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September 11, 2013

The Lineup Card

Eight of Our Favorite WTF Pitching Performances

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Travis Wood's Eight Perfect Innings on July 10, 2010
On April 30, 1922, Charlie Robertson of the Chicago White Sox threw a perfect game. Of the 21 perfectos thrown in the modern era, Robertson’s was arguably the most unlikely. He finished his career with a 4.44 ERA and only pitched two full seasons in Major League Baseball. The most notable thing about Robertson’s perfect game, though, was that it came in his fifth career appearance (fourth career start). Since 1901, 21 rookies have tossed a no-hitter but Robertson is still the only rookie in baseball history to go 27 up and 27 down.

Flash forward to 2010. After a strong start in the minors, Travis Wood is called up to the Reds on July 1 and inserted into the rotation for the injured Aaron Harang. With Edinson Volquez due back in a couple of weeks, it was anticipated that Wood’s stay in Cincinnati would be short. But Wood had other ideas.

On July 10, for his third major-league start, Wood drew the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Entering the season, the Phils were coming off of back-to-back World Series appearances. While their lineup wasn’t Murderers Row, it was definitely more solid than this year’s edition.

This was a different Travis Wood than the one who has dominated this year. While 2013’s version of Wood has relied heavily on a cut fastball, the 2010 version of Wood barely threw the pitch. It didn’t matter, as Wood managed to keep the Phillies off balance all day. He only threw seven pitches for swinging strikes out of 109, but of the eight strikeouts Wood recorded, five were on called third strikes.

Adding to the drama was a strong performance from the Phillies ace, Roy Halladay. While Halladay wasn’t perfect, he didn’t allow a runner to score in his nine innings of work. The Reds could only muster five hits off of Halladay and only put runners in scoring position twice. The Reds' best opportunity came in the top of the eighth inning on a leadoff double by Miguel Cairo, but after a questionable Drew Stubbs sacrifice bunt, Ryan Hanigan and Wood both struck out, leaving Cairo on third.

This meant that even if Wood retired the side in order in the ninth, he’d need the Reds to score in the tenth to either get another opportunity to win or have a reliever finish the job for him in the bottom of the frame. But Carlos Ruiz made all of this moot, hitting a no doubt laser to lead off the ninth into left center for a double. Wood kept the Phillies off the scoreboard, but was done. The Phillies came back to win in the 11th inning.

Had Wood completed the perfect game, he would have bested Robertson’s record by one start. However, Wood is still in rare company. He is the only rookie in baseball’s expansion era (1961 or later) to take a perfect game into the ninth inning. After a solid rookie campaign, Wood struggled and spent part of 2011 and 2012 in the minors. His resurgence in 2013 might make this performance seem like less of an anomaly when all is said and done, but at the time Wood’s eight innings of perfection shocked nearly everyone. —Mike Gianella

2. Aaron Small's 2005 Season
There are two prevailing narratives about Aaron Small’s 2005 campaign. One holds that, tired of toiling through season after season of meaningless, mediocre baseball, Small decided to quit being mediocre and muscled the Yankees into the playoffs on the strength of his suddenly unstoppable right arm. (John Sterling, this one’s for you.) The other asserts that Small somehow morphed into the luckiest pitcher on the planet, defying his weak peripherals en route to a place in contemporary Yankees lore. If Small’s exorbitantly high career ERA (5.20) and absurdly low strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.24) have anything to suggest, it’s that Small found mediocrity a tough habit to kick.

At first glance, Small’s situation just before his 2005 mid-season call-up seems completely unremarkable: injuries ravage a starting rotation, so a journeyman minor leaguer is brought in, sacrificed a few times by overpowering offenses, and sent back down. A career low HR-to-FB ratio certainly helped Small stick around a while longer, as he managed to give up only four home runs in 76 2/3 innings. Combined with a career-high strand percentage and a career-low BABIP against, Small marched to a 3.20 ERA and a 10-0 record, making him one of the Yankees' more reliable arms down the stretch.

It’s surprising that Small was able to accomplish all of this despite a crooked 4.81 xFIP. It’s astounding that he did what he did pitching in front of the league’s worst defense. Several Yankees regulars—including Jorge Posada, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Jason Giambi, and Derek Jeterwere among the worst at their positions in 2005, while center fielder Bernie Williams was, by most metrics, the worst defensive player in baseball. In typical Yankees fashion, the team made up for its poor defensive showing by scoring a ludicrous 7.2 runs per game in Small’s starts, leading to that oh-so-spotless win-loss record.

