Last week, we published an article about the "Luckiest Pitching Staff" of all-time – pitchers who compiled gaudy won-loss records despite a mediocre performance on the mound. Jack Coombs, Christy Mathewson, Roxie Lawson… if you find yourself in a lightning storm, these are the guys you want standing next to you.
Reader Paul Berger suggested we compile the unluckiest pitching staff of all-time – namely, those seasons where a pitcher's won-loss record greatly undervalues their performance.
There are scores of examples of great pitchers having great seasons that were sabotaged by terrible teams. In order to narrow down our choices a bit, we limited this hypothetical rotation to starters who led their league in adjusted ERA, which compares a pitcher's earned run average to the league average of 100, taking park effects into account (admittedly, a blunt instrument – but the same basic criteria that helped us determine the luckiest "staff" of all-time).
Ed Walsh, 1910: 18-20, 189 ERA+
“Big Ed” Walsh, HOF right-hander for the Chicago White Sox, was an ornery sort. He wasn’t the type of guy who went in for small talk. If he had a problem with you, you knew it – and you didn't want a problem with Big Ed. He intimidated opponents and teammates alike (he once threatened to kill his third baseman for misplaying a bunt – and his third baseman didn't think Walsh was speaking figuratively).
He was also tougher than glove leather. Joe McGinnity, a stalwart contemporary, might have been known as the "Iron Man" – but Walsh was at least his equal in terms of endurance. In 1908, Walsh started a third of Chicago’s games, winning 40 and pitching 464 innings.
Big Ed was even better in 1910, leading the league in ERA (1.27), adjusted ERA (189), WHIP (0.820), SO/W (4.23), and saves (only five, but still). He fashioned seven shutouts, racked up 369.2 innings and generated 10.9 pWAR. For his efforts, he was rewarded with an 18-20 record, leading the league in losses (and, one assumes, withering glares at one's teammates).
To give you an idea of Big Ed's misfortunes, let's compare him to our old friend Colby Jack Coombs, who in 1910 was one of the three or four best pitchers in the game:
The most remarkable aspect of Walsh's season isn't the 20 losses – it's the 18 wins he was able to muster toiling for a team that won but 65 games. These faded remnants of the famed 1906 "Hitless Wonders" ranked last in hits, doubles, home runs, average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS+ (remarkably, they finished second-to-last in runs scored).
One wonders what Walsh had to say to teammate Doc White, who, despite pitching 130 fewer innings with an ERA more than twice as high, somehow fashioned a winning 15-13 record.
Nolan Ryan, 1987: 8-16, 142 ERA+
The year he turned 40, Nolan Ryan led the league in ERA (2.76), ERA+ (142), strikeouts (270), K/9 (11.5, a career high), fielding-independent pitching (2.47), which assigns an ERA-type value to a pitcher's strikeout, walk, and HR-allowed rates, H/9 (6.5) and SO/W (3.10 – the only time Ryan paced the league in this category).
He didn't throw a no-hitter, but by many measures, it was the best season of Ryan's singular career. How then did he get saddled with the worst winning percentage (.333) of any starter in the league? Well, he was unlucky of course (you did read the headline, didn't you?). At 76-86, Houston was a mediocre-but-not-truly-terrible team – except when the Ryan Express was on the mound. The Astros averaged but 3.28 R/G for Ryan, and even that paltry total is somewhat misleading: They mustered two runs or less in 16 of Ryan's 34 starts. Not even John Wayne in spikes could overcome those odds.
Bob Gibson, 1968: 22-9, 258 ERA+
Bob Gibson? Really? A guy with a .710 winning % is unlucky?
Bear with us. Just for a second.
Gibson, as you know, fashioned one of the most famous pitching seasons in history in 1968. His 1.12 ERA is one of those indelible numbers seared into the collective conscious of every baseball fan, like "56," ".406," "61" (it still resonates more than 70 or 73). He was the unanimous pick for the Cy Young award, an overwhelming pick for the MVP award (said Gibson on learning of his MVP: "You're kidding!") and pitched the Cardinals to within one game of a World Series title (Gibson set a Series record with 17 strikeouts in Game One, and threw a complete-game 5-hitter in Game Four; he lost Game Seven to Mickey Lolich and the Tigers).
How then does this season count among the unluckiest ever?
Because Bob Gibson, by all rights, probably should have compiled a 28-3 or 29-2 record in 1968. The Cardinals averaged but 3.03 runs per nine innings for their indomitable ace; they scored two runs or less in 18 of Gibson's 34 starts. He lost six games in which he pitched at least eight innings and gave up 2 earned runs or less.
