Kansas City is in mourning after the Royals were defeated three games to one in the AL Divisional Round by the White Sox. The Royals fought hard but were held to a single run in Game 4 by the combined efforts of Dallas Keuchel, Alex Colome and Kelvin Herrera.
While no team is ever happy unless they win it all, Royals Manager Mike Matheny opted to focus on the positives. “Nobody thought we had a chance coming into spring training, but we were confident about our roster going into the season. I couldn’t be more proud of this team and the work the players and coaches put in. Look out 2021, we have unfinished busienss.”
Matheny is right that all projections had written the Royals off. Various projection systems had them winning between 65 and 70 games, and with a final record of 94-58 the Royals crushed expectations, just making it into the second Wild Card slot, edging out the 93-59 Red Sox.
The team was led by Adalberto “MVP” Mondesi, who finally lived up to expectations after signing an 8-year, $100 million contract extension during spring training. The young phenom was finally healthy, starting 152 games and missing no time on the Injured List. He coupled Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop with a batting line of .298/.371/.553 with 31 home runs, and led the league in triples (18) and stolen bases (62).
Of course Mondesi turning the corner to become a superstar alone would not have gotten the Royals into the post season. He started the season batting second, behind Whit Merrifield (who himself had a stellar season, finishing second in hits in the AL), but eventually the lineup was shuffled to make room for on-base sensation Nicky Lopez. With Lopez (who sported a 17.3% walk rate and .385 on-base percentage from May 1st on) leading off, and Whit hitting second, the bases were often crowded in front of Mondesi, allowing him to rack up 113 RBIs.
Mondesi was given a lot of protection in the line-up by the trio of bashers who hit behind him. Jorge Soler set a new Royals home-run record at 51, again leading all of the American League. He wasted no time carrying his strong second-half from 2019 into 2020, going on to hit .315/.398/.599.
Pitchers would be unable to work around Soler, however, as batting immediately behind him was a resurgent Ryan O’Hearn. O’Hearn finally put to rest doubts about his abilities to stick in the big leagues, posting a batting line of .255/.347/.548 with 32 home runs. If that wasn’t enough to make opposing pitchers sweat, Dozier, batting sixth, posted a slash line of .285/.338/.523 with 26 home runs of his own.
Powered by a heavy offense, the Royals pitching staff had some wiggle room which was sorely needed early in the season. Staff Ace Mike Montgomery (17-6 with a 3.18 ERA in 33 starts) struggled out of the gate, going 1-3 with a 5.11 ERA in his first six starts. Danny Duffy (11-8 with a 3.98 ERA in 25 starts) also struggled early trying to battle through a lingering shoulder injury from spring training. He eventually spent some time on the IL and was stellar (9-4 with a 3.27 ERA) thereafter. Brad Keller posted another good season, hitting 183 innings with a sub-4 ERA.
But no one could have predicted Jackson Kowar’s ascendance to the Majors. The Royals rotation problems caused them to go 8-9 in their first 17 games despite averaging over 5 runs per game. Jorge Lopez (who finally found his roll as the 7th-inning guy) started in the rotation along with Jakob Junis. Both were eventually moved to the bullpen, with Jesse Hahn getting a number of starts as well. Kowar was dominant in AA to start (3-0 with a 1.87 ERA in 3 starts), and after a short stint in AAA (1-1 with a 2.88 ERA) was called up on April 15th to start the first game of a make-up double header against the White Sox.
Kowar’s professional debut could not have gone better. After walking the first hitter he faced, he induced a double-play, and didn’t allow a base runner again until the fifth inning. His final line of 7 IP, 3 hits, 1 walk and 8 K’s was enough to earn him another look. His next start (April 20th, also against the White Sox) was another great performance with a near identical stat line (7.1 IP, 4 hits, 9 Ks). He was protected some down the stretch, leading to a full season line of 10-5 with 2.98 ERA in 137.2 innings with 166 Ks. Given his breakout performance he is the smart-money for Rookie of the Year.
The bullpen took a massive step forward as well. Junis continued to impress in short outings after being moved back with Kennedy continuing to dominate in the closer position. Lovelady, Holland and Barlow were acceptable, all sporting ERAs in the mid-3s. Brady Singer would eventually be added to the bullpen in August when Kyle Zimmer was cut loose from the roster. Singer’s fastball/slider combination allowed him to be successful, and look for him to be in the rotation next season.
The season was not without its down sides. Salvador Perez struggled in his first season back after Tommy John surgery, hitting .223/.298/.395 with 13 home runs in 131 games. His defense continued to be solid, but his future is uncertain. Alex Gordon sustained a knee injury in early May which had him out through August, though from August on he hit .299 with 9 home runs, helping to propel the Royals into the post-season. He also had a game-winning lead-off home run in the 10th inning of the Wild Card game, reminding fans of his game-tying home run in game 1 of the 2015 World Series. Plans for a statue of Gordon at the K are reportedly already in the works.
With a young core now firmly in place, and GM Dayton Moore having signed a new five-year extension in August, new Royals owner John Sherman has promised to plug any holes in the roster this off season. “Alex Gordon is gone, and he’s been a staple for the Royals for a decade now. Kennedy is also leaving. We probably need to look elsewhere at 3rd, and we could always use more pitching,” said the owner. “But the ownership team is united in making this a winning team, and we’ve got some financial flexibility to make moves.” It sure seems like the Royals may be more active in the off season than in recent years.
It was an unexpectedly fun baseball season for Kansas City, who now turn their hopes for post-season glory to the Super Bowl winners from last season, the currently undefeated Kansas City Chiefs.