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Will we see a repeat of the 1984-86 starting pitching crop?

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Saberhagen and company were pretty exceptional

Mark Gubicza winds back Photo by: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The performance of the college pitchers from the 2018 draft class has created some cautious optimism for he Royals’ farm system and the franchise’s future going forward. Before spring training, there was talk of Brady Singer breaking camp with the club, and much of the talk around the team has been about when fans will see these the likes of Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, and Kris Bubic in Kansas City.

Hopeful fans are comparing this crop to the group of young arms that completely remade the Royals rotation in 1984-85, leading to a World Series championship and several following years as one of the best starting staffs in the game.

So we’re going to take a look at how that staff took shape, and what similarities and differences we might find with the present-day group.

The 1984-86 Pitching Crop

The 1983 Royals gave 70% of their starts to pitchers 32 and over, with 93 starts going to Gaylord Perry (age 44), Steve Renko (38), Paul Splittorff (36), and Larry Gura (35). They were clearly in need of some youth. That group (Gura and Splittorff only) combined for just 28 starts in 1984, and neither finished the season in the rotation. They were replaced by a group aged 20 to 27 that led the Royals to the fifth-best run prevention in the league and an AL West title.

The two oldest pitchers, 27-year-old lefties Bud Black and Charlie Leibrandt, were not home-grown. They were acquired in two of the more lopsided deals of that era: Leibrandt for Bob Tufts (who never pitched in the Majors again), and Black for punchless infielder Manny Castillo. These amazing finds rounded out the rotation and gave room for the younger pitchers to grow.

The other three, Danny Jackson (age 22), Mark Gubicza (21), and Bret Saberhagen (20), were the first-fruits of a crop that would lead the Royals to the 1985 title and keep them relevant through the decline of the Brett/Wilson/White core.

In 1986, the Royals would add Scott Bankhead to the group, as well as David Cone, who only pitched out of the bullpen that year. So from 1984-86, the Royals debuted five young starting pitchers who would combine for 187.0 bWAR, 662 Major League wins, 15 postseason wins, three Cy Young awards, and eleven top-6 Cy Young finishes. In 1988 alone, these five pitchers were all among the top-30 in MLB in WAR, with three finishing in the top 3 in the Cy Young Award voting. It was a truly remarkable group.

So what can we learn about this group?

Danny Jackson

Drafted: 1982 (1st round, January secondary draft) out of junior college

Came up: September 1983, stuck for good in mid-1984

Minor League stats: 2.5 seasons, 65 GS, 440.2 IP, 3.25 ERA, 6.4 K/9 (A-AAA)

Jackson had a tremendous first pro season in 1982, splitting time between A and AA as a 20-year-old, then spent a full season in Omaha in 1983, before debuting as a 21-year-old in 1983, making three starts for the Royals in September. He split 1984 between Omaha and Kansas City, being demoted but then brought back up and inserted into the rotation for the stretch drive. He took 32 turns for the Royals in 1985 for the Royals and provided two masterful Game 5 performances to lead the Royals to wins when they were down three games to one in the 1985 ALCS and World Series.

After a hard-luck 1987, the Royals shipped him to the Reds for Ted Power and Kurt Stillwell, and he had his best season in Cincinnati in 1988, winning 23 games and finishing second in the NL Cy Young voting. He had as many downs as ups the rest of his career, finishing with a 112-131 record and an ERA+ of exactly 100.

Mark Gubicza

Drafted: 1981 (2nd round) out of high school

Came up: 1984

Minor League stats: 3 seasons, 50 GS, 300.0 IP, 3.09 ERA, 6.7 K/9 (Rookie-AA)

Gubicza started with a dominating half-season in rookie-ball in 1981, then followed with a mediocre and injury-shortened 1982 in single-A. He moved to AA anyway, and enjoyed a very good season in 1983. He then skipped AAA and broke camp in the Royals’ rotation as a 21-year-old in 1984, and he stuck all season. He was an average pitcher in 1984-85, improved in 1986-87, then broke out in 1988.

