This is the fifth and final article in a series that looks at the five best players at each position for the Kansas City Royals. In this installment are right- and left-handed starters and relief pitchers.
Although the Kansas City Royals have no Hall of Fame members among their pitchers, there are several All-Stars, three Cy Young winners and a closer who held the Major League record for saves.
The Best Pitchers in Kansas City Royals History
Honorable Mentions – Bob Johnson spent just one season with the Royals, going 8-13 in 1970. However, Johnson had a 3.07 earned run average, threw 10 complete games and struck out 206 batters, becoming one of just four pitchers in team history to reach that mark in a season.
Luke Hochevar played in the 2007 MLB Futures Game and was a promising young pitcher. He spent his entire nine-year career (2007-13 and 15-16) with Kansas City, finding work as a back-of-the-rotation starter. Hochevar was plagued by inconsistencies until he converted to a setup role in 2013, and he responded by posting a 1.92 earned run average.
His career fell off after having Tommy John surgery the following year and, although he went 2-0 and didn’t give up a run in 10 2/3 innings during the 2015 playoffs, his big-league career ended after just one more season. Hochevar went 46-65 with a 4.98 ERA, and he ranks tenth in franchise history with 702 strikeouts.
Marty Pattin spent seven seasons with the Royals (1974-80) as a starter and long reliever, going 43-39 with 18 complete games. He won 10 games twice and ranks sixth in franchise history with a 3.48 earned run average. Pattin appeared in five postseason games with Kansas City and tossed a scoreless inning during the 1980 World Series, which was his final professional action.
Roger Nelson was a solid pitcher when healthy but battled injuries throughout his five-year Royals tenure (1969-72 and ’75). The first overall pick in the 1969 expansion draft experienced shoulder injuries that cost him most of 1970-71, but he returned to post an 11-6 record and 10 complete games and set team records with a 2.08 earned run average and six shutouts. After two seasons with the Reds and another bouncing around the minor leagues for the White Sox and Athletics, Nelson returned to the Royals and pitched three games in 1976. He finished 22-26 with a 2.96 ERA, 18 complete games and seven shutouts, which ranks tenth in franchise history.
David Cone appeared in 11 games with the Royals in 1986, before he found notoriety with the Mets, going 20-3 and helping New York reach the NLCS two years later. He returned to Kansas City in 1993 and posted double-digit win totals the next two seasons. Cone won the American League Cy Young Award in 1994 after going 16-5 with a 2.94 earned run average and three shutouts. Cone went 27-19 with a 3.29 ERA, 10 complete games and four shutouts in 68 games with the Royals.
Dick Drago played five seasons with Kansas City (1969-73) and reached double figures in victories four times. His best season was 1971, when he finished fifth in the Cy Young voting after posting a 17-11 record with a 2.98 earned run average, 15 complete games and four shutouts. Overall, Drago went 61-70 and he is tied for fifth in franchise history in complete games (53), tied for seventh in shutouts (10), eighth in ERA (3.52) and tenth in games started (160). He went 0-1 in two relief appearances with the Red Sox in the 1975 World Series.
Another member of the young and talented rotation of the early Royals was Al Fitzmorris, who spent eight seasons in Kansas City (1969-76) and posted double-digit win totals in the final three. His best season was 1975, when he went 16-12 with a 3.57 earned run average and set career highs with 242 innings pitched and 11 complete games.
Fitzmorris ranks fifth in franchise history in ERA (3.46), sixth in shutouts (11), eighth in complete games (35) and tied for ninth in wins (70-48). He was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 1976 expansion draft and immediately traded to the Indians. Fitzmorris was traded to the Angels the following year and retired after failing to latch on with the Padres in 1979.
Tom Gordon spent most of his eight seasons with the Royals (1988-95) alternating between starting and long relief. He posted double figures in wins five times, with his best season coming in 1989 when, despite making just 16 starts in 49 appearances, he went 17-9 with a 3.64 earned run average and was the runner-up for the Rookie of the Year Award.
