The 5 Best Pitching Seasons in Royals’ History

Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Last month, I wrote about the five worst individual seasons by position players in Royals’ history. Yesterday in this space, I wrote a bit about the inept lineups the team has had on recent Opening Days. Also yesterday, I spent some time looking at the worst pitching seasons in Royals’ history.

Hi. My name’s Hunter, and I have a problem.

I wish I could do something about my fascination with awful baseball statistics, but I just can’t. Maybe it’s because I’ve had to learn to laugh about it all to keep myself from the sadness associated with following a downtrodden franchise for so long. Maybe it’s because I’ve always loved numbers, and statistics that are so eye-popping demand my attention. Maybe it’s because I’m just sick in the head. Regardless of the reason, those types of stats will always intrigue me.

However, because the holiday season is about cheer and warm feelings and all that other mushy stuff, I decided to flip the script a little. I wanted to look at some great seasons in Royals’ history. Now, I could just give you the top 5 seasons from position players, but that wouldn’t be as much fun with George Brett claiming 3 of those seasons. That led me to the pitchers. So without further ado, here are the five best pitching seasons in franchise history, according to fWAR.

5(tie). Steve Busby, 1974; Mark Gubicza, 1989 – (6.9 WAR)

Realistically, Gubicza was a little better than Busby, since the former accumulated that much value in 255 innings, while the latter threw 292.1 innings. Gubicza had a 3.04 ERA, which was 22% better than league average, and his peripherals suggested he should’ve gotten even better results. He had a FIP of 2.72, 6.1 K/9, and 2.2 BB/9. Fans of “the win” probably weren’t impressed with Gubicza’s season, however, since his record was just 15-11.

Busby’s 1974 season was headlined by his no-hitter against the Brewers, but he was excellent all year long. Like Gubicza, Busby’s results didn’t tell the whole story. His 3.39 ERA was just 9% better than average, but his FIP was 2.88, which was 29% better than average. Despite his strong season, Busby didn’t receive any Cy Young votes, and finished 30th in MVP voting.

4. Kevin Appier, 1993 – (7.2 WAR)

Appier is such an underrated pitcher in my opinion, as he somewhat quietly had six seasons with at least 5 fWAR, but 1993 was his best. In 238.2 innings, Appier struck out over 7 batters per 9 innings, walked just over 3 batters per 9 innings, and had a 2.56 ERA in a time of inflated offense. That ERA, after adjusting for park effects, was 42% better than league average. Appier allowed just 8 home runs all season en route to finishing 3rd in the AL Cy Young vote – which, by the way, was a complete joke. Jack McDowell won the award despite having a worse ERA, fewer strikeouts, and 2.4 fewer WAR (the gap was even larger according to bWAR). But McDowell did top that magical 20-win plateau, so I suppose voters were obligated to hand him the trophy.

3. Bret Saberhagen, 1989 – (8.1 WAR)

In 1989, Saberhagen was nearly unhittable, and that’s only a slight exaggeration. Opposing batters hit just .214 off of him in 262.1 innings. He had a K/9 of 6.6, a BB/9 of 1.5, and a K/BB of 4.5. His 2.16 ERA was 44% better than average, and Sabes even satisfied the necessary wins requirement (23) to claim the Cy Young award. Saberhagen also won the Gold Glove and finished 8th in MVP voting in his career year.

2. Dennis Leonard, 1977 – (8.4 WAR)

Leonard’s stellar campaign included 292.2 innings, 37 starts, and even 1 save. He had an ERA of 3.04 and a FIP of 2.76. But the biggest thing to note from that year was Leonard’s strikeout rate. His career average for K/9 was 5.4, but that number spiked to 7.5 in 1977, which was the 5th highest rate in baseball. Combined with 2.4 BB/9 and an opponent batting average of just .224, Leonard was able to finish 4th in the Cy Young vote.

1. Zack Greinke, 2009 – (9.1 WAR)

I’m not sure there are enough adjectives to accurately describe Greinke’s Cy Young-winning season. Pitching for a team that bordered on unwatchable for most of the season, Greinke Day became appointment television. He struck out 9.5 batters per 9 innings and walked just 2 per 9. Greinke’s 2.16 ERA was the best in the league by a significant margin, and was 52% better than league average. For comparison, Clayton Kershaw just finished what was constantly called a historic season in which he prevented earned runs at a rate 49% better than average. Greinke’s WAR total was a full win better than the pitcher in 2nd place, Justin Verlander. Oh, and Greinke did all of this with the run support of the worst offense in the league and in front of the worst defense in all of baseball. It is remarkable how insanely, ridiculously, spectacularly amazing Greinke was in 2009. Again, I do not have sufficient words to explain that season, but I know that for as long as I live, I’ll remember that summer of Greinke’s dominance.

Topics: Kansas City Royals, Zack Greinke

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  • hemroid

    Gubicza -”his record was just 15-11 (actually received a decision in every one of his 36 starts that year)” maybe he didn’t receive a decision in all of his starts. Normally that would indicated the # starts would have a decision to match that total # 15-6 record – 21 starts. Gubicza missed it by 10. Great story nonetheless.

    • Hunter Samuels

      Ooooh boy, math is hard sometimes, especially late at night. Thanks for pointing that out. Fixed it.

  • LGB

    Grienke Day was awesome. At least us royals fans had something to brag about that year

  • C Riddle

    For some reason, the Royals and the Expos are (and have been) teams that interest me greatly in terms of great pitching performances for bad teams. Larry Gura is another guy who seems to have put up some strong numbers for not-always-so-great teams. Steve Rogers (Expos) is, to me, in the top 5 when it comes to being King of the Wasted Effort.

  • Dave Hill

    The first trek I managed to make to Kauffman (I live in southeastern Massachusetts, so that was a 25 hour drive for me) was in time for a Greinke start in late May. Of course, that was one of his rougher games – I think he gave up three earned to Cleveland in that outing. It was still great to see the excitement in the ballpark that game though.

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