(Blogathon ’16) Marc Normandin: Bret Saberhagen’s case for the Hall of Nearly Great

This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

Back in the mid-1990s, baseball was a significant part of my life. I was under 10 years old, and it was the sport my parents enrolled me in as soon as I was able to hold a bat and glove, the one my father had played even after school. His father was a Red Sox fan, and so was my dad, and that—at the time, burden—was passed on to me as well.

I attended Red Sox games, and watched Red Sox games, but until 1999, I just wasn’t crazy about following one team every day. It was all so new, this game of organized baseball. Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, and Edgar Martinez were all exciting, and the Mariners were great. Jeff Bagwell and the Astros had a roster that was loaded with players I had been introduced to through baseball cards and video games, and it was easy to like them, especially with the Killer B’s in tow. This is an exercise that could go on for some time, but the key point here is that, as much as the Red Sox were my team, as much as anyone could be the team of someone who is yet to hit double-digits in their age, they were also one of many. It was the sport that drew me in, more so than any one club.

Part of that had to do with my age, but also the Sox. The 1995 club won the American League East, but did so with an ever-changing cast of characters. For a nine-year-old, keeping track of the roster that set the record for most players used in a season—and in a shortened 144-game schedule—is asking a bit much, especially when the yearbooks and video games that accompany the season don’t go into that kind of detail. It also didn’t help that Boston was dismissed, and quickly, by the Cleveland Indians in the first-ever American League Division Series.

The Red Sox wouldn’t make the postseason again until 1998, and, while I began to appreciate players who were sticking around in the interim—John Valentin, Tim Wakefield, Troy O’Leary, Tom Gordon—and those who were new to the club—Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Lowe—something was missing. The excitement wasn’t quite there, like it was for the game as a whole, because the Red Sox weren’t quite there.

Then, things started to change. General manager Dan Duquette sent a few pitching prospects over the border to his former club in Montreal, and acquired Pedro Martinez. I had never seen Pedro pitch, but—and this might seem repetitive, but bear with 12-year-old me—I had seen his numbers in video games and used his likeness in them, I had cards of his in my collection, I had a hefty baseball encyclopedia with even more information on him, and I knew that this was a big deal. The Red Sox had recently lost Roger Clemens, the only ace they ever had in my life to that point, and I barely ever knew him. There isn’t a game of his I remember watching besides his second 20-strikeout performance against the Detroit Tigers in 1996—if there’s a game that was going to stick in your head from the time when you were 10, one of that magnitude is the way to go.

Pedro was more real to me, in a way, and now he was with the Red Sox. This was exciting! The most exciting thing since following Nomar’s promotion to the majors, and these things happened back-to-back. That’s how you get someone young to stay interested in just about anything: bombard them with reasons to pay attention.

Boston had also retained Bret Saberhagen, who they had signed while he recovered from shoulder surgery back in 1996. Saberhagen threw 26 uninspiring innings for the Red Sox in ’97, but he was a player I rooted for and was excited about, for many of the same reasons that Pedro intrigued me. Here was a pitcher who had done nothing but succeed in his career, and for a long time, and the Red Sox were hoping he could once again be useful after recovering from major surgery. That’s the way Boston’s front office operated, hoping to hit on enough lottery tickets to fill out the roster, but for a young kid who doesn’t know anything but optimism, there was something charming about the strategy. Especially when it brought players with impressive baseball cards to town.

The 1998 season was the first that was a big deal for me, from start to finish, because it was the follow-up to Nomar’s Rookie of the Year campaign, Pedro’s first season with the Sox, and Saberhagen’s chance to recapture some of his former glory. None of these three items disappointed, and when Boston took home the Wild Card, everything seemed right. That is, until the Indians once again bullied the Sox out of the first round.

This was good, though. It left me hungry as a fan for the first time, left me feeling like the Red Sox could have won, should have won, and that just made me want the 1999 season to happen. I cared that it was Mo Vaughn’s last year. I cared that Valentin just wasn’t the same after moving off of shortstop. I cared that Pedro didn’t win his second-consecutive Cy Young, and instead finished in second, in his first year in the AL. I cared about the Red Sox, and that’s what made 1999 the most incredible Red Sox season of my life to that point, the one I still to this day hold just as dear as the successful 2004, 2007, and 2013 campaigns that brought World Series to Boston.

Bret Saberhagen was, somewhat surprisingly, a huge part of that for me.

*****

Saberhagen was a 19th-round selection of the Royals in the 1982 MLB draft. He was just 19 when he first suited up professionally in 1983, but he finished the year at Double A thanks to a dominating showing at Low A Fort Myers. That was the last time Saberhagen would pitch in the minors, until he was working his way back from surgery 13 years later.

The 1984 Royals moved Sabes between starting and relief, and the rookie logged 157 innings in the process. He didn’t miss bats, but he didn’t miss the strike zone, either, and this led to a 115 ERA+ as a 20-year-old major leaguer. Things would only improve for him from there.