Overall, “Flash” ranks seventh in franchise history in wins (79-71), eighth in strikeouts (999) and tenth in innings (1,149 2/3) to go along with a 4.02 ERA and 12 complete games. Gordon became a closer after going to the Red Sox, earning his first All-Star selection after leading the league with 46 saves in 1998. He missed all of 2000 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and hung around as a reliever until 2009, pitching for six teams over his final nine seasons.
Zack Greinke had a promising start to his career, finishing fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2004, but the following season, he led the league in losses after going 5-17. He injured his ribs playing basketball in 2006 but came back strong and won at least 10 games his final three seasons with Kansas City. He won the Cy Young Award and earned his first All-Star selection in 2009 after going 16-8, leading the league with a 2.16 earned run average (tied for second in team history) and striking out 242 batters (also second) in 229 1/3 innings.
Greinke has a 66-91 record and 12 complete games with the Royals, and he ranks fourth in franchise history in strikeouts (1,101), sixth in games started (222) and seventh in innings (1,387 1/3). After stints with five other teams that brought him five more All-Star selections, six gold gloves, two silver sluggers, and a second-place finish in the 2015 Cy Young voting (19-3 with a league-leading 1.66 ERA with the Dodgers), Greinke returned to the Royals in 2022. However, his swansong has not gone how he had hoped, with him recording a 6-24 record in two seasons, including a 2-15 mark in 2023.
5. Steve Busby – After a five-game stint with the Royals in 1972, he had one of the best three-year stretches in franchise history. Busby went 56-41 with a 3.54 earned run average, 45 complete games and seven shutouts from 1973-75, finishing third in the Rookie of the Year voting, earning two All-Star selections and throwing two no-hitters (1973 vs. the Tigers and the following year against the Brewers). His best season in the middle, when he posted a 3.39 ERA and set career bests with a 22-14 record (second in team history), 20 complete games (tied for second), 292 1/3 innings (third) and 198 strikeouts.
In 1976, Busby had shoulder issues and found he needed rotator cuff surgery. The procedure was fairly new in its use for baseball players, and no one really knew how effective a pitcher could be after returning. In Busby’s case, he went 8-9 and appeared in just 40 games in three seasons following the surgery.
Busby is tied for fifth in franchise history in complete games (53), tied for ninth in wins (70-54) and tied for tenth in shutouts (seven) to go with a 3.72 ERA and 659 strikeouts in 1,060 2/3 innings over eight seasons (1972-76, 78-80). His injury and subsequent struggle caused him to miss all of Kansas City’s playoff appearances in the late 1970s. Busby spent his post-retirement years mostly as a broadcaster with the Royals and Rangers. He joined outfielder Amos Otis as the first two players inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1986.
4. Kevin Appier – He spent his first 11 seasons with the Royals, reaching double figures in wins six times, then came back for a second stint in Kansas City at the end of his career (1989-99 and 03-04). Appier had a run of four straight seasons with at least 12 victories, finishing third in the Rookie of the Year voting after going 12-8 with a 2.76 earned run average in 1990.
Three years later, Appier had his best season, with an 18-8 record, a league-leading 2.56 ERA and 186 strikeouts in 238 2/3 innings allowing him to finish in third place in the race for the 1993 Cy Young Award. Two years later, he earned his only All-Star selection after going 15-5, and he had 207 strikeouts in 1996, which is the third-best single-season mark in club history. He was a tough-luck pitcher who got tired of the lack of run support and asked for a trade in 1997 but stuck around after suffering a torn labrum during spring training the following year.
Appier is the all-time franchise leader with 1,458 strikeouts, and he ranks fourth in wins (115-92), games started (275) and innings (1,843 2/3), seventh in ERA (3.49), tied for seventh in shutouts (10) and tenth in complete games (32). After winning a title with the Angels in 2002, he returned to the Royals and went 1-3 in six starts before retiring in 2004.
3. Mark Gubicza – He spent 13 of his 14 seasons with Kansas City (1984-96), posting double-digit victories seven times, including in each of his first six campaigns. Gubicza was a two-time All-Star and one of five Royals pitchers to win 20 games in a season. He finished third in the Cy Young Award voting after going 20-8 with a 2.70 earned run average, eight complete games, four shutouts and 183 strikeouts in 269 2/3 innings.
