The 1978 Kansas City Royals are part of a franchise run that saw the team win four AL West titles in five seasons. The ’78 Royals are the last in the line of three straight KC teams that lost heartbreaking ALCS battles to the New York Yankees. But the 1978 edition was the weakest of those teams, as it took then a long time to close out what was a weak division.
Kansas City was equally balanced between pitching and offense in 1978, ranking third in the American League in each. George Brett missed some time and the future Hall of Fame third baseman played 128 games and only hit nine home runs.
He still ended up with a good stat line of .342 on-base percentage/.467 slugging, but the lack of a vintage Brett year is the biggest explanation for why 1978 wasn’t quite as strong for the team as a whole.
To make matters worse, the key offensive contributors behind Brett—designated hitter Hal McRae and rightfielder Al Cowens also saw slippage. The offense was picked up by Amos Otis, who had a solid year at centerfield, at .380/.525, hitting 22 home runs and driving in 96 runs. Darrell Porter was a productive catcher, at .358/.444.
Dennis Leonard was the horse of the pitching rotation. If you go through enough stats from seasons gone by, you see a lot of reminders of how much the game has changed, particularly with regard to the workloads of pitchers. But there are still numbers that can jump off the screen and Leonard’s year in 1978 is one of them. He made forty starts—every fourth game without fail. His won-loss record was 21-17—yep, he got the decision in 38 of those 40 starts. Leonard worked 294 innings.
Paul Splittorff wasn’t far behind, making 38 starts and going 19-13. Larry Gura went 16-4, joining Splittorff as a reliable lefty for manager Whitey Herzog. Rich Gale, a young righty, went 14-8. The bullpen, which had failed so notably in the decisive game of the 1977 ALCS, was strengthened by the acquisition of closer Al Hrabosky from St. Louis, and “The Mad Hungarian”, as the intense Hrabosky was known, saved 20 games with a 2.88 ERA.
Depth was lacking though. The Royals had traded Jim Colborn to Seattle, costing the rotation another workhorse starter, getting cash and two prospects back in return. The Royals also sold first baseman John Mayberry to the Toronto Blue Jays in April, and gave the first base gig to Pete LaCock, who ended up with a pedestrian .335/.419 stat line in 1978.
Kansas City started the year 11-2, but in the first part of May they played poorly against AL East powerhouses. A string against the Yankees, Milwaukee Brewers and Boston Red Sox, resulted in a 4-9 stretch and the Oakland A’s took the early lead in the AL West.
The Royals answered with a seven-game win streak against weak teams from their own division and pulled back even. They struggled in June, going 13-17, but were still part of four teams (including the California Angels and Texas Rangers) within two games of first place.
A stretch from July 7-25 saw the Royals of 1976 and 1977 resurface, the ones who could compete with the best the AL East had to offer. Kansas City went 13-2 in a run of games against the Brewers, Red Sox and Yankees and built a three-game lead. But in August, the struggles returned and the Royals lost 16 of 29.
The mediocrity of the AL West was saving Herzog’s team, and on Labor Day, the Royals and Angels were the only teams over .500, with the top five teams of the AL East all with records good enough to lead the West. There was no unbalanced schedule at this time, so it’s not a case of AL West teams just beating up on each other. The American League had the look of a “A League” and a “B League” and the Royals led the B League by a game.
From Labor Day through September 19, Kansas City went 12-3, and in spite of losing four of the six head-to-head games with the Angels, the Royals still managed to build a 5 ½ game lead with a week and a half left, and on the Tuesday of the final week, Kansas City clinched a third straight AL West crown.
The record was 92-70, and was now “good” enough for fourth in the AL East. But the playoffs is a whole new ballgame and Kansas City got a third chance to knock off New York, who was coming out of the wringer of an epic race and one-game playoff with Boston.
The Royals were disappointed in Game 1, when they failed to take advantage of homefield (which was determined on a rotation basis rather than record) and the Yankee rotation being in tatters after the playoff game in Boston. Kansas City then lost a heartbreaker in Game 3 and a tough one in Game 4, their season again ending at the hands of the Yankees.
The modest step back Kansas City took in 1978 would be a bigger one in 1979, when the Angels displaced them atop the AL West and Herzog was fired. But Kansas City’s vindication wasn’t far away. In 1980, they would get back on top of the West, get back into the ALCS against the Yankees…and in 1980, they finally won the pennant.