The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Earned run average”

All 2-14 Seasons Are Not of Equal Value

If a pitcher posts a win-loss record of 2-14, it’s easy to assume he’s had a lousy year.  With a record like that, he might even be looking for a new line of work in the off-season.  Yet, strange as it may seem, there can be important qualitative differences between one 2-14 season and another.

To begin with, here are some raw stats for a pair of pitchers who each posted a 2-14 season in their career:

Pitcher A:  2-14,  119 innings pitched,  510 batters faced,  71 strikeouts,  1.324 WHIP.

Pitcher B:  2-14,  121 innings pitched,  517 batters faced,  64 strikeouts,  1.364 WHIP.

As you can see, not a great deal of difference so far between these two pitchers.

Yet, for pitcher A, this represented the best season of his career, in which he posted a WAR of 3.3.

For pitcher B, those numbers represented one of the worst seasons of his career:  -0.5 WAR.

Pitcher A was exclusively a reliever in his 2-14 season.  Pitcher B swung back and forth between the bullpen and the starting rotation.

The team for which Pitcher A toiled went 70-92 in his 2-14 season.

The team for which Pitcher B worked slogged through a 72-90 season.

Pitcher A’s team had been picked to finish in last place by many writers before the season.

Pitcher B’s team had been picked to win their division.

They both pitched in what were considered to be “pitchers” parks.

Pitcher A was 28-years old.  Pitcher B was 26-years old.  “A” was a lefty.  “B” threw right-handed.

So what separated one 2-14 season from the other?

Pitcher A posted a 2.04 ERA, and an ERA+ of 174.

Pitcher B posted an ERA of 4.17, and an ERA+ of just 85.

Pitcher A was charged with having surrendered 27 earned runs.  Pitcher B gave up more than twice as many, 56.

The defense behind Pitcher A ranked #1 in Fielding Percentage in his 2-14 season.  The defense behind Pitcher B ranked 8th out of 12 teams.

Pitcher B, of the 4.17 ERA, was out of baseball by age 31.  Pitcher A lasted until he was 38-years old.

Pitcher B holds the record for consecutive losses, losing 27 straight decision from 1992-93.

Pitcher A is the only pitcher to have appeared in all seven games of a World Series.

Pitcher B, of course, is former New York Mets pitcher Anthony Young.

Pitcher A was a member of the Washington Senators in 1970 when he posted his 2-14 record, but is more closely linked with the Oakland A’s teams of the 1970’s, Darold Knowles.

From 1992-93, Anthony Young posted a record of 3-30, (2-14 in 1992), though not pitching quite badly enough to have earned such a horrific record.  Knowles never lost in double-digits again.

As you can see, a pitcher’s won-lost record does not tell the whole story of how he actually pitched.  In fact, it can quite clearly tell us nothing worth knowing at all.

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The Greatness of Clayton Kershaw

Is it possible that a 25-year old starting pitcher, with barely a half-dozen seasons under his belt, is already one of the most taken-for-granted veterans in the Majors?

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m writing, of course, of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw.

As a Mets fan, I’ve been in awe of our own great pitcher, Matt Harvey (The Dark Knight of Gotham.)  Every pitching performance of his is an event to be savored.  I can think of perhaps only two or three other pitchers in Mets history who’ve generated this kind of buzz and displayed such overwhelming dominance at this point in their careers.

Then I recall that Clayton Kershaw is just a year older than Matt Harvey, and has already been just as dominant, perhaps more so, for about six years now.

Kershaw made his MLB debut at age 20 on May 25, 2008 against the St. Louis Cardinals.  In six strong innings, he struck out seven, walked just one, and surrendered five hits and two earned runs.  Of his 102 pitches, 69 were strikes.  His ERA after that first start was 3.00.  He has not posted an ERA that high in any of his past five seasons (including this one.)  His lone mistake that day was a double to some guy named Pujols.

Through 1,142 career innings (a fair sample size), Kershaw’s career ERA+ of 146 ranks 5th best all-time among starting pitchers since 1900, behind only Pedro Martinez, Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson and Smoky Joe Wood.  Including this season, he is enjoying his 3rd straight year with an ERA+ of at least 150.  By way of comparison, Sandy Koufax reached that level of dominance in each of his final four seasons.

Speaking of Sandy Koufax, until this year, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax ranked #1 and #2 in fewest hits surrendered per nine innings in their careers (6.555 and 6.791, respectively.)  This year, Kershaw has squeezed in between Ryan and Koufax, now claiming second place all-time at 6.767 per nine innings.  Granted, Koufax tossed about twice as many innings in his career as Kershaw has to date, but, then again, Kershaw has been a much more dominant pitcher in his first half-dozen seasons than Koufax was.  In fact, Koufax was about Kershaw’s current age before he finally began to turn the corner in what had been to that point a very mediocre career.