Gubicza ranks second in franchise history in strikeouts (1,366), games started (327) and innings (2,218 2/3), third in wins (132-135) and shutouts (16) and seventh in games pitched (382) and complete games (42). He went 1-0 in two appearances with the Royals in the 1985 ALCS but did not appear during the World Series victory over the Cardinals. Gubicza was traded to the Angels for Chili Davis in 1987 and retired after making just two appearances.
2. Bret Saberhagen – There is very little he did not do during his eight-year run in Kansas City (1984-91). Saberhagen won two Cy Young Awards, earned two All-Star selections and a gold glove, won an ERA title and not only won a World Series but was named the MVP.
Saberhagen went 10-11 as a rookie, then became a star in 1985, winning his first Cy Young Award after going 20-6 with a 2.87 earned run average, 10 complete games and 158 strikeouts. Following two average postseason rounds, he was spectacular in the World Series, going 2-0 with two complete games, including one in Game 7, while allowing the Cardinals to score just one run in 18 innings to earn MVP honors (as well as the Babe Ruth Award) and help his team win its first championship.
Ironically enough, Saberhagen wasn’t an All-Star in either of his Cy Young seasons. He topped the American League and set a team record by going 23-6 in 1989, while also winning his only gold glove and leading the league with a 2.16 ERA (which is tied for the second-best mark in team history), 12 complete games and 262 1/3 innings.
Saberhagen earned All-Star selections in 1987 after going 18-10 with a 3.36 ERA and 1990, a season in which he was just 5-9 but faced elbow issues that ultimately ended his season early. He returned the following year to go 13-8 and throw a 7-0 no-hitter against the White Sox in his final season with the Royals.
After time with the Mets and Rockies, Saberhagen had arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder and missed the 1996 season. He had 26 wins in four years with the Red Sox, but a second full reconstruction surgery on his shoulder in 2000 signaled the end of his career. Saberhagen ranks third in franchise history in complete games (64), fourth in ERA (although first among starters at 3.21), tied for fourth in shutouts (14), fifth in strikeouts (1,093) and games started (226) and sixth in wins (110-78) and innings (1,660 1/3).
1. Dennis Leonard – He was a stalwart in the Kansas City Rotation for more than a decade (1974-83 and 85-86), but like some of the others on this list, he had his career hampered by injuries. In 12 seasons with the Royals, Leonard won 10 or more games in eight straight seasons from 1975-82 and is the only pitcher in team history to win at least 20 games three times.
Although he was never an All-Star, Leonard finished in the top ten in the Cy Young voting in back-to-back years after going a league-best 20-12 in 1976 and followed that with a 21-17 mark and a team record 244 strikeouts. He went 20-11 in 1980 and was a large part of the team’s run to the World Series. He also led the league in games started three times (including a team-record 40 in 1978) and topped the A. L. with 201 2/3 innings during the strike-shortened 1981 season.
Leonard is the all-time franchise leader in complete games with 103 (including a team record 21 in 1977 and 20 the following year, which is tied for second-most) and shutouts (23). He ranks second in wins (144-106), third in strikeouts (1,323), games started (302) and innings (2,187, including a team record 294 2/3 in 1978 and three times posting more than 280 in a season) and eighth in games pitched (312).
Leonard posted a 3-5 record with a 4.32 ERA in 10 postseason appearances. He went 1-1 against the Phillies in the 1980 World Series. Leonard suffered several injuries later in his career. He broke two fingers after getting hit by a line drive in 1982 and tore his patellar tendon while pitching to Cal Ripken Jr. the following year. The injury caused him to miss the better part of three years and required four surgeries. Leonard finished his career with an 8-13 record in 30 starts in 1986.
