This year, as you’ve no doubt heard if you have seen anything of their marketing materials, is the fiftieth of the Kansas City Royals existence. One of the many ways in which the team has celebrated includes setting up a fan vote for the 50 greatest Royals in history; they have been revealing one name a day from the list in reverse order since 50 days before opening day. It’s kind of a neat gimmick but fan votes allow for some inherent issues.
The most obvious issue is that there is going to be a lot of recency bias in this kind of vote - fans are more likely to vote for the guys they remember easily, especially those who just helped win a championship. An internet-only vote is also more likely to result in a younger demographic, fans unfamiliar with the Royals of old, doing most of the voting. Fans of any age are also likely to completely forget some Royals from the 90’s and 00’s because those teams weren’t very good, even though they had some really terrific players.
I’m not here to bash the fan-voted top 50 but I do want to present an alternative for those who wish for a more objective look. In order to create this masterpiece of a ranking I went to two of the best stats websites in the business, Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, and I took their top WAR lists and then added the scores together to come up with a list that should hopefully be more representative of the best 50 baseball careers enjoyed while playing in Kansas City Royals uniforms.
50. C/OF Ed “Spanky” Kirkpatrick 1969-1973 (9.3 bWAR, 9.2 fWAR, 18.5 combined)
Kirkpatrick actually started his career with the California Angels but was acquired in a trade with the new Royals prior to the 1969 season. He played all over the field for them logging time at every position on the field except shortstop during his time in KC despite being known as particularly slow. His best year was 1972 when he hit .275/.365/.396/.761 with a whopping 9 home runs. That was good enough for 28% above league average as a hitter, according to Baseball Reference. He also recorded the final hit ever in Municipal Stadium, a single in the eighth inning of the final game played there in 1972.
He was nicknamed Spanky because of his resemblance to Spanky McFarland, an actor in the Little Rascals television series.
48 (tied) SP Gil Meche 2007 - 2010 (10.3 bWAR, 8.5 fWAR, 18.8 combined)
Meche famously signed what was then the largest contract in franchise history prior to the 2007 season and then equally famously retired with a year left on the deal when he suffered an injury during the 2010 season; this allowed the Royals to spend the money earmarked for his contract in 2011 on other things and made him something of a hero to many in the fanbase. He was the Royals’ lone all-star representative in 2007 and made the signing look very good for the first two years. In 2009, however, he was allowed to throw 132 pitches - his third straight game with 110 or more pitches - to complete a shutout that lowered his season ERA to 3.31. He was never the same after that, though; he finished 2009 with an 8.46 ERA the rest of the way and only pitching in 20 games, 9 starts, in 2010 with a 5.69 ERA.
48 (tied) 3B Paul Schaal 1969 - 1973 (9.9 bWAR, 8.9 fWAR, 18.8 combined)
Schaal was a teammate of Kirkpatrick’s in both California and Kansas City. Unlike Kirkpatrick, however, he was taken in the expansion with the pick number 27. His best year was 1971 when he hit .274/.387/.412/.799 with 11 home runs but walked a staggering 103 times. He certainly wouldn’t be allowed to play that way for Ned Yost’s Royals.
47. 1B/DH Billy “Country Breakfast” Butler 2007 - 2014 (12.3 bWAR, 6.9 fWAR, 19.2 combined)
I suspect most of you remember Billy, but too many people remember him only for his sub-par 2014 campaign and the subsequent nose-dive his career took after he left KC. He was a well above average hitter from 2009 - 2013 but his best campaign was the 2012 season when he earned an All-Star appearance along with a Silver Slugger award while hitting .313/.373/.510/.882 with 29 home runs and was snubbed from the home run derby by Robinson Cano.
46. SP Jeff “Soup” Suppan 1998 - 2002 (10.5 bWAR, 8.9 fWAR, 19.4 combined)
Suppan was the headliner of some weak pitching staffs for the 5 years he was in KC. He originally played for Boston but was drafted by the Diamondbacks using the third pick of the expansion draft. He was traded to the Royals for cash considerations toward the end of the 1998 season.
He was a workhorse for the Royals, never hurt and pitching more than 200 innings every full season he was in KC. He was never an ace, but he was always solid and finished his KC career with a 105 ERA+, meaning he was about 5% better than league average, despite carrying an ERA of 4.73.
45. RP Greg “Dirty South” Holland 2010 - 2015 (9.9 bWAR, 9.8 fWAR, 19.7 combined)
I don’t think I need to say much here. Greg was one of the best closers in Royals’ history, he collected 2 All-Star Appearances along with Cy Young and MVP Award votes in 2013 and 2014. He saved more than 45 games both years. He would own the Royals record for total strikeouts in a season by a reliever, as well, if it weren’t for a certain cyborg who missed this list due to one bad season as a starting pitcher.
