August 18, 2010
Those Who Don't Need Support
Last week in my Seidnotes column I wrote about the importance of factoring in run support when evaluating pitcher performance. No, I am not of the opinion that win-loss records are valuable as in-season measures of effectiveness, even if I admittedly find 20-win seasons neat; then again, do I really need Cliff Lee’s 22-3 record in 2008 to tell me he was good? I am also a realist, however, who understands how making fun of those who use the stat or addressing W-L advocates condescendingly when trying to make a point is about as suboptimal a method of extending the reach of advanced baseball analysis as it gets. The article focused on pitchers over the last 15 years that were spurned by their offenses, receiving very little in the way of run support.
My goal was to illustrate, with tangible evidence, how pitchers could have a tremendous season yet largely get overlooked because their winning percentage was fairly ugly on the surface. Usually, run support is mentioned in passing, as if it is an ancillary character in the tale, a Lloyd Braun or a Kenny Bania. In actuality, the evidence suggests that run support is more or less a Costanza in fueling the end result of a pitcher’s W-L record, the measure relied upon by many in award season. Felix Hernandez, for instance, may finish the season with a sub-2.50 ERA but an 11-13 record, which in no way tells us anything about his seasonal attributes. Obviously, it makes sense that these pitchers would post ugly records regardless of effectiveness. After all, it’s very tough to win a game when your offense provides just two runs in seven innings, even if you are Greg Maddux.
In addition to listing the wild-card era trailers in run support, I also looked into pitchers with solid winning percentages in spite of the poor run support, which led to an interesting suggestion in the comments section: what if I looked at the opposite topic? As in, which pitchers have received the most support from their teammates over the last decade and a half? And, for that matter, which pitchers have produced the best winning percentages with terrible ERA marks? In other words, who are the Anti-Cains?
Sticking with the wild-card era, but lowering the minimum innings pitched benchmark to 150 here are the eight highest instances of run support received in a season:
As expected, all eight of these pitchers sported records above the .500 mark, and way above that line in many cases. It is somewhat poetic, however, that the supremely disappointing Hideki Irabu shows up with the worst record on this list; he couldn’t even get things right when his team gift-wrapped the game! One of the more interesting seasons ranks ninth on the list above were we to extend the table, and that would be the 2001 campaign of Paul Abbott. Yes, the journeyman right-hander who was about as generic of a pitcher as they come, the kind that would result in a video game if the create-a-player feature was left purely on default settings, went 17-4 that season while receiving 6.96 runs of support per nine innings. He struck out just 16.6 percent of the opposing batters while walking an ugly 11.5 percent of them. He did manage a 4.25 ERA in the American League, but come on, Paul Abbott with a 17-4 record? That should be evidence enough to merit further investigation into the meaningfulness of the statistic.
Now, one aspect to keep in mind is that receiving run support doesn’t automatically invalidate the reputation derived from a winning percentage. Curt Schilling was studly in 2004 during his first season with the Red Sox, and would have won his first Cy Young Award were it not for the emergence of Johan Santana. Just because Schilling was helped by his offense doesn’t mean that he didn’t “deserve” the record. Sure, the extra runs likely made his games less stressful, or afforded him the opportunity not to nibble or be as fine, but he performed well that year, regardless of run support or his record. Similarly, poor run support doesn’t automatically qualify someone as being a great pitcher. Maybe it works out that way for some who happen to run into the ace of the opposition time and time again, and yes, it seems sometimes that the fifth starters of the world tend to get more run support than the front-of-the-rotation hurlers, but these are quirks, not rules.
So how do we make the distinction? Well, let’s further restrict our sample by adding ERA into the mix. Here are the worst ERAs for a pitcher with 150 or more innings, who also received more than 5.5 runs of support per nine innings:
The first thought I had when eyeballing this list was, “
This is fun, isn’t it? As expected, the records were right around .500. Now, that doesn’t in any way make the pitchers better than they might appear because we’re dealing with some of the worst seasons in this era, but the table above illustrates how the run support can make even the worst seasons look somewhat respectable. Realistically, one would associate a 6.26 ERA with something like a 4-15 record, not 6-9 or 10-10. As usually happens when I write one of these Seidnotes columns, researching one component of a topic made me think of another, and right now my mind is wandering off to the land of pitchers with high run support, a high ERA, and very good winning percentages. This land would be inhabited by pitchers whose numbers should invalidate the W-L record as telling. Here are the pitchers with an RS/9 >= 5.5 and a 5.5+ ERA:
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, very few names even surfaced under these criteria. It’s fairly unusual for pitchers with numbers so poor to reach or surpass 150 innings in a season. Did Estes really pitch like someone with the reputation or perceived value attached to a 15-8 record and a .652 winning percentage? Heck no. He pitched more like someone who shouldn’t even have been left on the mound to amass 140 innings, let alone the 202 he logged that year.
Now, realistically, I know that I am not unearthing anything major this or last week, so I guess it would be better to think of these articles as ammunition for future conversations with those who strongly feel that the W-L record explains everything that is of interest about a pitcher. King Felix’s current season can be juxtaposed against Estes’s 2004 campaign as tangible evidence that run support really goes a long way in fueling the perception of a pitcher’s value. And while many analysts will argue that pitchers shouldn’t be judged by what falls out of their control, like defense, they really shouldn’t be judged by the complete opposite side of the spectrum, which is how much their offense hits the other pitchers.