Honorable Mentions – Jim Rooker played two games with the Tigers before spending his next four years with the expansion Royals (1969-72). After going 4-16 in the club’s first year, he went 10-15 for his only double-digit victory season. Overall, he went 21-44 with a 3.93 earned run average, 19 complete games and seven shutouts, which is tied for tenth in franchise history. Rooker won 82 games in eight seasons with the Pirates and made two appearances in the 1979 World Series victory over the Orioles.
Bruce Chen bounced around to nine teams in his first 10 seasons and missed all of 2008 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He signed with the Royals after recovering and had some of his best seasons during his six-year stint in Kansas City (2009-14). Chen won at least 11 games three straight years and led the league with 34 starts in 2012. He went 47-43 with a 4.53 earned run average in 113 starts but did not appear with the Royals in the 2014 playoffs. Chen retired the following seasons after appearing in two games with the Indians.
5. Bud Black – After a two-game stint with the Mariners, he came to the Royals and spent the next seven seasons in the blue, gold and white (1982-88). His best season was 1984, when he set career highs with a 17-12 record, a 3.12 earned run average, eight complete games, 140 strikeouts and 257 innings.
Overall, Black went 56-57 with Kansas City, posting a 3.73 ERA, 16 complete games and 508 strikeouts in 977 2/3 innings. He went 0-2 in six postseason appearances and won a title with the Royals in 1985. Black played for the Blue Jays and Giants and had two stints with the Indians before retiring as a player in 1995. He has a 1,125-1,269 record and two playoff appearances in 16 seasons as a manager with the Padres and Rockies.
4. Danny Duffy – He spent his entire 11-year career with the Royals (2011-21), posting a 68-68 record with a 3.95 earned run average. Duffy’s best season was 2016, when he went 12-3 (his only campaign with a double-figure win total) with a 3.51 ERA and a career-high 188 strikeouts in 179 2/3 innings.
Duffy ranks seventh in franchise history in strikeouts (1,048), eighth in games started (204) and ninth in innings (1,172 1/3). He missed most of the 2012-13 seasons after having Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Duffy went 2-0 in nine postseason appearances and came out of the bullpen three times in the 2015 World Series victory over the Mets.
3. Charlie Leibrandt – After four uneventful seasons with Cincinnati, he was traded from the Reds to the Royals in 1983 and spent the entire season in the minor leagues. Once Kansas City called him up the following year, he posted a double-digit win total in the next five seasons. His best performance was 1985, when he went 17-9 with a career-best 2.69 earned run average, eight complete games, three shutouts and 237 2/3 innings to finish fifth in the Cy Young race.
Two years later, Leibrandt went 16-11, matched his complete game and shutout marks and set a career high with 151 strikeouts. He went 1-4 in six postseason appearances and won a title with Kansas City in 1985. Leibrandt is tied for seventh in franchise history in shutouts (10), ranks eighth in wins (76-61) and innings (1,257), ninth in games started (187) and complete games (34) and tenth in ERA (3.60). After dropping to 5-11 in 1989, he was traded to the Braves and appeared in two World Series with Atlanta.
2. Larry Gura – He started out as a reliever and occasional closer with the Royals but became a consistent starter during his 10 years with the club (1976-85). Gura used his offseason fitness and diet program to become one of the better pitchers in the league. He posted double figures in wins for seven straight seasons and finished in the top 10 in voting for the Cy Young Award three times.
In 1978, he went 16-4 with a 2.72 earned run average, earned his only All-Star selection two years later after posting an 18-10 mark with a 2.95 ERA and a career-high 113 strikeouts. Gura went 11-8 in the strike-shortened 1981 season, then went 18-12 the following year before leading the league with losses and posting an 11-18 record in 1983.
Gura ranks fourth in franchise history in complete games (61), tied for fourth in shutouts (14), fifth in wins (111-78) and innings (1,701 1/3), seventh in games started (219) and ninth in games pitched (310). He went 2-3 in eight playoff starts with the Royals and gave up three earned runs in 12 1/3 innings against the Phillies in the 1980 World Series. Gura split the 1985 season between the Royals and Cubs in his last action in the major leagues.
