Shortstop has been a pain point for the Royals since the beginning of the organization. When Freddie Patek has your only run of more than three seasons over 2 WAR in over half a century, you can tell just how rough filling the position has been for this organization. That dearth of talent may finally be coming to an end, so I wanted to reflect on the few decent seasons that have happened.
For all of these performances I just averaged fWAR and bWAR to find the five best individual seasons. No individual player had more than one, which in itself is unusual, so we will see five of the best this franchise has had to offer, if only temporarily. For context, in the 55 years of Royals baseball (including 2023), only 23 player seasons have managed 2 fWAR or better and 29 have hit the mark in bWAR. The aforementioned Patek is the leader with six of each. He makes up over one fifth of the list. He also kicks things off.
5. Freddie Patek 1971 (3.2 fWAR/4.1 bWAR)
The fifth best shortstop season in Royals history belongs to the longest tenured Royal to hold the position. Patek was the starter at the position from 1969 until around 1979 when he started ceding time to younger players like UL Washington. Patek’s 1971 season was his career best at the plate when he slashed .267/.323/.371 good for an almost league average 97 wRC+. He set high water marks in home runs (6), run (86), hits (158), and triples (11). It is pretty obvious that Freddie was not on the team for his bat. His defense was considered great, though he never won a Gold Glove. Based on old or new school stats he was at least very good with the glove. In 1971 he got MVP votes for the only time in his career, finishing sixth in the voting, and is still in this list despite it being a border-line All-Star level at best. For comparison, it would have been Alan Trammell’s like eighth-best season.
4. Mike Aviles 2008 (4.4 fWAR/4.7 bWAR)
This might be a shocking name for a lot of fans to see. Mike Aviles was not a good major leaguer, but his rookie season he looked like he might be. In 2008 Aviles came up and played mostly short for the Royals. In that 102 games he was better at basically everything than he would be in any other season of his career. He hit .325/.354/.480 to post a 117 wRC+, and was a plus defender by almost all metrics. The .357 BABIP and a failure to ever repeat the quality defense with the exception of a decent defensive season in 2012, meant that most of this ended being an illusion. He also only had one other season above the 100 wRC+ threshold. Five of the next nine seasons, after that glorious debut, he posted negative fWAR before leaving the big leagues. It was a fun ride while it lasted.
3. Bobby Witt Jr. 2023 so far (5.0 fWAR/4.2 bWAR)
With 23 games remaining, Bobby is in third place all-time. He is on pace to finish in the 5.3 or 5.4 wins averaged between the two above. He has a shot to be number one all time on this list if he keeps going strong through September. Witt Jr. right now is leading the Royals in home runs, runs, RBI, slugging percentage, baserunning runs, Defensive Runs Above Average, Outs Above Average and basically anything that doesn’t involve taking a walk. In the second half, his numbers have been truly spectacular. If he can stay anywhere near the .342 OBP and .611 slug sine the All-Star break, he will be one of the best players in baseball for a long time to come. We all know how great he has been recently, so I won’t belabor this. Instead, let’s see who he is chasing.
#2 Nicky Lopez 2021 (6.0 fWAR/4.4 bWAR)
Another BABIP fueled one-off season, Nicky had a year that it looks like he will likely never repeat. To be fair, he was excellent defensively, and finished with an otherworldly 25 OAA at short, Bobby only has 13 right now and is in third place for shortstops this season. Nicky’s defense has continued to be very solid after 2021, but the bat regressed back to his normal level. His first two seasons in the league he posted wRC+ numbers of 56 and 53. In 2022 and 2023 so far they are 56 and 80. The 105 in 2021 is just not who Nicky is. That season he hit .300/.365/.378 with all three slash line numbers way above any other season level he has seen. The .347 BABIP is also over 50 points above the career mark. He had some balls bounce his way, which is necessary when you have six home runs in almost 2,000 plate appearances. He should have won a Gold Glove, and I am sorry he was robbed there. I also hope Bobby sticks around and basically knocks all of these guys out of this list.
#1 Jay Bell 1997 (5.4 fWAR/5.4 bWAR)
The only mercenary on this list, Jay Bell was picked up by the Royals for one season, and that was all he needed to be the best shortstop this franchise has ever seen in a season...for now. In the winter before 1997, the Royals traded Jeff Martin, Jeff Granger, Joe Randa, and Jeff Wallace for Bell and Jeff King. I guess he was only worth two Jeffs since the Pirates had to give one Jeff back to the Royals. Bell was a legitimately good baseball player, and this was his second best season in the majors. Bell hit .291/.368/.461 for a 116 wRC+ while playing all but a handful of his very good innings of defense at short. Jay is also easily the best player on this list as he amassed 37.9 fWAR over his career. Again, hopefully Witt will supplant him in all of this.
And that’s the list. The rather depressing list. Please Bobby, the Royals have never really had a good shortstop. End the madness. Get multiple real MVP caliber seasons for this franchise at short.