Monday, October 4, 2021

Salvador Perez, Jorge Soler, Bob Cerv, Heavy Johnson, and the Rich History of Kansas City’s Single-Season Home Run Record

Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez received a substantial amount of attention for his impressive 2021 season.  A five-time AL Gold Glove Award winner, the 31-year-old Perez has spent the bulk of his career drawing more praise for his expertise behind the plate than for his production in the batter’s box.  However, in 2021, Perez established himself as one of the premier power hitters in baseball, battling Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Shohei Ohtani for the AL home run crown.  In addition, by hitting his 46th longball of the season, on September 20, Perez passed Johnny Bench to set the single-season record for home runs by a primary catcher.  Another intriguing but less publicized aspect of Perez’s excellent 2021 campaign was his pursuit of the Kansas City major league and Royals franchise single-season home run records.  Most major league cities and their residing franchise have the same single-season home run record holder.  Yet, for the majority of the fifty-plus history of the Kansas City Royals this was not the case as the city and the franchise had two separate record holders.  In fact, Kansas City baseball has its own rich history of major league play which predates the existence of the Royals franchise and traces its origins back to the 19th century.  Over the years, a variety of sluggers have held the city’s home run record.  These sluggers have taken the field for such franchises as the Monarchs and Athletics with some competing in now defunct major leagues like the American Association and the Negro Leagues.

The Unions, Cowboys, Packers, and the Early Days of Major League Baseball in Kansas City
Kansas City’s first foray into major league level baseball came in 1884 as part of the upstart Union Association.  Established as a competitor to the National League and American Association, the Union Association was a short-lived third major league.  Most accounts refer to Kansas City’s team as the Unions while other reports cite the club as the Cowboys.  By either name, Kansas City proved to be one of the Union Association’s most uncompetitive franchises, positing a horrid 16-63 record.  The team’s pitiful .203 win-loss percentage was only eclipsed in its futility by the .111 mark of the Wilmington Quicksteps who went 2-16 and dropped out of the league before the season ended.  Home runs were a rare occurrence during the early days of baseball because the ball was softer and fields were more vast.  Kansas City only hit six home runs as a team with six players—Charlie Bastian, Charlie Berry, Bob Black, Frank McLaughlin, Lou Say, and Peek-A-Boo Veach—each being credited with exactly one round-tripper.  The categorizing of the Union Association as a major league has often been questioned since very few top players joined the league which ultimately folded after just one season of play.

With the dissolution of the Union Association, Kansas City was out of major league baseball.  However, just two seasons later, Kansas City returned to major league play, fielding a team in the National League.  The new franchise, which was unaffiliated with the Union Association team, adopted the Cowboys moniker and was admitted to the NL on a trial basis for the 1886 campaign.  The Cowboys achieved wretchedly similar results as their predecessor, going 30-91 while finishing next-to-last among the NL’s eight teams.  First baseman Will McQuery and second baseman Al Myers tied for the Cowboys home run lead with four a piece.  McQuery and Myers became permanent franchise leaders when the fledgling club went out of business after the season.

Once again, Kansas City was not without major league baseball for long as the third incarnation of the Cowboys took the field in 1888 as part of the American Association.  Formed in 1882 as a rival league to the NL, the American Association proved to be a much more serious competitor than the Union Association.  The AA differentiated itself from the NL by offering cheaper ticket prices, selling alcohol in the stands, and permitting games to be played on Sunday.  Just like before, the Cowboys proved to be a short-lived major league franchise, surviving only two years and enjoying no more success than their forerunners—finishing a respective last and next-to-last in the eight-team AA.  During the club’s initial campaign, second baseman Sam Barkley and center fielder Jim McTamany matched the four home runs of McQuery and Myers from the NL Cowboys.  The following year, Cowboys center fielder Jim Burns set a new Kansas City record by hitting five home runs.

