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September 29, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Disasterpiece Theater

by Jay Jaffe

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Going into Monday evening's game against the Blue Jays, the Yankees had every reason to feel good about themselves, having come from behind the night before to secure a stirring 10-inning victory over the Red Sox. With one more win (or a Red Sox loss) they would clinch a spot in the playoffs. Alas, by the third inning Monday night, it was clear the Yankees would be uncorking no champagne, as starter A.J. Burnett dug them a 7-0 hole by allowing two homers, seven hits, and seven runs while retiring just seven hitters. Had the Yankees been at home, Burnett would have been booed off the mound by the Bronx faithful, but as this was a road game, Yankees fans were left to hurl rotten tomatoes and blue epithets at their TVs.

Despite his $16.5 million salary, such performances from Burnett have been all too familiar this year. No other starting pitcher has failed to last at least five innings more often than Burnett, who's done so in 10 of his 32 starts:

Rk

Player

Team

<5 IP

1

A.J. Burnett

NYA

10

2T

Kevin Slowey

MIN

7

 

Mike Pelfrey

NYN

7

 

Bud Norris

HOU

7

 

Charlie Morton

PIT

7

 

Carlos Monasterios

LAN

7

 

Brian Matusz

BAL

7

 

Paul Maholm

PIT

7

9T

Barry Zito

SFN

6

 

Javier Vazquez

NYA

6

 

Joe Saunders

2TM

6

 

Jonathan Sanchez

SFN

6

 

Ryan Rowland-Smith

SEA

6

 

Ross Ohlendorf

PIT

6

 

Jonathon Niese

NYN

6

 

Brandon Morrow

TOR

6

 

Jason Marquis

WAS

6

 

Kyle Kendrick

PHI

6

 

Rich Harden

TEX

6

 

Freddy Garcia

CHA

6

 

Armando Galarraga

DET

6

 

Kyle Davies

KCA

6

 

Aaron Cook

COL

6

 

Nick Blackburn

MIN

6

 

Brian Bannister

KCA

6

 

Scott Baker

MIN

6


To be fair, two of Burnett's early exits were owed to rain delays, both of them this month, but even discounting those, he's still got the major league lead. What's more, he shares an even more dubious honor.

Burnett is in a six-way tie for the major league lead in disaster starts, with eight. As originally defined by former Baseball Prospectus columnist Jim Baker, a disaster start is one in which a starter allows as many or more runs as innings pitched. It's the ugly flip side of a quality start, one in which a pitcher goes at least six innings while allowing three or fewer runs—a disaster because teams rarely win such games, and because they often burn through their bullpens just trying to find enough mops and buckets to get through nine innings.

Occasionally, the disaster start definition is limited to allowing more runs as innings pitched, and because the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index makes querying the latter definition much easier than the former one, we'll stick with that for the purposes of this dumpster dive. Here's the 2010 leaderboard, the Masters of Disaster:

Rk

Player

Team

DS

Team W-L

IP/GS

RA

1

Paul Maholm

PIT

8

0-8

3.3

19.91

 

A.J. Burnett

NYA

8

0-8

3.4

18.67

 

Scott Kazmir

LAA

8

0-8

4.5

13.38

 

Jonathon Niese

NYN

8

2-6

4.4

12.99

 

Kyle Kendrick

PHI

8

3-5

4.0

12.79

 

Justin Masterson

CLE

8

0-8

4.8

12.08

7

Charlie Morton

PIT

7

0-7

2.9

20.80

 

Joe Saunders

2TM

7

1-6

3.7

17.18

 

Kyle Lohse

SLN

7

0-7

3.8

16.41

 

Brian Matusz

BAL

7

2-5

3.3

15.26

 

Brad Bergesen

BAL

7

1-6

3.8

15.19

 

Nick Blackburn

MIN

7

1-6

3.8

14.70

 

Matt Garza

TBA

7

1-6

4.2

13.04

 

Javier Vazquez

NYA

7

3-4

4.2

11.83

 

Kevin Millwood

BAL

7

1-6

4.7

11.73

 

Bud Norris

HOU

7

1-6

4.2

11.53

17

Jason Marquis

WSN

6

0-6

2.8

19.44

 

David Bush

MIL

6

1-5

3.8

17.87

 

Kevin Slowey

MIN

6

1-5

3.1

15.91

 

