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The greatest designated hitters in Royals history

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Forget you JoBu.

Kansas City Royals v Baltimore Orioles

The designated hitter, commonly known as the DH, was adopted by the American League in 1973. The DH quite simply bats for the pitcher. The idea of course is that pitchers are typically the weakest hitters on any team. They are paid to pitch, not hit. There are exceptions. Zack Greinke has often hit better than many of the warm bodies the Royals positioned at second base for much of the 2000’s. The idea of the designated hitter has been around for quite some time. In fact, one of the earliest proponents of the designated hitter was Philadelphia Athletics owner Connie Mack in 1906.

The idea was floated around baseball from time to time, but never was again seriously considered until after the 1968 season, the so-called “Year of the Pitcher”. Denny McLain won 31 games that summer, and Bob Gibson went 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA over 304 innings. Granted, McLain was a two-time Cy Young winner who was dominant between 1965 and 1969 and Gibson was simply one of the all-time greats, but the American League batting champion that season was Carl Yastrzemski with a paltry .301 average.

Over in the National League, the pitching didn’t seem to bother Pete Rose much as he won the batting race over Matty Alou, .335 to .332. To boost offense, the leagues lowered the mounds from 15 to 10 inches and reduced the size of the strike zone. The changes appear to have some effect. Pete Rose once again won the National League batting title with a .348 number, beating the great Roberto Clemente who clocked in at .345. Over in the junior circuit, Rod Carew came out on top with a .332 average, besting Reggie Smith of Boston, who hit .309. It could be that the American League had better pitchers, though I don’t believe that. In fact, looking at the ERA leaders for both leagues, it appears the National League had better pitchers. Or maybe the National League just had better hitters, as every player in their top ten hit better than .300, while only six of the top ten eclipsed .300 in the American. Either way, that’s a debate for some writer more in tune with analytics than I am.

It should come as no surprise that one of the leading proponents of the DH for the American League was former Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley. Most of Finley’s ideas would have been called “thinking outside the box”. In today’s fancy pants business lingo, Finley would be known as a disrupter or an early adopter. Most owners and general managers were perfectly happy to think inside the box in those days and just cash their checks. There were exceptions of course. Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck come to mind. Finley, on the other hand, was always looking for an idea to make the game more enjoyable.

Some of his early ideas such as team mascots, ball girls and different colored uniforms are standard practice today. While in Oakland, he paid his players $300 each to grow mustaches. Finley had also broken new ground in 1974 by adding Herb Washington to his roster as a designated runner. Washington was a world class sprinter who had no baseball experience. Washington appeared in 105 games over two seasons but only stole 31 bases in 48 attempts. He did score 33 runs but never made an official plate appearance. He did get a baseball card in 1975 with the position listed as: pinch runner. Some of Finley’s other ideas, like a mechanical rabbit that would deliver balls to the home plate umpire, thankfully, never took hold.

In January of 1973, Finley and other American League owners voted 8-4 to approve the use of the designated hitter. To some fans and players, the DH was a smash hit. To baseball purists, it was pure blasphemy. In response to an increase in American League attendance, the National League put the DH up for vote in 1980. The vote failed with four teams voting for, five teams voting against and three teams abstaining. And that was it. The old fuddy duddies of the National League have not held another vote on the DH since.

The designated hitter era in Kansas City kicked off on April 6 in the second inning of the Royals’ 1973 opener against Nolan Ryan and the California Angels. Ed Kirkpatrick was the first Royal designated hitter and he drew a walk in that initial plate appearance. Kirkpatrick, known as “Spanky”, went hitless in his other three plate appearances against The Ryan Express. The real beneficiaries of the DH rule were Royal pitchers Steve Busby, Bruce Dal Canton and Tom Burgmeier, who didn’t have to face Ryan, who was at the height of his powers in 1973. The Angels won that game by a score of 3-2 as Ryan only allowed six hits. He walked four which was a low number for him, and he struck out 12, with a fastball that regularly broke 100 mph. That game took all of two hours and thirteen minutes to play.

