Friday, August 31, 2012

All-Time Teams #12: Kansas City Royals

This is part of an ongoing series where I'm naming an all-time team for each of the current 30 MLB franchises, and using this as a vehicle to discuss their greatest eligible player who is not in the Hall of Fame.

I honestly think this was the easiest team to select so far. Seriously, other than maybe Mike Sweeney vs. John Mayberry at first base, are there any debatable decisions in the starting lineup? Well, Carlos Beltran technically only played three games in right field for the Royals. But, I think he needs to be in the starting lineup, we know he can handle the position, and it makes sense to move him rather than Otis, even though dWAR says otherwise.

The rotation is a little grayer, depending on whether you prefer wins or WAR. I'm obviously partial to the latter, but I do think being a team's all-time wins leader counts for something. In this case, it means Paul Splittorff gets a spot on the team, albeit not in the starting rotation.

We also see our first team with a DH here. The Royals have been in existence, and in the American League, since 1969. The DH has been around for all but four of their 44 years (this season included), so adding a DH to this team seems to make sense.

The reserves weren't as much of a slam-dunk as the starters, but they weren't as difficult as some previous teams. It's kind of a short bench because of the DH, but I've got all the positions covered with capable backups.

Franchise History
Kansas City Royals (1969- )

An asterisk (*) denotes a Hall of Famer.

C - Darrell Porter (1977-1980)
1B - John Mayberry (1972-1977)
2B - Frank White (1973-1990)
SS - Freddie Patek (1971-1979)
3B - George Brett* (1973-1993)
LF - Willie Wilson (1976-1990)
CF - Amos Otis (1970-1983)
RF - Carlos Beltran (1998-2004)
DH - Hal McRae (1973-1987)

Kevin Appier (1989-1999, 2003-2004)
Bret Saberhagen (1984-1991)
Mark Gubicza (1984-1996)
Zack Greinke (2004-2010)
Dennis Leonard (1974-1983, 1985-1986)

Dan Quisenberry (1979-1988)

1B/C - Mike Sweeney (1995-2007)
3B/1B - Kevin Seitzer (1986-1991)
IF - Jose Offerman (1996-1998)
LF/3B - Alex Gordon (2007- )
OF - Johnny Damon (1995-2000)

Jeff Montgomery (1988-1999)
Charlie Liebrandt (1984-1989)
Larry Gura (1976-1985)
Paul Splittorff (1970-1984)
Joakim Soria (2007- )

Dick Howser (1981-1986)

I could just as easily have turned the reigns of this team over to Whitey Herzog, but this time I decided skippering a team to their one and only World Series victory trumps everything else.

Greatest Eligible non-Hall of Famer

As relatively easy as some of the position choices were here, deciding the Royals' greatest eligible non-Hall of Famer was pretty hard for a couple of reasons.

First, I really like Dan Quisenberry. I think he's probably as worthy of the Hall of Fame as Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers, maybe even more deserving than the latter. But, the Hall-worthiness of relievers is a difficult subject, one I'm still trying to wrap my head around. Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those folks who thinks none of them belong, but I'm leaning towards believing Hoyt Wilhelm, Goose Gossage and, in the future, Mariano Rivera are the only guys who should be in.

So, I really think Kevin Appier and Bret Saberhagen are better candidates for this distinction. Which brings me to the second reason this is such a dilemma. Appier would be the choice based solely on their respective Royals careers, but that's mainly because he pitched longer in Kansas City than Saberhagen did.

Bret Saberhagen
Bret Saberhagen
Saberhagen produced almost as much value for the Royals as Appier did, plus he had some success outside of Kansas City. The two Cy Young awards are a factor as well, so Bret Saberhagen is my choice as this team's best eligible non-member of baseball's most exclusive club.**

**I was going to say "baseball's most exclusive club that has also admitted the likes of Tommy McCarthy, Lloyd Waner, Rube Marquard, etc.," but I decided not to. Well, sort of.

As we try to break the shackles of our prior conceptions about Hall-worthiness, we realize Saberhagen came much closer to a Hall of Fame career than we previously thought.

Forget that he didn't win 200 games. Sandy Koufax didn't win 200 games. Neither did Dizzy Dean. And those are just the two most famous Hall of Fame pitchers with less than 200 wins. You can also add Jack Chesbro, Dazzy Vance, Ed Walsh, Rube Waddell, Lefty Gomez and Addie Joss to that list, among players inducted because of their starting pitching accomplishments. But, I want to talk about Koufax and Dean.

Now, before you start proclaiming that Saberhagen was no Koufax or Dean, let me just say that statement isn't as obvious as you'd assume.

