We're jumping ahead quite a few spots, but for good reason as beloved Royals broadcaster and former pitcher Paul Splittorff passed away yesterday morning. Splittorff was the #12 Greatest Royals player of All-Time.
Paul Splittorff was a tall, bespectacled, lanky southpaw with a high leg kick that somehow found a way to get guys out despite ridiculously low strikeout totals. He was known as a Yankee-killer during the great Royals rivalry with New York in the 1970s. He was also the first Royals draft pick to ever reach the big leagues. He spent his entire fifteen year Major League career with the Royals and has been associated in some capacity with the franchise every year since 1968. He is the franchise all-time leader in wins, innings pitched and games started. For the last two decades, he has appeared on TV sets throughout the Midwest as the color analyst for Royals broadcasts. George Brett and Frank White may be more iconic, but Paul Splittorff is as true blue Royal as they come.
Paul hailed from Evansville, Indiana but attended high school in Arlington Heights, Illinois in the Chicago area. He led his team to the American Legion World Series, but scouts were unimpressed with the young pitcher’s velocity.
"I saw him coming out of high school, and he couldn’t blacken your eye with his fastball. But you talk about moxie and savvy. Some guys have that natural gift. That’s what got him to the big leagues."
-Royals scout Art Stewart
Splittorff attended tiny Morningside College in Iowa where he played both baseball and basketball. He enjoyed a growth spurt and in 1968, the expansion Kansas City franchise decided to take a chance on the soft-tosser and selected him in the 25th round of the June Amateur Draft.
Splitt was solid, yet unspectacular that first season in short season ball in Corning, New York, posting a 3.45 ERA in fifteen starts. Nonetheless, the Royals aggressively promoted him to AAA Omaha the next season, where he struggled with a 4.55 ERA. He repeated AAA ball again in 1970, posting a 3.83 ERA and earning his first cup of coffee with the Major League club.
In 1971, Splitt got off to a terrific start in Omaha, posting a 1.48 ERA in his first eight starts before earning a promotion in June. He beat the Washington Senators in his first start in what would be a quintessential Splittorff performance – just two strikeouts in seven plus innings, with five hits sprinkled to score just one run in the victory. He would toss a complete game against the Angels two starts later, and a complete game shutout two starts after that, solidifying his spot in a young, but talented Royals rotation. Splitt would end the year with a 2.68 ERA in twenty-two starts, and finished fifth in Rookie of the Year balloting. Hitters were baffled as to how the bespectacled soft-tossing lefty was retiring hitters.
"On this club about all you have to do is get the ball over…this team will back you up. Its one of the main reasons I’m having some success."
Paul went into the 1972 season as the team’s number two starter behind ace Dick Drago. He continued the success of his rookie campaign, winning twelve games with a 3.13 ERA and what would be a career high 140 strikeouts.
Lowest Strikeouts Per Nine Innings for 150 Game Winners, Divisional Era
1. Bob Forsch - 3.65
2. Paul Splittorff - 3.77
3. Jim Slaton - 3.99
4. Doyle Alexander - 4.08
5. Mike Torrez - 4.20
Splitt's breakout season would be 1973, much like it would be the breakout season for the young expansion Royals. Kansas City would enjoy its first winning season at the Major League level, while Splittorff would enjoy his first and only twenty-win season – the first Royals pitcher to accomplish the feat. He would log a team high 262 innings, completing twelve games.
Splittorff's 1974 season suffered from a late summer swoon as he dropped his final seven starts to finish at 13-19 with a 4.10 ERA. His struggles carried into 1975 where his ERA ballooned over five by June leading to a demotion to the bullpen. After manager Jack McKeon was fired, new skipper Whitey Herzog decided to give Splitt another shot. In Paul's second start against the world champion Athletics, he gave up a first inning one-out walk to Phil Garner and a single to Claudell Washington. He then retired the next twenty-six hitters in a row for the complete game victory. Splitt ended the year strong and finished with a 3.16 ERA, rewarding Herzog’s faith in him. He also became the franchise leader in career wins, passing Dick Drago with his 62nd win.
Paul would struggle again to begin the 1976 season, but went on a tear in the hot Kansas City summer. He would string together wins in eight straight decisions, before missing the month of August with a finger injury. He struggled in his return and was sent to the pen for the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. Herzog called on Splitt in the third inning of Game Two, and Paul responded with 5 2/3 innings of shutout ball in relief as the club rallied to beat the Yankees to even the series.
