Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Random Ballplayers: Bret Saberhagen (also Felix Hernandez)

I first started paying attention to baseball in 1986, my first year of playing t-ball. There was no internet (not that I was old enough to put it to good use, had it existed), and cable TV wasn't something my family would have for years. Baseball cards, the sports section of the Chicago Tribune we had delivered each weekday, and Mr. Coughlin (the father of two friends who lived across the alley from me) were the sources of whatever baseball knowledge I had. In 1986, the Kansas City Royals were the defending World Series champions and Bret Saberhagen was the reigning American League Cy Young winner. A rudimentary understanding of baseball statistics and one look at the back of any of his cards would have made it clear, even to a 6-year-old, that Saberhagen was a fantastic pitcher.

A summary of Saberhagen's 1985 season, for anyone who's unfamiliar or may have forgotten: He went 20-6, and while I now know better than to care much about a pitcher's win/loss record, that's still an impressive figure. He put up a 2.87 ERA, 3rd in the AL; he walked just 38 hitters in 32 starts/235.1 innings, which gave him the best walk-rate in the league. He received 23 of the 28 1st place votes and ran away with the Cy Young Award. He was also just 21 years old, which made him the youngest AL Cy Young winner ever (that same season, Dwight Gooden won the NL's award at the even younger age of 20).

He also had one of the best World Series by any pitcher in recent history. He threw a 1-run complete game in Game 3, then outdid himself in Game 7, throwing a 5-hit shutout, and needing just 92 pitches to do it (giving him the only known Maddux in postseason history). He was named World Series MVP.

It was Saberhagen's 1989 that really stood out for me though, and clinched the notion of him being one of the greats in my mind. He went 23-6 that year, leading the league in wins, complete games, and innings pitched. His ERA that season was 2.16. That didn't just lead the league, it was the lowest I'd ever seen. ERA was the stat for pitchers, as far as I was concerned, and so I considered Saberhagen to have had the best season I'd ever seen. The hindsight of advanced metrics does nothing to take the shine off that season, as he also led the league in WAR and ERA+. There probably haven't been ten seasons in the 24 years since then that were any better than Saberhagen's 1989.

Two years later, Saberhagen was again one of baseball's best pitchers, among the league leaders in most key categories. The following winter, in the first baseball trade ever to really shock me, the Royals dealt Saberhagen to the Mets. Kansas City's front office cited back-to-back 6th place finishes in making the trade. "We have finished 6th the last two seasons," said GM Hank Robinson, "so if Bret Saberhagen wins four more Cy Young Awards and we didn't win, it doesn't mean a thing.*"

*It's sort of funny to think of the Royals making such drastic changes because of two poor finishes (one of which came despite a winning record), given that they've had so many far worse seasons since then, and are yet to get back to the playoffs.

Saberhagen was still just 27 years old, which is indirectly what led me to write this post in the first place, because it's the great success he had through the age of 27 that made me think of him yesterday. How? Why? Felix Hernandez is 27 year old right now, and I was looking at how his career performance to this point stands up against others throughout baseball history. There are a lot of strong similarities between the two pitchers.

Through age-27 season (with a quarter of Felix's season still to come):


Felix strikes out a lot more guys than Saberhagen did (he also plays in an era with far more strikeouts in general, and Saberhagen finished in the top ten in strikeouts three times through his age-27 season, so he was no slouch), but Saberhagen walked fewer hitters as well, so their K/BB ratios and FIP are still remarkably similar. In any event, the point I'm trying to make isn't that the two of them were identical in terms of how they attacked hitters or found their success, but that the success they found as young pitchers (measured by WAR, or by hits and runs allowed) was about as similar as you could find.

If you're not familiar with Saberhagen, you can use Hernandez's career to this point as a reference for understanding just how good he (Saberhagen) was in his days with the Royals.

Saberhagen had just one more great season in his career, and that season (1994) was ended prematurely by the strike. He had a 2.74 ERA when the season was cut off, second in the league, and he'd walked just 13 hitters in 24 starts/177.1 innings, helping him to a K/BB ratio of 11.00, which is the highest figure in modern history. In the National League, only Greg Maddux was better than Saberhagen (and if you want to talk about the greatest seasons in history, Maddux's 1994 has to be a part of the conversation).

Saberhagen was only 30 years old that season, but over the rest of his career, he'd throw only 488 more innings, making just three total appearances after the age of 35. With a such a sharp decline, Saberhagen was long removed from his last great season by the time he arrived on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2007. He received just 7 votes (out of 545 ballots), too few to even stick around for a second year as a candidate. I don't know that he did quite enough to deserve induction, but he's got a decent case, one that certainly deserved more consideration than it was given. Few pitchers have had more great seasons than he did, Saberhagen just didn't add many solid seasons to his great ones, seasons that would have bolstered his career totals.

Cooperstown didn't come calling, but for most any baseball fan who came of age during the 1980s, Saberhagen will long be remembered as one of the best.


  1. The Maddux is at least partly dubious - Larsen's perfect game kind of trumps it. When did pitch counts become part of the standard box score? It seems like it's kind of recent.

    1. I didn't say it was better than Don Larsen's perfect game, or the greatest World Series pitching performance ever or anything, just that it was the only known postseason Maddux (that's not dubious, it's just matter of fact), and a great game in its own right.

      Regular season pitching count records have been fully kept since 1988. Postseason pitch counts seem to have been tracked beginning around 1975, but aren't fully kept until 1988 either.

  2. Nice article and I appreciate the reminder of how talented Bret Saberhagen was in that era. As a 7 to 13 year-old living an hour from KC, of course I considered him the greatest pitcher in baseball.

    Upon seeing your post subject, I thought you might have delved into his odd/even year performances. He was a superstar during odd years pitching for the Royals. He was still a solid starter in even years, but not Cy Young caliber. I've always thought that was well, odd. I wonder if that inconsistency made a difference in his lack of Hall of Fame votes, though I think you are right. A voter in 2007 probably didn't easily recall how dominate Saberhagen was in 1989.