The season didn’t turn out quite the way the Royals wanted it to, but 2017 still brought a lot of reasons for Kansas City fans to smile. Let’s look back at the good things about the Royals from 2017.
David Glass put his money where his mouth was
It may seem like we’ve been bagging on owner David Glass lately, questioning whether he is losing as much money as the team has claimed and wondering whether he is colluding with fellow owners to keep salaries low. But the truth is, David Glass has been a model owner the last few seasons (especially in comparison to ownership in Miami, egads). Glass not only gave Dayton Moore the resources and freedom to build a champion, he raised payroll to franchise-record levels to give the team every chance it could to contend while the window was open. Even after talk of payroll having to go down last winter, Glass stepped up and increased payroll to $145 million last year, even after the tragic death of Yordano Ventura.
We understand payroll has to go down next year, particularly with a rebuild on the way. But the fact ownership has opened the pocketbook to fund a winner is comforting to know. Hopefully Dayton Moore will be able to build another team good enough where extra dollars spent on free agents will matter.
Whit Merrifield was handsome and good at baseball. But also handsome
So not everyone is a fan of Whit Merrifield, but he had done enough in 2016 to at least warrant a long look for an uncertain second base position in Kansas City to begin the year. He had good speed, solid defense, could put the ball in play on occasion, and seemed to be developing some intriguing power. Plus he had positional versatility and he was handsome. Oh so handsome.
But get this - he didn’t even make the team on Opening Day. The Royals rolled with Raúl Mondesí, feeling he was ready for the jump to the big leagues. (Ron Howard voice over: “He wasn’t.”)
The Royals soon rectified their wrong and Merrifield rewarded them with the best performance by a Royals second baseman in two decades. He hit .288/.324/.460 and took advantage of a lively ball to hit 19 home runs, most by a Royals second baseman since Frank White in 1986. He was tenth among all second basemen in WAR, according to Fangraphs. But he was perhaps the most handsome. Did I mention that?
I’m sorry, what was I saying? Oh yes, Whit also led the league in stolen bases, the first Royals player to do that since Johnny Damon in 2000. Perhaps Whit will fall back to earth next year, but for this year, he was very good at baseball. And handsome.
Someone finally won the stinkin’ Sonic Slam Inning
Every Royals game, Fox Sports Kansas City hosts the Sonic Slam Inning, a cruel game of fate, toying with the emotions of one viewer. They dangle the lavish grand prize of $25,000 in front of some grandma sitting at home in Chillicothe, Missouri, but the cold reality of the situation is that for grandma to win the life-changing money, the Kansas City Royals have to hit a grand slam in the sixth inning.
Last year, there were 6,105 home runs hit in baseball. 692 were in the sixth inning. Of those, just 18 in all of baseball were grand slams. Just 26 sixth inning home runs were hit by Royals. The odds seemed long that those two subsets would converge. But on August 14, against Oakland, that’s just what happened.
Cameron Gallagher had only been up with the Royals for a week. Salvador Pérez had gotten hurt, and the Pennsylvania native was summoned to make his Major League debut. In just his third start, Gallagher spat in the face of the odds, and made the dreams of Tim Brown of Shawnee, Kansas come true.
It was the first Sonic Slam since 2013, and just the second since 2004. Cam Gallagher, I’m taking you to Vegas and letting it all ride.
Hos was awes....ome
The baseball men knew. They have been hyping Eric Hosmer up since the day he was drafted. Light tower power. The smoothest glove at first. A winner’s attitude.
But the baseball stats just didn’t show it. Hosmer had some good years. He also had some bad ones. He was wildly inconsistent, going on a tear one month, then failing to hit a home run for the next two. Even his defensive metrics didn’t shake out, showing him to be one of the worst defenders at first base in baseball. To some, Hosmer seemed more of a bust.
But in 2017, it all came together for Hosmer. It began in the World Baseball Classic, where Team USA manager Jim Leyland opted to start Hosmer over slugger Paul Goldschmidt, to the consternation of some fans. But that move would pay off as Hosmer smacked a game-winning home run against Venezuela. A rough April would bring many doubters, but Hosmer got hot after that - and never cooled off. He hit .318/.385/.498 with career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, hits, runs scored, Weighted Runs Plus, and WAR. It was the Hosmer we had all been waiting for and for him, it came at the right time - just before free agency.
