Jorge Bonifacio has gotten off to a solid start for the Royals, and if it were not for a man named "Aaron Judge", Bonifacio might be getting some play for Rookie of the Year. However, if he continues, he could find himself with one of the best rookie seasons in Royals history. Who would he join among the best first-year players in Kansas City? Let’s see the list.
10. Eric Hosmer, 2011
.293/.334/.465 19 HR 118 OPS+ 1.5 rWAR
The call-up of Eric Hosmer was a symbolic transition for the Royals. Dayton Moore has referred to it as "flipping the switch." For years, the Royals had floundered under Dayton Moore with free agent flops (Jose Guillen, Juan Cruz) or poor trades (Mike Jacobs, Coco Crisp). By 2011 though, the team was becoming a team he had built from the ground up. Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, Danny Duffy, Jarrod Dyson, Greg Holland, and Kelvin Herrera all saw some action with the Royals that year, but the most eagerly anticipated debut was from former first-round pick Eric Hosmer.
Hosmer's promotion came a few weeks before the Super-Two cutoff, meaning the Royals would potentially have to pay him millions more down the road, but it didn't matter to them, they wanted their new star up. In just his fifth game, with his parents looking on, Hosmer blasted a pitch into the second deck of Yankee Stadium. It would be one of 19 home runs he would hit that year, fifth most by a Royals rookie, and the first step towards a run that would culminate again in New York, in 2015 with a championship.
9. Angel Berroa, 2003
.287/.338/.451 17 HR 101 OPS+ 2.5 rWAR
Yea, there was a time when Angel Berroa was not a cruel punchline. Berroa was the prized prospect in the Johnny Damon trade from Oakland and when he first came up he showed good speed, defense, and solid pop from a middle infielder. Berroa was red-hot in June and July of 2003, as the Royals will clinging for dear life to first place. He narrowly won Rookie of the Year over 29-year old Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui.
There was a game I was at once when he was a September callup in 2002 and he popped up. By the time the opposing infielder caught the ball, Berroa was nearly at second base, having busted his butt all the way around the bases. With the Neifi Perez Experience still fresh in our mind, Berroa was a breath of fresh air. Allard Baird rewarded Berroa the next year with a four-year, $16 million contract and the Rookie of the Year winner was never the same.
8. Bob Hamelin, 1994
.282/.388/.599 24 HR 147 OPS+ 2.6 rWAR
"The Hammer" was a second-round pick out of UCLA and by his third pro season he was in AAA at age 22, ranked the 31st best prospect by Baseball America. He would be plagued by injuries the next three seasons and almost jeopardized his 1994 season by tearing a muscle in an arm-wrestling tournament. But he finally burst onto the scene that year, at age 26, smacking 24 home runs in a strike-shortened season, seven more than any other rookie that year. Despite being defensively challenged and playing just 24 games in the field, he was a 2.6 WAR player and won Rookie of the Year with an OPS 80 points higher than runner up Manny Ramirez.
7. Yordano Ventura, 2014
14-10 3.20 ERA 3.60 FIP 123 ERA+ 183 IP 3.2 rWAR
Ventura opened the 2014 season in the Royals’ season and was immediately a sensation, allowing just two hits in 6 2/3 shutout innings in his season debut, then breaking his own record for the fastest pitch by a starting pitcher. Ventura was especially tough for the Royals once they went on their magical run towards the playoffs. He posted a 2.48 ERA in his last eleven starts, with the Royals winning nine of those games. He ended the season with a 3.20 ERA and 14 wins and 3.3 WAR.
It was a tantalizing performance that promised a bright future, but unfortunately we never got to see his full potential as he was tragically killed in a car collision in the winter of 2017.