Ryan Rowland-Smith

SEA

6

0-6

4.2

15.84

 

Randy Wells

CHN

6

0-6

3.7

15.72

 

Zach Duke

PIT

6

0-6

3.9

15.21

 

Ted Lilly

2TM

6

0-6

4.7

13.82

 

Rick Porcello

DET

6

1-5

4.4

13.33

 

Josh Beckett

BOS

6

3-3

4.6

13.17

 

Nate Robertson

FLA

6

0-6

4.2

12.60

 

Luis Atilano

WSN

6

0-6

4.4

11.47

Just a small handful of these pitchers have had anything close to successful seasons; only Matt Garza, Ted Lilly, and Randy Wells are preventing runs at a better than league-average clip (i.e., they have RA+ marks of 100 or above). Only Lilly (.544), Garza (.539), Brian Matusz (.514), and Wells (.501) have Support Neutral Winning Percentages above .500, which is to say they're the only ones whose teams could be expected to win half their starts given average offensive and bullpen support. Get bombed enough times, and that's a tough feat to pull off. On the other hand, Ryan Rowland-Smith (.328) has the lowest SWNP of any pitcher with at least 100 innings, while Nate Robertson (.357) has the second-lowest, Zach Duke (.383) the fourth-lowest, and Kevin Millwood, Josh Beckett, Bud Norris, Scott Kazmir, and David Bush are in the bottom 15.

Burnett isn't the only Yankees pitcher on the leaderboard. Javier Vazquez is tied for seventh with seven disaster starts, one fewer than Burnett; he's done so in just 25 starts while shuttling back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, a fate which has inexplicably escaped Burnett, whose 32 starts rank second on the Yankees. Meanwhile, the Pirates and Orioles each have three pitchers on the list while the Twins and Nationals both have a pair.

As you can see from the records in the table, these pitchers' respective teams didn't win very many of the games in question; their combined record was 22-162, for a winning percentage of .120, which is right in line with the overall winning percentage for teams in such games: .124, via a 91-639 record. In other words, teams whose pitchers deliver disasterpieces tend to win just one game out of eight. Here are the team-by-team breakdowns:

Rk

Team

DS

Wins

1T

Pirates

35

4

 

Nationals

35

3

3

Orioles

31

5

4

Blue Jays

30

3

5

Royals

29

3

6T

Indians

28

2

 

Mets

28

2

8T

Dodgers

27

2

 

Brewers

27

4

10

Cubs

26

1

11T

Tigers

25

7

 

Marlins

25

2

 

Astros

25

1

 

Angels

25

2

 

Yankees

25

5

16

Twins

24

2

17T

D'backs

23

3

 

Cardinals

23

1

17

Rangers

23

5

20T

Red Sox

22

3

 

White Sox

22

4

 

Reds

22

5

 

Mariners

22

1

24

Rockies

21

4

25

A's

19

1

26T

Braves

18

3

 

Phillies

18

5

 

Rays

18

1

29T

Padres

17

2

 

Giants

17

5


Not surprisingly, the contenders allowed fewer disaster starts than the pretenders; as of this week, the bottom five teams on the list were still in the playoff hunts. Thanks largely to Burnett and Vazquez, the Yankees hold the dubious distinction of having the most disaster starts of any contender, but like most of the high-scoring teams, they were able to win more than their share of such games.

In a year where scoring has fallen about 4.4 percent from 2009, none of these disastermongers is threatening the history books. Here's the single-season leaderboard going back to 1920:

Rk

Player

Year

Team

DS

1

Pat Caraway

1931

CHA

16

2

Sam Gray

1931

SLA

14

3T

Early Wynn

1948

WAS

13

 

Claude Willoughby

1930

PHI

13

 

Les Sweetland

1930

PHI

13

 

Eric Milton

2005

CIN

13

 

Jack Knott

1936

SLA

13

 

Jay Hook

1962

NYN

13

 

Bump Hadley

1932

SLA

13

 

Tony Cloninger

1969

CIN

13

 

Johnny Babich

1935

BRO

13

 

Pedro Astacio

1998

COL

13

13T

Mike Smithson

1986

MIN

12

 

George Pipgras

1930

NYA

12

 

Darren Oliver

2001

TEX

12

 

Jack Kramer

1939

SLA

12

 

Clay Kirby

1973

SDN

12

 

Darryl Kile

1999

COL

12

 

