Let’s Talk About Kevin Appier

Kevin Appier 1993 Fleer Ultra

This 1993 Fleer Ultra card perfectly captures Kevin Appier’s deceptive (and unique) delivery. He would use that delivery to earn over nine wins above replacement in 1993. (Image courtesy of comc.com)

As I built the Hall of Stats, I came across many players who are rated highly by Hall Rating (a formula based on Baseball-Reference‘s WAR and WAA) but not remembered in the same way by Hall of Fame voters and the general public. I have covered several of those players here—including Larry WalkerRick ReuschelCurt SchillingDavid Cone, and Urban Shocker.

Many players of this ilk are considered Hall-worthy by objective-minded fans—even if the Hall of Fame voters don’t necessarily agree. I recently named my Personal Hall of Fame while bloggers Bryan O’ConnorRoss CareyDan McCloskey, and Dalton Mack did the same.

I’m interested in consensus—particularly where these Personal Halls of Fame, the Hall of Stats, and Baseball Think Factory’s Hall of Merit agree about a player and the Hall of Fame does not. Just looking at the players above, so far Walker, Reuschel, and Cone are supported by everyone except the “real” Hall of Fame. Schilling is missing only induction from the Hall of Merit while Shocker isn’t supported by either the Hall of Merit or Bryan’s Hall).

Today, I want to talk about the player who ranks #1 in Hall Rating among players left off every one of these lists—that is, until Dalton included him. It’s Kevin Appier.

Appier, a right-handed starting pitcher, made his debut for Kansas City in 1989. He pitched for the Royals until a trade in 1999. From 1999 until 2004, he bounced around from the Athletics to the Mets to the Angels before finally returning to Kansas City. He won 167 games and lost 137 (playing mostly for a miserable Royals team). He posted an ERA of 3.74 (during the height of the steroid era, which helped push his ERA+ to 121).

What caused me to look closer at Appier was a comment at the Hall of Stats by Eric Ho Rulz. “Eric”, who I assume is a Royals fan who saw Appier often, questioned my easy admittance of Bret Saberhagen into my Personal Hall while Appier received barely a look. And it’s true—I wrote several articles where I debated the players on my borderline. Appier was even left out of those.

But it turns out Saberhagen and Appier have pretty similar value numbers. They both have around 2,500 innings, making comparisons even more convenient. Saberhagen had a 121 Hall Rating, powered by 59.1 WAR and 36.9 WAA. His top three seasons by WAR were 9.7, 8.0, and 7.3. Saberhagen’s most similar pitcher is actually Appier (with a similarity score of 129).

Appier had a 112 Hall Rating, powered by 55 WAR and 30.7 WAA. His top three seasons (this surprised me) were worth 9.3, 8.1, and 6.1 WAR. Saberhagen is listed as Appier’s fifth most comparable pitcher, trailing CC Sabathia, Mark Buehrle, Dave Stieb, and Jimmy Key.

Now, the premise of this comparison is moot if you don’t consider Saberhagen or Dave Stieb to be Hall of Fame-level pitchers. But Stieb actually gets a solid amount of Hall support in sabermetric communities (as the anti-Jack Morris, or the 1980s hurler with the most WAR). In fact, Stieb and Saberhagen are both included in every Hall except the “real” one. Stieb has a 115 Hall Rating, powered by 57.2 WAR and 31.3 WAA.

Upon Appier’s appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2009, Rany Jazayerli wrote an excellent retrospective of Kevin Appier’s career. It is through Eric’s comment that I decided to investigate Appier further. But it’s Rany’s column that really drew my close attention.

The article essentially reads as a laundry list of the ways Appier was overlooked over the years (and screwed by his teams). I’m going to go ahead and excerpt large chunks of it. I hope Rany doesn’t mind. You really should read the whole thing, though.

About Appier’s rookie season in 1990:

For the season he was 12-8 with a 2.76 ERA in 186 innings. If that ERA doesn’t impress you, it should: it remains the lowest ERA by an AL rookie who qualified for the ERA title since 1976, when The Bird was The Word: Mark Fidrych led the league with a 2.34 ERA.