Dean pitched just under 2000 innings in his abbreviated career, so I think it's fair to use that basis as the starting point for a comparison.

Through roughly the first 2000 IP of their careers:

Koufax: 138-78, 125 ERA+, 40.3 WAR, 2 CYA

Saberhagen: 134-94, 128 ERA+, 48 WAR, 2 CYA

Dean: 150-83, 131 ERA+, 41.3 WAR, 2 CYA***

***The Cy Young award didn't actually exist when Dean pitched, but he won one MVP and finished second twice. One of those second place finishes was to Carl Hubbell, so I'm giving the assumed Cy to Hubbell that year, but awarding it to Dean for his other second place finish, to Gabby Hartnett.

Do you see that big a difference between these guys, except for the fact Koufax and Dean are Hall of Famers, and Saberhagen dropped off the ballot after receiving just 1.3% of the vote in his first year of eligibility?

Koufax produced one more monster (10 WAR) season (probably the best of his career) then was forced to retire, and Saberhagen stuck around for 4+ additional injury-plagued seasons in which he produced when healthy (488 IP, 33-23, 118 ERA+, 8 WAR). Of course, Dean's career was over at that point.

Again, not really much separation between these careers. I made this particular comparison because Koufax and Dean are possibly the most notable Hall of Fame pitchers who got there on the strength of brilliant peaks rather than longevity, and because Saberhagen had kind of a similar career. I won't try to deny Koufax was clearly the best of the three, but not by as much as you'd think. And, I honestly wouldn't really say Dean was better at all.

Here's an interesting comparison of how remarkably similar Saberhagen's and Dean's primes were. Both pitchers peaked early and had tremendous five-year stretches before injuries got the best of them. Neither threw more than 200 innings in a year after their age-26 season.

Honestly, the main differences were that Dean was on a better team and more of a workhorse—although the latter can really be attributed to the difference in the eras they played in—and Saberhagen was able to come back from injury to enjoy some modest success in his 30s, a factor that could also be attributed to his era.

Saberhagen (1985-1989): 82-50, 130 ERA+, 1171 IP, 29.1 WAR, 2 CYA

Dean (1932-1936): 120-65, 130 ERA+, 1531 IP, 32.6 WAR, 2 CYA***

Should Saberhagen be a Hall of Famer? I'll admit I didn't use to think so, but my opinion is definitely evolving. I'll also admit my judgment used to be clouded by the not-necessarily-accurate subjective evaluations of players from the good 'ole days.

The philosophy that "I know a Hall of Famer when I see one" is still all too prevalent today. I'll concede, ever so slightly, to the folks who subscribe to this theory that maybe there should be a small measure of this in our present-day evaluations of players. But, when we think we can make comparisons to players we've never seen, we end up relying on what can best be described as a generational version of the telephone game that might go something like this:

Grandpa: "Dizzy Dean was the greatest pitcher I ever saw...for those three years in the mid-'30s there was no one better."

Son: "My dad said Dizzy Dean was the greatest pitcher he ever saw...and he saw Carl Hubbell and Lefty Grove pitch. He even saw Walter Johnson at the tail end of his career."

Grandson: "My grandfather saw Carl Hubbell, Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson pitch, and he says Dizzy Dean was better than all of them."

I'm sure I'll be digging up this argument again when it comes time to consider Johan Santana's Hall of Fame credentials.

Next Up: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim


  1. Great stuff. And I think Saberhagen is interesting in the respect that I believe people thought early on he was on a Hall of Fame path—if he could just stay healthy. But he couldn't. But he kept coming back, and pitched well each time he did.

    My latest calculations have him very much over the Hall of Fame borderline, surrounded by HOFers such as:

    Jim Palmer
    Ted Lyons
    Stan Coveleski
    Vic Willis
    Dennis Eckersley
    Jim Bunning
    Rube Waddell

    So, not the cream of the crop. But guys who are very much Hall of Famers.

    Appier is also over the line but not by nearly as much. He hangs out near Don Sutton, Early Wynn, and Joe McGinnity—and near some non-HOF favorites like Wes Ferrell, Urban Shocker, Dave Stieb and Eddie Cicotte.

    Going by "thought of as a Hall of Famer"… yeah, I used to look at Saberhagen and think he had Hall of Fame talent. Never thought that about Appier. But that's the funny thing: he did.

    1. Thanks Adam.

      The funny thing about Saberhagen is he had that every-other-year thing going early in his career. Kind of like Josh Beckett, but better.

      He definitely "feels like a Hall of Famer" more than Appier does, but I suppose I could use my own argument against myself for saying that.