Two and half decades later, Kansas City made its fourth attempt at playing host to a major league franchise when the Packers took the field in the fledgling Federal League for the 1914 season.  In the team’s first year, second baseman Duke Kenworthy smashed the Kansas City single-season home run record by clubbing 15 round-trippers.  Kenworthy’s impressive longball total ranked second in the Federal League, trailing only the 16 hit by Chicago Chi-Feds center fielder Dutch Zwilling.  Kenworthy was one of the league’s finest hitters, pacing the circuit with 69 extra base hits while ranking a respective fifth and sixth with 91 RBI and a .317 batting average.  In addition, the slugger’s 4.9 WAR slotted him fourth among position players while his 159 OPS+ was also good for fourth-best.  The Packers were a much more competitive team than the three incarnations of the Cowboys, concluding the 1914 campaign in sixth place among the eight Federal League clubs before delivering the city its first winning major league season in 1915 with an 81-72 record and fourth place finish.  The Federal League folded following the 1915 campaign, temporarily bringing an end to major league baseball in Kansas City.

The Kansas City Monarchs
On February 13, 1920, at the urging of Rube Foster, a group of black baseball team owners met at the Paseo YCMA in Kansas City to form the Negro National League.  The new enterprise represented the first structured black baseball league.  Last December, as part of a yearlong celebration of the formation of the Negro Leagues, MLB officially recognized seven distinct leagues which operated during the 1920 to 1948 timeframe as major leagues.  When play began in the spring of 1920, the Kansas City Monarchs took the field as one of the Negro National League’s eight original teams.  The Monarchs primarily featured players from two clubs:  the All Nations barnstorming team which played throughout the Midwest and the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Wreckers, an Army Regiment outfit based out of Camp Stephen D. Little in Arizona.  The Monarchs were immediately one of the Negro National League’s most successful teams, finishing the inaugural season as runner-up to the pennant-winning Chicago American Giants.

During the Monarchs’ second year of play, super-utility player George Carr nearly matched Duke Kenworthy’s Kansas City home run record when he went deep 14 times as part of an excellent season in which he also batted .323 with 73 RBI and 22 stolen bases.  The slugger finished in the top-ten in several offensive categories with his 14 longballs ranking second only to the 15 hit by St. Louis Giants center fielder Oscar Charleston.  Carr was a true utility player, taking the field at seven different positions with 47 of his appearances coming at first base, 17 at third, 16 at second, 12 at right field, 11 at shortstop, 10 at catcher, and 1 at left field.  Negro League schedules were not quite as expansive as white baseball leagues.  Thus, Carr’s 14 home runs was achieved in 101 games while Kenworthy played in 146 when he attained his record mark in 1914.

The following season, Kenworthy’s Kansas City home run record was matched by two-way superstar Bullet Rogan.  An even more unique player than Carr, Rogan was able to dominate both in the batter’s box as well as on the pitching mound.  At the plate, Rogan belted 15 home runs, collected 55 RBI, stole 16 bases, posted a 199 OPS+, and hit .369 in 74 games.  Toeing the rubber, Rogan went 14-8 with a 2.93 ERA, completed a league-leading 20 of 21 starts, and is credited with a league-high two saves in an additional five relief appearances.  Rogan paced the circuit with an eye-popping 9.0 WAR while ranking among the league leaders in several hitting and pitching categories, including runner-up in both home runs and wins.  When he was not pitching, Rogan split time between center and right field.  Rogan’s amazing season played a vital role in helping the Monarchs capture their first pennant.  Statistics from the Negro Leagues are incomplete and constantly updated as more game logs are discovered, meaning that both Carr’s and Rogan’s respective home run totals from 1921 and 1922 could very well surpass Kenworthy’s mark in the future.

Rogan shared the longball record for just a single year before his teammate Heavy Johnson wrote his name into Kansas City history, clobbering 20 four-baggers.  Johnson was a thickly-built slugger known for swinging a particularly heavy bat but also notorious for his surly demeanor.  Nevertheless, Johnson’s superb 1923 campaign was one for the ages as he is retroactively credited as winning the Triple Crown, having led the league with not only his 20 home runs but also his 120 RBI and .406 batting average.  He also led in a slew of other offensive categories including hits, runs scored, doubles, slugging percentage, and OPS+.  He also paced the circuit with 98 games played, checked in at second place with 5.8 WAR, and did not let his size keep him from swiping 17 bags, the fifth-best total in the league.  On defense, Johnson split time between the corner outfield positions.  Johnson’s historic season helped lead the Monarchs to their second straight pennant.  Kansas City continued winning pennants, bringing their total to an amazing five in a row in 1926.  The Monarchs added a sixth pennant in 1929 before the Negro National League was disbanded followed the 1930 season.  After the dissolution of the league, the Monarchs became a barnstorming independent club.  However, in 1937 the team became a charter member of the newly formed Negro American League and immediately returned to their dominant ways, capturing their first of five consecutive pennants.  Even though the Monarchs and the Negro American League both continued to operate into the 1960s, the 1948 campaign represents the final season the Negro Leagues are categorized as major league level since rosters were depleted by the exodus of players to the recently integrated American and National Leagues as well as their minor league feeder teams.  Overall, the Monarchs won an incredible 10 pennants in 23 years of recognized major league play.  The closest any Monarchs hitter came to matching Johnson’s 20 home runs during his Triple Crown-winning campaign was in 1937 when Willard Brown hit 10 home runs.