Do you remember it being that notable? I sure don’t. And you don’t even need advanced metrics here. We’re talking ERA. Rany continues:

For his efforts, Appier finished a distant third in Rookie of the Year voting, behind Sandy Alomar and Kevin Maas. Alomar hit a modest .290/.326/.418, but so bewitched reporters with his intangibles that he won the Rookie of the Year award unanimously.

Alomar was worth 2.3 WAR (according to Baseball-Reference). Maas was worth 1.2. Meanwhile, Appier was worth 5.3.

Fast-forward to 1992:

Liftoff came in 1992, when Appier had a 2.46 ERA, missing the league ERA title by just five points (Roger Clemens led with a 2.41 mark). Appier also finished third in the league in hits per nine innings, fourth in WHIP, fifth in homers per nine, seventh in strikeouts per nine…and thanks to a typically anemic Royals offense, 16th in wins with just 15.  … He didn’t receive a single Cy Young vote. Dennis Eckersley won the Cy Young (and the MVP!) in a sort of delayed reaction to Eck’s 0.61 ERA the year before.

Ladies and gentelmen, that is an 8.1 WAR season from a pitcher who did not even receive a single vote for the Cy Young. I don’t just mean a first place vote—I mean no votes at all. Eckersley won it with his 2.9 WAR. Roger Clemens (8.8 WAR) and Mike Mussina (8.2 WAR) were legitimate candidates and finished third and fourth, respectively. Jack McDowell, solid with 5.3 WAR, finished ahead of all of them. He won twenty games. Clemens and Mussina won only 18. It’s frightening to remember how much wins dictated everything back then.

I remember feeling that Appier’s 1993 season came out of nowhere. Had I known a bit about advanced metrics at the time (I was only fifteen and my favorite baseball thing at the time was the bearded Phillies), I would have seen it coming. But man, what a year it was. Like, a 9.2 WAR year.

In 1993, there was no debate: Kevin Appier was the best pitcher in the American League. He led the circuit with a 2.56 ERA, a figure made more impressive by the fact that 1993 proved to be the first year of the juiced ball/bat/body era … Appier led the league in ERA by 38 points over Wilson Alvarez … But in 1993, Appier received exactly one first-place vote. He finished third in the voting, behind Jack McDowell and Randy Johnson.

Johnson won 19 games and fanned over 300, so you can understand the appeal. McDowell again won twenty (but this time with only 4.3 WAR). Rany points out how the win “difference” wasn’t really a difference:

Mind you, when McDowell started, his team went 23-11, and when Appier started, the Royals also went 23-11. But because of the way baseball’s arcane, century-old scoring rules work, McDowell was credited with four more wins. A trick of accounting seemingly concocted by the wizards at Arthur Andersen gave 28 sportswriters the perception that Jack McDowell was the better pitcher, and gave Appier the shaft. Appier was already used to getting the shaft from his teammates, so it was only fair that their inability to support him offensively would screw him one more time.

Just think for a minute about the affect this had on how we remember Kevin Appier. If Kevin Appier had played with Jack McDowell’s offense behind him, we’re looking at a guy 25 years old with a first place Cy Young finish, a second place Cy Young finish, and a Rookie of the Year-worthy campaign to boot. Instead, Kevin Appier is barely remembered. I devour everything I can about players overlooked for the Hall of Fame. Nobody talks about Appier for the Hall of Fame. But that’s because nobody talked about him for Cy Young Awards when he deserved them.

It’s basically double jeopardy.

On his Baseball-Reference page, the strike-shortened 1994 looks like a down year for Appier. But Rany provides some perspective there:

In 1994, Appier’s ERA rose to 3.83, but then the league ERA rose to 4.81, and his ERA+ was still an outstanding 130. Teammate David Cone got the run support that Appier had been asking for, went 16-5 and won the Cy Young Award.

