Has there ever been a more underrated and underappreciated player in Royals history than Paul Splittorff? I saw the man play his entire career and yet to the end, remained underwhelmed by him. As in most things, the reflection of time shows a much clearer picture and that was true with Splittorff.
I think what made Splitt underappreciated during his time was his consistency. He didn’t possess a blazing fastball or a knee buckling curve. He didn’t strike out a lot of batters. He was always overshadowed by other players on his own team: Amos Otis, Freddie Patek, John Mayberry, George Brett, Willie Wilson. In most years, he wasn’t even the best pitcher on the Royals staff. That honor would have gone to Dick Drago, Steve Busby, Dennis Leonard or Dan Quisenberry. Yet for the nine seasons of his prime between 1972 and 1980, Splitt could be counted on to give you 200+ innings and 30 starts almost every year. He averaged 217 per season in that nine-year run. He was a very solid, if unspectacular, lefty who just kept taking the ball every fourth day. If he had any significant injuries during his career, I do not remember them. In that span from 1972 to 1980, he averaged 33 starts per season. That was just his average: 33 starts, 217 innings. Year after year after year.
You know how many pitchers on the 2019 Royals staff had 33 or more starts? That’s right, none. You know how many had 217 or more innings pitched? That’s right. None.
The last time a Royals pitcher started 33 games was Ian Kennedy in 2016. The last time a Royals pitcher threw more than 217 innings in a season? James Shields with 227 back in 2014.
Pitchers are a lot like snowflakes: no two are the same. There was no mistaking Splittorff’s pitching motion. The right leg, kicked high, knee bent. Ramrod straight with both hands together then the left arm coming through. His motion was clean and pure, time after time after time.
Don’t misunderstand, Splitt could turn up the volume. On a cold April night in 1973, he won the inaugural game at Royals Stadium and kept right on winning. He became the first Royals hurler to win 20 games, going 20-11 that season. He started a career high 38 games in 1973. Going into September, Splitt was 15-9. Royals manager Jack McKeon desperately wanted to have a 20-game winner. Splitt took the ball against Minnesota on September 4 and lost a 6-0 decision to drop to 15-10. Over the next 19 days, Splitt made six more starts. Think about that. We’re at the end of the season. The Royals aren’t going to catch the Oakland A’s in the West. Splitt has already thrown 220 innings and he’s still got enough bulldog left to make six starts in 19 days!
He lost a 4-3 heartbreaker to California on September 8 to drop to 15-11. His next start came on the 12th and threw a shutout against Oakland. He started again on the 16th and shut out the Angels. McKeon gave him the ball again on the 20th and he threw 8 innings to beat the White Sox to run his record to 18-11. McKeon brought him back on the 23rd against Texas. Splitt threw 6 innings and got a 7-4 victory for win number 19. McKeon sent him out on three days’ rest on the 26th against the White Sox in Chicago. Splittorff grew up in Arlington Heights, Illinois, so this was a home game for him. He scattered 7 hits over six innings and with relief help from Doug Bird, to beat the White Sox 6-2 to collect his twentieth win. I remember laying in my bed that night, listening on my small transistor radio as Bud Blattner and Denny Matthews called the game. It was a big deal to have a 20-game winner.
In retrospect I can see McKeon’s machinations. He must have figured if Splitt lost on the 26th, he would bring him back on the final game of the season against Texas on September 30th for another shot at 20. Instead, he gave Splitt the rest of the year off, and deservedly so.
Before we dive deeper into Paul Splittorff’s career, let’s take a look back at the man. Splitt was born in Evansville, Indiana, an Ohio River town on the southern tip of Indiana. He moved with his parents at a young age to Arlington Heights, Illinois, where he starred in baseball. Arlington Heights produced several Major Leaguers over the years including Dick Bokelmann, George Vukovich and wife swapping Yankee Fritz Peterson.
Splittorff attended and played baseball and basketball for the Morningside (Iowa) Maroon Chiefs. Morningside is an NAIA school located in Sioux City with an enrollment of about 1,300 students. Splittorff was one of the more famous alumni of Morningside. The others were a pair of twin sisters named Eppie and PoPo Friedman, who later changed their names to Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren and became famous for writing advice columns. How Splittorff ended up at Morningside was an accident itself.
