The Cautionary Tale of the 1990 Royals

If you were a Royals fan in 1989, things looked good.

George Brett, even at 36 years old and still injury-prone as ever, put up a 123 OPS+ (though, of course, nobody really knew what OPS+ was back in those dark ages). Bret Saberhagen was winning his second Cy Young Award before his 26th birthday. And they had a not-so-secret weapon in Bo Jackson.

The Royals finished 92-70, their third-best record in franchise history. They also finished second behind eventual World Series champions, the Oakland Athletics.

The 1989 Royals record would have won the AL East and only the Chicago Cubs (and the A’s) had a better record in the majors than Kansas City that year. With Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza (who had finished third in Cy Young voting in 1988 and was an All-Star two years in a row) and youngster Tom Gordon, fresh off of a second place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting, the Royals felt like they were a few pieces short of making a serious run to dethrone Oakland. They also had the underrated Danny Tartabull, a promising closer of the future in Jeff Montgomery, and a catcher with some pop in Mike Macfarlane.

They entered that winter feeling like they needed to make a big move and that doing so would put them over the top.

Enter: Mark Davis.

After some up and down years with the Giants and Padres, Davis put it together in 1988, compiling a 2.01 ERA in 98 innings, making the All-Star team and saving 28 games. In 1989, he was even better, winning the Cy Young Award for San Diego with 44 saves, a 1.85 ERA and struck out a batter an inning in 92 frames. He found himself hitting the free agent market at the age of 28, in his prime, and coming off two great seasons.

It’s no surprise that he was the biggest free agent name that winter. The Royals, even with a solid bullpen that featured Gordon (some of the time) and Montgomery, could always use more solid arms.

So the Royals signed him to a four year, $13 million contract. In doing so, they signed their number one offseason priority. It’s hard to believe, but at the time, the $3.25 million annual salary was the highest in baseball history. It also marked the first time that a team would have both reigning Cy Young Award winners on its roster.

Along with Mark Davis, the Royals signed Storm Davis who had just completed a two year stretch with Oakland that saw him put up a 35-14 record. Based off of that, he was regarded as a significant starting pitcher on the free agent market and the Royals picked him up for $6 million over three years.

Looking at the numbers, Storm Davis had red flags that would arouse suspicion in today’s internet-age of analysis. Yes, he won 19 games in 1989, but did so with a 4.36 ERA and a 1.506 WHIP. In 169 innings, he struck out only 91 batters (4.8 K/9) and walked 68 (3.6 BB/9). His ERA+, adjusted for its relation to the rest of the league and his ballpark (the cavernous Oakland-Alameda County Stadium*) was 85.

*Though his 1989 ERA at home was 4.70, in a typically sized stadium, it would likely have been higher.

With a rotation of Saberhagen, Gubicza, Gordon, Storm Davis and a young Kevin Appier, as well as a bullpen boasting Farr, Montgomery, Luis Aquino and now Mark Davis, many a preseason magazine picked 1990 as the year the Royals finally got past Oakland in the American League West.

They won 75 games and finished sixth in the division.

Many things factored into the letdown. The Royals weren’t likely as good as they ended up in 1989. Pythagorean projections would have put them at a record of 87-75 instead of 92-70. A swing like that is pretty big. Similarly, their 1990 season, based on run differentials and Pythagorean projections, was unlucky as well. The projections had them at 80-81 in the end, another large swing. It’s safe to say that they weren’t as good as they seemed in 1989 and weren’t as bad as they seemed in 1990.

The rotation, which looked like the anchor of the 1990 crew, fell apart due to injury. Storm Davis started just 20 games. Saberhagen had surgery in July to remove a bone fragment from his elbow and started just 20 games as well. He didn’t see the field again until two starts in September. Gubicza went on the disabled list in July with a rotator cuff injury that ended up requiring surgery and cost him the rest of the year. In the 16 starts he did make, he put up a 4.50 ERA.

The upheaval caused guys like Pete Filson and Richard Dotson to make seven starts each. The Royals even resorted to pulling Mark Davis and Steve Farr out of the bullpen for a couple starts. Chris Codiroli made two starts, putting up a 9.58 ERA in 10.1 innings (he’d also made four relief appearances). He walked 17 batters in his time as a Royal.

It was a mess.

Behind the last great season from George Brett (who won his third career batting title and had a 153 OPS+), the Royals scored more runs in 1990 than in 1989, but the injuries to the pitching staff shattered their dreams of contention. Still, injuries to both Bo Jackson (111 games played) and Danny Tartabull (88) limited the offense’s opportunity to overcome a weakened pitching staff. Frank White finished his career with a 53 OPS+ and rookies like Terry Shumpert, Jeff Conine and Brian McRae weren’t quite ready to step in and carry the team.

But the boogeymen in 1990 ended up being the Davis boys. There has to be a scapegoat, and the new starter your team signed who only had a 4.74 ERA and got hurt and the reliever (with the highest annual salary in league history) who could only muster up a 5.11 ERA and was pulled from his closer’s role in mid-May made fine targets for fans’ angst.

Mark Davis saved seven games as a Royal before being traded in July 1992 for Juan Berenguer. Storm Davis was traded in December 1991 for Bob Melvin. To this day, they stand as symbols of failure and the beginning of the end of the Royals relevance is linked to that 1990 disaster.

The warning that I see is linked to how to manage expectations. The leadup to the 1990 season was exciting and things looked like they’d go the Royals way. They just needed one or two more pieces to put them over the top and in signing the Davises, it seemed they had. But there’s no way to predict the Saberhagen and Gubicza injuries. Taking the two best sluggers out of the lineup can’t be made up by rookies and journeymen. At the time, the Royals did the best they could to add to a roster that looked like it might be ready to make a leap forward.

Storm Davis was a bad signing, but Mark Davis was one of the biggest free agents of the winter. Any other team would have taken the same shot on him. In what may have been the last shot to win with White, Brett and Willie Wilson around, the Royals went for it, they just fell short.

In 1994, the last time the Royals were truly in contention, the only holdovers from the 1990 team were Mike MacFarlane, Montgomery, Gordon, Appier and Gubicza. McRae and Shumpert combined for less than 300 plate appearances in 1990, but had significant time with the Royals in 1994.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Bo Jackson Bret Saberhagen George Brett Jeff Montgomery Kansas City Royals KC KC Royals Mark Davis Mark Gubicza MLB Royals Storm Davis

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