1. Paul Splittorff – He was selected in the Royals’ first amateur draft, started the team’s first game and was the club’s longest-tenured pitcher, spending 15 seasons with Kansas City (1970-84). Splittorff reached double figures in victories 10 times, with four seasons posting 15 or more wins. He became the first player in franchise history to win 20 games in a season when he went 20-11 with a 3.98 earned run average and 12 complete games in 1973. He also went 16-6 in 1977 and 19-13 the following year.
Although Splittorff threw three complete-game one-hitters, his best outing came on August 3, 1975, against the three-time defending champion Athletics. After getting the first out, he walked a batter and gave up an infield single, then retired the next 26 batters for a 5-0 victory.
Splittorff is the all-time franchise leader in wins (166-143), games started (392) and innings (2,554 2/3), and he ranks second in complete games (88) and shutouts (17), fourth in games pitched (429) and sixth in strikeouts (1,057). He went 2-0 in seven postseason appearances, including four starts. Splittorff was a broadcaster for the Royals and called college football and basketball games after his playing career. He died due to complications from melanoma and oral cancer in 2011.
Honorable Mentions – Steve Farr spent six seasons with the Royals (1985-90) mostly in a setup role, but he had his best season in 1988, when he had 20 saves and a 2.50 earned run average in 622 games. He went 34-24 with 49 saves, 429 strikeouts in 511 innings and a 3.05 ERA, which ranks second in franchise history. Farr won a title with Kansas City in 1985 but did not appear in the World Series. He played three seasons with the Yankees and split 1994 between the Indians and Red Sox before he retired.
Doug Bird began his career with six seasons as the setup man and closer in Kansas City (1973-78). He had double-digit save totals four times, but had his best season in 1976, his only one as a starter. Bird went 12-10 with a 3.37 earned run average and 107 strikeouts in 197 2/3 innings. He went 11-3 with 14 saves the following year.
Bird went 49-36 and ranks fifth in saves (58), ninth in ERA (3.56) and tenth in games pitched (292). He went 1-1 in six appearances when the Royals appeared in the ALCS three straight seasons from 1976-78. Bird played for four other teams and retired in 1983 after an 11-year career.
5. Kelvin Herrera – He was mostly a middle reliever and setup man during his eight seasons with the Royals (2011-18), but he was the closer for his final three years with the club. His highlights include a 1.41 earned run average in 70 appearances in 2014, back-to-back All-Star appearances in a setup role in 2015-16 and a career-high 26 saves in 2017.
Herrera went 23-27 with a 2.75 ERA and 438 strikeouts in 441 1/3 innings. He ranks third in franchise history with 442 games pitched and sixth with 57 saves. Herrera went 2-0 with a 1.26 ERA in 22 postseason appearances, and he gave up just one hit in five scoreless innings over three games against the Mets in the 2015 World Series. He was traded to the Nationals during the 2018 season and spent the next two years with the White Sox before retiring in 2020.
4. Greg Holland – He spent his first six seasons with the Royals and eight overall in two stints (2010-15 and 20-21). Holland had consecutive seasons in which he earned All-Star selections, finished in the top ten of the Cy Young Award voting and went over 40 saves. He set a club record with 47 saves (with a 1.21 earned run average) in 2013 and had 46 (and a 1.44 mark) the following year.
Holland fell off a bit in 2015 and missed the next season after undergoing Tommy John surgery for a torn UCL but returned to All-Star from with Colorado in 2017, when he led the National League with 41 saves. He came back to Kansas City in a setup role in 2020-21, posting a 3-0 record with a 1.91 ERA in the COVID-shortened season.
Overall, Holland had a 24-17 record with 514 strikeouts in 403 2/3 innings. He ranks fourth in franchise history with 159 saves and sixth with 394 games pitched. Holland made 11 postseason appearances with the Royals in 2014, allowing only one run in 11 innings and helping the club reach the World Series.
3. Joakim Soria – He began his career as one of the most dominant young closers in baseball, posting at least 25 saves in four of his first five seasons. Soria earned two All-Star selections in that stretch, in 2008 when he amassed 42 saves and two years later, when he had 43. He fell off a bit in 2011 and missed the following season while recovering from Tommy John surgery to repair a damaged ulnar collateral ligament.