6. Bob Johnson, 1970
8-13 3.07 ERA 3.11 FIP 121 ERA+ 214 IP 4.5 rWAR
The early Royals had a lot of rookie contributors, as the club was fantastic at finding young, talented players blocked in other organizations. Johnson began his career with the Mets, but was dealt in one of the worst trades in that club’s history when they shipped him with Amos Otis for veteran third baseman Joe Foy. Otis would become the star with the Royals, but Johnson had a fantastic rookie campaign for Kansas City in 1970.
He began in the bullpen but was soon a swingman going between relieving and starting. He was in the rotation for good by August and was sensational down the stretch working 8+ innings in seven of his last eight starts, with a 2.15 ERA over that time. He finished with a 3.07 ERA and led all American League right-handed pitchers with 207 strikeouts. He was a 4.5 WAR pitcher and finished second to Bert Blyleven in The Sporting News’ Rookie Pitcher of the Year voting.
5. Tom Gordon, 1989
17-9 3.64 ERA 3.28 FIP 107 ERA+ 163 IP 3.3 rWAR
Tom Gordon had perhaps the greatest minor league season in Royals history, getting promoted four levels in 1988. He began the year in A ball where he made 17 starts, striking out a whopping 172 hitters in 118 innings with a 2.09 ERA. At AA Memphis, he made just six starts, where he gave up just 16 hits and three runs, for an ERA of 0.38. After three starts in AAA Omaha, he found his way in the big leagues for a cup of coffee in September. In four levels of professional baseball, he struck out 263 hitters in 185 2⁄3 innings with a 1.55 ERA.
Because he was a shorter pitcher who relied largely on one pitch - a devastating curveball, the Royals really couldn’t decide is he was meant to be a starting pitcher or a reliever. He began 1989 in the bullpen. In one relief outing in April, he struck out ten hitters in 6 2⁄3 shutout innings (you don’t see THAT anymore). Reliever wins are kinda stupid, but by July he had picked up ten wins already, and the Royals figured he was ready to be a starter.
"It didn't matter to me how I got to the big leagues. I didn't care if I was pitching middle relief or set-up or whatever."
Gordon struck out ten hitters and won his first start, then tossed a complete game shutout three starts later. He picked up his 16th win in late August, lowering his ERA to 2.57 and it looked like Rookie of the Year might be a lock. But he posted a 7.30 ERA over his final eight starts, winning just one more game to finish at 17-9 with a 3.64 ERA. Gordon would be runner-up to Rookie of the Year Gregg Olson, an Orioles closer, but in WAR the two were virtually tied, as well as future superstar Ken Griffey, Jr.
4. Mike Aviles, 2008
.325/.354/.480 10 HR 121 OPS+ 4.7 rWAR
This may be the shocker in the list, but we forgot how fantastic Aviles was his rookie season. Aviles has become a journeyman utility infielder, but he has been a grinder, making the most of his opportunity once he got a chance at the big league at age 27.
Mike Aviles was drafted as a college senior, which gave him little leverage when the Royals made him an embarrassingly low "take-it-or-leave-it" bonus offer of $1,000.
"I hung up the phone," Aviles said. "I did. I hung up the phone the first time."
When the Royals called again, Aviles took a different mentality.
"I wanted to prove and show that I'm worth more than $1,000," Aviles said. "I was going to play in the big leagues and they were going to give me back that $1,000 some way, somehow. I wanted to make them pay for it in the long run."
Aviles did just that, toiling in the Royals’ farm system for six seasons, including three seasons in Omaha before he finally got a promotion to the big leagues in 2008, replacing superstar prospect Billy Butler, who was demoted. In his second week in the big leagues, Aviles went 4-for-5 with a home run. By his third week, he had smacked his third home run, matching the number of home runs hit in a Royals uniform by the shortstop he was replacing - Tony Pena, Jr. He finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting, despite nearly matching winner Evan Longoria in WAR with 4.7 to his 4.8.
