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The Best Royals Pitching Performances Since 1985

In spite of the organization’s ineptitude the last 15 years or so (some could argue 25 and it’d be tough to disagree entirely), the Kansas City Royals have seen some fantastic individual seasons from both their hurlers and their hitters. This franchise, though, has always been one who won on the strength of their pitching. Just look at the 1985 team as an example of that. That team had one of the worst offenses in franchise history, and I think we all remember how that season ended. Sometimes throughout team history, the collective staff has been better than any one individual, but more than a couple of times throughout team history has there been a fantastic individual season.

Today, I’m taking a look at a few of those seasons since the 1985 championship. Tomorrow I’ll look at those from 1969-1984. I’m using both an objective and subjective lens and looking at a few categories in order to determine who makes the cut and who doesn’t.  The first is WAR, which stands for wins above replacement. As far as advanced statistics, I’m using the WAR from Baseball Reference, which differs slightly from that listed on Fangraphs. Any statistic that cannot be agreed upon is clearly not the be all, end all, so I’m also taking into account more traditional statistics like earned run average (and it’s slightly advanced statistic ERA+), wins, WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and anything else that tickles my fancy when looking at the individual seasons. Like I said, it’s both objective and subjective. These seasons are in reverse order of when they happened.

2009: Zack Greinke and the Cy Young (16-8, 2.16 ERA, 229.1 IP, 242 K, 51 BB, 205 ERA+, 9.0 WAR)
Those reading this blog will probably remember this season better than any other as it is the most recent. 2009 was an absolutely magical season and a terrible one for the Royals. Greinke started out on fire with over 40 innings pitched before he allowed his first earned run of the season. From start to finish he had one of the greatest pitching seasons of the 21st century. His ERA+ of 205 was simply out of this world as was the fact that he was worth nine wins above a replacement level pitcher. He allowed just over a base runner per inning which led the league. It was one of the greatest pitching seasons in Royals history. I’d give it serious consideration for top spot on the list if I was ranking these.

1994: David Cone and the Cy Young (16-5, 2.94 ERA, 171.2 IP, 132 K, 54 BB, 171 ERA+, 6.1 WAR)
The first thing you might notice about this season is the dramatic dropoff in WAR from Greinke’s season to this one, but you have to remember that this was the strike shortened season and WAR is a counting stat. Assuming Cone would have kept up his pace throughout the remainder of the season, he would have ended up with a WAR of 8.1 which would have been fourth best in team history. He was dazzling in 1994 after coming off what many believed to be a disappointing 1993 season in which he walked well over 100 batters (though he did pitch over 250 innings). In contrast to Greinke, Cone struggled early in the season with an ERA near 4.00 by the end of April, but a 5-1 May with a 1.94 ERA put him into the Cy Young race for the remainder of the season. Cone had always been a power pitcher who got a ton of strikeouts, but also his fair share of walks. In 1994, he cut down on the walks dramatically, but his strikeout rate came down as well. The strike was a shame for many reasons for the Royals and baseball, but it’s too bad we didn’t get to see the full season of Cone’s work.

1993: Kevin Appier and what should have been a Cy Young (18-8, 2.56 ERA, 238.2 IP, 186 K, 81 BB, 179 ERA+, 8.4 WAR)
Kevin Appier was robbed in 1993, no question about it. He led the league in both ERA and ERA+, had 18 wins and was just generally a dominant workhorse. Jack McDowell won over 20 games and pitched on a division champion while Kevin Appier won under 20 games and pitched on a fairly mediocre team. Appier was a good pitcher for the Royals for the remainder of his Royals career with the exception of his swan song in 2004, but 1993 was the last dominant season of his career. His season started off somewhat slowly, but things picked up for him in mid-May and from that point forward he was 15-5 with a 2.15 ERA. As fantastic as a pitcher he was, he was almost more fun to actually watch on the mound as he talked to himself and stomp around. The nickname “Planet Appier” was born. Though he wasn’t as animated as some of the others around baseball have been, it was definitely an interesting experience.

1989: Brett Saberhagen and the Cy Young (23-6, 2.16 ERA, 262.1 IP, 193 K, 43 BB, 180 ERA+, 8.6 WAR)
When people talk about Roy Halladay comparables, this is the season that makes me think of him, but maybe with a few less strikeouts. I know they’re not exactly the same type of pitcher, but if you were to see Halladay put up a season like this, it wouldn’t surprise you in the least. I was very young when this season happened, but I remember being enamored with the fact that Saberhagen and the same first name as the team’s best player’s last name. This season was an odd continuation of Saberhagen alternating great seasons in odd-numbered years and okay seasons in even-numbered years. This Cy Young season was a little like Greinke’s in that he was in pretty good control throughout, though he hit a couple rough patches in April. From May 1 on, he was 24-5 with a 1.93 ERA. The man dominated a game like nobody I’ve seen in Kansas City until Greinke came along. He did it with control, the ability to get a big strikeout and serious cojones. He challenged hitters with his fantastic repertoire. I think that Saberhagen was the best pitcher in Royals history in terms of talent in his prime. Others had better careers, but a strong argument could be made that Sabes was the best.

1985: Bret Saberhagen and the Cy Young (20-6, 2.87 ERA, 235.1 IP, 158 K, 38 BB, 145 ERA+, 6.7 WAR)
While this season falls a little short of some of the others on this list in terms of value, he did win the Cy Young. Also, there’s some sentimental value in this being the World Championship season. The truly amazing thing about this season is that Saberhagen was just 21 when he put up these gaudy numbers, and he wasn’t even considered the best young pitcher in the game! That title went to Doc Gooden. Regardless, on June 7, Saberhagen kicked his season into high gear and led a very young rotation. On that night, he threw a shutout and from that point on went 15-3 with a 2.54 ERA. The rest is history.

Others could have made this list with numbers just slightly off what these guys put up in their great pitching seasons. One thing you might notice is a lack of relievers on here. I just have a hard time placing their seasons on the list with guys who pitch more than 200 innings in a season. Though a guy like Joakim Soria is extremely valuable to a team, it’s hard to say that his 70 innings is worth as much or more as these dominant performances. On an all-time list there is a place for closers, but in my opinion, there is no place in an individual seasons list. Tune in tomorrow for the glory days.

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