Guby had a tremendous increase in workload in 1987, going from pitching fewer than 200 innings per season in 1984-86 to seasons of 241.2, 269.2, and 255 innings pitched in 1987-89. His arm gave out in 1990, and he was never the same after that. He finished with a 132-136 record and a 109 ERA+ in his career.

Bret Saberhagen

Drafted: 1982 (19th round) out of high school

Came up: 1984

Minor League stats: 1 season, 27 GS, 187.0 IP, 2.55 ERA, 6.3 K/9 (A-AA)

Saberhagen’s minor league career doesn’t make sense in retrospect. After being drafted in the 19th round, he was assigned to the instructional league rather than the rookie league. He excelled there and earned a spot in single-A as an 19-year-old in 1983. He pitched well enough to earn a promotion to AA, where he continued to dominate. He broke camp with the Royals in 1984, making his debut one week before his 20th birthday as a reliever. He soon replaced Paul Splittorff in the rotation. He would become the youngest Cy Young winner in American League history in 1985, also winning the World Series MVP.

Sabes fell off in 1986, then earned the starting assignment in the 1987 All-Star Game. He won another Cy Young in 1989, then arm troubles limited him over the next few years, including after he was traded to the Mets. He finished with a 167-117 record and a 126 ERA+.

Tony Ferreira

Drafted: 1981 (2nd round) out of high school

Came up: 1985

Minor League stats (pre-debut): 5 seasons, 100 GS, 660.0 IP, 3.56 ERA, 6.2 K/9 (Rk-AAA)

I’ve included this lefty just to demonstrate that not everyone panned out. He was drafted one round ahead of David Cone in 1981 and he showed some promise as he climbed through the minor leagues. He was a September call-up in 1985, making two appearances and striking out five in 5.2 IP.

The Royals traded him for Angel Salazar after the season, and he had a decent season in Tidewater for the Mets in 1986 but couldn’t crack their stacked Major League staff. He collapsed after that. His last pro season was in Omaha in 1990, where he posted a 3.78 ERA in 138 innings as a swing man but did not earn a call to Kansas City.

Scott Bankhead

Drafted: 1984 (1st round) out of college

Came up: 1986

Minor League stats: 2 seasons, 31 GS, 188.2 IP, 3.05 ERA, 7.7 K/9 (AA-AAA)

Scott Bankhead is sort of the forgotten man when we think about the great arms the Royals debuted in the mid-’80s, since he came up after the title, was quickly traded, and didn’t reach the heights of the others in the group. But Bankhead probably had the best pedigree of the group, the 16th overall pick in 1984, leading the staff of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, and breezing through AA and AAA in just 31 starts before his debut.

Bankhead struggled in his first season in the big leagues, but his potential allowed the Royals to trade him for slugger Danny Tartabull, who was coming off of a 96-RBI rookie season with the Mariners. Tartabull would be the Royals’ best run producer in his years in Kansas City. Bankhead found his footing in 1988, and was among the league’s better starters in 1988-89, before injuries set in. He had some good years out of the bullpen in 1992-93 before arm injuries ultimately did him in. He finished with a 57-48 record and 103 ERA+.

David Cone

Drafted: 1981 (3rd round) out of high school

Came up: 1986

Minor League stats: 5 seasons, 95 GS, 652.1 IP, 3.44 ERA, 6.6 K/9 (Rk-AAA)

Cone was the only one who developed slowly out of this group, which helps explain why he was deemed expendable and traded for Ed Hearn. Cone was excellent in his first two minor league seasons in rookie ball and especially in single-A, but then he missed the 1983 season due to injury. He pitched poorly in 1984-85, struggling mightily with his control and command. He was almost exclusively a reliever in Omaha in 1986, and he pitched well enough to earn a call-up to Kansas City, where his control troubles re-emerged, walking thirteen in 22.2 innings (but also striking out 21) over eleven relief appearances.

The Mets also mostly used him as a reliever until he finally stuck in the rotation beginning in May 1988. He went 20-3 for the Mets that year and joined Danny Jackson as two former Royals who finished in the top three in the NL Cy Young voting. He would sign as a free agent with the Royals in 1993 and win the AL Cy Young Award as a Royal in 1994. Despite being a relatively late bloomer, he finished with the most wins (194) and the highest bWAR (62.3) of any of the Royals’ class of 1984-86.

