The Royals have a Hall of Fame that is an incredibly well-done museum that honors the franchise and it’s history. It is fairly inclusive of the talent that has passed through Royals, and now Kauffman, Stadium, bringing the franchise four American League pennants and two World Series titles. Even the lean years are represented in the Royals Hall of Fame. Sure, their are some glaring omissions (Danny Tartabull, Bo Jackson, Charlie Leibrandt) but it’s a strong historical representation of the team and its roots in Kansas City.
As noted earlier this week, the three retired numbers in Royals franchise history represent a baseball icon, a franchise icon and a manager who, at the time of his passing, was the greatest manager in club history. They are due to add to that number.
Teams have their own criteria for retiring a number. (the Red Sox only retire numbers for players who have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame while the Yankees have retired the numbers of a handful of fan favorites.) The Royals clearly believe that numbers should be retired only in the rarest of instances. In over 50 years of their history, they have honored just the three. Although I argued now is the time to honor one or two more, there were several names I intentionally left out of the discussion. Names who fell just short of fitting the criteria. Maybe I can be persuaded to retire even more numbers. It will be a difficult sell, but why not think about a few more players?
22 - Dennis Leonard
Let’s start here, because Leonard was the first consistent, dominant starter (Steve Busby was the Royals’ first dominant starter, but his career was cut short by injury.) Leonard ranks fourth among Royals pitchers in fWAR at 32.9, but was the franchise leader when he retired.
Leonard was a strikeout artist, back in the day when there weren’t that many whiffs to be had. He finished top five in strikeouts in the AL five times in his prime, but only topped 200 once. That was in 1977 when he whiffed 244. He finished second that year to some guy named Nolan Ryan.
With the strikeouts, Leonard was a stalwart of the Royals’ rotation in their first run of AL West dominance in the late ‘70s and early 80s. He missed the playoff run and World Championship in the mid-80s after a horrific knee injury suffered in 1983. The injury cost him the rest of his age 32 season, along with the next two. He rehabbed for over two full seasons and came back to pitch a complete game, three-hit shutout against the Toronto Blue Jays in his first start since the injury. Quite a comeback.
11 - Hal McRae
The designated hitter wasn’t created for specifically McRae, it only felt that way. McRae arrived in Kansas City as a right fielder from the Cincinnati Reds in 1973 where he already had the reputation as a hard-nosed player in the nascent days of the Big Red Machine. Kind of like how 40 years later the Royals brought James Shields in to transform the culture of the clubhouse, the same could be said about the purpose behind the Royals bringing in McRae. He pretty much became a full-time DH in 1976 and by then he was one of the most feared hitters in the American League.
That intensity on the field was particularly evident on the bases. There are a number of clips out there of him blowing up the pivot man on a double play.
McRae is fifth in adjusted OPS+ in franchise history and is third in Runs Created behind only Brett and Otis. Early in his Royals tenure, he routinely hit second in the lineup. In later seasons, he was hitting fifth. It made no difference. He produced where ever he hit. McRae was, outside of Brett, the team’s most consistent run producer.
Has there been anyone faster play for the Royals than Wilson? (Sure... offer Terrance Gore and Jerrod Dyson. I’m not buying it.) There was nothing like watching him line one down into the corner at Royals Stadium and then watch him burn around the turf.
Wilson’s 1980 season was out of this world. He led the league in hits, runs and triples and was second in the league with 79 steals. He also won his only Gold Glove that season. When stolen bases were in vogue, only Rickey Henderson swiped more. He’s the franchise leader in steals with 612. That record is going to stand for some time.
Wilson played 15 years in Kansas City, but finished with a 95 OPS+. He was a below average hitter for the latter half of his career in Kansas City. His Royals career OBP is .329, one point ahead of Carlos Febles and four points ahead of Dyson. Still, speed is a tool. It changed the game in innumerable ways and that’s why he’s here.
