Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Reason #12: The Epic.

I have to be honest here: I never expected Gil Meche to pitch as well as he did last year. Hoped, yes. Thought it was within the realm of possibility, sure. But I didn’t expect it. No one did. How could I, when PECOTA was projecting Meche for a 5.40 ERA, and Rob Neyer was openly wondering if the signing of Meche was “dumber than anything Allard Baird ever did” – let us not forget, Baird once traded Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez?

But Meche pitched like an ace for six weeks – he had a 1.91 ERA in his first nine starts – and was a still-better-than-league-average pitcher after that, with a 4.36 ERA and strong peripherals the rest of the way. He never tired, he never turned into a pumpkin, he never gave an opening for his detractors. His season totals wouldn’t look out of place in Kevin Appier’s prime, right down to the lousy run support. Compare these two seasons:

Year Pitcher  GS   IP    H   BB   K  HR   W  L  ERA    RS

1997 Appier 34 235.2 215 74 196 24 9 13 3.40 3.92
2007 Meche 34 216.0 218 62 156 22 9 13 3.67 3.84

(RS is run support.)

Appier would hurt his shoulder the following winter; the official story was that he fell off his sister’s porch carrying her wedding presents, but there were a lot of unofficial stories out there. In 1997, though, he was continuing an eight-year run as one of the five best starting pitchers in baseball. Meche wasn’t that good, but then, no one in Royals history was as good as Kevin Appier.

I’m not going to be able to just let that comment hang out there, so…let me say it again: Kevin Appier is the best pitcher in the history of the Royals’ franchise. In terms of overall value, he was more valuable than the legends before my time (Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorff, Larry Gura), or the heroes of my youth, the Leibrandts and the Danny Jacksons. He was better than Bret Saberhagen.

Yes, he was better than Bret Saberhagen. Saberhagen won two Cy Young Awards; Appier won none. But Appier, by any reasonable measure, was the best pitcher in the American League in 1993, and that Jack McDowell won that season was a crime – a crime aided and abetted by the local writers (I don’t know their identities, though I have my suspicions) – as only one of the 28 BBWAA voters that year put Kevin Appier at the top of their ballot. Twenty guesses and you’ll never guess right…it was Phil Rogers, then of the Dallas Morning News. Rogers has gone to bigger things and has become a frequent target of the sabermetric movement, but I’ve always had a soft spot for him because he was the one guy who managed to figure out that the pitcher with a 2.46 ERA was better than the pitcher with a 3.37 ERA.

McDowell won because he went 22-10; Appier went 18-8. But if you simply look at their team’s overall record when each pitcher started – what Joe Posnanski calls “True Wins” – both pitchers were 23-11. And while Appier’s run support was 4.52 per game; McDowell’s was 4.97.

Saberhagen’s 1989 is the best single season by a pitcher in team history; by WARP1, he was good for 12.4 wins over replacement that year. He was also over 10 wins in 1985 (10.3) and 1987 (10.1). Appier’s 1993 scores at 11.1, the second-best season by a Royal; he was 10.0 in 1992 and 9.3 in 1996.

The problem for Saberhagen is that those three years are pretty much all he’s got. He was at 8.1 WARP in 1991, but was pretty much a league-average pitcher in all the even years in between (1984, 1986, 1988, 1990). And then he was gone. Appier was at 8.0 in 1997, 7.6 in 1995, 7.2 in 1990, and 6.7 in 1992. In 1994, he only had 5.2 WARP, but was on pace for about 7.4 before the strike. Appier was an elite starter for eight consecutive years. Saberhagen was a Cy Young contender for three years, very good for one year, and then either blah or injured in the other four.

If you arrange their seasons from best to worst, here’s what you get:

 Saberhagen Appier

1989 12.4 1993 11.1
1985 10.3 1992 10.0
1987 10.1 1996 9.3
1991 8.1 1997 8.0
1988 6.9 1995 7.6
1990 5.2 1990 7.2
1984 4.5 1992 6.7
1986 4.5 1994* 5.2

Saberhagen wins the top four seasons, by narrow margins. Appier wins the bottom four seasons, by big margins.

By career WARP in a Royals uniform, Appier wins, 68.2 to 62.0. No one else comes close; Paul Splittorff had 54.6 WARP (despite a career high of 6.4; his best season was not as good as Appier’s worst), Quisenberry had 53.6 (amazing for a reliever), and Dennis Leonard was at 52.8.

Actually, there is one other pitcher I haven’t mentioned who I’m amazed to say had the exact same WARP as Appier – Mark Gubicza. Gubie really had two careers, one as a power pitcher and one as a garbage/finesse guy, sort of the Royals’ version of Frank Tanana. From 1987 to 1989 he was as good as Saberhagen; his 1988 WARP of 11.0 is third all-time. He hurt his arm after throwing about 770 innings over three years – imagine that – but after a period of adjustment to losing his fastball, he settled in as a league-average pitcher for a few years, capping it off with a very fine 1995 when he managed to throw 212 innings in a somewhat strike-shortened season because Bob Boone had the audacity to try a four-man rotation for half the year.