3. Carlos Beltrán, 1999
.293/.337/.454 22 HR 99 OPS+ 4.7 rWAR
Carlos has put together a near-Hall of Fame career, if he doesn’t end up in Cooperstown someday. But there was a point when he seemed questionable to ever end up in the big leagues. Once a second-round pick for the Royals out of Puerto Rico, Carlos got off to a slow start to his professional career. He went homerless his first season in the Rookie Gulf Coast League, posting an underwhelming line of .278/.332/.328 in 52 games as an 18-year old. The next season in low A ball in Spokane, he hit just .270/.359/.433.
At age 20 he was sent to Wilmington, where offensive numbers go to die. He hit just .229/.311/.363 in 120 games for the Blue Rocks, and it seemed like the results were not matching the obvious tools he exhibited. But he repeated Wilmington and did well enough to move up to AA Wichita where he dominated, hitting .352 with 14 home runs in 47 games.
He came to Royals camp the next spring, and as Joe Posnanski recalls, the Royals found a quiet, shy kid.
And Beltrán was really just a scared kid. He spoke little English and was self conscious about it. He shied away from everybody — teammates, media, everybody....
"Carlos," Tony Muser told him, "I don’t care if you hit .200. I don’t care if you hit .100. As long as you play hard, play good defense and run the bases aggressively you will be in my lineup."
Beltran promptly hit .293/.337/.454 with 22 homers and 27 steals, becoming the first rookie since Fred Lynn in 1975 to score 100 runs and drive in 100 RBI. He was a near-unanimous selection for Rookie of the Year (someone voted for Brian Daubach???), the first of many accolades in his legendary career.
2. Kevin Appier, 1990
12-8 2.76 ERA 3.38 FIP 139 ERA+ 185.2 IP 5.2 rWAR
Kevin Appier was drafted out of Fresno State in 1987, and less than three years later he was in the big leagues for good. In his first start that year, he gave up just one run over six innings against the Indians, but had little run support and left with a 1-1 tie in a game the Royals would eventually win. It was a formula he would have to get used to in his Royals career, as the All-Star pitcher seemed to be perpetually underrated because his offense and bullpen seemed to conspire to cheat him out of wins.
Appier pitched mostly in the bullpen util Memorial Day weekend, when he allowed just two runs over seven innings against the (then awful) Yankees. He would make 24 starts that year, pitching at least six innings in 21 of them. He tossed four complete game shutouts that year, including a ten-strikeout performance against the Red Sox, and a game in which he allowed a single to lead off the game, and not another hit the rest of the night. Ape would finish with a 2.76 ERA, good for fourth in the league, and he had the seventh-best strikeout-to-walk ratio. Appier finished with 5.3 rWAR, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting despite more WAR than the two players ahead of him (Sandy Alomar, Jr. and Kevin Maas) had combined.
1. Kevin Seitzer, 1987
.323/.399/.470 15 HR 128 OPS+ 5.5 rWAR
Baseball has seen some home run spikes before, particularly this season, but one notable spike came in 1987. American League teams went from averaging 164 home runs per team in 1986 to 188 per team the very next year, with accusations of a "juiced ball" being the most common explanation.
Had there not been a lively ball that year, there might have been more attention given to the fantastic rookie season Kevin Seitzer put up that season. He lost the Rookie of the Year vote to Oakland slugger Mark McGwire, who slammed 49 home runs, but Seitzer had arguably the better season, scoring eight more runs, collecting 46 more hits, posting an on-base percentage 29 points higher, and out-performing Big Mac in WAR.
Seitzer was among the league leaders in batting all season, and he finished with 207 hits, just ten hits shy of the record for most hits by a rookie. He is one of just three Royals rookies ever to be named an All-Star, joining Ellie Rodriguez (1969) and Mike MacDougal (2003).
Others: Lou Piniella (1969), Mike Fiore (1969), Dennis Leonard (1975), Rich Gale (1978), Jose Rosado (1996), Zack Greinke (2004), Joakim Soria (2007), Greg Holland (2011)