Alex Gordon, Royals snap longest season-opening homerless streak in 24 years
Alex Gordon's three-run home run in the fifth inning of the Royals' 7-3 win over the Rays on Wednesday was significant not just because it padded Kansas City's lead. It was also the first home run hit by a Kansas City Royal all season, as the team went homerless through its first seven games this season, becoming the first to do so since the 1990 Yankees. The last team to go without a home run through their first eight games, a distinction the Royals averted with Gordon's round-tripper, was the 1985 Astros, 29 years ago.
That isn't necessarily a significant indicator. The 1990 Yankees were a last-place team, but one that finished the year tied for seventh in the majors (and fourth in the American League) in home runs. The 1985 Astros, who played in the cavernous Astrodome, finished the year with a winning record and a roughly league-average home run total. The next year, they won their division.
Low home run totals aren't particularly new for the Royals, either. The Royals are the only team in the major leagues that has never received a 40-home-run season from one of its hitters (Steve Balboni's 36 homers in Kansas City's championship season of 1985 remain the infamous team record), and the only team that has never hit 170 or more home runs in a season (the Royals' team record of 168 was set in 1987). Last year, Kansas City won 86 games, the most by a Royals team since 1989, but were dead last in the American League with 112 home runs and out-homered only the Giants and Marlins overall.
A lot of that has to do with their ballpark. According to the park factors in the Bill James Handbook, over the last three seasons, Kauffman Stadium ranks among the most difficult American League ballparks in which to hit a home run. Kauffman's home run factor from 2011 to 2013 has been 84 (100 is neutral), tied with Target Field and just a tick above Oakland's Coliseum (83). The two most difficult in the National League, as one might expect from last year's home run rankings, have been AT&T Park (76) and Marlins Park (69). The latter is the only ballpark in the majors that is deeper in both power alleys than the symmetrical Kauffman Stadium, which is 385 feet in both left-center and right-center, has the fifth-deepest centerfield in the major leagues at 410 feet, and is 330 feet to both foul poles.
That said, the Royals, as they were in their late-'70s and early-'80s peak, are simply not a home-run-hitting team. Last year, the Royals hit just 57 home runs on the road, outranking only the Phillies (56) in all of baseball, and Gordon, the author of this season's first Royals homer, led the team with a mere 20 round-trippers. The two big additions to this year's lineup, rightfielder Norichika Aoki and second baseman Omar Infante, have respective career highs of 10 and 16 home runs. In the latter case, Infante hit 16 home runs in 2004 and hasn't topped 12 since.
The Royals expect power from Gordon, Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Perez, but Moustakas was awful at the plate last year and has managed just one hit thus far this season, a single in Tuesday night's game. Butler, who hit 29 home runs two years ago, experienced a major power drop last year due to a ground-ball rate that has only become more extreme in the early going this season. Perez, who is leading the league in batting average, has never hit more than 13 home runs in a season at any level, though he did that last year, when he hit nine in the second half. Hosmer is still looking for his first 20-homer season, and that brings things back to Gordon.As they did 30 years ago, the Royals have enough talent to be a winning team without hitting a lot of home runs, but that's doing it the hard way, and it's not clear that this team is quite good enough to contend again without solid power production from the likes of Butler, Moustakas, and Hosmer. The Royals have won four of their last six, and just took two of three from the Rays, but they had the help of Gordon's round-tripper in the rubber game of that series, making them 1-0 in games in which they have homered and 3-4 in games in which they haven't. Those numbers are meaningless this early in the season, but they bear watching.