In 1995, manager Bob Boone used Appier in a very effective four-man rotation. Check out how he started the season:

Appier didn’t respond to this workload by pitching well. He responded by pitching brilliantly. His brilliance was evident on Opening Day, when he threw 6.2 no-hit innings before he was pulled from the game, as the strike which had come to a sudden end at the hands of future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor had necessitated a shortened spring training, and pitchers’ arms were not fully stretched out by the start of the season.

So, the strike caused Appier to leave a no-hitter in the seventh because his arm wasn’t stretched out yet. It’s a weird story, but so typically Appier at this point. Just when you think he’ll get recognized, something like this happens.

Appier started the year 11-2 with a 2.04 ERA and was an All Star—if you can believe this—for the first and only time. But the pitch counts were rising and he finally went to the DL for the first time in his career.

I don’t remembrer this well, but Rany makes it sound like Appier’s injury marked the end of the four-man rotation forever—though it was really probably the high pitch counts in games rather than the more frequent work that was to blame.

Boone’s experiment was actually a qualified success – Mark Gubicza, who hadn’t thrown 140 innings since he tore his rotator cuff in 1990, stayed in the rotation all year in 1995, led the league with 33 starts, and had a 3.75 ERA. But the point that baseball people took away from the Royals’ experiment is that Appier broke down, and the fact that he was throwing a ridiculous number of pitches was lost in the shuffle. No team has made a serious attempt at the four-man rotation since.

He had some legendarily horrible run support at times with the Royals:

[I]n 1997 he had a 3.40 ERA, good enough for 7th place. That season his run support went from bad to worse; the Royals scored two runs or fewer in 15 of his 34 starts, and Appier went 9-13 despite an ERA+ of 137. In the last 20 years, the only other pitcher to throw 200 innings with an ERA+ of more than 130, and finish with a record at least four games under .500, was Jim Abbott in 1992, when he famously went 7-15 despite a 2.77 ERA.

Appier injured his shoulder after that 1997 season—but not on the field:

Appier’s shoulder did come apart after the 1997 season, ending the opening act of his career, but the injury occurred in an off-field incident, reportedly when he slipped and fell of the porch while carrying some of his sister’s wedding presents. (Yeah, I know.)

He eventually came back but was traded to the Athletics at the deadline in 1999. Something weird happened in Oakland in 2000—Appier pitched with some run support. He posted just a 4.52 ERA (104 ERA+), but was 15-11 for his efforts. In fact, after that 1997 season, you might actually call Appier lucky in the win column. Despite an ERA+ of an even 100, he had a .524 winning percentage in 158 starts.

In terms of Hall-worthiness, Rany himself actually says:

I can not, in good faith, make a case that he deserves enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. But I hope that at least one of the several readers of this blog who have a Hall of Fame vote will check the box next to his name anyway.

Honestly, I think that actually sells Appier short the more I look at it. But Rany goes on to say that the “binary, up-or-down nature of Hall of Fame voting” forces a player like Appier off the ballot quickly. He wasn’t polarizing like a Jack Morris or a Barry Bonds. He just wasn’t … there. It’s too bad.

I also don’t think I’m ready to make the leap to include Appier in my Personal Hall of Fame. It’s also very hard to promote his case when Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown, Rick Reuschel, Luis Tiant, David Cone, and others are still on the outside. But I’m glad I finally gave him the consideration he deserved. It was wrong of me not to do so.

But yet, it was so Kevin Appier.

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38 Comments on "Let’s Talk About Kevin Appier"

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Chuck
Guest

“Eric”, who I assume is a Royals fan who saw Appier often”

I doubt it, he’s 15.

Bryan O'Connor
Editor

Great post, Adam. I’m glad we had this talk too. While I can’t bring myself to include Appier in my personal hall, he does have a higher Hall Rating than Pud Galvin, Whitey Ford, or Sandy Koufax.

paget
Guest

Can someone explain why WAR dislikes Whitey Ford so much? I’m not talking about his historically great W/L% here. Take a year like 1958, when he led the league in ERA (2.01) an ERA+ (177) and WHIP, but had a WAR of only 4.3. That seems indicative of his entire career. A career ERA+ of 133 seems like it would put him in a much higher echelon.

