While we’re marinating in this lost Royals season, (seriously, what else can we write about this team?) I had the idea: who had the best season for the Royals, by position? What would that team look like?
Truth is, they look pretty darned good. There were a few surprises and some tough battles, especially in the outfield. Starting with the infield, here’s what it looks like.
Catcher - Darrell Porter – 1979
Yeah, I know people are going to scream about Sal Perez, but Porter was nothing short of fantastic in 1979: .291/.421/.484 with 20 home runs, 112 RBI, 101 runs and a league leading 121 walks good for 7.6 WAR. He played in a career high 157 games and put up a 142 OPS+. He made the All-Star team and finished ninth in the MVP race, which somehow went to Don Baylor even though Fred Lynn, George Brett and Porter were significantly better that season. It remains one of the all-time great offensive seasons by a catcher in major league history.
Honorable Mention: Sal Perez – 2021
First Base – John Mayberry – 1975
People forget what a force Mayberry was in the mid-70s. In 1975 he slashed: .291/.416/.547 with 34 home runs, 112 RBI, 95 runs and led the league with 119 walks and a 168 OPS+. He finished second in the American League MVP vote and put up 7.2 WAR while fielding at a .988 clip. On top of all of that, he hit a club record 12 home runs in the month of July. Big John still holds the team record for walks in a season with 122, set in 1973.
Honorable Mention: Mike Sweeney – 2002
Second Base – Whit Merrifield – 2018
Whit played 108 of his 158 games at second in 2018, but when there he was excellent. He slashed: .304/.367/.438 and led the league with 192 hits and 45 stolen bases all good for a 120 OPS+ and 4.5 WAR. Whit also set a team record by hitting in 31 consecutive games in 2018.
Honorable mention: Frank White – 1978
Shortstop – Fred Patek – 1971
Freddie was a revelation when he came over from the National League, slashing .267/.323/.371. He collected 158 hits from his leadoff spot including a league leading 11 triples and a career high 86 runs. In a game against Minnesota on July 9th, he became the first Royal to hit for the cycle. He also stole 49 bases and turned 107 double plays (by comparison the 2022 Royals only turned 157 double plays as a team) good for an OPS+ of 98 and 4.1 WAR while finished sixth in the MVP vote.
Honorable mention: Alcides Escobar – 2012
Third Base – George Brett – 1980
Was there any doubt about this one? Even though injuries limited Brett to 117 games, he still stroked 175 hits while slashing .390/.454/.664 with 24 home runs and 118 RBI. His slash and his OPS+ of 203 led the league. He collected 298 total bases while making the All-Star team. He won a Silver Slugger and was the American League MVP in a season worth 9.4 WAR. Brett set four team batting records that summer that still stand.
Honorable mention: Kevin Seitzer – 1987, Paul Schaal - 1971
Left Field – Alex Gordon – 2011
Gordo was terrific in 2011, slashing a robust .303/.376/.502 with 23 home runs, 45 doubles, 101 runs and 87 RBI worth 7.3 WAR and 140 OPS+. He also won a Gold Glove for his outstanding play in the field. Was there any sweeter sight in baseball than a baserunner who thought he could outrun Alex’s arm? Alex was almost as good in 2012 before injuries started to rob him of his skills.
Honorable mention: Lou Piniella - 1972
Center Field – Willie Wilson – 1980
Wilson picked a bad year to have his best season, totally being overshadowed by Brett’s pursuit of .400.
All Wilson did was slash .326/.357/.421 while leading the league in plate appearances, at-bats, runs (133), hits (230) and 15 triples (15). He also stole 79 bases, won a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger while finishing 4th in the MVP voting, good for an OPS+ of 113 and 8.5 WAR. Wilson set three club records that still stand, including most singles in a season with 184.
Honorable mention: Amos Otis – 1975 and Lorenzo Cain – 2015
Right Field – Al Cowens – 1977
Cowens, a 75th round pick by the Royals in 1969 put it all together in 1977, slashing .312/.361/.525 with 23 home runs, 112 RBI and 98 runs on 189 hits while piling up 318 total bases. He won a Gold Glove and finished second in the MVP race while posting an OPS+ of 138 and 5.3 WAR.
Honorable mention: Jermaine Dye – 2000
Designated hitter – Hal McRae – 1977
Mac had a couple of years of serious consideration (1976 and 1982), but his 1977 season takes it. Always a dangerous hitter, he slashed .298/.366/.515 worth an OPS+ of 136 and 4.8 WAR. He stroked 191 hits, including a league leading (and still club record) 54 doubles along with 21 home runs and 92 RBI. He tallied 330 total bases which included a still standing club record of 86 extra base hits. He also got hit by a league leading 13 pitches. Mac would do anything to get on base and once on base, he was a ferocious base runner.
