In part one of the “Royalty Awards”, I took a look at the Royals’ “Most Important” player, which unsurprisingly went to Salvador Perez (with Nicky Lopez finishing second, and Scott Barlow finishing third). In part two, I take a look at the “Most Unexpected” story from the 2021 season, which includes positive unexpected developments, as well as negative ones. After all, while this season was a slight improvement from 2020, 2019, and 2018, it was still the Royals’ fifth-straight losing season, not necessarily a great honor considering the Royals’ rough history on the field in the 90’s, 2000’s and 2010’s (with the exception of 2013-2017).
Thus, it is important to examine both the encouraging and disappointing when it comes to reviewing this Royals season.
Hence, let’s take a look at the top-three most unexpected stories from this past Kansas City Royals baseball season.
Second Runner-Up: Carlos Santana’s career-worst season
Honestly, I was pretty pumped about the Carlos Santana signing this offseason. I felt that the move by Dayton Moore really addressed what the Royals needed, which was not only a veteran presence in the lineup, but a hitter with tremendous plate discipline, who could draw walks when he wasn’t seeing balls fall for hits. The Royals since 2018 have struggled mightily in this department, as they ranked 26th in BB/K ratio from 2018-2020, according to Fangraphs. Santana’s arrival was expected to boost the Royals’ performance in this category (plate discipline), as he posted a BB/K ratio over 1.00 in four of the past five seasons entering 2021.
In some ways, Santana continued to show his signature plate discipline in his first season in Kansas City. He posted a 0.84 BB/K ratio with a walk rate of 13.1 percent, which lead all Royals hitters with 80 or more plate appearances, according to Fangraphs data. Furthermore, in the first two months of play, Santana appeared to be the offensive force that this Royals team desperately needed. According to monthly splits, Santana posted a wRC+ of 132 in April and a 121 wRC+ in May. And if that was not enough, Santana was also providing big moments at the plate, as demonstrated by this two-run walk-off home run against the Detroit Tigers on “Salute to the Negro Leagues” day in late May:
However, month by month, Santana regressed, with his second-half especially brutal. After posting a 1.05 BB/K ratio and 117 wRC+ in the first half of play, Santana fell off a cliff after the All-Star break performance-wise. His BB/K ratio regressed to 0.59, and his wRC+ was a paltry 39. His power especially disappeared, as his ISO dropped from .175 in the first half to .070 in the second, a 105 point drop. For the season, Santana’s ISO (.127) was lower than Hanser Alberto’s (.133), Ryan O’Hearn (.144) and even Kyle Isbel (.158). That is not promising for a player who is due to make $10.5 million in the final guaranteed year of his contract.
I didn’t expect Santana in 2021 to be the 34-home run, 110-runs scored player that he was back in 2019. I figured at 35-years-old, and with the adjustment to a more pitcher-friendly ballpark, he would not be able to match that mark from two seasons ago. However, I expected him to be perhaps a 2018 or 2019 version of himself, which produced a 4.8 fWAR in those two seasons combined.
Instead, Santana produced a minus-0.3 fWAR in his first season in Kansas City, and his presence on the roster is more complicating than beneficial. Dozier’s best position may be first base, and even if the Royals elect to put Dozier at the DH or in the outfield, Santana is still blocking Nick Pratto, who is coming off a sensational Minor League season where he produced in Northwest Arkansas and Omaha.
Santana was signed to help this team make the transition from a 100-plus loss club to a winning one that could be in the Wild Card or AL Central race.
Now, he is only making things more difficult for the Royals front office, and it is possible that the Royals will have to make a tough decision on Santana and his stay in Kansas City either this Winter or early next season. I don’t think any Royals fan saw that dilemma coming, especially after Santana’s strong first two months of play.
First Runner Up: Nicky Lopez making Adalberto Mondesi possibly expendable?
I talked about in the last “Royalty Awards” post that Lopez was the second-most valuable player on the Royals this season. Not only did Lopez continue to flash impressive leather at the shortstop position, but he also improved immensely with the bat, as his 106 wRC+ was tied for second of Royals hitters with 150 or more plate appearances, according to Fangraphs. In addition, he also became the first Royals shortstop to hit .300 in a season, which is impressive considering the strong legacy of Royals shortstops in the 53-year history of the club:
When Opening Day came, and Lopez only made the roster due to Adalberto Mondesi getting injured in the final days of Spring Training, I figured Lopez would stay in Kansas City most of the year, and eventually be the Royals’ everyday second baseman once Mondesi returned. I figured he’d be an 80-90 wRC+ hitter, which would be improved and good enough for a player of his defensive prowess.
Instead, not only did Lopez become one of the Royals’ best hitters, but he also cemented his status as the Royals’ everyday shortstop in 2021, as Mondesi was shifted over to third base when he returned off the Injured List.
And honestly, this move may not just be a 2021-influenced decision, but perhaps a long-term one as well.
While Lopez may not be as naturally athletic or toolsy as Mondesi, Lopez defensively showed that he could handle the position. Lopez could garner his first Gold Glove award after barely missing out a year ago at the second-base position to Cesar Hernandez of Cleveland. On an Outs Above Average basis, Lopez blew out the competition not only in the American League, but in all of Major League Baseball as well:
Thus, the Royals could depend on Lopez at the shortstop position in 2022 and be absolutely fine. He’ll be a more consistent presence than Mondesi both on the offensive and defensive end, in addition to being more dependable on a health-end as well, as Lopez played in 151 games for the Royals this year. At the Major League level, being able to be on the field everyday has tremendous value, and Lopez definitely outpaces Mondesi in that category.
