Baseball’s Statistical Oddities
Every once in a while, as I’m doing some research for this blog, I’ll come across a baseball statistic that catches me off guard.
I’m not suggesting that no one else has ever noticed any of these odd items before, but if they are new to me, they might just be new to you, too.
To begin with, which particular pitchers in baseball history do you think were the toughest to hit against (Hits / 9 Innings)?
Did you say Walter Johnson? Well, O.K., he is 33rd on the all-time list having given up 7.47 hits per nine innings in his career. Randy Johnson? You’re getting warmer. He is 22nd on the list.
Remember, we are not talking about WHIP here. Just hits per nine.
Yes, of course, it was Nolan Ryan. He was the Number #1 toughest pitcher to hit, having given up just 6.55 hits per nine. Not a surprise. But keep reading.
Sandy Koufax comes in at Number #2, posting a 6.79 hits per nine ratio. Again, no surprise there.
Number #3 Toughest Pitcher to Hit, Ever? Well, here’s the surprise:
Sid Fernandez. Yes, that Sid Fernandez. El Sid. The Mets’ secret weapon in the bullpen against the Red Sox in the ’86 World Series.
Sid Fernandez posted an incredible 6.85 hits per nine innings in his career in 1866 innings. He pitched in parts of 15 different seasons and made exactly 300 starts in his career.
So how many wins did El Sid record out of those 300 starts? Just 114 wins, against 96 losses. In other words, Fernandez ended up with a no-decision in 30% of his career starts, a rather high percentage.
So why didn’t he win more games? Apparently, El Sid just couldn’t get much past the sixth inning. In fact, he completed only 25 games in his entire career! Thus, his bullpen mates ended up swooping down for the win, or they blew the game and took the loss.
Sid Fernandez’s idea of a workout routine was a 6,000 calorie breakfast, followed by long periods of rest and idleness.
Fernandez only reached double-figures in wins in five seasons; his best win totals were 16 (in 1986), 14 (twice) and 12 (twice). That’s it.
Sid Fernandez was, then, one the greatest six- inning pitchers ever. But even though one-inning specialists now routinely make it into Cooperstown, (they’re called “Closers”), El Sid will never get in without first paying for a ticket.
Now that’s a strange career.
Almost as strange was the career of a former teammate of Sid Fernandez:
At first glance you might not expect David Cone to have had a weird career, but let me throw some numbers at you. I’ll do it in the form of a Table so you can more clearly see what I noticed.
The first number represents a season with exactly that number of wins; the second number directly to the right of it represents how many seasons Cone reached that number of wins. So let’s take a look:
20 – 2 (Cone had 2 twenty win seasons)
19 – 0
18 – 0
17 – 0
16 – 1
15 – 0
14 – 3
13 – 1
12 – 2
11 – 1
10 – 0
Cone finished with nearly 200 wins in his career in over 400 starts. His career win-lost percentage was a very nice .606.
But where did all those 194 career wins come from? How does a pitcher have two 20 win seasons, but NO 15, 17, 18, or 19 win seasons, and still have an excellent career?
Cone is the antithesis of Bert Blyleven. Blyleven won nearly 300 games (287) in his career, but his entire career was made up of exactly the kinds of seasons Cone NEVER even had once in his entire career (except for the one lonely 16 win season.) For example, Blyleven produced five 17-win seasons.
There are two types of Hall-of-Famers, and two kinds of HOF voters. One group prefers the bright shining stars that flame out fast, (but oh, what beauty when they shined.)
The other group prefers slow-and-steady-wins-the race. Cone is not in The Hall; Blyleven is. But they are on polar opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the kinds of careers a pitcher who could be considered for The Hall might have.
Now, how about a hitter.
The worst thing a hitter can do is make lots and lots of outs, meaning a low on-base percentage, right?
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Exhibit A, former infielder Alfredo Griffin. Griffin played his first full season in the Majors in 1979, winning the A.L. Rookie of the Year award playing for the Blue Jays. He retired in 1993.
Alfredo Griffin was, without doubt, one of the worst hitters in the history of baseball.
Now, I know, there have been lots of really bad offensive players throughout baseball history. But this, as they say, you have to see.
