Friday, January 25, 2008

Anything for a Win

In 1987, Nolan Ryan placed fifth in the NL Cy Young voting while pitching for the Houston Astros. He had an impressive 270 strikeouts in 211 2/3 innings and won the league ERA title by 27 points (2.76 vs. Mike Dunne's 3.03). Unfortunately for Ryan, the Astros as a team scored 648 runs that season, or 4 per game. When he took the mound, he was only received 3.28 runs of support from his offense -- the league average runs scored by a team per game was 4.52. Despite his many strikeouts and ERA title, Ryan only went 8-16 on the year. Imagine being possibly the most dominant pitcher in the league and only winning one-third of your decisions. Sometimes life just isn't fair. I should note that Orel Hershiser, who finished fourth in Cy Young voting could complain as well - he went 16-16 with a 3.06 ERA and 190 strikeouts for the hitting-challenged Dodgers.

With Ryan's season in mind, I want to find starting pitchers (i.e., 50+% of appearances were starts) who pitched well but had no luck in gathering wins. To do this, I'm going to use ERA+, defined as "the ratio of the league's ERA (adjusted to the pitcher's ballpark) to that of the pitcher. -- found by lgERA/ERA" Thus since Nolan Ryan played in a ballpark that favored pitchers in 1987, the league ERA used to derive ERA+ will be slightly higher than the actual average to reflect the slightly easier conditions (the exact process behind park adjustments is described here). Since Ryan's 2.76 was still much better than the adjusted league ERA, his ERA+ is an excellent 142. Using ERA+ also allows you to make judgments across time since it compares pitchers to others in their same league in the same year. For example, in 1918 Allen Sothoron put up a sterling 1.94 ERA in 209 innings. Though Sothoron's ERA looks much better than Ryan's, using ERA+ we see they were about equal in relation to the league they played in (Ryan's ERA+ was 142, Sothoron's was 141).

The second part of finding these unlucky guys is deciding which winning percentage to look under. Looking for guys with a losing record makes sense, but first I want to see guys who were really unlucky. To that effect, I'm going to look for pitchers who had a .333 or below winning percentage. Finally, a guy that goes 1-2 in 5 excellent starts is certainly unlucky, but I want to find pitchers who were unlucky for most of a season. Thus I'm going set the minimum for decisions at fifteen. It would be hard to start games all season and not get fifteen decisions somehow: only 35 pitchers since 1901 have started 25 or more games in a year and wound up with fewer than fifteen decisions. The only pitcher who might be excluded by this is John Dopson: he went 3-11 with a 118+ ERA for Montreal in 1988.

Highest ERA+, .333 or below W-L%, min. 15 decisions, 1901-2007

NameYearERAERA+W-L RecordRun Support*League Runs
Per Game**
Ned Garvin19041.721585-163.273.89
Jim Abbott19922.771447-152.484.32
Nolan Ryan19872.761428-163.284.52
Harry Brecheen19533.071375-133.604.46
Dummy Taylor19021.721325-163.194.11
Brandon Webb20043.591297-164.084.64
George Mogridge19162.311256-123.703.68
Turk Farrell19623.0212410-202.674.48
Buster Brown19102.671239-233.154.03
Matt Cain20073.651227-163.204.71
Dennis Lamp19783.301227-153.653.99
Howard Ehmke19253.731219-204.205.20
Ed Durham19323.801206-133.685.23
Bill Piercy19233.411208-173.794.78
Erv Kantlehner19152.261205-123.573.62
Jumbo Elliott19273.301206-133.514.58
Eddie Smith19373.941204-174.545.23

*Runs scored by the pitcher's team's offense in games in which he pitched; if prior to 1957, the team's runs per game. If more than one team, a weighted average based on innings pitched.
**League refers to the league (American/National) the pitcher was in. Any pitcher in both leagues gets a weighted average of the two league values based on innings pitched.

Poor Matt Cain, stuck on a team that couldn't score for him. Of course, it's perhaps harder to feel for him with his contract that makes him set for life than it is to feel for a guy like Erv Kantlehner who was out of baseball at the age of 24 and who probably didn't get paid real well when he was in the game. But from a strictly baseball sense: poor Matt Cain. I always figured Nolan Ryan was the best recent example of good pitching wrecked by anemic offense, but Jim Abbott's 1992 is even better: Abbott's Angels even got a designated hitter to help spur offense. I cut the chart off at 120 simply for brevity's sake, but you can find the list of all 126 better than average losers meeting my criteria here.

A final note about George Mogridge and Kantlehner: as noted, their "Run Support" number reflects their team's average runs per game. They very well might (and probably did) have had even fewer runs scored behind them.

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