The Kansas City Athletics
During the first half of the twentieth century, the majority of white baseball in Kansas City was being played at the minor league level.  Teams using the familiar Cowboys moniker or the Blues name took the field in various minor leagues as early as the mid-1880s.  In 1902, the Cowboys joined an upstart minor league calling itself the American Association.  Two years later, the Cowboys permanently changed their name to the Blues who remained in the AA for the next five decades.  As minor league clubs began operating as farm teams for the majors, the Blues first became an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1935 before starting a lengthy partnership with the New York Yankees that ran from 1936 to 1954.  In 1955, the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League relocated to Kansas City after Arnold Johnson bought the franchise from the Mack family.  The A’s had a rich history which dated back to 1901 when the club began play as one of the AL’s eight charter franchises.  Under the direction of the legendary Connie Mack, the team won nine pennants and five World Series championships.  However, the A’s fell on hard times during the latter years of Mack’s ownership and finished at or near the bottom of the AL during the majority of the franchise’s final two decades in Philadelphia.

With the return of major league action, Kansas City’s home run record was quickly shattered when left fielder Gus Zernial belted 30 longballs during the A’s inaugural season at their new residence.  Although Zernial set a new Kansas City benchmark, his 30 home runs were well shy of the A’s overall franchise record of 58 established in Philadelphia by Jimmie Foxx during the 1932 campaign.  Nevertheless, Zernial was the ideal slugger to break Heavy Johnson’s mark, having been the A’s main power threat during the franchise’s last few years in Philadelphia, which included hitting a league-leading 33 home runs in 1951 and clubbing a career-high 42 two seasons later.  Zernial’s 30 round-trippers ranked second in the AL to Mickey Mantle while his 13.8 at bats per home run paced the circuit.  Zernial’s longball total was even more impressive considering he accomplished the feat despite playing in only 120 games and was coming off an injury-shortened 1954 season which saw him sidelined for a month and a half with a broken collarbone.  Though he batted just .254, his .508 slugging percentage and 84 RBI were a respective third and ninth-best in the league.  Unfortunately, the A’s on-field play more closely resembled the futility of Kansas City’s older franchises than the dominance of the Monarchs as the club completed their initial campaign in Kansas City with a 63-91 record and sixth place finish in the AL.

One of the major criticisms of Arnold Johnson’s ownership was a series of transactions between the A’s and the Yankees which Kansas City rarely seemed to get the better of.  However, one deal the A’s came out on the winning side of took place just after the 1956 campaign when New York sold Bob Cerv to Kansas City.  The 31-year-old Cerv had spent parts of six seasons with the Bronx Bombers as a rarely used backup outfielder and pinch hitter.  Over the previous two seasons, Cerv had showed promise, batting .320 with 6 home runs in 200 at bats.  Cerv was familiar with Kansas City and the A’s home ballpark, Municipal Stadium, having spent four seasons playing there for New York’s farm team, the Blues.  In his first season with the A’s, Cerv hit 11 home runs, 44 RBI, and batted .272 in 124 games.  Cerv was still being used as a backup, though, splitting time between the three outfield positions and pinch hitting.  During that same 1957 campaign, Gus Zernial challenged his own Kansas City home run record but settled for 27 longballs while the A’s franchise completed their fifth consecutive losing season and third straight since relocating to the Heartland.  In November, Kansas City sent Zernial to the Detroit Tigers as part of a massive thirteen-player trade.  The dealing away of Zernial opened up left field for Cerv and he made the most of the opportunity, setting a new Kansas City benchmark by slamming 38 home runs during the 1958 season.  In addition to his lofty longball total, Cerv also batted .305 and drove in 104 runs.  Although Cerv did not lead the AL in any offensive categories, he appeared all over the leaderboard, ranking in the top-five in home runs, RBI, runs scored, total bases, extra base hits, and slugging percentage.  Moreover, his 6.3 WAR and 159 OPS+ were each the fourth-best marks in the junior circuit.  AL MVP voters recognized Cerv for his outstanding campaign as he picked up three first place tallies and finished fourth overall in the election.

