U.L.’s Toothpick: What If…The Royals Didn’t Fire Whitey Herzog?

It may have been one of the most short-sighted decisions in Royals history. After a disappointing 1979 season, the Royals fired manager Whitey Herzog, who had led the Royals to the playoffs the previous three years. Sure, there were off-field circumstances behind the move – Herzog had publicly criticized general manager Joe Burke and owner Ewing Kauffman following one of the heartbreaking playoff defeats for not spending money to upgrade the bullpen. And Herzog had also demanded that fan (and Kauffman) favorite John Mayberry be traded away after he showed up late and in bad shape for ALCS Game 4 in 1977, then proceeded to make a couple of defensive mistakes before Herzog pulled him from the game in the fourth inning. An outspoken manager like Herzog and a proud, take-no-bull owner like Kauffman probably weren’t going to get along great forever. But the pairing had been tremendously successful in the previous three seasons, successful enough that I wonder what might have been had the Royals not fired Herzog.

The funny thing was that, in the 1979-80 offseason, the Royals did little to improve the pitching staff that had probably cost them the division title in 1979. The 1979 Royals scored 851 runs and allowed 816 and finished three games out of first. Then, after adding Willie Aikens and while enjoying an MVP season from George Brett, they scored 809 runs but only allowed 694. There weren’t any major personnel changes. The Royals just pitched better. The beneficiary of this was Jim Frey, who reached the World Series in his first season as an MLB manager. But Frey alienated his players fairly quickly, and when the Royals were struggling mightily in the strike-interrupted 1981 season, he got the boot. The Royals turned to Dick Howser, who coincidentally had been fired by the Yankees after the Royals swept them in the 1980 ALCS.

Of course, Howser would lead the Royals to a division title in 1984 and a World Series title in 1985 over Herzog’s Cardinals. So in a way, things worked out. But might they have worked out better with Herzog in charge?

Not to dodge the question, but it’s hard to say. There’s no good way to quantify a manager’s effect on wins and losses. But I will say that Howser’s teams consistently outperformed their Pythagorean record more than Herzog’s teams. The Cardinals hired Herzog midway through the 1980 season. Leaving out Herzog’s partial 1980 and Howser’s partial 1981 seasons, this chart shows how many more wins each man’s teams had over their Pythagorean record:

1980 +6
1982 +2
1983 +5
1984 +4
1985 +5
1986 -3
1976 -2
1977 +4
1978 -1
1979 +1
1981 +3
1982 +2
1983 +1
1984 +2
1985 +1
1986 0
1987 +4
1988 +2
1989 +2

I think you can make a case that Howser did more with lesser teams, but really both men were good managers. Howser probably never got his due as a tactician, but he was no slouch there. Likewise, Herzog’s reputation for thinking several moves ahead overshadowed his skill in managing the egos and personalities of major leaguers. To me, these are the two main challenges managers face, and both men could handle both sides with aplomb. So it might be a stretch to say the Royals would have been better off on the field with Herzog instead of Howser. But it is very possible they would have won the 1980 World Series with Herzog – one of the reasons the players soured on Frey was his refusal to use Paul Splittorff in that Series, instead giving Rich Gale two starts, in which he lasted a total of 6 1/3 innings. Based on Gale’s and Splittorff’s season numbers, it was at least a defensible decision, but the Phillies were as good against righties as they were against lefties and those Royals players had seen Splittorff pitch well in the postseason plenty of times. It’s hard to imagine Herzog making that call.

Not to be morbid, but there is another consideration: Herzog was still managing in 1990, and stepped down in part because Cardinals’ ownership didn’t want to spend money. It’s hard to believe, but he was only 59 when he retired. Meanwhile, Howser died well before his time, at age 51 in 1987. Had the Royals kept Herzog, he would have been able to manage well into the 1990s, had he chosen to do so (given that the Royals had one of the highest payrolls in baseball in 1990, he might have wanted to stay on). Perhaps the 1987 Royals, who finished two games out of first, might have been able to win the division. It is a bigger stretch to say the 1989 Royals, who finished seven games out, might have won the division. However it worked out, the Royals would not have had to fire John Wathan, and maybe not even Hal McRae.

It might be best to leave this part of the argument by saying the Royals were lucky both Herzog and Howser were available when they were, and that the Royals were smart enough to hire them both, and that they both were part of the reason the Royals were so successful from 1976-1985.

Now, off the field, I think it is fair to wonder how things might have been different. First, the Royals franchise was rocked by a drug scandal late in the 1983 season. By all accounts, Howser handled the fiasco well. Would Herzog have done the same? I believe so. The Cardinals, we found out later, had several players who also had addiction issues—it was a widespread problem in baseball, not just in Kansas City. Herzog showed he was willing to trade a star like Keith Hernandez because a drug problem was affecting his play. On the other hand, he brought in Lonnie Smith and Darrell Porter knowing both had had issues in the recent past. The Royals got rid of Willie Aikens, Vida Blue, and Jerry Martin when they were implicated in that 1983 scandal, but would they have kept Willie Wilson if Herzog were in charge? I think so, given that Herzog was Wilson’s first manager. But there’s a chance he wouldn’t have. That would have changed Royals history significantly.

Speaking of significant changes, when Herzog took over the Cardinals in 1980, he was actually holding dual responsibilities as manager and general manager. Before he ever managed a major-league game, Herzog had spent six years as director of player development for the Mets, and his front-office acumen shone through in St. Louis. The Cardinals had been pretty average since their 1968 World Series loss, which was their last postseason appearance when Herzog took over. Whitey immediately started wheeling and dealing, remaking the Cardinals in the image of the Royals: speed and defense were in, lumbering sluggers were out. Apparently still bothered by the Royals’ failure to acquire a top-notch relief ace when he was in KC, Herzog dealt for both Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter, then traded Fingers to Milwaukee in a trade that would help the Brewers reach the 1982 World Series…against the Cardinals.

A team that was 18-34 when Herzog took over was in the World Series 1 ½ seasons later. Herzog had turned over the roster so completely that only three players remained from the team he inherited. Of course, the Cardinals would reach the World Series two more times in the 1980s. Key players like Willie McGee, Ozzie Smith, Joaquin Andujar, Sutter, and Lonnie Smith were all brought in by Herzog trades. You could credit Herzog with revitalizing the Cardinals franchise, a revival that has lasted for the better part of 40 years (setting aside the early 1990s), much to the chagrin of Royals fans.

Now, the Royals were in pretty good shape at the GM spot when they fired Herzog. When Burke moved into the team president role in 1981, John Schuerholz took over the GM job and eventually helped the Royals win the 1985 World Series. Herzog would not have needed to remake the roster, but his keen eye for talent, especially the kind of talent that could thrive in a big ballpark with AstroTurf, could have kept the Royals humming for years. Imagine McGee and Wilson in the same outfield, or Sutter in the same bullpen with Dan Quisenberry.

Speculation on alternate timelines is always open to debate, but I feel confident that, had the Royals kept Herzog after the 1979 season, they still would have won at least one World Series in the 1980-1985 timeline, that they would have captured a division title in 1987, and that they would have been set up for success when Herzog stopped managing, probably in the mid-1990s (he turned 65 in 1996, so that’s my guess as to when he would have retired). His eye for talent would have helped an organization that in reality had a lot of difficulty identifying young talent at that time. Even as the Royals tried to cut costs following the 1994-95 strike, Herzog’s presence probably would have helped them stay competitive. And one thing is definitely sure in this alternate timeline: Herzog’s plaque in Cooperstown would have a Royals hat. Royals history would certainly be better off and more interesting.

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