Si Johnson

1934

CIN

12

 

Phil Huffman

1979

TOR

12

 

Chief Hogsett

1937

SLA

12

 

Sammy Ellis

1966

CIN

12

 

Richard Dotson

1986

CHA

12

 

Brian Bohanon

1999

COL

12

 

Jim Bibby

1974

TEX

12


Now that's a list. Two of the top five players hail from the 1930 Phillies, whose 7.69 runs per game allowed is the all-time record. The second-ranked 1936 Browns (6.86 RA/G) featured Jack Knott, the seventh-ranked 1939 Browns (6.63 RA/G) featured Jack Kramer, the eighth-ranked 1937 Browns (6.56 RA/G) featured Chief Hogsett, and the 11th-ranked 1999 Rockies (6.35 RA/G) featured Brian Bohanon and Darryl Kyle. A handful of other pitchers here hail from the high-scoring 1930s. Jay Hook was a member of the 1962 Mets, who still hold the standard for single-season awfulness with a .250 winning percentage (40-120). Early Wynn got lucky in that after his 1948 season he was traded to the Indians, where he enjoyed several successful seasons en route to 300 wins and a Hall of Fame plaque. Darren Oliver eventually found a second life upon moving to the bullpen, and he's still active today, having even worked his way back to the Rangers.

Limiting the list to the wild-card era (1995 onward):

Rk

Player

Year

Team

DS

1T

Eric Milton

2005

CIN

13

 

Pedro Astacio

1998

COL

13

3T

Darren Oliver

2001

TEX

12

 

Darryl Kile

1999

COL

12

 

Brian Bohanon

1999

COL

12

6T

Bobby Witt

1999

TBA

11

 

Jeff Weaver

2007

SEA

11

 

Jeriome Robertson

2003

HOU

11

 

Jose Lima

2005

KCA

11

 

Jeff Fassero

1999

SEA

11

 

Doug Drabek

1998

BAL

11

 

David Cone

2000

NYA

11

 

Chris Carpenter

2000

TOR

11

 

Sean Bergman

1995

DET

11

 

Jason Bere

1995

CHW

11

 

Tim Belcher

1999

ANA

11

So many memories of bad, bad baseball over the past decade and a half. The list is topped by Official Hit List Whipping Boy Eric Milton, a flyballer whose predictably awful signing with the Reds provided plenty of fodder in the first year that I did our power rankings. The list also features Cy Young winners who had passed their sell-by dates in Doug Drabek and David Cone, future Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter when he was still getting his stuff together (teammate Roy Halladay, who ran up a ridiculous 10.64 ERA in 67 2/3 innings that year, finished with 10 disaster starts—in just 13 tries!). Throw in Jeff Weaver, who earned some recognition here for tossing six straight disasterpieces (original definition) in 2007, the immortal Bobby Witt and the sadly mortal Jose Lima, and you've got a enough fuel to rival the Kuwait Oil fires.

Turning to the historical records for teams, while there are many representatives from the 1930s and the wild-card era near the top of the heap, what stands out the most are the perennial presence of the Phillies and Browns.

Rk

Team

Year

DS

1

Browns

1939

63

2

Phillies

1930

61

3

Tigers

1996

59

4

White Sox

1931

58

5T

Browns

1936

57

 

Rockies

1999

57

7

Rangers

1973

55

8T

Rangers

2003

54

 

Phillies

1923

54

10T

Phillies

1929

53

 

A's

1936

53

 

Angels

1980

53

13T

Browns

1924

52

 

Browns

1937

52

 

Phillies

1926

52

 

Phillies

1924

52

 

Mets

1962

52

 

Red Sox

1932

52

19T

Browns

1935

51

 

Phillies

1922

51

 

Yankees

1930

51


The Phillies made the list six times in a nine-year span (1922-30), with the aforementioned Claude Willoughby (36 disaster starts in that span), who was known as "Weeping Willie" for obvious reasons, and Les Sweetland (34) joined by Jimmy Ring (35) and Clarence Mitchell (32). Ring was actually a decent pitcher, a starter for the world champion 1919 Reds whose 4.13 career ERA (compiled from 1917-28) was just four percent below the park-adjusted league average. The Browns claim no less than five of the top 21 totals, including four from the 1935-39 span. As prolific as the aforementioned Knott (22) and Hogsett (20) were at painting their disasterpieces, they were eclipsed during this period by one Jim Walkup, who compiled 23 disaster starts out of just 53 total starts en route to a 6.82 ERA during the period.

