It may have been bookended by the awful seasons characteristic of the Royals of a decade prior, but the 2010s was the decade that the Royals wrote a new narrative, ending a playoff drought that had lasted since the team’s last world title in 1985 and winning it all in 2015. Still, it’s hard to look at the rosters of those Royals teams without a feeling that there wasn’t a whole lot of depth of talent among the position players and especially the starting pitchers. Those Royals teams were notoriously built on defense and incredible bullpens, and it shows in the offensive stat lines and rotations from those teams. Still, of course, the Royals had some amazing individual performances that contributed to the ability to make the playoffs and win a title. Which individual player-season was the best of the decade in Kansas City? It’s a difficult decision.
The debate boils down to three players who had seasons that truly stood out from the rest of the team: Alex Gordon, arguably the face of the 2010 Royals as a whole; Lorenzo Cain, who remains perennially underrated even after finally earning his first career gold glove award seven seasons too late; and Wade Davis, who undermines the amazing feat of contending for a team’s best season of the decade with the fact that he did it twice in consecutive seasons.
First, there’s Gordon. It’s easy to forget just how good Gordon was when fans suffered through his overpaid decline in recent years, and when his best seasons came before the Royals were playoff contenders, but Gordon’s 2011 season was a marvel. The 2011 AL MVP was a hotly contested award, with an incredible nine players in the American League posting an rWAR total over 7.0 on the season. All the way down in 21st in the voting sat Gordon, despite posting the best season of his career, finally representing the “second coming of George Brett” reputation that had been pinned on him as a rookie with a 7.3 win season. (Tied for 16th just a few spots above Gordon, interestingly enough, were future Royals James Shields and Ben Zobrist, then teammates in Tampa Bay but ultimately never teammates in Kansas City). This is likely attributable to the proportion of Gordon’s value which came from defense, not yet measurable to the same degree of accuracy today, and the fact that the Royals finished in fourth place in the AL Central with just 71 wins. Gordon put himself on the map as a great player, though, with an impressive slash line of .303/.376/.502 to go along with a UZR/150 of 11.6 and 20 outfield assists, the highest single-season total of a career in which Gordon has led MLB in outfield assists several times. That season laid the foundation for the progression of the Royals into contention and more than anything it sparked hope for a future that was justified soon after.
Then there’s Cain, who has had a different career arc than Gordon but a very similar peak season. Cain was the team’s best player in its world championship season, and there’s something to be said for that alone. While Cain’s 2013-14 seasons were actually better defensively, 2015 was the season in which he paired his excellent defense with great offense for an rWAR total of 7.0 in just 140 games, good for third place in AL MVP voting. Prorated to 155 games, Cain’s highest career total of games played in a season, he would have been worth 7.8 WAR, better than Josh Donaldson, that year’s AL MVP (though still barely within two wins of Mike Trout, who should have won that year’s MVP). Cain’s .307/.361/.477 slash line is excellent for a center fielder of his defensive caliber, and he paired this line with an UZR/150 of 11.3 in his first full season in center field. In the context of the team as a whole, Cain was a huge part of the Royals’ success; still, he may have not even been the team’s most important player in 2014-15.
That honor may well go to Wade Davis. It speaks volumes about Davis that he had the best two-year stretch of any reliever in the decade in 2014 and 2015 (and, quite possibly, of any reliever ever); it speaks volumes about the Royals bullpens of the time that he wasn’t even the closer until late in 2015. Davis reached incredible heights as a reliever quickly after transitioning away from a starting role, and there are volumes of statistics to speak for this. Davis posted an ERA of 1.00 in 2014 and then bettered it with a 0.94 mark in 2015 for, at that point, the only two seasons in history where a pitcher posted an ERA of 1.00 or less in at least 54 innings pitched. Davis did not allow a single home run in 2014, was merely mortal in 2015, allowing three home runs, and then didn’t allow a single home run in 2016 (that’s three home runs allowed over 182 ⅔ innings and 706 batters faced in three seasons, with just 0.004% of batters he faced hitting a home run, for those keeping track. This also omits the 2014 postseason, in which Davis allowed, you guessed it, zero home runs). Davis struck out 1.79 batters for every batter he allowed to reach base in 2014. These are just a few stats, and Rany Jazayerli helped put things in context while Davis was in the midst of this stretch as well:
Davis was about as good as conceivably possible as a reliever for a full two seasons, period.
Which of these seasons is the best of the decade? I began writing this article believing that doing the research and compiling the arguments for each of these players would convince me in one way or another, but I don’t know that I’m any closer to a definitive decision. Even limiting it to these three players leaves off some important feats: Whit Merrifield led MLB in hits for two consecutive seasons, and Mike Moustakas, followed by Jorge Soler, each broke what was previously the most diminutive team home run record in baseball, with Soler becoming the first Royal ever to lead the American League in homers. Part of me believes that removing the weight of the 2014-15 seasons for Cain and Davis makes Gordon’s season the best; part of me believes that the weight of those seasons makes what Cain and Davis did all the more impressive; part of me can’t even decide which of Davis’s two best seasons was better.
Ultimately, I think that it’s between Gordon and Davis, and I believe that it comes down to how much you value the contribution of a relief pitcher. Davis simply was not on the field contributing as much as Gordon was, but $/WAR figures indicate that the contributions of relievers are more valuable than those of position players. I think that, at the end of the day, I lean in favor of Davis’s 2014 season, simply because he was the absolute best at what he did, something that can never be said for Gordon or Cain. Pure value statistics may disagree, but it’s undeniable that Wade Davis was the pinnacle of relief pitching exactly when it mattered.