The Royals season is officially over, as they finished 74-88, slightly above most preseason projections. As another playoff season continues without the Kansas City Royals, I decided that it would be good to wrap up the 2021 Royals campaign with a five-part series of posts where I give out certain “awards” from this past season.
Now, to clarify, I am trying to think outside the box with these awards. I could do a “best hitter” or “best pitcher” or “rookie of the year” award, like most pundits. That being said, I feel like this Royals season has been pretty clear in terms of the “traditional” awards, so I wanted to push the envelope a bit with my end-of-the-season honors.
In this first post, I am going to reflect on who the Royals’ “most important player” was to the 2021 season. While I will take into account various metrics (Baseball Reference and Fangraphs’ WAR, etc.), I also will not purely rely on metrics in this debate, especially during a season in which the Royals finish 14 games below .500. I wanted to examine which Royals position players and pitchers made the biggest impact in keeping the Royals somewhat respectable during a season that could’ve gone even further south, especially after rough months in May and June.
In addition, in each post in this series, I will start with the writeups on the second and first runners-up, and then name and profile the winner, and why he deserved the “Royalty” award in the respective category for 2021.
Second Runner-Up: Scott Barlow, Relief Pitcher
Barlow was the most valuable Royals pitcher on a bWAR basis at 2.9, while Fangraphs pegged him as the second most valuable with a fWAR of 2.1 (which was 0.2 points lower than Mike Minor, who led all Royals pitchers in fWAR). There is no question that Barlow was the best and most trusted Royals reliever, as Mike Matheny trotted him out on the mound in the late innings time and time again, even in situations when it wasn’t a save scenario.
When it comes to traditional metrics, Barlow posted a 2.42 ERA with 91 strikeouts and 16 saves in 74.1 IP as the Royals’ main man in the ninth inning. To compare, of Royals relievers this season, only Josh Staumont and Jake Brentz were within 10 innings pitched of Barlow this year. That being said, Staumont and Brentz combined to compile only seven saves this year, which shows that they didn’t quite have the same kind of trust in the ninth inning from Matheny.
While Barlow’s K/BB ratio did decrease from 4.33 in 2020 to 3.25, his FIP, according to Baseball Reference, was only 2.63, which is the first time in his Major League career it has been under three. He also wowed fans with an effective pair of breaking balls, as his slider generated a 44.2 percent whiff rate, and his curve ball generated a 42.2 percent whiff rate, according to Baseball Savant.
Here’s an example of Barlow making White Sox batters look silly with his breaking pitches back in May at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago:
For the past two years, Barlow has been the Royals’ most dependable and effective reliever, which says something considering that the Royals bullpen was stronger on an ERA basis (19th in ERA) than their starting pitching (24th in ERA) this season. Additionally, many Royals relievers went through their fair shares of ups and downs this season, much to the dismay of Royals fans and management. Kyle Zimmer looked like he could be “closer” or at the very least “setup” material, but then the “sticky ban” rules cracked down, and Zimmer looked like a different pitcher for the remainder of the year. Furthermore, Brentz, Staumont, and Greg Holland all had their flashes this year, but they all went through their fair shares of either struggles or injuries or both this season.
Will Barlow make Royals fans forget about 2014 Greg Holland? Or 2015 Wade Davis? Probably not. It is unlikely that Barlow will produce a much better season in 2022 than what he did in 2021, especially considering his age (he will be 29-years-old), and with the slight regression in K/BB ratio, which can be a telling sign for long-term success for pitchers. That being said, Barlow at time single-handedly kept this bullpen respectable and pitching staff afloat in 2021, and he deserves recognition for this, even if he wasn’t the Royals’ most overall important player on the active roster this season.
First Runner Up: Nicky Lopez, Shortstop
Back on Opening Day, with the group of friends I was tailgating with, we made some “preseason” predictions. My bold prediction, among many, was that Nicky Lopez would finish the 2021 season at the Royals’ starting second baseman.
At the time, it seemed a bit wild, especially considering how much Nicky struggled at the plate in 2019 and 2020, and the fact that he was demoted momentarily in Spring Training before getting called up days later to replace Adalberto Mondesi as the Royals’ Opening Day shortstop.
While I was on the right track with the prediction, Lopez ended up surpassing my, and many other Royals fans’ expectations in 2021 by a considerable margin. Lopez not only played in a 151 games in 2021, but he posted a triple slash of .300/.365/.378 which included a wRC+ of 106 as well as a fWAR of 4.4 and a bWAR of 4.2, which ranked 1st and 2nd of Royals position players according to Fangraphs and Baseball Reference, respectively.
Lopez has always been known for being a strong defensive infielder at the Major League level, as he was a runner-up for the Gold Glove at second base a year ago. That being said, he really surprised Royals fans in 2021 by transitioning his solid defensive skills to the more demanding position of shortstop, as he was 25 outs above average, according to Baseball Savant, which was the best mark of ANY fielder in baseball. but also improving immensely on the hitting end as well. In addition, Lopez just improved in nearly every offensive facet from a season ago. He lowered his K rate from 21.4 percent in 2020 to 13.1 percent in 2021, while maintaining a decent walk rate 8.7 percent. As a result, his BB/K ratio (0.66) was a MLB career-best, and in the process of this improvement this season, he became the first Royals shortstop in history ever to hit .300 in a single season:
And if that wasn’t enough, Lopez stole 22 bases in 23 attempts, which included Lopez being successful in his first 22 attempts this year.