Kershaw, with a career record of 74-44, has already won one Cy Young award, was the runner-up last year, and has an excellent chance to win another this season.  He is on his way to winning his third consecutive ERA crown, and will probably lead the league in WHIP this year for a third straight season as well.  He has also given up an average of just 5.8 hits per 9 innings this year, one hit per nine below his already fantastic career average.

Astonishingly, in his 1,142 career innings pitched, Kershaw has surrendered just 859 hits.  Another way of looking at this is that Kershaw has tossed 283 hitless innings in his career, the equivalent of pitching an entire season, and then some, without giving up a hit.

And lest you think that perhaps Kershaw has a walk rate that might not be quite as impressive as his hit rate, Kershaw’s career mark of 3.0 walks per nine compares favorably (though very similarly) to Koufax’s career rate of 3.2 walks per nine (not to mention Nolan Ryan’s much higher rate of 4.7 walks per nine innings.)

Since his rookie year of 2008, Kershaw’s WAR has gone up virtually every season as well:  1.4, 4.7, 5.5, 6.5, 6.2, 7.1 (thus far in 2013.)  His 31.4 career WAR (generally a cumulative stat), works out to an average of around 5.5 per season.  I’ll leave it to you to estimate where he might finish among the all-time WAR leaders if he enjoys perhaps another decade of good health.

There’s a real chance that before he’s done, Clayton Kershaw will rate among the top five left-handed pitchers in baseball history.  It would be unfortunate if, outside of L.A.,  baseball fans failed to notice Kershaw’s greatness due to our sports media’s current obsession with scandal, blame and shame.

Addendum:  I just learned a couple of hours ago of the elbow injury that Matt Harvey has suffered.  The brittleness of pitchers is something that we are constantly reminded of and, despite our hopes going forward, obviously no pitcher is guaranteed a long and healthy career.  Not Matt Harvey, not Clayton Kershaw, not any of them.  All we can do is enjoy their talent while we have them.  

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Pedro Martinez

This is Part 7 of the series, “Baseball’s Surprising Stats.”  If you’ve missed any or all of the first six,  you’ll find them under “Recent Posts” over to the right.

Recently, I read that Pedro Martinez lost only 100 games in his entire career in over 400 starts.

English: Pedro Martínez

English: Pedro Martínez (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Losing just 100 games out of 409 career starts (against 219 wins) is a pretty remarkable statistic.

It led me to ask the following question:  What was the greatest number of games Pedro lost in any one season?

Indirectly, this also led me to wonder, if wins are an overrated statistic that don’t often reveal the true value of a pitcher, then how about losses?

In other words, are the number of losses a pitcher suffers in a particular season fairly representative of his overall performance?

Lists are often my favorite visual aid, so of course you know what’s coming.  Here’s a list of 26 pitchers, (do we always have to work with multiples of five?) and the highest number of losses they suffered in a season, from fewest to most.

Every pitcher on this list made at least 300 career starts, the vast majority making over 400. The number in parentheses indicates the number of seasons the pitcher lost that many games.  A number in bold print indicates they led the league in losses that season.

1)  Pedro Martinez – 10  (2)

2)   Ron Guidry – 12 (and it wasn’t until he turned 35 that he lost that many.)

3)  Lefty Grove – 13  (2)

4)  Sandy Koufax – 13  (2)

5)  John Smoltz – 13

6)  Roger Clemens – 14

7)  David Cone – 14  (2)

8)  Randy Johnson – 14  (2)

9)  Curt Schilling – 14

10) Tom Seaver – 14  (2)

11) Bob Feller – 15  (2)

12) Dwight Gooden – 15

13) Greg Maddux – 15

14) Mike Mussina – 15

15) “Pete” Alexander – 17

16) Bert Blyleven – 17  (4)  (Led league in losses in one of those four 17-loss seasons.)

17) Tom Glavine – 17

18) Catfish Hunter – 17

19) Christy Mathewson – 17

20) Ferguson Jenkins – 18

21) Jack Morris – 18

22) Nolan Ryan – 18

23) Don Sutton – 18

24) Steve Carlton – 20

25) Luis Tiant – 20

26) Walter Johnson – 25

Boy, that Walter Johnson was a lousy pitcher, wasn’t he?