Ed
Guest
Paget: There are a variety of factors at work: 1) Ford pitched behind strong defenses (+0.36 R/9 in 1958, +0.24 for his career). 2) He pitched in pitcher’s parks (92.7 in 1958, 94.7 in 1958). 3) Specific to 1958, he didn’t pitch many innings. He had other seasons where he led the league in innings pitched but in 1958 he wasn’t in the top 10. 4) He also gave up a lot of unearned runs in 1958 (and perhaps for his career). And WAR includes all runs, both earned and unearned. So while he had a 2.01 ERA in 1958,… Read more »
nightfly
Guest
Is there any way to search for most unER in a season? I’ve tried a few things in PI but can’t get a proper answer to the question. For example, I was looking at Ollie Perez (inexplicably good in the Seattle ‘pen the past two seasons) and in one of his years with the Mets he surrendered 20 unearned runs, which is a huge total. But I have no idea how that stacks up in the post-WW2 era. (I’m sure that large unER totals were more common in the 1930’s and earlier: more balls were put in play, defenses were… Read more »
Ed
Guest

Nightfly – There’s no easy way to answer the question but you can back your way into it. Some other recent seasons of 20+ unearned runs include:

2011: Jaime Garcia (23)
2005: Derek Lowe (24)
2004: Derek Lowe (28), Brandon Webb (28)
2003: Brian Anderson (27)
2002: Al Leiter (22)

A couple of really big seasons I found:

1987: Charlie Hough (39)
1965: Jim Kaat (38)

Richard Chester
Guest

nightfly:

There is something you can do, I’ll explain it after the Yankee game.

Richard Chester
Guest
@13 Here’s how to get unearned runs. On the PI go to Pitching Season Finder, Find Single Seasons, Sort by Runs and select, for Choose a stat, ER greater than 0. That way R and ER will align in adjacent columns in the Results spreadsheet. Click Get Report and a spreadsheet with the top 200 names will appear. Copy and paste the results into an Excel spreadsheet and add a column which calculates the difference in R and ER. That is the unearned runs total. Then sort that column in descending order. If you don’t know how to manipulate spreadsheets… Read more »
nightfly
Guest

Thanks Ed and Richard! I hadn’t thought of the two-step process with the spreadsheet.

Not surprising how many of those unER guys are knuckleballers.

Ed
Guest

I don’t know if method is better or worse than Richard’s but this is one of the searches I ran to get the results in #21:

For single seasons, From 2002 to 2013, (requiring R>=50 and ER<0.8*R), sorted by most recent date

I played around with different ratios of ER and R (e.g., 0.75, 0.85) and also looked at different years.

Overall the method worked pretty well as there aren't that many pitchers that give up a high percentage of unearned runs.

birtelcom
Editor

Also, I think the fact that Whitey did not have to pitch against the Yankees affects his WAR total. Indeed, the six highest scoring teams in the majors during the core of Whitey’s career (1953-65) were the Yankees, Dodgers, Braves, Reds, Giants and Cards, none of whom Ford ever had to face in the regular season.

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

Maybe #1 and #4 coexist because Whitey got flustered when an error DID occur.

bstar
Guest
paget, a couple quick things right off the bat with Whitey in 1958. -He only started 30 games that year and barely got to 200 IP. WAR is a counting stat, so the more you pitch the more WAR you accumulate as the year goes on. It looks like ~200 IP is about 80% of a typical season for Whitey so expect his WAR that year to reflect that. -Whitey Ford gave up a fairly high amount of unearned runs in 1958 (and for his whole career, compared to other great pitchers). 21% of the runs he allowed in 1958… Read more »
bstar
Guest

Sorry, Ed and birtelcom, you beat me to the punch.

