The Kansas City Royals were one of the eight expansion teams to begin their lives in the 1960s, and as I’ve found while doing the Retired Numbers Series, these teams tend to run the gamut with regards to how stingy they are at retiring numbers. Some, like the Padres and (especially) Astros, have tried to recognize every stage of their history. Others, like the Mets and the Astros’ ideological opposite extreme the Rangers, have only recognized one to two players. The Royals, while not as extreme as those two, tend to fall in to the latter category. Would they turn up a similar wealth of potential honorees?
Some quick notes on the stats: the two most prominent stats I used are similarly named. Both are called WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. They both try to account for every part of a player’s game, including, but not limited to: offense, defense, position and playing time. So, it is a counting stat, like hits or home runs (with the small difference that bad seasons can actually decrease your WAR, if you are worse than a replacement player). WAR credits a player with how many wins they have provided to their team. They aren’t perfect, but for my purposes (a single number showing roughly how good a player has been), they work perfectly.
There are two major sites that provide WAR, Baseball-Reference (henceforth called bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR). The two are mostly the same, with the biggest difference coming from the different fielding stats the two use. Fangraphs has a fairly good summary of what makes up WAR and how it is calculated (for those wanting a more general summary, the introduction works just fine). Pitching is slightly different: Fangraphs’ WAR for pitchers, until recently (as in, after I started this series), only went back to 1974, so for my purposes, I stuck to just bWAR for them.
The Royals, right now, have only three retired numbers in their 44-season history. Their first retired number was surprisingly (for me, at least) not No. 5, but rather, No. 10, in honor of Dick Howser. Howser managed the team from 1981 to 1886, with the first and last years each being partial seasons (his only prior managing experiences were a season with the Yankees in 1980 and a single game with the Yankees in 1978). In his six seasons as the head of the Royals, he picked up the team’s only World Series title and two additional AL West titles, finishing with a 770-404 record (.525 winning percentage). Howser was forced to retire during the 1986 season due to a worsening brain tumor that would take his life the following year. The Royals would retire his number later in 1987.
George Brett’s No. 5 would become the first player-number honored in 1994, a year after his retirement. In 21 seasons in Kansas City, he became the face of the franchise, making thirteen All-Star teams, winning an MVP award and racking up 84.0 bWAR and 91.5 fWAR. Brett would be elected as a first-ballot Hall of Famer five years later.
Frank White’s No. 20 would receive enshrinement the following season. White, like Brett, was a Royals-lifer, with eighteen seasons on the team (1973 to 1990). That time included eight Gold Gloves, five All-Star teams and career totals of 31.1 bWAR and 36.2 fWAR.
To compare different teams’ standards for retiring numbers, there are three categories I can look at, each with two possible choices. I can look at the players’ fWAR or bWAR, the value with the team only versus total career value and the median value or the average (to account for outliers).
Two of these differentiations doesn't matter for the Royals, as both players honored spent their entire careers with the Royals and the presence of only two players means that the median is just the average of the two. However, they do move in the rankings.
In the career value rankings, Kansas City consistently rates in or around the third quartile in everything, average, median, bWAR or fWAR. However, in every category that uses value with just the franchise in question, they jump into the second quartile. Using medians puts them even higher; George Brett is good, but he doesn’t pull up their team average in the same way Mike Schmidt does with the Phillies, Stan Musial does with the Cardinals, Ted Williams does with the Red Sox or so on.
What does this mean? Basically, the Royals are pretty close to average in their standards for retiring numbers. They’re a little lower than most teams in their career standards, and fairly above average with regards to how much of that value must have come with them.
Kansas City’s three retired numbers ties them for 23rd in the majors, equal with the Mets.
Even with their recent run of hard luck, the Royals actually have several good choices already on the table should they decide to add another retired number. After George Brett, leading off the leader boards in WAR (both versions) for hitters is Amos Otis. From 1970 to 1983, the majority of his career (only 107 games came elsewhere), Otis played center field for Kansas City.
