If the end of the previous three seasons had been upsetting for Royals fans, who suffered through three straight postseason losses to the New York Yankees, 1979 was disappointing for another reason: the failure of the Royals to win the AL West crown for the first time since 1975. Kansas City dropped below 90 wins for the first time in five years, despite breakout seasons from star third baseman George Brett, catcher Darrell Porter, and young outfielder Willie Wilson. Though the Royals' hitting continued to be strong, the team's pitching faltered badly and clubhouse tensions that arose the previous year carried over into 1979.
The relationship between manager Whitey Herzog and hitting coach Charley Lau had steadily deteriorated to the point that Lau was let go after the 1978 season. Like the last time this happened under Jack McKeon, a number of Royals players publicly criticized Herzog for the move and gave much of the credit for the Royals' hitting success to the popular Lau. After struggling all season to maintain good relations with his players and management, Herzog was fired after the 1979 season.
The Royals never played poorly for long in 1979, but neither did they enjoy a hot streak like they had in 1977 and 1978. Kansas City struggled to begin the year and the Royals found themselves in fourth place at the start of June, though they were only 1.5 games out of first. They were still in fourth at the end of July, but continued mediocrity had pushed them five games farther from first. Through August and September, Kansas City got back into the division race, though this had as much to do with the poor play of other contending teams as the Royals' improving performance. The team briefly took first on August 30th, but Kansas City was unable to completely close the gap, finishing three games back of California, at 85-77.
Though Brett was already a star going into the season, the popular third baseman took a step up in 1979. He became the second player in American League history to have 20 or more doubles (42), triples (20), and home runs (23) in a single season, and came in second in the AL batting title race (.329). Brett also led the majors in hits, with 212, scored 119 runs, and drove in 107. He was not the only Royals hitter to have a great year, however. Wilson improved his batting average almost 100 points, to .315, stole 83 bases, and scored 113 runs. Porter batted .291, with 20 HRs and 112 RBIs, and became the first catcher in 46 years to lead the AL in on-base percentage (.421). Porter also set an American League record for single-season walks by a cather, with 121. Continued strong hitting by outfielders Al Cowens and Amos Otis, DH Hal McRae, and second baseman Frank White (who won a Gold Glove for the third consecutive year) also contibuted to the Royals' strong offense, which finished second in the AL with 851 runs scored. Brett and White also became the first Royals teammates to hit for the cycle in the same season: Brett on May 28th, against Baltimore, and White on September 26th at California.
Unfotunately for Kansas City, however, the Royals pitching fell apart in 1979. A staff that had been third in the AL in ERA in 1978 plummeted all the way to tenth in 1979, with a dismal 4.45 mark, and the failure was across the board. Ace Dennis Leonard saw his win total drop by seven and his ERA rise almost a full point, to 4.08. Previously steady pitchers Paul Splittorff, Larry Gura, and Rich Gale also struggled, and the Royals' starting rotation barely managed a .500 record, despite the brief return of former phenom Steve Busby. Kansas City's bullpen similarly imploded, though promising rookie Dan Quisenberry did give a sign of things to come with solid numbers.By Matt Defraga
- AZL Red Sox/Mariners, Al Cowens, Amos Otis, California Angels, Charley Lau, Coach, Cycle, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Porter, Dennis Leonard, Frank White, George Brett, Gold Glove, Hal McRae, Jack McKeon, Kansas City Royals, Larry Gura, Manager, New York Yankees, Paul Splittorff, Pennant race, Rich Gale, Steve Busby, Whitey Herzog, Willie Wilson