paget
Guest
Having unearned runs count in WAR seems like a mistake to me. While I acknowledge that scoring an error is an inherently subjective thing (and causes a lot of statistical problems as a result), faulting a pitcher for a play that should have be made doesn’t help better evaluate individual performance. To me, this is part and parcel of looking at the sport through the TTO lens, which I find to be pretty reductive. As is mentioned tongue-in-cheek by Ed above, it is also a bit odd that Ford should lose WAR for having a great defense, and also lose… Read more »
John Autin
Editor
Paget — If you look at Ford’s career in terms of WAR per inning, the mystery dissipates. Whitey averaged .017 WAR per inning, or 3.4 WAR per 200 innings. Only 35 modern pitchers with 3,000 IP have such a good rate (27 in the live-ball era). It’s mainly a matter of innings. From 1953-60, Whitey averaged 205 IP, not a high total for an ace in that era. For those years, he totaled 650 IP less than Robin Roberts, 550 less than Spahn, and over 350 less than Wynn and Burdette. It’s said that Casey Stengel deliberately kept his innings… Read more »
Richard Chester
Guest

John: Ahead of Ford in WAR in 1958 were Dick Hyde (WAR of 4.9, 103.0 IP) and Camilo Pascual (WAR of 4.5, 177.1 IP). They both played for the last place Senators but given the difference in IP, especially with Hyde, doesn’t it look like Ford should be ahead of them. Or maybe there are some things I’m missing.

Ed
Guest
Richard @27 Just looking at Ford vs. Hyde: 1) Ford gave up 2.54 R/9. An average pitcher facing the same teams, in the same ballparks, with the Yankees defense behind them would be expected to give up 3.44 R/9. Ford therefore saved 0.9 R/9 and 22 runs overall relative to an average pitcher ((219.3 IP * 0.9)/9). 2) Hyde gave up 2.27 R/9. An average pitcher facing the same teams, in the same ballparks, with the Senators defense behind them would be expected to give up 4.70 R/9. So Hyde saved 2.43 R/9 and 28 runs overall relative to an… Read more »
John Autin
Editor

Richard — I should know better than to talk about things I don’t understand. 🙂 As is well known, the intricacies of WAR elude me, so until and unless I take the time to study up, I’ll bow out of the discussion.

mosc
Guest
There are a couple of WAR problems that are highlighted by Ford in 1958: 1) He gets docked for good defense AND for high UER. Not necessarily impossible, but highly unlikely that both of these should be held against him. He was a high strikeout pitcher. He stranded runners well. Arguing WAR’s case here almost demands the “he softened after errors” argument which I find absurd for something as impartial as WAR 2) RA is not linear and shouldn’t be treated linearly. Two pitchers with the same runs saved does not mean they have the same value. It takes a… Read more »
mosc
Guest

Whitey missed his 22 and 23 seasons to the Korean War as well, costing him innings and career WAR. You might say he was too young to be productive but he pitched over 100 innings at 21 and immediately upon returning was good for >200 IP of 3.00 ERA ball.

Lawrence Azrin
Guest

@4/mosc,

Give Ford back those age 22/23 years he missed, he probably wins more than 265 games. Give him back the two seasons worth of of starts from 1953-60 when Stengel was holding him back, and he probably wins over 300 games, and we see him in a much more favorable way. He might have a lower W/L%, though.

Hub Kid
Guest

Appier did get one vote in Birtelcom’s High Heat Stats Circle of Greats voting (in the round for his birth year, 1967). Incidentally that is one more than Saberhagen got in the 1964 round.

Overlooked and bordlerline players are what make all of the these “Greatness” debates so interesting, methinks. Appier looks like a very credible “Merit” / “Very Good” level player, despite not being in the actual Hall of Merit…

It is odd to look back at a career and see such a high peak and so little contemporary recognition.

Insert Name Here
Guest

Hub Kid, that was me who gave Appier that vote. See my comment @18 at the top of this thread.