I think the tie clearly goes to Appier ahead given that his value was almost entirely packed into eight seasons, whereas Gubicza’s value was spread out over 13 years. Peak value means something – a team is more likely to win a pennant with a pitcher who’s brilliant for a short period of time than with a pitcher who’s simply good for a longer period of time. On the other hand, when Appier’s time was up, the Royals dealt him for three piles of dung (or, if you prefer, Blake Stein and two piles of dung, which isn’t much better.) Gubicza, on the other hand, somehow fetched Chili Davis, who gave the Royals a fantastic season as a DH in 1997.

If I had to subjectively rank the best starters in team history, it would like this:

1. Kevin Appier
2. Bret Saberhagen (that World Series performance counts for something)
3. Mark Gubicza
4. Dennis Leonard
5. Paul Splittorff

Anyway, we got off track here…while Meche is no Kevin Appier, he has an excellent shot at becoming the Royals’ best starter since Appier. This is partly because the Royals have not had any good starters since Appier. Since the 1994-95 strike, only three Royals than Appier) have amassed even 15 WARP, which equates to about three seasons of league-average pitching. Those three are Jose Rosado (21.3), Jeff Suppan (20.4), and Tim Belcher (17.8). Belcher departed in 1998, Rosado’s arm went boom in 2000, and Suppan left after 2002; things have only gotten worse since then.

Since 2000, what pitcher has the most WARP in a Royals uniform? Would you believe Zack Greinke? On the basis of a good year in 2004 (for four months), a good year in 2007 (as a swingman), and a disastrous 2005, Greinke has 14.7 WARP. Suppan has 14.4, and then the list goes Darrell May, Paul Byrd, Jeremy Affeldt, Jason Grimsley…you know what, I’ll stop there. Once you reach Jason Grimsley, there’s really no point in going on.

Meche is already in 11th place, with 6.9 WARP; he had the second-best season of any Royals’ starter this decade, behind only Paul Byrd’s 2002 (7.7).

I see no reason why he can’t do it again. PECOTA is unrepentant, predicting Meche to finish with a 4.47 ERA. His top comparable is last year’s version of Vicente Padilla, followed by the immortal Roger Pavlik of 1997. I’ll remember to slap Nate Silver upside the head the next time I see him, though in the meantime a dose of humility is warranted: pitchers who have a sudden breakthrough in performance, as Meche did last season, don’t always hold onto it.

I’m confident Meche will, though. His performance spiked corresponded to a specific event, the change in his delivery that had him land on his toes instead of his heel. His injury woes, the ones that kept him off a mound entirely for all of 2001 and 2002, seem long behind him. His control dramatically improved last year, and walk rate is perhaps the one category where a sudden improvement by a pitcher is most likely to be sustained.

It’s too early to say he can make the mid-career leap from solid starting pitcher to Cy Young contender that Jason Schmidt and Chris Carpenter made. But Schmidt and Carpenter both made their leaps when they were 29. Gil Meche is 29.

So long as Meche gives us four more years like his last one, he’ll be an enormous free agent bargain. Who would you rather have over the next four years, Gil Meche or Carlos Silva? Keep in mind, Silva will make a million more per year than Meche.

The Epic of Gil Meche has yet to be fully written. But whereas a year ago I thought it would be a tragedy, today I’m hopeful that it will be a resounding and heart-warming triumph.


Anonymous said...

Nice article. I'll admit, im in early infancy stage on the Sabermetric bandwagon, but no love for Steve Busby? I know he only had two nice years, and then the shoulder, but he WAS going to be the best royals pitcher statistics aside.

Anonymous said...

ohh ya one more thing, what's the scoop on Appier's injury:

"Appier would hurt his shoulder the following winter; the official story was that he fell off his sister’s porch carrying her wedding presents, but there were a lot of unofficial stories out there."

What were the unofficial stories? I feel ignorant here, and can't figure out a way to research it.

ChasingMoney said...

Now you are talking, I love Gil Meche so much that I sponsor his baseball-reference page. I flew into rage when Hillman said it was too early to pick a starter for opening day. WHAT? It better freaking be Meche.

Adrian said...

I agree that Meche should be the opening day starter. However, the Royals open at Detroit on March 31. They have two off days and another five games before the home opener. It wouldn't be a crime to work the rotation so Meche did not start the season opener, but did start the home opener--against the Yankees.

Anonymous said...

Jason f***ing Grimsley has more WARPs than Runelvys Hernandez did? Boy, I never realized his Runelvys's good time was so little.

Anonymous said...

I haven't even read your entire entry yet(don't worry, I definitely will) and all I can say is yes, yes, YES!!! Thank goodness there is someone else out there who truly realizes how good Appier really was. For him or even Randy Johnson to not win the Cy Young in '93 was an absolute crime, and I've held a grudge ever since. Had Appier not pitched in virtual anonymity during those mediocre seasons of KC baseball where we were virtually irrelevant, he'd have definitely carved out a much more respected niche for himself within the alums of the game. He was probably just about the most unlucky pitcher in Royals history, and perhaps its best. I'm not sure if I'd go so far as to say he was better than Sabes, but he was definitely on par.


Anonymous said...

