In my recent columns ranking the best and worst offensive seasons in Royals history, I used a strict statistical measure (wOBA) for my rankings. Things are not so cut and dry when trying to judge a pitcher’s performance. Traditional stats such as wins and ERA can be misleading since so much that goes into those numbers is determined by things out of the pitcher’s control. Fielder independent pitching (FIP) focuses solely on things the pitcher does have control over: walks, strikeouts, home runs and hit by pitches. Sites like Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs disagree considerably on how to determine a pitcher’s value in their respective wins above replacement calculations. I’ve attempted to consider both traditional and newer stats in my rankings (with the exception of wins and losses). Another complication is the changes the role of a starting pitcher has undergone, making it hard to compare seasons in which a pitcher like Dennis Leonard might pitch 290+ innings to a modern pitcher like Zack Greinke who only throws 220. I pored over a whole bunch numbers to come up with this list of the greatest Royals pitching seasons. Numbers one and two are locks, but it is tough to call things after that.
1. Zack Greinke ∙ 2009
2.16 ERA/205 ERA+/2.33 FIP/9.5 K-9/4.8 K-BB/1.07 WHIP
Greinke’s 2009 is in a class by itself. It is the only year a full-time Royals starter has struck out more than nine per nine innings. Greinke came within two of the club strikeout record in spite of pitching 63 fewer innings than Dennis Leonard did in his record setting season. It is one of only 35 seasons in major league history to have an ERA+ over 200. And he put up those historically great numbers despite pitching in front of a lousy defense.
2. Bret Saberhagen ∙ 1989
2.16 ERA/180 ERA+/2.45 FIP/6.6 K-9/4.5 K-BB/0.96 WHIP/.251 OBP
While I feel Greinke is clearly #1, this season is not far behind. It is the only year a Royals starter has posted a walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP) below one.
3. Kevin Appier ∙ 1993
2.56 ERA/179 ERA+/2.90 FIP/7.0 K-9/1.11 WHIP
4. Bret Saberhagen ∙ 1985
2.87 ERA/145 ERA+/2.89 FIP/6.0 K-9/4.2 K-BB/1.06 WHIP
Seems like I’ve heard something about him having a decent post-season that year too.
5. Kevin Appier ∙ 1992
2.46 ERA/166 ERA+/2.98 FIP/6.5 K-9/1.13 WHIP
6. Mark Gubicza ∙ 1988
2.70 ERA/149 ERA+/2.93 FIP/6.1 K-9 /1.19 WHIP
7. Mark Gubicza ∙ 1989
3.04 ERA/128 ERA+/2.72 FIP/6.1 K-9/1.24 WHIP/.259 OBP
Gubicza was pretty much the same pitcher in ’88 and ’89, and he was fantastic. 1989 is the only season that appears twice on this list. The Royals won 92 games and had the second best record in the AL that year—but still missed the playoffs.
8. Kevin Appier ∙ 1996
3.62 ERA/138 ERA+/3.39 FIP/8.8 K-9/1.26 WHIP
The only pitcher on this list three times…someone should really write an article about how Appier needs to go in the Royals Hall of Fame.
9. David Cone ∙ 1994
2.94 ERA/171 ERA+/3.80 FIP/6.9 K-9/1.07 WHIP
This is a tough season to rate, partly because it came in a strike shortened season. Could Cone have kept up this pace had 1994 been completed? I would guess no, because his opponent batting average on balls in play was a flukishly low .246. It was an excellent season, but due to the briefness (171 innings) and good fortune on balls in play, it drops down a bit on my list.
10. Dennis Leonard ∙ 1977
3.04 ERA/134 ERA+/2.76 FIP/244 K/7.5 K-9/1.11 WHIP
On the other hand, Leonard gets a bump for pitching a huge amount of innings. (Not that his rate stats are anything to sneeze at.) Leonard averaged 254 innings a year from 1975—81. His 244 strikeouts in ’77 remain the club record.