The Kansas City Royals finished the 2021 season slightly above expectations, at 74-88, and look to have a bright future ahead of them. This year was the sixth straight year they missed the postseason following their 2015 World Series championship. But they had a few big bright spots that kept them above water and in a respectable position. The Royals embraced the youth movement in their pitching staff, offering their fanbase a glimpse into what is to come. Their record was the best they put up since going 80-82 in 2017 after back-to-back 100-loss seasons in 2018 and 2019.
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Manager: Mike Matheny
Position: Fourth in NL Central
Postseason: Missed playoffs
Kansas City was the first team in major league history to have five players in the same draft class (2018) to start games in the same season for the team that drafted them. That group was Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Jon Heasley, who were all in the Royals’ top 30 prospect list at one time. Carlos Hernandez was another promising arm, who was signed out of Venezuela as an international free agent in July 2016. The right-hander went 5-2 with a 3.23 ERA in 12 appearances – 11 starts – after the All-Star break. Merrifield led the AL with 40 stolen bases, while he was also an asset with his second base defense.
Overall, the Royals pitching staff was not good, ranking in the bottom half to bottom third of the league in many categories. Their 4.65 ERA (21), 8.53 strikeouts per nine (20), 1.39 WHIP (26), .251 batting average against (22), and 4.86 runs allowed per game (21) were towards the bottom of the barrel. But only 51 games were started by pitchers 26-years-old or older, so the youngsters have an exception that they will turn it around.
Carlos Santana was a big disappointment at the plate after starting out well. In his last 100 games, he slashed just .195/.278/.295 with nine homers and 33 RBIs. Overall the team’s batting average was top ten at .249, but they were towards the bottom in other major (and more telling) categories. That included a league-low seven percent walk rate, 25th ranked .702 OPS, and 24th ranked 4.23 runs per game. The Royals were in sell-mode at the All-Star break, in which they shipped off Danny Duffy and Jorge Soler, but certainly could have sold off more value.
Most Valuable Player: Salvador Perez
The 2020 American League Comeback Player of the Year backed it up with another tremendous season. It was quite the special year for Perez as he had one of the best seasons for a catcher ever. His 48 homers were not only tied with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for the major league lead but also broke Johnny Bench‘s record for most homers by a catcher in a season. The mark also tied the franchise single-season home run total, which Soler did in 2019. Perez has always been a great clubhouse leader as well, which continued this year. He really showed great leadership over the young pitchers he worked with on a daily basis.
Starting Pitcher of the Year: Danny Duffy/Carlos Hernandez
Obviously, Duffy was traded at the deadline. But what he did before getting injured and shipped off was great. Prior to being traded, the left-hander went 4-3 with a 2.51 ERA, 3.40 FIP, and 65 strikeouts to 22 walks in 61 innings over 13 games (12 starts). Him being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers shows how good he had been going before he had gotten injured. He wound up being out for the season with a strained flexor in his pitching arm. Hernandez is the co-winner of this award, as he was very good in his 11 starts. The right-hander will have to work on his control, as he walked 41 batters in 85 2/3 innings. But he has some promise.
Relief Pitcher of the Year: Scott Barlow
The team’s closer sported elite stuff on the way to his best season to date. With a three-pitch mix of a slider, four-seamer, and curveball, Barlow struck out 91 batters in 74 1/3 innings, good for a 29.7 percent strikeout rate. The righty got whiffs on 34.4 percent of his pitches, while the slider had a 44.2 percent whiff rate, and the curveball induced a 42.2 percent whiff rate. His curveball also had just a .143 batting average against it along with a .206 slugging percentage. Barlow was able to record 16 saves in 22 opportunities.
Best Hitter of the Year: Salvador Perez
On top of the home run mark, the 31-year-old led the majors with 121 RBI and always seemed to be in the middle of everything. Perez slashed .270/.302/.463 on the season and had a 56.2 percent hard-hit rate. There isn’t much else that can be said about how great of a season it was.
Best Fielder of the Year: Nicky Lopez
The double-play duo of Lopez and Merrifield was outstanding, as they both could win Gold Gloves. The best of the two was Lopez, who had 25 outs above average and 3 defensive runs saved at shortstop. The 26-year-old also has outstanding range, as he had a 5.2 ultimate zone rating.
Comeback Player of the Year: Nicky Lopez
On top of being a fantastic defensive shortstop, Lopez really came into his own at the plate this season. In 151 games, the 2016 draft pick slashed .300/.365/.378 while having a 106 wRC+ and a 4.4 fWAR. He also showcased his speed with 22 stolen bases after previously only having one in his first two MLB seasons. Lopez was able to drop his strikeout rate from 21.4 percent to 13.1 percent this year.
The Royals head into an important offseason as they look to reach the end of their rebuild. Next year will be their third year with Matheny as manager. Trading away or cutting some of the older guys such as Santana and Mike Minor and fully embracing the youth movement should be the main focus. Top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. will likely get a chance to come up to start the season with a solid spring. If they want to keep improving, Kansas City will have to bring in a power hitter or two for their lineup. They have the speed and contact guys, but no one that gives them much power outside of Perez. Bringing in a veteran arm would also be a key move to consider to lead the young arms. Minor just isn’t the veteran ace this team needs.
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