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Royals Say Farewell to Jimmy Gobble

I can't help but feel a little sad about this one. The Royals parted ways with Billy James Gobble (really) today, ending a ten year relationship with one of the more identifiable players of the last decade. I can remember, long, long, ago, when Royals fans talked about a troika of pitching prospects who were going to bring the Royals back: Gobble, Griffin, and Greinke.

He was also cut in the classic mold of the below average performer that fans irrationally love. The man's name was Gobble, after all. Moreover, despite being (amazingly) sorta a first-round pick in the 1999 draft (really a late supplemental draft guy, 43rd overall), he was, almost from the beginning, a player who was clearly occupying the wild frontier zone of adequacy, a guy living on the margins between a Major League dream and a lot of time spent in Nebraska. Apologies to those who don't consider those two to be the same thing. To the point, Gobble may have crossed over into the AAA zone last season, as he imploded for an ugly 8.81 ERA. Then again, Gobble had reached this brink before, sometime during the 2005 season, and fought his way back.

Gobble was also the last living relic of the magical 2003 Royals, a team that somehow started 16-3, eventually crested to a 57-46, and led the American League Central for 92 days, finally surrendering the lead in late August. (Well, there is DDJ, although he only made seven at bats for those Royals.) Basically it was an ok team in a bad division, but that's like saying Bigfoot is just a hairy ape. What the Royals did was more or less without rational explanation. The 2003 team was the last installment of a minor wave of good offenses enjoyed by the Royals around the turn of the century, coupled with a pitching staff that barely, briefly, chinned itself up to ok. Gobble was a part of that staff, making nine starts, beginning in August, as the Royals were fighting for their lives. Gobble, only 21 at the time, did well. Especially so, given the circumstances. Gobble led the Royals to a 2-0 victory in his first career start, an August 3rd tilt against the Devil Rays. Gobble posted a 4.61 ERA in his nine starts, and the Royals went 4-5 in them, not terribly bad, considering how young Gobble was, and how much the team was barely holding on for the season's final month.

In 2004 Gobble remained a starter, making 24 starts for one of the worst Royals teams ever, en route to a disapointing 5.35 ERA. Gobble also earned a smattering of attention for posting an insanely low K-rate of 2.98 K/9 that season. Like, in over a hundred years of baseball only a handful of people have been in this territory low. Gobble was the 1941 Ted Williams of guys with nonexistent strikeout numbers. By comparison, the lowest K-rate Brian Bannister has ever posted is a 4.20 K/9. That Gobble somehow survived 148 innings essentially unable to miss bats is a borderline amazing. And by survive, I don't just mean having a sub-six ERA, I mean literally not being killed by the line drives flying around him. A 5.35 ERA wasn't even that bad in the 2004 American League, good for an ERA + of 89.

This was also the season that I became a Jimmy Gobble fan.

It had nothing to do with Gobble, but in 2004 I started blogging. Small is the company of people who so thoroughly planned the beginning of their blog as I did, as a spent a good year thinking about it, imagining it, thinking about a name, etc. When the Royals had their fun little 2003, it seemed like it was finally time to take the plunge. When the Royals 2004 campaign quickly collapsed (and it was quick) Gobble was the only hero of 2003 who showed up. Yea, his end of the year numbers where bad, but he somehow posted a 2.82 ERA in 22 April innings. In my mind, he stopped like three losing streaks on his own. He was holding down the fort until the team righted the ship... Anyway, that never happened, but because Gobble's career month happened right when I started writing about the Royals everyday (which really, five years later seems like an insane thing to be doing) I became a lifetime Jimmy Gobble Guy.

Rightly or wrongly -- ok, it was probably with at least 90% certainty the right decision, although I got into a little debate a few months ago on this subject -- the Royals made Gobble a reliever from 2004 onwards. Because, you know, the team had so much rotation depth. At least for Gobble however, it seemed like an ok move, as his K-rate improved from this is so bad you will be out of baseball in two years to actually not bad. Still, 2005 & 2006 were basically lost seasons for Gobble. Because this was the Royals he a) still had a job and b) could still get lots of Major League burn, but he was only treading water as a reliever.

Then, in 2007, Gobble randomly -- let's be honest I suppose -- turned in 53.7 good innings and posted a career-low ERA of 3.02. The weird thing was, his peripherals indicated that he was essentially the same guy he'd been in 2006, as his 2006 FIP was actually lower.

Still, we we're in this new strange Dayton Moore reality in which the Royals actually had good bullpens, and I had every reason to think that Gobble could provide low-leverage bullpen work reasonably well. That didn't happen. All of Gobble's good 2007 fortune turned sour in 2008. Everything reached a head in a late June game in which Hillman left in Gobble to allow something like five hundred runs. (This also ended up being the Tony Pena pitching game.) For different reasons, or maybe they were the same, that game ended up encapsulating everything that went wrong last season, prior to the late summer Aviles's messiansim. Judging by the comments that poured in that night and the next day on the site, quite a lot of people shared my, well, almost outrage at what Hillman had done to Gobble. It was a rare instance of me discussing a supposed ethical breach non-ironically. Shortly thereafter, Gobble hit the DL with a well-timed injury.

Gobble by the numbers:

2003 52.7 5.50 1.37 4.61 106 4.91
2004 148.0 2.98 1.46 5.35 89 5.43
2005 53.7 6.37 1.51 5.70 77 5.52
2006 84.0 8.57 1.29 5.14 91 4.17
2007 53.7 8.39 1.01 3.02 156 4.23
2008 31.7 7.67 1.42 8.81 48 5.85

Gobble's final two step with the Royals (somewhat unexpected signing, unexpected release) is in line with the entire arch of his career. If there is a point to all this, it is simply that, for a lot of us, Gobble isn't just a guy who had an ERA over 8.00 last season, he was someone we'd gotten to know, at least as a player. He was, along with DeJesus, the last vestige of the 2003 Royals, our one good team this decade. Not only were most of these players not with the Royals by 2006 even, a huge number of them have long been out of baseball. Gobble, who was hardly better, managed to hang around. As shocking as this might sound, he was one of the defining players of this decade. Not the best, not even on the All-Star team, but someone who, when we think back on the '00s, is most certainly going to be in the picture.

He will be for me anyway.