Still seems a stretch, counting Gibson among the unlucky? A few illustrative morsels:
- April 10: In his first start of the season, Gibson "allowed" an unearned run on a Lou Brock error – he was lifted after seven innings, with the team trailing 1-0; the Cards rallied for two runs in their final two innings to get the win for reliever Ray Washburn.
- May 17: Gibson was on the losing end of a superb pitching duel when he surrendered the game-winning hit to Philadelphia's Bill White with two outs in the 10th inning. Woody Fryman picked up the 1-0 victory with 10 scoreless innings.
- Sept. 17: Gibson throws eight dominant innings (4 H, 1 ER, 10K), but is on the losing end of another 1-0 decision when Gaylord Perry throws a no-hitter.
- May 12, Sept. 6, Sept. 22: Gibson loses three games by the score of 3-2. Hey, it happens. But Gibson only surrendered 2 earned runs in each start. In each game, he was bedeviled by his defense (with Dal Maxvill, normally an excellent defensive shortstop, accounting for two of those losses).
We stand by our pick: Bob Gibson pitched the unluckiest 22-9 season in history.
Orel Hershiser, 1989: 15-15, 149 ERA+
Two pitchers are available on the free-agent market. You can sign one to your team. Who do you choose?
- Pitcher A: 23-8, .742 W%, led the league in wins.
- Pitcher B: 15-15, .500 W%, led the league in losses.
Let's play again. Two pitchers. Pick one. Go ahead. We'll wait:
By now you know that Pitcher A and Pitcher B are the same guy. In both examples, Pitcher A is Orel Hershiser, 1988; Pitcher B is Orel Hershiser, 1989. Why the enormous difference in W-L record? Two reasons: Run support and performance distribution.
The Dodgers averaged 4.1 runs/game for Hershiser in 1988; that figure dropped to 3.2 in 1989. Unless you're Bob Gibson, it's tough to win when your team gives you next to nothing to work with.
And, then there's the matter of performance distribution, which in this case is known as "the Streak." As of August 30, 1988 Bulldog's record stood at an excellent 18-8, with a nice 2.84 ERA (about 20% better than league average after park effects are taken into account). He then decided to stop giving up runs – literally: Hershiser set a major league record with 59 consecutive scoreless innings – that's 6+ shutouts in a row – lowering his ERA half a point in the season's final month.
In 1989, there was no such outlier period in performance – he was just consistently excellent. From May 30 through the end of the season, his ERA "fluctuated" between 2.31 and 2.61, while the Dodgers' offense consistently let him down.
Same pitcher, same performance, very different results.
Ned Garver, 1950: 13-18, 146 ERA+
No "unlucky" staff would be complete without Ned Garver, who could fill this list by himself. Pitching for some truly execrable teams, Garver finished his itinerant 14-year career with a 149-157 record – despite a career ERA+ of 112. He got the worst of it in 1950, when he led the American League in adjusted ERA (146), pWAR (7.3) and complete games (22), while finishing among the top-5 in a host of other important pitching categories. Garver did yeoman's work for the putrid St. Louis Browns (58-96), but was saddled with 18 losses for his efforts.
Garver's fortunes changed—at least for one year—the very next season, when he became the first pitcher in history to win 20 games for a team that lost 100 (the Browns went 52-102).
Relief: Anthony Young, 1993: 1-16, 107 ERA+
What's an unlucky staff without the unluckiest reliever, ever?
After a disastrous 1992 season that ended with 14 consecutive losses, things had to get better for NY Mets pitcher Anthony Young.
Young's 1993 season began the same way his 1992 season ended: With a loss in relief.
Followed by another.
And another. And… well, you get it.
By May 28, he was 0-5, and the Mets decided to press him into service as a starter. Young pitched well in his debut, blanking the Chicago Cubs for six innings (and a no-decision). Things went from unlucky to train wreck from there: Young lost seven consecutive starts before the Mets cycled him back into the bullpen. He finally, mercifully, secured his only win of the year on July 28 (after a record 27 consecutive losses over two seasons), before dropping his next three decisions (the Mets returned him to the rotation for two September starts, and he pitched brilliantly, allowing only one earned run over 13 innings; he was rewarded with a no-decision and a loss).[i]
Young reflected on his unfortunate place in the record books years later. "I got a bad rap on [the losing streak]," he told the New York Daily News in 2009. "I always said I didn't feel like I was pitching badly. I don't feel like I deserve it, but I'm known for it."
He had a point: As the Daily News reported, Young at one point during the streak converted 12 straight save chances and threw 23.2 straight scoreless innings subbing for then-closer John Franco. Relievers can't get wins if they don't blow saves.
"It was an 82-year-old record and it might be 82 more years before it's broken," said Young. "Everything that could happen, happened. It was just destiny, I guess."
And very, very bad luck.