And if Lopez’s emergence isn’t tough enough for Mondesi, Bobby Witt, Jr.’s breakout 2021 doesn’t help Mondesi’s long-term outlook in Kansas City either. Witt absolutely flourished in Double-A and Triple-A this year, as he posted a 145 wRC+ with the Naturals, a 142 wRC+ with the Storm Chasers, and hit 33 home runs and stole 29 bases in 123 games at both levels combined, according to Fangraphs.
Witt’s season was so strong that Baseball America named him as the Minor League Player of the Year for the 2021 season:
So with Witt Jr., Lopez, and Whit Merrifield seeming to be established in the middle infield for the foreseeable future, where does that place Mondesi? As of now, it’s difficult to say, but it isn’t out of order to say that Mondesi may be falling out of favor with the Royals organization, which was amplified in the early August when Moore said the Royals cannot “depend” on Mondesi going forward, not exactly a vote of confidence from the Royals front office:
I expected Lopez to improve after two “ho-hum” seasons at the Major League level in 2019 and 2020. That being said, I, as well as other Royals fans, couldn’t have imagined that the Royals would be depending more on Lopez than Mondesi when it comes to long-term future of the Kansas City Royals.
It will be interesting to see what the Royals will do with Mondesi, and if it will result in a position change long term or perhaps even a change of teams starting in 2022.
Honestly, one of the two will happen this offseason…which one it will be though is anyone’s guess.
Most Unexpected Story: Carlos Hernandez emerging as a possible Royals “ace” in the long term
When it came to the Royals’ “young pitchers” of the future, the attention mostly focused on the “Big Five” pitching prospects, which included the following: Daniel Lynch, Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Asa Lacy, and Kris Bubic.
While Carlos Hernandez was seen as having potential, especially after a decent rookie stint in 2020 where he pitched in the Majors despite having only pitched in Low A prior to last year, he was seen as more of a future bullpen piece. Even I thought that if he did have a breakout season in 2021, it would be in a bullpen role rather than a starting one.
Even though he got off to a slow start out of the gate, which earned him an early demotion to Triple-A, Hernandez flourished once he was established in the Royals starting rotation. For the year, in 85.2 IP, he posted a 3.68 ERA and generated a fWAR of 1.0 and a bWAR of 1.8, according to Baseball Reference. Hernandez’s K/BB ratio wasn’t all that impressive (1.80), and his 24.5 percent CSW (Called Strikes and Whiffs) rate left some to be desired. That being said, Hernandez is only 24-years-old and is only getting better with each and every appearance.
After all, pitchers who can average 98-100 MPH with regularity, and sport a 4-5 pitch mix don’t necessarily grow on trees, even among the Royals’ flush crop of pitching in their deep Minor League farm system.
What was most impressive though about Hernandez was his maturity as he gained more experience at the Major League level. While Lynch, Bubic, Singer, and Kowar hit their share of walls at points this season, it seemed like Hernandez only got better after getting called up from Omaha. In 64 innings after the All-Star break, Hernandez posted a 3.23 ERA and lowered his walk rate from 15 percent in the first half to 10.1 percent in the second half, according to Fangraphs splits.
While he did run into some BABIP luck in the second half (.239), he showed maturity in control and command, two areas he particularly struggled with in 2020 and the start of 2021. His best months in these areas came in July and August, as he posted a K/BB ratio of 2.71 and 4.00, respectively. Furthermore, one of his best starts, and maybe one of the better starts of the Royals’ young pitching staff, came against a loaded New York Yankees lineup on August 9th at Kauffman Stadium. Hernandez went 6.2 IP and allowed five hits, one run, one walk and struck out three batters on 96 pitches on a brutally hot late summer evening in Kansas City (which I was able to attend in person).
While it wasn’t his best start on a Game Score end (62), the fact that he did this against a playoff team should not be downplayed. In fact, let’s take a look at how he garnered his three strikeouts in this game, which all came on different pitches.
Here is Hernandez striking out Luke Voit on a curve ball out of the zone:
Now, here is Hernandez striking out Brett Gardner on a nasty sinker with strong tailing movement that gets Gardner looking, not easy to do considering his renowned plate discipline and batting eye:
And lastly, Hernandez punched out Yankees rookie Andrew Velazquez looking as well, only this time on a pinpointed four-seam fastball that hits the bottom of the strike zone perfectly:
In the beginning of the year, I expected a young Royals starting pitcher to emerge as a possible “ace” for the Royals squad in 2022. My bet was on Singer, who showed decent command and strikeout ability in a limited sample in 2020. That being said, I also held out hope that Lynch could also emerge as that guy, especially considering his strong finish in Cactus League play and the prospect fanfare he was getting around prospect expert circles going into the 2021 season.
Instead, it is Hernandez who has emerged as the Royals’ possible “ace” for not only next year, but perhaps the long-term as well.
While this development is unexpected, it is certainly welcomed, not just from me, but across Royals nation as well.
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