Surprising rookies showed the farm system wasn’t completely terrible
The Royals’ farm system has taken a beating, ranked by many observers as one of the worst in baseball. Trades, graduations, but mostly poor drafts had decimated the system. However, Jorge Bonifacio and Jakob Junis proved that you don’t have to be a top 100 prospect to be a contributor at the Major League level. Bonifacio took over the right field job (from a disappointing Jorge Soler) and showed a very capable bat with good power, hitting .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs in 113 games.
The Royals have produced very few homegrown starting pitchers under Dayton Moore, but Jakob Junis emerged as an efficient workhorse, finishing second to only Danny Duffy on the pitching staff in innings-per-start with 5.8. He was just the sixth Royals rookie since 2007 to make as many as 15 starts in a year and finished sixth among all American League rookie pitchers in WAR with 1.3, according to Baseball-Reference.
Scott Alexander was lord of the groundballs
The way to build a modern bullpen this year is getting lucky and stumbling across a few really good, really cheap relievers. Joe Nathan and Wade Davis were failed mediocre starters. Greg Holland was a tenth-round pick. Sean Doolittle and Kenley Jansen were position players. Scott Alexander was a 27-year old who had pitched 21 games in the big leagues before this year. He became the Royals’ best reliever and the best groundball pitcher in baseball.
Armed with a sinker he threw 92% of the time last year, Alexander had the best groundball rate in the last five seasons of anyone not named Zach Britton or Brad Ziegler. It is the similarity to Britton - another lefty and one of the best closers in the game - that gives Royals fans hope that he could be the next dominant reliever out of the Royals bullpen.
Danny Duffy gets it
This year saw the Royals and Danny Duffy committing to a five-year contract, and he rewarded the club with perhaps his best season yet as a pro. Perhaps as importantly, this year also saw the return of Duffy to social media after a hiatus. Duffy, who you can follow at @duff41, said he wanted to return to Twitter to “be an advocate for Kansas City.”
Twitter can generally be an awful place, but Duffy turned it into a force for good, raising awareness for special causes like Noah’s Bandage Project, and interacting with fans in his general goofy, honest manner. That upfront honesty endeared him to fans, even through tumultuous times such as the public shame of being arrested for a DUI in August. More recently, Duffy has made it clear that despite trade rumors, he does not want to leave Kansas City. For years, Kansas City fans have longed for a star that was funny and accessible and loved their city as much as they did. They have that in Danny Duffy.
The franchise home run record is a little bit less embarrassing now
Mike Moustakas broke the single-season franchise home run record, ending with 38 home runs. It is still the lowest franchise home run record for any club, and the Royals are still the only team that has never had a 40-home run hitter.
But still, it was kind of embarrassing to have the home run record held by someone from the 1980s. It was basically a big sign that said “we never gave our guys PEDs and we sucked out loud in the 90s.” I think there was also some embarrassment that the record was held by Steve Balboni, who looked like he belonged at a Dennis Franz Look-a-like convention more than at the top of a Major Leauge home run record book. Mike Moustakas looks the part a bit more than Balboni, and his chase for the record gave us something to cheer for in September.
The Royals community supported each other after the death of Yordano Ventura
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking baseball players are just numbers on a stat line, or immortal superheroes on our television. The entire Royals community got a rude awakening to that fiction in January, when young pitcher Yordano Ventura died tragically in a car collision in his native Dominican Republic.
The death, of course, was the absolute worst thing that happened to the Royals this year. But out of tragedy, good things can transpire. In this case, it was the coming together of Royals fans, players, and the entire community to grieve, support, and remember a life taken too soon. The scene of Royals fans offering condolences to players at Kauffman Stadium in the hours following the tragic news showed how the Royals had become more than a baseball team, more than just nine guys playing a kid’s game on a grass field. The Royals and their fans had become a family.
Royals fans got to say goodbye to their stars
Everyone in Kansas City knew the day would come when Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar would all hit free agency together. Perhaps they did not get a Hollywood ending - that would have been Eric Hosmer hitting a walk-off home run in Game Seven of the World Series against the Cardinals that landed in a pickup truck on I-70, and traveled all the way to St. Louis only to explode near an empty Imo’s Pizza so that they could never produce any more “St. Louis-style” pizza ever again.
Instead, Royals fans got about the most fitting goodbye you could hope for, with Ned Yost pulling his stars out mid-game of what was an emotional last day of the season. Perhaps Hosmer or even Moustakas will return next year, but if that was goodbye, Royals fans got to thank their favorites for what was perhaps the most amazing run of baseball in franchise history.