The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “John Smoltz”

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.

Underrated / Overrated: Baseball and Other Stuff – Part III

fairytale of new york

Image by late night movie via Flickr

Back in March, and again in April, I did a couple of posts that I had intended to turn into a regular series called “Underrated / Overrated – Baseball and Other Stuff.”

For better or worse, other blog-post topics relegated this idea to the bench for several months.

But I am here today to tell you that we are back in business.

The idea was to combine in each post people and things in baseball that are either overrated / underrated along with something or someone from the wider world outside of baseball that is overrated / underrated.

Thus, the prior pair of posts went something like this:

Overrated:  Field of Dreams

Underrated:  Eight Men Out

Overrated:  The Revolutionary War

Underrated:  The French and Indian War

Overrated:  David Wright

Underrated:  Ryan Zimmerman

And so on and so forth.

The first two posts in this series were well-received and have generated continuous traffic to my website during the course of this year.  Apparently, people like to measure their likes and dislikes against those of others.  It’s always prime fodder for a debate.

So here begins the third chapter in Underrated / Overrated – Baseball and Other Stuff. Hope you enjoy it.

Overrated:  Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First” is the best schtick they ever performed.  For many years, I got a kick out of this one.  Then one day, it just stopped being funny.  And it occurred to me, hey, maybe these guys just aren’t that funny after all.

Underrated:  Elvis Costello – One of the most consistently creative talents in Rock music for over 30 years now.  You don’t think he can still knock you down and stomp all over you?  Listen to this 30-second clip from a song called “Needle Time” from an excellent album called “Delivery Man.”  Buy it.  Download it.  Play it loud.  You WON’T be able to sit still.

Overrated:  Lou Brock – His 75% career success rate as a base-stealer is decent, but unspectacular.  He stole 939 bases in his career, but he was thrown out over 300 times.  That’s 300 needless outs he made, possibly costing his team run-scoring opportunities.  In fact, he led the N.L. in  caught stealing seven times.  He also struck out at least a hundred times in a season nine times.  His career OPS (.753) and OPS+ (109) are decidedly unspectacular.  Career WAR:  39.1

Underrated:  Tim Raines His career stolen base success rate was an excellent 84%.  The Rock stole over 800 bases in his career, but was caught just 146 times.  He never once lead the league in times caught stealing.  He also never struck out even 90 times in any one season.  His career OPS (.810) and OPS+ (123) are obviously better than Brock’s marks.  Career WAR:  64.6

Overrated:  Friday Nights – Every one gets home from work tired and cranky after a long week.  You rush around on the way home getting last-minute errands done, the traffic is heavy, and you still don’t even know what you’re going to do about dinner.  You badly want to relax and unwind, but the kids are fighting and the dog needs to go out for a walk.  And, oh fuck, it just started raining out.

Underrated:  Sunday Mornings – There is a fleeting moment early Sunday mornings when you are drinking your coffee, reading your newspaper (or a baseball blog), and the kids are miraculously quiet.  Maybe you’ll go to the park later.  Maybe you’ll sort through some old baseball magazines in the garage.  You might even wash and wax the car.  You feel nearly whole and human again, before the Monday morning American grind pulverizes you for another week.

Overrated Christmas Song:  The Little Drummer Boy – Not even David Bowie and Bing Crosby could rescue this damned slow death-march of a song.  Cloying, boring and melodramatic all at the same time,  like a Russian poet standing in front of a Tsarist firing squad, the end can’t come soon enough.

Underrated Christmas Song:  Fairytale of New York (The Pogues) – The most cynical,  unusual, and unabashedly romantic Christmas song you’ll ever hear.  Pogues front-man Shane McGowan‘s duet with the late Kirsty MacColl is one for the ages.  If you’ve ever been to NYC with someone you love at Christmastime, you’ll be able to feel the cold, the wind, and the delicious warmth of possibility in this one.  Hold your cursor over the above pic, and join us at the bar.

