The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Ron Guidry”

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.

Cleaning Up the Hall of Fame: Herb Pennock vs. Ron Guidry

In this, the fourth installment of this series, I propose replacing one Yankee (of questionable merit) in the Hall of Fame with another, better choice.  If it seems to you that this series is a bit top-heavy with Yankees up to this point, it’s probably because there are so many of them in The Hall in the first place.

Ron Guidry

Image by Willie Zhang via Flickr

Perhaps more surprisingly, there are other Yankees who are not in The Hall, but who have a better case for being enshrined there than several players, Yankee and non-Yankee alike, who currently enjoy a spot in the Hall of Fame Plaque Room.

When most people think of the 1927 Yankees, they think of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, and perhaps outfielders Earle Combs and Bob Meusel.  Pitcher Waite Hoyt might also come to mind among serious baseball fans.

Herb Pennock?  Well, perhaps there are a few hardcore fans around who could toss that name at you, too.

Pennock was a good pitcher on a very good team, perhaps the best team in history.  Actually, Pennock (The Knight of Kennett Square), a Pennsylvania boy, first came up with the Philadelphia A’s in 1912.  By 1915 he had joined the Red Sox and enjoyed some success there until 1923, when the Sox sent him to the Yankees.  (Pennock did not play a major role in either of the Red Sox World Championship teams in 1915-16.)

Pennock, just hitting his stride now at age 29, was immediately successful pitching for New York’s American League team.  In his first season, he won 19 games and led the A.L. in winning percentage at .760.  In his next five seasons, he won 21, 16, 23, 19 and 17 games for the mighty Yankees.

Over the course of those half-dozen years, the best years of his career, Pennock led the league in winning percentage once, shutouts once, innings pitched once, and WHIP twice.  He also walked the fewest batters per nine innings three times.

Only once during those years did Pennock reach 100 strikeouts in a season.  He also never actually led the league in wins, either.  He did, however, finish 3rd in A.L. MVP voting in 1926 and 4th in 1924, so his contributions to those great Yankee teams did not go unnoticed.

Pennock pitched until age 40 when he retired after a short, one-year stint back in Boston.  He had pitched for the Yankees for eleven years, winning a total of 162 games while losing just 90.  Overall in his career, Pennock posted a record of 241-162, meaning he lost as many games in his entire two-decade career as he’d won pitching about half as long with the Yanks.

Although Pennock’s career win-loss record is very good, and he was an important part of the Yankees rotation during those years, Pennock was a questionable choice for election into the Hall of Fame in 1948.  His career WAR of 36.9 is the same as no-one’s-idea-of-a-Hall of Famer, Burt Hooton.

Pennock’s career ERA of 3.60 is pretty decent for the high scoring era in which he pitched the majority of his career, but his career ERA+ of 106 gives us a pretty good indication that he was, in reality just a bit better, all things considered, than the average pitcher in his day.

There’s nothing wrong with being a good player on a great team.  That, and a lot of durability are one of the quickest and surest paths into the Hall of Fame.

But then there’s true greatness which, even if it burns brightly for just a short time, blinds us with its brilliance.

Such was the career of Ron (Louisiana Lightning) Guidry.  Like Pennock, Guidry enjoyed his glory days with the Yankees.  Also like Pennock, Guidry was a lefty.  Unlike Pennock, though, and to quote Bruce Springsteen, “He could throw that speed-ball by you, make you look like a fool, boy.”

Guidry got a bit of a late start in Major League baseball, not landing a regular gig until he was already 26-years old in 1977.  But he was an immediate success, posting a 16-7 record with a 2.82 ERA, and an ERA+ of 140.  In the World Series, Guidry defeated the Dodgers in Game 4, pitching a complete game, 4-2 victory.

In 1978, however, Ron Guidry produced one of the greatest seasons by any pitcher in baseball history.

Guidry started 35 games, won 25 of them, lost only three times, and posted a ridiculous ERA of 1.74.  His ERA+ was an off-the-charts 208.  He also led the league in WHIP 0.946 and in shut-outs with nine.  He threw 16 complete games and struck out 248 batters in 273 innings pitched.  Guidry won the A.L. Cy Young award and finished second in MVP voting.

In the World Series, Guidry again pitched a complete game victory, this time over Dodger ace Don Sutton, 5-1.

The following season, Guidry led the A.L. in ERA (2.78), topped 200 strikeouts again, and posted an 18-8 record while finishing third in the Cy Young award voting.

Guidry would continue to have several productive seasons with New York, finishing in the top ten in Cy Young voting in 1981, 1983, and 1985.  In his ten full seasons as a starting pitcher, Guidry would finish in at least the top seven in Cy Young voting six times.

Also recognized as one of the best fielding pitchers of his era, Guidry won five Gold Glove awards.  He also pitched in four All-Star games.

Guidry ended his career in 1988 at the age of 37.

Although many argue that his lack of durability has hurt his chances a great deal as far as earning entry into the Hall of Fame is concerned, it might be useful to consider that Guidry topped at least 190 innings in a season nine times, and over 200 seven times.  Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean and Sandy Koufax, by contrast, each topped 200 innings in a season just five times during their respective careers.

Koufax and Guidry each topped 2,300 innings pitched, while Dean hurled just over 1,900.  Guidry and Dean each led their league in wins twice, while Koufax led his league in wins three times.  Koufax’ career win-loss percentage was .655, Guidry’s was .651, Dean’s .644.

Dean and Koufax both top Guidry in career ERA+ at 131 each, while Guidry scores a still very nice 119.   Guidry accumulated 170 wins to Koufax’ 165 and Dean’s 150.  Koufax tops the three in career WAR (54.5) to Guidry (44.4) and Dean (39.6).

The point here isn’t that Guidry was as good as Koufax, because he wasn’t.  When compared to Dizzy Dean, Guidry holds up very well.  The primary point here, though, is that we are not comparing Guidry to Pennock, because Guidry is quite obviously better than Pennock.

All of which is another way of saying that, regarding Pennock and Guidry,  The Hall clearly has the wrong Yankee lefty enshrined at Cooperstown.

[Herb Pennock, Philadelphia AL (baseball)] (LOC)

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

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