After his senior year in high school, Splittorff was pitching for the Arlington Heights American Legion team in the 1965 American Legion World Series, which was held in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Don Protexter, who was Morningside’s baseball coach, was working behind the plate when Splitt pitched. After the game, Protexter asked Splitt if he was committed to a college. He wasn’t and Protexter invited the tall lefty and his father to visit the campus. Splitt liked what he saw and accepted Protexter’s offer to attend Morningside. While at Morningside, Splitt was a member of the 1967 United States Pan Am team, which defeated Cuba to win the Gold medal.
The Royals drafted Splittorff almost as an afterthought, in the 25th round of the 1968 amateur draft, the summer before their first year of play. The expansion rules were really set against the Royals and their expansion partners. Kansas City didn’t even have a pick until the fourth round of the draft. There was some good talent in that draft. Tim Foli went #1 to the New York Mets. Thurman Munson went to the Yankees with the fourth pick. Greg Luzinski, Gary Matthews and Bill Buckner all went in the first 25 picks.
The Royals picked up pitcher Lance Clemons in the seventh round. Clemons was later flipped to Houston for John Mayberry. Kansas City picked up pitcher Monty Montgomery in the ninth. He appeared in 12 games for the Royals between 1971 and 1972. Then they got Splitt.
“I’d never heard of the Royals,” Splittorff said in a 1979 interview. “I knew Kansas City was going to get a franchise, but I hadn’t seen any uniforms or even a logo. I was a little disappointed.”
Splittorff stated his career in 1968 with the Corning Royals where he went 8 and 5. In 1969, he made the jump to AAA Omaha, probably more on need than talent. He started 1970 in Omaha and while the results weren’t spectacular, an 8-12 record with a 3.83 ERA, he nonetheless had a cup of coffee with Kansas City late in the season, which gave him the distinction of being the first draft choice of the Royals to make the show.
On September 23, 1970, he made his major league debut in Chicago against his hometown White Sox pitching seven innings in a losing effort.
He started 1971 back in Omaha, but after a 5-2 start, in which he posted a 1.48 ERA, the Royals recalled him. He started 22 games that summer, going 8-9. He threw three shutouts and on August 27, the first of his five career three hitters. That game was a 4-0 amputation of the Yankees at Municipal Stadium.
Over his 15-year career, all spent with Kansas City, Splittorff threw two 2-hitters and two 1-hitters. He never threw a no-hitter, but both one-hitters were brilliant. The first came on August 3, 1975 against division rival Oakland. 26,833 fans filled Royals Stadium that night. The game didn’t start well for Splitt. After getting Bert Campaneris on a flyball, Splittorff walked Phil Garner. Claudell Washington, a very solid and underrated player in his own right, then stroked a one out single. After that it was all Splittorff. He retired the final 26 batters in a row in a truly remarkable pitching performance. John Mayberry provided all the run support Splitt would need when he boomed a two-run home run in the bottom of the fourth to deep right field. Splittorff only walked one batter, struck out three, while getting 13 fly balls and 11 ground outs.
His second one-hitter was even better. On Friday September 2, 1977, in the third game of that glorious 16-game winning streak that laid waste to the American League West, Splitt showed the Milwaukee Brewers who their daddy was. In a game at Royals Stadium, Splitt threw no-hit ball for seven and two thirds innings before Charlie Moore squeezed a single into left field. Splittorff gave up three walks to Milwaukee but struck out nine Brewers in a 3 to 0 victory. Royals good luck charm Don Denkinger was the third base umpire that night. That pitching performance earned a 91 in Game Score, which is still one of the top pitching games in Royals history.
Splittorff’s last good season was 1983, when he recorded a 13-8 record over 156 innings. The end came quickly. In 1984, at the age of 37, he appeared in 12 games, making three starts, but was ineffective. The Royals went 1-11 in those games and Splitt knew it was over. His last game in a Royals uniform was on June 26 against Oakland in front of the home crowd. The old war horse made one last start, pitching 4 2⁄3 innings, giving up seven runs before giving way to a hard throwing 20-year-old named Bret Saberhagen.