Perhaps most impressive though, was that Cerv put together his marvelous season despite sustaining a broken jaw in a home plate collision with Detroit Tigers catcher Red Wilson while trying to score from second base during a May 17 game.  Cerv only missed three games and then played the next 28 contests with his jaw wired shut while being forced to live on a liquid diet.  Over that 28-game stretch, the slugger hit 6 home runs.  The broken jaw was not the only injury that afflicted Cerv during his breakout campaign, as he also suffered a broken toe and a hand injury from crashing into an outfield fence, in addition to a bruised elbow as a result of being hit by a pitch from Yankees reliever Ryne Duren.  A’s shortstop Joe DeMaestri said of his teammate, “Cerv leads the major leagues this year in pain.”  However, even with Cerv’s bat sparking the offense, the A’s still finished next to last in the AL, though the club’s 73-81 record was their best since moving to Kansas City.

In December 1960, Charlie Finley purchased the A’s franchise from the estate of the recently deceased Arnold Johnson.  The eccentric Finley adopted a hands-on approach and constantly meddled with his team.  Finley often altered the dimensions of Municipal Stadium in an attempt to give his team an advantage.  One of his ideas was to bring in the right field fence for the 1964 season to mimic Yankee Stadium as closely as league rules allowed.  Finley reasoned that New York won pennants due in part to their short porch in right field.  Finley acquired power-hitters Rocky Colavito and Jim Gentile to add punch to the A’s lineup.  Colavito, who had reached the 40-home plateau three times in his career, challenged Cerv’s Kansas City home run record with 34 round-trippers.  Gentile, just three seasons removed from clubbing 46 home runs, chipped in with 28 longballs.  Overall, the A’s offense hit 166 four-baggers, the third highest total in the AL.  However, Finley’s tinkering backfired as the A’s pitchers gave up an MLB-record 220 home runs, a dubious mark that stood until the 1987 Baltimore Orioles served up 226 longballs.  The A’s not only finished dead last in the standings but their 57-105 record was the team’s worst since relocating to Kansas City.  During Finley’s ownership reign, he regularly threatened to relocate the franchise.  Prior the 1968 season, the outlandish owner followed through on his threats, abandoning Kansas City and moving the club to Oakland.  Throughout the 13-year stretch the A’s called Kansas City home, the team failed to post a single winning season and remained a perennial cellar dweller.  The A’s sixth place finish during their inaugural season in the Heartland and 73-81 record during Bob Cerv’s 38-home run 1958 campaign proved to be high water marks for the club.

The Kansas City Royals
Fortunately, local baseball fans did not have to wait long for the return of major league action as Kansas City was granted an expansion team for the 1969 season.  The debuting franchise took the name Royals and began play in the newly-created American League West Division.  The Royals quickly established themselves as a competitive franchise, finishing runner-up in the AL West in just their third year of existence.  Outfielder Ed Kirkpatrick set the initial Royals franchise home run record by going deep 13 times in the club’s inaugural season.  The following year, outfielder Bob Oliver more than doubled Kirkpatrick’s mark, belting 27 longballs.  No Royals hitter came close to challenging Bob Cerv’s Kansas City home run record for the first several years of the franchise until first baseman John Mayberry smacked 34 round-trippers in 1975.  Mayberry’s impressive season resembled Cerv’s 1958 campaign with the slugger batting .291 with 106 RBI.  In addition, Mayberry finished runner-up in the AL MVP vote and paced the circuit in walks and OPS+.  He also ranked second in runs scored, RBI, OBP, slugging percentage, and OPS.  Mayberry’s potent bat had played a key role in securing the club their third runner-up finish in five years.

