The KC Royals and their history with the Mendoza Line

(Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images) /

Over the years, it’s become an apparent myth that KC Royals Hall of Famer George Brett coined the term “Mendoza Line,” now commonly used to refer to a hitter with an average below .200.

According to light-hitting shortstop Mario Mendoza, it was actually Seattle teammates Tom Paciorek and Bruce Bochte who came up with the phrase in 1979 as Mendoza slapped his way toward a .198 average, marking the fourth time in his career he finished under .200— the newly dubbed Mendoza Line. Then, when Brett started slowly in 1980, Bochte and Paciorek joked about him being below the Mendoza Line, and Brett later told the press he liked to check Sunday papers to see who was below the Mendoza Line. The phrase became a big part of baseball’s lexicon.

Obviously, Brett’s 1980 season picked up—he flirted with .400 into September before settling at .390.

And after finishing 5-for-40 for a .125 average in 13 games in late 1973, Brett never had to seriously worry about finishing a season below .200 again.

What KC Royals have been closest to the Mendoza Line in club history?

Several Royals have flirted with the indignity of the Mendoza Line.

To be eligible to appear on our list of such players, a Royal must have qualified for the batting championship in his season, meaning 502 plate appearances over a full 162-game campaign, or 3.1 plate appearances per game in shorter seasons. Using this criteria, Mario Mendoza himself never finished below “his” Line because the most plate appearances he had in a single season was the 401 he accumulated in that 1979 campaign. He was typically removed for pinch hitters and batted ninth, so his chances were limited.

In his one season with the Royals in 1975 (the last campaign of his storied career), eventual Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew hit a lowly .199, but  logged just 369 plate appearances. Bob Hamelin had only 242 plate appearances, but earned a dishonorable mention here with a .168 average.

And just last season, Jorge Soler netted a .192 average in 360 plate appearances for the Royals before turning it around after a last-minute trade deadline deal sent him to Atlanta where he hit .269 and earned a World Series MVP award with the Braves. (He ended up at .223 for the year).

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Several KC Royals stars have flirted with the Mendoza Line in team history.

That brings us to the lowest marks for Royals players. Fortunately, none have officially finished below the infamous Mendoza Line.

In 2020’s shortened season, Nicky Lopez logged the lowest qualifying average in club history with a .201 mark in 56 games, finishing above the Mendoza Line only because of a .213 September, even though he went 0-for-11 in his final four games of the season. Despite that, Lopez showed a massive turnaround in 2021 by finishing at .300.

In that same 2020 season, Alex Gordon hit just .209 in his final major league campaign. Still, that’s not the low point for Gordon, as he had finished at .208 in 2017, only getting above the Mendoza line for good on Sept. 7, when he went 2-for-3 to bump his season average from .196 to .200. Gordon was at .172 after June 9, and stayed in the .190s flirting with .200 for much of July and August.

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Royals Hall of Fame shortstop Freddie Patek struggled to a .212 mark in 1972, even though he was named an All-Star that season. He was at .223 at the time of the All-Star Game, but struggled down the stretch.

The team struggles of 2021 were exemplified by Carlos Santana and Hunter Dozier, who finished at .214 and .216, respectively. Santana had been at .250 on June 23 before slumping to the end of the season. Dozier, meanwhile, started out 0-for-16, was in the .150s through much of June, and didn’t get above .200 until Aug. 9.

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The Royals will continue to hope nobody finishes below the Mendoza Line, and that the team’s closest connection to it is the time George Brett helped make it so famous.