Examining the Hall of Fame case of Kansas City Royals legend Bret Saberhagen

SARASOTA, FLORIDA - 1986: Bret Saberhagen of the Kansas City Royals pitches during a major league baseball spring training game at Payne Park in Sarasota, Florida prior to the 1986 season. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
SARASOTA, FLORIDA - 1986: Bret Saberhagen of the Kansas City Royals pitches during a major league baseball spring training game at Payne Park in Sarasota, Florida prior to the 1986 season. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

Legendary Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Bret Saberhagen is definitely not a pitcher at the top of mind when you think of the best starting pitchers not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

You probably think of Curt Schilling (who fell off of the BBWAA ballot this year) or Luis Tiant towards the top of retired players and, then, you probably think of some active pitchers, like Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke.

But Bret Saberhagen is someone that has a better case for the Hall of Fame than you may think.

Kansas City Royals legend Bret Saberhagen has a good case for the Baseball Hall of Fame

Bret Saberhagen spent parts of 16 seasons pitching in the Major Leagues, including eight seasons with the Kansas City Royals.

He had a career 3.34 ERA in 399 games (371 starts) with an ERA+ of 126. He also had a 3.27 FIP and was known for his control, as he had the lowest walk rate in his league twice and he averaged just 1.8 BB/9 in his career.

He was a three-time All-Star, a two-time AL Cy Young Award winner (1985. 1989), another third-place finish in 1994 in the NL for the Cy Young Award, two seasons with top 10 AL MVP finishes, a World Series MVP (1985), a Gold Glove, and an ERA title (1989).

Overall, he had a career 58.9 rWAR, which included five seasons above 5.0 rWAR and four more seasons at 2.9 or above.

So let’s compare his numbers to other starting pitchers.

His 58.9 WAR is 73rd all-time among primary starters. Within 3.0 rWAR on either side of him, there are seven Hall of Famers ahead and four behind him. However, the only two that played after World War II are Jim Bunning (ahead of Saberhagen) and Whitey Ford (behind Saberhagen).

When you look at WAR7 (a player’s WAR in their top seven seasons), the case gets stronger. Saberhagen’s 43.1 WAR7 is tied for 78th all-time. However, he is tied with Nolan Ryan, a first ballot Hall of Famer from the modern era. Within 2.0 WAR7 are eight Hall of Famers and Saberhagen is tied with or ahead of three of them.

Three of the starters just ahead of Saberhagen in WAR7 are modern starters (Don Drysdale (44.7), Mike Mussina (44.5), Tom Glavine (44.1)).

When you average WAR and WAR7 (JAWS), Saberhagen’s case gets stronger. His 51.0 JAWS is 71st all-time. Within 3.0 JAWS of him are six HOF starters and Saberhagen is ahead of two of them. One modern starter just ahead of him is John Smoltz (53.9) and one just behind him is Don Sutton (50.3). A likely future Hall of Famer (C.C. Sabathia) is just behind Saberhagen too (50.9 JAWS).

By ERA+ among starters, Saberhagen is an obvious Hall of Famer. Bold indicates a Hall of Famer.

  • Tom Seaver, 127 ERA+
  • Bob Gibson, 127
  • Stan Covelski, 127
  • Curt Schilling, 127
  • Bret Saberhagen, 126
  • Tim Keefe, 126
  • Jim Palmer, 125
  • John Smoltz, 125
  • Dazzy Vance, 125
  • Lefty Gomez, 125
  • Mike Mussina, 123
  • Juan Marichal, 123
  • Bob Feller, 122
  • Eddie Plank, 122
  • Don Drysdale, 121
  • Joe McGinnity, 121
  • Andy Cooper, 121
  • Warren Spahn, 119
  • Old Hoss Radbourn, 119
  • Red Faber, 119
  • Bob Lemon, 119
  • Bert Blyleven, 118
  • Tom Glavine, 118
  • Ted Lyons, 118
  • Gaylord Perry, 117
  • Vic Willis, 117
  • Phil Niekro, 115
  • Steve Carlton, 115
  • Ferguson Jenkins, 115
  • Jim Bunning, 115
  • Eppa Rixey, 115

The main things against Saberhagen are his injury history and relatively short career. He only made more than 30 starts in a season five times. That’s partially due to the 1994-1995 strike, as he was on pace for more than 30 starts in each season but the strike cut both seasons but it’s also due to Saberhagen’s injury history.

In that aspect, he’s very much similar to Sandy Koufax.

1Sandy Koufax165872.763973142324.1175471320481723961312.691.1066.82.93
2Bret Saberhagen1671173.343993712562.2245295221847117151263.271.1418.63.64

Provided by Stathead.com: View Stathead Tool Used
Generated 2/27/2022.

Koufax’s career rWAR is 48.9 compared to Saberhagen’s 58.9 but Koufax played in four fewer seasons than Saberhagen and Koufax had to hit more than Saberhagen. If you just include Koufax’s pitching career, his rWAR is 53.1.

However, Saberhagen received just 1.3 percent of the vote on his first and only Hall of Fame ballot in 2007. He has yet to make an Era Committee ballot either.

The Cy Young Awards alone put him in very elite company as only 20 pitchers in MLB history have won two. 11 of them are Hall of Famers, five are still active, and one of them was just on a Hall of Fame ballot in 2022. One of them not in the Hall is the all-time leader in Cy Young Awards in Roger Clemens with 7 but he has the cloud of PED use behind his name.

Next. The Royals should retire at least one number for Saberhagen. dark

Kansas City Royals legend Bret Saberhagen isn’t a slam dunk for the Baseball Hall of Fame due to his lack of longevity. However, he does have a compelling case that, at least, deserves more consideration in the coming years on the Modern Baseball and/or Today’s Game Era Committee ballot.