Eighteen years ago today, the ace of the St. Louis Cardinals pitched an absolute gem. He was having a bit of a down year, partially because he’d set such a high standard, but you wouldn’t know it from how he pitched on June 18th. It was an interleague game against the Angels and he had earned just his fifth win of the year - you know when we cared about such things. He pitched into the 8th inning and received a standing ovation. It was the last game he ever pitched.
Most of you already know the story. Four days later, Darryl Kile was found unconscious in his hotel room, having died of an inexplicable heart attack. This was an utterly shocking and devastating death that I don’t think 9-year-old me really comprehended. It was inconceivable to me. How could a player die?
On this very date, 18 years ago, another Cardinal had died, but he was a broadcaster and he was old. I could comprehend Jack Buck’s death. Jack Buck surely hadn’t held the importance to 9-year-old me as most Cardinals fans. I knew he was important, but he just didn’t have a special place in my heart that an adult had for him, who got to listen to him for their lifetime.
But also, we all saw his death coming. He looked older than he was and he wasn’t exactly young when he died. I remember - and I’m not sure what year it was, but it was either 2000 or 2001 - my dad splurged on seats right behind the broadcast booth so that I could meet Jack Buck. I’m not positive what those tickets were called, but you were literally right above the broadcasters. And he did so, because he didn’t know how many opportunities I would get to meet Jack Buck. But by the time we actually went to the game, he was too sick to announce games anymore and I never did meet him. Mike Shannon did say hi though, so not at all was lost.
But Kile’s death, there was no preparation for that. I specifically remember where I was when I learned that he died. For some reason, I learned that he died when I was in my parent’s room. The phone had rang and someone told my dad or mom - that part I don’t remember - and I think whichever parent it was then screamed out the news to my other parent (and me). It’s kind of a vague memory, but I can put myself in my 9-year-old shoes and remember the eerie feeling that phone call gave me. Just imagining myself there now is making me very uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure I cried. Hell, just inserting myself into 9-year-old me is making my eyes tear up a little.
I know life is more important than baseball, but we all know Kile because of baseball and I didn’t know him personally, so I thought I’d talk a little about his career on the anniversary of his last game. Kile was, amazingly, a 30th round draft pick by the Houston Astros in the 1987 MLB Draft out of high school. I would honestly have pegged him as a 1st round pick, and if you gave me 1st round or the field, well I’d take the field, but I’d have to think about it!
Despite being a low draft pick, and this may have been because there was not an expectation that he could be signed, he very quickly rose through the MLB. He went from the GCL to AA in just his second professional season, without even the slightest hint that he had made that massive jump from his stats. Going into his age 21 season, he was the #11 prospect in baseball by Baseball America in 1990.
It’s at this point where his quick ascension caught up to him and his AAA stats were not in the slightest impressive. He made the MLB team in 1991, by this time Baseball America’s #34 prospect in baseball. But at 22-years-old, he made the MLB mostly for good. It took him a couple years to adjust to the increased competition - he was a -0.3 bWAR pitcher his rookie year and -0.1 bWAR pitcher his sophomore year. He got demoted for 9 starts in his second season too.
At 24, he broke through and made his first All-Star team. He must have had a hot first start, because it was not totally deserved. He had 1.8 bWAR and 2.4 fWAR, neither of which suggest an All-Star player, but which was a huge leap forward from his first two years. This breakout was momentary however. He had below replacement season his next two years by bWAR, although Fangraphs is much, much kinder to him. In fact, Fangraphs likes him a whole lot more than Baseball-Reference in general. Which is... kind of weird. He has a 4.24 FIP and 4.12 ERA, which does not exactly suggest a huge split between the two sites.
Anyway, he became the Darryl Kile that we know in 1996, at the age of 27. He started 33 games, pitched 219 innings, and had a 4.19 ERA, which is more impressive than it sounds - this is the middle of the steroid ERA. I mean bWAR still isn’t impressed - 1.1 bWAR - but Fangraphs has him with 3.7 fWAR. This one makes more sense - his FIP was 3.67 to his 4.19 ERA. B-R must have loooooved the Astros defense at the time, because if I remember correctly, they factor team defense into their bWAR, which is why I’m not a huge fan of it. (Defenses don’t typically play exactly the same for each pitcher is my reasoning)
Whatever disagreements B-R and FG had in 1996 dissipated in 1997. There was no doubting his excellence as a pitcher that year. He made his second All-Star team, placed 5th in Cy Young voting and even got some MVP votes. This time he pitched a whopping 255.2 innings with six complete games and four shutouts. He averaged over 7 innings per start, which is not something I see happening anytime soon in baseball. He had a 2.57 ERA, 5.4 bWAR, and 4 fWAR. That’s because, while his ERA went way down, his FIP was nearly exactly the same as 1996.