Over the next decade, the Royals became a regular participant in the playoffs, winning the AL West crown seven of the next ten seasons while finishing second in each of the other three campaigns.  This run concluded with the team defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in a thrilling seven-game 1985 Fall Classic to capture the franchise’s first World Series title.  One of the highlights of the championship run was first baseman Steve Balboni setting a new club record by launching 36 home runs over the fence.  Balboni’s impressive longball total ranked third highest in the AL and came just two shy of matching Cerv’s Kansas City mark.  Acquired in a trade with the Yankees prior to the 1984 season, Balboni had hit 28 four-baggers during his initial year with the Royals, the most since Mayberry’s 34 in 1975.  However, Balboni was a more one-dimensional hitter than his predecessors who held their respective franchise’s home run record or challenged for the Kansas City mark as his 36 drives were accompanied by a .243 batting average, .307 OBP, 112 OPS+, and 1.2 WAR.  Balboni also led the AL in the dubious category of strikeouts with 166.  Nevertheless, Balboni did manage to stroke 28 doubles, drive in 88 runs, and rank fifth in the circuit with an average of 16.7 at bats per home run.  Balboni’s teammate, franchise icon George Brett had one of his finest campaigns in 1985, smacking a career-high 30 round-trippers, collecting 112 RBI, and batting .335 while accumulating 8.3 WAR and posting a league-best 179 OPS+.  At the time, Brett’s 30 longballs trailed only Balboni’s 36 and Mayberry’s 34 for the most in the 17-year history of the Royals.

After the winning the franchise’s first World Series championship, the Royals entered a malaise period in which the team went almost three decades before returning to the postseason in 2014.  However, Cerv’s Kansas City home run record and Balboni’s franchise mark both managed to outlast the club’s lengthy playoff drought.  During this time period, just seven Royals hitters managed to reach the 30-home plateau as year after year no slugger was able to eclipse the respective benchmarks set by Cerv and Balboni.  Right fielder Danny Tartabull came close in 1987, going deep 34 times, during the season of the “rabbit ball” when home runs were being hit at a never before seen rate.  Two years later, left fielder Bo Jackson clubbed 32 four-baggers in 135 games.  Jackson seemed destined for several 30-home run campaigns before a football injury brought a premature end to the two-sport star’s career on the gridiron and damaged his baseball abilities.  In 1991, Tartabull made another run at Balboni’s mark, ripping 31 homers during his final year with the Royals before departing via free agency and signing with the Yankees.  Designated hitter Bob Hamelin was in midst of putting together an excellent rookie campaign when the player’s strike brought a premature end to the 1994 season.  At the time of the work stoppage, Hamelin had hit 24 home runs and was on pace to finish with 37.  Had the full season been completed, Hamelin may very well have been able to challenge Balboni’s and Cerv’s respective marks.  Aside from his 24 round-trippers, Hamelin also collected 65 RBI while producing a .282 batting average and 147 OPS+.  Hamelin was recognized for his fine freshmen campaign, garnering 25 of 28 first place votes to win the AL Rookie of the Year.  Similar to 1987, the game saw an unusual rise in home runs during the 1994 season.  Although, unlike the “rabbit ball” year, this time the increase in longballs sustained itself for more than a decade.  Since the player’s strike was not settled until April of the following year, the 1995 season was shortened from 162 to 144 games.  Veteran third baseman Gary Gaetti presented a serious challenge to Balboni’s franchise record when he finished the abbreviated campaign with 35 four-baggers.  Gaetti looked to be on pace to overtake the franchise mark when he sat at 34 home runs with 14 games left to play.  However, Gaetti fell into a slump, batting an abysmal .082 over next 13 games while failing to go deep.  In the final game of the Royals season, Gaetti snapped out of his homerless-drought and put the ball over the fence in his second at bat of the game to bring him to within one four-bagger of matching Balboni.  But in his last three plate appearances, Gaetti grounded out, hit a line drive single, and then flew out for the final out of the game.  Had the season not been delayed and shortened by the strike, it is possible, Gaetti would have been able surpass Balboni’s and Cerv’s records.  Gaetti concluded the year with 96 RBI, a .261 batting average, and 116 OPS+.

