It’s all over but the hardware.
The Royals closed their 2017 campaign with 80 wins and a spot on the sidelines for the postseason. It was a disappointing finish to a season that opened with such promise. (At least before they actually started playing games. Damn, April was awful.) Still, there were individual performances of note and they should be acknowledged. Each season, the Kansas City chapter of the BBWAA votes for their selection of Royals Player and Pitcher of the Year. I’m not a member (insert Groucho Marx joke here), but that won’t stop me from submitting a pseudo ballot for your approval. Today, we look at the position players.
This was an interesting season in that there were four players who could make a legitimate claim for POY honors. Let’s briefly break down the contenders.
The case for Whit Merrifield
He wasn’t good enough to open the season in Kansas City, but it was only a matter of time before he made his way south on I-29. We got a sample of what he could do in a half season of action in 2016. We got the Full Whit treatment this year.
He arrived in KC in mid-April and never left the starting lineup, establishing a stranglehold on the second base position. Merrifield thrived in his first couple of months hitting lower in the order before he moved to the leadoff spot in early June. He’s miscast as a leadoff man (he posted just a .313 OBP after moving to the top of the order) but there’s no mistaking the clutch gene he possesses. It just feels like when the Royals need the big hit or the big play on the bases, Merrifield was there. He crushed 32 doubles, six triples and 19 home runs.
Merrifield led the AL in steals and had the highest Speed Score on the Royals. He was worth 1.4 Base Running Runs (BRR), second on the team. His .288 BA was third highest on the team and his .172 ISO was sixth, just behind Eric Hosmer. His .272 TAv ranked fourth (and it’s the lowest among the quartet we will examine here) but hey… Clutch gene!
The case for Lorenzo Cain
Playing center field, Cain had the best defensive season of his career as rated by FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average, Baseball Prospectus’s metric for defense). Cain’s 19.9 FRAA meant he was was not only the lone Royal to reach double digits, he basically lapped the entire field. Next closest was Alcides Escobar at 7.3 FRAA.
The case could also be made for Cain as the Royals best baserunner. Sure, Merrifield led the team (and the AL) in steals which garners the headlines, but Cain was more efficient. He swiped 26 bags in 28 attempts, a 93 percent success rate. Cain took an extra base 46 percent of the time which was second on the team to Alcides Escobar, who advanced the additional base 54 percent of the time. A couple of other base running tidbits: Cain made just six outs on the bases all year and scored 32 percent of the time he reached base. Add it all together and Cain led the Royals in BRR with 2.4.
Offensively, it was business as usual for Cain. He topped a .300 batting average for the third time in the last four seasons. He set a career high with a .363 OBP. His .440 SLG was the second highest of his career. Ditto for his .281 TAv. None of his offensive numbers topped the team, but it was another all around exceptional season for Cain.
The case for Eric Hosmer
If Cain wasn’t able to lead the Royals in any of the aforementioned categories, it was because the guy who generally hit behind him in the lineup shook off his April doldrums in a massive way. Hosmer led the Royals in BA (.318) and OBP (.385). He was second on the team in SLG at .498. (Fun fact: With Salvador Perez on the bench Sunday and Hosmer’s home run, he passed his teammate on the Royals leaderboard.) His home run in his penultimate plate appearance of the season was enough to nudge his TAv to the magical .300 mark.
We know all about the defensive metrics and Hosmer. They don’t love the guy. The naysayers scoff and point to the Gold Gloves. Myself, I’m somewhere in between. The range may not be there, but he’s as good as they get when it comes to picking balls out of the dirt. Besides, he’s playing first base which is at the bottom of the defensive spectrum. The truth, as usual, probably lies somewhere in between. He’s above average defensively and that’s how he played in 2017.
The case for Mike Moustakas
Isn’t becoming the Royals single season home run leader enough? Steve Balboni’s record lasted 32 years before Moustakas was able to politely push the former first baseman to the side. As you were.
Moustakas had a great chance at obliterating that record and reaching 40 home runs, but injuries sapped his power down the stretch. He hit just three home runs over his final 140 plate appearances, slugging just .371 over the last month and a half. Still, he led the team with a .523 SLG and a .250 ISO. Both numbers represent career highs for a full season. Defensively, it was the usual solid Moustakas. Basically, had he been healthy at the end, he would have made it further in this conversation.
This is just so close. All four are worthy. If anything, it’s slightly depressing that we’re talking about four strong individual seasons and the Royals as a team couldn’t get to 85 wins and a spot in the Wild Card.
Still, the vote here is for Cain, who has a virtual stranglehold on the award. He’s such a complete player. I wanted to vote for Hosmer as the sentimental choice and to give acknowledgement for a serious rebound to an abysmal start to the season and for his contributions on and off the field as the de facto leader of these Royals. Still, it’s all about the performance and Cain is such a steady, exceptional and underrated player.
Here’s how my ballot would look:
This feels so close, it should avoid the vitriol that follows the standard award voting debates for the league MVPs and Cy Youngs and such. There’s no wrong answer among this group. If anything, it underscores how important it will be for Dayton Moore and company to come up with adequate replacements for three of the players set to leave via free agency.