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A historical look at Royals debuts

341 players have made their big league debuts in a Royals uniform. And some of them were even good!

MLB: Texas Rangers at Kansas City Royals
May 14, 2019; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals second baseman Nicky Lopez (1) is doused with water by right fielder Whit Merrifield (15) after the win over the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Big league debuts are fun! With very few exceptions (hi, Eduardo Villacis!), every big league debut brings the promise of a long, prosperous career. Sometimes those hopes are very misguided and other times, they’re downright fantastical. And yet, a big league debut is the one moment where anything is possible. Just like the Royals found themselves on first place on Opening Day the last two seasons, a big league debut can always be the start of something truly great and historic.

In Royals history, 341 players have worn the blue and white (and sometimes, randomly, black) for their big league debut. Juan Rios and Bill Butler (not to be confused with good ol’ Country Breakfast) were the first. They both came in the franchise’s second game, a 4-3 win over the Minnesota Twins in 17 innings. Butler came on to start the eighth inning and then pitched five innings of scoreless, one-hit relief. Juan Rios came into the game to play second base in the top of the ninth after Pat Kelly pinch ran for Jerry Adair. He singled to Jim Kaat in the bottom of the 11th and then was pinch hit for in the bottom of the 12th. All in all, not too bad!

Erick Mejia is the Royals most recent big league debut, getting the start in center field in a 6-4 loss to the Tigers just a few short months ago. He went 0 for 3 with a walk and a strikeout. Not as good!

Okay, so here’s the deal on these numbers. They’re all using Baseball Reference’s version of WAR because they have the best database of big league debuts. Also, when I looked at their debut seasons, that’s all I looked at. Mike Trout was worth 10.5 WAR in his rookie season, but 0.5 WAR in his debut season. Just keep that in mind when you think I must have a miscalculation somewhere. And there are some numbers in here that may not be fair. The 2011 debut class, for example, is just the fourth best in the history of the franchise by career bWAR. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be third if this article is updated in 2029. Or maybe even second! Or maybe they drop to fifth if everyone starts falling off a cliff. You never know!

Let’s get to it.

Best Career WAR - Team Edition

The 1973 debuts led to the most bWAR accumulated by any group. A young infielder was called up that season who really set the tone for everything. Yes, that’s right, it was the season Frank White debuted. Okay fine, you want the real good stuff and it’s George Brett. White made his debut on June 12, 1973 and George followed a little under two months later. Of the 141.3 wins above replacement that group was worth, those two were worth about 87 percent of it. But you know who the best was? Not Frank or George. Nope, it was Doug Bird with 2.8 WAR that season. He ended his career third best in the group at 8.9.

The 1995 team, led by Johnny Damon has come the closest to 1973. That’s a sneaky group because it has Damon, Mike Sweeney and Joe Randa and is the only season in Royals history where three players have debuted and gone on to accumulate at least 20 WAR. The 1986 season was fun with David Cone, Kevin Seitzer, Scott Bankhead, Bill Pecota and Bo Jackson. Here are the top five career bWAR by debut season:

Best Career bWAR by Team

Season Total Career bWAR
Season Total Career bWAR
1973 141.3
1995 121.3
1986 120.2
2011 96
1984 95

Best Career WAR - Individual

It’s Brett. Come on. He’s the best ever and he ended his career with 88.7 bWAR. It’s possible, but not probable that he doesn’t hold this title forever, though. Zack Greinke currently sits with 71.7 WAR throughout his career. He’s been worth 15.4 WAR over the last three seasons. He is under contract for the next two years and maybe he’ll go another two or three after that. I don’t think I’d bet on it, and even if he does, I have to say I doubt he’d average five wins per year, but if he does over four more seasons, George has to move over. Carlos Beltran, David Cone and Bret Saberhagen round out the top five.

Best Career bWAR by Individual

Player Career bWAR Debut Season
Player Career bWAR Debut Season
George Brett 88.7 1973
Zack Greinke 71.7 2004
Carlos Beltran 69.6 1998
David Cone 62.3 1986
Bret Saberhagen 58.8 1994

Best Debut Season WAR - Team

Not sure if you’ve heard this, but the Royals had a heck of a farm system in the early part of the decade. And as a follow up, you may not be aware of the World Series title that came with many of those players in key roles. Six players who debuted in 2011 were on the 2015 championship roster, and their total WAR of 8.6 in their debut seasons set the stage for it. Here’s a couple fun facts to show just how well great debut seasons correlate to later success. The best debut season of the bunch that year belonged to Aaron Crow, who remains a huge big leagu...huh? For real? Okay fine. But after him, it was Louis Coleman who remains a stud reli...no? Okay fine, but it really was Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas rounding out the top five debut WARs in 2011. And, again, as proof of how important it is, the next three best seasons were 2007, 2004 and 2008. Clearly it was a sign of amazing things to come.

