The Royals’ Five Greatest Pitchers
Bret Saberhagen (1984-91)
The stringy right-hander accrued more success and fame than any other Royal pitcher, all in spite of a bizarre trait of being at the top of his game in odd-numbered years—slumping off in the even-numbered seasons in between. In his four odd-numbered campaigns at Kansas City, Saberhagen was 74-30 with a 2.85 earned run average; in his four even-numbered years, he was 36-48 with a 3.70 mark.
After a rookie 10-11 showing as a part-time starter in 1984, Saberhagen put on a tremendous sophomore effort in 1985 at age 21, winning his first of two American League Cy Young Awards with a 20-6 record and 2.87 ERA; and those votes were cast before the postseason, in which he shined as the World Series MVP—allowing a run on 11 hits and a walk in two complete game victories. It was a storybook ending for Saberhagen, who helped finish off St. Louis with a five-hit shutout in Game Seven—a day after his wife gave birth to their first child. The combination of feel-good moments turned Saberhagen into America’s darling amid the afterglow of the Royals’ world title, capping his publicity tour with an appearance on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.
Saberhagen hiccupped in 1986—he suffered from numerous injuries and admitted he was unprepared for spring training after a winter of celebration—but returned to ace form in 1987, winning 18 and posting a 3.36 ERA to become the youngest Comeback Player of the Year recipient at age 23. He dipped again in 1988 with a 14-16 record, but in 1989 came roaring back once more, this time with a vengeance—taking home his second Cy and leading the majors with 23 wins (against just six losses), a 2.16 ERA, 262.1 innings pitched and 12 complete games.
Following the pattern, Saberhagen crashed in 1990, limited to five wins as elbow surgery cut his season short; he then cultivated yet another comeback, albeit a mild one, in 1991 with a 13-8 mark—and enjoyed a career highlight by throwing his only career no-hitter in August, in what would be his third-to-last start at Kansas City in a Royals uniform. Saberhagen was dealt that winter to the Mets in a five-player deal, and the odd-even routine soon ended for him—to be replaced by mostly off years as injuries increasingly took their toll on him.
Dan Quisenberry (1979-88)
The colorful “Quiz” was an otherwise ordinary reliever when, after his rookie season, he was introduced to a submarine-style delivery by veteran Pittsburgh reliever Kent Tekulve. The tutoring turned Quisenberry into the AL’s most dominant closer over the next six years, leading the league five times in saves—including four straight times from 1982-85, when he tirelessly distinguished himself as one of the game’s last great two-inning closers by racking up an annual total of roughly 130 frames per season.
Relying solely on sinkers, curves and the occasional knuckleball, Quisenberry struck out few batters and walked even fewer—barely one per nine innings. Always good for a quote, Quisenberry described his pitching style by once saying: “I’m not a Mercedes. I’m a Volkswagen. They get a lot of mileage out of me, but I’m not pretty.” The Royals found nothing ugly about him; he raised the bar on the single season record for saves with 45 in 1983, finished second in the AL Cy Young Award vote in consecutive years (1983-84) and finished third in the AL MVP race in 1984 after saving 44 games for a Royal team that struggled to win the AL West with a underwhelming 84-78 record.
Eight years after throwing his last pitch, Quisenberry died of brain cancer at the age of 45.
Kevin Appier (1989-99, 2003-04)
The right-hander from California’s High Desert outside of Los Angeles took over the role of ace left behind by Saberhagen and thrived for a regressing Kansas City organization during the 1990s, producing a 113-85 record in a decade in which the Royals had only three winning seasons.
Appier’s term as a Royal reached an apex in 1993 when he led the AL with a 2.56 ERA, secured a sharp 18-8 record and set a franchise record by tossing 33 straight scoreless innings. He grew increasingly dependable for the Royals as the team’s inevitable transition to low-budget bottom feeders took on a more defining shape, but eventually became a victim of the hard times when he produced his first losing campaign (9-13) in 1997 despite his best ERA (3.40) in four years. Appier’s luck collapsed in 1998 when he tore his shoulder and missed the majority of the season. Tiring of the atmosphere—especially in light of the fact that he signed a long-term extension with the promise that the Royals would forge a stronger commitment to winning—he asked for and received a trade midway through the 1999 season to the Oakland A’s.
After winning a World Series ring with the 2002 Anaheim Angels, Appier had a brief and unforgettable second tour of duty with the Royals late in 2003, signaling the end of his career.
Mark Gubicza (1984-96)
Along with Saberhagen and Danny Jackson, Gubicza was part of a young core of exceptional starting pitchers that helped Kansas City win the World Series in 1985; he evolved through the rest of the decade and, fortunately for the Royals, pitched at his best when Saberhagen was suffering from one of his odd even-numbered letdowns.
Gubicza racked up wins even if his ERA disagreed; he was often around his ultimate career mark of 3.96. That improved greatly at the end of the 1980s, winning 20 games with a 2.70 ERA in 1988, followed by a 15-11 record and 3.04 mark in 1989. That’s as good as it would get for Gubicza, as overwork of his fastball and hard slider caught up to him; over the next five years, he would never top 133 innings as he battled injuries and general ineffectiveness; he had something of a renaissance in 1995, finishing a mediocre 12-14 but with a team-best 3.75 ERA as performance enhancement began to power up opposing sluggers.
Often wild, Gubicza holds career franchise records for walks, wild pitches and hit batsmen.
Dennis Leonard (1974-83, 1985-86)
No Royals pitcher has played the role of workhorse as well as Leonard, who was arguably the best of an underrated group of starting pitchers in the 1970s while the flashy offense stole most of the headlines. A three-time 20-game winner with Kansas City, Leonard holds franchise records with 103 complete games and 23 shutouts, and threw over 200-plus innings over seven straight years—including at least 290 in 1977 and 1978.
After a subpar 1982 campaign, Leonard severely dislocated his kneecap in early 1983; four operations and two-plus years on the shelf later, he returned for what would become his final year in 1986, struggling to an 8-13 record and 4.44 ERA many considered a success simply because he nearly ate up another 200 innings without further injury.
Kansas City Royals' Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Royals, decade by decade.
The Royals' Five Greatest Hitters: A list of the five greatest hitters based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Royals' Five Greatest Games: A list of five memorable games and other notable personal achievements that have defined the Royals' history.
How did This Great Game determine the list of the Royals' five greatest hitters? Find out here.
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