Thanks to above average hitting at a tough position, he accumulated 41.2 bWAR and 47.2 fWAR in his fourteen seasons. He also played during a high point in franchise history; he’s been on all but two of the Royals’ playoff teams in history (although one of them was the 1985 team that won it all). There may be enough nostalgia for him to get his number retired, although the fact that the team hasn’t done it yet gives me a little pause in calling him an outright favorite for the honor at the moment.
In third in both WARs is another ‘70s and ‘80s outfielder: Willie Wilson. The left- and center-fielder made more of his value from fielding than Otis, meaning it’s more likely that he’s underrated. However, from 1976 to 1990, Wilson still managed a comparable value in 40.1 bWAR and 40.3 fWAR. Like Otis, his position on successful Royal teams will help his standing in fans’ memories.
However, again, the time since his retirement has gone without any indication that a retired number is on the way. If it were 1996 and the Royals had just retired Brett and White’s numbers, I might say there was a movement to honor the stars of the ‘80s teams. But since there’s been nothing since then, I’m more hesitant to call him a favorite at this point.
Frank White is next on both lists after a small drop, then another drop leads to Hal McRae. His value is hurt by the fact that he spent most of his time as a designated hitter, but he still managed a solid 24.7 bWAR and 31.7 fWAR in addition to some spots among the franchise’s batting leaders from 1973 to 1987. I think the same thinking for Otis and Wilson applies here though; as well remembered as he is, the Royals at the moment don’t seem to be in a rush to honor all of their stars from that period. McRae would be one of the favorites when that happens, though.
Carlos Beltran is next on both lists (so far, they’re agreeing very well). With only 23.1 bWAR and 25.5 fWAR, he may not seem like he has a real leg up on the others on the list. I would say he actually does, though. First, his value is even more impressive because he managed those totals in much less time; at only 794 games in Kansas City, his rate is closer to George Brett’s than anyone else’s.
Also, unlike the other players mentioned so far, Beltran has a very real Hall of Fame chance. If he is elected, the team may decide to retire his number to coincide with the induction. He may even be enshrined as a Royal (his time with the Mets is about of equal length), which would add to his candidacy. He definitely has potential, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out over the next ten or fifteen years.
Both lists follow with Mike Sweeney and John Mayberry. Both at least deserve some mention. Sweeney was the long-time, oft-injured team captain, but presided over some lean years in franchise history. His big contract might also have left a bad taste in fans’ mouths. In any case, from 1995 to 2007, he was worth 20.6 bWAR and 21.5 fWAR. Not bad figures, but in the end, probably a little short.
Mayberry is like Beltran in that his time in Kansas City was short but impressive. In only six seasons (1972 to 1977), he put up 19.2 bWAR and 23.4 fWAR. But Beltran was already a slight stretch who needed several intangibles. Mayberry lacks any of those; he missed a lot of the Royals’ late-’70s/early-’80s success, wasn’t a homegrown star, and fell well short of Cooperstown.
The only other former Royal worth bringing up at the moment* is probably Johnny Damon. Damon will probably get some Hall talk, but falling short of 3,000 hits (2,769, and he looks pretty finished) will probably kill any shot of that. He would have needed that, too; in six years as a Royal (1995 to 2000), he managed just 15.9 bWAR and 13.0 fWAR. Had he made the Hall, there would have been a good chance of going in as a Royal (he spent more time there than anywhere else). However, it appears that ship has sailed.
*I considered adding Bo Jackson to this list, but I just can’t see it. He really only had four full seasons, one all-star game...For as impressive as he was, I don’t think any number of intangibles will get him even in the discussion.
The pitching leaders look somewhat like the hitting leaders, with a handful of really solid candidates at the top. Leading Royal hurlers in bWAR and fWAR is perpetually-underrated ace Kevin Appier. Despite only one All-Star appearance, Appier managed an career arguably on the borderline of the Hall of Fame, with the bulk of it spent with the Royals.
From 1989 to 1999 and 2003 to 2004, he was worth 45.0 of his 51.9 bWAR (and 46.0 of his 55.2 fWAR). However, Appier has been wildly underrated; that would need to change for him to actually see his number retired. His claim to the title of best pitcher in team history at least keeps him relevant until then, though.