So how does the current group of Royals’ minor leaguers look in comparison? How do Jackson, Gubicza, Saberhagen, Bankhead, and Cone compare to the current five of Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic, and Jonathan Bowlan?

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Chicago Cubs Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Key Differences

Age

The primary difference is age. By the time Bret Saberhagen was Brady Singer’s age, he had already won a Cy Young, World Series MVP, started an All-Star Game, and pitched 806 big-league innings. With the exception of Bankhead, the mid-eighties crew was made up of high school and junior college arms who advanced rapidly. Even Bankhead, Ferreira, and the “late bloomer” Cone had made their Major League debuts at a younger age than the current ages of Singer, Lynch, Kowar, or Bowlan. Bubic, the youngest of the current group, will have to debut this season to be younger than Cone, and he’s already older than Saberhagen, Gubicza, and Jackson were, and if/when the season starts in another month or so, he will be about the same age as Bankhead was at his debut.

Advancement

The Royals advanced the 1980s group very rapidly, despite many not having the kind of pedigree that the 2018 group has, in terms of draft position. Scott Bankhead and Brady Singer were very similar in draft position, but all of the others in the 2018 class were drafted significantly higher than any of the other 1980s pitchers. Excluding Ferreira (who also advanced quickly before stalling out), the total minor league record of the ‘84-’86 class before they stuck in the majors permanently goes like this:

13.5 seasons, 268 GS, 1787.2 IP, 3.20 ERA, 6.6 K/9

So far for the 2018 draft class, the minor league record looks like this:

9 seasons, 161 GS, 839.0 IP, 3.09 ERA, 9.4 K/9

Although they compare favorably, these numbers for the ‘84-’86 crew includes a lot of AA and AAA numbers, as these pitchers started in advanced leagues as teenagers and moved up quickly. The 2018 class only has two half-seasons of AA-ball in the mix. So the ‘80s group was succeeding in the big leagues at the age when the 2018 class was pitching in the low minors (or in college).

Workload

On average, the ‘80s group pitched 131 innings per minor league season and 6.6 innings per game started (including relief innings). The 2018 group have pitched 93 innings per season and 5.2 innings per game started. The season that Saberhagen turned 24, he pitched 260.2 innings, and Gubicza pitched 241.2 innings in his age-24 season. Singer will turn 24 this season, and Lynch, Kowar, and Bowlan will reach 24 later this year. Obviously, especially with the coronavirus crisis, these guys will not even approach the types of workloads that the ‘80s crew took on at a young age.

And this is the one note of optimism as we compare the two groups. The 1984-86 group was historic, one of the best groups of five starters any team has ever produced in such a short time period. Each built a substantial career, but every one but Cone hit a wall because of arm troubles before age 27. Perhaps the 2018 crew can, like Cone, emerge at 25 and gradually take on a greater load and enjoy more health throughout their careers.

So can the Royals repeat history?

It’s tempting as a sports fan to take memories from one group and try to superimpose that same outcome on another group. The Royals mid-’80s wave of young pitching led them to glory, so maybe this wave of youth from the 2018 draft can do the same thing.

It’s possible. Maybe Brad Keller (as a Rule 5 pick) can be the “steal” that complements the wave of prospects, like Bud Black and Charlie Leibrandt. Maybe Danny Duffy can sort of be a healthier version of Dennis Leonard in this scenario. So let’s just let them skip AAA and turn ‘em loose and watch the wins come, right?

To me, looking at the draft position, minor league records, and ages of the mid-’80s class makes me think this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation. Things just don’t turn out that well with 2nd- and 3rd- and 19th-round high school picks. The good news is that we’re talking about four 1st-round picks and a 2nd-rounder. Both groups were similarly dominant in the minor leagues, but the current group was much older and at lower levels.

Under close scrutiny, the conclusion has to be that these two groups of prospects are not very similar at all, even though they feel like they should be. But even though they are different, we can still hope for similar results.