One more thing, you mentioned Bob (I'm smarter than everyone and my my degree from Stanford tells me so) Boone's brilliant idea of going to the 4 man rotation, albeit briefly in 1995. I have never forgiven him for that. Kevin Appier was thoroughly dominating the AL in '95, and Bob Boone single handedly ruined his season by going to the 4 man rotation. How you ask? Well, less than a month into this 4 man rotation, Appier loses effectiveness, and goes on the DL with a tired arm, only to come back a few weeks later and be merely average to good. Appier was on pace to record a truly special season that was looking like a Cy Young type season, and Bob Boone wrecked it. Thanks Bob, really appreciate it...


Anonymous said...

ONE LAST THING, I promise. Another highlight from the Bob Boone archives. Kevin Appier has a no hitter going through 6.2 innings/98 pitches and gets the hook from Boone. The logic was that it was early, and Boone didn't wanna overwork Appier for the long season ahead. Ironic isn't it, that later that July Appier gets thrust into a 4 man rotation. It truly staggers the imagination, doesn't it? I was at that opening day by the way, and honestly could not believe what I was seeing.


Anonymous said...

No way Apes can be ranked ahead of Gubicza or Saberhagen in a subjective ranking. I was 12 in 1985, flags fly forever, and it wasn't the Ape that got us there.

He's a definite #3 in my rankings...

Anonymous said...

"No way Apes can be ranked ahead of Gubicza or Saberhagen in a *subjective* ranking. I was 12 in 1985, flags fly forever, and it wasn't the Ape that got us there.

Alright, I'll excuse for a moment the fact that your comment sounds like it was generated by the Royals PR department in the late 80's, and ask what an objective analysis might have to say about it?

But really, isn't saying that Gubicza and Saberhagen are superior *because* they won a World Series just an easy out? That doesn't require any thought; it's weak thinking, and isn't even really a legitimate argument. Might George Brett in his prime have something to do with the success of the Royals? Wouldn't the players supporting Appier have an impact on his ability to win a World Series?

Anonymous said...

Oops, I should probably sneak this in, but can't edit my original post. Appier did win a World Series in 2002, just not with the Royals. So, he's been an important part of exactly as many World Series winners as Gubicza and Saberhagen.

Old Man Duggan said...

I really hope Meche pulls the Carpenschmidt evolutionary step this year and doesn't follow it up with the slew of injuries that followed.

Anonymous said...

This is where I have a little difficulty with the reasons because the epic becomes more an evaluation of the past, even a past where the team was not that successful (Appyears).

I am convinced that we lost out on some division titles then to the Bashroid Brothers in Oakland.

Nostalgia is too much a part of being a Royals fan.

MoreHRsAndLesNorman said...

Rany--I've got to go with Sabes over Ape, and you make my point for me:

"Peak value means something – a team is more likely to win a pennant with a pitcher who’s brilliant for a short period of time than with a pitcher who’s simply good for a longer period of time"

Sabes was better in his top 4 seasons . His EXCELLENT years in '89 and '85 put Sabes at the top of the list.

....and the WORLD SERIES!

Unknown said...

My hope is that sometime during this epic that Gil becomes our second or even third best pitcher. I would love to see Grienke becomes the ace he has the stuff to be and if any of our young guys could become a number two that would be great. I love the Meche signing but I hope our young guys become better than him in the long run.

Nathan Hall said...

Hate to throw cold water on all the enthusiasm for Meche. I hope he's turned a corner, I really do. But it isn't reasonable to count on it. When a 28 year old turns in the best season of his career, you just don't expect him to get better over the next four seasons.

Signing Meche looks much better today than it did a year ago, and teams have certainly been known to pay more for above average pitching. If the Royals make the playoffs in 2009 because Meche is pitching important innings and somebody like Tomko or Nomo isn't, then he'll be worth the money. But let's not evaluate a five year contract after one year.

Anonymous said...

As an Indians fan, I advocated signing Meche after 2006 because he had a good K rate and our defense was absurd. People told me that his 2006 rate of 7.52 was a career gork and was unsustainable, and heck, maybe it is, but his 2004 rate was 6.98, and 2005 looked more like the outlier to me. (When I heard the contract terms, I suffered an attack of Not Surprise that Cleveland didn't top the offer.)

It turned out that a lot more of his success hinged on lowering his walk rate instead: it got his P/PA under 4 and helped him post a career-low OpOBP, but the elements of success were noticeable, even from afar. Hope he keeps it up: KC seems like the perfect place for a guy with Meche's temperament.

Anonymous said...

No one has answered williewilson's question about the "unofficial stories" for why Appier busted his shoulder. I too am REALLY curious. Anyone?

Edge - PA said...

What about David Cone? Pretty good pitcher ...

Anonymous said...

baird did not sign the guy either. dayton moore did.

Antonio. said...

Allard Baird wasn't given much opportunity to make a real free agent splash. Not fair to hold that against him.

Christian M said...

Another fantastic post. Appier was dominant in his day. I still remember Peter Gamons saying that Jack Mcdowell should get the CY young over Kevin and I remember thinking, "Pete- you gotta be kidding me, look at the numbers!!".