Best Debut Season bWAR by Team

Season Debut Season bWAR
Season Debut Season bWAR
2011 8.6
2007 5.7
2004 5.1
2008 5.1
1981 4.5

Best Debut Season WAR - Individual

Without thinking about it, I think most people would probably think one of the rookies of the year the Royals have had would top this list, but remember, this is debut season and not necessarily their full rookie year. So that changes things a bit. The best debut season ever for a Royals player belongs to the indomitable Mike Aviles. He overcame Trey Hillman to put up a .325/.354/.480 rookie season and even played a pretty solid shortstop. He’d never replicate that success again, but he did finish fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting. I was always extra impressed by Aviles because he did a great job of adjusting. It seemed like every time he was about to hit a wall, he’d make a quick adjustment and get hot again. It was fleeting, but it was fun. And he remained in the big leagues up until 2017, so he had himself a solid little career. He was followed by Zack Greinke, Brad Keller, Jose Rosado and the legendary Rich Gale.

Best Debut Season bWAR

Player Debut Season bWAR Debut Season
Player Debut Season bWAR Debut Season
Mike Aviles 4.7 2008
Zack Greinke 3.7 2004
Brad Keller 3.6 2018
Jose Rosado 3.4 1996
Rich Gale 2.9 1978

At this point, you’re probably wondering some other debut season stats for the Royals over the years. Maybe you want to know which team had the highest average debut season bWAR. That one did belong to the 2007 squad with an average of 1.0. Joakim Soria (2.4) and Alex Gordon (2.0) led the way with Billy Butler, Luke Hochevar, Billy Buckner and Neal Musser all positive. In fact, 2013 was just the fifth season in which no Royals player had a negative bWAR in their first taste of big league baseball. The others were 1972, 1991, 2007 and 1994. Now why would I have mentioned 1994 last when the others seemed to be chronological?

Of course it’s because there wasn’t a single Royals player to make his debut in 1994. If that seems odd, well, don’t forget that there was a little strike that ended the season in mid-August. And if a season ends in mid-August, that means there’s no such thing as September baseball and no such thing as expanded rosters. Add in that the average age of that team was over 30 and it definitely wasn’t a young team. In fact, only two players appeared who were younger than 25. They were Hipolito Pichardo, who threw 67.2 innings and Jeff Granger, who threw all of 9.1 innings. And while they had the league Rookie of the Year in 1994, unfortunately Bob Hamelin debuted a year earlier and The Hammer didn’t turn any heads in a .224/.309/.408 debut over 55 plate appearances.

Think back to a few minutes ago when you read that 1995 was the only season in which three players who debuted went on to accumulate more than 10 WAR. That wasn’t the most prolific season for double digit WAR gatherers in Royals history, though. That honor belongs to the 2011 Royals who currently have four players in double digits with Salvador Perez (22.3), Mike Moustakas (17.1), Danny Duffy (16.0) and Eric Hosmer (15.3) all showing very solidly. If Kelvin Herrera can rebound from a rough 2019, he’ll make a fifth as he’s sitting at 9.7 right now.

Of course, not all debuts can be stellar. Ignoring the fact that 2019 is currently the worst for career WAR at -2.2, 2009 is the second-worst cumulative debut season for the Royals. That pairing of Dusty Hughes and Victor Marte had a career WAR of -1.1. The next worst was 2006 which featured Bobby Keppel, Steve Andrade, Jose Diaz, Ryan Braun (no, not the Brewers player) and MITCH! Maier was the best of that group with a 1.5 career bWAR. The only other team to have negative career WAR from debuting players was the 1985 Royals. They were pretty busy with winning a World Series, though. In total, 18 different Royals teams debuted players who ultimately accumulated fewer than 10 wins above replacement as a group, though the last three years are in there and might be able to sneak out of that group before it’s all said and done.

A couple weeks ago, we looked at what players might make their big league debuts in 2020. Maybe we see Jackson Kowar, Brady Singer and Daniel Lynch all come up and put up 20+ WAR careers. And maybe Khalil Lee comes up and treats us all to a 23.2 WAR career like David DeJesus. And Nick Heath can be a 15 WAR player like Jarrod Dyson. And Daniel Tillo gives us a 10 WAR career like Greg Holland. Could it be that 2020 ends up the most successful debut season in Royals history? Hey, you never know. Every debut has a chance, no matter how small, to be the start of something great.