Actually, the year Johnson lost 25 games he was just a 21-year old kid still learning his craft.  Although his ERA that year was a sparkling 2.22, his ERA+ was just a mediocre 111, meaning that lots of pitchers had very low ERA’s that year.  Easy to see why this was the Dead Ball era, right?

So, do the number of losses a pitcher suffers in their “worst” season tell us much in the way of useful information?  Is it possible for a pitcher to have an excellent year (as measured by other reliable stats) yet come away with a relatively high number of losses?

Well, we just saw that Walter Johnson was not yet a great pitcher when he lost those 25 games.  Similarly, Tom Glavine was just a 22-year old with an ERA+ of just 80 when he lost his career high 17 games.  In other words, it would not be inaccurate to say that he truly did “earn” those losses.

Although Nolan Ryan was already 29-years old when he lost 18 games in 1976, his ERA+ that year was only 99, and he was still walking far too many batters.  In other words, those 18 losses can’t simply be written off as a lack of run support, or an unlucky “good” pitcher on a bad team.  Ryan pretty much deserved to lose 18 of his 39 starts that year.

Don Sutton, like Bert Blyleven, is in the Hall of Fame due to a long career of notable, yet unspectacular, consistency.  They are baseball’s equivalent of the 35-year career insurance salesmen who never miss a day of work, but of whom the best that can be said is that they never knowingly, intentionally, sold a questionable policy.  They each stuck around long enough to earn their gold watch, enjoy their retirement party, and retire to Miami Beach to play golf, bare white legs set against the over-manicured greens draining into dying swampland.

So what of their 17 and 18 loss seasons?  In 23 seasons, Don Sutton never led his league in ERA+, and in ERA just once.  In 1969, his fourth season in the Majors, he posted an ERA+ of 96 in 296 innings.  Durable?  Sure.  But it is clear that those 18 losses were generally representative of his pitching performance that particular year.

Bert Blyleven’s four 17-loss seasons, three of which occurred consecutively from 1972-74, were more of a mixed bag.  In two of those seasons, (1973-74) Blyleven posted ERA+’s of 156 (which led the league) and 142, respectively.  In 1972, his ERA+ was a decent 119, and in his final 17-loss campaign, 1988, his 17 losses led the league in a year in which his ERA+ was only 75.

When Luis Tiant and Steve Carlton each led their respective leagues with 20 losses (Tiant in ’69; Carlton in ’73), neither pitcher was better than league-average that year.  Tiant’s ERA+ was just 101, and Carlton’s was only 97.

Long-time Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martíne...

Long-time Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martínez returns to Fenway Park in 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Generally speaking then, what is clear from this admittedly abbreviated list of pitchers is that great pitchers don’t tend to lose very many games, unless they are having an off-year, or unless they are still refining their craft.

Now, that may sound like the least surprising bit of information you’ve ever received.  But what it means is that, although a pitcher can have a great year and not win very many games (see the list of recent Cy Young winners), it is not at all common for a pitcher to have a great year and still end up with a lot of losses.  

Notice that only four of the 26 pitchers on this list ever led their league in losses, despite the large number of combined seasons represented here.

Therefore, although it is true that you should generally ignore a pitcher’s win totals when evaluating his actual value in any one season, the converse is not so true.

A pitcher’s loss totals are generally representative of what you would expect, given other statistical measures of performance.

By that measure, then, one can argue that Pedro Martinez was one of the top ten, if not among the top five, starting pitchers of all-time.

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Cy Young

This is Part 2 of the series, “Baseball’s Surprising Stats.”  The object of this series is to revisit players most of us already know something about, then to uncover one fact or statistic about that player that isn’t widely known.

The particular fact I wanted to discover about Cy Young was, how many Cy Young awards would Cy Young have won?

Cy Young.

Cy Young. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cy Young pitched for 22 years, from 1890 to 1911.  Many, perhaps most, baseball fans know that his 511 career wins are the most in baseball history.

Though he is not usually considered the greatest pitcher in history, it is the Cy Young award (and not the Walter Johnson award) which is awarded annually to the best pitcher in each league.

So how often was Cy Young the best pitcher in his league during those 22 years?

Young won at least 20 games in a season 15 times, and he topped 30 wins five times (twice after 1900.)

He led his league in wins five times, in ERA and win-loss percentage twice, in complete games three times, and in shutouts seven times.  Additionally, he paced his league in both strikeouts and ERA+ twice.

Cy Young won 511 games during his career, 94 m...

Cy Young won 511 games during his career, 94 more than second-place Walter Johnson. “Career Leaders & Records for Wins”. Baseball-Reference.com . Sports Reference LLC . . Retrieved March 26, 2010 . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As measured by WAR, Young topped all pitchers in his league a remarkable seven times (the same as Roger Clemens; one less than Walter Johnson.)