Honestly, in a weird season where Whit Merrifield had a slightly down season at the plate, and many other Royals went through wildly up-and-down campaigns, Lopez was a pillar of consistency in all aspects of the game in 2021. Sure, Lopez did experience a massive uptick in BABIP (.347, which was up from .260 a season ago), and it is possible that Lopez could experience a regression in his overall line in 2022 if that BABIP regresses. After all, Lopez ranked in the bottom one and four percentiles in barrel rate and hard hit rate, respectively, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for consistent BABIP success (softer batted balls = less likely to fall for hits). However, the 26-year-old infielder was a jack of all trades this season, and there was no one more crucial or consistent for the Royals both at the plate and in the field on a daily basis, which says something considering Whit and Salvy both made the All-Star team this season.
I mean, it’s hard to watch plays like this, and not think Lopez was one of the Royals’ most important players in 2021, especially on the defensive end.
Lopez deserves to be part of the Royals’ long-term plans in the middle infield. He deserves to be a mainstay in the No. 2 spot in the Royals lineup, even with Bobby Witt, Jr. on his way to Kansas City at some point in 2022. And he deserves a Gold Glove at the shortstop position, even with his competition including more established names like Andrelton Simons (Twins) and Carlos Correa (Astros).
Granted, Lopez barely missed out, in my book, as the Royals’ “most important player” this season. But Lopez proved this year that he can be an important piece to the Royals’ long-term puzzle, and it will be interesting to see how manager Mike Matheny will utilize the dynamic and versatile infielder in 2022.
Most Important Player: Salvador Perez, Catcher/DH
There was immense pressure on Salvy going into 2021. After all, Salvy signed a four-year $82 million extension this offseason, making the 31-year-old Venezuelan the Royals’ highest-paid player. The high-cost investment by Dayton Moore was seen as a considerable risk by many Royals fans, especially since Salvy has been known for his plate-discipline issues, and missed all of 2019 due to injury.
That being said, Salvy is a fan favorite who is absolutely beloved in Kansas City, which without a doubt fueled the decision by new owner John Sherman. Salvy’s “USA Citizenship” ceremony during Royals Fan Fest in 2020 was a prime example of the KC community’s love for Salvy (and vice versa):
Keeping Salvy long-term in Kansas City (he was going to be a free agent after the 2021 season) on a fan end made all kinds of sense for the Royals, especially for a fanbase that had become jaded after seeing many fan favorite leave Kansas City following the 2017 season. However, would Salvy, who also traditionally has been a poor framer, still be able to have value in the near future, let alone over the duration of his newly-minted extension?
The answer so far has been a resounding “yes”, as Salvy not only proved to be worth the extension he signed this offseason, but he also proved to be the Royals’ most important player overall in 2021.
This season, Salvy has truly had a season for the record books, as Royals Twitter tweeted after the conclusion of the Royals’ final game of the 2021 campaign:
Salvy’s 48 home runs not only tied for the league lead in the American League (with Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.), but also tied the single-season HR record for Royals hitters which was set in 2019 by Jorge Soler. Additionally, Salvy set a new record for home runs hit by a catcher, eclipsing the previous 45-homer run mark by Hall of Fame Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench:
While Salvy put up incredible numbers at the plate in 2021, it was his durability and dependability that also made Salvy such a crucial member of the Royals team this season. The 31-year-old catcher played in 161 games this season, with the lone game he missed being due to a stomach sickness. Over that game span, he posted a triple slash of .277/.316/.544 with a wRC+ of 127, according to Fangraphs. Additionally, his .271 ISO also led all Royals hitters this season, and it also marked the four-straight season where he posted an ISO of over .200.
Without a doubt, Salvy’s power kept the Royals in games, and his power was something to behold, which is evident in every single one of his homers which is captured in the video compilation below:
Of course, Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference conflicted a bit when it came to Salvy’s overall value this year. According to Baseball-Reference, Salvy was worth 5.3 bWAR, which was the highest bWAR for a Royals player this season. On the other hand, BR’s defensive metric didn’t include framing, an area of defense where Salvy has traditionally struggled. Thus, it’s not a surprise that Salvy only generated a 3.4 fWAR, according to Fangraphs, which while still solid, put him a full run behind Lopez in terms of the team lead.
And this is where the “is Salvy an MVP candidate” debate comes into play. On an offensive, end, not many can doubt Salvy’s impact, especially on a team that could’ve been one of the worst clubs in baseball, had it not been for his record-breaking campaign. But his framing was not just bad, it was considerably poor, especially when compared to the competition.
Of 59 qualified catchers, Salvy ranked dead last in terms of runs on extra strikes, according to Baseball Savant. In fact, his -18 runs on extra strikes mark is nearly 8 runs lower than the White Sox’s Zack Collins, who ranked as the second-worst framer in baseball. That is not good for his MVP candidacy, even if framing can be a slightly debatable defensive skill (it may become less important in the future, should umpiring become more digital).
Nonetheless, even if Salvy should be a runner-up for the AL MVP award (honestly, it should go to the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani), that shouldn’t take away his impact to this Royals team in 2021. When Royals fans will look back at the 2021 season, they will remember Salvy’s bombs, his big hits, his big throws, and his clutch performances, including this one against the White Sox which I was able to see in person at Kauffman Stadium:
Without a doubt, there’s no one who deserves the “Royalty” award for most important Royals player this season than Salvador Perez.
It’s exciting to think what he may be capable of next season if he can build on this performance…
And how that could impact the Royals and their standing in the AL Central in 2022.
Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports