Halfway there! The 50th Greatest Royal was Jeff Suppan.
Jeff Suppan was a former prospect who was a bust with his original team, but found refuge in Kansas City where he resurrected his career as a solid "innings-eater." Over his time in Kansas City, from 1999-2002, he was seventh in baseball in innings pitched. He was the Royals Opening Day starter three times, more than Steve Busby or Mark Gubicza, and as many assignments as Bret Saberhagen and Paul Splittorff.
As a Royal, Jeff Suppan was 24-27 with a 4.79 ERA. That may seem like a wholly unimpressive ERA, but consider that the league ERA in 2000 was 4.91. Last year it was 4.50. Comparing ERAs from different seasons can be problematic. It seems silly to compare a pitcher from 1972 (league ERA 3.06) to a pitcher from 2000 simply using ERA. In 1972 there was no designated hitter, ballparks were larger, strikezones were larger, and hitters were smaller. Additionally, how do you compare a pitcher who spends his time in Fenway Park with the Green Monster, to a pitcher who gets his home games in cavernous Oakland Coliseum?
Adjusted ERA+ is a simple, but elegant metric to understand metric that allows fans to compare players across eras. It evaluates a pitcher's ERA relative to his league's ERA, adjusting for his home ballpark. A base ERA+ is 100. Jeff Suppan's ERA+ in a Royals uniform was 104. That means he was slightly better than the league as a whole. To give you a more contemporary comparison, Toronto's Shawn Marcum posted a 105 ERA over 2005-2007. Suppan was a better than average starting pitcher, which for the Royals, was pretty darn valuable.
Jeff Suppan was born in Oklahoma City, but grew up in southern California. He was taken in the second round of the 1993 draft out of high school by the Boston Red Sox. He was excellent as a minor leaguer, posting a 2.17 ERA in his first pro season, then following that up with a 13-7 record and a 3.26 ERA the next season in A ball. By 1995, his second full season as a pro, he got a taste of the big leagues, at the tender age of 20. He bounced between AAA and the big leagues from 1995-1997, making Baseball America's Top 100 Prospect List every year. In 1997 the Red Sox gave him twenty-two big league starts, and while he won seven games he posted a dismal 5.69 ERA. They left him unprotected in the 1997 Expansion Draft and he was selected third by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Jeff was awful in Arizona. In thirteen starts, he posted a 6.69 ERA and allowed twelve home runs. In September, they sent him to the Mets as compensation for Bernard Gilkey. The Mets didn't even give Suppan a uniform, instead sending him to Kansas City as compensation for Jermaine Allensworth. Suppan was excellent in four games with the Royals, allowing just one run in 12 1/3 innings, including six shutout innings in his only start.
After Kevin Appier and Jose Rosado, the Royals had nothing but question marks in their rotation as they embarked on the 1999 season. Suppan had a strong spring and emerged as the number three starter. He got off to a solid start, but really turned heads when he posted a 2.61 ERA in May, including a complete game win against a solid Athletics club. By late June, Suppan had a 3.28 ERA, although his record stood at just 4-4.
"I've always felt like Soupy was my darkhorse. I liked him when we had him last year in September. I felt he had good mound presence. I felt he had a good arm."
-Manager Tony Muser
"Soupy" faltered a bit in July, but he rebounded in August with a complete game shutout of the Angels. Some rough outings in September would balloon his ERA by half a run, but he would end the season with a very respectable 4.53 ERA. His ten wins would tie Rosado for the team lead. He led the team with 208 1/3 innings pitched and completed four games. Suppan maintained his success by throwing strikes and letting his defense do the rest.
"No walks - that's something I try to accomplish every game. Low pitch count. That's my type of game. I just try to make them hit the ball. That's why defense helps this whole pitching staff, especially me, because they made the plays. It's a great defense."
With Appier now traded and Rosado hurt, Suppan got the Opening Day assignment as the team's ace in 2000. He gave up two home runs to Shannon Stewart in the 5-4 loss and would struggle much of the season. By July, manager Tony Muser had sent Suppan to the bullpen to get his head straight.
"It's not a permanent thing. He's just kind of lost his aggressiveness. He's kind of confused, (like), 'Where did my control go?"
-Manager Tony Muser
Suppan ended the season strong with back-to-back complete games, including a shutout of the Tigers. He finished with a 4.94 ERA and led the team in wins with ten and innings pitched with 217. He was also fourth in the league in hits allowed and led the league in home runs allowed with thirty-six.
MLB Home Runs Allowed 1999-2002
Rick Helling 139
Jose Lima 125
Pedro Astacio 124
Eric Milton 122
Jeff Suppan 122
In 2001, Suppan was the only solid rotation member, as the Royals assembled a motley crew of marginal arms in the rotation behind him. Suppan was their ace.
"I enjoy that role. Last year was the first time in my career when I had to deal with that and I didn't do a very good job in the first half...At times, I felt like I had to go out there and throw 20 scoreless innings instead of just going inning by inning. With that experience last year of having to deal with that extra pressure or whatever you call it, I feel I'm a little more prepared this year."
Suppan was fairly consistent all season, providing stability to a young rotation. In September, he tossed a no-hitter against the Angels for 6 1/3 innings, eventually giving up just one run in the complete game victory. For the year, he posted a 4.37 ERA and the team posted a respectable 4.87 ERA, the first time since 1997 the team had posted a sub-5.00 ERA. Nonetheless, they still lost ninety-seven games, their sixth straight season with 85 losses or more. Suppan again led the team with ten victories, and also led the team in innings pitched, strikeouts, and games started. For the second straight year, he was named Royals Pitcher of the Year.
Suppan again got the Opening Day start as the team ace in 2002. He finished off the month of April with a two-hit shutout of the Tigers, to lower his ERA to 3.19. In July he went into an awful funk, losing eight decisions in a row.
"It's a very humbling game and I'm just trying to work through it."
He ended the year with a complete game victory against the Tigers, but his record stood at 9-16. He had the second most losses in the league, the fourth most home runs allowed, the fifth most hits allowed, and his 5.32 ERA was the second worst in the league among eligible pitchers.
Suppan was eligible arbitration, but rather than offer him a contract, the Royals non-tendered Suppan after paying him $3.8 million for his services in 2002.
"I have a lot of great memories. The fact that they gave me a chance when I came out of Arizona, the fact that they let me go out and throw every five days. I developed a lot of good friendships there with a lot of great people in the organization and on the team."
He drew a fair amount of interest and ended up signing a one year deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He pitched very effectively and ended up being acquired by the Boston Red Sox in exchange for solid prospects Freddy Sanchez and Mike Gonzalez. The following season he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals where he spent three seasons, winning the 2006 NLCS MVP and winning a World Series. In 2007, he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers.
There are few pitchers more consistent than Jeff Suppan. He has made at least thirty-one starts in every season since 1999. In every one of those seasons he has struck out no less than 104 batters, and no more than 128. Only twice has he walked more than 70, only once has he walked fewer than 60. If you're looking for a pitcher that can give you thirty starts, 200 innings pitched, 110 strikeouts, 65 walks, and you can tolerate 25 home runs given up, Jeff Suppan is your man.