Certainly, then, a case could be made that Cy Young should have won the award as the best pitcher in his league seven times.

But should have won is not the same as would have won.  No one was measuring a player’s WAR in those days.  Wins would have been the primary stat.  Some combination of ERA, strikeouts, complete games, win-loss percentage and shutouts would have been the secondary stats considered.

Of course, if a pitcher led the league in virtually all or most of those stats, then, as today, he would likely have won his league’s best pitcher award.

There are four seasons that I am confident Cy Young would have been officially recognized as the best pitcher in his league.

In 1892, pitching for Cleveland, Cy Young posted a 36-12 record, a 1.93 ERA, 9 shutouts, and he tossed a career high 48 complete games and 453 innings.  He led the league in wins, win-loss percentage, shutouts, and ERA.

1901:  33 wins, 1.62 ERA, five shutouts, 158 strikeouts.  Each of those stats led the league.  (Young pitched for Boston from 1901-08.)

1902:  32 wins, 43 starts, 41 complete games, and 384 innings pitched, all of which led the league.

1903:  28 wins, .757 win-loss percentage, 34 complete games, 7 shutouts, and 341 innings pitched.  Again, each of those stats led the league.

Young also may have been voted league’s best pitcher in 1895 when, pitching for Cleveland, he led the league in wins (35), lost just ten games, and tossed a league-high four shutouts.

My original question was, “How many Cy Young awards would Cy Young have won?”  The best answer is that he would probably have won four or five awards, about the same number as Steve Carlton, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson.

That’s not bad company to keep, especially if you have an award named after you.

The Measure of the Man: Sabathia vs. Hernandez

Cy Young.

Image via Wikipedia

A recent article by a writer named Murray Chass called, “The Dark Side to Overtake Cy Young Award,” provoked me to write the following blog-post.

The ongoing argument between the modern stat-heads and the so-called traditionalists is getting old and boring.  The fact of the matter is, the stats the traditionalists use (Wins, ERA, Strikeouts) were all once ” new” stats as well.  Whether a stat is old or new isn’t important.  Any valid stat simply gives us a clearer, fuller picture of the objective value of a player, compared to other players.

I generally believe the modern stats have done a great deal of good for baseball.  Yet I suspect that the real, underlying complaint of many in the “traditionalist” camp is that they find many of the modern stat-heads to be insufferable, arrogant bastards.

As for this criticism, they have a valid point.

I can name a few prominent stat-heads who irk me at times not so much for their point of views, but for how they express their ideas.  In a sense, they appear to be more in love with numbers (and their reputations) than with baseball itself (again, not necessarily a majority of them, but enough of them to matter.)  They automatically dismiss any disagreement with their opinions as the delusional rantings of the ignorant rabble.

Still, the so-called traditionalists are often no less boring to listen to as they relate stories about how the best players demonstrated intangibles like guts, leadership and hustle that do not easily translate into cold, hard numbers.
The truth, of course, is that the vast majority of excellent players possess both the intangibles as well as the objective data to lay claim to their status as great players.

Regarding the Sabathia vs. Hernandez debate, I think both pitchers are worthy candidates to win the Cy Young award.

Of course wins matter.  How can they not?  Do we now believe that a 300-career win pitcher, for example, is not deserving of significant honor and respect?  A pitcher who wins 20 or more games in a season has had a fine year, and certainly deserves to be in the running for this award.

At the same time, if a pitcher has suffered from extremely poor run support all season but has pitched his way to an ERA title, led the league in innings pitched (indicating a true work-horse, which the traditionalists should admire), and is near or at the top in several other statistical categories including ERA+, WHIP, strikeouts, etc., then it’s nonsensical to argue that, if only he had pitched better, he would have “found a way” to have won more games.

From my standpoint, the best thing that could happen this year is for Sabathia and Hernandez to be co-winners of the Cy Young award.

This outcome is highly unlikely, of course, but it would demonstrate proper, measured, and sensible respect for the superior accomplishments of each of these two admirable pitchers this past season.

This isn’t a cop-out on my part.  And I am realistic enough to realize that few will agree with my proposal.

So think of this post, then, as my way of saying to the partisans on each side, shut up and pay proper respect to the opinions of your fellow baseball fans.

No one cares who is smarter or more passionate in their opinions.  If the game of baseball is big enough to contain both Red Sox and Yankee fans, (not to mention shell-shocked Pirates fans), then there is certainly room enough for multiple points of view regarding how to take the measure of a man who dons a baseball uniform.