Overrated: The Babe Ruth Yankees – The Yankees won four World Championships in the fifteen seasons Ruth wore pinstripes:  1923, ’27, ’28, and ’32.  Good, certainly, but by way of contrast, Mickey Mantle’s Yanks won seven world series.  But I would never call The Mick’s Yanks underrated, so…

Underrated:  The Joe Rudi / Sal Bando Oakland A’s – This team won three consecutive World Series:  1972-74, but they also had to win the A.L. Championship series each time.  Ruth’s Yanks never had to go through that extra round of playoffs.  Also, Ruth’s teams played before baseball was integrated, so the degree of competition was watered down in his era.  Finally, there were more teams competing for the World Championship in the 1970’s (24), than there were in Ruth’s day (16.)

Overrated:  New Year’s Eve – The shrimp ring has gotten rather soggy and warm by the time that damn crystal ball finally descends into the throng of frozen drunks in Times Square.  There are about four cops and 12 security cameras for every poor bastard who just paid eight dollars for a glass of sparkling wine at the bar in lobby of the local three-star hotel .  Meanwhile, you are already half asleep on the couch, zoning in and out of the Dick Clark Pantomime Zombie show.

Underrated:  Labor Day – No, this is NOT a day that was intended to celebrate all Americans who happen to be employed.  It was specifically intended to recognize the legacy of Organized Labor, meaning the trade unions.  There was a time when working class Americans were overwhelmingly Democrats, and the Labor Unions ensured these men and women a livable wage for a hard days work.  The American working class can trace its hard, precipitous decline to the undermining of Labor Unions which began in the early ’80’s, and has continued unabated on a downward trajectory ever since.  Both major political parties are to blame.

Overrated:  Andy Pettitte‘s Playoff Performances – In his career, Pettitte has posted a 19-10 record in the playoffs, with a 3.83 ERA, and a 1.304 WHIP.  In 265 innings, he has surrendered 271 hits, has struck out 173 batters, and has averaged 5.9 K’s per nine innings.  Solid performance, but not as good as…

Underrated:  John Smoltz‘s Playoff Performances – In his career, Smoltz has posted a 15-4 record in the playoffs, with a 2.67 ERA, and a 1.144 WHIP.  In 209 innings, he has surrendered just 172 hits while striking out 199 batters.  He has averaged 8.6 K’s per nine innings.  He also has four saves to his credit.  Few pitchers in history can match those playoff numbers.

Overrated:  Climate-Controlled Offices – You get to breath recycled air all day.  The hum of the machinery supplies the white noise that is the dull, mind-numbing soundtrack of corporate America.

Underrated:  Screens – You get to enjoy the fresh air while keeping the bugs out.  Great invention.

Overrated:  Willie Stargell – Everyone loves Pops Stargell.  I love Pops Stargell.  Here are Stargell’s career numbers:

475 home runs, 1,540 RBI, 2,232 hits, .282 batting average, .889 OPS, 1,195 runs scored, two home run titles, five 100 RBI seasons.  Career WAR:  57.5. First ballot Hall of Famer, 1988.  Fine, his numbers merit HOF induction.  But how are they substantially different from, say…

Underrated:  Fred McGriff – It is becoming increasingly apparent that Crime Dog will have to pay for a ticket to the Hall out of his own pocket if he wants to get in the door.  Yet, here are his career numbers:

493 home runs, 1,550 RBI, 2,490 hits, .284 batting average, .886 OPS, 1,349 runs scored, two home run titles, eight 100 RBI seasons.  Career WAR:  50.5. I suppose Stargell was a little better than McGriff overall, but not by much.  So where’s the love for Fred McGriff?

Overrated:  Grace Slick – Former lead “singer” for Jefferson Airplane / Starship.  Bellowed out her vocals like a foghorn in heat.  Stoned baby-boomers mistook her cat-wailing for aggressive sexiness.  As artistically satisfying as listening to a domestic disturbance in the kitchen of your neighbors apartment.

Underrated:  Chrissie Hynde – The Pretenders lead singer / songwriter set the standard for confident, strong-yet-vulnerable sexiness among female Rock stars.  Her band, the Pretenders, exemplified the energy of the post-punk New Wave sound of the early ’80’s, the most underrated period in Rock n’ Roll history.  Several of Hynde’s songs have become classics of Album Oriented Rock (AOR) radio.  And they are as listenable today as they were a generation ago.

