From time to time, I will take a look back at a specific season in Royals history. This week, a look at the 1974 Royals.
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Setting The Stage
The 1973 Royals were the franchiseâ€™s most successful team in KCâ€™s five years of existence, going 88-74 and spending 42 days in first place. Unfortunately, the Oakland Aâ€™s were too good and pulled away from KC in September, ultimately winning the division by 6 games. Still, Royals fans had to feel optimistic going into 1974. The 1973 team had finished second in the AL in runs scored and the rotation was anchored by Steve Busby and Paul Splittorff.
Comings And Goings
The Royals sought to improve their pitching staff with two big trades in the span of four days in December 1973. First they sent Kurt Bevacqua and Ed Kirkpatrick to Pittsburgh for Nelson Briles, then they sent Lou Piniella to the Yankees for Lindy McDaniel. The first trade was defensibleâ€”Bevacqua* was a utility player without much offensive ability, Kirkpatrick was a decent hitter and versatile player but certainly not irreplaceable. Meanwhile, Briles was 29 at the time of the trade and had been a solid starter and swingman for nine seasons in the National League.
*Oddly enough, the Pirates sent Bevacqua back to the Royals in July of 1974. Bevacqua was understandably upset that he played in only 17 of Pittsburghâ€™s first 79 games.
However, I imagine the Piniella trade would have blown up Twitter had it existed in 1973. Trading a fan favorite one year removed from an All-Star team selection for a 38-year-old relief pitcher is seldom a good idea. When said trade means you have dealt 2/3 of your starting outfield in less than a week, and dealt the more valuable piece to the hated Yankeesâ€¦yeah, I donâ€™t see why the Royals made this move. Cedric Tallis, the Royalsâ€™ GM at the time, pulled off lots of outstanding trades as he built KCâ€™s powerhouse teams, but this was not one of his better moments.
To fill Piniellaâ€™s left field spot, the Royals acquired an over-the-hill Vada Pinson from the Angels. Pinson had had many good years, but at age 35, he was below-average (93 OPS+), and I have to imagine he had a hard time covering the spacious, Astroturfed, Royals Stadium outfield.
Other deals of note: October 1973, traded Dick Drago to Boston for Marty Pattin; April 1974, traded Paul Schaal to California for Richie Scheinblum; August 1974, signed Orlando Cepeda as a free agent.
Notable debuts: Al Cowens (April 6), Dennis Leonard (September 4).
How It Played Out
The team got off to a slow (8-14) start, but were sitting at 25-22 at the end of May, 1.5 games behind Oakland. Unfortunately they could do no better than tread water in June and July (26-28 combined) and entered August in a second-place tie, 8.5 games behind Oakland. A strong month put them at 69-63 on the season, but they were only able to shave two games off Oaklandâ€™s lead. A stretch of 15 losses in 16 games (which actually began on August 28) ended any chance they had of catching the Athletics. The Royals finished at 77-85, 13 games out and in fifth place, a disappointing result.
What Went Right
John Mayberry, Amos Otis and Hal McRae all had very nice offensive seasons. George Brett had a terrific rookie season (finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting behind Mike Hargrove and Bucky Dent). Tony Solaita* was a nice left-handed bat off the bench, backup first baseman and pinch-hitter. Busby had another tremendous season, winning 22 games, making the All-Star team, and throwing a no-hitter on June 19 against the Brewers. Al Fitzmorris was actually KCâ€™s best starter by ERA+.
*If you donâ€™t know anything about Tony Solaita, I suggest you read this.
What Went Wrong
Despite the efforts of Mayberry, Otis and McRae, the offense went south, scoring 88 fewer runs than they had in 1973. Although the team OBP was decent (.327, third in the league), the slugging percentage was bad (.364, ahead of only California). The Royals finished last in the league in homers. Splittorff had an uncharacteristically down year (13-19, 4.10 ERA, 93 ERA+). Briles posted a 95 ERA+ and missed two months with an injury.
Royals MVP: Both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs list Amos Otis as the teamâ€™s WAR leader for 1974. Hal McRae has a pretty good argument, too. Either one would be a good choice. Iâ€™d lean toward AO a little, just because he played a more important defensive position and won a Gold Glove.
Royals Cy Young: Busby, and itâ€™s not really close. Fitzmorris had a very nice year, but Busby threw 100 more innings, which to me offsets any statistical advantages Fitz might have had.
–Thanks to Curt Nelson for help with the ticket prices.