31 - Bret Saberhagen
Saberhagen is probably the most decorated Royals pitcher in franchise history. He is the only Royal to win two Cy Young awards, picking up the hardware in 1985 and 1989. He threw a no-hitter in 1991. And he pitched a shutout in Game Seven of the 1985 World Series, on his way to Series MVP honors.
He is third in franchise history with a 36.9 fWAR and is first among starters with a 3.21 ERA. Noted for his control, Saberhagen walked just 1.8 BB/9, best among Royals’ starters and second best only to the next guy on the list.
Using Jay Jaffe’s JAWS metric to look at how players stack up for the Hall of Fame, Saberhagen is the 70th best starter, just ahead of CC Sabathia (who will certainly get consideration when he’s eligible) and his contemporary, Dave Stieb. He’s also ahead of Don Sutton, who’s already enshrined.
Food for thought.
29 - Dan Quisenberry
Long-time readers will recognize my bias against relievers. It’s not that I’m opposed to them per se, or think they’re not real members of the team, or anything like that. It’s just that for a reliever to be honored with something like a number retired, they have to be incredibly special. And there are only a handful of relievers in baseball history who have accomplished this.
Quisenberry was the submarining, ground ball-inducing, poetry writing reliever who was the Royals’ first true, consistent fireman. His 238 saves was a team record until Jeff Montgomery broke it in 2002. He led the AL in saves five times and finished in the Top 3 in Cy Young Award balloting four consecutive years (1982-1985). He also finished fifth in the voting in 1980. Quis probably should have won the damn thing in 1983, the season he finished second to LaMarr Hoyt and his 24 wins.
55 - Kevin Appier
Look, if I could hop on a rocket and move to Planet Appier (or at least get in its orbit) I would do it in a flash. Appier was the best pitcher in Royals history. Full stop. But does he merit the highest honor a franchise can bestow—a retired number?
Appier is the team leader in pitching fWAR at 41.9. He’s second among starters with a 77 ERA-. His 1993 season may have been more dominant than what we consider the Gold Standard among starters, Zack Greinke’s 2009. That year, Appier threw 238 innings and surrendered just eight home runs. Yeah, Royals Stadium was ridiculously difficult to get the ball over the wall, but come on… It’s not like he pitched every game at home. (For the record in 1993 Appier allowed four dingers in 116.2 innings at home and four homers in 122 innings on the road.) He’s the all-time franchise leader in strikeouts with 1,458 and is top 10 in nearly every other counting stat.
Every one of the players in this post is a no-doubt, inner-circle Royals Hall of Famer. McRae and Wilson have the tenure and set a standard of consistent excellence. Quisenberry and Leonard were key contributors to pennant winning teams. Saberhagen has the most impressive resume. Appier is the best of the bunch. All were important contributors.
Yet they fall short of the criteria established by the team for retired numbers. This isn’t to diminish their contributions at all. They just don’t measure up to icon status. It’s possible that the team could throw open the door to one or two of the players on this list. But it’s a slippery slope. If you retire Wilson’s number, how can you not include McRae. If Quisenberry and Saberhagen get a number on the outside of the Hall of Fame, how can you deny Jeff Montgomery or Mark Gubicza?
For me, if I were to select one off this list, it would be Appier, who is criminally underrated. As noted, he is clearly the best starter in Royals history and set a standard of excellence for nearly a decade for the Royals. And it seems patently unfair to penalize him for not playing on a team that played in the postseason. Yet, in keeping the retired numbers to the most elite players and personnel in team history, Appier didn’t pitch long enough in Kansas City for inclusion.
But if you include Appier, how can you not also honor Saberhagen? Appier was the better pitcher overall, but Saberhagen delivered when called upon. It’s difficult to gloss over a pair of Cy Young awards and a World Series title. Nobody in franchise history has accomplished that. That’s the sort of stuff retired numbers are made for.
Hell... I’ve talked myself into it. Let’s put two more up there: Appier and Saberhagen.