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The best Royals seasons by age

Get that young man a Hamm’s

Clint Hurdle Smiling

Baseball is hard. Hitting a 95 MPH pitch is tough business. Throwing one might be even harder than hitting one. When looking at the Royals best seasons by age, I was a little surprised how bereft they were at the young ages. The Royals have had very few players, let alone stars, at young ages. Those guys are like unicorns. Dwight Gooden was worth 5.5 WAR at the age of 19. Juan Soto was a 3 WAR guy at 19. Going back a few decades, Bob Feller was worth 3.4 WAR at 18 and 5.1 WAR at 19. I understand those players are the exception, but it’d sure be nice if the Royals scouting staff stumbled onto one every 50 years or so. There’s probably a better way to measure this than WAR but I’m an old timer and WAR is about as deep as I get into the analytical movement. So, WAR it is.

Age 19 – Clint Hurdle - 0.5 WAR – 1977. The Royals have had surprisingly few 19-year-olds play for them. Hurdle had torn up Omaha in 1977 and the Royals gave him a late season call up. He smashed a long home run in his first game to set hearts aflutter. He had a decent career but nothing like what the pundits predicted for him.

Age 20 – Zack Greinke – 3.8 WAR – 2004. Greinke started 34 games in 2004, going 8-11 with a 3.97 ERA over 145 innings of work and finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year vote.

Age 21 – Bret Saberhagen – 7.1 WAR – 1985. Sabes went 20-6 with a 2.97 ERA, won the Cy Young award, Game 7 of the World Series, the World Series MVP and had his first child. That’ll play at age 21. The runner up was Jose Rosado with 3.4 WAR in 1996.

Age 22 – George Brett – 5.8 WAR – 1975. If you’re expecting to see a lot of Brett on here, you won’t be disappointed. Brett broke out in 1975 with his first great season with an average of .308 while leading the league in hits and triples. Runner up was Carlos Beltran and his 4.7 WAR season in 1999.

Age 23 – Saberhagen – 8.0 WAR – 1987. Sabes continued his every-other-year mastery, going 18-10 with a 3.37 ERA. George came in a close second with his 7.5 WAR season in 1976, a year in which he won his first batting title and finished second in the MVP vote.

Age 24 – Willie Wilson – 8.5 WAR – 1980. Poor Willie, having his best year, and a truly great year, in the same season that Brett hit .390. Wilson was marvelous in 1980, leading the league in hits, runs and triples while hitting .326. He finished fourth in the MVP vote and won a Silver Slugger. Runner up was Kevin Appier and his 8.0 WAR season in 1992.

Age 25 – Zack Greinke – 10.0 WAR – 2009. Greinke was almost unhittable in 2009, going 16-8 with a league leading 2.16 ERA for a Kansas City team that lost 97 games. Runner up goes to Bret Saberhagen and his 9.7 WAR season in, you guessed it, 1989.

Age 26 – George Brett – 8.6 WAR – 1979. You don’t think of 1979 being one of George’s best years, but he did hit .329, score a career high 119 runs, lead the league in hits with 212 and triples with 20 (20!) while finishing third in the MVP vote. Runner up is Big John Mayberry, who broke out in 1975 with a solid 7.2 WAR season and a second-place finish in the league MVP vote.

Age 27 – George Brett – 9.4 WAR – 1980. Despite only playing 117 games due to injury, Brett slashed .390/.454/.664, collecting 175 hits and driving home 118 runs while winning the league MVP and a Silver Slugger while captivating the nation in his chase to hit .400. Runner up went to Darrell Porter and his 7.6 WAR tour de force season in 1979 which remains the best offensive performance by a Royals catcher.

Age 28 – Charlie Leibrandt– 6.60 WAR – 1985. The first surprise on the list. Leibrandt went 17-9 with a 2.69 ERA over 33 starts. He finished fifth in the Cy Young vote while winning a championship. Runner up went to Danny Tartabull and his power fueled 1991 season which was worth 6 WAR.

Age 29 – Lorenzo Cain – 7.0 WAR – 2015. One of the more underrated players in Royals history, LoCain slashed .307/.361/.477 while playing a near flawless centerfield. He scored a career high 101 runs and finished third in the MVP voting. Runner up went to George Brett and his 6 WAR season in 1982.

Age 30 – David Cone – 7.0 WAR – 1993. Cone made 34 starts and only went 11-14, but he did pitch 254 innings and had a 3.33 ERA. Cone only pitched for the Royals for two full seasons, and they were both outstanding years. Second place went to George, who put up a 4.3 WAR season in 1983.