The 1995 campaign represented the start of a bleak 18-year period in which the Royals produced only one winning season.  Over that span, just three sluggers managed to put together 30-home run campaigns for Kansas City:  designated hitter Chili Davis belted exactly 30 in 1997, third baseman Dean Palmer cracked 34 in 1998, and right fielder Jermaine Dye smacked 33 in 2000.  By contrast, other baseball cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco witnessed sluggers set new single-season benchmarks with 50, 60, or even 70-home run campaigns during this high-offense era.  The franchise finally snapped out of their funk in 2013 with a solid 86-76 record.  The following season the club went 89-73, ended their lengthy playoff drought, and came up just short against the San Francisco Giants in a razor-close seven-game World Series.  In 2015, Kansas City improved to 95-67 and returned to the Fall Classic where they defeated the New York Mets to claim the franchise’s second World Series championship.  However, the Royals did not rely on the home run for their success as the 2014 club’s 95 longballs were fewest in MLB while the 2015 team went deep just 139 times, the next-to-the lowest total in the AL.  In 2016, Kansas City’s record slipped back to 81-81 despite designated hitter Kendry Morales chipping in 30 home runs.  The 2016 season represented the first in a series of campaigns in which the average home run per game rate soared to never before seen heights even greater than the high-offense period of the late 1990s and early 2000s as more and more players focused on hitting the ball in the air.  

On April 6, 2017, Bob Cerv passed away at age 91.  Nearly six decades after clubbing 38 longballs for the 1958 Athletics, Cerv still held the Kansas City major league home run record.  Coincidentally, during the subsequent 2017 season, third baseman Mike Moustakas appeared to be on pace to easily break Cerv’s mark by going deep 25 times before the All-Star break.  Although Moustakas’ home run pace slowed down after the Midsummer Classic, he managed to tie Balboni’s franchise record with a three-run blast on September 1.  Moustakas failed to leave the yard over his next 15 games before finally homering on September 20 to set a new franchise benchmark.  Five days later, Moustakas matched Cerv’s Kansas City record with a majestic shot over the right field wall at Yankee Stadium.  Moustakas stepped to plate 16 more times but was unable to add to his home run total and finished the year tied with Cerv at 38.  Unfortunately, Moustakas hit each of his final three longballs on the road so the Royals fans at Kauffman Stadium did not get the opportunity to see the slugger equal and pass the franchise record or tie the Kansas City mark.  An impressive aspect of Moustakas’ season was that he had broken Balboni’s 32-year-old franchise record despite missing nearly all of the 2016 campaign after suffering a torn ACL in a collision with left fielder Alex Gordon while chasing a foul pop up.  Moustakas’ return from injury netted him the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award.  The power-hitting third baseman’s 38 home runs ranked fifth-best in the AL.  In addition, he collected 85 RBI and batted .272 with a .314 OBP.  Moustakas also posted a 117 OPS+ and 1.6 WAR as value-wise, his campaign much more resembled Balboni’s 1985 than Cerv’s 1958.  Once again, the Royals were unable to recapture their championship form from two seasons before, posting a middling 80-82 record.

Following Kansas City’s lackluster 2017 campaign, the club’s young core of players started becoming eligible for free agency.  As a small market team, the Royals did not have the finances to compete for their services on the open market.  During the offseason, first baseman Eric Hosmer and center fielder Lorenzo Cain departed the team to sign lucrative free agent contracts with the San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers, respectively.  Not surprisingly, Kansas City immediately tumbled to the bottom of the AL Central standings once the 2018 campaign got underway.  Four days before the July 31 Trade Deadline, the Royals traded free-agent-to-be Mike Moustakas to the Brewers.  Kansas City ended the year in the AL Central cellar with an abysmal 58-104 record, the franchise’s worst since 2005.

The club continued to struggle mightily in 2019 despite the emergence of right fielder Jorge Soler as a new challenger to the dual Kansas City and Royals franchise single-season home run marks.  Picked up from the Chicago Cubs prior to the 2017 season, in exchange for relief pitcher Wade Davis, the 27-year-old Soler had battled injuries throughout his career and seen his 2018 campaign cut short when he suffered a broken bone in his left foot in mid-June.  Similar to Mike Moustakas two years before, Soler established himself as a threat to the home run records, going deep 23 times before the All-Star break.  However, where Moustakas’ longball pace slowed after the Midsummer Classic, Soler’s production ramped up in the season’s second half.  On August 30, Soler tied Cerv’s and Moustakas’ shared record with his 38th drive of the season.  Just three games later, on September 3, Soler set a new benchmark, hitting home run number 39 as part of a 6-5 win over the Tigers.  Soler’s record-breaking longball was a three-run blast which put him at exactly 100 RBI for the year.  Although the club was suffering through a difficult season, Soler was able to treat the Kauffman Stadium faithful as both his record-tying and record-breaking drives had taken place in front of Royals fans as part of a ten-game homestand.  Soler continued to scorch opposing pitching over the closing weeks of the season, connecting in the Royals last game of 2019 to finish the year with an AL-best 48 home runs.  Soler had not only obliterated Cerv’s and Moustakas’ shared mark of 38, but also became the first Royals hitter to pace the junior circuit in four-baggers.  Moreover, with his final blast of 2019, Soler passed Rafael Palmeiro to set the single-season home run record for Cuban-born players.