He then signed as a free agent with the Colorado Rockies, and it’s here where I must disprove a common misconception. He was actually great with the Rockies - in his first year. Pre-humidor Coors was just an insane place to play. He started 35 games, pitched 230.1 IP, and had a 5.20 ERA. His FIP of 4.69 wasn’t a whole lot better, but again Coors Field. So despite those superficially bad numbers, he was still worth 2.2 bWAR and 3.2 fWAR. By Fangraphs at least, he had three straight seasons of virtually identical baseball with wildly different ERAs.
But his second year, well that was a bad one. Part of his success as a pitcher was due to him cutting down his walk rate. He still walked batters at a below average rate, but a 3.65 BB/9 is a very different thing than a 5+ BB/9. It returned to above 5 in his second year as a Rockie and his strikeouts fell to a career low, even below his first couple years. He had a 6.61 ERA, although for once bWAR was the more optimistic of the two sites with 1.9 to FG’s 0.9.
And then the Cardinals traded for him. For a whole lot of nothing. You can see the logic in a Jose Jimenez, but he was below replacement level in 28 starts in 1999 and was going to be 26. Rich Croushore was a 28-year-old reliever with two below replacement seasons under his belt and who lasted exactly 15 more innings in the majors. Brent Butler was a former top 100 prospect who had a .694 OPS in AA in 1999, which is what caused him to drop out of the top 100. And Manny Aybar was a 27-year-old long reliever with 97 IP in 1999, but with -0.9 bWAR. What’s crazy is that the Cardinals got players in addition to Kile. They got 33-year-old Daves Veres, who had a 2.0 bWAR season in 1999. And they got Luther Hackman, a 25-year-old probable reliever. Hindsight and all, because the conventional wisdom was that Kile was toast, but even accounting for that, this seems like a ridiculous swindle by Walt Jocketty.
Then the magic of Dave Duncan coupled with getting the hell away from Coors proved to be exactly what Kile needed. It wasn’t just the park, because Kile’s BB rate plummeted. He went from “hopefully he can walk 3 and half batters per 9” to walking 2.25 batters per 9. Despite an emphasis on preventing walks, his strikeouts didn’t suffer either, a potential criticism of the pitch to contact philosophy. Fangraphs has him pitching his career best season in 2000 and bWAR isn’t far behind with 3.7 bWAR. He made his third All-Star team, placed 5th in Cy Young voting again, and got MVP votes again.
The weird thing is that he was better in 2001, but no All-Star team, no Cy Young votes, no MVP votes. He went 20-9 in 2000, but 16-11 in 2001. So wins are important was in full force at the time. But he was actually better in his second season as a Cardinal, by both bWAR and fWAR. He definitely deserved another All-Star nod this year at the very least.
And then in 2002, his season trended way down. His strikeouts fell to 5.31 K/9, and his walks had risen to 2.98, which would have been great before the Cards, but was easily his worst as a Card. He had a 3.72 ERA, but was lucky to have it with a 4.44 FIP and 4.69 xFIP (2002 was the first year of xFIP’s existence). But then he had that start on June 18th that makes you think he probably would have turned his season around. It wasn’t exactly a bad one. At the pace he was at, he may have ended up at 2 fWAR and would have ended up with more than 2 bWAR. But it still sort of feels like he would have returned to form.
If you’re interested in this subject more, or you just feel like making yourself cry, The Life and Death of Darryl Kile is posted in full on Youtube. And fair warning, you will cry. That will cover Darryl Kile the person, and by all accounts, he was a better person than he was pitcher. Anything I could say about him as a person would just be repeated from that documentary. Like I said above, obviously his life as a person is more important than his baseball career. I only talk about his baseball career because that’s what I have available to me and because he was a great one.
I wish I could say more about my memories of Kile and 2002 in particular, but given my age, I am not equipped to give more detail than I’ve already provided. I remember Joe Girardi speaking to Wrigley Field afterward, but that’s probably from me watching the documentary mentioned above years later. The best I can give you is just the feeling I had when I found out, a feeling I don’t think I’m ever going to forget. I encourage and look forward to reading any comments about Kile - his playing career, meeting him - that anyone would be willing to share.