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U.L.’s Toothpick: Steve Balboni’s Record, And The Players Who Almost Broke It

If you’re reading this, you probably know that Steve Balboni still holds the Royals’ single-season home run mark with 36, set back in 1985. Even though we all know Kauffman Stadium isn’t a homer-friendly park, it’s still kind of funny that the record has stood for more than 30 years and yet is rather low. Back when Balboni set the record, 36 was a lot of homers; he was fourth in the majors in home runs that year. But as the years have passed and homers have increased, the record seems increasingly quaint. Fifteen major leaguers hit more than 36 home runs this year. In homer-happy 1999, 20 did so. It’s a record that probably should have been broken by now, yet it survives.

It’s taken a combination of the Royals’ ineptitude and some luck (good or bad, depending on your point of view, I suppose) to keep the record alive. But even when the franchise was struggling, some guys had a shot at toppling the mark. Here’s a look at how they fell short.

Danny Tartabull, 1987

1987 was a year kind of like 2016, in that home runs spiked rather inexplicably. Tartabull was certainly a capable power hitter, with 262 career home runs. The outfielder bashed 34 home runs in 1987, but couldn’t quite get to 37. Tartabull struggled with injuries later on, but in this season he played in 158 games and had 667 plate appearances (Balboni had 662 in 1985). Without knowing if Tartabull had an unusual number of warning-track fly balls, it’s hard to chalk this up to bad luck. Close, but no cigar.

Bo Jackson, 1989

At the height of his baseball prowess, Jackson smacked 32 home runs in 1989. Unlike Tartabull, though, Jackson could have done more. A quadriceps injury cost him 15 games in late July/early August. Bo had hit 22 home runs in the 87 games he played before getting hurt and was probably going to reach 40. He ended up with 561 plate appearances. At the rate he hit home runs that year, 662 plate appearances would have meant 38 home runs.

Danny Tartabull, 1991

This time, injuries were a factor. Although he didn’t miss any long stretches, Tartabull only played in 132 games. He still had 31 homers. That pace would have meant 37 homers if he’d had 662 plate appearances. It also didn’t help that Tartabull hit just one home run in April despite starting all 19 games the team played.

Bob Hamelin, 1994

The Hammer won the Rookie of the Year award in this season, as he belted 24 home runs. That may not sound like it was particularly close, but Hamelin did that in just 101 games and 375 plate appearances. The Royals as a team only played 115 games before the strike hit. Had Hamelin had a full season, say 620 plate appearances, at that rate he would have cracked 40 home runs. Forget the missed World Series, and the fact that baseball basically died in Montreal, and Tony Gwynn’s run at a .400 batting average. The real crime of the strike is that it cost Hamelin a shot at the record.

Gary Gaetti, 1995

And then, after the strike and subsequent lockout, Gaetti made a run at Balboni’s record. The veteran third baseman set a career high with 35 home runs in 1995. Thanks to the lockout, the Royals played just 144 games; Gaetti played 137. Given a full 162-game schedule, it’s apparent Gaetti would have set the record.

Chili Davis, 1997

After a few years of torturing the Royals as a California Angel, Davis joined the Royals for one season. And at age 37, in a tough home run park, he set a career high for homers with 30. This shows how crazy it is that Balboni’s record made it through the late 90s. Davis played in 140 games and had 567 plate appearances; he probably wouldn’t have made it past 36 even if he’d played every game.

Dean Palmer, 1998

The Royals dealt speed for power late in the 1997 season, sending Tom Goodwin to Texas for the slugging third baseman who was about to be a free agent. The Royals then signed Palmer to a one-year deal after the season, and that paid off quite nicely as he belted 34 home runs. Palmer was durable, playing in 152 games. He was almost exactly on a 36-homer pace for a full season, so it’s a coin flip as to whether he would have done it with 10 more games. Hitting only three home runs in June cost Palmer a chance at the Royals’ record book. He also entered September with 30 homers but couldn’t quite get to 37. The next season, with Detroit, Palmer hit 38 home runs. So close.

Jermaine Dye, 2000

The highest-scoring team in Royals’ history was led in homers by their All-Star right fielder. Dye hit 33 bombs. But he did it in 157 games, so I don’t suppose he would have broken the record even if he’d played 162 games. This was about as close as Dye could come to the mark as a Royal; in 1999 he hit 27 homers in 158 games and in 2001 he hit 26 in 158 games. Later on, in the White Sox’ little league park, he would hit 44.

Kendrys Morales, 2016

As you may have noticed, before this entry, every couple of years some Royal would make a run at the record. And then there was a 16-year gap between 30-homer seasons. It really shows how the franchise struggled in those years. Sure, there were a few guys who hit 29, and yes, the 2014 and 2015 teams did just fine without one. But there was a lot of ineptitude in there, reflected in the inability to find anyone who could even come close to Balboni’s record. Anyway, you all know Morales ran hot and cold this year. If he’d avoided just one of those really cold stretches, perhaps he could have set the mark. Since he played in 154 games, it’s hard to say he could have broken it with more playing time, though.

There are two honorable mentions I should also, uh, mention.

Bo Jackson, 1990

Bo followed up his 32 dingers in 1989 with 28 more in 1990. But he did that in just 111 games and 456 plate appearances. At a rate of one home run every 16.3 plate appearances, if Bo had stayed healthy, he would have needed 147 more plate appearances to get to 37 home runs. That’s roughly 35 games, or 146 for the season. That would have been a career high for Jackson, but certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Just one more “what might have been” in his career.

Mike Moustakas, 2016

I have to admit, Moustakas was the inspiration for this post. As you may recall, Moustakas missed two weeks in May with a broken bone in his left hand. Then, in just his second game back, he suffered a season-ending knee injury. But he had hit seven home runs in just 105 plate appearances before the first injury put him on the disabled list. That’s a homer every 15 PAs, and he would have needed 555 to get to 37 home runs at that rate. For comparison, he had 549 PAs in 2015, so it was certainly possible. I suppose you could argue the broken bone could have sapped his power, but we’ll never know.

As you can see, part of the reason Balboni’s record still exists is just bad luck; the work stoppages in 1994 and 1995 almost certainly cost Hamelin and Gaetti their chances. I also find it interesting how the number of 30-homer seasons in team history has grown. Before Balboni’s 1985 season, there had been one 30-homer season in franchise history—John Mayberry’s 34 in 1975. George Brett also hit 30 home runs in that 1985 season, but the Royals have had eight players reach that plateau since then. As homers become more plentiful throughout baseball, it’s increasingly likely someone will get to 37, or even (gasp) 40.

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