Home > Uncategorized > Great Pitching Seasons from 1969-1984

Great Pitching Seasons from 1969-1984

One of the things I’ve learned from this little exercise is that there were more truly fantastic seasons in Royals history on the pitching side in the last 26 seasons than there were in the first 15. That struck me as incredibly interesting for the obvious reason that the team was just so much better in the first half of their existence. What I did notice was a pretty obvious conclusion that the staffs as a whole were just better. One through five (or four in some years), the rotation was just filled with better pitchers.

Something else I noticed is that it was much more difficult to find a truly stellar ERA+ in the first half of the franchise’s existence. At first, I attributed that to more good pitchers than actually any great pitchers, but then I got to thinking that it might be because the league average ERA was so much lower that it was more difficult to post a fantastic earned run average. For example, a 3.00 ERA in 2005 would produce a much higher ERA+ than a 3.00 ERA in 1975 simply because the difference was greater. The difference in eras makes comparisons a little more difficult for that reason, but overall, the Royals still had some really impressive individual efforts throughout their history. Something else I’ve found throughout this research is that I have a feeling a few Royals would have had much longer and more prolific careers had pitchers’ arms been as big a deal then as they are today.

And away we go…

1984: Buddy Black (17-12, 3.12 ERA, 257 IP, 140 K, 64 BB, 130 ERA+, 4.5 WAR)
This season is one which I made a subjective season to include because nothing is outstanding here other than the fact that he pitched a boatload of innings. I think what I liked most about this season for Black was the consistency he displayed at the top of a pitching staff that included some very young talent. He was at his best in September when the Royals made a push to get to the playoffs. Black led the league in WHIP in 1984. Of course they were swept by the juggernaut Detroit Tigers who started that season 35-4, but they wouldn’t have gotten to the playoffs without the left arm of Buddy Black. His season may not quite be on par with what we’ve seen from Greinke, Cone, Saberhagen and Appier, but it was quite good.

1980: Larry Gura (18-10, 2.95 ERA, 283.1 IP, 113 K, 76 BB, 137 ERA+, 5.8 WAR)
This is the type of season that you would simply not see in modern baseball for a number of reasons. For one, strikeouts are so much more important in today’s game than they were three decades ago. That’s not to say that a guy who struck out a batter per inning wasn’t a fantastic asset to have, but hitters weren’t as strong and the ball didn’t travel as far when they hit it, so contact wasn’t always a bad thing. In today’s game, reducing contact is a much better bet than inducing contact. Gura’s 1980 season stands out to me because he was arguably the best pitcher on one of the best Royals teams of all time in spite of their World Series loss to the Phillies. The Yankees had famously given up on Gura only to see him pitch an absolute gem in the 1980 ALCS that was a huge factor in their elimination and the Royals advancing for the first time in their history. Had the season ended in August, it would have been one of the best in team history, but Gura had a rough September when he went 0-5 with a 6.46 ERA. Still, though, a fantastic year overall.

1977: Dennis Leonard (20-12, 3.04 ERA, 292.2 IP, 244 K, 79 BB, 134 ERA+, 5.1 WAR)
Dennis Leonard is the preeminent workhorse in Royals history and 1977 was his crown jewel season. He had a career high 21 complete games, set the Royals record for strikeouts in a season (which is still standing) and maintained a walk rate below 2.5. And he did all this on the greatest Royals regular season team there ever was. Leonard is one of the pitchers I’m talking about when I say that pitch counts may have prolonged a career. Looking back, though, I wouldn’t change a thing because a lot of Leonard’s value was tied to his ability to pitch lots and lots of innings. Plus, it was a different time when pitchers routinely pitched in the 250s in innings. The thing that stood out to me about this season was his ability to finish his season strong in September. He went 6-1 with a 1.45 ERA. In his seven starts he threw seven complete games, two of which were shutouts. I look at these numbers today and absolutely marvel at his ability to take the mound and just finish everything he starts. I mentioned that Saberhagen and Halladay have a lot of similarities, but Leonard isn’t a bad comparable either if you can make the stretch from generation to generation.

1974-1975: Steve Busby (40-26, 3.24 ERA, 552.2 IP, 358 K, 173 BB, 118 ERA+, 12.2 WAR)
Yes, I cheated here. In both seasons, Busby had an equal WAR. In 1974 he pitched more innings and struck out more hitters, but in 1975 he had a better ERA and was stingier with hits allowed. If I was forced to pick one, I’d pick Busby’s 1974 season because it included one of his no-hitters, but these two seasons were both just so similar to me that I decided to include them both. Steve Busby may be the poster child for pitch counts and monitoring pitchers as the high innings totals he mounted were detrimental to his long-term career. He had the potential to be one of the greatest pitchers in Royals history before arm injuries ended his career. He still owns half of the Royals no-hitters in team history, though, and was outstanding for the short time the Royals got to enjoy him. In 1974 and 1975, he threw a combined 38 complete games. While it’s a shame that his career couldn’t go on longer, what we got to enjoy was truly amazing at times.

1972: Roger Nelson (11-6, 2.08 ERA, 173.1 IP, 120 K, 31 BB, 145 ERA+, 5.0 WAR)
I know this seems like an odd season to include on this list, but he’s on here for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that this is a really fantastic season that isn’t discussed very often in Royals lore. It might be because it happened before the team started to show real improvement. It might be because the innings total was a little low because he didn’t start all the time, but this season is very underrated in Royals history. The second reason is the sentimental one and it is that Nelson was the Royals first pick in the expansion draft, and this season to me is sort of symbolic of the fact that those guys really knew what they were doing in scouting talent. Nelson led the league in WHIP in 1972, allowing .87 base runners per inning, which is truly outstanding. He hardly walked anyone to go along with being very difficult to get a hit off, which led to his amazing WHIP. He was a reliever until June 30 when he made his first start of the year and only made one relief appearance after that. From June 30 on, Nelson went 10-5 with a 2.22 ERA in 154.1 innings with ten complete games. Another game, he pitched 12 innings and gave way before the Twins pushed across the winning run in the 13th. That was Nelson’s last season with the Royals, but his legacy is extremely important in Royals history as he was part of the trade that brought Hal McRae to Kansas City.

This was a really fun look at some of the best seasons in Royals history. Hopefully you remember some, said “oh yeah” to some others and got to learn a little something new about some of the better seasons we’ve seen from the team’s pitching staff throughout its history. I’m going to do the same thing with the offense sometime soon, too, so tune in then.

  1. Joe
    January 5, 2011 at 10:06 am

    Where does Splitt fit in all of this?

    • January 6, 2011 at 4:07 pm

      While Splitt was one of the greatest pitchers in Royals history, he never had a great season. He was very good multiple times, and that’ll get you career accolades, but I was really looking for individual seasons here.

  2. January 6, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Good stuff! I took a stab at ranking the top 10 SP seasons in Royals history here: http://www.i70baseball.com/?p=5039

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