Griffin’s highest single-season on-base percentage in his career was .333 in his rookie campaign of 1979 when he drew a career high 40 walks in 689 plate appearances. He never walked as many as forty times in a season again.
But the season that truly boggles my mind was 1984 when in 441 plate appearances, Griffin drew exactly FOUR walks all year.
How is that even possible?
His batting average that season was .241; his on-base percentage was .248. For his entire career, Griffin posted an OBP of .285 in over 7,000 plate appearances.
Folks, we are talking about a guy that played all 162 games in four different seasons, not some part-time late-inning defensive replacement.
He wasn’t even all that good defensively, although he managed to win a Gold Glove award. But even fifteen Gold Gloves couldn’t justify those awful non-hitting skills of his.
You want to hear the best part? In 1984, the year he drew just four walks, the year he posted an OBP south of .300, that was the only year he made an All-Star team in his career.
To at least partially make up for his terrible on-base skills, did he hit lots of homers? No, just 24 in his entire career.
Did he score lots of runs? Nope, he reached 80 runs scored only once, his rookie season.
Did he steal lots of bases? Well, here’s the thing. He did steal 192 bases in his career, but he was also caught stealing 134 times, a poor “success” rate of .588. In fact, in a two year period, 1980-81, he successfully stole a paltry 26 bases in 61 attempts!
In November of 1988, the Dodgers, enamored by Griffin’s .199 batting average and .965 fielding percentage from the ’88 season, signed Griffin as a free-agent for one million dollars.
Am I missing something here? Griffin retired after the ’93 season with a career WAR of -2.4.
The weirdest thing about Alfredo Griffin isn’t the numbers themselves, it’s that he was able to find steady work in the Majors for 18 seasons.
O.K. Let’s follow Griffin up with a player who actually could hit.
Carlton Fisk was one of the best overall catchers in baseball history. Although he suffered numerous injuries early in his career, he nevertheless ended up playing in 2,499 games, amassing 9,853 plate appearances.
Most of his career numbers are pretty standard (meaning very good) for a player of his caliber, especially for a catcher.
But one odd season late in his career when he played for the White Sox stands out.
In 1984, when Fisk was already 36 years old, he slugged a reasonable 21 home runs. Now, normally when a player hits over 20 homers and plays more or less every day, their RBI total lands somewhere in the 65-85 range, give or take a few.
Yet somehow, despite hitting 21 homers, Fisk managed to drive in only 43 runs in nearly 400 plate appearances. That means the vast majority of his RBI that year came directly as a result of those 21 homers.
I’m guessing that his RBI total that year has to be one of the lowest ever recorded, perhaps the lowest, for a player who hit at least 20 homers in one season.
I am not casting any aspersions on Fisk’s talent or on his career, but that is one fluky statistic.
Finally, there is the strange case of Storm Davis.
Davis was an extremely young man of 20 when he threw his first pitch for the Orioles in 1982. By the age of 22, Davis had already pitched 525 innings in the Majors; there were no Joba Rules in those days.
By 1989, Davis was a member of a formidable Oakland A’s rotation. In that year, his age-27 season, Davis enjoyed his career-year. Despite tossing just 169 innings, Davis posted a record of 19-7.
It was the worst 19 win season in major league history.
Here are the ugly peripheral numbers behind that inflated win total:
ERA: 4.36, WHIP: 1.506, Strike-Outs: 91, Walks: 68, K’s / 9 innings: 4.8, Hits / 9 innings: 10.
In short, if Davis had pitched that year for virtually any other baseball team, he would have ended up with a sub-.500 win-lost record.
Of course, the Kansas City Royals, unable to see past Davis’ gaudy win total, signed Davis in the off-season to be the ace of their staff for over a million dollars (still big money in those days.)
The Royals were rewarded with a 7-10 season in 1990.
Davis’ career was strange because he was actually a pretty good pitcher who pitched terribly one season, still won 19 games, and was rewarded with a large contract as a free agent as a result.
Talk about pure, dumb luck.
There are, of course, many other players who experienced odd seasons, unaccountable success, or statistical anomalies in their careers. Feel free to share others you can think of with me.