Well, my friends, that completes the third edition of Underrated / Overrated.  I hope you found it entertaining.  I look forward to reading your comments.  Thanks for having a look, Bill

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 20 – The Minnesota Twins

Rodney Dangerfield at the Shorehaven Beach Clu...

Image via Wikipedia

As with the late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, twenty-win seasons just don’t get no respect anymore.  Case in point:  This season, C.C. Sabathia of the New York Yankees has 21 victories.

Meanwhile, a continent away, Felix Hernandez of the Mariners has just thirteen wins.  Yet many, perhaps most, baseball analysts / commentators are arguing that King Felix should win the A.L. Cy Young award on the strength of his peripheral numbers.

This is not the time nor the place to debate that argument, but it is worth noting that just a couple of short years ago, a twenty-win season was considered something special.

And despite my strong sympathies to the Wins-Are-Overrated crowd, I can’t help feeling that wins (as a measure of a pitcher’s relative effectiveness) have all too quickly gone from overrated to underrated.

While it is true that over the course of baseball history, some pitchers have won far more games in a single season than they “deserved,” (Storm Davis‘ 1989 season comes to mind), and others have won far fewer than they theoretically should have (Nolan Ryan in 1987), it has been far more common for outstanding pitchers to win lots of games, and for mediocre pitchers to garner average amounts of wins.

Which brings me to former Minnesota Twins pitcher Frank Viola.

Frank Viola, drafted by the Twins in the second round of the 1981 amateur draft out of St. John’s University, certainly was respected by most Major League batters for the vast majority of his professional career.

Unappreciated by many baseball fans then and now, however, Viola averaged 18.6 wins per season for five consecutive years (1984-88, inclusive.) He also pitched at least 200 innings for ten consecutive seasons beginning in 1983, and tossed at least 230 innings in nine of those ten years.

Viola also enjoyed two twenty-win seasons in his career.  His first was in 1988 with the Twins.  He also won exactly twenty games for the Mets in his first full season with that franchise in 1990.

But Frank Viola’s Best Forgotten Season was in 1988 with the Minnesota Twins.

In 1988, 28-year old Frank Viola won the A.L. Cy Young award.  He did not lead the league in strikeouts, innings pitched, WAR, WHIP, ERA+, or even that hoary old stat, ERA (although he did finish in the top six or better in each of them.)

His primary claim to fame, however, was an outstanding 24-7  record, good for a league-leading .774 win-loss percentage. As for his peripheral numbers, teammate Allan Anderson won the A.L. ERA title (2.45) and ERA+ title (166), but he pitched fifty fewer innings than Viola.

Roger Clemens paced the league in strikeouts, Complete Games, and Shutouts.  Teddy Higuera of Milwaukee led the A.L. in WHIP.  Dave Stewart of Oakland led in Games Started and Innings Pitched.  Mark Gubicza of K.C. led in WAR.

When you have that many outstanding performances in one season, it is (or was) unsurprising that the Cy Young voters would notice the impressive number of wins Viola accumulated in a very solid season.

For the record, Viola finished third in the league in strikeouts (193), third in ERA (2.64), sixth in innings pitched (255), and fifth in WHIP (1.136.)

Viola retired after the 1996 season with a record of 176-150. His career ERA was  a decent 3.73.

It is also worth noting that, over the past 22 years, only three other pitchers have matched or exceeded Viola’s 24 victories in ’88:  Bob Welch (27) in 1990; John Smoltz (24) in 1996; Randy Johnson (24) in 2002.  Welch was a good pitcher.  Smoltz and Johnson are future Hall of Famers.

Meanwhile, you also have to go all the way back to Steve Stone of the 1980 Orioles to find a pitcher who exceeded (25 wins) Viola’s win total eight seasons later.

Clearly, then, a pitcher’s win total is not, as  some pundits have claimed recently, absolutely irrelevant.

It is a sensible, if imprecise and incomplete, benchmark by which we can gauge a given pitcher’s success to a reasonable degree.

After all, isn’t it more than a bit ironic that it is now argued that win totals should be irrelevant when deciding to whom the trophy for baseball’s best pitchers should be awarded, when that award just happens to be named after Cy Young, the pitcher who won more games than any other player in Major League history?

Surely, even Rodney Dangerfield would feel the implicit disrespect to Cy Young’s legacy.

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