Aaron Small was a little good and a lot lucky in 2005. Defying the baseball gods not once, but NINE times in a season has “WTF” written all over it. —Nick Bacarella

3. Bobby Jones in Game Four of the 2000 NLDS
In Game Four of the 2000 NLDS, New York Mets starting pitcher Bobby Jones took the mound against a San Francisco Giants lineup that featured Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent, and Ellis Burks. Jones was making his first start of the postseason after finishing the 2000 regular season with a less-than-respectable ERA+ of 88, an ERA of 5.06, and a WHIP of 1.42. He also allowed 25 home runs in just 154 innings. None of that would matter, however, for the Mets starter who finished his career with a record of 89-83, a 4.36 ERA, and a 1.35 WHIP.

After New York jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning at Shea Stadium, Jones went to work carving up a Giants offense that posted a National League leading OPS+ of 115 and was third in the league in runs scored per game (5.71) during the regular season. Despite needing 117 pitches to complete the game, Jones would limit the Giants to a single hit, a fifth-inning double by former Mets second baseman, Jeff Kent. New York would go on to win 4-0 and clinch a berth in the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals. —Joe Hamrahi

4. Steve McCatty tops 200 pitches, faces 51 batters in 14 innings
On August 10, 1980, the A's had a doubleheader against the Mariners. The A's also had a doubleheader a week earlier in Cleveland in which Mike Norris threw a complete game in a losing effort. He set the tone for the team as the staff came within one out of throwing six consecutive complete games heading into their next doubleheader. To say the bullpen was well rested would be the understatement of the year. Manager Billy Martin had what every manager wants heading into a doubleheader: a pen of fresh arms that could help ease the stress of playing two games in one calendar day, as he sent McCatty to the mound in Oakland that afternoon.

McCatty would go on to allow six hits and two runs while walking four and striking out eight in a 2-1 loss. McCatty allowed a first inning run and then put up zeroes... for the next 13 innings, until he allowed a lead-off home run to Dan Meyer in the top of the 14th to break a 1-1 tie. Official pitch counts do not exist for the game, but by McCatty's own account, he threw over 200 pitches in the game. What we do know is McCatty faced 51 batters in that contest, becoming the last pitcher in the major leagues to break the half-century mark. The last pitcher to come close to the mark was Charlie Hough on 6/11/86 who faced 47 batters in a 13 inning win against the Twins.

McCatty dispelled any worries about lingering effects after the outing as he threw complete games in each of his next two starts and only failed to work fewer than eight complete innings in two of his remaining nine starts that season. The next season, McCatty led the American League in wins, ERA, and shutouts in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign, finishing second to Rollie Fingers in the Cy Young balloting that season. That season was the only time in seven full major-league years that McCatty appeared on any award ballot or had an ERA below 3.80, but he retains one historical note that is unlikely to be topped any time soon. —Jason Collette

5. Jose Jimenez's No-Hitter and Two-Hitter Versus the Diamondbacks in 1999
Yes, it was strange that this 25-year-old rookie pitcher threw a no-hitter. Sure, it's puzzling that it lowered his season ERA to 6.02, and even more so that it was against the NL's top offense. And he out-dueled Randy Johnson.

Freak occurrence, possibly. But 10 days later Jimenez faced the Diamondbacks again and flirted with another no-hitter, again versus Randy Johnson. Jimenez gave up a Steve Finley double in the fifth, but still twirled a shutout—a two-hitter—and struck out nine more. Both games were 1-0 victories where the lone RBI was credited to Cardinals third outfielder Thomas Howard.

But Jimenez’s greatness turned into another passing fancy; his ERA fluctuated around 6.00 all season and he didn’t notch a single Rookie of the Year vote—but Kevin McGlinchy did! St. Louis then packaged him with other spare parts for Darryl Kile and Dave Veres in the offseason; he didn’t crack the rotation in Colorado, though he became a serviceable reliever for a few years and was out of baseball after the 2004 season.

