Bret Saberhagen arrived in the spring of 1984, a skinny 19-year-old out of Reseda’s Cleveland High School who pitched with the flinty-eyed cool of a gunslinger, and said so.
“I’ve got a fastball, curveball, slider and change-up. I throw ‘em all for strikes.”
The Kansas City Royals happened, that spring, to be in desperate need of a young arm. They took a gamble, rolled the dice and came up a winner. Saberhagen was telling the truth.
On April 4, 1984, at the age of 19 years, 11 months and 24 days, Saberhagen became the youngest Royals player ever to appear in a game.
He shuttled between the bullpen and the starting rotation his first season, finishing with a 10-11 record and a 3.48 earned run average.
This season, he has been a starter since opening day and at age 21, has established himself as one of the top pitchers in the major leagues. With an 18-6 record and a 2.73 ERA, Saberhagen is a major reason the Royals are atop the American League West.
“He’s got the ability to throw three or four pitches for strikes on both sides of the plate, and he’s got guts,” said relief ace Dan Quisenberry. “But there are a lot of guys who can do that. He can do it and also put ‘stuff’ on the ball, and that’s what makes him different.
“There are guys with good control, but not good stuff. And there are guys with good stuff, but not good control. He’s got both. Plus, he’s got guts. It’s awful hard to find somebody with all three characteristics.”
The 6-foot-1, 160-pound right-hander is not a power pitcher like the New York Mets’ Dwight Gooden, who is only seven months and five days his junior. But neither is he a “finesse” pitcher and he certainly does not throw “junk.”
His deceptively thin body generates an above-average fastball that neatly complements an impressive arsenal. And, as he said, he throws ‘em all for strikes. So far this season, he has walked only 31 batters in more than 204 innings and struck out 135.
“Nobody thought he would be as outstanding as he’s been,” said Hal McRae, the Royals’ veteran designated hitter. “But he’s good game after game after game. We knew he was good. But nobody thought he was going to be this dominating.”
Manager Dick Howser did. He realized Saberhagen was something special “the first time I saw him.”
Naturally, comparisons are frequently drawn between Saberhagen and Gooden.
“It’s a nice compliment, but I don’t think you can compare me to Dwight, with all the strikeouts he’s got every game,” Saberhagen said. “He’s just an amazing pitcher.”
Saberhagen himself isn’t sure how to describe his pitching style. He reminds many old-timers of a young Catfish Hunter.
“I don’t know what you’d say. I challenge them, but I try not to give too much away,” he said. “I’m always going after their weakness and trying to stay away from their strengths.”
Even Saberhagen has been a bit overwhelmed by what has so far been a storybook season.
“I’m not surprised I’m winning,” he said, with characteristic moxie. “But I really didn’t think I’d be in the situation I’m in. In my senior year in high school, if you had told me that I’d be close to leading the league in wins and winning percentage I would have told you there was no way. It’s just an amazing thing.”