My second favorite Royal, Kurt Bevacqua, took over as DH the next night and collected two hits in four at bats along with scoring three runs and driving home another in a 12-5 Kansas City victory. Wayne Simpson, who came over in the Hal McRae trade, picked up the win that night, one of his three career Kansas City victories and if given the choice between seeing Wayne Simpson bat or Kurt Bevacqua bat, I’ll take Bevacqua every time, thank you very much.

In the early days of the DH, the Royals tried squeezing an extra year out of over the hill stars. Names like Harmon Killebrew, Vada Pinson, Rick Reichardt, Orlando Cepeda and Tommy Davis were routinely in the lineup, often without much success. It stayed that way until 1976 when Whitey Herzog looked down his bench and realized he had a custom-made DH already on the team. In compiling this list, I limited the best to players who primarily played DH. Most Royals have manned the DH at one time or another, names like George Brett and Mike Moustakas. I left those players out of the discussion, as they are primarily seen as position players.

Honorable Mention: Bill Buckner, Orlando Cepeda, Harmon Killebrew, Jorge Soler. To all Soler fans, with another season or two like he had in 2019, he will easily move well into the top five.

5. Chili Davis

Davis only played one season in Kansas City, 1997. He was acquired from the Anaheim Angels for pitchers Mark Gubicza and Mike Bovee. It was a curious trade, giving up two pitchers for a 37-year-old whose only job was to hit. To Davis’ credit, he did hit. He slashed .279/.386/.509 with 30 home runs and 90 RBI in 477 at-bats. Davis, a three time All-Star, left Kansas City after that season, signing with the New York Yankees. 1997 was his last good year, as he DH’d for 181 more games over two seasons in New York, with a combined 22 home runs and 87 RBI. That put an end to a 19-year career, in which Davis hit 350 bombs and was worth 38 WAR.

4. Kendrys Morales

Interesting fact - Kendrys Morales is the only Kendrys in Major League history. Similarly, Chili Davis is the only Chili in major league history. Morales signed with the Royals as a free agent in December of 2014. I’ve always thought the Morales signing was one of the best free agent signings of Dayton Moore’s tenure. The Royals needed another power bat and Morales could hit. The switch-hitting Morales tenure in Kansas City was short, two seasons, but he produced with a slash of .277/.344/.476 with 52 home runs, 199 RBI and 146 runs scored. He also delivered some huge hits in the 2015 postseason, especially in the Houston series as he blistered the Astros for three home runs and six RBI. After his Royal contract expired, Morales signed with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

3. Raul Ibanez

Talk about a fascinating story. Ibanezs’ parents emigrated from Cuba to the United States in 1970 and Raul was born in 1972. He was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 36th round of the 1992 draft. He got a four-game cup of coffee with Seattle in 1996 but bounced between Seattle and their minor league affiliates until 2000. At that point in his career, he had played parts of five seasons in the big leagues, getting a total of 518 plate appearances and hit .241 with 14 home runs. There was certainly nothing in the numbers that would lead one to believe any future stardom would await.

None of that mattered to Royals General Manager Allard Baird, who loved a reclamation project. He signed Ibanez to a free agent contract and Ibanez delivered. Over the next three seasons, Ibanez would appear in 398 games for Kansas City, slashing .291/.347/.492 with 55 home runs, 249 RBI and 209 runs scored, while playing all over the field: first base, third base, and all three outfield positions, as well as DH. When his contract expired after the 2003 season, much to my chagrin (and many other Royal fans) the club either could not or would not re-sign the popular Ibanez, who accepted a five-year, $23.6 million dollar deal to go back to Seattle. It turns out Ibanez was just getting started. Over the next ten seasons, he slashed .275/.339/.474 while slamming 231 home runs and driving home 876 more. He made one All-Star team and picked up MVP votes in three seasons. In June of 2014, the Royals needed some veteran leadership, resigned Ibanez, and at the age of 42, he played the final 33 games of his career with Kansas City. He was on the Royals Wild Card roster but did not receive any playing time. The club left him off the World Series roster, opting to give the last spot to Jayson Nix. Ned really loved those middle infielders who couldn’t hit their weight.