In addition to his eye-popping longball total, Soler tied for second in the AL with 117 RBI while also ranking in the top-five in total bases, slugging percentage, extra base hits, and at bats per home run.  Soler batted a mediocre .265 but, due in part to his 73 walks, managed to get on base at a more impressive .354 clip.  He did, however, lead the circuit in one dubious category, striking out 178 times.  The free-swinging slugger finished the season with 3.5 WAR and slotted just outside the top-ten with a solid 137 OPS+.  Despite carrying the reputation of being injury-prone, he proved to be durable during the 2019 campaign, appearing in all 162 games.  A right fielder by trade, Soler only saw limited time on defense and spent the majority of the year being used as the club’s designated hitter.  However, Soler’s record-setting season was not enough to pull Kansas City out of the doldrums as the team posted an ugly 59-103 mark.  Soler’s colossal power was one of the few bright spots in a depleted offense that scored the next-to-the least amount of runs in the AL.  The Royals lack of success likely played a role in MVP voters almost completely ignoring Soler as the home run champ drew just one tenth-place tally in the election.

Although Soler had smashed the Kansas City major league and Royals franchise records, catcher Salvador Perez quickly emerged as the next challenger to the dual benchmarks.  Originally signed in 2006 as a 16-year-old amateur free agent from his native Venezuela, Perez made his major league debuted for Kansas City late in the 2011 season.  Perez had been part of the young core of players who helped the Royals develop into a back-to-back pennant winner and 2015 World Series champion after a decade-plus as a losing ball club.  Through his career, Perez had shown pop in his bat, clubbing 27 home runs in both 2017 and 2018, but was recognized more for his defense which had netted him five Gold Glove Awards.  Prior to the 2019 campaign, Perez suffered an elbow injury which required Tommy John surgery and forced him to miss the entire season.  When the backstop made his return during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, he went on an offensive tear, belting 11 home runs in only 37 games while batting .333 with a 159 OPS+.  Prior to 2020, Perez had generally been a league average hitter, posting a career OPS+ of 98 with his seasonal marks slightly above or just below 100.  With his offensive breakout, Perez was named AL Comeback Player of the Year.

With right fielder Alex Gordon’s retirement following the 2020 season, Perez was the only core position player to remain from Kansas City’s 2015 championship team.  Before the start of the 2021 campaign, the veteran catcher underscored his commitment to the Royals franchise by signing a lucrative four-year contract extension.  Though he wasn’t quite able to replicate his breakout 2020, Perez put together a solid first half, posting a 115 OPS+ while appearing to be on pace for a personal best in longballs with 21 at the All-Star break.  Like Soler two years before, Perez started driving the ball out of the yard with even more regularity in the season’s second act.  The power-hitting backstop had a particularly impressive month of August in which he went deep 12 times, including an August 25 to 29 stretch where he homered in five straight games, with grand slams coming in back-to-back contests on August 26 and 27.  Perez’s longball surge put him at 38 going into September and he began drawing attention for his pursuit of Johnny Bench’s 51-year-old single-season home run record for catchers who spent at least of 75% of their games behind the plate.  Perez quickly closed in on Bench’s record, hitting home run numbers 43, 44, and 45 in successive contests with the final blast on September 16 matching the Hall of Fame catcher’s mark.  Four days later, on the road against the Cleveland Indians, Perez put the ball over the fence to stand alone in the record books.  Perez’s drive not only set a new standard for catchers but also was the 198th of his career and moved him past Mike Sweeney for number two on the Royals all-time home run list, trailing only the 317 hit by George Brett.

