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Who’s the fastest Royal of all time?

That’s what speed do!

Sliding home: What does one do while waiting to see if the rain will stop at a baseball game? Well; Photo by David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Over the years, there is a perception that the Royals are a franchise infatuated by speed. Don’t get me wrong, speed is something you can’t teach, and I enjoy a stolen base, a triple or a terrific outfield play as much as the next guy. And speed most often facilitates those plays. But if a hitter can’t get on base, their speed is worthless. It’s like having a fleet of super-fast wide receivers who can’t catch the ball. And we’ve all seen how that plays out this season, right?

I’d rather have a bunch of guys like John Kruk (career slash .300/.397/.446 with 58 career stolen bases in 1,200 games) than a speedster with a sub .250 OBP. For those of you who never saw John Kruk play, he was a fabulous hitter but would never be mistaken for being an athletic guy. Baseball Reference has him listed at 5’10’’ and 170 pounds, which borders on journalistic malpractice. That might have been his weight in junior high, but as a pro, he looked to be at least 50 pounds heavier, if not more. Understand, I’m not fat-shaming Kruk. I loved watching him play and always thought he was one of the better hitters of his generation. I’m just saying give me nine John Kruks any day of the week, because the dude could hit any pitcher not named Randy Johnson. He also had a great eye, with 649 career walks against only 701 strikeouts. But 170 pounds? Ha! What’d they do weigh only half of him?

While watching the World Track and Field Championships recently, I got to wondering who the fastest Royal of all-time might have been? I have a pretty good idea of who it might have been, which will be revealed later.

First, let’s look at who might have been the slowest Royals of all-time. After looking at the all-time rosters, I’ve narrowed it down to two players: Billy Butler and Sal Perez.

Country Breakfast was notoriously slow afoot. He grounded into 168 double plays while a member of the Royals, which is second on the club’s all-time list. George holds the top spot with 235 double play balls, but he played in 1,541 more games than Butler. And George had pretty decent speed as evidenced by his 201 career stolen bases. Billy did rack up five career steals, not counting one in the playoffs, which was epic.

Salvy currently sits at third all-time with 165 double play balls, and if he’s a member of the Royals in 2024, he’ll certainly pass Butler. Salvy has all of six career steals, and we’ve most likely seen the last of those.

I love Salvy, but it looked like he was out of shape in 2023. In an early August game, Salvy, who had been on first base, chugged into third after the batter behind him hit a double. He was sweating profusely and breathing hard enough to alarm me. I understand it was hot, and it was. The Midwest went through a brutal heat wave that week, but as the captain, Sal owes it to the club and his teammates to spend the winter getting into better shape. There’s no excuse for a 33-year-old professional athlete, with the availability of dieticians and personal trainers, to be out of shape. Back in the day, we called those chunky kids husky, and yes, almost all of them played catcher. Think Ham Porter from the Sandlot. My personal catcher in Little League, and my long-time friend Dennis, was a husky kid and by default, a catcher, even though with his surprisingly quick feet and sure glove, he should have been our shortstop.

For the fastest Royals, I’m going to break down the candidates by decade. In the earlier decade, sprint times were generally unavailable. The clubs may well have had them, but never made them public.

First, for 1969, I’d give my vote to Pat Kelly. Pat had some serious family athletic pedigree, being the brother of NFL Hall of Fame running back Leroy Kelly. He led the 1969 team with 40 stolen bases, a career best for him. If we include the Kansas City Athletics, and why not, Bert Campaneris deserves a seat at the table. Campy led the American League in steals six times in his career including a three peat (1965-1967) while a member of the KC A’s.

For the 1970s, it gets competitive. There are three names that rise to the top: Freddie Patek, Amos Otis and Willie Wilson. In my book, Wilson was the fastest. He set a club record in 1979 with 83 stolen bags. The Royals were prolific thieves in the 1970s with all three of these players leading the league in steals at one time or another, but Willie was in a class by himself. I’ve never seen a player run the bases quite like Willie Wilson. It was a thing of beauty, really, to watch him motor around second base, hitting full speed on his way to the plate.

I’ve always felt that Wilson never got the national respect for his accomplishments as his career overlapped that of Rickey Henderson, baseball’s all-time stolen base leader. Henderson was such a prolific base stealer that he’s 468 bags ahead of the late, great Lou Brock, who still sits in second place. Billy Hamilton (the one that played in the 19th century, not the one that played with the Royals) is #3 all-time with 914. There are no active players in the top 100, so Rickey may be safe for years to come. Willie still sits at #12 all-time, quite an impressive feat.