Soria signed with the Rangers in 2013, his first of nine teams over the next nine seasons. One of those was Kansas City, which he spent two more seasons with to give him seven overall with the club (2007-11 and 16-17). Soria went 22-26 with a 2.82 earned run average and 473 strikeouts in 438 innings. He ranks third in franchise history with 162 saves and fifth with 427 games pitched.
2. Jeff Montgomery – After one season with the Reds and one more as a setup man with the Royals, he became one of the most consistent closers in the American League. Montgomery had at least 30 saves in five of his 12 seasons with Kansas City (1988-99) and led the league with 45 in 1993, which earned him the Rolaids Relief Pitcher Award.
Montgomery was a three-time All-Star and is the club’s all-time leader with 304 saves and 686 games pitched. He went 44-50 in 849 1/3 innings and ranks third in franchise history with a 3.20 earned run average and ninth with 720 strikeouts. Montgomery retired in 1999 and has been involved in broadcasting ever since. He purchased a share of Kansas City’s Union Broadcasting, rising to the rank of vice president in charge of internet and new media.
1. Dan Quisenberry – While he wasn’t a high strikeout pitcher, he used an unusual sidearm delivery and elite sinker to become one of the most dominant closers of his generation. Quisenberry earned three All-Star selections, led the league in saves (and earning the Rolaids Relief Pitcher Award) five times, finished in the top five of the Cy Young Award voting five times and the top 10 in the MVP race four times in 10 seasons with the Royals (1979-88).
Quisenberry topped the American League with 33 saves in 1980 and after posting 18 in the strike-shortened 1981 season, he led the league again with 35 the next year. In 1983, he set the single-season save record with 45 and nearly reached the mark again the following season when he had 44, finishing as the runner-up for the Cy Young Award both times.
After leading the league for a fifth time with 37 saves in the 1985 championship season, Quisenberry dropped off before being released by the Royals on July 4, 1988. He went 51-44 and threw 1,043 1/3 innings with Kansas City. He is the all-time franchise leader with a 2.55 ERA and ranks second in saves (238) and games pitched (573).
Quisenberry went 3-4 with three saves in 18 career postseason games with the Royals and posted a 1-0 record in four appearances during the 1985 World Series. He spent time with the Cardinals and Giants before retiring in 1990. Quisenberry passed away due to a brain tumor in 1998.
The next series will feature the Los Angeles Angels.
Kansas City Royals Catchers and Managers
Kansas City Royals First and Third Basemen and Designated Hitters
Kansas City Royals Second Basemen and Shortstops
Kansas City Royals Outfielders
Kansas City Royals Pitchers
A look back at the Houston Astros
A look back at the Detroit Tigers
A look back at the Colorado Rockies
A look back at the Cleveland Guardians
Cleveland Guardians Catchers and Managers
Cleveland Guardians First and Third Basemen and Designated Hitters
Cleveland Guardians Second Basemen and Shortstops
Cleveland Guardians Outfielders
Cleveland Guardians Pitchers
A look back at the Cincinnati Reds
A look back at the Chicago White Sox
Chicago White Sox Catchers and Managers
Chicago White Sox First and Third Basemen and Designated Hitters
Chicago White Sox Second Basemen and Shortstops
Chicago White Sox Outfielders
Chicago White Sox Pitchers
A look back at the Chicago Cubs
A look back at the Boston Red Sox
A look back at the Baltimore Orioles
Baltimore Orioles Catchers and Managers
Baltimore Orioles First and Third Basemen
Baltimore Orioles Second Basemen and Shortstops
Baltimore Orioles Outfielders and Designated Hitters
Baltimore Orioles Pitchers
A look back at the Atlanta Braves
A look back at the Arizona Diamondbacks
Arizona Diamondbacks Catchers and Managers
Arizona Diamondbacks First and Third Basemen
Arizona Diamondbacks Second Basemen and Shortstops
Arizona Diamondbacks Outfielders
Arizona Diamondbacks Pitchers