Brent
Guest
I am a Royals fan and old enough to remember Appier. He was a great pitcher. His timing was particularly poor. The author suggests the Royals were bad durng his tenure there and probably for the second half of his tenure that is true, but they had average to good teams in the first half, but never made the playoffs, somewhat due to bad luck. Another reason that Appier isn’t thought about is because of the lack of playoff teams. Consider though: 1n 1989, he pitched a little as a 21 year old. He didn’t pitch well at all, but… Read more »
Dan McCloskey
Editor
Appier reminds me of something both Bryan and I mentioned on podcast #7 in reference to Kenny Lofton. I was in my 20s during Appier’s heyday, and I recall considering him one of the up-and-coming potential best pitchers in the game briefly. But that didn’t last long, and while he was probably better from 1994-1997 than I thought at the time, he never “felt” like a Hall of Famer to me. No matter how objective we are, those impressions are hard to overcome. In comparison, Saberhagen seemed like a guy who was on his way to a Hall of Fame… Read more »
Artie Z.
Guest
Poor Kevin Appier – his post got hijacked by Whitey Ford!!! I always liked pitchers like Appier and Chuck Finley. Others have mentioned this, but comparing Appier and Saberhagen, they have a lot of similarity in their stats. They pitched about the same number of innings (2595 to 2562), they won about the same number of games (169 to 167), and had ERA+ in the same range (120 to 125). Saberhagen has more WAR (59.2 to 54.9) but it’s close. But they are not on each other’s comp lists, probably because Appier’s winning percentage is 30 points lower, his raw… Read more »
Artie Z.
Guest

Somehow my computer didn’t like what I did before I finished my post. It was supposed to say “Building off Dan’s thoughts and looking at comp lists that are based on raw numbers” before the part about the comp lists.

And then I was going to finish with:

I think the raw numbers are why people don’t see Appier as a viable, or even on his way to, a HOF career, because his raw numbers place him with guys like Rick Sutcliffe and Kevin Millwood.

John Autin
Editor
A good and necessary piece, Adam! I best remember Ape as a free-agent pickup for the 2001 Mets, as the defending NL champs tried to cope with Mike Hampton’s F.A. departure. Appier didn’t seem a great bet at the time, having just led the AL with 102 walks at age 32, with BB and SO rates well off his career norms. But Appier totally turned that around with the Mets, producing 172 Ks, 64 walks, and 3.5 WAR — roughly as much as a reasonable expectation from Hampton, and in fact more than Mike would produce over in his entire… Read more »
nightfly
Guest

I can recall Ape as a Met… even there his luck was bad, as he missed the pennant-winners by a year and was part of a staff that always just seemed like leftovers and odds-and-ends: Trachsel, Astacio, Estes, Rick Reed. I’m sure I’m forgetting some folks.

HOVG
Guest

Yo…

During last year’s “HOVG Heroes” series, former Royals closer Jeff Montomery wrote a piece on Kevin Appier. Doesn’t delve into the stats all that heavily, but, still…a decent read.

Enjoy.

http://www.hallofverygood.com/2012-articles/33hovg-heroes-kevin-appier.html

birtelcom
Editor

Most Pitching WAR in the AL during the 1990s:
1. Clemens 68.4
2. Appier 47.7
3. Finley 44.8
4. Mussina 41.9
5. Cone 41.4

But Appier was just 8th in Wins in the AL during the ’90s.

Bryan O'Connor
Editor

So you’re saying he’s Dave Stieb a decade later?

Stieb 122 ERA+ in 2,895 innings, 176 wins, 57 WAR
Appier 121 ERA+ in 2,595 innings, 159 wins, 55.1 WAR

Yup, same guy. Fangraphs disagrees though. Appier’s 2.14 K/BB helped him to 53.1 fWAR, while Stieb’s 1.61 K/BB stuck him with 46.4.

I’m questioning my inclusion of Stieb without Appier in my personal hall.

birtelcom
Editor

Similar post-season records, too. Stieb 15 ER allowed in 31 and two-thirds IP, 1-3 record; Appier 19 ER allowed in 32 IP, 0-2 record. That neither really starred in the post-season probably doesn’t help their historical reputations among fans.

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