Mike MacFarlane was a terrific offensive catcher who the Royals always seemed to want to demote to the bench. He had to fight for playing time nearly every season in Kansas City, despite being one of the best offensive catchers of his era. In his playing days in Kansas City from 1988-1994, he was tenth in OPS (.764) among 65 Major League catchers with at least 1,000 plate appearances over that time. He was also known for his toughness, playing through numerous injuries and being one of the most hit batters in baseball during his days, twice leading the league.
``Why are we letting Mac hit? Mac doesn't want to hit. All Mac wants is to squat behind the plate and get hit in the face with a few foul tips."
"Mac" ran and hit as if his torso was a tree trunk with arms and legs. It was an awkward, rigid motion, but he derived a lot of strength from his legs and used his low center of gravity to great effect. Perhaps it was because he didn't "look" like a fluid catcher that the team questioned his defense. As a Royals catcher, MacFarlane had a positive dWAR, gunning down 34% of would-be base-stealers, just a bit above league average. Of the top ten WAR seasons by a catcher in Royals history, Mac has three of them.
Michael Andrew MacFarlane grew up in Stockton up in northern California, attending school at nearby Santa Clara University. He had a huge junior season with the Broncos and the Royals selected him in the fourth round of the 1985 draft. The Royals had the 21-year old catcher start his career at AA Memphis, which he handled well, hitting .269/.315/.480 in 65 games. The Royals had him repeat AA, but a rotator cuff injury limited him to just 40 games. MacFarlane hit well in Omaha the following year, earning a few stints with the big league club, but the club was still handling him gingerly due to his injury, not even giving him a September callup.
In 1988, MacFarlane won the starting catching job and became the first rookie to start behind the plate for Kansas City since Ellie Rodriguez in 1969. MacFarlane got off to a sensational start, hitting .378 with five doubles in April, and it looked like he was beginning to fulfill his potential as the catcher of the future.
Every day, all I thought about was convincing them that my shoulder was all right. Last year, I had my doubts whether I could throw guys out. I had doubts that I could even get the ball there. This spring, I had no doubt. I just had to convince the Royals.
MacFarlane's bat cooled down over the summer, but he was still hitting .265/.323/.399 when the team abruptly demoted him to Omaha in July in favor of light-hitting journeyman Larry Owen.
Our feeling is that if we're going to make a run at this thing (the division title), our pitching is going to have to be extraordinary. It's going to have to be dominant. And for that to happen, we though a more experienced catcher like Larry would be the best guy to go with.
-Royals General Manager John Schuerholz
MacFarlane was criticized for his handling of the pitching staff, primarily the struggles of veteran Charlie Leibrandt. Even after he was recalled in September callups, he did not get into a single game. That winter, the Royals signed long-time veteran Bob Boone to be the starter, leaving MacFarlane to battle for a backup role. Perhaps it was frustration over playing time that led MacFarlane to charge the mound after he was one of seven Royals hitters plunked by Rangers pitchers in a game in September. That season, MacFarlane's offense sputtered, and he posted a career-worst OPS of .563 in 167 plate appearances.
Mac was once again Bob Boone's backup to begin the 1990 season, but when Boone broke his hand in May, MacFarlane stepped in. His defense improved enough that he started most games even when Boone returned in July. Mac got off to a great start in 1991, and was hitting .276/.326/.514 when he tore his MCL in a home plate collision with Joe Carter that would cause him to miss all but the last two weeks of the season.
In 1992, MacFarlane again had to fight for his job with former first round pick Brent Mayne now Major League ready. There were rumors the team might trade him for starting pitching, especially after the club acquired a third catcher in veteran Bob Melvin. In the end, however, the Royals kept MacFarlane and kept him in an unofficial platoon situation with Mayne. Mac would outhit Mayne by a large margin (.755 OPS vs. .532 OPS) and lead the league in being hit by pitches, one of two seasons he would lead the league in that category.
MacFarlane lost the starting catching job to Mayne in the spring training of 1993, but by mid-May he was starting nearly every day. He enjoyed the best offensive season of his career that year, hitting .273/.360/.497 in 117 games, becoming just the second catcher in franchise history to hit 20 home runs in a season.
The Royals had MacFarlane hit cleanup for the 1994 season which is a good indication of how good the team was offensively. Despite the honor, MacFarlane took nothing for granted.
"Every year its been someone or something."
The team continued to push for more playing time for Brent Mayne, and once owner Muriel Kaufman passed away that season, it became clear MacFarlane and his expensive salary were not part of Kansas City's future. Despite finishing third on the team in slugging percentage, the Royals non-tendered MacFarlane that winter. Boston, who had been rumored to be interested in trading for him for several seasons, signed him to a one-year deal.
It didn't take long for the Royals and MacFarlane to re-unite. Manager Bob Boone wanted a strong voice in the clubhouse and a right-handed power bat, so the Royals brought MacFarlane back on a cheap two-year deal. Brent Mayne had finally proven to be a bust and was traded to the Mets, but the Royals wanted MacFarlane to mentor another young catcher in Sal Fasano. MacFarlane would perform well in 1996 despite playing much of the year with a broken finger. He had a 2.8 rWAR season, hitting .274/.339/.499 in 112 games.
His hitting declined in 1997 and with youngsters like Fasano and Mike Sweeney coming up, MacFarlane would soon be out of a starting job. The Royals re-signed him that winter, but with a paycut for a backup role. After just three games, the Royals dealt MacFarlane to Oakland for outfielder Shane Mack. Being traded just after signing a contract required MacFarlane's consent in being traded, and initially Mac's agent Jeff Moorad said MacFarlane would not accept a trade. MacFarlane would later say it was a "breakdown in communications", saying, `Why stay with a team that doesn't want you? I'm going to go."
MacFarlane spent two year in Oakland before finally calling it quits. He settled down in the Kansas City area and opened a baseball instructional facility with former Royals third baseman Kevin Seitzer. He spent a few years calling games for ESPN and is a frequent guest on local sports talk radio programs.
"Yeah, it's a job, and guys make millions of dollars and all that. But deep down, beneath all of it, we just want to go out there and play a game. I believe that. It's in all of us. ''