Age 31 – Amos Otis – 7.4 WAR – 1978. Famous Amos had a lot of good years, but 1978 was arguably his best as he did a bit of everything. In addition to his excellence in center, he hit .298 with 22 home runs and a career high 96 RBI, all good for a fourth place showing in the MVP vote. Runner up went to David Cone and his 6.9 WAR season in 1994, which on paper appeared to be much better than his 1993 season.

Age 32 – George Brett – 8.3 WAR – 1985. Brett did everything in 1985, hitting .335 while leading the league in OPS+ with a 179 mark. He scored 108 runs and drove home 112, finished second in the MVP vote, won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger and helped lead the Royals to their first World Series title. Runner up went to Jeff King and his 3.7 WAR season in 1997.

Age 33 – Steve Farr – 4.8 WAR – 1990. Another surprise. Farr appeared in 57 games, including six starts, throwing 127 innings which resulted in a 13-7 record with a sterling 1.98 ERA. Farr had some very effective years in Kansas City. It’s amazing that he never made an All-Star team. Runner up went to Frank White and his 4.1 WAR season in 1984.

Age 34 – Tim Belcher – 4.8 WAR – 1996. Yeah, I was expecting to see other names here, but Belcher was a guy who got a little better with age. For KC, he threw 238 innings in 1996 and went 15-11 with a 3.92 ERA while making 35 starts. That’s a solid year regardless of age. Runner up went to Jason Vargas, who put out a 4.1 WAR season in 2017.

Age 35 – George Brett – 5.2 WAR – 1988. George just did George things in 1988: he hit .306 with 24 home runs, 90 runs scored, 42 doubles and 103 RBI, which earned him the last Silver Slugger of his career. Runner up went to Frank White and his 4 WAR season from 1986.

Age 36 – Hal McRae – 4.1 WAR – 1982. Mac went on a rampage in 1982, hitting .308 with a league leading 46 doubles and 133 RBI, good for fourth in the MVP race. McRae had a lot of really good offensive years but was often overshadowed first by George Brett and later by Willie Wilson. Runner up went to Gary Gaetti and his 3.4 WAR season in 1995.

Age 37 – George Brett – 4.1 WAR – 1990. George won the last of his three batting titles with a .329 average highlighted by a league leading 45 doubles. George remains the only player to win batting titles in three different decades. Runner up went to Mark Grudzielanek and his 3.2 WAR year in 2007.

Age 38 – Zack Greinke – 2.5 WAR – 2022. I’m really starting to see the age related drop off in production. Zach came back to Kansas City to start 26 games (137 innings) and even though he only went 4-9, his ERA was a respectable 3.68. Runner up was Grudzielanek again with a 1.7 WAR year in 2008. Frank White and Peter Moylan get honorable mention notice.

Age 39 – Ted Abernathy – 1.8 WAR – 1972. Submariner Abernathy still had something left in the tank, throwing 58 innings in his last major league season, finishing 25 games with a 1.70 ERA. Runner up was Zack Greinke and his 1 WAR season from 2023.

Age 40 – Unless I overlooked someone, the Royals have not had a 40-year-old player with a positive WAR age 40 season.

Age 41 – Bob Boone – 2.4 WAR – 1989. Boone spent the last two years of his career in Kansas City. In 1989 he hit .274 and won a Gold Glove, the seventh and last of his career. Hal McRae gets the runner up nod with his 0.2 WAR season in 1987.

Age 42 – Bob Boone – 0.0 WAR – 1990. Boonie only played in 40 games, where he hit .239. Not bad for a 42-year-old. There is no runner up.

Age 44 - Gaylord Perry - .50 WAR - 1983. Perry signed with the Royals in early July after being released by the Mariners. He started 14 games, threw 84 innings with a respectable 4.27 ERA. Perry was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991 but is best remembered during his time in Kansas City as the person who tried to hide George Brett’s pine tar bat.

There you have it, the good, the bad and the ugly. A few things jump out at me. First, WAR is probably not the best way to measure a season’s greatness, and you can really see the differences it accords pitchers and hitters. I may have missed someone in the tabulation, and if so, my apologies. The other thing that jumps out is the bell curve of performance, with the best seasons peaking in the ages around 24 to 27 then dropping off, especially for hitters. There were some fine seasons that got bumped off and deserve mention, guys like Al Fitzmorris in 1975, Kevin Appier in 1997, Roger Nelson in 1972, Paul Schaal in 1971 and Tom Gordon in 1989. If you witnessed those years, you know how special they were.