In this year of the Three True Outcomes, all sorts of long-ball records have and will be broken. Just last week, we saw Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton blow past the Marlins’ single-season home run record of 42, set 21 years ago by Gary Sheffield. Now, Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas is poised to join Stanton in setting the new mark for his franchise. We’re still a couple of weeks away from Labor Day.
Moose, as he’s called, will become the Royals’ one-year home run king when he hits No. 37 — he had 35 entering the weekend — and will be breaking a record that in its own way is one of the more noteworthy marks in the game. It has been a long time coming, not just for the organization, but for Moustakas, the logical candidate to wear the K.C. home run crown, probably more so than the guy who has worn it since the mid-1980s, Steve Balboni.
“Experience,” Royals manager Ned Yost says when asked to explain Moustakas’ power surge. “People ask me all the time, ‘Where did Moose’s power come from?’ He’s always had the power. He had it in the minor leagues and he’s had it in the major leagues. But he’s learned how to harness it and learned how to use it. “
Think about it: 36 homers, a total already beaten this season not just by Stanton but also by Yankees rookie Aaron Judge. By the end of the season, many players will top that total. Yet in Kansas City, that number has held firm in the record book for nearly 32 years. How is that possible?
A few decades ago, if you went to a major league game, it was a big deal to see a home run. It wasn’t like seeing a triple play or a no-hitter, but it was far from certain you’d see one. If you didn’t, and you didn’t make it to many games, you felt kind of cheated.
The first game major league game I attended was in 1980, when teams averaged just 0.73 homers per game. The contest I saw, between the Indians and Royals, was at what was then called Royals Stadium, where, that season, teams averaged just 0.60 homers per game. Since you’re seeing two teams, that’s an expectation of 1.2 homers, not much better than a 50-50 proposition. (Given this season’s record pace, the average fan in the average park can now expect to see 2.52 homers per game.) I did see a homer that first game: Cleveland’s Jorge Orta hit one into the right-field bullpen. Was it a big deal? Well, I remember it, don’t I?
At that point, the Royals were in their eighth season at what is now Kauffman Stadium. The franchise record for homers then was 34, set by John Mayberry in 1975.
After the 1983 season, then-Royals GM John Schuerholz, who was recently inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, traded for Balboni. Just shy of his 27th birthday, Balboni had long been a big-time home run hitter in the Yankees’ system, going deep 153 times from 1978 to 1983. But he had not been able to gain a foothold at the big league level, and with Don Mattingly just starting his reign at first base, Balboni was blocked in New York. So, as of yore, when the Yankees fobbed many of their extraneous talents on the Kansas City Athletics, Balboni was bound for the City of Fountains.
That first season, Balboni hit 28 homers. Then in 1985, he hit 36 homers, led the majors with what now looks like a quaint total of 166 strikeouts, and the Royals won the World Series. And that was it. Gary Gaetti hit 35 for K.C. in the shortened 1995 season, but Balboni’s record remained.
Since 1985, home run totals have exploded across baseball, a three-decade growth that shows no sign of abating. Major League Baseball dates to 1876, making this its 142nd season. Nevertheless, nearly half — 49.6 percent, to be precise — of all homers ever recorded have been hit since Balboni set that Royals record in 1985. The home run sections of the record books have been erased and rewritten — the likes of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, among many others, have seen to that — but Balboni’s record lived on like a cockroach through nuclear winter.
Balboni now works as an advance scout for the San Francisco Giants. A quiet man, he told the Kansas City Star, “It will be different [to lose it]. But it’s not like I’m sweating over it.” Moustakas said he has never met Balboni. And Yost, whose playing career overlapped with Balboni, said, “Not much,” when asked what he remembers about him.
Nevertheless, Royals fans from his era will remember Balboni as a regular on the franchise’s first championship club. And sabermetric aficionados will remember “The Curse of the Balboni” as a curiosity uncovered by writer Rany Jazayerli, though in subsequent years the curse has been broken quite a few times. Just last season, the title-winning Cubs got 39 homers from Kris Bryant.
There are many, many ways to contextualize the meagerness of a team home run record of 36. Here are just a few:
There have been 580 player seasons of at least 36 home runs, including 343 since 1985, not including Moustakas.
Every franchise except Kansas City has had a player hit at least 41 homers in a season. The Mets’ record is 41, set by Todd Hundley in 1996 and tied by former Royal Carlos Beltran in 2006. Beltran hit 38 homers during his final season with Kansas City in 2004, but the last 23 of those came after he was traded to Houston. And while the Mets’ home run mark is modest, they have had 16 instances in which a player has hit at least 36 homers in a season.