Perez next set his sights on Soler’s Kansas City major league and Royals franchise single-season home run records.  Coincidentally, Soler had been swapped to the Atlanta Braves in a trade deadline deal on July 30 but Perez maintained contact with his friend and former teammate who wished the backstop well in his pursuit of the record.  On September 28, the Royals hosted the Indians to begin a six-game homestand to close out the season.  Perez went deep in the opening contest for his 47th longball.  The following evening, Perez tied Soler’s record with a bottom of the first inning home run off Cleveland starter Zach Plesac.  Unfortunately, at the conclusion of the top of the second, Perez suffered a sprained ankle slipping on the dugout steps.  Perez took one more at bat before the injury forced him to leave the game.  Despite the sprain, the resilient slugger returned to the field without missing a game.  Though Perez stepped to the plate 18 more times after taking Plesac deep, he was unable to add to his longball total and thus had to settle for sharing the Kansas City major league and Royals franchise single-season home run records with Soler.

Perez finished his sensational 2021 campaign with 48 round-trippers, 121 RBI, a .273 batting average, and .316 OBP.  As the season drew to a close, Perez battled Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Shohei Ohtani for the AL home run crown.  Guerrero was able to go deep on the final day of the regular season and match Perez’s 48 drives which led not only the AL but all of MLB.  In addition to sharing the longball lead with Guerrero, Perez’s lofty RBI total also paced both the junior circuit and MLB.  Perez produced a 126 OPS+, an impressive mark for a catcher along with 5.3 WAR which ranked tenth among AL position players.  Perez showcased his durability, playing in 161 games.  His 124 games caught was the second highest total in the AL while his 43.9% caught stealing rate was the best among MLB backstops.  Perez’s record-breaking season put him in the conversation for a high finish in the AL MVP vote.  Despite Perez’s stellar campaign, Kansas City finished the year with a 74-88 record, the franchise’s fifth straight losing season.  However, the club’s 38-35 second half mark, when Perez swung a particularly hot bat, possibly foreshadowed a return to prominence for the Royals.

It will be interesting to see how long Perez and Soler hold the Kansas City major league single-season home run record.  Will the two sluggers hold the mark for multiple decades like Heavy Johnson and Bob Cerv or relinquish the honor after just a few seasons like Gus Zernial and Mike Moustakas?

----by John Tuberty

Follow me on Twitter @BloggerTubbs

Stat link to players mentioned: Salvador Perez, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Shohei Ohtani, Johnny Bench, George Brett, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Jorge Soler, Zach Plesac, Alex Gordon, Rafael Palmeiro, Wade Davis, Mickey Mantle, Bo Jackson, Charlie Bastain, Charlie Berry, Bob Black, Frank McLaughlin, Lou Say, Peek-A-Boo Veach, Will McQuery, Al Myers, Sam Barkley, Jim McTamany, Jim Burns, Duke Kenworthy, Dutch Zwilling, Rube Foster, George Carr, Bullet Rogan, Heavy Johnson, Oscar Charleston, Willard Brown, Hurley McNair, Connie Mack, Jimmie Foxx, Gus Zernial, Bob Cerv, Red Wilson, Ryne Duren, Joe DeMaestri, Rocky Colavito, Jim Gentile, Ed Kirkpatrick, Bob Oliver, John Mayberry, Steve Balboni, Danny Tartabull, Bob Hamelin, Gary Gaetti, Chili Davis, Dean Palmer, Jermaine Dye, Kendrys Morales, Mike Sweeney

Cards: Salvador Perez 2016 Topps, Jorge Soler 2018 Topps, Bob Cerv 1959 Topps, Heavy Johnson 2020 Dreams Fulfilled Negro Leagues Legends, George Carr 2020 Dreams Fulfilled Negro Leagues Legends, Bullet Rogan 2020 Dreams Fulfilled Negro Leagues Legends, Gus Zernial 1957 Topps, Bob Cerv 1958 Topps, Rocky Colavito 1964 Auravision Records, John Mayberry 1975 Topps, Steve Balboni 1986 Topps, Bob Hamelin 1995 Topps, Mike Moustakas 2018 Topps Heritage, Jorge Soler 2020 Topps 1985 35th Anniversary, Salvador Perez 2017 Topps Heritage

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