In 1985, Saberhagen was the best pitcher on the World Series-winning Royals. He won 20 games, a number cited here only because he deserved them: his ERA was 2.87, 43 percent better than average, and thanks to a league-best 1.5 walks per nine, he also led the AL in K/BB at 4.2. He won the Cy Young, finished 10th in MVP balloting, and gave up just one run in 18 innings in the World Series., taking home Series MVP honors. No sophomore slump here.

Amazingly, this was not to be his best season with the Royals. That would come in 1989, when Saberhagen led the league in win percentage (.793), ERA (2.16), complete games (12), innings (262), ERA+ (180), WHIP (0.96), and K/BB (4.5). He won his second of two Cy Youngs, finished eighth in the MVP vote, and took home a Gold Glove as well. It’s not quite a World Series victory, but as a runner-up, you could do a lot worse than this.

All told, Saberhagen posted a 128 ERA+ with the Royals from 1984 through 1991, tossing 1,660 innings in that stretch. As a full-time starter (1985 onward), he averaged 215 innings per season, and 30 starts. That average is a bit misleading, too, as Saberhagen missed time due to injury that cut into that figure—likely due to the workload from the seasons in which he was healthy.

Saberhagen threw 235 innings as a 21-year-old in 1985, and that doesn’t count the additional 25 postseason frames. In 1986, the right-hander managed just 156, and, according to a 1987 Peter Gammons profile of the young hurler at Sports Illustrated, much of that was physical: “I hurt in so many places that I felt 37 and had no way to answer the people who thought it had all gone to—or through—my head.”

Whatever ailed him in ’86 vanished in ’87, when he threw 257 innings with a 136 ERA+. In 1988, it was more of the same, at least in terms of usage: 260 frames, 3.80 ERA, 106 ERA+. The 1980s just didn’t pay attention to workload and fatigue in the same way the 2000s do, though, and it didn’t help that Saberhagen handled another 260 innings just fine in 1989, his greatest season of 16.

The problems, they came after 1989. Not only was that the last time Saberhagen reached the 260 inning mark, but it was the last time he crossed the 200 inning line. From 1984 through 1989, a six-year stretch, Saberhagen threw 1,329 innings, but in the last 12 years of his career, he wouldn’t be able to exceed that figure.

This isn’t to say that Saberhagen vanished from relevance. He completed his eight-year stint with the Royals in 1991, after tossing two Saberhagen-esque years, albeit with a new career-low for innings in a season. He was dealt to the Mets after the 1991 campaign, along with Bill Pecota, in exchange for Gregg Jefferies, Kevin McReynolds, and Keith Miller. In three-and-a-half years with the Mets, Saberhagen amassed just 524 innings, but within those, he was the pitcher he had always been—in some ways, a better one. He walked just 1.3 hitters per nine, half-a-walk fewer than while with the Royals. He struck out 6.7 per nine, a figure that seems low now, but just 20 years ago was more than a full strikeout better than average per nine. The issue was the amount of time he was that good; it just wasn’t enough, when stacked up against the immense totals of his Royals’ days.

The Mets dealt Saberhagen to the playoff-hopeful Rockies in mid-1995, receiving Arnold Gooch and Juan Acevedo in return. Saberhagen, now 31, and no stranger to arm problems, was now faced with the task of pitching a mile above sea level, in an environment that hated not only his numbers, but his body. He posted his worst numbers to that point, in terms of walks and ERA, and gave the Rockies just 43 innings over nine starts, as well as one poor playoff start.

This, mercifully, was Saberhagen’s only stint with the Rockies. But with the conclusion of that contract also came shoulder surgery that caused him to miss all of 1996 and nearly all of 1997, and made him available to the Red Sox in the first place. The payoff wasn’t immediate, but when slotted into the rotation in 1998 alongside an even more recent addition in Pedro Martinez, Saberhagen did what he was known for: limited walks, missed (enough) bats, and finished with a 119 ERA+ and 175 innings pitched, his most since the strike-shortened 1994.

*****

Now we’re caught up. Saberhagen and this story are back in 1999, in the season that might define Saberhagen’s career more than any other. You see, this is the year in which Saberhagen was both at his best, and also his most vulnerable. It’s the one that exemplifies best just who Bret Saberhagen was, and what his career was made up of. He threw only 119 innings, and visited the disabled list on three separation occasions due to fraying in his rotator cuff, but nearly every one of those frames was a gem. Saberhagen struck out 6.1 batters per nine—his highest rate since 1994, when he finished third for the Cy Young—posted a 171 ERA+ thanks to a 2.95 ERA in the middle of the greatest league-wide offensive performance in the history of the game, and walked a career-best 0.8 walks per nine. Over the course of 22 starts, the 35-year-old Bret Saberhagen, who was dealing with a rotator cuff that was fraying all year long, walked fewer than one batter per nine innings pitched. This was Saberhagen at his best, even if his body wanted no part of it.