44. SS Alcides “Esky” Escobar 2011 - Current (9.8 bWAR, 10.7 fWAR, 20.5 combined)
Ah, yes, the ever-divisive Alcides “Iron Man” Escobar. One of the reasons stat heads everywhere are taking issue with the Royals’ version of this list is because Mr. DTE himself was ranked at 27 all-time. I think most of the stat-heads would have expected this kind of list to exclude him entirely, but it turns out he’s been a bit more valuable than expected and the Royals haven’t had that many world class players in their relatively young existence.
Anyway, Escobar has never had what you’d call an above-average offensive performance and his best seasons have been defined by well above-average defense along with the ability to steal when he got on base. He has played 162 games in 3 separate seasons and he was an All-Star Representative for the dominant 2015 Royals as well as earning a Gold Glove and ALCS MVP honors, that year.
43. SP David “Coney” Cone 1986, 1993-1994 (13.9 bWAR, 7.7 fWAR, 21.6 combined)
If you want an idea of just how good David Cone was, ponder on the fact that he is on this list despite only pitching in 2 complete seasons for the Royals - 1986 featured only 11 appearances, all as a reliever. David Cone was ace material for sure in 1993 and 1994, he was an All-Star and Cy Young Award winner in ‘94; he also came in ninth in the MVP voting. He was never an elite strikeout guy but it was nearly impossible to get on base or homer against him. In 1994 he allowed only 191 baserunners in 171.2 innings while earning a stunning 171 ERA+.
He will perhaps forever be best known as the guy the Royals traded away twice for players that never helped KC while Cone did great things for other clubs including 4 more All-Star appearances, 3 more years of CYA votes received, 1 other season of MVP votes, and, perhaps most importantly, 5 world series rings. He brought one home for the ‘92 Blue Jays and earned 4 more with the Yankees during their reign of terror in the late 90s.
42. OF Al “A.C.” Cowens 1974 - 1979 (12.1 bWAR, 9.7 fWAR, 21.8 combined)
Cowens was taken by the Royals in round 75 of their first amateur draft. He had a bit of an up-and-down career with the Royals, usually hanging around league average as a hitter and primarily playing in right field. His best season was in 1977 when he hit .312/.361/.525/.885 with 23 home runs and 112 RBIs to help the team win a franchise record 102 games. It was good enough to earn him second place to Minnesota’s Rod Carew in the MVP voting as well as his only Gold Glove award.
41. SP Jose Rosado 1996 - 2000 (10.4 bWAR, 12.8 fWAR, 23.3 combined)
Jose Rosado appeared to be primed to become a future Royals ace following the 1999 season; by that point, he’d already come in fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 1996 and made two All-Star appearances (1997, 1999).
Remember how earlier I could point to a specific outing by Gil Meche that derailed his career? Turns out that wasn’t the first time it happened to a Royals’ pitcher. Jose threw 132 pitches in a game against Seattle in 1999 in a measly 7 innings while allowing 3 runs. This was the fifth straight game the lefty had pitched 120 or more times in a game. It was the seventh time in eight games. At the end of that game he had a 3.69 ERA. From that point on he had a 4.13 ERA. If you instead break it up from before the streak of 120 pitch games he had a 2.91 ERA to start and a 4.41 ERA to finish the year.
He pitched 5 games in 2000 and then never pitched for a big league team again.
40. SP Danny “DJ” Jackson 1983 - 1987 (10.5 bWAR, 12.8 fWAR, 23.3 combined)
Danny doesn’t usually get a lot of recognition as one of the best Royals of all time perhaps in part because he pitched far more in the NL, and with more recognition, after he left Kansas City. He broke out in 1985 for the World Series Champion Royals, though, allowing a measly 0.3 home runs per 9 innings. He pitched in 4 games that post-season allowing only 3 runs across 26 innings in 3 starts including a complete game shutout performance against Toronto in game 5 of the ALCS while the Royals were down 3-1 in the series. He performed a similar feat against the Cardinals in Game 5 of the World Series with a complete game 1-run performance to keep the Royals alive until they could win 2 games with a single infield hit that somehow left the Cardinals absolutely no opportunity to continue competing.
Baseball Reference says he was also nicknamed Jason, but I can find no other reference to this nickname nor any sort of origin.
38 (tied) SP Bud Black 1982 - 1988 (13 bWAR, 10.5 fWAR, 23.5 combined)
Bud Black was drafted three times, including twice in 1977, before he finally signed with the Mariners in the 1979 draft. The Royals actually acquired him from Seattle as a player to be named later. He made his bones by being solidly above average for five straight seasons. He never made an All-Star team, received any MVP or Cy Young recognition, nor any other nationally recognized awards. He actually had his worst full season as a Royal in 1985 when he went 10-15 with a 4.33 ERA. He took losses in ALCS Game 2 and World Series Game 4 allowing 3 runs in both contests. The Royals traded him for Pat Tabler early in the 1988 season when he was pitching very poorly but he bounced back the following season to be a solid, slightly less above-average pitcher for 3 of the next 5 years and pitched until he was 38.
That’s only 12 players but you wouldn’t want the entire game to be given away that quickly, would you? The list will continue with 13 more players, next week. What do you think of the list, so far? Which of these guys should be higher, should any have been left off entirely?