Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Any reason can be a good reason to cheer on a Royal
This has sort of been a massive project that I (maybe foolishly) took on in the middle of trying to write up my doctoral project, but it’s also been a good outlet for writing something a little more fun. We’ve reached the final bracket, with just sixteen more guys to profile. This random “region” has four sub-brackets rather than two. The first is “one-tool wonders,” made up of guys with a very particular
set of skill s; the second is “meme guys,” whose popularity is mostly about the fun we’ve had with them in ways that relate little to winning or losing; the third is “funny names” (self-explanatory); and the fourth are “surprises,” guys who we love for exceeding our expectations.
Here is the bracket:
“One-Tool Wonder” Match-Ups
#1 Steve Balboni vs. #16 Terrance Gore
The other day I was thinking about what a modern ballplayer with Steve Balboni’s DNA would look like. Modern weight-training would have enhanced his natural strength and made him more chiseled. Modern fashion would give him a shaved head and probably a massive, dark beard—an intimidating, Sasquatch-like presence. But he came up in the ‘80s, so we got this cuddly character (remember this is a picture of a 28-year-old professional athlete):
Dear Men, what is preventing you from looking like this? pic.twitter.com/9SmeiBwHqG
— Royals Review (@royalsreview) May 26, 2020
“Bye-Bye” Balboni’s one tool was, of course, power. In the modern game, he might have been coached to maximize it more, instead of people wringing their hands over his strikeout totals. To tell you how different the game was in 1985, when he came up after Orta’s “single” in game 6 of the World Series, the announcers weren’t building up the possibility that this massive slugger, fourth in baseball with 36 home runs, would end the game with one swing. Instead, they were lamenting that he probably didn’t know how to bunt.
Balboni’s 36 home runs in 1985, of course, stood as a franchise record until 2017. He was voted by fans as the 26th best player in Royals’ history for the 50th Season All-Time Team. He wasn’t. But his 119 home runs from 1984-88 rank 14th in Royals history, and he ranks first in home run rate, going deep once every 16.8 at-bats.
His opening round opponent is another Royal with a ring, Terrance Gore. The Royals’ pinch-running specialist survived against defensive specialist David Lough in the play-in round by a comfortable margin. Someone in the comments was predicting a UMBC-style first round upset here. Can #0 make Balboni say “bye-bye” this early?
#8 Jimmy Gobble vs. #9 Tom Goodwin
A first-round draft pick in 1999 and once ranked as the #50 prospect in baseball, Jimmy Gobble was supposed to be much more well-rounded. Instead, after some unsuccessful fits and starts as a starter, Gobble settled in as a lefty specialist, culminating in his best season in 2007, where he faced lefty batters 55% of the time and was much more effective against them (.909 vs. .724 opponents’ OPS). His splits were even more pronounced in 2008, but his usage less sculpted to his strengths. His ERA almost tripled, and he was released at the end of the year.
Tom Goodwin was super fast, so fast that the Dodgers took him in the first round in the 1989 draft and brought him to the big leagues rapidly, even though it wasn’t clear he could do much besides run. The Royals got him off waivers in 1994, and put him into the CF void left by the traded Brian McRae in 1995. He was better than a lot of us anticipated, hitting .288 with good defense. He established himself over the next season and a half, until he built enough value that the Rangers traded All-Star third baseman Dean Palmer for him, straight up.
“Meme Guys” Match-Ups
#4 Mitch Maier vs. #13 Sal Fasano
Without this website, I’m not sure how many fans would even remember Mitch Maier’s playing career. He was a fourth outfielder type during some of the losingest seasons in franchise history. He had decent on-base skills and filled in admirably for the injured Coco Crisp in 2010, but he had very little playing time backing up the remade 2011 outfield of Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, and Jeff Francoeur. This lack of playing time led to Mitch’s letters home from baseball camp (I spent some time trying to track down all of them, but I couldn’t). To this community, at least, Maier then became more than just a decent player off the bench; he became the beloved character MITCH. When it came time for another beloved character, Rusty Kuntz, to take a step back, who better to step into his place as first base and outfield coach?
In baseball movies, catchers are often rotund caricatures, like Ham Porter in Sandlot or John C. Reilly’s character in For Love of the Game. Most actual Major League catchers could not be cast into these types of roles. Sal Fasano looked the part. He looked like a beer league softball player who drove trucks for a living more than a professional athlete. He really leaned into this image in later years, growing a huge fu manchu mustache. Some fans also wanted Fasano, who had showed decent power and on-base skills despite a low average, to get more playing time instead of guys like Brent Mayne or Chad Kreuter.
#5 Ken Harvey vs. #12 Luis Mendoza
All-Star Ken Harvey could have been in the one-tool wonders group. Harvey couldn’t field, didn’t have much power, didn’t really walk, certainly couldn’t run, and the only thing we can say about his arm was that it was strong enough to hurt Jason Grimsley at close range.
But Harvey could get the bat on the ball; he hit enough singles and doubles to go along with a .350 average in the minors in 2001 to get on the radar, and he got his shot after showing a little more power in Omaha in 2002. He needed to hit over .300 to really be an asset, but he hit .266 as a rookie in 2003. In 2004, in the midst of a nightmare Royals season, the team needed an All-Star representative. Harvey was hitting over .350 well into June, and he was named to the All-Star team. He entered the All-Star break mired in a terrible 7-for-59 slump that had dropped his average all the way to .305. Joe Torre sent him up to face Randy Johnson with the bases loaded in the 3rd inning. Predictably, he struck out. He finished the year at .287 and never played regularly again.