Honorable mention: Billy Butler – 2010
Pitching was the hardest to evaluate, even with all the advanced metrics. The Royals have had some terrific pitchers over the years.
For this exercise, I went with five starters and five bullpen arms.
1. Zach Greinke – 2009
Greinke was fantastic for a bad team, 16 and 8 with a 2.16 ERA. He threw 229 innings worth 10.4 WAR and a FIP of 2.33 and a WHIP of 1.073 while winning the American League Cy Young. He’ll make the Hall of Fame once he retires and even though his physical talent has diminished, he still remains a joy to watch.
2. Bret Saberhagen – 1989
Sabes did it all in ’89, posting a 23 and 6 record with a 2.16 ERA over 262 innings. His WHIP was .961 with a FIP of 2.45 worth 9.70 WAR. This earned him Cy Young and a spot in our rotation. His 23 wins is still a club record. In 1991, he threw the last no-hitter by a Royals pitcher.
3. Roger Nelson – 1972
This may come as a surprise, but Nelson was lights out once the Royals put him in the rotation on July 4. He only went 11 and 6 but posted a 2.08 ERA over 173 innings with a WHIP of .871 and a FIP of 2.54. That summer he set still standing club records for a starting pitcher of ERA, WHIP, hits per nine innings and threw a record six shutouts. His six shutouts will probably never be broken. He pitched the final game in Municipal Stadium history, a complete game, 2-hit shutout of Texas.
4. Kevin Appier – 1993
Appier was brilliant in 1993, posting an 18 and 8 record with a 2.56 ERA over 239 innings of work. His FIP was 2.90, a WHIP of 1.106, all worth 9.3 WAR. He finished third in the Cy Young vote even though he was clearly the best pitcher in the American League that season.
5. David Cone – 1994
Cone was electric in 1994, going 16 and 5 with a sparkling 2.94 ERA in a strike shortened season. He easily won the Cy Young with a 1.072 WHIP and an ERA+ of 171 over 171 innings of work, good for 6.90 WAR and an appearance in the All-Star game.
Honorable Mention starters – Steve Busby – 1974, Dennis Leonard – 1977, Paul Splittorff – 1973, Larry Gura – 1980.
The Royals have been blessed with many terrific bullpen arms over the years. Here are the five I believe who had the best seasons.
1. Wade Davis – 2015
You can make a valid argument that 2014 Davis was as good or better. In 2015, Wade went 8 and 1 with a 0.94 ERA over 67 innings of devastation. His ERA+ was an otherworldly 448, with a WHIP of .787 and 10.4 strikeouts per 9 innings. The guy was literally unhittable. For Royal fans it was a great feeling to have a late lead and see Davis striding in from the bullpen.
2. Greg Holland – 2013
Holland often walked a tight rope when closing, but he almost always came through. Prior to blowing out his elbow, he was dynamic, and his 2013 season was his best: 61 games finished, 47 saves and a 1.21 ERA and 103 strikeouts over 67 innings of work. His WHIP of .866 and ERA+ of 342 earned him the first of three All-Star appearances.
3. Joakim Soria – 2010
Soria was the Royals greatest Rule 5 pick ever. Unfortunately for him, he played for some really bad Royal teams. In 2010 he appeared in 66 games, saving 43 for a team that only won 67. He had a sparkling 1.78 ERA and a WHIP of 1.051, earning an All-Star berth and picking up votes in both the Cy Young and MVP polls.
4. Dan Quisenberry – 1983
Quiz was one of the most unusual and beloved Royals of all time. How do you pick his best season? He led the league in saves five times back in a time where closers were known as firemen, guys who threw multiple innings. In 1983, Quiz threw 139 innings, racking up a career high 45 saves with an ERA of 1.94. His WHIP was .928 and he only walked 11 of the 536 batters he faced. This earned him an All-Star appearance and a second place finish in the Cy Young
5. Jeff Montgomery – 1993
The Royals had some good pitching in 1993 with Cone, Appier, Montgomery, Tom Gordon and Mark Gubicza. The trade that brought Montgomery to Kansas City remains one of the best in club history. Montgomery, now a Royals TV broadcaster, appeared in 69 games, racking up a league leading 45 saves with a 2.27 ERA and a 1.008 WHIP over 87 innings of work. He made the All-Star team and picked up some MVP votes, but curiously was overlooked in the Cy Young voting. He finished his career with a still standing club record of 304 saves and 686 appearances.
Honorable mention: Tom Gordon – 1993, Doug Bird – 1974, Kelvin Herrera – 2014, Tom Burgmeier - 1971
It has to be the 1977 squad which went 102 and 60 and between August 17th and September 25th won 36 of 40 games, including 16 in a row, to break open a close American League West division race. The fact that the Royals were winning almost every day made going back to school more palatable. I might have enjoyed the 2015 team more, but until another squad breaks 102 wins, 1977 will remain the standard.