2. Billy Butler

There have been two Bill Butlers play for Kansas City. The first was Bill Butler, a left-handed pitcher on the original Royals. Between 1969 and 1971, he won 14 games. The second was better known as Billy Butler. St. Joseph News-Press sport editor Ross Martin coined the term “Country Breakfast” for Butler, a classic baseball nickname. Even now, my wife will ask me, “who does Country Breakfast play for?” She can’t remember his name, but she never forgets his nickname.

The Royals drafted Butler with the 14th pick of the first round of the 2004 draft. That 2004 draft was something else. It produced several future Royals including Josh Fields, J.P. Howell, Jason Vargas, Wade Davis, Ben Zobrist, Justin Maxwell, Lorenzo Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Billy Buckner and Martin Maldonado. One thing Royal fans always heard about the up and coming Butler was that the kid could hit. And he did, to the tune of .373 at Rookie League Idaho Falls. .348 at High Desert. .331 at Wichita and finally .291 at Omaha before getting a call up to Kansas City.

He made his debut on May 1, 2007 at the age of 21 and singled in his first at bat. He finished that rookie season with a slash of .292/.347/.447 over 360 plate appearances. His best season at the plate came in the 2012 campaign when he went off for .313/.373/.510 with a career high of 29 home runs and 107 RBI while winning a Silver Slugger and making his first and only All-Star team. That was the season that Robbie Cano famously left Butler out of the American League All Star home run derby and the partisan crowd at the K let him know in one of the all-time great baseball blisterings. Cano was so shaken by the boo birds that he failed to get a single ball over the fence. Some fans were appalled that polite Kansas Citians could act in such an undignified manner. Not me. I loved every second of it. Cano had publicly stated he would include a hometown Royal in the contest, then for some reason, backed out of his promise. Kansas City fans didn’t forget and their boos and cries of “Rob-bie Can-o” were sweet nectar in the air.

Butler played eight seasons in Kansas City, and though his time in the field was few and far between, he did put up excellent numbers at the plate: .295/.359/.449 with 127 home runs and 628 RBI. He also drew scorn from Royal fans for his predilection of grounding into inning killing double plays, leading the American League in that department twice. Many fans felt his lack of conditioning played a part in that.

When his contract expired after the 2014 season, the Royals opted to let Butler walk and he signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Oakland Athletics. He was released late in the 2016 season by Oakland and picked up by the Yankees for their playoff drive. He appeared in 12 games for New York but went unsigned after the 2016 season and was out of baseball at the age of 30.

Chicago White Sox v Kansas City Royals

1. Hal McRae

Was there really any doubt? I think there are only three positions in Royals history where their greatest player is a no-doubt pick - third base and second base, obviously, and the designated hitter. All three players played the bulk of their career’s together, forming the nucleus of those great Royals teams from the 1970s and ‘80s.

Hal McRae was originally drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the sixth round of the 1965 draft. His minor league career was up and down: .154 at Tampa followed by .287 at Peninsula. .251 at Buffalo followed by .290 at Knoxville. He made his major league debut on July 11, 1968. He played second base and rapped singles in his first two at bats against future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry. McRae collected five hits in his first five games before being sent back to Indianapolis. He returned to Cincinnati for a 12-game stint in September, but only hit .147.

Playing winter ball in Puerto Rico in 1969, McRae suffered multiple fractures of his right leg while sliding into second base. The injury caused him to miss nearly all the 1969 season. McRae bounced back to make the big-league club in 1970, which was the start of the Big Red Machine dynasty. That team finished at 102-60 before losing to the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. The Reds slumped in 1971 but bounced back to a 95-59 finish in 1972 which culminated in a seven-game loss to the Oakland Athletics in the World Series.