Against his peers, the batter that face Splittorff the most was Graig Nettles. Nettles is one of those guys who was a borderline Hall of Famer. He had a great glove, and he could handle the bat. Over his 22-year career, he collected 2,225 hits as well as 390 home runs. He was a 68 WAR player. Nettles faced Splittorff 118 times and only collected 22 hits. Splittorff owned Nettles. Another player who had nightmares of Splittorff’s high leg kick was John Ellis. Ellis spent all 13 years of his career in the American League and came to the plate 34 times and collected just one hit, a meaningless single back in 1973, in his third plate appearance against Splitt. After that it was all downhill for Ellis: Oh for 31. Ouch.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, you had Bruce Bochte. Bochte was another of those vastly underrated players. Maybe because he spent most of his career playing on the west coast. I was surprised to see that in a 12-year career, he hit .282 and collected 1,478 hits. Bochte, a left-handed batter, owned Splittorff, collecting 27 hits in 54 at bats, a cool .500 average. Splitt only gave up 192 career home runs. Not bad for 2,552 innings pitched. Sal Bando, Larry Hisle and Dick Allen all hit six off Paul, the most by any players. No shame there. Each of those guys could hit with the best of them. Amazingly Splittorff only allowed one leadoff home run in his 392 career starts, an August 11, 1974 shot to Ken Berry of the Brewers. He also allowed only one pinch hit home run in his career, that went to Hisle, playing for the Brewers. Hisle was another of those underrated guys who had some fantastic seasons with the bat in the mid to late ‘70’s.
I only saw Splittorff pitch once in person. This was on Sunday July 15, 1979 in a game against the Texas Rangers. The Royals were scuffling along at 43-47 coming into the game. Texas had some players and came in at 51-39. Those Rangers had Jim Sundberg, Buddy Bell, Oscar Gamble, Al Oliver, Richie Zisk, Fergie Jenkins, Jon Matlack and Sparky Lyle among others. It’s hard to believe they couldn’t win a division title with a group like that. Splitt fell behind early, giving up back to back home runs in the third inning to Bump Wills and Buddy Bell. The Wills home run, an inside the park job, was a bit of a fluke. Wills lined a shot to the gap in left-center. Willie Wilson, playing in left field, collided with Amos Otis. Both players were shaken up in the collision while Wills rounded the bases. Splittorff only allowed three inside the park home runs in his career. Splitt settled down from that point and the Royals chipped away with two runs in the fifth and two more in the sixth. Jim Sundberg tightened things up in the eighth when he launched a home run into the left field stands, but that was it. Splitt worked a complete game, only allowing five hits and got the 4-3 victory. It was a strange game. Three of the five hits allowed were home runs. And the game only lasted one hour and forty-seven minutes. John Ellis went oh for four.
Another interesting side note: Nolan Ryan beat Kansas City 24 times - the most wins over any team by the Ryan Express. Seven of those wins came against Paul Splittorff.
After he retired from baseball, Splittorff became a color commentator for Royals television broadcasts. He also worked as an analyst for Big 8 and Big 12 college basketball telecasts.
I always thought Splittorff bore a striking resemblance to Dewey Bunnell of the band America. America had some big hits in the early 1970’s, the same time that Splitt was hitting his peak with the Royals. Every time I saw America on The Midnight Special or some other music show, I’d do a double take, thinking that was Splitt playing the guitar and singing.
On May 16, 2011, Splittorff announced that he was battling oral cancer. Nine days later, number 34 was gone at the too young age of 64. Royals Nation was shocked and saddened at the loss. He was survived by his wife Lynn and children Jennifer and Jamie. He was laid to rest in the Blue Springs (MO.) Cemetery.
Twenty-six years after he threw his final pitch, Splittorff remains the Royals career leader in wins (166), innings pitched (2554), games started (392) and batters faced (10,829). He is second on the career list for complete games and shutouts, fourth in appearances and fifth in career strikeouts. He had double-digit win totals in ten seasons. He gained a reputation as a Yankee killer: in five League Championship appearances, he went 2-0 with a 2.68 ERA against New York. He once prompted Billy Martin to bench Reggie Jackson on Martin’s notion that Reggie couldn’t hit Splitt.
Splittorff was a member of the Royals 25th anniversary team was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1987 and remains one of the most popular and beloved Royals of all time.