When the Royals participated in the 1968 expansion draft, their emphasis was on pitching. Five of their first seven picks were pitchers, and their starting rotation for the 1969 season came entirely from that expansion draft. As expansion teams go, it wasn’t a bad rotation; all five starters had a positive WARP and the team finished eighth in the 12-team league in runs allowed per game, ahead of their expansion cousins in Seattle and three established teams.
One of those starters, and the one who had the most long-term success in a Royals uniform, was Dick Drago. His name might be unknown to many Royals fans today, but in the early years of the franchise, he was the closest thing Kansas City had to an ace.
Richard Anthony Drago (it’s a long “a” in his last name, if you are wondering) was born on June 25, 1945 in Toledo, Ohio. After starring at Woodward High School there, he headed to the University of Detroit. But he’d only been there one year when the Tigers signed him as an amateur free agent in 1964, one year before the MLB draft started. Drago progressed quickly through the minor leagues, culminating in a 15-8 record for his hometown Toledo Mud Hens, Detroit’s Class AAA affiliate, in 1968. But the big-league club was loaded—they would win the World Series that year, after all—and Drago was left unprotected ahead of the 1968 expansion draft. With the 31st pick, the Royals selected the young righthander.
Drago began the 1969 season in the bullpen, but got his chance to join the rotation in early May. His first start, on May 2 against California, became the first complete game in Royals history as he scattered five hits in a 3-2 win. He also prompted a bit of a brouhaha when he threw an inside pitch to California outfielder Vic Davalillo. The 5’7”, 150-pound Davalillo charged the mound, which might not have been that intimidating if he hadn’t brought his bat with him. Luckily, catcher Jim Campanis bear-hugged Davalillo before he could do any damage, and the game resumed, incredibly with Davalillo still playing. Since Davalillo was the Angels’ leadoff hitter and the Royals had just a 3-1 lead, it’s hard to imagine there was any intent.
Anyway, Drago would bounce between rotation and bullpen the rest of the year, finishing with an 11-13 record and a 3.77 ERA in 200 2/3 innings over 41 games, 26 of them starts. In those 26 starts, he tossed 10 complete games. To show how the game has changed in the last 50 years, a list of the last 10 complete games in Royals history would stretch back to September 15, 2013.
Drago’s 1970 season was a good example of how pitcher wins can be misleading. Nearly every entry in his statistical ledger was as good or better than it was in 1969, yet he ended up with a 9-15 record. This time, pitching almost exclusively in the rotation (35 games, 34 starts), Drago worked a team-high 240 innings, had a slightly lower ERA (3.75), and allowed fewer walks and home runs per nine innings while his strikeout rate stayed the same.
Drago’s year began with a complete-game shutout of Oakland in the second game of the season. Two starts later, he worked nine innings against California, then started the 10th inning and allowed two baserunners. Jim Rooker bailed him out, and the Royals scored three runs in the 13th for a 4-1 win. His next start was the worst of the season, as he failed to make it out of the second inning, and he ended April with a 4.68 ERA.
Two bad starts in early May saw his ERA balloon to 5.23, but he rebounded with three solid outings in a row to drop his ERA to 4.55. At 3-3 on the season, he was actually doing pretty well for an 18-25 team.
Drago pitched two more complete games in June, picking up wins in three starts and dropping his ERA to 3.92. But his win on June 23rd would be his last for almost two months.
A lot of bad luck was involved in that streak. On July 3, Drago left the game after seven innings with a 3-1 deficit, then the offense came to life, scoring twice in the ninth and twice in the 10th for a win. On July 19, he held Detroit to two runs on seven hits, but the Royals were shut out. And then came a really bad stretch of luck: in Drago’s seven starts in August, the Royals scored a total of 13 runs. Five of those starts would qualify for the “quality start” stat; in one other start, he allowed four runs in seven innings. So for seven starts and 51 1/3 innings where Drago had a total ERA of 3.16, he got one win and five losses.
