As it becomes more and more apparent that Billy Butler will not be breaking the most embarrassing record in Kansas City Royals history I thought it would be a good time to look at the opposite side of the spectrum. More specifically, if Steve Balboni’s 36 home runs are the most embarrassing, then what single season record is the greatest in Royals history? Greatest can mean a lot of things, and I’m talking about all of them; least likely to be broken, most impressive in its time, and most indicative of a great season. I know a lot of you have probably already thought that this has to end with .390, so instead, I’m going to start there.
The Record: George Brett’s .390 batting average in 1980
Likelihood of being broken: Highly unlikely. Ichiro is the only hitter in the major leagues to come within 20 points of .390 in the last ten years and Tony Gwynn (.394) is the only player to top .390 since Brett did 32 years ago.
How impressive was it in its time: Brett’s .390 was the best batting average in the majors since Ted Williams famously topped .400 in 1941, so yeah, it was pretty impressive. What was really more impressive was how long he flirted with .400, though. Looking at strictly in terms of where he finished the season, he was only .002 higher than Rod Carew hit in 1977.
Indication of great season: Make no mistake; Brett’s 1980 season was by all statistical accounts the greatest of his career. His 203 OPS+ ranks as the 43rd best season in the history of the game and there have only been nine better in the last 32 years…six of those nine were Barry Bonds.
Final judgment: This is clearly the standard by which all Royals records are measured, but is it the greatest? Let’s take a look at the challengers…
The Record: Willie Wilson’s 230 hits in 1980
Likelihood of being broken: In the last 25 years the Royals have had three hitters (Johnny Damon, Kevin Seitzer, and Joe Randa) top 200 hits so this one certainly seems possible. Ichiro is the only major leaguer to top 230 since 2000, but since Wilson did it there have been five American League hitters top the mark.
How impressive was it in its time: Other than Rod Carew Wilson was the first American League player with 230 hits since 1932 (Earl Averill). Of course, the fact that Rod Carew had 239 hits and Brett was making a run at .400 certainly took away from the accomplishment.
Indication of great season: More than anything it was an indication of great stamina. Wilson also set the club record with 705 at bats in 1980. It was a good year for Wilson, and great if you consider his gold glove and 79 stolen bases, but it wasn’t even the best offensive year of his career.
Final judgment: A great record, but when you’re overshadowed the year of the accomplishment, you can’t be the greatest
The Record: Mike Sweeney’s 144 RBI in 1980
Likelihood of being broken: During the steroid era, 144 RBI really wasn’t that big of a deal, but no one in baseball has done it for four years now. In fact, no one in the American League has even gotten within 10% of that number. When you factor in Kauffman Stadium and the contributions you need from those in front of you in the order, this at least seems less likely than Wilson’s to be broken.
How impressive was it in its time: Sweeney’s 144 RBI didn’t even lead the league that season, he finished season to Edgar Martinez. The year before Manny Ramirez drove in 165 runs, the year after Sammy Sosa drove in 160.
Indication of great season: Sweeney had a great year in 2000, his greatest in terms of cumulative statistics but a lot of that was because he stayed healthy and had an incredible offense around him. In terms of OPS+ it was his third best year.
Final judgment: Maybe the greatest record in the last thirty years, but the era takes away from so much of it.
The Record: Bret Saberhagen’s 23 wins in 1989
Likelihood of being broken: By a Royals pitcher? Ha! No Royals pitcher has come within six wins of the mark in the last ten years, and no one has come within 20% since Saberhagen set the record. Justin Verlander is the only pitcher in the majors to win more than 23 in the last ten years.
How impressive was it in its time: Frank Viola won 24 in ’88 and Bob Welch won 27 in ’90, so not that impressive right? Well, except for the fact that Sabes’ 23 wins accounted for 25% of all the clubs wins that year, yeah that’s pretty impressive.
Indication of great season: It’s become very fashionable as of late to argue against wins as a barometer of a pitcher’s success, but it’s pretty hard to argue against Saberhagen’s 1989 season. He led the league in innings pitched (262.1), complete games (12), ERA (2.16), WHIP (0.961), and K/BB ratio (4.49). It was easily his greatest season and arguably the greatest season by any Royals pitcher.
Final Judgment: If only it had been in something less arbitrary than wins.
It’s pretty clear at this point that .390 is still the greatest Royals single season record, and probably always will be. None of the four records above are likely to be broken by a Royal any time soon, it’s not often that we see (positive) records broken by Royals players these days, not even franchise records.