Looking Back: Kevin Appier

Continuing my look back at Hall of Fame candidates who appeared on the Mets, Kevin Appier is next.

Like Robin Ventura, Appier is not a Hall of Famer but is probably much closer to being a worthy one than most people realize. He was without a doubt the most underrated pitcher of the 1990's. This will come as a shock to Mets fans who remember Appier in 2001 as a capable pitcher who was neither spectacular nor remarkable, save as being the bad contract traded for Mo Vaughn.

But while he was a Royal, he was silently one of baseball's very best pitchers. Nobody realized it because he was doing it in Kansas City. Consider this cumulative stat line from 1990 to 1997:

IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA+ WAR
1643.2 7.4 3.0 0.6 140 44.2

That's an eight-year stretch where Kevin Appier was just about as good as any pitcher outside of Greg Maddux. Over those eight years, he averaged 216.5 innings a season (remembering to adjust for the strike) with a 3.22 ERA, while striking out 178 batters, walking 72, and allowing just 14 homeruns, all while pitching in one of the best hitters' parks in the American League.

Those fortunate enough to watch the Royals on a regular basis knew how great Appier was. He had this herky jerkey pitching motion where he would tilt his whole body backward as he brought his legs high before pitching himself forward and releasing the ball. He was all arms and legs until the ball was out of his hand, and hitters had a damned hard time picking it up. Once during spring training, Jeff Bagwell struck out looking on three straight pitches, never once taking the bat of his shoulder. In the dugout he admitted to not having seen the ball once. Appier had a moving, low-90's fastball to go with two outstanding offspeed pitches: a forkball and a slider. Hitters often didn't know which pitch they had swung and missed at. He was a fierce competitor on the mound—a bulldog, grizzled coaches and scouts would say—and one of baseball's nicest off it, taking home two Roberto Clemente Awards.

He was almost certainly the best pitcher in the American League in 1993, winning the pitchers' WAR crown with a mark of 8.4—only Mark Langston and David Cone were within 2.0 wins of that number. The only reason he didn't win the Cy Young was because Jack McDowell won 22 games while Appier won only 18 pitching for a weaker team. Appier took home one first-place vote and finished third, behind Randy Johnson.

And you know what? He was almost the deserving Cy Young Award winner in 1992, too, when he finished with a WAR of 7.6. Roger Clemens was just barely more valuable, but Dennis Eckersley won the award. Appier only won 15 games that season, however, and failed to get a vote. Considering his durability and the length of that stretch, it's every bit a good enough peak to warrant a Hall of Fame vote.

His problem was his near total lack of a decline phase. 88% of his career value came during that eight-year stretch. The relatively high work load over those years and the odd mechanics caught up to him, and it was discovered in March of 1998 that he had a torn labrum. He just wasn't the same pitcher again. But he did enjoy his best post-surgery season with the Mets when he went 11-10 with a 3.57 ERA in 2001. He left on a high note. Over his last 12 starts with the team, Appier went 6-0 with a 2.91 ERA, including a 1.87 ERA in September.

Player Career Top 3 Top 5 Per 34 GS
Kevin Appier 50.4 22.2 30.9 4.19

(Ths chart shows Appier's career WAR, his WAR in his three best seasons, his WAR in his best set of five consecutive seasons, and his WAR per 34 games started.)

Appier's WAR total places him ahead of 19 Hall of Fame pitchers. Many of these selections are some of the worst players in the Hall of Fame (guys like Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Rube Marquard, Jesse Haines, and Jack Chesbro). Even without looking at a stat line, my first thought about Appier was that he had a Rube Waddell-like shape to his career, that being a shorter career defined by a very good peak performance over a somewhat prolonged period of time. It pleased me immensely to see Waddell just below him on the WAR list at 50.2.

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