Royals' Top 5 righty starters: Flanagan's take

May 25th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Jeffrey Flanagan’s ranking of the top 5 right-handed starters in Royals history. Next week: Left-handed starting pitchers.

Royals' all-time best: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH

1) , 1984-91
Key facts: Two Cy Young Awards, two All-Star Games, one Gold Glove Award

After a promising rookie season in 1984 in which Saberhagen posted a 3.48 ERA in 38 games, he burst onto the national scene in '85 as the ace of the Royals' staff. He went 20-6 that year with a 2.87 ERA, won his first Cy Young Award and carried the Royals to their first World Series title. He was named World Series MVP.

Saberhagen credited his success to his first manager, the late Dick Howser, who showed faith in Saberhagen as a teenager.

“I owe so much to Dick Howser,” Saberhagen said. “He gave a 19-year-old kid, a non-roster kid, a chance to compete one spring. I don’t know if I could have become the pitcher I became if it wasn’t for him.”

Saberhagen won his second Cy Young in '89, going 23-6 with an MLB-best 2.16 ERA and 12 complete games.

“He was the total package as a starting pitcher,” former Royals manager Hal McRae once said. “Great stuff, great fastball, threw strikes and competed his tail off against every hitter.”

Saberhagen also threw the last no-hitter in Royals history in 1991 against the White Sox.

“People ask if there is one game that stands out and I always say that one,” Saberhagen said. “I can remember pretty much every at-bat and every play. It was just a special night that sticks with you forever.”

2) , 1989-99, 2003-04
Key facts: One All-Star Game, led American League with 2.56 ERA in 1993

Appier could easily slide into the No. 1 spot here. He was that good. His star didn’t shine quite as brightly as that of Saberhagen, though.

Still, Appier was a dominant pitcher in the AL from 1990-93, posting ERAs of 2.76, 3.42, 2.46 and 2.56 in that span. He held his own over the next four seasons as well, even as offensive numbers rose across baseball.

Appier also was a workhorse, throwing 200 or more innings six times during his career with the Royals. His best season came in '93 as he went 18-8 with a 2.56 ERA while tossing a career-high 238 2/3 innings.

“You always feel confident giving him the ball every fifth day,” McRae once said of Appier. “He’s going to keep you in games and he’s going to go deep into games.”

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3) Dennis Leonard, 1974-83, '85-86
Key facts: Three-time 20-game winner

On the subject of workhorses, there was none better in Royals history than Leonard. He threw over 200 innings seven times in his career. He nearly threw 300 innings twice: 292 2/3 in 1977 and 294 2/3 in '78.

Wins arguably aren’t a great measure of success, but in Leonard’s case, they do reflect how long he could stay in games, allowing his team to overcome deficits. He threw 103 complete games over his career, an unheard of number in today’s game.

Leonard’s best season came in ’77 when he went 20-12 with a 3.04 ERA while striking out 244 batters.

4) , 2004-10
Key facts: Cy Young Award winner, All-Star

Admittedly, this ranking might be a tad high because most of Greinke’s success and dominance came after he was traded following the 2010 season.

But it’s hard to forget how good Greinke was during a two-year stretch with the Royals: He went 13-10 in 32 starts with a 3.47 ERA in '08, then grabbed national attention the next season by going 16-8 in 33 starts with an MLB-best 2.16 ERA.

In '09, his Cy Young-winning year, he also threw a career-high six complete games and had an AL-best 1.073 WHIP.

5) Mark Gubicza, 1984-96
Key facts: Two-time All-Star

Another bulldog, Gubiza threw 200 or more innings four times in his Royals career. His hard sinker kept the ball in the ballpark -- three times he led the AL by allowing 0.4 homers per nine innings in those three seasons.

Gubicza’s best season came in 1988 when he went 20-8 with a 2.70 ERA. During a four-year stretch from 1986-89, he went 60-43 with a 3.30 ERA and a 1.294 WHIP.

Honorable mentions
(1986, '93-94) certainly would be higher on the list if he’d had a longer career in Kansas City. He won a Cy Young Award with the Royals in the strike-shortened ’94 season, going 16-5 with a 2.94 ERA.

Steve Busby (1972-80) was a solid starter for a three-year stretch from '73-75, winning 22 games in '74 and earning two All-Star selections. He threw the first no-hitter in Royals history in ’73, and threw a second one in ’74.