Even though we’re getting closer to baseball season and a lot of people want to look forward to that, I thought it might be kind of fun to look back at some Royals history once again. Instead of looking at the best and worst single seasons, I wanted to draw attention to a player whose career is celebrated in Kansas City, though less so around the rest of the baseball world, despite his impressive credentials. I’m talking about the best pitcher in Royals’ history. I’m talking, of course, about Kevin Appier.
Appier debuted for the Royals in 1989, and was far from dominant in those first 21.2 innings. After that, however, he had an eight-year run that was simply brilliant. It started in 1990 with a rookie campaign that should’ve earned Appier the Rookie of the Year award. He pitched 185.2 innings with a 2.76 ERA (71 ERA-), 6.16 K/9, and 2.62 BB/9. His 5.3 bWAR was 2 wins higher than the award winner, Sandy Alomar, who took all 28 first-place votes. This wouldn’t be the last award snub in Appier’s career.
His excellence certainly didn’t end there. A great 1991 season (83 ERA- in 207.2 IP) was followed by an even better 1992 (61 ERA- in 208.1 IP). But Appier’s pièce de résistance came in 1993.
And for that performance, Appier earned all of one first-place Cy Young vote. He finished third in the voting, behind winner Jack McDowell and Randy Johnson. McDowell had an ERA+ of 125 in 256.2 innings, good enough for a whopping 4.3 bWAR. Johnson was actually better than McDowell, posting an ERA+ of 135 in 255.1 IP, which made him worth 6.8 bWAR. Both pitchers had inferior seasons to Appier, and it wasn’t all that close. It’s impossible for me to remember Appier and not think about how badly he was hosed out of that award. Appier didn’t get enough love on the MVP ballot, either. His WAR was higher than every AL player, and yet, he wasn’t even the leading vote-getter on his own team. Appier finished 24th on that ballot, while Jeff Montgomery was 13th. Three AL starters and two relievers received more MVP votes than Appier. The Royals weren’t a playoff team that season, but they were above .500, so the typical “played for a bad team” reasoning shouldn’t have applied. Appier not getting the recognition he deserved for that season was downright criminal.
Maybe I was just 7 years old when that season was over, but yes, I am still bitter.
Appier followed up 1993 with his three best strikeout seasons, ringing up over 8 batters per 9 innings in each season. His 1997 season was also terrific, in which he had an ERA of 3.40 over 235.1 innings, which was enough for 5.1 fWAR.
Between 1990 and 1997, Appier had pitched 1620.2 innings with a 3.20 ERA, 71 ERA-, 7.40 K/9, and 3.04 BB/9. The only qualified starters in that timeframe with a lower ERA-: Jose Rijo, Roger Clemens, and Greg Maddux. Rijo seems a bit out of place here, although his stats were accumulated in about 1100 innings. Still, that is an impressive list. Appier’s 42.2 fWAR in that timeframe only trailed Clemens and Maddux. He was ahead of John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, David Cone, Kevin Brown, Tom Glavine, and many others. It’s absolutely fair to say that Appier was on track to become a Hall of Fame pitcher.
Unfortunately for Appier and the Royals, it’s at that point where the story takes a turn for the worse.
In March of 1998, Appier had to have surgery to repair a torn labrum, which limited him to just 15 innings that season. In 1999, Appier requested a trade to get away from the downtrodden Royals, and his wish was granted at midseason, when he was sent to Oakland for Jeff D’Amico, Brad Rigby, and Blake Stein. I apologize for bringing up those names, as well as for any physical pain or nausea that resulted from reading them.
From 1999 through 2002, Appier remained healthy enough to make at least 31 starts each season, but it was obvious that he was heading toward the end of his career. His best season came in 2001, when he had an ERA- of 85 in 206.2 innings with the Mets. While that was nothing to be ashamed of, it wasn’t better than any season during his 8 year peak. Appier won a World Series ring as a member of the Angels in 2002, and was subsequently released by the team in 2003 after injuries sapped even more of his effectiveness. He signed with the Royals later that summer, but was forced to end his season after five starts, at which point Appier needed another surgery.
Appier’s final big league appearance came in 2004, in a Royals uniform. He retired that year, although he attempted a comeback via minor league deals in 2005 and 2006. Appier officially retired in July of 2006. His career numbers:
Even including Appier’s injury-shortened seasons, only 10 qualified pitchers had more fWAR during his career. Two of them have already been elected to the Hall of Fame. At least three of them will be elected next year. And in my opinion, at least nine of them will eventually be enshrined in Cooperstown someday.
Yet, Appier received just one vote in his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Appier should absolutely be a Hall of Famer. His career wasn’t as long and illustrious as the other players from the above list, so it is tough to make a legitimate case unless you’re a “Big Hall” kind of guy. However, his peak absolutely merited more consideration than he deserved. Sadly, Appier is yet another example of injuries derailing what could have been a legendary career.
Appier is the best pitcher in Royals history. You can make an argument for a couple of other guys, but I would disagree. Among starters with at least 500 innings pitched, Appier had the lowest ERA-, the 2nd lowest FIP-, the 2nd lowest WHIP, the 2nd highest K%, and the highest fWAR. He’s received plenty of recognition for his work in a Royals uniform, and he’s one of my favorite Royals players of all-time. But for as much notoriety as Appier earned in Kansas City, he deserved so much more from the rest of the baseball world.