When I started this list thing, I really thought it would be enjoyable, you know, a walk down memory lane. Well memory lane isn’t so great, especially when it comes to the catcher position. The truth is, Kansas City has been a black hole for catchers. Sure, there’s been a couple of really good catchers, but for a franchise that is 51 years old, you’d think filling out a top five would be easy. Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys. Have them be a catcher because evidently there is a serious shortage of great ones.
I had no idea that Brent Mayne stuck around the bigs for 15 seasons. Buck Martinez and Jamie Quirk hung on for 17 and 18 years respectively. Mayne had 20 career home runs in 15 seasons. Buck Martinez had 15 career home runs in his 17 years. Compare that to Mark Belanger who carved out an 18-year career as a great fielding, no-hit shortstop for the Orioles. Belanger somehow stroked 20 career home runs and was good for 41 WAR, while Mayne, Quirk and Martinez were good for a combined 9 WAR. I know that’s comparing apples to oranges, but I came away amazed at how weak the Royals have been at catcher most years.
Another issue that complicated matters is that three former backstops I considered (Ed Kirkpatrick, Jamie Quirk and John Wathan) also spent considerable time playing other positions for the Royals. I ran over the stats of 11 different catchers and amazingly, those 11 have caught most of all games the Royals have played. Well let’s get to the ugly.
Ed Kirkpatrick and Jim Sundberg. Sundberg had a fantastic career, good for 41 WAR. The problem was only 2 of his 16 years were spent in Kansas City. He played a huge part of the 1985 Royals winning the World Series. In the playoffs and World Series, he had timely hitting and expertly managed the young pitching staff.
5. John Buck
Buck was drafted by the Houston Astros in the seventh round of the 1998 draft. On June 24, 2004 he was traded to the Royals as part of the infamous three team trade in which Kansas City sent future Hall of Famer Carlos Beltran to Houston in return for Buck, Mark Teahen, Mike Wood and cash. He made his Major League debut the next day at the age of 23.
Buck went on to catch 569 games in his Kansas City career that spanned 6 seasons. He slashed .235/.298/.407 with 70 home runs and 259 RBI over those six years before the Royals gave up on him, failing to tender him a contract after the 2009 season. Buck signed with the Toronto Blue Jays and naturally, he had his best season as a pro, slashing .281/.314/.489 while posting career highs with 20 home runs and 66 RBI. He also made his only All-Star team that year.
Buck, Teahen and Wood unfairly bore the brunt of fan frustration for a poor trade orchestrated by Allard Baird while Beltran continued to star. Buck played for seven teams in an 11-year career that saw him play in almost 1,100 games. In Kansas City, he was a decent player, not great, not horrible, good for 2 WAR. Ranking him at #5 just shows you how bare the catching cupboard has been for the Royals.
4. John Wathan
Wathan, affectionately known as Duke for his impression of John Wayne, was drafted in the first round of the January 1971 draft, the fourth overall selection. 1971 was an excellent draft year for the Royals. Other picks in 1971 included Steve Busby, Joe Zdeb, Mark Littell and some California kid named Brett.
Wathan did a full tour of the Royals minor league system: San Jose, Waterloo, Jacksonville and Omaha before finally making his debut on May 26, 1976. He was a fixture in Kansas City for the 16 seasons, ten of those as a player and five as manager. He caught 572 games for the Royals and slashed .262/.318/.343. He never had much power, hitting only 21 career home runs, but he did drive in 261 runs and stole 105 bases, including 36 bags in 1982, which was a club record for the catcher position. Wathan was also versatile, seeing time at first base and in the outfield. He ended his career as a 5 WAR player.
3. Mike MacFarlane
MacFarlane was drafted by the Royals in the fourth round of the 1985 draft out of Santa Clara University. He made a quick run through the Royals minor league system and made his major league debut on July 23, 1987 at the age of 23.
MacFarlane was a steady presence behind the plate for the next 11 seasons, catching a then club record 818 games (since broken by Sal Perez). Over his Royals career, MacFarlane slashed .256/.327/.439 with 103 home runs and 398 RBI. He was a strong defensive catcher and ended his career with 15 WAR. MacFarlane actually had two stints in Kansas City, the first lasting from his debut in 1987 to the end of the 1994 season. He then became a free agent and signed a one-year deal with the Boston Red Sox. When that deal expired, he resigned with the Royals and stayed with them until being traded to Oakland on April 8, 1998 for Shane Mack. He played two seasons in Oakland before retiring after the 1999 campaign, ending a solid 13-year career.
2. Darrell Porter
Darrell Porter was drafted fourth overall in the 1970 draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. Porter was also a terrific football player and had considered going to Oklahoma University to play quarterback. Porter made a rapid rise through the Brewers system and made his debut on September 2, 1971, against the Royals coincidentally, as a 19-year-old. He played parts of six seasons in Milwaukee before the Brewers gave up on him and traded him to the Royals (with Jim Colborn) in a trade that paid immediate dividends to the rising Royals.
Porter was known for his intensity, and with teammates Hal McRae and George Brett, formed a trifecta of super intense competitors that pushed the Royals to new heights. Porter only played in Kansas City for four seasons, but lord, what seasons they were. Over those four years, Porter caught 555 games and slashed .271/.375/.435 with 61 home runs, 301 RBI, 318 walks and 290 runs while providing excellent glove work and throwing out 38% of would be base stealers.
Porter made three All-Star teams in those four seasons and his 1979 campaign was one of the greatest offensive seasons ever for a Royal and one of the best in baseball history for a catcher. That summer, Porter slashed .291/.421/.484 with 20 home runs, 112 RBI, 101 runs scored, and he drew a league leading 121 walks, all good for an OPS of 142 and 7.6 WAR. Don Baylor won the MVP that season, but a case can be made that the three best players in the American League were Fred Lynn, George Brett and Darrell Porter.
Porter famously overcame substance abuse problems, but when his contract expired at the end of the 1980 season, General Manager Joe Burke shied away from resigning his star catcher. Porter even offered a hometown discount, but Burke said no thanks. Porter then went east and reunited with his former manager Whitey Herzog. He played five seasons in St. Louis, helping lead the Cardinals to two World Series appearances, during which Porter won the MVP of the 1982 fall classic. He concluded his 17-year career with two seasons playing for the Texas Rangers before moving back to Kansas City in retirement.
Unfortunately, Porter had a relapse and on August 5, 2002, died from a drug induced heart attack. Porter, always a fan favorite in Kansas City, gone to soon at the age of 50.
1. Salvador Perez
Salvador Perez, Salvy, El Nino. Professor of the Salvy Splash and one of the most popular players in Royals history, was signed by Kansas City as an amateur free agent of October 10th, 2006. What a find he was. He made his Major lLague debut on August 10, 2011 at the age of 21, collecting his first hit off Wade Davis, ironically, and picking off two baserunners from behind the plate.
Even though he missed the entire 2019 season, his body of work easily places him as the best backstop in Kansas City history. Salvy has caught 874 games in eight seasons of work while slashing .266/.297/.442 with 141 home runs and 503 RBI. He has appeared in six All-Star games, won five Golden Gloves and two Silver Sluggers. He delivered the game winning hit in the 2014 Wild card game and was named the MVP of the 2015 World Series. Salvy is a strong defensive catcher with a rocket arm. His power stroke has been maturing and the good news is he’s only 29. Someday, upon retirement, Salvy will take his place in the Royals Hall of Fame. Until then, enjoy watching him.