Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 12 – The Kansas City Royals
So who is the best Kansas City Royals pitcher of all time?
Don’t snicker, it’s a serious question.
The Royals are now in the middle of their 41st year of existence, so, contrary to what baseball fans living on the two coasts might think, this team does have a serious history. This is a team that has won several division titles, and a World Championship in 1985.
This is a team that has also been pretty bad for a long time. It is doubtful that anyone under 30 years of age even remembers a time when the Royals were a good ball club.
And that’s the problem here. When a team is so bad for so long, this futility tends to partially obscure, if not erase, the good times a team once enjoyed. This is especially true of teams that do not have the good fortune to exist in a major media market.
Nevertheless, for about a decade or so, beginning in the mid-1970’s, the Royals were one of Major League Baseball’s most competitive teams. And every consistently competitive team has its share of quality pitchers.
When we think back to the best pitchers of the 1970’s, names like Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, and Catfish Hunter come to mind. Others, such as Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Bert Blyleven and Luis Tiant had fantastic careers as well.
Still other excellent pitchers, however, tend to be forgotten. This is true, of course, in every decade.
So again, who is the best Royals pitcher of all time? This is a team that has produced David Cone, Brett Saberhagen, Kevin Appier, and, most recently, Zack Greinke. Not a bad rotation.
Nevertheless, the most consistently reliable ace the Royals ever produced is probably Dennis Leonard.
Born in 1951 in Brooklyn, NY when the Dodgers were still the home team, Leonard was drafted by the Royals in the second round of the 1972 amateur draft. Just three years later, the 24-year old Leonard was already a mainstay of the Royals rotation, posting a 15-7 record in 30 starts.
In 1976, Leonard improved to 17-10 in 34 starts, hurling 16 complete games.
But Dennis Leonard’s Best Forgotten Season was 1977.
In 1977, Leonard tied for the American League lead with an even twenty victories. This was the first of three 20 win seasons Leonard would produce for the Royals.
In 37 starts, Leonard hurled a Royals record 21 complete games, tossed 293 innings, threw five shutouts, and struck out a career high 244 batters, still a Royals single-season record.
His ERA was 3.o4, and his WHIP was 1.11. His ERA+ was 134.
Leonard finished fourth in the Cy Young award voting in ’77, behind Cy Young winner Sparky Lyle (who would lose his closer’s job to Goose Gossage in ’78, going from, in the words of Graig Nettles, Cy Young to Sayonara), Jim Palmer and Nolan Ryan in a tight, four-way race.
The Royals, an expansion team in 1969, won their second consecutive A.L. West title in 1977, before losing to the Yankees in the A.L. Championship series.
Dennis Leonard spent his entire 12-year career with the Royals before retiring at age 35 due to arm injuries. Leonard topped 200 innings pitched every season for seven years from 1975-1981. In a five-year period, from ’76-’80, Leonard averaged 272 innings pitched per season.
Leonard is the Royals all time leader in complete games with 103, and in shutouts with 23.
His 144 career wins (against 106 losses), is second best in team history. He is third all-time on the Royals team charts in starts (302), innings pitched (2,187), and strikeouts (1,323).
Although Leonard would go on to enjoy two more excellent seasons, and a couple of other good ones, 1977 was Dennis Leonard’s Best Forgotten Season.
When a team wins 102 games, as the Royals did in 1977, someone on the team, however, must be contributing something with the bat as well.
The Royals had several players, including a young third baseman named George Brett, who had fine seasons. Players like John Mayberry, Amos Otis, Frank White, Hal McRae, Darrell Porter also contributed with the bat and glove.
But the Royals best overall position player in 1977 was a young, rising star out of Compton, California named Al Cowens.
Cowens played right field for the Royals, and he played it well. He led A.L. right fielders in assists with 14 in ’77, and he won the Gold Glove for his position.
Cowens was also a legitimate power / speed threat, slugging 23 home runs and swiping 16 bases. Playing in all 162 games that year, Cowens had 189 hits, 98 runs scored, and 112 RBI’s. He finished 4th in the A.L. in extra base hits with 69.
Cowens finished 3rd in the league in triples with 14, and his 318 total bases were good for 4th place. His slugging percentage (.525) and OPS (.885) each represented career highs. His OPS+ was also a career best 137.
Cowens accomplishments in 1977 so impressed the MVP voters that he finished second overall in the voting, behind only Rod Carew of the Twins. Not bad for a 75th round draft choice.
Inexplicably for Cowens and the Royals, he never enjoyed a season anywhere near as good as his ’77 season, despite playing ball in the Majors for another nine years.
Tragically, Al Cowens died of a heart attack at the age of 50 in his home in California on March 11, 2002.
Not every player, of course, has multiple great seasons in his career. Numerous are the players who, for whatever reason, enjoyed the spotlight one season, only to fade quickly into relative obscurity soon afterward.
But any one of us who count ourselves as baseball fans would surrender a year or more of our lives just to enjoy a season as fine as Al Cowens did in 1977, his Best Forgotten Season.