Friday, September 26, 2008

Unearned Runs

This should come as no surprise, but baseball defense was terrible in the first half-century of the game. Given that many players didn't use baseball gloves until the 1890's and the ones used for many years after that didn't have the familiar web between the thumb and forefinger. Looking at some of the gloves pictured here gives a little perspective into why error totals were so staggeringly high in the early part of the game.

You can find error records by position at Baseball-Almanac.com. The most recent such record was set in 1929 when Roy Johnson of the Tigers committed 31 errors in the outfield. Using the Historical Stats feature at mlb.com, it's possible to figure out that Johnson was an outlier among outfielders (the runner up in errors committed by an outfielder that season was Russ Scarritt with 19), but he wasn't the only guy with a bunch of errors. In fact, his teammate Heinie Schuble committed 46 errors in 86 games at shortstop that year. Joe Cronin led the league with 62 errors.

To give another idea of how bad fielding was, I've put the record for errors at each position into a table, along with each player's games played at that position in that season and their fielding percentage. I've only listed the AL & NL records, just to keep things simpler:

PositionLeagueNameYearGamesErrorsFielding %
PitcherALRube Waddell
Ed Walsh
1905
1912
46
62
15.872
.915
NLJim Whitney18816628.808
CatcherALOscar Stanage191114141.952
NLNat Hicks18764594.741
1st BaseALJerry Freeman190815441.975
NLCap Anson188411258.956
2nd BaseALKid Gleason190113564.925
NLPop Smith18808389.855
3rd BaseALSammy Strang190213764.890
NLCharlie Hickman190012086.842
ShortstopALJohn Gochnauer190313498.869
NLJoe Sullivan1893128102.860
OutfieldALRoy Johnson192914631.928
NLFred Clarke189513249.881

I know Sullivan committed more errors, but I think Gochnauer's mark is pretty amazing. The only player close to him in 1903 was Rudy Hulswitt of the Phillies with 81 errors. The only American Leaguer besides Gochnauer to reach even 80 errors in a season during the first decade of AL play was New York shortstop Neal Ball in 1908 (he had exactly 80). Gochnauer was maybe even worse with a bat in his hands: he hit .185 in 1902 and 1903. His career batting line wound up at .187/.258/.240 in 1030 PA, good for a 46 OPS+...in the early 1900's! His career wasn't completely forgotten, however: over a century after his last major league game, he was talked about in Congress.

Anyway, the point isn't to laugh at Mr. Gochnauer's historic ineptitude at short, it's that errors were commonplace back in the early days of baseball. Since errors were so common, so too were unearned runs. After all, most unearned runs come about because of errors. That's how you can get years with a league average of four runs per game but a league ERA of under 3.00. One example of that is the 1888 National League. The league average was 4.54 runs per game, but the league ERA was 2.83. When you hear of great pitchers from long ago with miniscule ERA's, chances are they gave up a ton of unearned runs. For example, Cy Young gave up 1020 unearned runs in his long career. Christy Mathewson gave up nearly 500. Addie Joss gave up 241 unearned runs in 286 career games.

This certainly doesn't take anything away from those guys. After all, the playing field was even and everyone had to deal with abysmal defense so putting up a tiny ERA is still impressive. It does explain how an era with such dominant pitching wasn't completely overrun by 1-0, 2-1, or other low-scoring games. Runs were still scored, though not as much as today, but many of them were unearned.

Using the total runs scored and ERA of each league from 1876 through 2007, it's possible to estimate the number of earned and unearned runs. It's not perfect since the ERA rounded to only two decimal places leaves a lot of leeway over, say, 30000 innings, but it's close. I did that and then made a chart showing the percentage of runs scored that were unearned (UER%) over that span. As expected, the percentage has decreased over time:


(click to enlarge in new window)

As you can see, over 60% of runs scored in the National League's first year were unearned. From year-to-year it occasionally bounced back up but overall the percentage fell as better gloves were introduced, rules were changed, managing philosophies developed, and official scorers became more professional. You can even sort of make out the end of the "dead-ball" era when more runs were scored via home runs which are likely to be earned runs. The little hump in the middle of the graph is World War II when teams filled their rosters with guys that wouldn't have been picked for the majors a few years before. Following the end of WWII, the UER% dipped back down to pre-war levels. It rose slightly in the 50's and 60's but has been declining pretty consistently since the mid-1970's. In the past couple seasons, fewer than 8% of all major league runs scored have been unearned.

I started looking all this up after realizing Cy Young had allowed more than one thousand unearned runs. I was curious about who else was high on the list of the most unearned runs allowed. Obviously, it was guys who pitched a lot back in the early days of baseball. Since most people (including myself) aren't hip to the pitching stars of the 1880's, I've made a separate list of pitchers who debuted in 1900 or after.

