Those dark times carried the narrative about the Royals as a franchise until 2014-15 and, to an extent, still does. It’s easy to forget about all the success the Royals have had as a franchise since their conception in 1969.
Their four pennants are the 9th most in American League history and the 18th most all-time. That might not sound all that impressive, but it’s more impressive when you consider that the the Royals are 68 years younger than the next closest team above them in the AL. And if it weren’t for the Mets having five pennants since their founding in 1962, the next youngest NL team with more pennants than the Royals would be a staggering 81 years older than them.
All things considered, you can make an argument that the Royals are the most decorated expansion team in the history of baseball. That’s not bad.
Their fWAR numbers reflect that, as well. The Royals have the 23rd highest team fWAR of all-time. Among the teams ahead of them, only three are younger--the Angels, Brewers, and Expos/Nationals. And those three teams have a combined 11 playoff appearances and one pennant compared to the Royals nine playoff appearances and four pennants.
The point is that the Royals have been a good franchise and this inspired me to go through each decade of Royals baseball (excluding the 60’s, because there was only one such season) and find the best individual season by a Royal in said decade. Here’s what I found.
The Seventies - George Brett, 1979 - 8.3 fWAR
Get used to this name. Everybody remembers Brett’s transcendent 1980 MVP campaign, but it’s easy to forget that he kinda got hosed out of the 1979 MVP award. Don Baylor and his 3.7 WAR took the crown that year, despite that being outside of the top-45 players according to that metric. It’s not as if Brett would have walked to the award. Fred Lynn was outstanding that year and by all objective evidence, was almost certainly the better player.
But still. Don Baylor? Regardless, George had what was at this point his best season, setting a career high in virtually every category, most notably homers, runs, RBIs, wRC+, and fWAR. But that wouldn’t last long.
Runner-Up: Darrell Porter, 1979 - .291/.421/.484, 20 HR, 112 RBI, 7.5 fWAR
The Eighties - George Brett, 1980 - 9.1 fWAR
This was a tougher one than you might have thought. According to Baseball Reference’s WAR statistic, Bret Saberhagen’s 9.7 mark in 1989 was actually the highest of the decade. But what really puts Brett over the edge here and what makes his 1980 campaign so crazy is that he did it in just 117 games. I’m not a big RBI guy, but George had 118 RBI in just 117 games. That doesn’t happen very often.
And his slash was obviously the most notable aspect of that season, at .390/.454/.664. That was the closest any batter to reach the .400 plateau until Tony Gwynn hit .394 in 1994. And the Royals won the pennant that season, to put the cherry on top.
Runner-Up: Bret Saberhagen, 1989 - 23-6, 2.16 ERA, 7.5 fWAR
The Nineties - Kevin Appier, 1993 - 6.8 fWAR
Kevin Appier has gotten his due in the last several years, but he is one of the more underappreciated Royals--and starting pitchers, for that matter--in history. From 1991-1997, Appier had at least a 4.0 fWAR in every season and logged no fewer than 155 innings in a season.
According to Baseball Reference, he led the Royals in WAR six times in the 1990’s. No other Royal has ever led the team in WAR that many times in a decade, let alone consecutively. In fact, according to BBref’s WAR metric, Appier spent more seasons on top of the Royals leaderboard than any other player in Royals history, including Brett (5). He was good.
His 1993 season was his best, winning a career high 18 games, pitching in a career-high 238.2 innings and notching a 2.56 ERA, the second lowest mark of his career. His 2.90 FIP was also the lowest of his career. Similar to Brett in ‘79, he wasn’t completely hosed out of a Cy Young award, as Randy Johnson’s numbers were comparable. However, neither of them won, as Jack McDowell’s 22-wins ultimately prevailed. It was a different time.
Runner-Up: Kevin Appier, 1996 - 14-11, 3.62 ERA, 6.3 fWAR
The 2000’s - Zack Greinke, 2009 - 8.9 fWAR
Had 1980 George Brett not existed, you could make an argument for Greinke’s 2000 campaign as the best individual season in Royals history. Greinke was legitimately unhittable, putting together a 2.16 ERA alongside a 2.33 FIP. Compare that to his 1.66 ERA and 2.76 FIP in 2015 and you get a feel for just how good he was.
He was virtually unhittable against right-handed hitters, giving up just a .574 OPS to righties on the season. He also won the AL Cy Young in a landslide, grabbing a 96% share. With just 16 wins, his 2009 campaign punctured the perceived value of wins in the modern era.
Runner-Up: Carlos Beltran, 2003 - .307/.389/.522, 26 HR, 41 SB, 6.9 fWAR
The 2010’s - Alex Gordon, 2011 - 6.9 fWAR
This was probably the toughest decision of them all (his runner-up had a pretty influential season), but Alex was absolutely dominant in the year that he said he was going to come out and dominate, so that has to count for something. In his 2011 campaign, Alex set career highs in home runs, runs, RBIs, stolen bases, wRC+, ever slash category outside of OBP, and fWAR. All of which have not been challenged since.
This was also his first season in left field, where he just messed around and won a Gold Glove. It was also the first of four consecutive seasons of leading the Royals in BBref WAR, the longest streak in Royals history
Runner-Up: Lorenzo Cain, 2015 - .307/.361/.477, 16 HR, 28 SB, 6.5 fWAR