Because the game itself is bigger than any one man, especially those who presume to measure the value of others.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 22 – The Texas Rangers

1982 Topps Fergie Jenkins

Image via WikipediaIn our own American historical experience, Justice has often displayed herself with an ironic touch.

A century and a half ago, negro slaves were privy to a literal life-line that extended itself, like an index finger plowing a thin furrow through the dark soil of America, from South to North.

Canada was the goal.

Southern Ontario was the primary recipient.

Chatham-Kent, Ontario, is today one of the primary municipalities in the region where the descendants of runaway slaves still make their home.

In fact, Ontario has over 473,000 people of African descent within its boundaries, many of whom can trace their lineage back to ancestors who once toiled the fields of the southern U.S.A., from Texas to Florida.

One of these families produced a son whose birth resulted in his mother’s subsequent blindness, and whose own life would know personal tragedy as well.

This child would one day cross the border into the United States as an entertainer of sorts.  An athlete by trade, he would enjoy time performing with the Harlem Globetrotters, but would make his primary mark on baseball diamonds throughout country.

Signed in June, 1962 by the Phillies, Ferguson Jenkins would make his debut with the parent team on September 10, 1965.  He was traded to the Cubs in 1966.

From 1966 through 1973, Chicago Cubs ace Ferguson Jenkins was one of the most dominant pitchers in the Major Leagues.  A Black Canadian whose ancestors had left America for a life of freedom had returned to America to find fortune.

A look at Fergie Jenkins career numbers leaves one astonished.

Jenkins won at least twenty games every season for six consecutive years, from 1967-72, inclusive.  He tossed at least 20 complete games in every one of those seasons, topping out at an astonishing 30 complete games in 1971.

Five times in his career he topped 300 innings pitched.

During Jenkins’ 19-year career, he led his league in wins twice, starts three times, complete games four times, innings pitched once, strikeouts once, and WHIP once.  He gave up a huge number of home runs in his career (484), but usually minimized the damage by allowing very few walks.

Fergie Jenkins won the 1971 Cy Young award, and finished in the top three in votes received four other times.

But Fergie Jenkins’ Best Forgotten Baseball Season was 1974 with the Texas Rangers.

At the age of 31, in his first season after having been traded away by the Cubs for Vic Harris and Bill Madlock ( Madlock having been the subject of a prior blog-post of mine,) Jenkins showed he could teach the American League a thing or two about pitching while pitching his home games in a state that was once a battleground for slavery.

Jenkins won a career high 25 games in 1974 against just 12 defeats.  He made 41 starts and led the league with 29 complete games.  In 328 innings pitched, he struck out 225 batters while walking just 45.  His five strikeouts per walk topped the league.

Jenkins’ ERA was just 2.82, his WHIP reflected his few walks surrendered, 1.008, and his WAR was 7.6, better than any hitter in his league.

For his efforts, Jenkins finished second in the league in Cy Young voting, just behind Catfish Hunter.  Remarkably, they both finished with identical 25-12 records, both made 41 starts, and both hurled six shutouts.

While Jenkins pitched ten more innings and racked up 80 more strikeouts with one fewer walk, Hunter’s ERA was .33 lower, his WHIP was lower (0.986), and, of course, the A’s won their division.

Jenkins pitched two seasons for the Rangers before being traded to the Red Sox for two unremarkable years, then went back to the Rangers for four more seasons.  The Cubs brought Jenkins back for a last hurrah in 1982 and, at age 39, he made 34 starts, pitched 217 innings, and posted an ERA of 3.15.

The following season, at age 40, Jenkins pitched his last career shutout on June 10th, 1983 vs. the Cardinals.

Jenkins finished his career with 3,192 strikeouts, which ranks 12th all-time.  His 49 career shutouts ranks 21st.  His career WAR is 81.3, twentieth best in MLB history for pitchers.  His career win-loss record was 284-226.

In 1991, in his third year on the ballot, he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.   He was the first Canadian citizen to be enshrined into the Hall of Fame.

Tragically, just three days after his induction into The Hall, his wife died from injuries sustained in a car accident.

Just two years later, Jenkins’ girlfriend committed murder-suicide, asphyxiating herself and Jenkins’ three-year old daughter.

Since then, Jenkins has married again, does promotional work for charitable organizations, and now owns a ranch in Arizona.  Now in his late sixties, Jenkins has experienced great success and terrible tragedy in a country his forebears once fled in terror.

America has done well to welcome Jenkins back.  That he has chosen to stay here suggests that history can be kind to those who forgive, if not forget.

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