Limiting the set to the wild-card era:

Rk

Team

Year

DS

1

Tigers

1996

59

2

Rockies

1999

57

3

Rangers

2003

54

4

Rangers

2001

50

5T

Devil Rays

2004

49

 

A's

1997

49

 

Twins

1997

49

8T

Mariners

1996

48

 

Marlins

1998

48

10T

Devil Rays

1999

47

 

Tigers

2003

47

 

Cubs

2006

47

13T

Rangers

2008

46

 

Angels

1996

46

15T

Blue Jays

2000

45

 

A's

1996

45

 

Yankees

2000

45

 

Red Sox

1997

45

19T

Rangers

2007

44

 

Devil Rays

2003

44

 

Expos

2000

44

 

Tigers

1999

44

 

Rockies

1998

44

 

Indians

2000

44

 

Angels

1999

44


Topping the list are the 1996 Tigers, who had no fewer than 14 different pitchers paint disasterpieces, led by obscurities Brian Williams and Felipe Lira with seven. Also pitching in—to use that term loosely—were such notorious hurlers as Todd Van Poppel (six), C.J Nitkowski (four), Lima, and current Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell (one). The 1999 Rockies not only had the aforementioned Kile and Bohanon but also Pedro Astacio (nine) down from his impressive 13 the year before. As with the Browns and Phillies above, it's the Rangers who dominate the list, with four appearances in an eight-year span thanks to the work of Vicente Padilla, Chan Ho Park, Kevin Millwood, Oliver et al. The Dewan Brazleton-era Devil Rays are high on the list, with Mark Hendrickson (eight) leading a pack of 14 pitchers, followed by Brazleton and Doug Waechter (six), and Geremi Gonzalez (five).

Finally, the question arises as to what an all-time leaderboard in this department would look like. As you'd expect, there are actually some pretty fair pitchers on the list, ones who stuck around 15 or 20 years messing up just a few times per year rather than gorging themselves like the men above:

Rk

Player

DS

1T

Early Wynn

111

 

Tommy John

111

3

Jamie Moyer

106

4

Nolan Ryan

103

5

Jim Kaat

99

6

Phil Niekro

96

7

Frank Tanana

95

8T

Earl Whitehill

92

 

Bob Friend

92

10T

Bobby Witt

91

 

Jerry Reuss

91

 

Joe Niekro

91

13T

Rick Wise

89

 

Mike Torrez

89

 

Don Sutton

89

16T

Red Ruffing

88

 

Mike Moore

88

18

Gaylord Perry

87

19T

Warren Spahn

86

 

Jack Morris

86

No less than seven Hall of Famers are on this list: Wynn, Nolan Ryan, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Red Ruffing, Gaylord Perry, and Warren Spahn. All but Ruffing have 300 wins to their name. Robin Roberts is tied with Tom Glavine and two others for 31st at 77, Bert Blyleven tied for 34th at 76, Steve Carlton is tied for 41st at 74, and so on. Also on the list are popular Cooperstown candidates Tommy John, Jim Kaat, and Jack Morris, and rotation mainstays like Jamie Moyer, Frank Tanana, Jerry Reuss, Joe Niekro, Mike Torrez, and Rick Wise, who were part of many winning teams. All of these pitchers had ERAs in the double digits during such games, with won-loss records like 0-80 (Wynn) or 1-78 (John); Earl Whitehill (5-63) and Morris (5-62) are tied with Herb Pennock (5-30) for the lead in wins; somebody can try working that one into Black Jack's "pitch to the score" argument. As with the leaderboard for home runs allowed which Moyer now tops, it takes a pretty good pitcher to stick around long enough to take so many beatings.

 While it's cold comfort to Yankees fans at the moment—perhaps less so now that they've clinched a playoff spot—the recently hapless Burnett rates as a pretty good pitcher in the grand scheme of things. Coming into this year, he'd put up a 3.83 ERA and 8.8 K/9 since 2004. He still misses bats at an above-average clip, his SIERA (4.42) is around league-average, but his BABIP (.323) is inflated; basically, he's in a rut compounded by some bad luck. Thanks to the spaced-out schedule, he's unlikely to get a first-round playoff start. He may just have painted his last disasterpiece of the season.  

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

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