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May 7, 2010

Seidnotes

Livan La Vida Loca

by Eric Seidman

Welcome back to Seidnotes, my occasional column researching the ever so quirky aspects that make this game so great. Today’s tale focuses on a pair of Washington Nationals starting pitchers, who are currently on opposite sides of the results spectrum: Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis. The former’s best days were considered to be so far behind him that it was nowhere near a guarantee that he would start the season employed. The latter made last year’s National League All-Star team on the coattails of a deceptively hot start for the Rockies before sputtering down the stretch, even being bumped from Jim Tracy’s playoff rotation. Still, Marquis entered the season with a much more favorable projection given his propensity for grounders and ability to log quality innings. Given the buildup here, it should be incredibly obvious to those not already in the know that, as of this past week, the two have engaged in a Freaky Friday swap of sorts with Hernandez’s effectiveness being worthy of the “Game Changer” moniker given to Marquis in Nationals' promotional materials. Their starts give way to some very interesting questions.

Halladay, Lincecum… Livan?

Livan Hernandez has now made five starts, lasting a total of 36.1 innings and compiling a gaudy 0.99 ERA. Let that sink in. Hernandez has allowed just four runners to cross the plate and one of them did not count against him (fancy way of saying unearned run). It beats the life out of me how someone with such sub-par offerings could stifle the opponent not once, not twice, but five times in a row, especially considering the fact that he has walked 13 batters to just 11 punchouts and isn’t necessarily playing in front of the world’s greatest defensive unit. His shiny ERA juxtaposed against how terrible that same mark has been the last couple of seasons got me wondering if anyone with poor ERAs in two straight years ever got off to a hot start in the third season of that hypothetical span.

There is certainly a selection bias at work because Hernandez's ERAs in 2008 and 2009 were 6.05 and 5.44, respectively, and pitchers with marks that putrid don’t generally last 20 or more starts in a season, let alone get to hang around for another year. With that disclaimer out of the way, and to enhance the output, I stuck to just the year immediately preceding the year in question. I first perused my pitching game logs table and computed numbers for pitchers in April of every year from 1974-2009. Next, I looked to match up those marks with the end of season ERA for the preceding year. Anyone with ERAs in that prior year that fell below 5.00 was removed, as was anyone who finished the season in question with a sub-5.00 ERA, and the innings pitched minimum was set to 100. From that filtered table, of interest were the hurlers who began that second season by posting a sub-3.00 ERA in their April outings. Since 1974, I found just 10 pitchers to throw 100 or more innings in a season with a bad ERA, who took the league by storm a year later, before falling off a cliff and once again finishing with an ERA north of 5.00. Livan could join this list below:

Name

Years

ERA-YR1

ERA-YR2

ERA-April-YR2

Jimmy Anderson

2000-01

5.25

5.10

2.76

Brian Burres

2007-08

5.95

6.04

2.58

Mark Hendrickson

2007-08

5.21

5.45

2.56

Sterling Hitchcock

1996-97

5.35

5.20

2.92

Al Nipper

1986-87

5.38

5.43

2.86

Dickie Noles

1984-85

5.15

5.06

2.08

Ramon Ortiz

2006-07

5.57

5.45

2.57

Wandy Rodriguez

2005-06

5.52

5.63

2.53

Scott Schoeneweis

2000-01

5.45

5.08

2.90

Ismael Valdez

2003-04

6.10

5.19

2.41

 

Next, what struck me as particularly odd was Livan’s awful Trachselian strikeout-to-walk ratio: has anyone with a sub-3.00 ERA after the first two months of the season—since we’re into May now—ever had a sub-1.00 K/BB in 45 or more innings? In other words, has any starter walked more than he has whiffed but managed to somehow not let runs score at even an average clip? As fate would have it, Livan makes this group a baker’s dozen as there have been 12 to accomplish this “feat” before him:

 