That’s what makes his playoff performance that season memorable as well. He was lit up by the Indians in Game Two of the ALDS, a little less than a month after returning from his third DL stint of the year, and was pulled before finishing the third frame. The Red Sox would lose that game, as they had lost the first of the series, as it seemed they always did against the Tribe in the 90s.

Boston won the next two contests, though, forcing a Game 5 in Cleveland. The problem with that, as exhilarating as this all was (especially for a young, impressionable Red Sox fan who was nearing the tail-end of a thrilling ’99 season that included an All-Star game at Fenway Park, Pedro’s first real Pedro! season, and couldn’t wait to return fire to an Indians team that had just seemed impossible to beat over his short life), was that Pedro Martinez wasn’t ready to start Game 5.

Any time your ace can’t start a deciding playoff game, there’s bound to be panic. But, lest you’ve forgotten your lessons, Pedro’s 1999 was essentially a 213-inning instructional guide on how to have The Greatest Season Ever. He struck out 100 more batters than he threw innings. His ERA+ was 243, or, 143 percent better than average. If it was a pitching category that was a positive, Pedro probably was better at it than whoever your childhood favorite hurler was, and in no time in his career—except maybe 2000—was he more ridiculous than he was in 1999. Not having him available to start wasn’t panic-inducing—it was devastating, the one thing that could kill the buzz gained from outscoring the Indians 32-10 in the two victories prior.

Maybe it was stupid for Saberhagen to line up to start, days removed from his own disaster, and weeks removed from sitting on the DL. Maybe it’s just the kind of gutsy thing we should hate athletes for doing, for putting themselves at risk of further injury. But it’s hard for 13-year-old me to do anything but enjoy Saberhagen more for slotting in as the Game 5 starter. He was 35, had made his millions, and hadn’t won anything in the postseason since 1985. The shoulder he had repaired just a few years before was betraying him once more—maybe now was the time to push the issue, if any time were to suffice.

Saberhagen predictably lasted just one inning, giving up five runs (and two homers) to a lineup that had scored 1,009 runs in the regular season. Boston’s story didn’t end there, though, thanks to a cast of characters already mentioned in this essay: Troy O’Leary’s two homers and seven RBI, Nomar’s two intentional walks (that preceded those O’Leary bombs) and a dinger of his own, and six no-hit innings of relief from a Pedro Martinez that couldn’t find his old velocity, but still had his plus secondary offerings and necessary junk in tow. Because of the efforts of his teammates, Saberhagen’s one inning in this series, the first the Red Sox had won in my conscious lifetime, is one I remember vividly, and without the normal recoiling five-run firsts provide.

Saberhagen would show he still had something left for postseason play against the Yankees soon after, throwing six frames with five punch outs and just the one walk, but lost despite just one earned run. It would be his final start with the Red Sox until 2001, as he missed the entire 2000 campaign recovering from the injuries that he pitched through the year prior.

His brief attempt at a comeback in 2001 showed that he was done, that everything he had left had been spent in those last seven innings of the 1999 playoffs. Saberhagen said he felt 37 back when he was all of 22, but this time around, the 37-year-old likely felt even older than that, and he called it a career.

Like many hurlers from the 1980s, Saberhagen’s career is considered more for what it could have been than what it was. That misses the point of what he did accomplish, though. Here’s a pitcher with over 2,500 career innings, whose ERA+ figures with the three teams he spent the most time with are nearly identical (Royals, 128; Mets, 126; Red Sox, 124). The only thing that ever changed was how many innings he could throw, and while he didn’t maintain the pace he set with the Royals, few hurlers in history ever have thrived under that kind of consistent abuse.

Even with the issues, Saberhagen ranked seventh in baseball in ERA+, minimum 2,000 innings pitched, over the course of his entire career, behind only Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown, and Curt Schilling. Just 48 pitchers even reached the 2,000 inning plateau over that 18-year stretch, and Saberhagen was right near the top of the list, in spite of all those shoulder problems.

Appreciating Saberhagen for what he could have been is fine and all, but when you get lost down that daydreamy rabbit hole, you lose sight of what he actually was. If it isn’t clear by now, Bret Saberhagen was one of the greatest pitchers of his generation, in a 20-year period marked by some of baseball’s finest hurlers ever. Who needs could have, should have, when you have that to cling to?

Marc Normandin is the editor of Red Sox site Over the Monster, as well SB Nation MLB. You can find him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin, assuming you like wrestling as much as you do baseball.

This essay originally appeared in the ebook, “The Hall of Nearly Great”, in 2012, and will once again be featured in a revised edition later this spring.

This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer were not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

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One thought on “(Blogathon ’16) Marc Normandin: Bret Saberhagen’s case for the Hall of Nearly Great

  1. Pingback: Every Piece from the 2016 Blogathon | The Baseball Continuum

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