Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Steve Carlton Award

In 1972, Steve Carlton had a season for the ages. The Philadelphia lefty started 41 games, completed thirty of them, and had eight shutouts. He struck out 310 batters and walked only 87 in 346 1/3 innings pitched. His ERA was a phenomenal 1.97 and his WHIP (walks plus hits over innings pitched) was a minuscule 0.993. He won 27 games, lost 10, and easily took home the Cy Young Award after the season.

Looking at the team he played for, however, makes his won-loss record even more impressive. The 1972 Philadelphia Phillies were a terrible team. They had the second-worst offense in the National League, scoring 3.22 runs per game. Only two players hit .280 with 200 or more at bats for the team. Only four players with 200+ at bats had an on base percentage above .300. With Carlton, the starting rotation was in the middle of the pack, without him they lagged behind the rest of the league. Obviously any team would struggle without their best pitcher, but the Phillies really had little else besides their ace lefty. The Phillies' bullpen wasn't much relief. All of this added up to an awful 59-97 record and last place in the NL East.

Consider that for a moment: Steve Carlton won 27 games on a team that only won 59 games. He won 45.8% of his team's games - a major league record since 1901. In fact, he's one of only ten pitchers since 1901 to win more than 40% of his team's games in a season and the only one to do so since 1922.

Note: for simplicity's sake, pitchers appearing for two or more teams have their wins for each team treated as if they were with that club all season. For example, if Johnny Goodarm wins 8 games for the 80-82 Pirates and 14 games for the 70-92 Cardinals, he's considered to have won 10% of the Pirates' games and 20% of the Cardinals' games rather than the percentage of the wins each team got with him on the roster. Unfair? Possibly, if the universe conspires against a great pitcher and he's stuck on multiple really bad teams. I can live with that.

Highest Percentage of Team's Wins By One Pitcher

RankPitcherPitcher W-L
TeamTeam W-LW%
1Steve Carlton27-101972 Philadelphia Phillies59-9745.8
2Ed Walsh40-151908 Chicago White Sox88-6445.5
3Jack Chesbro41-121904 New York Highlanders92-5944.6
4Noodles Hahn22-191901 Cincinnati Reds52-8742.3
5Cy Young33-101901 Boston Americans79-5741.8
6Joe Bush15-241916 Philadelphia Athletics36-11741.7
7Cy Young32-111902 Boston Americans77-6041.6
8Eddie Rommel27-131922 Philadelphia Athletics65-8941.5
9Red Faber25-151921 Chicago White Sox62-9240.3
10Walter Johnson36-71913 Washington Senators90-6440.0

As I mentioned before, Carlton started 41 games in 1972. Only three of the pitchers on this list besides Carlton wound up with fewer than 41 decisions in those seasons. That makes Carlton seem even more out of place on the list.

To really show how out there Carlton's 1972 season is, we should look at the same list but with more recent pitchers. Here are how pitchers since expansion in 1961 stack up:

Highest Percentage of Team's Wins By One Pitcher

RankNamePitcher W-LTeamTeam W-LW%
1Steve Carlton27-101972 Philadelphia Phillies59-9745.8
Gaylord Perry24-161972 Cleveland Indians72-8433.3
Nolan Ryan22-161974 California Angels68-9432.4
Phil Niekro21-201979 Atlanta Braves66-9431.8
Larry Jackson24-111964 Chicago Cubs76-8631.6
Randy Johnson16-142004 Arizona Diamondbacks51-11131.4
Wilbur Wood24-201973 Chicago White Sox77-8531.2
Bob Gibson23-71970 St. Louis Cardinals76-8630.3
Randy Jones22-141976 San Diego Padres73-8930.1
Denny McLain31-61968 Detroit Tigers103-5930.1

Wow. Even in a list dominated by 1970's pitchers, Carlton blows everyone away. I figured there might be someone closer to 40% than 30%, but nope. With current five-man rotations meaning healthy pitchers make around 33 or 34 starts per year, it'll be hard for any pitcher to crack that top 10. A pitcher would have to win 20 games on a team that wins 66 games or less in a season. A 15-game winner would have to toil away on a team that loses 113 or more games. A pitcher would have to win 25 games on an 81-win team. Good luck.

But that doesn't mean we can't issue a Steve Carlton Award today. It simply goes to the pitcher who is credited with the highest percentage of his team's wins. It turns out the race this year went down to the wire:

2008 Steve Carlton Award Rankings
  1. Cliff Lee, 22-3 for the 81-81 Indians, 27.2%
  2. Brandon Webb, 22-7 for the 82-80 Diamondbacks, 26.8%
  3. Tim Lincecum, 18-5 for the 72-90 Giants, 25.0%
  4. Roy Halladay, 20-11 for the 86-76 Blue Jays, 23.3%
  5. Edinson Volquez, 17-6 for the 74-88 Reds, 23.0%
  6. Mike Mussina, 20-9 for the 89-73 Yankees, 22.5%
  7. Aaron Cook, 16-9 for the 74-88 Rockies, 21.6%
  8. A.J. Burnett, 18-10 for the 86-76 Blue Jays, 20.9%
  9. Bronson Arroyo, 15-11 for the 74-88 Reds, 20.3%
  10. Roy Oswalt, 17-10 for the 86-75 Astros, 19.8%
The only pitcher between Lee and Randy Johnson's 2004? Would you believe Paul Byrd in 2002? He went 17-11 for Kansas City, a team that finished 62-100.

One more fun fact: the highest percentage of team wins by a pitcher who won fewer than ten games is shared between Jing Johnson and Walt Kinney of the 1919 Athletics. They both went 9-15, each winning 25% of the Athletics' games on the year. When Mike Maroth went 9-21 for the 2003 Tigers, he was responsible for "only" 20.9% of his team's 43 victories.


Tom said...

Why am I not surprised that the Blue Jays have two of the top 10? Halladay and Burnett have to be steaming. Each of them had a couple of horrifically unsupported complete game losses, too, as I recall.

Thanks for crunching these.

Bopperland said...

I've quietly wondered about this stat for some time, especially with Cliff Lee's past season. Too bad it has to be named for someone who froze out the press in the latter part of his career.

Continuing in the same thread, the first related scenario that came to my mind was Andre "Hawk" Dawson's MVP season with the Cubbies. The highest honor baseball could bestow, and it was awarded to someone on a last-place 76-85 team. He's the non-pitcher equivalent to the Carlton Award, so we'll be looking forward to a similar blog on the Hawk Award. Maybe it will help him gain his rightful place in the Hall of Fame too.

Bopperland said...

If Lee wins the Carlton, who wins the K-Rod for the highest proportion of saves for team wins in a season? K-Rod himself? Gagne? Thigpen?

Theron Schultz said...

I haven't looked up the equivalent record for saves, but I will soon. I'm going to post shortly about guys who accounted for the highest percentage of their team's losses, so saves would logically follow that.