Name

Year

ERA

SO/UBB

Ricky Bones

1994

2.56

0.86

Nate Cornejo

2003

3.00

0.69

Neal Heaton

1985

2.88

0.68

Rick Langford

1978

2.89

0.95

Bill Laskey

1984

2.88

0.83

Paul Mirabelli

1980

2.95

0.63

Paul Moskau

1979

2.60

0.90

Joe Niekro

1979

2.51

0.97

Claude Osteen

1974

2.93

0.88

Jim Palmer

1981

2.94

0.74

Jim Rooker

1974

2.93

0.93

Steve Trout

1985

2.03

0.93

 

So, the season Livan is having right now certainly isn’t unprecedented but it is still rare, and incredibly zany to see such a magnificent ERA born from such awful peripherals.

Marquis De Sad

On the flipside, Marquis has made just three starts this season before it was learned he would miss approximately six weeks with loose bodies floating in his elbow—it’s not what it sounds like, I checked. In those three starts, Marquis lasted just 8.1 innings with the following numbers: 18 hits, 19 earned runs, six walks, three strikeouts, and a 20.52 ERA. His individual game lines are below:

4/7  vs Phillies: 4.0 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 21 Game Score

4/12 at Phillies: 4.1 IP, 6 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 24 Game Score

4/18 vs Brewers:  0.0 IP, 4 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 13 Game Score

Yes, folks, that is an average game score of under 20, when 50 constitutes an average start. His low game scores got me thinking about terrible starts to seasons in general. Looking at the historical numbers, I took all starts in April and May of a given season from 1974-2009 and computed the percentage of starts with game scores south of 40 out of total starts. I found six pitchers who recorded such game scores greater than 75 percent of the time in the season’s opening two months:

 

Name

Year

Bad GS/Total GS

Bad GS %

Mike Caldwell

1976

7/8

.875

Scott Elarton

2004

7/8

.875

Jim Beattie

1985

7/9

.778

Willie Blair

1999

7/9

.778

Jose Lima

2001

7/9

.778

Tim Wakefield

1999

7/9

.778

 

On top of that, has anyone who started the season with a bad game score percentage (look for it in our Glossary soon… not) worse than 50 percent ever finished with an ERA below 3.50? The answer, friends, is yes, three pitchers have started off very poorly and finished quite well. David Cone kicked off his 1990 campaign with the Mets by recording the following April and May game scores: 70, 31, 31, 38, 55, 62, 32. He had an ugly 6.30 ERA but kept the ball on the ground and produced a slick 3.38 K/BB ratio. He would finish the season with a 3.23 ERA in 211.2 innings. Joining him on the list are Nino Espinosa and the recently retired Mark Mulder.

Oddly enough, Espinosa’s 1977 season was also spent with the Mets, where he posted the following game scores over the first two months: 68, 37, 53, 33, 31, 47, 40. He also made three relief appearances and, all told, he entered June with a 4.56 ERA before finishing the season at the much more respectable mark of 3.42. Mulder finished his 2002 campaign with a 3.47 ERA after getting off to a rocky start, entering June with a 6.10 mark. His first two starts were solid, as was his seventh and final within the span, but in starts three through six, he managed a 9.50 ERA (19 ER in 18 IP) and a 10/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Recovery from injuries and natural regression should help Marquis to even out his terrible start to the 2010 campaign, but it is very, very rare for a pitcher to get off to such a poor start and recover to an elite level. Then again, the Nationals are really only hoping for him to get back to that 4.25-4.35 range; at least that’s what they should expect given his history.

Until Next Time

Thanks for the suggestions last week; they have been stored for potential use in the future. I urge you all to keep them coming, even if they aren’t immediately used. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that this column is more for quirky bits and not paragraphs of my waxing poetic on strategies or anything like that. Aspects of the game such as the dichotomous starts of Hernandez and Marquis are fun to discuss and become even more noteworthy when compared to the history of the game. Only time will tell how long Hernandez can keep this up, or how long Marquis can keep this down, but it’ll certainly be interesting to see.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Livan Hernandez,  Era,  Bad Start,  Hot Starts,  Bad Season

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