Drago’s last five starts of the year continued his streak of good pitching, including one where he worked 9 2/3 innings (of a 13-inning game) against Milwaukee. His 2.83 ERA for September dropped his final number to 3.75. He definitely deserved better than a 9-15 record.
That August and September stretch seemed to be a prelude to the best season of his career in 1971. Drago went 17-11 with a sparkling 2.98 ERA, finishing fifth in the Cy Young vote. While it was the only time in five seasons with the Royals that Drago had a winning record, it was one of four times he won at least 10 games. The 1971 team, led by Drago, posted the first winning record in franchise history.
Unfortunately, both Drago and the Royals fell off in 1972. The team went 76-78 while Drago, despite an ERA of 3.01, went 12-17. His offense managed to give him 2.7 runs per start of support, down from 3.66 in the 1970 season we already saw was a hard-luck experience.
The Royals were better in 1973, moving into new Royals Stadium and going 88-74 to really challenge for a division title for the first time. However, Drago did not enjoy the same success. After a rough start, he had his ERA down to 3.59 at the end of June, and it had leveled off to 3.82 at the end of July. But Drago struggled in August, failing to complete five innings in five of seven starts. Manager Jack McKeon seemed to have less and less patience with Drago, yanking him early from two starts in September, then banishing him to the bullpen for the rest of the year. To be fair, Drago was never a big strikeout pitcher, but he wasn’t getting many of those even by his standards (a 4.1 K/9 rate for the year) and he was allowing more hits and walks than ever before. Drago would later accuse McKeon of giving up on him, and it’s true that McKeon had alienated a lot of Royals by the time he was fired in 1975, but with the Royals in contention for the first time, perhaps it’s understandable why the skipper had a quick hook.
Either way, the Royals dealt Drago to Boston for pitcher Marty Pattin following the 1973 season. The “change of scenery” trade worked well for both players and teams. Pattin would be a key reliever and sometime starter for the Royals’ playoff teams in the late ‘70s. Drago, after one year in the Red Sox rotation, moved to the bullpen and excelled, notching 15 saves for the 1975 AL champions. In the classic Game 6 of that year’s World Series, he kept Cincinnati scoreless for three innings before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the 11th, one inning too soon to pick up the win on Carlton Fisk’s famous home run.
Drago was dealt to California following the 1975 season, essentially as a player to be named later for Denny Doyle, who had gone to Boston in June 1975. After a season and a half in Anaheim, he was traded to Baltimore, then back to Boston, where he would stay for three seasons. Drago wound up his career with a forgettable season in Seattle in 1981, and when the Mariners released him the following April, it was all over.
Drago still ranks in the top 10 in several pitching categories for the Royals franchise, including innings pitched (ninth), walks per nine innings (seventh), complete games (tied for fifth with Dennis Leonard), games started (ninth), and shutouts (tied for seventh with Kevin Appier and Charlie Leibrandt). Although his time in a Royals uniform ended over four decades ago, he is still an important piece of team history.
Dick Drago’s best games of 1970:
5/17@ CHI: Held White Sox to two hits and four walks over seven innings, and struck out seven in 3-2 win.
8/19@ WAS: Pitched complete-game four-hitter with three walks and three strikeouts in 2-1 win.
4/8 vs. OAK: Shut out A’s on four hits and struck out four in 2-0 win.
6/19 vs. MIN: Scattered seven hits, walked one, and struck out five in complete-game 5-1 win.
9/22 @ CHI: Pitched 8 1/3 innings, allowing eight hits and one walk while striking out five in 2-1 win.
About the card:
Drago looks slightly confused to me. I assume this picture was taken in spring training before the 1969 season, so maybe he’s pondering his future. It probably seemed uncertain to just about everyone in camp before the Royals’ inaugural season. In later cards, as the ‘70s wore on, Drago grew a mustache and looked much older than he does here. In fact, it’s a tremendous mustache—you should Google it. On the back, the cartoon is cheesy even by Topps standards. I suppose those players are supposed to be tired, but obviously Drago didn’t wear down that easily.