Luis Mendoza didn’t have great stuff and didn’t have any success before the Royals purchased him from the Rangers, but Mendoza caught your eye because of 80-grade hair.
Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images
Mendoza was fantastic in 2011 in Omaha (12-5, 2.18 ERA in 144 innings), and followed that with a solid season as a league-average starter for the Royals in 2012. The team improved its rotation in 2013, and Mendoza’s performance declined, and he was released after the season.
“Funny Names” Match-Ups
#2 Pete LaCock vs. #15 Onix Concepcion
Before there was Richard Lovelady, snickering 12-year-olds of the late ‘70s had Pete LaCock. The Royals acquired LaCock prior to the 1977 season, and after hitting .303 in a part-time role, he became the team’s primary first baseman in 1978-79 after John Mayberry was sold to the Blue Jays. He hit .289/.337/.400 those seasons. After the Royals acquired Willie Aikens for the 1980 season, he began the season playing left field while Amos Otis was injured, but he hit .205 and soon lost his place in the regular lineup. His Baseball Reference page is sponsored by a guy who wrote a book about the “100 best baseball names.”
I came into my awareness of players in the early 1980s, and one of the early names I learned was Dave Concepcion, All-Star shortstop for the Reds. So I got a kick out of it when the Royals had their own Concepcion at shortstop, with a much more interesting first name. Onix Concepcion is the only “Onix” to play professional baseball. He had a decent season in the year he won the regular job from U.L. Washington, hitting .282 in 1984. He fell to .204 in ‘85, his last in Kansas City, but he did score the game-tying run as a pinch-runner for Steve Balboni in Game 6 of the World Series, scoring just ahead of Jim Sundberg on Dane Iorg’s famous single.
#7 Hipolito Pichardo vs. #10 Buddy Biancalana
In this match-up of these two melodious names, Hipolito Pichardo had the lengthier Royals career. He was slightly above average as a starter at ages 22 and 23 in ‘92-’93, but the Royals moved him to the bullpen in ‘94. He was no more (and no less) effective, in general, as a reliever, posting a 102 ERA+ over the next four years. He returned to starting in 1998, but he struggled until going down to an injury that wiped out his 1999 season, too. He signed with Boston for the 2000 season. In seven years for the Royals he threw 699.2 innings with a 4.48 ERA (103 ERA+), in 281 games (67 starts).
Buddy Biancalana’s fame was a confluence of the timing of taking over at shortstop for a contender, Pete Rose’s chase for the all-time hit record, David Letterman’s quirky sense of humor, and a name that would play well for the bit. Thus was born the Buddy Biancalana Hit Counter. His decent performance in the 1985 World Series turned the joke around on Letterman, and Buddy appeared on the show:
Buddy never did hit much (.553 OPS over 582 plate appearances), and by the metrics, he was not much defensively, either. He finished his Royals career with -1.1 WAR.
#3 Jim Eisenreich vs. #14 Esteban German
The Royals took a chance on Jim Eisenreich after he spent two years on the voluntary retired list while getting treatment for Tourette Syndrome. Eisenreich was a power hitter in the minor leagues, but after a couple of years struggling with the Royals, he refashioned himself as a high-average contact hitter and a good runner who could play all three outfield positions well. He broke out with the Royals in 1989 with a .293 average and 27 steals, posting a higher bWAR (3.1) than Bo Jackson. Eisenreich had similar seasons in ‘90-’91, but dropped off in ‘92. He signed with the Phillies after the season and hit .318 in helping them on their way to the ‘93 NL pennant.
Esteban German survived a close vote in the play-in match-up against Keith Lockhart, winning by eight votes. German came out of nowhere to post a fantastic .326/.422/.459 in 331 plate appearances in 2006, playing all over the place. He won playing time at 2B and 3B the next season, even pushing Alex Gordon to first base at times, but he came back to reality at the plate, posting a 93 ERA+. He was worse in 2008 in less playing time, and he was released in the spring of 2009.
#6 Darrell May vs. #11 Pat Sheridan
The Royals took a flyer on Darrell May going into the 2002 season, after he had spent four years pitching in Japan. The Royals definitely needed pitching help, but May was far from a star in Japan, with only one outstanding year of the four years in foreign baseball. May became a fixture in the Royals’ rotation over the next three seasons (2002-2004) and was especially effective as the only consistent presence in the rotation for the 2003 contender. He was not good in 2004, though, and after losing his 19th game in game 157, the Royals didn’t give him another start.
In another close play-in match-up, Pat Sheridan beat Emil Brown by just twelve votes. Pat Sheridan had a good year in 1984, but like a lot of Royals not named George Brett, he didn’t hit as well in ‘85, dropping from .283 to .228 with a tad less power. But without a DH and with Balboni demoted in the lineup, Sheridan batted fifth in the World Series against right-handed starters. Jorge Orta pinch-hit for him in game 6, and the rest is history.
This vote rounds out the field of 64. We move on to the field of 32 next week.