It was in that series that I first noticed McRae. Sitting in my parents small living room in Lincoln, Kansas, watching every inning of the series on our 14-inch color TV. It was the second inning of Game Four and McRae was on first after hitting a single. The next batter, Dennis Menke, hit a squibber to third. McRae charged hard into second base and threw a cross body block on A’s second baseman Dick Green, making certain there would be no double play. I’ve seen football players kicked out of games for lesser hits. I remember being shocked at the violence of the hit but that’s just the way baseball was played in those days. Green didn’t seem to angry about the hit and McRae, ever the gentleman, patted Green’s shoulder and asks if he were all right. Nice thing to do after you’ve nearly cut a guy in half.

In November of 1972, Royals General Manager Cedric Tallis made what seemed to be a horrible trade. He sent his best pitcher from 1972, Roger Nelson, and one of his best hitters, Richie Scheinblum (an All-Star in 1972, who hit .300) to the Reds for McRae and a sore-arm pitcher named Wayne Simpson. To the Kansas City faithful, it looked like a trade that could blow up and ruin Tallis’ sterling reputation as a trade master. The trade had to be disappointing for McRae. He would be leaving a team that was on the verge of becoming one of the dominant teams of the early 1970’s and a future World Series champ to go to a team that would only be playing in its fifth season. If he was disappointed, he never voiced it publicly.

Tallis must have been some kind of baseball wizard. Nelson’s arm troubles returned, and he only pitched in 148 innings over 31 more major league games. Scheinblum was out of the league after the 1974 season. Simpson’s arm never healed. He pitched in 16 games in a Royal uniform in 1973, and 34 more for two other teams before retiring after the 1977 season. Hal McRae on the other hand developed into a major star and one of the greatest designated hitters of all time.

Mac played in Kansas City for 15 seasons, collecting 1,924 hits including 169 home runs, 449 doubles and 1,013 RBI while slashing .293/.356/.458. He made three All-Star teams (1975, 1976 and 1982, led the league in doubles twice and RBI, OBP and OPS once. He nearly won a batting title in 1976, his .332 finishing second to teammate George Brett’s .333. He finished fourth in the league’s MVP vote twice (1976 and 1982) and won a Silver Slugger in 1982. He hit over .300 six times and narrowly missed .300 in three other seasons. Could Tallis somehow have known that stardom awaited McRae? After all, Hal had only hit .278 in 105 plate appearances in the 1972 season for Cincinnati. He didn’t really have a position. The broken leg had sapped him of his once blazing speed. Yet somehow Tallis knew.

I recall the first time I saw McRae play in person, August 9, 1973 against the Boston Red Sox in a game won by the Royals 3-2. McRae had been, to put it lightly, a bit of a disappointment, coming into the game hitting .199. He had bottomed out at .151 on June 17th but had been swinging the bat better as the weather grew warmer. In the bottom of the second, facing Bill “Spaceman” Lee (no relation) and the Sox leading 1-0, McRae smashed a one-out drive that struck the right-center fence about ten inches short of leaving the park. Mac hustled out an RBI triple to tie the game. He then scored on a sacrifice fly to give the Royals the lead.

Leading off the fourth, McRae turned on a Lee fastball and drove the pitch deep over the left field fence. The drive struck the back wall of the left field bullpen. Another four feet and the ball would have bounced onto the left field concession plaza. It remains the longest home run I have personally witnessed in Royals Stadium. McRae had driven in or scored all the Royals runs that evening. The win moved them to 66-50 which was the best record in the American League and gave them a one game lead over Oakland in the American League West. The lead didn’t stick, but McRae did. He finished 1973 by hitting .283 over his final 66 games to finish with a .234 average. More importantly, he infused a level of toughness into a young team, his hustle showed his teammates how to stretch singles into doubles and how to break up double plays.

Speaking of breaking up double plays, McRae’s evisceration of Willie Randolph in Game Two of the 1977 American League Championship Series led Major League Baseball to enact a new rule requiring players to slide into second base to prevent injury. The rule became known as the Hal McRae rule.

McRae collected his final hit on June 17, 1987 against the Oakland A’s, a single to left field that scored Steve Balboni. He appeared in five more games before calling it a career at the age of 41.

McRae went on to manage the Royals from 1991 to 1994, leading the team to a 286-277 record. He was elected to the Royals Hall of Fame in 1989.