Bret Saberhagen might actually have a better shot at getting his number retired. He did win a pair of Cy Young Awards as a Royal, after all. From 1984 to 1991, Saberhagen managed 38.8 of his 56.0 bWAR (plus 41.7 of his 61.5 fWAR). Of all pitchers in team history, I think Saberhagen would be the first to get his number retired right now. He’s only been out of the game since 2001 as well, so he’s still relatively recent. It might happen. He’s probably in a dead heat with Beltran right now for who’s the most likely Royal to get their number retired, at least, out of the players that I’ve written about already.
Mark Gubicza and Paul Splittorff are more in the mold of Frank White; neither was overwhelmingly famous (at least, not on the MVP or Cy Young level like Brett or Saberhagen), but they both were pretty close to Royal-lifers (Gubicza pitched 4.2 innings at the end of his career as an Angel) who were consistently good for a long time.
Between 1984 and 1996, Gubicza was worth 35.5 bWAR and 44.9 fWAR, both of which put him in the team’s top three pitchers historically. He also had a top-3 finish in the Cy Young Award to his name, thanks to an impressive 1988 season.
Splittorff never reached Gubicza’s heights, but from 1970 to 1984, he managed to become the franchise's win leader with 166. The two versions of WAR actually have a large disagreement on his value. bWAR puts him at 19.5, ninth in team history, while fWAR has him fifth with 36.6. I would say the wins title make Splittorff the favorite here, but I’m not sure I would put his odds above Saberhagen or Appier’s just yet.
Another pitcher with a large disparity between in WAR totals is Dan Quisenberry (most of which I believe comes from the different weight given to the importance of late innings). Quiz is hard to figure out; bWAR rates him fifth in team history among pitchers with 24.6, while fWAR puts him at eleventh with only 16.0 fWAR. He generated a lot of support in award voting, finishing with four top-three finishes in the Cy Young Award and four top-ten finishes in MVP voting.
Had he made the Hall of Fame like Bruce Sutter (a very comparable candidate), I feel almost certain that he would have been honored already. Unfortunately, he’s been out of the game for over two decades, and the team hasn’t done anything like removing his number from circulation even after his passing. Basically, it boils down to: he seems like the type of person that would get his number retired, but the fact that it hasn’t already happened makes me doubt that it will happen eventually.
Dennis Leonard is another pitcher in the mold of Gubicza and Splittorff, but a little bit below that level. Pitching from 1974 to 1986, he racked up the second-most wins in franchise history with 144. His twelve seasons saw him amass 23.3 bWAR and 38.4 fWAR. He wasn’t bad, but with so many other pitchers who were better than him, I can’t see Leonard as the top priority.
Another pitcher with a hitter equivalent would be Zack Greinke. Like Beltran, he started out at a good rate in Kansas City (of the pitchers mentioned so far, only Quisenberry threw fewer innings). In only seven seasons, he managed 24.8 bWAR and 26.7 fWAR. If he winds up with a Hall of Fame career, he would wind up as an almost-perfect analogue to Beltran; there’s just more projection involved at this moment.
And with that, we can move on to the current Royals. However, as a team more in the rebuilding stage, most of their players are on the younger side. In the interest of being comprehensive, though, I may as well mention them. Salvador Perez has started out at a fairly historic rate. Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas all come with hype and some level of success in the majors.
Alex Gordon and Billy Butler actually have a track record, at least compared to those four. Billy Butler is like Hal McRae but with more potential. His position has limited him to 9.5 bWAR and 9.9 fWAR, but he is under contract for at least three more seasons. If he sticks around, has a solid peak and becomes a leader on the next great Royals team, it could happen.
Alex Gordon disappointed at first, but has since gone on to be one of the most underrated players in the game, playing at an MVP-level the last two seasons. He’s at six total seasons and under contract for four more, which will give him plenty of time to build off of his 17.0 bWAR and 17.6 fWAR. Another season or three like his last two would really help matters, but it is a little concerning that he’s stayed so far under the radar despite his performance.
As of right now, the players that I think are most likely to get their numbers retired by the Kansas City Royals in the future are, in order:
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