The Royals announced their team awards for 2019 on Tuesday. Jorge Soler was named the Royals’ Player of the Year. Ian Kennedy picked up Royals’ Pitcher of the Year hardware. The Special Achievement Award was given to Whit Merrifield.
This year was my first as a member of the Kansas City chapter of the BBWAA. As such, I had the opportunity to cast a ballot for the first time.
I took this vote seriously. Probably a little too seriously, but I wanted to make it a thorough exercise. And I thought it would be a fun article to take you through my process.
Royals Pitcher of the Year
My first order of business was to come up with a viable list of candidates. Believe me, that alone is a tall order.
I decided early in the process that a key factor to even be considered would be longevity. Since there weren’t any clear-cut standouts, it felt like anyone who would be considered should have at least pitched for most of the season. That presented a bit of an issue. Assuming the average major league starter would make 32 starts and throw around 200 innings, the Royals didn’t have a single pitcher reach either threshold. Jakob Junis led the team with 31 starts. Brad Keller paced the club with 175 innings. Overall, the Royals had just two starters who made 75 percent of their presumed 32 starts—Junis and Keller. Likewise, those were the only two who threw at least 150 innings.
Just to make sure I wasn’t being stupid and overlooking someone thanks to an arbitrary wish for close to a full season of work, I scanned the stats. Danny Duffy threw 130 innings with a 4.34 ERA, 5.14 xFIP and 5.35 DRA. His 7.92 SO/9 was a fraction behind Jorge Lopez and his 3.17 BB/9 was a fraction ahead. And I knew Lopez wasn’t in consideration.
Glenn Sparkman made 23 starts, tossed 136 innings and made the best start I saw last year in person, a complete game shutout against the Chicago White Sox where he whiffed eight and just walked one. That’s really the only good thing you can say about his season. Woof. Not a candidate.
Homer Bailey pitched well for the 18 starts he made for the Royals. But let’s not get carried away.
Those are the starters. You can’t ignore the bullpen. Ian Kennedy was used in a variety of situations early in the year and inherited the closer role in what could charitably be described as a brutal (for those of us who watched night in and night out) process of elimination. He was effective once he entered Ned Yost’s Ninth Inning Circle of Trust. Overall he pitched just 63 innings with a 10.4 SO/9 and a 2.42 BB/9. Most impressive for Kennedy was the fact he shaved his HR/9 rate to 0.85 HR/9, the lowest mark for him since 2014 in San Diego. He finished with a 3.41 ERA, 3.77 xFIP and a 3.52 DRA. Very impressive.
So those are my candidates. I’ll include Bailey here just for a little reference.
Royals 2019 Pitcher of the Year Candidates
The spreadsheet says it’s Keller and it’s not even close. But there’s good reason to be skeptical. For starters, Keller’s 6.6 SO/9 was extremely weak. Among the 61 qualified starters, Keller’s whiff rate was 6th from the bottom. Of course this is a team award so it’s not really fair to judge using the league as a yardstick. Still…weak. Among the Royals’ starters mentioned above, only Sparkman (5.4 SO/9) had a worse strikeout rate. And Keller’s 3.8 BB/9 was the worst walk rate among his cohorts.
Working against Keller was the fact he was shut down before September rolled around. The Royals were on the record as saying they didn’t want to push him beyond 180 innings, but after a disastrous stretch where he pitched to a 5.13 ERA over his five starts in August the Royals decided it was time to pull the plug on his 2019.
Something else that should be noted about Keller was he did have a solid middle part of the season where he found the command that had deserted him over the first two months. In his first 11 starts of the season, Keller pitched 65 innings with 41 walks and 45 strikeouts. A nearly 1:1 SO:BB ratio is bad enough for any starter, let alone a 5.7 BB/9 for any extended period of time. He smoothed that out over his next 11 starts with 51 whiffs and just 16 walks in 68 innings.
My eye kept wandering to Kennedy. He owned the highest Leverage Index among Royals’ relievers according to Baseball-Reference and once he was installed as the full-time closer at the end of May, he rose to the challenge of the ninth inning. In his 42 appearances from May 30 to the end of the year, Kennedy posted a 2.88 ERA with 47 whiffs and 13 walks while holding opponents to a .233 batting average.
Keller’s struggles couldn’t be ignored and his advanced metrics edge over Kennedy was more about quantity of innings pitched than quality. Kennedy was the most consistent pitcher in his particular role and was sneaky-dominant as a closer for a 103 loss team. I gave Kennedy my vote for Royals’ Pitcher of the Year.
Royals Player of the Year
This one wasn’t going to be as difficult. Still, I wanted to narrow the field to a group of candidates.
Royals 2019 Player of the Year Candidates
I couldn’t pretend. It was Jorge Soler. It was always going to be Jorge Soler. The dude crushed all year and played in every single game. When you obliterate the team single-season home run record and finish with a .922 OPS, you’re basically lapping the field.
But what about defense. That was something I actually gave consideration to. Soler appeared in 54 games in right field and 107 games as the designated hitter. (He also had one pinch hitting appearance.) It kind of helps that Whit Merrifield—who led the team in runs scored (105), hits (206) and doubles (41)—played 53 games in right.
My personal eye test told me that Soler wasn’t a good defender, but he wasn’t as bad as I thought. Conversely it also told me that Merrifield was ok in right, but wasn’t as good as advertised. The metrics bore this out to a degree. Baseball Savant graded Merrifield as +1 in Outs Above Average (OAA) while Soler finished at -3 OAA. Baseball Info Solutions had Soler at -8 on their +/- rating and -8 on Defensive Runs Saved. Merrifield was a -1 on +/- and -3 at Defensive Runs Saved. Sure, Merrifield was better on the metrics and the eyes, but he wasn’t that much better that it could eliminate the gap in offense posed by Soler’s advantage in power and on base ability.
(Merrifield remains a very good defender at second with a +6 +/- rating and 7 Defensive Runs Saved. Still, not enough to overcome Soler’s production.)
Hunter Dozier was the third player I considered. He had a helluva year and was a true breakout performer. He was just second best all across the board. And he missed time with injury. A small thing, but when you’re going against a pair of guys who showed for every game, you need to be even that much better.
In the end it was an easy call for me. Soler got my vote for Royals’ Player of the Year.
Fortunately, the Royals also have a “Special Achievement” Award. That felt like the perfect opportunity to give a nod to Merrifield for leading the team in numerous offensive categories while playing five different defensive positions. Besides, if you lead the league in hits and reach base over 250 times, there should be some kind of acknowledgement. Merrifield got my vote for the Special Achievement.