Every franchise except Kansas City has had at least three 36-homer seasons. The Yankees have had 44.
Four players — Bonds, McGwire, Reggie Jackson and Chris Davis, have had seasons in which they reached 37 homers by the All-Star break.
Park effects don’t explain everything, but they do explain a lot. Of 57 parks to host more than a one-off game or two since Kauffman Stadium opened in 1973, 47 have seen a higher average in homers per game. Since Balboni’s 36-homer season, The K ranks 48th of 55 parks in homers per game. During Moustakas’ career, it ranks 28th out of 32. But No. 31 on that list is Marlins Park, where Stanton is on pace to threaten the 60-homer threshold, and No. 32 is AT&T Park, where Bonds once toiled. Still, because of the generous dimensions of the park, teams built by Schuerholz and his protege, Dayton Moore, have been at their best when designed around speed, defense and pitching.
Because of that, Moustakas, who doesn’t recall when he found out what the Royals’ record was, doesn’t really see it as a meager mark. Nor should he.
“I’m sure someone told me after I first got drafted or later on down the road,” Moustakas said. “But that’s a lot of home runs, especially at Kauffman that’s a lot of home runs. In this game, against the great pitchers we face in our division and across baseball, you don’t really think about going after a record like that. You just go out and try to help your team win.”
Moustakas’ career high in homers entering this season was just 22. Last season, when he hit seven homers in 27 games before going down for the campaign because of a knee injury, he might have made a run at the record. It was the best evidence yet we’d seen of the player whose record-setting home run hitting as a high school player in California turned heads.
“He’s a much more educated hitter,” Yost said. “He works really hard at studying the opposing pitchers and their percentages, what to look for in certain situations and sit on it when he gets it.”
At 28, Moustakas’ career season is coming at a fairly typical age. It’s not just power, either. He has become a more well-rounded hitter over the course of his career, always willing to make adjustments when needed. Through age-25, his career batting average was just .236. Since then, it’s .280. The adjustments have only enhanced his power game, while making him a more consistent run producer.
“I’m seeing the ball pretty good,” Moustakas said. “Me and [hitting coach] Dale [Sveum] put a good approach together before the game. We make some adjustments to the game according to what the pitcher is doing.”
Poised to hit free agency for the first time in his career, Moustakas still has room to grow. To call him a free swinger is an easy observation. He has never walked more than 43 times in a season, and despite his improved batting average, his on-base percentage (.319) is 23 points below the big league average. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only five players swing at a higher rate of pitches. Yet his strikeout rate ranks 119th, an impressive contact rate reflected in his solid batting average. Moustakas chases too many pitches, sure, but he has become adept at fouling off ones he can’t drive, ranking third among all players in spoiling two-strike offerings.
“I’m just going up to try and get hits, and the only way I can do that is to swing the bat,” Moustakas said. “I’m swinging at a lot of pitches in the zone and out of the zone, which obviously I’d like to cut that down. I couldn’t give you an answer about why I’m swinging more or why I’m more aggressive. Just trying to put the ball in play, I guess.”
This suggests Moustakas has room to grow. When it comes to plate discipline, at his age you expect a player to be what he is, at least until his bat slows and things get worse. But in the rare cases when a player does see a midcareer spike in on-base ability, it’s often because his power game becomes too lethal to mess with and pitches venture farther from the strike zone. Moustakas is on pace to hit 47 homers and slug .565 while playing half his games in a park stingy with long balls even in a 2017 context. Pitchers notice that. A Moose with plate discipline would be a very dangerous thing.
“I know there are situations at times where I’m going to get some good stuff to hit,” Moustakas said. “But it’s just the situation of the game. And it goes for anybody in the lineup, not just me. Knowing the situation and knowing the game. I’ve learned a lot about that just by watching guys we’ve had in the organization.”
Whether this turns out be Moustakas’ final season with Kansas City, his becoming the new Royals home run king seems fitting. Like Balboni, he’s a champion. The fans, as evidenced by their ubiquitous chants of “Moose!” every time he does something in a game, love him. And unlike Balboni, he was drafted and developed by the Royals to do what he has done. If he decides to stay in Kansas City, he might eventually take aim at George Brett’s franchise mark of 317 career homers.
In many respects, this season is Moustakas’ manifest destiny, his role as a member of a group of players who arrived in Kansas City together a few years ago and won a championship. Among those guys, Yost figured all along Moose would be the guy most likely to topple Balboni’s mark.
“Without a doubt,” Yost said. “He’d have been the first one we said. Without a doubt.”