Whitey leaned towards giving Splitt the start in the deciding Game Five, but changed his mind late and went with Dennis Leonard instead. Leonard would fail to retire a batter, and Splittorff was summoned to give the Royals 3 2/3 innings of relief in a game in which the Royals would lose on a Chris Chambliss walk-off home run.
Splitt was the Royals 1977 opening day starter, and would back that honor up with a sixteen-win season. He would win his final seven decisions including a one-hit shutout against the Brewers that was a no-hit bid until the eighth. Whitey gave him the Game One assignment against the Yankees in the ALCS.
"Splittorff is the pitcher most likely to give the Yankees trouble."
-Tigers manager Ralph Houk
The lefty did indeed give the Bronx Bombers fits, sprinkling eight hits over eight innings, and allowing just two runs in the 7-2 Royals victory. He would start the decisive Game Five as well and his reputation against lefties was so great, New York manager Billy Martin benched future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson in the pivotal game. Splitt would give up just one run over the first seven innings and left the game with a 3-1 lead in the eighth. The Yankees would score four runs and clinch the pennant.
Splitt would win nineteen games in 1978, and finish seventh in Cy Young balloting. He managed to befuddle hitters despite just 76 strikeouts in 262 innings pitched. Herzog was ready to tab him to tame the Yankees again in Game One of the ALCS, but bumped him when Splittorff's father passed away just before the series. He would return for Game Three, earning a no-decision with 7 2/3 innings of work in a Game Three loss.
"Splittorff is a better pitcher than he was two years ago. Now he doesn’t rely on his fastball all the time. He has more of an assortment. He used to have to go to his fastball in a jam and the hitters knew it. Now he gets his curve and change over."
Splitt’s performance began to slip in 1979, as he posted an ERA over four for only the second time in his career, finishing with a 15-17 record. In 1980, the Royals found themselves back in the post-season, again facing the Yankees. Splitt would start Game Three of the ALCS, getting a no-decision in a 4-2 victory. Once the Royals had finally vanquished the Yankees, new Royals manager Jim Frey raised some eyebrows when he bumped Splittorff in from the rotation for the World Series. Splitt had won fourteen games for the club that year, and had the post-season experience young Game Three starter Rich Gale lacked.
"I’m not going to let this upset me. It’s the manager’s decision and I have to go along with it. But I don’t have to like it. At this point all I can do is either keep my mouth shut or rip somebody. I don’t want to make any waves. There’s just too much at stake."
The Royals narrowly lost the Series, with Paul’s only appearance coming in relief in the pivotal Game Six. After the series, many questioned Frey's decision. Splittorff would later admit that Frey was the only manager he never got along with.
In 1981, Splitt got off to a solid start, including an impressive eleven-inning shutout against the Twins, but after the strike, he lost much of his effectiveness. Late in the year, the Royals demoted him to the pen to get a look at some younger pitchers.
Paul would return to the rotation in 1982, but the thirty-five year old pitcher suffered back problems much of the year, and would pitch just 162 innings. That winter, he signed a one year deal with a vesting option requiring him to make 27 starts in 1983. He made exactly 27 starts, winning thirteen games. But the writing was on the wall. The Royals had a stable full of young pitchers. Splitt failed to make it through the fourth inning in his first two starts in 1984 and was demoted to the pen. In late June, he made one last start, unable to get out of the fifth inning. He was relieved by a young pitcher named Bret Saberhagen who would go the distance. Days later, Splittorff announced his retirement.
"There's nothing I could do about my age, and my work load wasn't going to change. Retirement was the obvious solution."
Splitt immediately began the next phase of his life and began working as a broadcaster for a small-town radio station, doing high school football games. In 1988, he joined the Royals television broadcast team, the first former player the club had ever used as a color analyst. Splittorff worked hard at his craft and learned to become a very able analyst. He worked his analysis seamlessly into games, recognizing that the best broadcasters fade into the background of the game, rather than make themselves the show. He never gave an aura of entitlement, and aside from his unique insights on the nuances of the game, you could hardly tell he was a former professional athlete. Many young fans grew up with "Split’s Grips", an instructional segment on the art of pitching.
"I want to be remembered as a player who worked hard, got the most out of my ability, and is a winner."
You will be remembered for so much more than that Splitt. Rest in peace.