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.
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.
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.