(As an aside, Jimenez’s two starts took place during the oddest stretch in Randy Johnson's career. In a five-game stretch from June 25 to July 15, 1999, Johnson tossed 40 innings, struck out 62, and allowed five earned runs and 37 baserunners. His lineup, meanwhile, scored a total of two runs. But he rebounded to win four Cy Youngs and one National Audubon Society’s “Menace To Birds” Award.) —Matt Sussman

6. Chad Ogea Beats Kevin Brown in the 1997 World Series. Twice.
In the 1997 World Series, the Indians dropped Game One to the Marlins and faced the unfortunate prospect of going up against Kevin Brown in Game Two. With Chad Ogea. Ogea had gone 8-9 with an ERA just south of 5.00 during the regular season and struck out a nifty 5.7 hitters per nine innings. Brown, for comparison, had an ERA of 2.69. Yet, somehow, it was Brown who gave up six runs in six innings while Ogea held the Fish to a single tally over 6 2/3. The Series headed back to Cleveland tied at one game each. But, alas, the Marlins took two of the three games in Cleveland, leaving the Indians down 3-2 and in absolute need of Game Six going their way. They faced a re-match against Kevin Brown, once again trusting in the mighty right arm of Chad Ogea. It's not that Ogea's outing was amazing (5 IP, 1 R, 4 H, 2 BB, 1 K), but it was just enough to turn it over to the Indians bullpen. The Indians offense pushed across four runs, including two on a single by none other than Chad Ogea.

If you forgot that Chad Ogea played in MLB, I can't say that I blame you. After all, it was the mid-90s and there were other, more famous OJs that were in the news back then. But had Jose Mesa held that lead in the ninth inning of Game Seven, Chad Ogea would have been MVP of the 1997 World Series by improbably out-dueling a guy he had no business beating. Twice. —Russell A. Carleton

7. Livan Hernandez Shines in Game Five of the 1997 NLCS
Game Five of the 1997 NLCS between the Braves and the Marlins will always be most remembered for the infamous Eric Gregg strike zone-—which is a shame, as it takes away from one of the greatest fill-in performances of all time. Yes, Livan Hernandez was not slated to pitch that pivotal game in South Florida against Greg Maddux. That nod was supposed to go Kevin Brown, but when the Marlins' ace was scratched due to illness, the big righty from Cuba stepped in and became only one of 21 pitchers in major-league history to accumulate a game score of 90 or higher in a post-season game (and one of only four in that group to strike out 15 batters). Hernandez's final line was nine innings, one run, three hits, two walks and the aforementioned 15 punch outs.

However, many of us have forgotten how unlikely that performance was. Yes, Hernandez had thrown nearly 100 innings of well above-average baseball that season and ended up finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting (though that was deceiving since he was in a group of players all well behind the unanimous winner Scott Rolen), but he was not a part of the Marlins' playoff rotation until he was forced into action unexpectedly. And if that wasn't enough, he had just thrown an 1 2/3 innings out of the bullpen two days earlier in Game Three before firing 143 pitches in Game Five. The performance may be forever tainted by the strike-zone outrage, but it should also be cherished for the feat that it was—the day a rookie was called on to best one of the great pitchers of our lifetime and won. —Bret Sayre

8. Devern Hansack and What Might Have Been
A native of Nicaragua who spent the first five seasons of his professional career with the Astros, Devern Hansack was sent packing in 2004, returned to his homeland, and spent two seasons in the Nicaraguan Professional Baseball League, a four-team circuit in which current Rockies reliever Wilton Lopez also once pitched. He returned to the States with the Red Sox for the 2006 campaign, made 31 appearances for Double-A Portland, and did well enough to secure a September call-up to the majors.

In his second big-league start, a date with the Orioles in the regular-season finale, Hansack pitched five innings and allowed only one baserunner. He faced the minimum, because Fernando Tatis, who drew a walk, was subsequently erased on a double play. Then, the skies over Fenway Park opened up, and with both clubs out of contention, the umpires called it a day. Most players surely didn't mind. But for Hansack, the decision brought an arbitrary end to what might have been a fairytale afternoon.

Could the right-hander have retired 12 more Orioles without surrendering a hit? Probably not. But with his pitch count at 61 through five innings, Hansack was working efficiently enough to last nine and give it a try. He beat tremendously long odds just to go from lobsterman to major-league pitcher after flaming out in his first trek through the minors. Better weather and a little BABIP luck might have put him into the history books. —Daniel Rathman

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