scouting reports. Either that, or he can ride a wave like no other. Is there any other explanation for batting Escobar at the top of the order other than it works?

Kansas City loved the Royals of the ’70s and ’80s, but the love for this team, as exemplified by the parade last week is off the chart. We’ll have to see how that affects the Wal-Mart heart of team owner David Glass. He’s in a position to win a bunch more trophies “with flags on the top.” Ball’s in his court.

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