The 35th Greatest Royal of All-Time was one of the first good Royals pitchers in franchise history and a workhorse, pitcher Dick Drago.
"We are judged by what we finish, not what we start."
Baseball men lament the passing of the "good ol' days" when men were men and pitchers completed all their games. I mocked them a bit in my piece on Jose Rosado, but in all honesty, I too wish that pitchers would complete more games. We like to see people finish a job well done, and there is nothing more demoralizing than seeing your ace pitcher leave in the seventh only to see a much inferior middle reliever blow the lead.
The loss of the complete game isn't because today's pitchers aren't manly men, its because the game has fundamentally changed. In 1969, when Dick Drago broke into the American League, teams averaged 5.57 strikeouts per game. Last year, they averaged 6.58 strikeouts per game. Strikeouts are extremely taxing on pitchers. They require maximum effort of delivery, and generally more pitches than allowing contact.
But today's pitchers don't have the benefit of allowing more contact. Here's what the average 7-8-9 hitters did in 1969.
7 - .246/.316/.346
8 - .228/.312/.318
9 - .157/.215/.214 (remember, these were pitchers)
Here's what 7-8-9 hitters did in 2008.
Today's #7 hitters generally hit about as well as 1969's #5 hitters. Today's #9 hitters hit about as well as 1969's leadoff hitters. American League hitters slugged .369 in 1969. They slugged .420 last year. Its not difficult to see why it has become harder to complete games.
Most Complete Games in Royals History
1. Dennis Leonard 1974-1986 - 103
2. Paul Splittorff1970-1984 - 88
3. Bret Saberhagen 1984-1991 - 64
4. Larry Gura 1976-1985 - 61
5. Steve Busby 1972-1980 - 53
5. Dick Drago 1969-1973 - 53
Dick Drago was a finisher. Through five seasons, Drago had 53 complete games. From 2000-2008, all Royals pitchers combined had 51 complete games. The game has certainly changed.
Dick Drago hailed from Toledo, Ohio and pitched collegiately at the University of Detroit. After one year, he signed with the nearby Detroit Tigers. In his first pro season, he split time between Daytona Beach and Rocky Mount (NC) where he had the lousiest luck. He gave up 78 runs in 142 innings, but 25 of those runs were unearned. And despite his 3.36 ERA that season, he finished with a 5-14 record. Its a wonder he didn't kill any of his teammates.
The next season, Drago didn't need any help. He posted a 1.79 ERA and won fifteen games. The next year, he won fifteen games again with a 2.41 ERA. He won fifteen games again the following year for Detroit's top minor league affiliate, his hometown Toledo Mudhens.
The 1968 Tigers were World Champs with a loaded pitching staff, so there wasn't much room for the kid from Toledo. The Tigers exposed Drago in the 1969 Expansion Draft. The Kansas City Royals, looking for young talent under General Manager Cedric Tallis, selected him as the 31st player.
"I didn’t feel bad about coming to the Royals because I knew I’d get a chance to pitch here, but actually it was about as hard for me to make the Kansas City staff as it would have been to make the Detroit staff. We had a lot of good pitchers in camp...and the competition was tough."
Drago was not part of the initial rotation for the inaugural season, but by May he was starting games for the young Royals. He fired complete game victories in his first two starts, but dropped five straight starts in June. He ended the year strong, tossing six complete games in August and September, including two shutouts. He would end his rookie season with a respectable 11-13 record and a 3.77 ERA in just over 200 innings of work.
Drago tossed a complete game shutout in his first outing of the 1970 season, but he would struggle mightily over the next two months. A great September would salvage his season, but he would end with a 9-15 record and a 3.75 ERA. His 240 innings would lead the ballclub, but his fifteen losses would be sixth most in the league. That winter, the Royals tried to offer Drago to the Pirates as part of a deal that would net them shortstop Fred Patek, but Pittsburgh would insist on pitcher Bob Johnson instead.
Drago got the Opening Day assignment for the Royals in 1971 and gave up just one unearned run in a complete game win over the Angels. Unlike the previous season, he would build upon his solid start by winning seven of his first nine decisions, including back-to-back complete game shutouts in early June.
“Dick has improved quite a bit over last season. His control is better and he’s learned how to move the ball around. He’s able to win on nights when he doesn’t have his best stuff or when he’s having trouble with his control. This is a sign of maturity.”
-Royals Manager Bob Lemon
Drago tossed five complete game victories in July, then tossed three consecutive game victories in August. Drago would finish with fifteen complete games* in all, most in the history of the young franchise. He would also set a team record with seventeen wins, four shutouts, and a 2.98 ERA.
*-He would be credited with a complete game on July 30, despite pitching just four innings in a rain shortened game. He would give up just one hit - and lose.
Its amazing Drago had such success despite such low strikeout totals. In 1971 he struck out just 109 in 241 1/3 innings. As illustrated above, players struck out much less back in the early 70s, but even among contemporaries, this was awfully low. Among 83 pitchers that qualified for the ERA title in 1971, Drago was 73rd in strikeouts per nine innings at 4.06.* In comparison, the only pitcher last year who had that few strikeouts per nine innings and qualified for the ERA title was Livan Hernandez, and he had a 6.05 ERA.
*-More amazingly is that two pitchers worse than him were twenty game winners Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar who of course had terrific defenders like Mark Belanger, Paul Blair and Brooks Robinson behind them. Another was Royals fifteen-game winner Mike Hedlund, which should give you an idea of how good the Royals defense was at this time too.
Drago would get off to a brilliant start in 1972. On May 24, he went a stunning twelve innings, striking out thirteen - and lost 1-0 to the Twins. By July 7, he had a 2.36 ERA, but just a 7-7 record due to a lack of run support. He was Kevin Appier before Kevin Appier. Drago would go on to lose five straight starts, including back-to-back outings in which his teammates would fail to score him a run. He finished with a disappointing 12-17 record. His 3.01 ERA seems impressive, but it was merely league average for that season. This was just before the American League instituted the designated hitter, and the apex of anemic offenses.
In the days before the designated hitter, pitchers actually hit in the American League. Although in some cases, they used the term "hit" very loosely. Drago is the all-time leader in Royals history for at-bats by a Royals pitcher with 237, but he collected just 21 hits, good for a .077 average. Somehow though, he did draw an amazing 21 walks, which is more than Tony Pena Jr. has drawn in his career in almost three times the plate appearances.
Worst Batting Average, Royals History (min. 50 PAs)
1. Bill Butler 1969-1971 - .052
2. Dick Drago 1969-1973 - .077
3. Bruce Dal Canton 1971-1975 - .092
4. Bob Johnson 1970 - .105
5. Wally Bunker 1969-1971 - .109*
*-the worst batting average for a non-pitcher in Royals history is catcher Jim Campanis (1969-1970) who hit .146 in 148 plate appearances. Just behind him is catcher Jason LaRue at .148.
Drago would again be a workhorse in 1973, going ten innings in a loss against the Angels and completing five games in June. Drago began to falter in August, and by September he was pitching sparingly. He would claim manager Jack McKeon had given up on him. The Royals looked to deal the unhappy pitcher, and that October they shipped him to Boston for pitcher Marty Pattin.
Drago pitched in Boston for two seasons, serving as the closer for their 1975 pennant-winning ballclub. In 1976, he gave up the final home run of Hank Aaron's career. Drago would bounce around as a reliever with the Angels, Orioles, back to the Red Sox, before finishing his career with the Mariners. He would never fare as well as he did in Kansas City.
"There are two kinds of people, those who finish what they start and so on. "