Monday, September 29, 2014

The Baseball Story of Bret Saberhagen

This past week, Phil Hughes set an all-time record for strikeout-to-walk ratio for a season, breaking Bret Saberhagen's twenty-year-old record. That got me thinking about Bret Saberhagen, which led us here. Rock and roll.

It should be noted that, while advanced statistics support claims that Saberhagen was an exceptional pitcher, he doesn't have any actual connection to the term sabermetrics.

Immediate Dividends

Saberhagen was drafted straight out of Grover Cleveland High School in Reseda, California by the Kansas City Royals in 1982. He blew away hitters at single- and double-A in 1983, compiling a 16-7 record with a cumulative 2.55 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 27 starts. Unsurprisingly, Saberhagen broke camp with the major league ballclub in 1984.

Saberhagen was effective as a rookie as well. He went 10-11 with 3.48/1.10, and that WHIP is what's most impressive. Not many rookies are able to control innings as well as he did, and he did so with tremendous control and pitching to contact. He walked just 36 batters in 157.2 innings in his rookie season, a great rate for anyone and an amazing rate for such a young pitcher (he was 19 entering the season). As I mentioned at the beginning, that's kind of Saberhagen's thing, not walking guys.

Interestingly, Saberhagen didn't receive a single vote for Rookie of the Year. Granted, his numbers weren't tremendous, and the top two vote-getters absolutely deserved the lion's share: Alvin Davis won the ROY with .284-27-116, and Mark Langston finished second with 17-10, 3.40, and 204 strikeouts in 225 innings. But among the guys who managed to nab a single vote were Ron Romanick (12-12, 3.76, 87 K in 229.2 IP) and Saberhagen's teammate Mark Gubicza (10-14, 4.05, 111 K in 189.0 IP).

The only explanation I can think of is that innings pitched was a real barn-burner back in the early 80s. Although I don't think the innings disparity makes up for how much better Saberhagen was than Romanick and Gubicza, I'm okay with innings pitched getting a little more credit as a statistic. We talk all the time about the value of guys getting deep into games, giving their bullpens a break. Maybe we should acknowledge that effort in the raw statistics that give us that information.

Anywho, back to Sabes, who didn't let his lack of ROY votes get him down. Like, at all.

Winning, Winning, Winning

In 1985, Bret Saberhagen had a banner year. He started perfectly fine, with a record of 7-4 and an ERA of 3.23 through the end of June. But that's when he turned it on. Here's a list of amazing things that Saberhagen did in 17 starts from July 3rd through October 5th:
  • posted a win-loss record of 13-2
  • threw seven complete games, including a 10-inning game on August 19 against the Tigers
  • pitched into the ninth inning or beyond in 10 different games
  • walked two or fewer batters in every start
  • yielded an absurdly low .256 OBP to opposing batters

Oh, and the Royals went from two games over .500 to twenty games over .500, edging the California Angels (I just love typing that) by a single game for the AL West crown. Saberhagen had a rough series against the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS, going only 4.1 and 3.0 innings in his two starts, but the Royals were able to squeak into the World Series with George Brett basically willing them there.

Then, after dropping the first two games at home to the St. Louis Cardinals, Dick Howser gave the ball to Saberhagen, and Bret answered with a complete game one run, six-hit win. Then in game seven, under the brightest lights, Saberhagen posted another complete game, this time a shutout. His two masterpieces earned him the World Series MVP award; his dominance all season earned him the 1985 Cy Young Award.

From 1986-1988, Saberhagen had his share of ups and downs. He won 18 games in 1987, but then gave up more hits than anyone in the league in 1988.

Then in 1989, Saberhagen was brilliant. Once again he was phenomenal after the All-Star break. From July 14 on, he went 15-2, receiving the decision in every start. By the end of the year, he led the AL in...everything?
  • 23 wins
  • .793 winning percentage
  • 2.16 ERA
  • 12 complete games
  • 262.1 innings pitched
  • 0.96 WHIP
  • 4.49 K/BB ratio

He received 27 of 28 first place votes to win his second Cy Young Award (some crackhead gave Dave Stewart a vote).


The legacy of Bret Saberhagen, though, is inconsistency. He missed time in 1990 and 1991 with various ailments, though he did throw his only no-hitter in August of 1991, and the last no-hitter in Kansas City Royal history to date.

That offseason, Saberhagen's time with the Royals ended (get the "dethroned" title now?) as he was traded to the New York Mets along with Bill Pecota for Gregg Jefferies, Kevin McReynolds, and Keith Miller in a fierce collection of mostly irrelevant players. Saberhagen was solid for the Mets when he was able to stay healthy, maintaining his disdain for free passes. In 524.1 innings with New York, he issued just 77 total walks. In the strike-shortened 1994, he set the aforementioned previous record for best strikeout-to-walk ratio in a season at 11.00. But he also never managed more than 25 starts, again due to a variety of ailments, or perhaps just one big one that hadn't been detected yet...

Saberhagen was traded again in the middle of the 1995 season, this time to the playoff-bound Colorado Rockies, ruining fantasy owners everywhere. His ERA at the time of the trade was 3.35, but ballooned up to 4.18 in nine starts for the Rockies. Colorado still made the playoffs, but lost in the divisional round to the Braves. Saberhagen was no help, yielding six runs in 4 innings in his only start.

An Injury Unlike Any Other

Then, leading into 1996, Saberhagen found himself extremely bothered by an unresponsive shoulder injury. After multiple tests, he was found to have a torn anterior capsule in his pitching shoulder. Up to that point, surgery had been conducted to repair this injury exactly zero times. The reason you don't really hear about it is that the injury actually isn't often "successful." Among the folks who've had the surgery are a litany of "hey remember how good ____ was" names: Rich Harden, Mark Prior, Chien-Ming Wang, Johan Santana.

That said, Saberhagen actually recovered fairly well from the surgery. He missed all of the 1996 season and entered free agency. The Boston Red Sox signed him to a $500k contract for the year, and he missed most of the 1997 season as well, coming in for six starts starting in August. He wasn't impressive by any stretch (6.58 ERA, 1.54 WHIP), but the BoSox saw enough to keep him around, and it paid off handsomely. Over the next two seasons with Boston, he'd go 25-14 in 53 closely-monitored starts, and earning another award for his cabinet: 1998's Comeback Player of the Year.

Unfortunately, the year 2000 was not a new start for Saberhagen, as he encountered more shoulder problems and underwent another shoulder surgery. The Red Sox stood by him through it all, but this spelled the beginning of the end. Sabes made three starts for Boston in 2001, but it was clear he simply didn't have it, and he retired at the end of the season.

Of course, in those 15 innings, he didn't walk a batter.

Final Statistics
Career win-loss record: 167-117
Career ERA: 3.34
Career WHIP: 1.14
Career K/BB ratio: 3.64
Career complete games: 76
2 Cy Young Awards (1985, 1989)
1 World Series MVP Award (1985)
Career earnings: $47,688,230

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