Most Career Unearned Runs Allowed
Debuted Before 1900

RankNameCareer SpanIPER
UER
1Pud Galvin1879-18925941.118951423
2
Mickey Welch1880-18924802.014471109
3
Cy Young1890-19117354.221471020
4
Tim Keefe1880-18935047.21472996
5
Tony Mullane1881-18944531.11537986
6
John Clarkson1882-18944536.11417959
7
Will White1877-18863542.2896948
8
Jim McCormick1878-18874275.21155940
9
Charley Radbourn1881-18914535.11348927
10Gus Weyhing1887-19014324.11867921

Most Career Unearned Runs Allowed
Debuted in 1900 or After

RankNameCareer SpanIPERUER
1Christy Mathewson1900-19164780.21133483
2
George Mullin1902-19153686.21156480
3
Walter Johnson1907-19275914.21424478
4
Eppa Rixey1912-19334494.21572414
5
Burleigh Grimes1916-19344180.21638410
6
Jack Quinn1909-19333920.11433402
7
Eddie Plank1901-19174495.21174395
8
Red Faber1914-19334086.21430383
9
Tom Hughes1900-19132644.0909382
10Red Ames1903-19193198.0934377

There's perhaps a few more recognizable names on the second list. They're all still early-century pitchers, which prompts a question about where more recent pitchers fall. Three long-time hurlers that pitched as recently as the 1980's show up in the top 35 of the list of pitchers to debut since 1900. See if you can think of who they might be while looking at the list of the active career leaders in unearned runs allowed. Through last night's game, fifteen players who have pitched in 2008 have allowed more than 100 unearned runs over their career. There's still a few games left, but the only guy on the list who has a good shot to change his position is Jeff Suppan, pitching tonight for the Brewers.

Most Career Unearned Runs Allowed
Active Players (through 9/25/08)
  1. Greg Maddux, 225
  2. Randy Johnson, 186
  3. Tim Wakefield, 177
  4. Kenny Rogers, 171
  5. Tom Glavine, 166
  6. Jamie Moyer, 138
  7. Andy Pettitte, 128
  8. Derek Lowe, 116
  9. Jon Lieber, 115
  10. Steve Trachsel, 108
  11. John Smoltz, 107
  12. Jeff Suppan, 107
  13. Julian Tavarez, 104
  14. Mike Mussina, 103
  15. Miguel Batista, 100
Paul Byrd sits at 98, but he hasn't allowed an unearned run since being traded to Boston. Livan Hernandez has allowed 95 unearned runs but hasn't allowed any since being signed by Colorado. One guy to keep an eye on both as this year ends and for the future is durable lefty Mark Buehrle. He's allowed 96 unearned runs by the age of 30. If he stays healthy and has the right kind of defense behind him, he could reach 200.

Finally, to answer the question I posed above: the three guys who pitched into the 1980's while finishing in the top 35 were Phil Niekro (325 UER - #16), Jim Kaat (300 UER - #23), and Gaylord Perry (282 UER - #34). If you got all three, have an iron glove. In case you're wondering, Greg Maddux's 225 UER allowed puts him at #70 on the list, tied with Charlie Hough.

4 comments:

Bopperland said...

In my younger days, I had always thought that Cy Young must have been one of the most outstanding pitchers in baseball history. He had the pitching award named after him. However, the more we dig under the surface, the more that we see that it was at another cost. Like the Gretzky era in the NHL, there seems little chance that these records you listed will ever be approached.

Hough and Wakefield being in this Recent list does not surprise me because of the knuckleball factor. What does surprise me, though, is that these pitchers on the Recent list are all known stars. What's up with that!

Theron Schultz said...

Well, good pitchers have longer careers than guys who give up a ton of runs all at once, so they have more opportunities to allow unearned runs. To give up 100 unearned runs these days, you would have to give up probably at least 800 total runs. The fewest innings pitched by an active pitcher that's allowed 800+ runs is 1357 (by Jason Johnson). That's seven or eight full seasons' worth of starts. You've got to be at least decent to stay in rotations that long.

Plus, once a pitcher gets a reputation as a star who doesn't allow many runs, official scorers might start giving him the benefit of the doubt on iffy plays behind him, especially in his home ballpark in order to help his ERA.

Bopperland said...

An impact from hometown or star-dazzled official scorers? Ahh, the sorry plight of the poor scorer. All of the blame and none of the glory. Now there's an obscure subject that might be the subject of a future article - something to do with scorers.

As your dad may have suggested, if there is a statistical imbalance due to games played or other factors, you have to level the playing field. Maybe the study should have incorporated a ratio of unearned runs to total runs allowed? In any event, this was a good study, as it opened my eyes to the downward trend of unearned runs over the years and the reasons why.

Theron Schultz said...

I know, I know, official scorers are much maligned. They have a more difficult job than most people give them credit for, but like most managers, they still manage to screw up enough to warrant complaining. :)

I was going to post soon about the guys with the highest Unearned Run Average and highest percentage of total runs that were unearned. I just wanted to get the raw totals out of the way first.