Amos Otis stole a club record five bases in a game against Milwaukee on September 7, 1971. Amos stole a league leading 52 bases that season and once stole home against Nolan Ryan. Otis could fly.

Not to be outdone, Patek led the league with 53 steals in the 1977 campaign. I remember sitting behind first base in a 1975 game and watching Freddie steal second. He got a decent sized lead and a good jump, but what came next impacted me greatly. He put his head down and accelerated like a sprinter, ending with a hard slide into second base. I’d never seen a player accelerate like that before and as I watched him, a light bulb went off in my head. I went home and immediately changed the way I ran the bases, thanks to that example. Freddie sits at #83 on the all-time list.

Willie keeps his crown as the fastest Royal in the decade of the 1980s. Though he didn’t win any stolen base titles, thanks to Mr. Henderson, he did steal 451 career bags, including 79 in 1980.

Of those three, Wilson sets atop the club’s all-time steals list with 612, a record that probably won’t be broken in my lifetime. Otis is in second with 340 and Patek comes in third with 336. Among active Royals, Bobby Witt Jr. with his 79 career steals, sits in 21st place, all-time in club history. Once you get out of the top twenty, the Royals all-time stolen base chart is kind of comical. John Mayberry, never known for his speed, still sits at #87 all-time with 16 steals.

A funny thing happened in the early 1990s. The Royals stopped running. I’m not sure what their identity was at the time. Having some speedy base stealers has almost always been part of the Royals DNA, but the team didn’t have a 50-bag thief until Vince Coleman, an import from St. Louis, stole 50 in 1994. Tom Goodwin took over in 1995 and over the next three seasons swiped 150 bags. Goodwin was an underrated base stealer and sits at #96 on baseball’s all-time list. I’m giving Tom Goodwin the speed award for the 1990’s.

During the first decade of the 2000s, the Royals really lost their way. The top stolen base season for the first ten years of the 2000s was Carlos Beltran with 41 in 2003. From there it really went downhill. The Royals finished near the bottom of the American League in stolen bases from 2004 to 2009. I’m not sure what they were trying to do, hit home runs I suppose. I mean, these were the days of Sluggin’ Sammy, Mark McGuire and a ‘roided up Barry Bonds. Chicks dig the long ball and all that, so yeah, the Royals wanted a piece of that action.

The problem is, no one bothered to tell them that Royals Stadium was one of the worst ballparks in baseball for power hitters. When the Royals stick to their identity, crafting a team that can hit, keep the line moving, steal a base or take an extra base and play lights out defense, they can win some games. That’s what the ballpark they play in demands. From 1976 to 1981, Kansas City finished first or second in the league in steals. And they won a lot of games in those years. How many winning seasons did they have in the early 2000s? One. In 2003. That’s it. One. They were a negative five tool team. They couldn’t hit, hit with power, run, field or throw. It was a grim time. In fact, it was so grim that I’m not going to pick the fastest player from that decade.

The Royals got their identity back in the 2010s. They emphasized speed, defense, relief pitching and moving the line and it worked. They went to back-to-back World Series and won in 2015. The team finished first or second in the league in steals seven times in the decade including a steak of six consecutive seasons from 2011 to 2016. There were several players jousting for the crown of fastest Royal including Adalberto Mondesi, Terrance Gore and Whit Merrifield, but the title goes to Jarrod Dyson. Dyson ended his career with a stolen base success rate of almost 85%. Hard to argue with that. By comparison, Ricky Henderson came in just a shade below 81%. That works for me.

As the decade of the 2020s kick off, the Royals appear to be sticking to their knitting. They have finished first, second or third in steals every season of the decade even though the league has once again become infatuated with the long ball. There’s little doubt about the Royals current fastest man. It’s Bobby Witt Jr. There are others who can run. Darion Blanco is a terrific base stealer and Nate Eaton has good speed. If Eaton could hone his bat to be a .260-.270 hitter, he’d be a handful on the bases.

So, who wears the mantle of the fastest Royal of all time? In a short sprint, say 40 yards, I’m thinking Jarrod Dyson. Anything longer, say 100 to 200 meters, I’m going with Willie Wilson.